Cahiers du Cinema: Beau de Jour

by Hugh Fitzgerald (March 2007)

 

            Souvent France varie, bien fol qui s'y fie.  

                                                              François Ier

 

French film-makers have long been aware of the cinematic possibilities of their current President. One can easily visualize him in a movie set during the Occupation, in the role of the smiling prefect, appointed before the war, but quite content to stay on and loyally serve le Maréchal and Vichy. And if the need arises, the Prefect will not object if he has to host an occasional reception for German officers, provided they are real Prussian gentlemen. Until recently le Président had rejected all requests to try his hand at acting in the formal sense; he has far better ways, for the moment, to derive profit from his considerable gifts. And presidential immunity has proven very convenient. But depending on how much the Americans choose to reveal of what has been retrieved from a computer, in an office in Baghdad, that charmèd state may be coming to an end. France’s loss could be the film world’s gain.

M. le Président's basic needs do run into money. It is an open secret in Paris that to keep himself from becoming irritable or jumpy. Le Président requires at frequent intervals the simultaneous ministrations not of one, not of two, but of three charming poules de luxe. Though no one wants the man in charge of the force de frappe to be irritable or jumpy, and le Président could certainly have demanded reimbursement by the French state, he has chosen discreetly not to do so. He might even have suggested that his requirements are part of a venerable French political tradition, part of what makes a Frenchman French. Félix Faure mourut, la main dans les cheveux de Madame Steinheil. France, an old country, respects its traditions.

For many years now the team of Jacob and Perec have specialized in capturing on screen the seamy and surreal world of French politics. Few will forget “Ceci n’est pas une pipeor “Autour des colonnes de Buren” or “Les affaires sont les affaires” or “Vaste programme, monsieur." This year Jacob and Perec had a real brainstorm, a veritable remue-méninges: they would shoot a remake of that famous film Belle de Jour, the story of a woman of the haute bourgeoisie who, to satisfy her own curiosity, and for her own pleasure, moonlights by daylight in a brothel. Their brilliantly simple idea was to replace the libertine female with a male lead. And what had been a vehicle for a young Catherine Deneuve could become, the producers felt, the ideal role for the screen debut of an aging but born actor -- le Président himself. French film-makers have long dreamed of engaging his services, for he is universally recognized as one of the supreme actors of the age. Whatever else it may provide for him in the post-presidential period of his existence, Beau de Jour might also be the perfect mechanism for maintaining him in the style to which service to the state has helped him grow accustomed. It might even help prevent him from becoming irritable. As most members of the EU know, that is not a pleasant sight.

Le Président, of course, liked the idea. It would be a first for France, something Napoléon could not and De Gaulle did not do: the president performing, one last service to the state. The art of the image in the Western world, whether the product of graveur or metteur-en-scène, would always evoke France. Modern France owed everything to the Image; the Image owed everything to Modern France. There were the early pioneers. Daguerre, of course, and the first portraitist in film, Nadar, and the unforgettably named Nicéphore Niepcé. The first motion picture, too, naturally had to come from France, and had to be based, naturally, on a novel by Jules Verne. A shadowy rocket shoots up, up --- scenes of rocket travelling through the ether --- and now, crash, we are on the moon. The actors emerge from the rocket’s innards, quite at ease, and now riotously, if silently, disport themselves. These are French people out for a lunch in the country, and they are not going to put on airs just because that country turns out to be the moon. How different from that American who later took his stolid step, giant or small – who cares? -- with such portentousness, on an unimaginary and therefore uninteresting moon. In the 18th century France had given the world Les Lumières, the light by which to read and to think in the modern manner; in the 19th century it gave the world the light of the camera, on which to capture and record the instant; at the beginning of the 20th, when it came time for those images to move, and the light to flicker, France was ready, with the Méliès Brothers, the studio of Les Lumières, and Charles Pathé, famous for his studio and later for all those newsreels. The Americans had played their part. One had to be fair. Those homespun cranks, those Yankee tinkerers, knew how to invent. They were the ones who first harnessed electicity. But they hardly realized what could or should be done with that electricity, beyond simply clicking a switch on and off, which was merely to exchange life's brief candle for life's brief minuterie. The art of son et lumière was born and raised in France, and then, as a teenager, kidnapped by the Americans, and set to work as a child laborer in those factory-studios that churned out industrial-strength productions. No, of course le Président would not pass up the chance; it would not be loyal; it would not be in the service of a very French ambition; his French talent would be available for another career open to his same talents.

And as for the filming, well, no one could better arrange entry into the Elysée Palace itself, for some particularly piquant shots. For many years, except in the case of the occasional general or strait-laced Huguenot, that Palace did double duty as a maison de tolérance in every sense. In helping to cut down on production costs, M. le Président would make sure that all the actors, and especially the main actor, got a living-it-up wage. Yes, of course M. le Président would be delighted to accept, just as soon as his current engagement ended. And then he would be ready for his close-up.

While Variety has been mum, rumor has it that le Président has already been slipped an advance by the filmmakers, in the hope that this would seal the bargain. He was charming and relaxed, by all accounts, as he pocketed the fat envelope with a practiced flourish, and he amiably joked that “enfin, aux Etats-Unis un mauvais comédien se croyait président; en France un grand président peut se croire comédien” and then, getting into the spirit of things, he wanted, he said, to prove his gifts as an actor (had he not done enough to prove himself, again and again, over the past thirty years?). He would declaim in true Comédie-Française fashion, he said, rendering unto the caesura what was the caesura's,  un élixir ou bel alexandrin d’amour, vraiment très stimulant, très pseudoephedrin." At first he pretended to falter: "Je ne me souviens plus." Then he allowed mischievous memory, after a deliberate pause, to chime in: "quelque chose, quelque chosecet organe qui t’étonne” accompanied by appropriate gestures, which got the expected laughs from the other two people with him at the Elysée Palace, in his inner sanctum, behind closed doors.

 

 

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Hugh Fitzgerald contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.

 


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