Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Joë Caligula (1966)

A young man (Gérard Blain), while his sister (Jeanne Valérie) does not watch from behind a fire, beats upon another member of the underworld. With a cinematic "message" killing, the beaten member is set afire in front of an appropriate locale, and Blain and his crew shoot up the establishment. The death of the man is relayed by telephone to the boss as he is awakened in bed with his lady. In the frame, the boss occupies a judicious space in the right corner--enough to show his talking head and the telephone--while his lady slowly dresses in her undergarments and outfit (dominating really the entire frame). A quick scene of comforting then leads to a funeral procession in which Blain makes an appearance--with machine-gun fire, he shoots at several of the cars in the procession and speeds off. No return fire. Beautiful pastoral scenery follows as the mourners exit their bullet-ridden vehicles to quietly bury their member in the cemetery. Now at the club, Blain is having a drink; and a striptease begins. Neither the director, José Bénazéraf, nor his actresses are shy--powerful female sexuality, lovingly captured, ensues. "Absolutely. Absolutely." Bénazéraf answers in response to the question, "Do you think the banning of Joë Caligula was the revenge of the authorities for your earlier defiance?" Bénazéraf continues, "It was revenge. Because of my opposition to all that administration and bureaucracy. So they fucked me and they fucked me well." (from Immoral Tales: European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs, St. Martin's Griffin Press, New York, 1995, p. 217.) "It's a very sad story. I made the film with Gérard Blain, who was quite a star of the nouvelle vague. It was a story of incest--but intellectual incest--between a man and his sister. I made it in a kind of--in France we say 'extase'--because I believed totally in that movie. I took it very seriously. I invested a lot of money. I shot in in black and white. It was Bonnie and Clyde--the same kind of mood, the same kind of tenderness and the same kind of violence. It was Bonnie and Clyde--but two years earlier. I showed it to the censors and they said over 18 only. So I said, OK, over 18 only. I had national release and on Wednesday, the day before release, we had 30 or 40 copies across France and they said, 'No. Completely banned.' And I was left with 30 prints of the film and all the costs to pay. And I couldn't export the film or exploit it. And it's so sad because perhaps it's the best movie I ever made. The only really good one. They said I was making an apology for violence. You know--the old routine. Gratuitous violence." (Immoral Tales, pp. 216-17.)
Joë Caligula shifts in its imagery from often sexual or violent to a scene of still life whether it's characters in repose or a setting of street life or the occasional scene in the country. However, there is no overt tonal shift in the imagery. When Gérard Blain puts on his sunglasses, a quirky and raucous tune begins, like an audio cue to accompany the sunglasses--here comes cool gangster here comes me pulling my gun...check this out, it's me committing a crime. There's an energy to Blain's rampages and violence but it fades as the film continues. Most enthusiasm is shown by Bénazéraf when he captures his actresses' imagery. Overall their imagery overwhelms the violent scenes as there is more poeticism watching Jeanne Valérie take a solitary stroll at night on the streets of Paris or watching Blain and crew hanging out at the cafe with their female company.Blain's Joë Caligula is a rebellious character in a overt nod against the old guard. Ironically, his character and his narrative arc can only channel a modicum of Bénazéraf's cinematic rebellion and willfulness. In the majority of Bénazéraf's cinema that I have seen, there is an overwhelming sense of a filmmaker filming what he wants to. And obviously was pissing a few people off. There is a scene near the end of the film with Blain all alone sitting at a table, a wide shot emphasizing his solitude. Perhaps, this is the most affecting scene within Joë Caligula.


Jeremy Richey said...

Tremendous...I so badly want to see this film but I have yet to come across a copy. It sounds absolutely fascinating and I have loved the few films by Jose B. I have tracked down.
Thanks for posting this and for the stills.

Hans A. said...

Your welcome! K-Films have released this and seven others in France on DVD. You can purchase them at Amazon France or through their website. Thanks for visiting, Jeremy, and hope all is well.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

This sounds intriguing Hans - I'd never heard of it until I read your review, but your write up will undoubtedly lead to me seeking out a copy...many thanks.

Hans A. said...

@Shaun--Cool. I hope you check it out and share your thoughts.