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Two men, one woman and a boy. French director Bertrand Blier fashions out of this bizarre love quadrangle a film of seamless beauty, high farce and, finally, haunting majesty. To experience Get Out Your Handkerchiefs is to watch a master at the peak of his powers. No filmmaker knows more—and presumes less—about the eccentricities of love. From his landmark 1974 Going Places to 1991’s Too Beautiful for You, Blier has plumbed the depths of sex and romance and come up with odd, graceful, and witty scenarios that owe everything to vibrant human experience and nothing to stale cinematic traditions. He’s a robust sensualist without agenda of assumptions—there is no “correct” version of ardor in his films, no lovers who are meant for each other. Their desires, like ours, are random, irrational, even ridiculous.
Get Out Your Handkerchiefs is the most sedate and generous of his films. It’s a romantic comedy that bears no resemblance to romantic comedy as a genre. The story opens in a cafe where a husband, played by Gerard Depardieu, disconcertedly watches his lovely wife, Solange (the luminous Carole Laure) pick listlessly at her lunch. Scrambling to find the root of her depression, he decides that she’s bored with him, and offers her a lover in the form of a nearby diner. The man at the next table (Patrick Dewaere), a slight, bookish sort, is understandably baffled by this proposition to make a stranger’s wife smile, but he’s drawn in by the husband’s buoyant energy and by their bond—both men are good-hearted fools who find women incomprehensible even while they strive to please them. He soon finds himself in the oddest of arrangements, taking turns attempting to impregnate the imperturbable Solange, who, when she isn’t knitting, has nervous attacks and fainting fits.
The two men’s hand-wringing consideration for her welfare does nothing to draw out Solange; they offer her Mozart and nightly bedding, but they can’t connect to her emotionally. Awed by her composure and driven by their libidos, they hack away at her unrippled surface with the awkward weapons of masculinity. It is only when the trio, working as counselors at a boys’ camp for the summer, meets a brainy, sassy 13-year-old boy (Riton) that Solange’s desires finally awaken. She cannot live without him, and even if that means kidnapping the boy and risking jail, the men are happy to take unlawful chances in order to see the woman they love smile.
Not surprisingly, Blier wrote Get Out Your Handkerchiefs with Dewaere and Depardieu, the stars of Going Places, in mind. Their teamwork is central to the film’s premise—that men are more comfortable with each other than with the most simpatico female. They chatter with ease about interior decorating and the vagaries of sexual allure, but are unable to carry on the simplest exchange with the unreadable and unreachable Solange.
Depardieu brings sensitivity and depth to his role of a most unlikely cuckold; he’s a good-willed brute with the strong body of a working man (his character is a driving-school instructor) and a serious, handsome face. His gestures are expansive, his reactions extreme, yet something—his very maleness, perhaps—keeps him from getting through to his wife. Dewaere is a different type, and his role the more difficult one. He is a two-bit intellectual (he owns every book in the Pocket Library) with a passion for the child-genius Mozart. But when a living child genius appears, Dewaere and Depardieu can’t fathom that he’d be as precocious as their idol, precocious enough, in fact, to seduce Solange.
At the heart of the film are a number of mysteries, which Blier is too sensible to explain. Who falls in love with whom and why? The characters themselves are at a loss. Depardieu feverishly accosts a woman on the street and moans that he must be mad, having just lent his wife to a stranger out of, he insists, unshakable love for her. Dewaere, on a weekend alone with Solange, phones Depardieu and sighs, “We miss you.” The boy gives the men I.Q. tests, and at the sight of them crouched behind undersized children’s desks, drawing trees with their big awkward laborer’s hands, Solange bursts into laughter. What does she see in the boy, with his wise eyes and puppy face? What drives the men to risk their freedom only to see Solange with someone else? The story unfolds with the implacable and often hilarious logic of a dream, accepting each unreasonable emotion, each fantastic action as perfectly understandable in the chaotic world of contemporary love. Blier’s films grow as naturally as roses form their harmless-looking roots. It’s only when the story has ended that we find we’re looking at a very strange lower indeed, one found nowhere else in filmdom, but common enough in the unpredictable landscape of real life.