Tony Richardson’s “Mademoiselle”

The success as a stage director of Tony Richardson (1928-91) seemed to flow seamlessly to film. Richardson directed John Osborne’s plays “Look Back in Anger” and “The Entertainer” first on stage then on screen for a company (Woodfall) he and Osborne founded. I’d like to see the adaptation of William Faulkner’s sordid Sanctuary (1961), which starred Lee Remick as Temple Drake, but have never had an opportunity.

Before winning an Oscar as best director for the winner of best picture of 1963, Tom Jones, Richardson directed Rita Tushingham in an adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey” (1961). Tom Courtenay and Ralph Richardson in an adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.” And he followed up “Tom Jones” with an adaptation of the black comedy about the funeral business in LA by Evelyn Waugh, “The Loved One” (1965) with a very mannered performance by Rod Steiger.

Though he also had male lovers, Richardson seems to have had a passionate marriage to Vanessa Redgrave (1962-67) until he was drawn, like a moth to a flame, to Jeanne Moreau (also born in 1928 and still going strong) that ended his marriage and his string of film successes. At her behest he directed “Mademoiselle,” from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras of a screen treatment a decade earlier by Jean Genet that was booed at Cannes in 1966, followed by the hideous 1967” The Sailor from Gibraltar” in which Redgrave played the wife who lost her husband to Moreau. Then Moreau found other romantic interests. Richardson’s career was not done, but he made unsatisfying movies including “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1968), an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark (1969), a bizarre movie about the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly with Mick Jagger playing Kelly, a creditable adaptation of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1973, reuniting him with Lee Remick in a cast headed by Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield), a disappointing return to Henry Fielding (author of Tom Jones) in “Joseph Andrews” (1977 with Ann-Margaret and Peter Firth) and only four more movies: the underrated “The Border” (1962 with Jack Nicholson) and “Blue Sky” (not released until 1994 with Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange in a performance that won an Oscar), the overrated “The Hotel New Hampshire” (1984), and a two-part tv movie of “The Phantom of the Opera” (1990) from Arthur Kopit’s book for his then-unproduced smash-hit stage musical “Phantom” (with Charles Dance and Burt Lancaster).

It is a puzzling filmography, the main continuities of which are obtaining the services of talented actors and actresses and a penchant for literary adaptations (I guess I include the two Osborne plays from the start…).

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Having finally seen “Mademoiselle,” I’m not sure why it was booed at Cannes, where the similar but worse “The White Ribbon” was the highest prize, the Palme d’Or, in 2009. Both movies were shot in black-and-white and are set in villages in which malignity rules. (The village where Richardson filmed was, I kid you not, named Le Rat, in the Corrèze département of central France.)“Mademoiselle” opens with Moreau opening a sluice gate and shows the flooding of a farm that follows. This has been preceded and will be followed by arson of barns. Moreau’s character is revealed to be the teacher of a one-room local school and the municipal secretary. Unmarried, she is perhaps a frustrated virgin (repression kills). For sure, she is a menace to the community in general and to an Italian woodcutter (Manou, played in Italian by Ettore Manni), who is servicing various frustrated wives and none too popular with the cuckolded husbands.

Mademoiselle bullies Manou’s son, Bruno (Keith Skinner) in class and eventually has her night of amour (out in the countryside during a rainstorm) with Manou, sealing his fate. Mademoiselle is more calculating than a noir femme fatale, and not only fatal but toxic.

With an English boy playing the son of the itinerant Italian in a French village, there is not a lot of dialogue. There are long takes (many of them long shots in distance as well as duration) of the underlit house where Manou and Bruno stay and of small human figures in the landscape. Cinematographer David Watkin was nominated for a BAFTA for his work, which for me was the best aspect of the movie (just as the cinematography in the 2011 Palme d’Or-winning “The Tree of Life” seemed to me superior to the very minimal storytelling). (Watkin had already begun working with Richard Lester, starting with “The Knack …and How to Get It (1965) which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1965 and “Help!” and went on to win an Oscar for his cinematography in “Out of Africa” in 1985). Steven Soderberg has said that “Mademoiselle was the most beautiful black-and-white film I have ever, ever seen.”

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Mademoiselle’s motivation remains opaque, even for a character from Duras or Genet. (She is somewhat similar to the character Moreau played for Buñuel in “Diary of a Chambermaid,” but more extreme and more respected by the citizens who ruthlessly scapegoat the alien and don’t suspect the native “bad seed.”) And her viciousness is recognized only by Bruno, who says nothing to anyone though his father is being blamed for the fires she sets.

I don’t think it is a good movie, though less annoying than either “The White Ribbon” or “The Tree of Life,” both of which are even murkier. “Mademoiselle,” is better than the mind-numbing “Lady from Gibraltar,” but then most anything is. For sure, there is none of the frenetic pacing of “Tom Jones,” Joseph Andrews,” or the Richard Lester movies David Watkin shot! I do have to mention the long snake that Manou has wrapped around his waist and then thrusts at Mademoiselle.

The only bonus feature on the MGM DVD is a trailer. Had I seen it first, I’d have avoided the movie. It certainly shows that Richardson was very famous at the time…

 

©2012, Stephen O. Murray

 

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