Heartily booed on its 1966 Cannes premiere, dismissed by Roger Ebert on its release as “murky, disjointed and unbearably tedious,” but later feted by director Richard Lester as “the most beautiful black and white film I have ever, ever seen,” it’s fair to say that Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle remains one the most divisive works in its director’s prolific, erratic and fitfully brilliant career.
Produced by Woodfall, and filmed on location in France, the picture derives from a screenplay by Jean Genet (with later additions by David Rudkin, among others). It was initially intended for Eyes without a Face (1960) director Georges Franju to make with Anouk Aimée, but ended up with Jeanne Moreau in the title role and Richardson at the helm.
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Touching base with earlier works, such as the 1962 Franju-directed adaptation of Thérèse Desqueyroux, and anticipating the Michael Haneke of The Piano Teacher (2001) and The White Ribbon (2009), the film’s focus is on a never-named schoolmistress whose acts of sabotage against the rural community in which she resides increase when she falls hard for an Italian immigrant woodcutter, Manou (Ettore Manni).
Though clearly born of repression – the film can all-too-easily be read as a misogynistic portrait of spinsterly “frustration” – the motivations for the protagonist’s actions never get reduced to the level of a glib psychological case study. Rather, the film simply wastes no time whatsoever in establishing Moreau’s character as a destructive force. Within the first few minutes she’s not only opened a gate to flood a valley, sending villagers scurrying to save their animals, but gleefully crushed a handful of bird’s eggs discovered in a nest. We soon learn that she’s responsible for barn burnings and poisonings too.
The character’s subversive antics in the opening sequence are intercut with the progress of a religious procession through the countryside, immediately setting up a contrast between the community and the protagonist, who, heading to her mirrored closet, dons black lace gloves and high heels to carry out her dastardly deeds in the most stylish manner possible – all the while maintaining a veneer of pinched propriety in her daily social life.
Although Genet apparently objected to Moreau’s casting, the actress seems central to the film’s tone and aesthetic in many ways. Key to Moreau’s 1960s characters, Pauline Kael has argued, “was how little they said and how much they implied,” with the actor expressing “so many undercurrents that her supple silences would often take over a movie.” That’s the case here, as, with a minimum of dialogue, Moreau mobilises her sulkiest, moodiest attitudes to flesh out Mademoiselle’s enigmatic anti-heroine.
Shot in icy black and white, at once perfectly plain and totally mysterious, Mademoiselle is a pictorially precise yet fluid erotic fever dream with a cold, cold heart that’s not to be easily melted. Comprised entirely of static shots, and featuring no non-diegetic music (that is, no layered on score) but a soundscape composed of nature sounds, the film is undoubtedly something of a formalist exercise. Adrian Martin, in his astute new audio commentary on the new Blu-ray edition, sees the picture as a “slow cinema” precursor, for instance.
As an admirer of the film, Martin, in his insightful remarks, inevitably seeks to challenge the criticisms levelled at the picture, especially the mocking of its symbolism, which has been viewed as laughably heavy-handed. Certainly, Manni’s strapping Manou (a role originally intended for Marlon Brando, no less) is presented as a walking symbol of virility (never can the term “trouser snake” have been more literally rendered than it is in one scene in this movie), with the character’s all-night al fresco sex session with Mademoiselle – complete with thunderstorm – constituting a source of mirth to many.
But to simply mock Richardson’s film for some scattered absurdities or awkward dubbing is to undervalue its dark poetic qualities and intriguing experimental elements. Two such are the haunting monochrome widescreen images of the great DP David Watkins and the editing by Sophie Coussein, which combine to make the landscape a felt presence through a distinctive play with perspective. With characters often placed to the extreme right or left of the frame, lengthily-held long shots give way at times to sudden close-ups: a tranquil tone is established then abruptly violated. Similarly, a central flashback ostensibly filling out some relationship and character details does so in a fragmented, associative manner.
The film generates some emotional involvement, too, in the scenes featuring Manou’s son, Bruno (Keith Skinner), a teen nursing his own fixation on Mademoiselle but repeatedly, brutally humiliated by her in several schoolroom sequences. Skinner, whose wonderful reminiscences about the film’s making are another highlight of the new edition’s extras, contributes a watchful, beautifully modulated performance. Whether weeping against a tree or (in the film’s single most shocking shot) bashing a rabbit to death after a run-in with Mademoiselle, the young actor’s scenes give depth and texture to the film’s central thematic of love’s incremental curdling into bitterness and sadism. The complicated father/son dynamic here is also a compelling aspect of the picture.
As social critique, Mademoiselle is less potent. While its attitude towards its antiheroine feels fairly dispassionate, its presentation of the villagers is judgemental to the point of cliché. Easily manipulated, hostile to foreigners, their metamorphosis into a vengeful, violent mob is too much of a given, and the film’s anti-clerical stance is hardly subtle either. Still, a memorable chill is dispensed in the final scenes.
A unique work in Richardson’s canon, made at the time of several ambitious, much-panned projects, this oneiric evocation of destruction and desire feels fresh. Perhaps, more than 50 years on from its problematic premiere, Mademoiselle’s moment has finally come.