Thursday, August 15, 2013

Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Her: Deceased Artiste Bernadette Lafont (part two of 2)

In this part of my tribute to Bernadette Lafont I turn to the traces of her films that can be found "hidden in plain sight" online. As noted in the first part of this piece, I found out in my interview with Mme. Lafont that she didn’t particularly enjoy working on the Truffaut short Les mistons (1957) because it didn’t fit in with her idea of “Hollywood” moviemaking (and also because her husband, the actor Gerard Blain, was opposed to her having an acting career). Here is the short, which is very enjoyable (and Lafont is a vision, at the tender age of 18):

The Truffaut short was far from the world of movies that she enjoyed, so the next obvious step was starring in a feature. When I asked Lafont about her first meeting with Chabrol, I was interested to hear that she had a different story than is told in the French TV documentary that is on the Le Beau Serge (1958) Criterion disc.

There it is noted by Chabrol that his wife (whose inheritance allowed her to finance Serge) loved Bernadette in Mistons and suggested her for the female lead in Serge. Lafont herself said she had met Chabrol when she went to Cannes with her husband, and so she and Blain were cast in both the Truffaut short and the Chabrol film at the same time.

Whatever the case may be, she’s gives a great performance in Serge, blending a sex-kittenish presence with true acting talent. Here is a good example of her work in the film.
The YT poster was turned on the “femdom” aspect, but for the minute let’s set the fetish aspect aside (in researching the clips with Lafont online I also discovered that various YT posters have uploaded clips of European actresses strictly because their armpit hair is briefly visible in the scenes in question).

Serge is considered the first true New Wave feature film (unless you want to count Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955), which wasn’t a hit). It impresses to this day, thanks to strong acting by the three leads (Blain, Lafont, and New wave mainstay Jean-Claude Brialy) and its harsh but authentic portrait of a small working-class town.

The next landmark in her career is another film by Chabrol, the ensemble piece Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), which is not only one of its director’s finest, but one of the best French films ever made (I wrote about it in my obit for Chabrol). The whole film can be found here with English subtitles:

Watching the film is an incredibly emotional experience, as it moves back and forth between extremely light moments and very dark ones. This is an in-between one, and one of the best-ever depictions of boredom at work on film:

I also asked Mme. Lafont about Chabrol’s strange and wonderful failure Les Godelureaux (1961), in which she plays a seductress summoned by a dandy (Brialy again) to destroy a young man who has pissed him off.

The film is now available in its entirety on YT with English subs, and it is quite a “discovery” from this period of Chabrol’s work: Lafont is red hot as the seductress, but the fact that her character is a fantasy figure (a red-hot female Tyler Durden, without the brawling) was something she emphasized to me in my interview; this of course (as with Fight Club) begs the question of all the times she is seen in public by people other than the lead character and Brialy. Whatever the case may be, it’s a fascinating Sixties pic.

There were a number of films I would’ve liked to ask Lafont about, including the comedy L’amour c’est gai, l’amour c’est triste (1971), a charming effort by the director Jean-Daniel Pollet. Pollet’s work is split into two categories: gorgeously non-linear film “poems” and narrative comedies and drama (L’amour fits in the latter category).

Claude Melki (a favorite of Pollet) plays a schlemiel who doesn’t quite understand that his sister (Lafont) is a hooker. He finally finds a girlfriend — the adorable Chantal Goya from Masculin-Feminin — and the farce gets cuter and siller. This clip has no English subs, unfortunately.

One of the most intricate and important films Lafont was involved in was Rivette’s 13-hour masterpiece Out 1 (1971). You can see her response to my question about improvisation in the creation of the film below, in the first part of this blog entry, but I thought at least one clip from the film featuring Bernadette should be included online.

Thus, this excerpt of a scene where Michael Lonsdale tries to get her to return to Paris to join his theater troupe (and reveals that she is one of the mysterious "Thirteen" that Jean-Pierre Leaud has stumbled onto):

Lafont was constantly working during her 56-year film career. So while she was making deadly serious countercultural masterpieces, she also was appearing in charming farces like Trop Jolies Pour Etre Honnetes (1972), an all-female comedy caper that also featured Funhouse interview subject Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. The trailer is here.

My final question to her concerned her reunion with Truffaut, Such a Gorgeous Kid Like (1972), based on a novel by Henry Farrell (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). The film is a rather odd item for Truffaut, a broad farce about an amoral woman that has some wonderful moments. Lafont couldn’t sing but turned that into a comedic advantage, as when she belts the film’s title song. Here is the trailer:

One of Lafont’s “greatest hits” as an actress was her starring role in Jean Eustache’s minimalist masterwork The Mother and the Whore (1973), which qualifies as perhaps the last great French New Wave film (although Eustache was younger than the original crew and the film was made a decade after they stopped making films like this).

Lafont plays the “mother” part of the equation, the woman who lives with Jean-Pierre Leaud and tolerates his affair with a young nurse. Eustache’s film needs to be out on DVD in America (when it was last heard of, it was on VHS from New Yorker Films, the firm that had very erratic VHS/DVD release practices). 

At the moment this is being written, the film can only be obtained in America with English subs via the old New Yorker 2-VHS set and the UK DVD (or off of the infamous Torrents). The film can be found in its entirety with Spanish subs here and in French with no English subs. 

Here is a quiet, contemplative sequence in which Lafont listens to a Piaf song. The brilliance of Eustache's film lies in his dialogue and also in interludes like this one:

Jumping ahead to the Eighties, one see Bernadette turning into a character person, camping it up in pictures like Just Jaeckin's The Perils of Gwendoline (1984) and winning a Cesar as Best Supporting Actress (she also received a Lifetime Achievement Cesar in 2003) for playing a nanny to the very sassy Charlotte Gainsbourg in L’Effrontee (1985), directed by Funhouse guest Claude Miller. Here is the trailer for the film.

Bernadette worked with Chabrol again in the late Seventies and Eighties (appearing in Violette, Inspecteur Lavardin, and Masques). Her daughter Pauline also became a popular movie star in the Eighties, appearing in Chabrol's Poulet Au Vinegre (the sequel to Lavardin) and Godard's Keep Your Right Up. Pauline sadly died in 1988 (at the age of 25) while on a camping trip. A tribute to her can be seen here.

A film I have not seen, but which some helpful poster has put up in several shards (Bernadette's scenes only), is Olivier Peyon's Les Petites Vacances (2006). In the film Lafont plays a grandmother who takes her grandkids on a road trip without telling their parents. There is a wonderful scene with Claude Brasseur and a very taut scene toward the end of the film, but this particular sequence explains the dilemma that is behind the film.

One of Lafont's final starring roles was in the comedy-drama Paulette (2012), where she played an old woman who becomes a pot dealer to earn money. (The trailer is here.) A very affectionate TV documentary about her can be found here (no English subtitles).


Lafont was fearless as a performer, and nowhere was this more apparent than when she sang. She was off-key, but amiable and sexy enough to still please the viewer. The first musical clip I found is from Les Idoles (1968), a broad comedy in which she appears as “Soeur Hilarite” (a play on the name of the Singing Nun, Soeur Sourire [Sister Smile]). The rock band accompanying her definitely tag this as the late Sixties:

Truffaut said he felt that the character in the book Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me was just like Bernadette (this becomes a rather odd observation when you consider that the character is not just a clever sexpot, she's also a liar and a crook....). To promote the film, she sang the theme song on a French TV show. Again, waaaay out of key, but still adorable:

Here she is in a duet with singer Serge Lama. Cute, but not as provocative as this duet with Catherine Deneuve in the film Zig Zig (1975). The full number can be seen here, but this interview clip contains pieces of it and is much clearer:

And for the piece de resistance, an incredibly silly musical number that seems to have first appeared in a children's TV show, "La sieste de papa." Listen to that synthesizer, and remember that the Eighties truly were a “lost” decade for everyone.

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