Monday, October 5, 2020

A ‘dirty story’ told by Deceased Artiste Michael Lonsdale

With Michael Lonsdale’s death, it’s like three performers have died — the Lonsdale that appeared in mainstream, commercial films (usually international coproductions), the one that always made time to act in experimental films where the directors trusted him to develop his character (and sometimes improvise or alter his dialogue), and the Lonsdale that forged a stunning list of appearances on the French stage (performing in works by Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, Stoppard, Albee, Anouilh, Handke, and his good friend Marguerite Duras).

The second of those three identities interests non-French auteurists the most, and so, since I’ve already written about the films of Marcel Hanoun that starred Lonsdale and Out 1, the mega-masterwork of improvisation by Rivette, I want to focus here on just one film, Jean Eustache’s very unusual and incredibly significant Une Sale Histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977).

The film is one of the most important pictures of the Seventies for several reasons. Among them the fact that the notion of documentary offers the “truth” of a situation, that the film offers a sleazy but entirely valid metaphor for moviegoing (or theatergoing, for that matter), and that it explores sexism in its purest state — men who view women solely as a set of genitals.

The later, hairier
 Lonsdale.
I’ve discussed the film with people who were entranced by it and others who were disturbed by it, although it should be noted that nothing graphic is ever seen. It’s simply a film about a man telling a story.

In fact, the film shows two men telling the same story. Une Sale Histoire is comprised of two shorts Eustache made from the same material. The first features the great Lonsdale — as suave as he could be — telling a group of people at a party in an apartment a story about a weird “ritual” he took part in.

A group of men in a Paris cafe are aware that there is a hole in the ladies’ room door in that cafe’s basement. If one kneels on the floor in front of the door (curiously like the Muslim prayer ritual), one can see the women using the toilet — not the woman herself, just her vagina. Lonsdale’s character tells the story with an odd sort of reverence and a philosophical bent, describing how this ritualistic act of voyeurism became a habit for him that took the place of having sex.

Once he finishes his story, we see the second short film, a 16mm documentary chronicle of another man (Jean-Noël Picq) telling the same story. He is sleazier-looking than Lonsdale (with a front row of quite awful teeth), and one quickly realizes that this is the man who ultimately went through this experience.

Picq’s telling of the story goes quicker. The 16mm film is six minutes shorter because it is told more quickly (although both Picq and Lonsdale say the exact same words), contains no introduction, and the questions asked of the storyteller at the end are fired at Picq, while the actresses quizzing Lonsdale ask their queries in a slower way.

The ideal way to read this piece would be to now watch the film if you haven’t seen it already. It is currently available on YouTube, with English subtitles in the Closed Captions.

The Lonsdale version:

The Picq original:

Going back to the three themes mentioned above, it can now be revealed that Eustache’s decision to contrast “fiction” (an actor telling a story) against documentary (a real-life individual, with the bad teeth to prove it) is a brilliant one, but is not as clear-cut as it seems.

The signs of the two modes of filmmaking are there: the Lonsdale film was shot in 35mm, is most clearly an acted piece, and is more elegantly made. The Picq version is on 16mm, it has the spontaneity of a documentary (esp. in the brisk way it moves), and is more raggedly shot (one of the women listening to Picq is left out of camera range, even when she’s asking him a question).

So, Eustache’s purpose in making the Lonsdale film appears to have been to contrast the “real” telling of a story with a staged “fiction” version containing the exact same dialogue (including the same questions and answers at the end). It’s a brilliant conceit and one of the reasons Histoire is indeed a landmark of Seventies cinema.

There’s just one problem with the above description of the film — namely, that Picq’s story never happened. But before we get into that matter, let us find out what Lonsdale himself thought of the film. In the invaluable interview book Michael Lonsdale: Entretiens avec Jean Cléder (François Bourin Éditeur, Paris, 2012), he offered these thoughts. [This and the quote below are loosely translated from the French by yrs truly.]

“First, the distance came from the fact that [Eustache] invented half of things. It’s physically impossible for a man to put his head on the ground in the hall outside the toilets, especially in La Motte Piquet, where it’s very busy. In reality, it wouldn’t be very clean if one knelt on the floor to look through a hole at the genitals of women who are urinating! One would have to be pretty crazy… People asked me, ‘How could you have done that?’ And I responded, ‘Listen, this stuff exists, there are people like that! They have the right to be heard.’

“As I had never worked with Jean Eustache, who was for me one of the great filmmakers, I accepted the role. Before that, with no budget, he had already filmed with his friend the ‘dirty story,’ where Jean-Noel Picq had the lead role. But he wanted to make a “cleaner” version (if I can put it that way) in 25 minutes, with a good camera and good film.

“As for the characterization, he let me do what I wanted. He filmed three reels, in three shots, so we didn’t need to stop to load the film. I thus recounted my story calmly, without interruptions or direction.  When he asked me, ‘Do you want to see what Jean-Noel Picq did?’ I answered ‘No, certainly not!’ I noticed later that we had the same inflection on certain words, curiously….

“Because showing it meant projecting the two films, it was a novelty: the program was made up of the old version with Jean-Noel Picq, then the new version with me. For distribution, it was interesting, because each film was too short for a normal screening at a movie theater.” [pp. 48-49]

The oddly assembled but also invaluable book le dictionnaire Eustache, edited by Antoine de Baecque, (Editions Leo Scheer, 2011), includes a statement from Picq written to journalist Jean-Luc Douin.  Picq wrote to Douin in 1993 that the original short was “autobiographical because it was fictitious.” To double-down on his wonderfully Gallic wordplay he also claimed the short was “an imaginary autobiography, like all true autobiographies.” He added:

“This autobiographical fiction is perhaps about voyeurism, but it is also about the insurmountable differences between the sexes, which don’t allow … either gender to have a discourse about sex that transcends differences and reaches an agreement. Except to stammer something that is not readily understandable, as it goes down to the gutter and lowers the debate.” [pp. 298-299]

The juxtaposition between fiction and reality bleeds into the second theme of the film  the notion that Picq’s story is a metaphor for the act of moviegoing. The “ritual” described has a religious aspect to it (with the reference to praying in the Muslim style), but there is clearly also a peep-show, fetishistic element, as the voyeur sees only one body part. And the act of storytelling itself, which always encompasses embroidering a tale, is akin to seeing a performance onstage or screen. The storyteller in both versions in fact mentions his desired audience — he notes that he prefers to tell his story to women to get their reactions, since men will “understand” what he’s saying from the first.

The odd prologue to
American Boy.
The Picq short in fact prefigured Scorsese’s American Boy (made one year later, in 1978), in which Scorsese’s friend Steven Prince tells a series of stories that are immaculate — but seem too honed to be entirely true. Scorsese takes much more time to set the stage than Eustache does (one gets the impression that Prince’s storytelling session was augmented by, um…. a certain powder). But the two filmmakers allow their seedy friends to take center stage, and they and other friends assume the role of onscreen audience and interlocutors. Eustache let himself be seen as a listener in the Picq version of the material, but he is only seen briefly on camera and never asks Picq a question. Scorsese, on the other hand, is an active participant in American Boy. (The presence of both filmmakers on-camera serves to make their friends’ stories seem more “real.”)

Picq’s tale also contains unknowing “performers” (the women being “peeped,” who are being victimized without even knowing it  until the storyteller lets the last woman in on the “act”) and an "audience" (the sleazy men at the cafe). Thus, we as viewers watch an onscreen audience hearing a story from a man who declares that he ended up preferring seeing unknown women’s genitals (read: being a spectator) rather than having sex with a partner (being an active participant in a performance).

… Which leads us to the third and most overpowering theme: sexism. Une Sale Histoire would never have been made in the U.S., even during the “maverick” period of the Seventies (when a film like John Byrum’s Inserts could indeed be made but had to be shot in England). The current state of American film finds sex completely missing from mainstream films of any kind, as dealing with it bring up topics that are (that most abrasive and prevalent of phrases) “problematic.”

Jean Eustache (in a Rocky shirt!)
and Lonsdale.

Here Eustache tackles the male libido at its most base and crude. The storytellers in both short films are quite matter-of-fact about the story they tell, while the women who hear it are very receptive, to the point of asking a bunch of questions. These questions are fired off in the Picq version, which makes them seem like real subjects of curiosity. The slightly slower pace of the Lonsdale version makes the questions seem more like a part of a certain storytelling ritual.

The most important element of this exploration of sexism is indeed the fact that the storyteller states he got to the point where he preferred “peeping” to sex. (Thus foreshadowing Internet cam-culture?) He says, quite pointedly, “… the desire wasn’t to fuck her afterwards, not at all. It was only in the pleasure of seeing. Just seeing. That’s all.”

From the Picq version.

Picq’s story includes the fact that the forbidden thrill he got from the act of voyeurism was that it gave him “direct access” to the woman’s private parts — he didn’t have to go on dates, go to the movies or dinner, find common points of interest, or otherwise relate to the woman in question. He could just cut to his desired chase and see what he wanted to see.

He laments that women will now (in the late Seventies) discuss their orgasms and that the vaginas of the woman he’s involved with on a romantic or sexual level are “domesticated.” This part of the story synchs up quite nicely with Eustache’s 1973 masterpiece, The Mother and the Whore, where the male protagonist (Jean-Pierre Leaud) talks and talks until the moment where the quieter female lead (Françoise Lebrun, who conspicuously appears in the Picq film as a listener/questioner) finally delivers a monologue, which changes the whole focus of the piece and makes it more of a film about relationships (and the need to listen rather than talk), whereas up to that point it is an account of the adventures of a cool young man who never stops talking.

Picq and Eustache.

Our storyteller pines for the Victorian era at one point, saying the sexuality of the Seventies is “disillusioned.” This goes back to the theme of worship in Picq’s dirty story. He knows that what he is doing is unhealthy (and quite ugly, as he is essentially bent over, kneeling on a piss-laden floor). But he is able to justify what he did because of that same aspect of sleazy idolatry.

The film’s best dialogue in fact comes when he discusses how the world changed for him when he got addicted to his peeping ritual. He began, he says, to believe “the hole came first!” and that a defect in a door (which he acknowledges must’ve been created on purpose when the door was designed) became the center of his universe. The door, the cafe, the streets, the city — all of it existed because of that sacred hole.


And the grace note of this look inside the mind of a voyeur is when he declares that his peeping was a kind of “work” that consumed him for a period of time. The last line, delivered differently but emphatically by both Lonsdale and Picq, is “I had my dignity while doing this!”