Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
It would be tempting to begin a piece on Simone Barbès ou la Vertu by describing the film’s overall structure in three parts, each section taking place in a different setting. But even in simply mentioning these separations, something of the film’s peculiar quality seems to get lost. The 1980 feature debut by the French director Marie-Claude Treilhou – which will be screened at the ICA in London in January under the auspices of the film club The Machine That Kills Bad People – seems intent on piercing through the categories and distinctions that we all bump up against throughout our lives, but which become a little more permeable at night.
The film takes place over the course of a single evening in Paris – more specifically, in the city’s underbelly. A series of striking shots inside a shabby, yellowing theatre lobby first introduces us to two women working as ushers in what is soon revealed – by the orgasmic sounds heard whenever a customer comes in or out of the screening room – as a porn theatre. The clientele is entirely male and, in marked contrast to the performers they have come to watch, extremely quiet. They even look somewhat ashamed as they hurry into the screening rooms, seemingly embarrassed as much as excited to be there. While social stigma must play some part in their behaviour, it mostly seems to be a response to the two ushers who are, as Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, “really as bored as the theatre’s patrons pretend to be”. A clear demarcation between women and men thus forms – the two colleagues facing the street and not bothering to be polite, while the customers all rush in the other direction, slightly flustered and awkward. But already Treilhou disturbs this simplistic division, both formally, with camera angles that do not appear to obey any kind of conventional logic, and narratively, through the characterisation of the people on screen.
The two ushers – girly and sensitive Martine (Martine Simonet) and blasé, leather-clad Simone (Ingrid Bourgoin), – alternately clash, then make up, commiserate and laugh together. Though more than mere colleagues, they are not exactly friends. Likewise, a few of the customers stand out, not contradicting the gender division present at the theatre so much as complicating it. One client is a distinguished gentleman who takes the time to greet the two women. Another is a bon vivant sharing jokes with them as he would with any pal. A third is an elderly man accompanied by a woman, possibly his wife, who kindly helps him climb the few steps to the screening room.
Treilhou, and the ushers, delight in these seemingly absurd characters. But while the women share stories of some of the wild things they’ve seen in the screening rooms or in the street outside, the film never falls into sentimental appreciation of the anecdotal. The characters and situations are too fuzzy, too unpolished to truly fit together and harmonise into something like a rich tapestry of life. This in-betweenness extends to the writing and performances, so amateurish and clunky that it is impossible to tell whether a moment is scripted and clumsily performed, or purely improvised. One could say Simone Barbès ou la Vertu is neither here nor there, but in constantly deflecting clichés, expectations and rigid structures, it taps into an endlessly fascinating, vibrant kind of cinema that is continuously alive to the present.
Behind the film is the production company Diagonale, founded in 1976 by the French critic, writer and filmmaker Paul Vecchiali, which would go on to produce films by Jean-Claude Biette, Jean-Claude Guiguet, Gérard Frot-Coutaz and Jacques Davila among others. Vecchiali’s motto, “Economy is style,” is perfectly exemplified by Treilhou’s film. Far from a purely utilitarian principle, it is an ethic for keeping cinema fresh, dynamic and true. The director Serge Bozon put it best in Libération: “There was in their films a taste for mixing tones and genres, a relationship to politics away from preconstructed and imposed discourse, a rapport with B movies; they had their own esotericism, their own secret intrigues.” The company’s name reflects its filmmakers’ skewed relationship with cinema, never fully discarding the mainstream but always approaching it at an angle, taking from it what they could use and leaving behind the rest (expensive sets and actors, stylistic and writing conventions).
Likewise, Simone in Treilhou’s film goes through the world at a queer angle, in all the senses. After she leaves the theatre, the film follows her into a different temple to pleasure: a lesbian cabaret bar. The Diagonale aesthetic could be described as queer even without knowledge of the collective’s close involvement in queer life and concerns – several of its directors died of Aids, and Vecchiali’s Once More (1988) was one of the first French films to discuss the illness and its impact on the gay population.
In Treilhou’s cabaret, the tragedy is of a more theatrical nature: passions run high, and seductive looks, quiet romantic betrayals and full meltdowns are apparently commonplace occurrences that leave Simone utterly unfazed. She eventually leaves and, in the film’s last section, is driven home by a random middle-aged man (Cahiers du cinéma critic Michel Delahaye). The moment seems both precious and throwaway, their conversation both banal and incredibly revealing, the film capturing the mercurial quality that night-time encounters between strangers often have. It is then that the veil of social roles and labels is the thinnest, then that things get thrillingly corrupted – then that, per the Diagonale filmmakers, genuine life and cinema can be found. Though their films had little impact in the UK, it is not too late to heed their call for another, slightly askew cinema.