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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (18/8/2023)

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

(Review of Variety [1983]; and Lie With Me)


VARIETY.


In her outstanding 2009 documentary, Blank City, Celine Danhier captured the mood in New York on the cusp of the No Wave revolution that would transform the downtown art scene. In addition to punk, this avant-garde eruption also (re)launched indie cinema. In the vanguard was Bette Gordon, who followed shorts like Empty Suitcases (1980) and Anybody's Woman (1981) with Variety (1983), a debut feature that sought to legitimise female desire on screen by challenging the hegemony of the male gaze. Such is the significance of this daring revisionist noir that it has been released in UK cinemas to mark its 40th anniversary.


Struggling to find a job to pay the bills, Christine (Sandy McLeod), an aspiring writer from Michigan, follows up a tip from her friend, Nan (Nan Goldin), and finds herself selling tickets at the Variety porn cinema on 48th Street, near Times Square. Asking José (Luis Guzmán), the front of house barker to cover her for a break, Christine becomes intrigued by the sounds emanating from the auditorium and wanders up to the projection booth to take a peek. Back in the lobby, she spills a cup of Coke and is surprised when Louie Tancredi (Richard M. Davidson) buys her another before going back to his seat.


Journalist Mark (Will Patton) meets Christine at a diner and is telling her about mob and union activity at the Fulton Fish Market when she breaks the news about her job. Considering she's only been there a day, the theatre and its sadsack clientele have obviously made an impact. When she suddenly describes a scene along with some colourful dialogue, Mark is discomfited and makes his excuses to leave.


Meeting with Nan in the bar where she works, Christine chats to a woman about her being busted by cops posing as clients in a champagne club. She tells Christine that the money is good and even better for acting in pornos, but her companion warns about getting into situations in which men take control in recalling a stage dancer who reached the end of her tether one night and pulled off her wig to reveal a bald head.


Louie asks Christine for a drink when he sees her in the box office, but she turns him down. Returning to her apartment, she listens to her phone messages. The landlord informs her that the rent cheque has bounced, while Mark cancels another date. She calls her mother about her matchmaking efforts and listens with a mix of distaste and curiosity to a lurid message from a pest caller (Spalding Gray).


Having flipped through a porn magazine in the shop opposite Variety, Christine finds Louie waiting for her. He invites her to a New York Yankees game and she decides to go. In the backseat of his car, he asks if she ever watches any of the movies and whether they turn her on. She evades a direct answer and is enjoying the night when Louie suddenly announces that he has to leave. Christine follows in a taxi and sees him meet up with a man outside a restaurant and drive down to the waterfront. Keeping her distance, she peers through the barrier at the ferry terminal before beating a retreat.


Following her next shift, Christine wanders round the fish market. She meets Mark, who updates her on his graft story and she wonders whether Louie's name is on the list of mobsters he had printed out. Suddenly, Christine starts describing a situation in which a woman assumes control over a man who had grabbed her hair and tried to force her to fellate him. Mark is appalled and asks why she is talking this way and she seems nonplussed by his response.


Trying to unwind while listening to a relaxation tape, Christine can't stop thinking about the handshakes she saw Louie giving and develops all sorts of theories about the kinds of deals he might have been finalising. She jumps up from the couch and we see her exercising strenuously in a gym before going for a swim. When she meets Mark in a seedy backroom bar, he seethes over a pinball table while Christine regales him with a graphic description of a woman cavorting with a snake and a tiger in order to show a male admirer that she is in charge of her own sexual destiny.


Her speech contrasts with José's spiel outside the Variety, as he encourages punters to come inside and have the fun time their wives had denied them the night before. But Christine seems to be spending less time in the ticket booth, as she is on Louie watch again. He takes a train to Asbury Park and she follows him to a motel and an amusement arcade, where she rides a merry-go-round as he engages in furtive discussions. Checking into the next door room, she overhears Louie negotiating and sneaks into his room. She rifles through a notebook and steals a porn mag, which she clutches as she flops back on her bed in relief at making a narrow escape.


Christine still has the magazine when she bolts out of the box office to make a call from a pay phone. There's no reply and she returns to the cinema to watch the film playing on the screen and imagine a scenario of her own with Louie. Back home, she listens to messages from her mother, Mark, and Nan while checking how she looks in the mirror in black lingerie. She calls at the cinema to ask José if he's seen Louie and he jokes that she should forget old men in suits and go on a dancing date with him. Unimpressed, she leaves in a huff and barges past a man who tries to chat her up at the bookstore.


While a group of women sit around in a bar discussing taking the initiative in relationships, Christine waits at home in a dress and full make-up for Louie to phone. The once bright and airy room now feels scuzzy under the neon glow. She plays the Little Anthony and The Imperials version of Neil Sedaka's `The Diary' before leaving a message at his office and mooching round impatiently.


When he returns the call, she lists the places she's seen him, while reassuring him that she isn't a cop and doesn't want his money. She

suggests they meet at the corner of Fulton and South Street. But there's no sign of anyone, as the film ends on a static shot of wet tarmac beneath the streetlights. Some felt cheated of a denouement when the film was originally released. But, as Gordon has since explained, she wanted to show that the empty space between female desire and gratification (which is the nub of the film - what Amy Taubin has since called `a cinematic forbidden zone') is full of possibilities that can be left to the viewer's imagination.


Although it was feted as `a feminist Vertigo' (because Gordon worked on premise that her Kim Novak would pursue her James Stewart), for every Alfred Hitchcock allusion in this table-turning treatise on gender assumptions and genre conventions, voyeurism and pornography there's an hommage to Samuel Fuller and Jules Dassin, whose noirish tales of the urban jungle inform both the atmospheric visuals and the brooding undercurrent of menace. There's also a whiff of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) about the way in which Christine follows Louie around the Five Boroughs without ever being quite sure what she's latched on to, if anything.


Perhaps Gordon had also remembered that Diahnne Abbott (who would marry Robert De Niro) had occupied a similar concession kiosk in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), which was scripted by Paul Schrader who went on to direct another diatribe on the porn industry, Hardcore (1979). By placing Christine in a glass cage, Gordon makes her visible while also affording her a window on the world and it's noticeable in a film about looking how many shots involve window panes and mirrors, as well as window frames and doorways. But don't overlook Mike Carton's sound mix, however, as it's crucial to making the city seem so alive.


In addition to borrowing from Michelangelo Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962) for the street corner non-climax and the references to Otto Preminger's Laura (1944) and Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950) via the posters for the sexploitation duo of Heiko Hagermann's Laura's Desires (1977) and Fred J. Lincoln and Sharon Mitchell's A Place Beyond Shame (1980), Gordon also appears to have been inspired by Laura Mulvey's seminal 1975 essay, `Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'. And, just maybe, there's a nod in the direction of Dorothy Arzner's inter-war paeans to American working girls and also to Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) in the sequence in which Christine eats lunch while listening to her humdrum answerphone messages.


It's never made clear how much the fare screening at Variety opens new facets of Christine's personality. But the sequences in which she taunts the chauvinistic Mark with deadpanly vivid descriptions of awakening female sexuality are both amusingly satirical and boldly shocking in asserting the right of women to dismiss the objectification of the male gaze and reject passivity in asserting their own desires and fantasies. Anyone familiar with the combustibly subversive writing of Kathy Acker will recognise recurring themes here, although their digressionary nature recalls the early films of Jean-Luc Godard. Moreover, there are moments when the (perhaps semi-improvised) dialogue rambles, most notably during the two barroom discussions at Tin Pan Alley.


Roving the Downtown area before it underwent gentrification, Tom DiCillo and John Foster's grainy 16mm images capture a city on its uppers, as well as a little piece of socio-civic history. However, they also show Christine invading traditionally male spaces and refusing to seem out of place. DiCillo would go on to become a fine film-maker in his own right, while composer John Lurie would be key part of Jim Jarmusch's ensemble. Production assistant Christine Vachon would also become a driving force in New Queer Cinema, while Nan Goldin would add to her reputation as a photographer with her activism, as Laura Poitras revealed in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which would make part of a magnificent double bill for those wishing to delve further into Variety's aesthetic politics with Nina Menkes's cine-essay, Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (both 2022).


Will Patton and Luis Guzmán would, of course, become familiar faces in Hollywood movies, although Richard M. Davidson (who was chosen for his resemblance to Michel Piccoli) proved less prolific. Sandy McLeod would also only act in a few more films before finding her niche behind the camera. Initially, she worked on the design side for Jonathan Demme and John Sayles before turning director on the Oscar-nominated short, Asylum (2003), and the 2013 documentary feature, Seeds of Time. As for Gordon, she continued to combine directing the likes of Handsome Harry (2009) and The Drowning (2016) with teaching. She has never really had the credit she deserves for her trenchant insights into sexuality, power, and violence, and it's to be hoped that the reissue of this flawed, but fiercely radical and provocatively dissident work will remind cinemagoers in the #MeToo era of her pioneering bid to `reverse the look'.


LIE WITH ME.


Quite some time has passed since Olivier Peyon directed Bernadette Lafont in his debut outing, Les Petites vacances (2006). Since this grandparental drama received a release on disc in the UK, Peyon has made two more fictional films - Une Vie ailleurs (2017) and Tokyo Shaking (2021) - and the documentaries, Comment j'ai détesté les maths (2013) and Latifa: A Fighting Heart (2017). Adapted from an autobiographical novel by Philippe Besson (that was translated into English by actress Molly Ringwald), Peyon's fourth feature, Lie With Me, is a prodigal saga that explores small-town homophobia and the perils of (self-)deception.


Invited to give a talk for the bicentenary of the Baussony distillery in his home town in the Charente, Paris-based author Stéphane Belcourt (Guillaume de Tonquédec) feels anxious about his reception, as he has been away for 35 years. As he's welcomed by Gaëlle Flamand (Guilaine Londez), he is particularly nervous about meeting his first love, Thomas, whom he has fictionalised in many guises since he abruptly broke off their relationship when they were teenagers.


Driving through the countryside, Stéphane thinks back to 1984 when he (Jérémy Gillet) had fallen for farmer's son Thomas Andrieu (Julien De Saint Jean) at school. They had made out for the first time in an empty gymnasium and Stéphane had been surprised by the brusqueness of the encounter, as Thomas dressed and bolted while he remained naked on a landing mat.


Pressured by his publisher for a new book, Stéphane is embarrassed by the faux memoir he has written for the occasion to publicise the distillery run by Monsieur Dejean (Pierre-Alain Chapuis), who gauchely announces that he wasn't sure that hiring a gay writer was good for the company's image. But he barely notices the slight, as he has recognised Thomas's old motorbike and is taken aback when its owner turns out to be his son, Lucas (Victor Belmondo).


En route to giving a reading at the local bookshop, Stéphane recalls how Thomas used to ignore him at school and make a great show of taking girls for rides on the back of his bike. He is part-way through the chosen passage when Lucas enters the shop and Stéphane notes the similarity between the way he and his father shoot disapproving looks. As he signs some books for the party of American tourists that Lucas is guiding, he breaks the news that Thomas had died the previous year.


Recalling a magical afternoon at a hidden quarry pool where he had taught Thomas to take his time during love-making, Stéphane joins Lucas on a tour of the Baussony cellars. He splutters over a sip of brandy, as he doesn't usually drink, and feels discomfited when Lucas asks if he makes up his stories or draws on his own experiences. Bluffing that he simply disregards his mother's order to stop fibbing, Stéphane senses that Lucas knows about his romance with Thomas and somehow blames him for the fact that his marriage had not been happy after he had quit Charente for Spain.


When Lucas whisks him off to the pool, Stéphane is struck by the blueness of the water. But he remains on his guard when Lucas asks what his father was like as a youth and questions how well they had known each other. He explains about his parents being forced to marry and how his mother had failed to settle and returned to Galicia. However, Stéphane is aware that Lucas is leaking information in order to elicit a response and maintains that he and Thomas barely knew each other.


Settling to write a speech after remembering Thomas's fury when he had cycled out to the farm to see him, Stéphane suddenly has the inspiration for his next book. Typing furiously, reflects on the afternoons they had spent in his bedroom dancing and having sex. He recalls the panic in Thomas's eyes when his mother had come home early when they were teasing each other about being in love. Hiding behind the curtains, Thomas had lamented that he was stuck in Cognac as an only son and had an obligation to be bisexual because he would one day need to produce an heir. Envious of Stéphane for being gay and free to leave, he slumps in a corner and curses his fate.


That evening, Stéphane is invited to dinner with the Dejeans and makes his excuses to eavesdrop on a cocktail seminar that Lucas is attending. He is introduced as a famous author and makes the Americans laugh with an anecdote about getting drunk on pastis in Los Angeles. However, the mood turns when he lets slip that he seduced the male bartender and he sidles away.


Bumping into Dejean in the bathroom, Stéphane is surprised to learn that Lucas is familiar his writing and had suggested him as a guest speaker. When he confronts him, however, Lucas becomes aggressive in front of the Americans and he chases after Stéphane to ask what he had meant to his father, as the only time he had ever smiled was when he was on the television. He also collected the books, even though he was not a reader. Eventually, Lucas read them himself while searching for clues about his father's life and demands to know why so many of Stéphane's protagonists are called Thomas.


Hitching a lift back into town in Stéphane's car, Lucas asks why he has returned to a place he hates so much. He accuses him of becoming stale and their argument becomes so heated that Gaëlle has to intervene. Back in his room, Stéphane deletes the chapter he had written, as he realises he can't keep recycling his relationship with Thomas. Feeling peckish, he wanders into the bar and finds Gaëlle. She brushes aside his apology, as she knows what it's like not to fit in. When he confides that he had returned to lay some ghosts, she breaks the news that Thomas had hanged himself and that she and Lucas had been the only mourners at his funeral.


Distraught, Stéphane thinks back to the last time they had been together. Thomas was about to leave to help an uncle in Spain with his harvest and he had allowed Stéphane to take some pictures with his new camera. They had made a date to meet at the gym, but Thomas had not returned and Stéphane had left soon afterwards. On hearing of his lover's suicide, Stéphane runs to the gym and sits on the steps beside the drained pool and his teenage self appears beside him.


Next morning, Stéphane tells Lucas the truth and receives a half smile in return. When he goes missing before his speech, Lucas finds him at his father's grave and explains how he had sussed their relationship through Stéphane's books. Touched that he had respected Thomas's wish to keep away from the farm, Lucas takes him to meet his grandmother (Marilou Gallais), who had informed him down the phone decades earlier about Thomas's decision to remain in Spain.


Lucas also show Stéphane his father's old room and returns the photo that he had mailed back in 1984. He reveals that Thomas had been seeing a man in Brest and had taken his life after being given an ultimatum to go public about the relationship. Admitting it saddens him that Thomas had died a coward, Lucas hands Stéphane a letter that had gone unposted 35 years earlier. Sitting on the bed, he opens it and shakes his head with a sad smile.


During his speech, Stéphane admits to being glad he has returned to a place where he didn't belong. But he doesn't talk about the distillery. Instead, he talks about writing with a special someone in mind. He also pities Thomas for feeling the need to keep his true self hidden. However, he also suggests that he trusted enough in the son he loved to leave the clues that he could piece together. Lucas smiles in gratitude that he is now able to make peace with his father's memory.


They hug the next morning and Lucas gives Stéphane permission to use the episode for his next novel. As he waves goodbye, he hears Thomas reading the letter in which he urges him to become a writer and celebrate the uniqueness that had attracted him. He concludes by saying that he doesn't have it in him to change, but that he loves him and will never be this happy again.


Far more poignant than anything that had gone before, these concluding speeches give this sincere, if anticipatable drama an emotionality that will resonate with anyone who retains indelible memories of a loved one who has gone before. Each teeters on the verge of sentimentality, but they're well delivered by Guillaume de Tonquédec and Julien De Saint Jean and adroitly contrasted by Peyon staging them in a candlelit present and a sun-dappled yesterday without any of the awkward pathos evident in the nocturnal shot of the young and old Stéphanes sitting alone together with their respective broken hearts.


Containing echoes of François Ozon's sweltering Summer of 85 (2020), amongst others, Peyon's script is too eager to get to the flashbacks to set the scene properly. Consequently, it takes a while to fathom why Stéphane has returned and how he has ended a period of writer's block with the fact-based short story that has been specially published by Baussony. Similarly, not enough is made of his celebrity to justify the fuss being made by the local media and civic dignitaries. Even the coincidence of Lucas being there with a party of tourists when he suggested inviting Stéphane feels cumbersome. Nevertheless, editor Damien Maestraggi slips smoothly between timeframes, abetted by Clémence Ney's deft production design and Oriol Nogues. Whoever came up with 80s Stéphane's haircut also merits mention.


Thanks to the meticulous use of light and colour, Martin Rit's photography reinforces the shifting mood so effectively that Bravinson Thylacine's melodic score need sometimes not have been so emphatic. But Peyon - who had been advised by Besson by giving him a free hand in reworking his text that `the greatest betrayals make the best adaptations' - makes his points about identity, storytelling, conditional love, nostalgia, and grief in an interweaving manner that intrigues without being particularly innovative.



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