Movies 2005: "Not My Blood!"

Three Dancing Slaves (a.k.a. Le Clan)

Review by John Demetry

Part III: To BrotherLove

Gael Morel: Full-Speed Auteur

"Hiphop is about tolerance!" Stephane Rideau announces in Gael Morel's 1996 Full Speed. In that film - still daring - Morel gauges individual's struggle to define masculinity - while maintaining ethics and hope in a multiculti, ambisexual (political!) world - through pop culture. Contrary to critical response (repeated in reviews of Morel's new Three Dancing Slaves), Morel does not borrow the good will attached to the Morel-starring Andre Techine-directed Wild Reeds (a masterpiece in contention for best film of the 1990s). Morel casts his Wild Reeds co-stars Rideau and Elodie Bouchez in Full Speed as contemporary pop icons - whose significance Wild Reeds defined. Recontextualizing that iconography within a delirious gay-erotic mise-en-scene (the film opens with a fellatio-frisson blood-brothers ritual), Morel brings hiphop's full-speed license - and promise of tolerance - to the big screen. Through Bouchez's uncanny sympathy and Rideau's buffed and shirtless (with Brando's eyes) sensitivity in Full Speed, Morel identifies a male delicacy often unaddressed in social customs and pop culture: Rideau bleeds to death.

Part 2: Christophe: . . . from winter to spring. . .

No wonder Morel stages Rideau's "resurrection" as Christophe in Part 2 of Three Dancing Slaves as ritual ceremony. Morel structures the 90-minute narrative of Three Dancing Slaves (a.k.a. Le Clan) in three parts. Each section is titled after one of the three brothers who constitute the focus of the film, as well as identifying the appropriate season of the story's year. This second chapter is titled: "Christophe: . . . from winter to spring. . ." While Part 1 is distinguished by the absence of Christophe (and the brothers' late mother), his return from jail in Part 2 is announced by a torch entering the frame. The brothers' gang of muscular male friends celebrates the return of their leader (middle-brother Marc - played by Nicholas Cazale - asks Christophe to assist him in an act of vengeance as if he were addressing The Godfather). The clan drink and dance around a campfire (typifying the intensity of the - HOT!!! - rock-n-cock montages of male behavior), highlighted by the camaraderie of Christophe and Hicham (Salim Kechoiuche), the brothers' friend of Northern African decent.

Revelry punctuates revealing interactions, gauging the self-consciousness - the loss of innocence - signaled by the return of Christophe. Hicham, sensing the shyness of youngest brother Olivier (Thomas Dumerchez), follows him when he steals away from the group and tenderly sticks his fingers in Olivier's throat to help him vomit. Hicham answers Marc's concerns that Christophe has changed: "We all change." Marc counters: "You can't understand. It's a brother thing." Morel's curving camera move attests to the sensual and racial dynamic. Morel defines the "brothers" by the style of their movement: Christophe/Rideau walks tall, his movements proud and deliberate (even when his temper strikes); Marc/Cazale darts in over-emphatic, self-consciously sexy flashes; Olivier/Dumerchez treads lightly - somewhat gawkily with his long arms - emanating an inviting warmth; outsider Hicham/Kechoiuche dances gracefully, seductively (firing the most swoonderful wink in movie history).

Morel begins a shot of a bonfire revelation with a tight framing of Olivier cuddled up under the arm of Christophe who says, "It's good to have my little pink canary back." As the camera pulls back to reveal Marc and other buddies sitting with them, Marc cautions Christophe: "Don't say that too loud." The camera closes back in to frame the three brothers as Marc, whose affinity for horses (or rodeo?) is established in Part 1, relates the story of Christophe's (sexually provocative) childhood nickname: "Horseface." It originates at his traumatic birth: "He didn't want to come out." Marc's analysis of the effects on the shape of Christophe's head - elongated like a horse's - of the horseshoe-shaped forceps provides entrance to the film. Morel evinces a sculptural attention (as in this shot's lighting by fireside and moving camera) to physiognomy - difference and desire (the narrative and characterizations seem developed from the actors' bodies, a sculpture defined by the stone). The shot ends with youngest brother Olivier pining - "This is like a dream" - as Christophe ("Horseface") nibbles at his little pink canary's ear.

The piano-to-guitar-charge music score synchs with the film's thrilling symbolic flights (teasing out the source of tender emotionalism and culturally-specific vitality). Morel revels in the film's working-class, male-dominated milieu. He hones in on an unrecognized - frustrated - spiritual vibrancy. Doing so, Morel develops a challenging and ecstatic form of cinematic visual representation and movie narrative. Perhaps no "mainstream" filmmaker has scrutinized social (economic, racial, national) circumstances - and consequent rituals - in thrall to the dynamics of male behavior with such idiosyncratic narrative, visual, and symbolic daring since John Ford (Hollywood's Visconti). (Though, note, the visceral compositions, editing, and narrative of Morel do not equal the supremely perfected technique of Ford and Visconti.) Basking in the erotic effrontery Ford could not (quite) risk - that's what makes Three Dancing Slaves new - Morel still shares Ford's outsider melancholia and hope.

Melancholia and hope - the twin towers of desire - constitute the (sensuously) palpable emotions evinced by Morel's most disputed/dismissed image. After the party celebrating Christophe's return, Morel presents an image of the three brothers - nude - asleep together in bed. The shot is not a tableau. Morel's camera glides along their intertwined bodies. He begins with Marc/Cazale's penis, then seeks out Christophe/Rideau in the center of the embrace. Continuing the single sensuous movement, Morel runs the camera down the body of Olivier/Demerchez, following his foot off the bed to reveal the Father (played by Bruno Lochet) facing his sons. The camera climbs to his half-open eyes (with long, light eye-lashes barely touching). The explicit eroticism of the shot - the transcendence of taboo - encapsulates the deepest needs signified by the brothers' relationship. It's all there, all felt in the physical manifestation of spiritual desire: the mystery of familial bonds, the loss of the mother in the family, the hope attached to Christophe's return, the lack of a father figure to imaginatively reconstruct this broken family of men; the fallen innocence and consequent shame, the possibility of experience and transformation. The shot is instigated by the affectionate touch of Hicham - the outsider - to Christophe's arm in the previous shot, as they preside over the water-play of their gang. The desire symbolized by the film's family dynamic is the
source of the social phenomenon it lyrically scrutinizes. Morel resolves the shot - and dramatizes the hope - by cutting from the Father to a graphic match of Olivier - also framed in side-view - as he begins to shave. His brothers bust through the door, teasing the "little pink canary" for growing up and dousing him with shaving cream (they make jokes about ejaculation). As a new erotic zenith in film history, Three Dancing Slaves makes the move from brother love to BrotherLove. To visualize the beginning of this process, Morel presents Hicham and Olivier practicing the Brazillian slave dance - capoeira - in sensitive harmony, a beauty heightened by the on-high composition representing the p.o.v. of Marc. In response to the spectacle, Marc looks up to the sky and his nose bleeds - and he swoons.

"I have a secret," Marc confesses to older-brother Christophe, as they search for Olivier who runs away after his older brothers fight (a sign of the failure of Christophe's return to heal the family's ruptures). Marc relays the story of his last goodbye to their mother: "I told her softly, 'Mum, we love you.'" And in telling of her anguish, he reveals his own (Morel isolates his voice by removing the sound of rushing water). After she suddenly awoke from her coma in response to Marc's admission: "She grabbed my arm. She held me so tight. It was as if she wanted to speak. She couldn't because she was choking. She went like this. . ." Cazele lets loose the pain of drug-abusing, macho-posing, narcissistic Marc - his facial features are
the most exquisitely feminine of the three - in imitation of the mother's moans: recognizing in his mother's stifled expression his own unexpressed anxiety. He exits the frame in impotent anger at the pain exposed, the sound of the water rushing back into the soundtrack, and re-enters to beat his fists against the car and fall into his brother's arms. Although sustaining a strict narrative structure, Morel presents each moment as emotional, erotic aria - these faces, these bodies sing! Some critics mistake this for porn - eroticism unfettered by conventional plot (or hegemonic sexuality). If so, it's porn by way of William-Faulkner social insight and aesthetic ecstacy; in other words: NOT PORN. (As critic Armond White notes: Morel's character in Wild Reeds writes a paper on Absalom, Absalom!).

The climactic moments of Part 2 fully convey the disappointed hope the brothers experience in Christophe's return: Christophe's capitulation, Marc's self-mutilation, Olivier's solitariness. Morel symbolizes this schism through an ameliorating homage. Through the composition of a car's rear-view mirror, Morel references the key image of desire and difference from the
era's defining work: Steven Spielberg's A.I. - Artificial Intelligence. Morel utilizes Rideau's significance to simultaneously engender hope and to make particularly painful the social containment - prison, work, male roles - of his special sensitivity (still on view as he attends to the wounds of Marc - shot as from the p.o.v. of a mirror - after they fight). Christophe - "Prison taught me control" - gives up the ways of his wild youth only to succumb to work-place desensitizing. Morel dramatizes his deliberations: on lunch break, in his car after a humbling shot of the landscape, and as he opportunistically volunteers for a promotion at a meat factory. There, Morel cuts the decision with a shot of his passed-over senior colleague's salt-worn hand ("It's like he doesn't have hands anymore," as cynically explained/misinterpreted by the co-worker ironically nicknamed "The Professor"). The body suffers for displaced feeling. That's the nature of exploitation (note that the meat factory uniforms - white - leave bodies indistinguishable). Morel uses symbols of contemporary resonance - the man's salt-bloodied hands, Rideau's significance, the mother/son moan, the reflection from A.I., the taboo-transcending mise-en-scene - to locate and liberate the spectator's own (exploited)
spiritual essence.

Welcome to Movies 2005!

Part 1: Marc: Early in the week, summer. . .

"I want Christophe here with things like they were before," Olivier prays in his bedroom before the shrine devoted to the memory of his mother (centered by an urn carrying her ashes). He is overheard by Marc, who acts as the focus of Part 1, titled: "Marc: Early in the week, summer. . ." Olivier remains here on the fringes - his difference defined when he helps his
father on a horse farm, left out of the work by the other boys. Meanwhile, Marc gallivants with his weight-lifting, wrestling, beer-drinking, circle-jerk buddies. Olivier's overheard
confession dramatizes the brothers' distance and their entwined fates - just as does Olivier's letter to Christophe in jail - "Everyday is the same. . . same boring routine" - read on the soundtrack while Marc meanders through the house (Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now and "precious bodily fluids" in Dr. Strangelove embroidered in the abstract soundscape). Thus defining the desire at the heart of the social vision of Three Dancing Slaves, Morel gauges the degree to which it fails to be addressed in the explosively erotic treatment of the film's male cast. Three Dancing Slaves is like a dream. Morel's visionary proposition on social possibility hinges on his visualization of untapped, misdirected male sensitivity. He transforms it into spectacle.

Marc and Olivier, themselves, attempt this radical transformation by performing a ritual. "She wanted us to scatter her ashes . . . the sea between France and Algeria. Islam doesn't allow cremation. That made her happy. She said she was a rebel until the end," Marc says of their mother as Morel's camera scans the river into which they will scatter her ashes. Morel shoots the sequence with momentous power: shifting the focus from the white caps of the nighttime water to the urn above it, following the sweep of the hand releasing the ashes. Then he tilts the camera from a view of that water (rushing to the sea) to an overhead shot of the brothers sitting on the bridge, where Marc instructs: "This will be our secret" (the secret he will later confess to Christophe). Later that night, in guilt over their secret, Olivier has a nightmare and reflexively reaches out his arm to Marc.

The desire signified by that unconscious gesture permeates Three Dancing Slaves. Marc, after taking ecstacy, asks his pet dog: "You're not a dog. What are you inside?" Confronting that mystery reveals the nature of Morel's ecstatic approach, just as Marc's query leads him to a particular intimacy with his dog (they take a bath together). That intimacy bears
emotionally on the section's climax: an act of euthanasia connected to his torment over his mother, it reveals Marc's sense of existential impotence. "What are you inside?" Morel challenges the movie spectator in his presentation of male behavior in Three Dancing Slaves: working out at the gym, wrestling, drinking beer on the waterfront, an excursion to Zora's! It is the question Olivier encounters as he watches Hicham practice capoeira: isolating the essence of both those who desire and those desired. Hicham stands unclothed with penis cupped in hand as he watches Marc have sex with - and then get rebuffed - by Zora (Kheireddine Defdaf), a boy in girl's lingerie. Then, Hicham propositions Zora by allowing Zora to remove the restrictive panties, revealing Zora's penis. As Hicham lowers himself on top of Zora, Morel's camera closes in on a boy watching.

"What are you inside?" that's the challenge issued by every significant work of Movies 2005. Morel's approach to that essential query ranks among the most challenging, the most
aesthetically advanced - and surely the most pleasurable.

Part 3: Olivier: A weekend in early autumn. . .

Morel's cinema taps into - exalts! - a shared sensual memory of male interaction. Through the cinematic isolation of that phenomenon, Morel radically identifies a wild space for personal re-invention and for social/political re-imagining. "Reaching out" (pace Kate Bush) so far beyond the confines of conventional identity politics, Morel's revelation can only be recognized as the definition of "spiritual."

"This is not a love letter": so begins Hicham's narration in Part 3 (titled: "Olivier: A weekend in early autumn. . ."). The Faulkner-like device of the not-a-love-letter narration verifies Morel's genius. Establishing the film's point of view as that of outsider Hicham, Morel distinguishes the points of "difference" that map out the three brothers' (and the spectator's) "wild
space." Consequently, every moment in Part 3 makes intensely palpable Hicham and Olivier's transformations: 1) the sensual memory of male interaction, 2) the extension of that shared experience into romantic/sexual love, 3) the expansion of that love - and consequent heartbreak - into each character's distinct identity, suggesting new social possibility.

"Want me to shave your ass?" Hicham proposes to Olivier as a form of foreplay. This come-on makes particular - yet recognizable - the intimacy shared by Olivier and Hicham - literalizing Morel's blood-brothers trope. This, in contrast to the isolated narcissism of Marc, whose father catches him trimming his pubes in front of a mirror (also linked to the head-shaving that opens the film, Olivier's shaving as sign of maturity, and Olivier walking in on Christophe - now distanced - shaving after receiving a promotion). In another dramatization of their intimacy Hicham and Olivier flirtatiously name the body parts they would eat if they were ever stranded. In doing so, they (playfully, erotically) recognize physical attraction and intimacy as spiritual sustenance. In the narration, Hicham expresses his longing for Olivier: "Nothing lasts except for the memory of your face." Through that longing - specified in the "memory of your face" - is bourne Olivier and Hicham's separate paths of compassion. Evincing that compassion: Olivier's sacrifice to take care of Marc; Hicham's understanding of the three brothers and new understanding of the racially stratified gay community into which he ventures. Asked to identify Olivier in a photograph, Hicham reveals in the letter his response: "I told him, 'My brother.'" Narrated with Hicham's expression of longing, the shot of Hicham and Olivier engaged in capoeira synchs with the look of encouragement Olivier offers Marc during his physiotherapy (a brotherly extension of Christophe's girlfriend's expression of sympathy in one of the film's many primal dining-table exchanges). Through romantic heartbreak, Hicham and Olivier persevere through and share an essential - primal - heartbreak, experiencing its rebirth as compassion.

Concluding his letter, Hicham bridges the gap, from desire to sexual intimacy to compassion to imaginative engagement: "I know you inside out. I know you and your brothers. I can tell your tale." It is the essence of heartbreak. Hicham tells the tale of anyone reading this (Love) "Letter From New York."

from the top:

all from LE CLAN aka Three Dancing Slaves aka Brüderliebe  (Pro-Fun Media)