Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Cremer, Simone Signoret, Edwige Feuillère
Emerging from a burning truck a mere fifteen minutes into the film, Claire radiates all of the fortified glory of an untouchable femme fatale. She marches into the car of an onlooking pair of male acquaintances with nary a moment’s consideration, quickly taking a shine to Louis (Cremer), the more masculine of the two. Their subsequent visit to a hotel instigates problems when Louis witnesses his friend murdered by two hired mob members, drawing them both into a desperate chase to evade the chasing silencers.
It takes all of this to first occur before we get a sense of Claire’s former existence, the pouting bursts of disapproval from a fur-clad Madame Bastier-Wagener (Feuillère) calling for her staff to scour the land for her niece, and placing a sizeable reward for her capture. The remaining information is relayed to us throughout the film, a glorified cameo by the Oscar-winning Simone Signoret as a circus Madame revealing the true, fiscally-motivated reasons for Claire’s Aunt wanting her kept behind closed doors.
Her immediate escape from the motor accident’s threat of fatality reads like an endorsement from the big bad world; this woman has survived for reasons beyond her confined, bubble-wrap setting. It’s an observation that’s only reinforced in her following skirmishes with the law, underground cartel, and the wrath of a ruthless Aunt. As Claire is forced to confront a world outside of what she is accustomed to, she does so with an amalgam of bemusement, acceptance, and exhilaration. The reality, of course, is that Charlotte Rampling’s Claire is just looking for affirmation of her own sexuality, control of her life in whatever form. Her relationship with Louis begins with a decidedly unhealthy desperation surrounding it; since Claire is looking to grasp her newfound freedom and use anyone she can to preserve it.
It would be somewhat of a stretch to label Flesh as a revenge movie, but it does convect a vaguely feminist stance on Claire’s plight as a socially-starved wildflower. Every other major character in the film is punished to some degree, either as a result of sketchy morals or a failure to understand female sexuality well enough. Most of this is not achieved through Claire’s own actions, which is why vengeance doesn’t feel like the most defining feature on offer, but there is something sinister about the way that Claire is placed on a pedestal without us really being required to identify with her. Chereau’s focus becomes unclear when his attention is diverted to a bigger, ensemble-style modus operandi, and his cutthroat dramatic devices feel particularly out of place within a wry, inevitable tone.