Tuesday, 14 February 2012

LE BOTOX (Jean Champi, 1957)

In the 54 years it has taken to officially arrive in this country (this country being, variously, America, the USA, or some virtual construct located in both, either or neither) Le Botox (1) hasn’t aged a day. Its joy is as infectious as ever, its anarchy still as cutting (and cutting still as anarchic) as that of the far more celebrated Godard; and the free-and-easy techniques once described by Andrew Sarris as “of very mixed quality” look not only resolutely masterly but succinctly modern. There is a long shot following Pierre along the street, past the market and crowds, which makes a similar sequence in À bout de souffle look almost contrived; And during the scene in which Paulo (Michele Abbruzzo) serves at the Riviere restaurant, the elegant complication of Champi's tracking shots, weaving like slick ghosts through a staged bustle, couldn't have been guided any more perfectly by anyone else. His later sequence, following a family's departure from Tours and out into the Loire Valley, is studded with such quiet gold as to render the need for such gimmickry as colour, smell and 3-d as almost superfluous. All this without modern lightweight cameras too.

That Champi is not thought of as one of the French directors who 'turned the 20th Century about-face'(2) in the fifties and sixties is the kind of cruel sequence that the director himself conspires in his films, and one which he dealt with phlegmatically. 'True pioneers get lost in the wilderness years before civilization even knows they're gone,' he said at Cannes in 1972, when a campaign to have a new cut of Le Botox shown at the festival failed. But by the time he had come to be convinced of his genius, it had left him. His last two films, Paris Dans L'Ombre (1969) and La Fiction Est Fiction (1971) had failed completely, the thrusting camerawork obstructing the audience's embrace. He surely knew, after that, that Le Botox would be his one masterpiece, never to be bettered. Such knowledge so early in life (Champi was twenty-four when he made Le Botox, and sidled into Cannes two weeks before his fortieth birthday) is a sore test.

Traces of Le Botox can be seen across the contemporary cinematic landscape, as if we still cannot deal with it in its entirety. The subplot in which Paolo, prompted by a writing class exercise follows and becomes obsessed with a woman is blown up to fill the narrative in both David Thewlis' skinny and grim Lecher (2008, in which the director himself plays the man who ends up murdering the girl) and Neil Burger's Exercise (in which Christian Bale follows a girl, only to discover that his wife is paying her to drive him insane by acting out a biography of his fantasies).

Champi's screened illusions, showing us the trickery and wonder of our surround, hover just out of view, despite the microscopic attention thrown over this period of French cinema. He was never as caustic as Chabrol, as aggressive as Godard. He couldn't keep as cool as Rohmer, and he lacked the energy of Truffaut. He could match none of them for stamina. But filmmaker and friend Agnes Varda knew his worth. She describes Le Botox as '... the forgotten vowel of the French cinematic language. If we could only remember it, and remember how to fashion its form on our page and in our mouths, we could complete secret sentences of new perfections.'(3)

Le Botox Directed by Jean Champi Produced by Jean Champi, Michael Ravelle Written by Thomas Brix Starring Michele Abruzzo, Maria Lucho, Francois Truffaut SRV Films 119 mins Release Date UK/Fra: Oct 1957 Tagline: 'Too rich, too poor, Too hungry for more'.

1. Le 'Botox' being a French word for a 'hearty appetite' or an 'eager young boy', according to Merriam-Webster, or a 'hungry young cocksmith' according to Mary M. Webster (citation needed).
2. Sarris' famous phrase included the core group of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol and Rivette
3. Sight & Sound, March 2008