Mon Homme Bertrand Blier (18)
Click to follow
Bertrand Blier's films are cheeky sex comedies, some of which, like Tenue de Soiree, have been rather successful in this country. They're not so much romps as caricatural theorems, pursuing to extremes the consequences of an absurd premise. In Tenue de Soiree, the premise was: what if Gerard Depardieu's character fell abruptly in love with a man, and not even a conventionally attractive man but a mousy little chap who has no interest in this ardent side of French ham? For Trop Belle Pour Toi, it was: what if the hero, whose wife is radiantly beautiful, falls in love with a woman who is, by conventional standards, unattractive?

Blier's films are distinctly variable, but the quality of the film tends to correspond to the strength of the original idea. So Get Out Your Handkerchiefs from 1977 can still be remembered with fondness, thanks to the slyness and relative subtlety of its starting point: what if a man really meant it when he told a woman that he would do absolutely anything to make her happy?

In the new Blier film, Mon Homme, the premise is this: what if a woman freely chose prostitution as the best form of sex? And what if she then fell in love with a down-and-out, and resolved the resulting dilemmas by turning him into her pimp? Marie, played by Anouk Grinberg, is a woman without sexual hang-ups, unless her obsession with Jeannot (Gerard Lanvin) counts. She has no difficulty sharing her body with strangers, while keeping her heart reserved for the man she met when he passed out next to the bins in her rundown hotel building. Their bizarre menage works perfectly well, until Jeannot starts doing some extra pimping on the side, without being able to keep his life's compartments separate as Marie does so well.

In the film's last scene, Jeannot apologises, not only to Marie but to all women but, as the plot resume suggests, it would be perverse to try squaring the film with feminism of even the most diluted sort. You could say, if you were determined to play spin-doctor to the Gallic sense of fun, that Marie was a strong character, making her own choices who, after being betrayed by her lover, walks away from the mess he has made. On the other hand, she is an unusually abstract embodiment of male fantasy: she has no back story, no chain of events that might have led her to turning tricks in a shopping arcade. She's essence of hooker. In Bunuel's Belle de Jour, Catherine Deneuve played a respectable woman whose search for sexual release led her through a sort of pilgrimage of debasement to part- time prostitution, but there's no such satirical story here. Marie didn't exist before she donned the mesh stockings and high heels of her calling.

There's nothing wrong with Anouk Grinberg's acting, but a cameo from a woman who Jeannot chats up in the street has more life in it. As she tries to act natural in the hotel where she is being taken by a total stranger, her body language shows something that Marie is denied by the script: being in two minds, unsure of her ground.

The first time Marie takes a man upstairs to her room, a bit of wife- beating seems to be taking place on the landing, which may be Blier's way of pointing out that marriage has its dangers. Except that prostitution in Mon Homme seems to have no disadvantages. All Marie's clients treat her with respect, and oblige her when she asks that they wear a condom. The only brutality in the film comes from the police, who crack down on Jeannot's innocent pimping with absurd vengefulness.

You might imagine Blier to be saying that private behaviour shouldn't be policed, even when money changes hands, if it wasn't so silly trying to derive a system of morality from a game of charades. With a French sex comedy, what you see is what you get, studiously unenlightened stereotypes plus full frontal (female) nudity. To at least part of the sex comedy's core constituency, this may be the best of both worlds, almost making up for the inconvenience of subtitles.

Yet even if Mon Homme is a stale piece of provocation by Blier's standards, there are traces here and there of a lazy mastery. His favourite type of dialogue scene is well represented, in which a character makes an extreme proposal - or indeed proposition - to a total stranger, who accepts after the merest moment of resistance. Every plot-turn in a Blier screenplay is a hairpin bend, taken at speed.

Even an incidental scene can be constructed entirely of U-turns. So a young man in poverty tries begging in a crowded street. He collars a prosperous passer-by and asks why he's having no luck. Take your hat off for a start, the stranger says, taking off his own, which the crowd promptly fills with bank notes. Refusing to share his earnings, he offers one last word of advice: remember that people will only give to the rich, not the poor. At a slower pace, this would seem even more tendentious, with the implication as regards the main plot that people are eager to buy Marie because in some sense she's not for sale.

As a director, Blier favours a lightly stylised approach, with Marie or Jeannot sometimes directly addressing the audience without breaking the flow of apparent realism. Often his characters occupy a heightened area of an ordinary space: Marie and her rival pimpee (if there is such a word) talk miserably in a nightclub against an expanse of paradoxically restful blue neon.

At one point in the film, when Jeannot has been taking the face-slapping side of his pimping duties rather too seriously, Marie suggests that she puts some music on, to calm them both down. She offers him the choice between Vivaldi and Barry White. In earlier Blier films, there would have been no contest: Mozart provided an image of order in Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, and Schubert did the same for Trop Belle Pour Toi. For Jeannot indeed there is no contest, and he chooses soul stylist Barry White, the well- upholstered love machine whose lyrics contain the most implausible invitations to pleasure since the heyday of Mae West.

In fact, the soundtrack is pretty much divided between Barry White's plush raunchy crooning and some choral music, by Gorecki, of an almost ominous spiritual intensity. Barry White is associated with Marie's work, but when she first has sex with Jeannot, we hear the Gorecki instead. It's largely the presence of the music, sombre to the point of oppressiveness, that stops the scene from seeming like an excursion into rough trade, as Marie scales heights and plumbs depths of pleasure that she didn't know back in the innocent old days, when her partners waited until the conclusion of the sexual act before lighting up their cigarettes

Opens tomorrow