Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Comfort of Strangers (Part Two)

[This post is the second part to a discussion on one night stands in cinema, that began with a look at Love with the Proper Stranger and Knocked Up, which was itself inspired by a previous post on Mike Figgis' film One Night Stand] 

Partie de Campagne (Jean Renoir 1936)

To refer to the event that occurs towards the end of Jean Renoir's Partie de Campagne as a one night stand is problematic for two reasons: (1) we never actually see if what happens between Henri and Henriette results in sex, and (2) whatever does occur, clearly occurs during the day. But still, with your forgiveness, I shall persevere. 

The film, mostly set on an idle, picnicking summer's day, follows the Parisian Dufour family on their trip to the country. M. and Mme Dufour, their daughter Henriette, her rather pathetic fiancé Anatole, and a batty grandmother arrive at a isolated bistro. As Henriette plays on a swing, she is spied by two local boatsmen, Rudolph and Henri, who discuss their options. Rudolph senses an opportunity, but Henri is more cautious.

"You're afraid of the pox" says Rudolph 

"No, of responsibilities. What would you do with that girl on the swing?" 

"I'd invite her for a row. We'd land somewhere to stretch our legs…Then I'd have a little fun." 

"Suppose a baby.." 

"If children resulted from every bit of fun..the world would be overpopulated." (*)

But eventually Henri overcomes his unease, and the two men conspire to get Henriette and her mother away from their respective partners with the proposal of a boat trip. As Rudolph takes care of the giggling, flirtatious Mme, Henri leads the more serious minded Henriette away. Seemingly entranced in pantheist fervor, Henriette the city girl listens to the sounds of a nightingale's song; Henri, similarly possessed by his own (baser) instincts, works his arm around the young woman's waist. She resists, but is eventually led. Now sitting on the ground, Henri forcibly angles her head towards his. He kisses her but is pushed away. Undeterred, he continues, pressing her to the ground. She relents and they kiss without force. As their faces pull apart we see a tear rolling down Henriette's cheek.

A blissful submission to an impossible love, or a prelude to rape? Henriette's tearful look towards the camera continues to produce contradictory readings. 

In his book on Renoir, Andre Bazin discusses the brief scene: 

The love scene on the island is one of the most agonizing and beautiful in all of cinema. It owes its stunning effectiveness to a couple of gestures and a look from Sylvia Bataille which have a renching emotional realism. In the space of a few frames she expresses all the disenchantment, the pathetic sadness that follows the act of love. 

Disenchantment and pathetic sadness. Much as in Love with the Proper Stranger, the girl's adolescent romantic idealism is crushed by sexual realities. Unlike Angie, however, Henriette never gets to articulate her feelings. Renoir cuts from the couple to shots of an impending storm, a more lyrical punishment for transgression than Angie's pregnancy.

Does it end with the kiss? Does Henri's fear of paternal responsibility hold him back? Or his realization of Henriette's sadness? Whatever the result, it is clear that Henriette's trauma is genuine. 

Over the storm, inter-titles inform of us of passing years with "Sundays as bleak as Mondays". And then we are back, with Henriette and Anatole now presumably married, sitting under the same tree by the same river. Henri appears and Henriette approaches him, visibly moved by his presence. He tells her he often comes to this spot as it holds his happiest memory. "Every night I remember" she says ambiguously, her eyes clouded up with tears again. 

Vendredi Soir (Claire Denis 2002)

The one night stand between Laure and Jean in Claire Denis' Vendredi Soir is notable for taking place on home turf. In the majority of films discussed (all bar Solitary Man and Knocked Up) events have been staged in the 'non-spaces' of out of town trips, pointing to the liminal nature of such trysts. But Vendredi Soir is very much about homes, and about knowing where we belong. Laure, a woman we take for being somewhere in her thirties, has packed up her boxes to move in with her unseen partner. Like Alison in Knocked Up, her life is in transition (and in this case, quite literally in transit). Rather foolishly, she attempts to spend her last night of freedom with dinner at a friend's, even though a Metro strike has brought Paris to a virtual standstill. 

Denis' film is far and away the most subjective work outlined here. Laure is never off screen (excluding point of view shots, and fragments of her imagined thoughts). Even the (feminine) voice on the car radio seems to be speaking just to her. Jean, a handsome, slightly older man, appears out of nowhere and climbs into her car. He could easily be a figment of her agile imagination, like the sentient floor-lamp or the animated pizza toppings (seriously..If you haven't already done so, I recommend you watch this film right away). We and she (if the two are indeed divisible) presume he wants sex. Although they hardly exchange words, they are soon at it in a local hotel room. The next morning she leaves with a smile on her face. 

The film can be (and has been) read as a feminist reclamation of the presumed male desire for anonymous sex. There is no punishment, no sadness; the sex isn't grubby or cheap. Laure and Jean's perfect union is perfectly brief. There's no need for regret here; whatever there is between them, it isn't love. 

Laure begins the film as a commodity, boxed up and ready to be shipped to her boyfriend's apartment. In one of her few dialogue exchanges, a man leans out of his car window and asks her "How much?" The proposition turns out to be for her car, advertised as 'For Sale' in a hand written note. By the film's end she will have clawed back some of her sexual identity; perhaps for one night, or perhaps for good.

(*) It should be said that this film takes place in the late 19th Century


  1. Nice. The Renoir pair of men in their respective attitudes (and in what occurs in spite of them) has always reminded me a little of the soldiers in Ophuls's Liebelei. Although perhaps that film has more to say about the danger in extending what should have remained a misbegotten one-night stand - there are far worse things, you know...
    Man, I found a digital copy of the Denis but with portuguese subs - can't get the English ones to stick on VLC!
    I recently saw the film you allude to in the title of this piece and it is GREAT. You'll eat it up (er, not in a Denis way...)

  2. Interesting. I was thinking about Letter from an Unknown Woman in relation to these films actually. But you're right, there's a similar dynamic between the 2 guys in Partie and Liebelei. Ophuls is much kinder to his though..I especially like how Mitzi seems to humanise Theo against all odds (in fact, you kind of end up liking Theo more than Fritz by the end..don'tcha think?) Renoir had no time for such subtleties .. perhaps literally because of the run time, or maybe he cared less..

    re V.Soir subs, I wouldn't worry too much. The dialogue's pretty sparse.. and you can get by en francais after a couple of glasses of vin rouge, non?