July 8, 2009


Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****

Menage starts off with a bang: a couple in a bar, Antoine and Monique, are having a nasty argument into which an unknown third party, Bob, suddenly intrudes.  Bob slaps Monique silly then hands Antoine a knife, encouraging him to use it, as Bob bares his massive chest to the blade.  Bob, a petty criminal just out of prison, introduces his new friends to burglarizing the homes of the wealthy – which the pair takes to quite readily. Soon they take to Bob, as well (and he to them), in even more startling fashion. Because Bob is played by Gerard Depardieu, and Antoine and Monique by Michel Blanc and Miou-Miou – three icons of French cinema – and the movie itself is written and directed by Bertrand Blier, France’s long-time bad boy of the movies, you can expect something transgressive and tasty.  Even so, you have no idea.

Originally titled Tenue de soirée, or Evening Dress (for once an American title change proves felicitous), Menage goes places and does things that were not only ground-breaking back in 1986, when the film was first released, but remain so today.  One week after the theatrical release of the much-talked-about Humpday, here’s a movie that, 23 years earlier, covered somewhat similar ground in a manner that proves funnier, wittier and much more stylish.  

Blier has always loved exploring the needs and quirks of men and women, often in ways that provoke and shock, and Menage provides a strong dose of this – in the process making good use of the writer/director’s love of the slightly surreal and drawing terrific performances from its stars. Depardieu was growing physically large at this point in his career but he still maintained his youthful energy, enormous sex appeal -- and his willingness to try anything (at which he usually succeeded). Blanc is like an adorable little mouse (he could easily star in a live-action version of The Tale of Despereaux), and he brings equal parts anger, sweetness and surprising strength to his role. Miou-Miou, the reigning bourgeois hausfrau queen, is alternately steely and vulnerable, and, though the movie in one sense belongs to its men, it simply could not exist without her Monique as the foil and conduit for the movie’s emotional action.

As a writer, Blier offer up some juicy lines (to which you must of course see the accompanying visuals): Regarding a house about to be burgled: “It smells like tax fraud.” About a particular anatomical part and the lack of panties: “There are no flies in winter.” And one of my favorite pre-seduction promises: “I’ll give you back your dreams!”

Blier has a strong sense of poetry in his writing, which he often uses in a near-campy manner to make fun of the styles of various genre films. Along the way we learn the esthetics of a good burglary and are treated to a few sublimely tender moments -- along with the comedy and shock. As surprising as this movie is, it grows even more so as it moves ahead, leaving us and its characters in an oddly peaceful, almost contemplative, place. The final moment is extraordinarily quiet and rich, full of meaningful ambiguity regarding the male of the species.

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Posted by cphillips at July 8, 2009 10:27 AM
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