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Thursday, March 8, 2018

BAMcinématek's Beyond the Canon—Les Saignantes + A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange and Les Saignantes. Photos courtesy Warner Bros. / Quartier Mozart Films
It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. This monthly series seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic (A Clockwork Orangewith a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work (Les Saignantesby a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion.

By Violet Lucca

There’s youthful indiscretion, and then there’s the darkly comic delinquency on display in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Les Saignantes (The Bloodettes), which has the ability to turn the world upside down. With titles that associate their young protagonists with a subversive juiciness, both films comment upon the present through fiction set in the future. In these artful visions of “the same but worse,” ineffectual, corrupt governments have overstretched themselves to the point of controlling the brains and bodies of their citizens—solutions that solve nothing at all. Although one openly lampoons the failed utopianism of Welfare State Behaviorism and the other covertly carves out dissent inside a post-colonial kleptocracy, it’s the violence, sexiness, quick-wittedness, and wildness of youth that breaks down these zombified orders.

For a good-looking psychopath like little Alexander DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), a happy ending means a future of even more screwing and knifings than before. Kubrick’s film has almost completely subsumed the Anthony Burgess novel on which it’s based largely because of its unrepentant nihilistic slant, iconic costumes, and suave savagery. (It’s also a slightly less daunting proposition than the book: Nadsat, an Anglicized version of Russian that Burgess used for teenage slang, has scared away plenty of readers.)

Les Saignantes. Photo courtesy Quartier Mozart Films
Coming off the glow of the moon landing, this vision of a run-down future was borderline heretical. We see Alex go from ruthless, fashionable street hoodlum to experimental aversion therapy victim to being on the Minister of the Interior’s payroll—a coming-of-age-tale about someone who doesn’t have feelings like the rest of us do. This disjunction is ripe for comedy, and is something the writer-director plays up through an array of style choices. The cold, high modernism of the camera’s eye—which delights in symmetrically framing all varieties of shiny, broken future junk—is offset by the widescreen lenses that distort faces. Slightly too loud, crisply enunciated deliveries of dialogue and Alex’s a cappella performances of “Singin’ in the Rain” make clear this is a satirical world unto itself.

Along with small visual jokes (such as the collection of stolen wristwatches and wads of cash Alex keeps under his bed or the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack that’s prominently displayed in the rotunda record store), there’s the high-velocity ménage-a-trois set to Rossini’s "William Tell Overture." Pairing stylistic excess with a sexual one, the speed removes all eroticism and reduces Alex and his companions to milky blurs. Rolling around in the mid-afternoon light as Ludwig Van Beethoven’s glowering face looms behind them, their abstracted movements play out like an explicit version of a Benny Hill Show sketch—high meets low meets saucy postcard. This type of postmodern pastiche is common within Kubrick’s work (he was an early adopter of the “ironic soundtrack”), but here it’s exuberantly silly.

A scene that also plays with speed, humor, pop media, and sex opens Les Saignantes: wearing a harness that’s attached to the ceiling, the nude Majolie (Adèle Ado) swoops down towards the elderly Secretary General of the Civil Cabinet (SGCC), who lies on a bed. Fading the image in and out while varying the speed of Majolie’s thrusts, the confidence of her movements immediately makes clear that, despite the fractured editing, she is the one controlling this situation. Or at least most of it—the transition between sex and her realization that the SGCC has died happens so quickly it’s easy to miss (her prodding and staring at his body could’ve well been part of her aerial foreplay). Reading his passport, she sees he was born in 1939 and shrieks, “What’s a granddaddy like you doing with a ‘bloodette’ like me?!” betraying that their sexual encounter was purely transactional. As Majolie soon explains to her friend Chouchou (Dorylia Calmel), she was sleeping with the SGCC to secure a deal that would short a purchase of government-owned trucks.

Throughout Les Saignantes, Majolie and Chouchou’s strong, beautiful bodies are their main tool for getting what they need to survive. Bekolo initially got the idea for the film when, after failing to secure a meeting with a powerful government minister, a female acquaintance assured she could set it up for him. Speaking to Akin Akesokan in 2008, the director stated, “I had the idea that if I focused on women, I would really touch on very sensitive issues in society. I was trying to make a film about Cameroon, and so it was important to bring up the issue of women’s relationships with men in power.” It’s a key contradiction: although the women in the film (and almost certainly the woman who inspired it) do not benefit from this corrupt system the way men do, they are forced to use their bodies as leverage and become associated with its immorality and illegitimacy.

Yet Bekolo’s fundamental interest is and always has been in creating a new cinematic grammar, one that references popular forms but is outside of Western binaries like “sexist” or “not sexist.” Throughout the film, title cards pose questions that fight against genre conventions in an African context: “How can you make a science fiction film in a country that has no future?” and “How can you make a detective film in a country where investigation is not allowed?” Under the influence of the mysterious force of Mevoungou (named after a Beti tribe ritual performed by women in times of crisis), Chouchou and Majolie ultimately destroy the patriarchy on their own terms. Rather than seeking glory after their semi-mystical triumph, they go back to wandering the streets of Yaounde chatting with friends—everyday people rather than elevated Wonder Women.

The final question the film poses (“How can you watch a film like this and do nothing after?”) reminds us that if we want this cinematic fantasy, we’ll have to think differently rather than dream bigger. Between Alex finding his place alongside the powerful and Majolie and Chouchou permanently banishing them, the approach seems clear.

Les Saignantes and A Clockwork Orange screen in rep this Sat, Mar 10 for our Beyond the Canon series, and tickets are still available.

Violet Lucca is the Digital Producer of Film Comment magazine and hosts its podcast. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle, she also regularly contributes to Sight & Sound. Twitter: @unbuttonmyeyes

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