Cannes Classics 2020: Bertrand Blier’s ‘Get Out Your Handkerchiefs’ is anchored by a woman who isn't easy to read
Get Out Your Handkerchiefs is so unique, so unclassifiable, so shocking in its treatment of relationships and yet so oddly, endearingly relatable.
Bertrand Blier knows luck had a part to play in fetching him the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film in 1978, for Get Out Your Handkerchiefs. Four decades later, he told Variety, “[Ingmar] Bergman made a masterpiece that year, Autumn Sonata. In any normal situation he should have won! He won at the Golden Globes, for instance. It made perfect sense; he was the best director in the world.” So what happened? Eventually, Blier got an explanation. “Bergman had all kinds of tax issues in Sweden, and he was not happy about it… he pulled his film from the Oscars to punish Sweden.”
Normally, you might call this a tragedy, given that Autumn Sonata was Bergman’s last film made for theatrical exhibition. (His subsequent work was produced for television, even if some of it ended up being screened in cinema halls.) But then, it’s hard to begrudge Get Out Your Handkerchiefs its Oscar win. It’s so unique, so unclassifiable, so shocking in its treatment of relationships and yet so oddly, endearingly relatable (if you believe that attraction cannot really be “explained”). It’s among the lightest “heavy movies” I’ve seen, in the sense that rarely do films treat such ten-ton subjects with such disarming casualness.
And rarely have I seen an “art-house movie” set up its premise with such directness, within the first 10 minutes, which are set in and around a modest-looking restaurant. Raoul (Gérard Depardieu) is dining with his wife, Solange (Carole Laure). Looking at her peck at the food, he decides he’s had it. He says, “I want to understand.” “Understand what?” “Why you’re never hungry, for anything!” It’s not just the food. It’s life. He loves her deeply but he knows she’s unhappy, perhaps even depressed. She’s been this way for a while. He thinks it’s because she’s sick of him. He hits on a solution. “You know what’s wrong? You need another guy!”
Raoul knows that the man seated alone, nearby, has been eyeing Solange. He refers to this man and asks Solange, “The guy with glasses, you dig him?” She says he’s very ordinary. Raoul says, “You don’t have to marry him. But just for some kicks… he seems decent, right? I just want you to be happy, see? I’m not on an ego trip. There’s nothing I wouldn’t give you. If you want to sleep with a guy, go on, he’s all yours.” She refuses. He insists. “Come on Solange, don’t be negative. Let’s try to be modern.” So he goes to the man, whose name is Stéphane (Patrick Dewaere). At first, naturally, Stéphane is outraged by the proposition. When he realises Raoul is serious, he agrees. Raoul says, “Just bring back her smile. With me, she’s lost it. If you get her to smile, you’ll be my pal.”
At the heart of this exchange is a man who thinks he knows what’s best for his wife, a man who enlists another man to help him with this “project” of making his wife smile again, a man who thinks he’s “modern” enough to endure a ménage à trois. Another part of the set-up is this other man agreeing to be part of the experiment. But as this stretch unfolded, I kept thinking about Solange — and Blier appears to have anticipated this thought. He has Raoul step out on the street for a minute, hail a passer-by — a middle-aged woman — and tell her what he’s just done. Afterwards, he takes her to Solange, who’s now sitting with Stéphane. The woman asks what none of these men have bothered to ask: “May we know what the principal party thinks?”
In a regular film, we’d find out why Solange has stopped smiling, and how the ménage à trois arrangement plays out. (We may wonder: “Will she continue to be with Raoul or will her affections shift to the Mozart-mad Stéphane?”) But Blier stands back from this scenario, almost as though he knows just what we know, and that he sees just what we see. This is the genius of the film. It doesn’t get into the interiority of the characters. It doesn’t “explain”. It just shows the externally visible actions of these people, and then tells us: Mull over it. Make of it what you will!
This is very unusual for a subject of this kind. There are other art-house films, of course, that don’t “explain” everything. But even if we are frustrated with the characters’ actions, we see a bit of where they are coming from. Take François Truffaut’s deeply affecting historical drama, The Story of Adèle H. We want to weep with frustration at the heroine’s obsession with this man who clearly doesn’t care for her, but we also understand that this is what “obsession” is. It’s not “logical”. But how do we take Solange’s calm acceptance of Raoul’s proposal, when we don’t know what’s going on inside her at all?
Arion Berger wrote in the Criterion website: “The story unfolds with the implacable and often hilarious logic of a dream, accepting each unreasonable emotion, each fantastic action as perfectly understandable in the chaotic world of contemporary love.” Pauline Kael summed it up even better. In a characteristically insightful piece, about Blier’s work, she said, “And sex between men and women is insanely mixed up with men’s infantile longings and women’s maternal passions. Sexually, life is a Keystone comedy, and completely amoral — we have no control over who or what excites us.”
Indeed. Midway through the movie, which in many ways is a “comedy” or even a farce, Solange begins to laugh, thanks to a teenage boy who first says he likes her better than he likes his mother, and later looks up her nightie. She finds with this boy what two grown men couldn’t give her. I cannot begin to imagine what today’s woke audience will make of all this, and even back then, I can begin to imagine how shocked (or grossed-out) the general audiences were. But at least with Bertrand Blier’s motives, there’s no mystery. In a 1979 interview, he called Solange the perfect symbol of femininity, the ideal, because no one understands her. He labelled it the masculine point of view: the inability to understand a woman.
At least about one thing, he may be right. Then, as now, this may well be a “masculine” point of view, and Blier might be considered yet another of those lionised male artistes whose art and attitudes are problematic to females. I am reminded of the passage in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, where a woman wants “to die of love in [her rapist’s] arms. The stranger disappears, but she wants to find him. “She would say to anyone who would listen to her: ‘If you ever hear of a big, strong fellow who raped a poor black girl from the street on Drowned Men’s Jetty, one October fifteenth at about half-past eleven at night, tell him where he can fine me’.”
Revisiting art does that, sometimes. It makes you realise that certain things, even if they’re not wrong (these are works of imagination, after all), can give rise to debates about the rightness of it all. To me, the rightness in Get Out Your Handkerchiefs comes not from who Solange is (or why she is the way she is), but what she does. Two men sought to “fix” her. She chose a boy. This, to me, is her statement: If men are so childish (taking off from Kael’s word, “infantile”), I might as well be with a child.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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