Monday, October 18, 2010

A Review of Flesh of the Orchid (Chereau, 1975)

Flesh of the Orchid
Directed by Patrice Chereau
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Cremer, Simone Signoret, Edwige Feuillère
Grade: C+

Written for Subtitled Online:

The misty opening of Patrice Chereau’s "Flesh of the Orchid" extends to a rather shady first act, in which we meet characters that test the patience as much as they spark curiosity. As a gardener marches up to a formidably stately residence, cutting a wallflower off at its stem, one wonders whether this is a bout of symbolism, and when he proceeds to march up to the bed of a horrified Charlotte Rampling and strip off, the notion gathers a tad more steam. Rampling’s Claire is often referred to as a second coming of the “orchid”, a moniker that isn’t pinpointed until later in the film, but nonetheless bears sexual connotations that never temper with the events that follow.

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.

The film, however, swiftly changes course from being a psychosexual examination of a woman whose sexuality has clearly defined her existence as an incarcerated mental patient, to a seedy caper about vengeful gangsters and greedy aristocrats. It’s a bold move, but one that makes "Flesh" disarmingly aloof, to the point where it feels constricted and mechanical about its characters’ actions, leaving us wanting to know more about them, more about Claire’s back-story, and the source of the gangland gripes. There’s a propensity towards demonstrating consequences and generating an element of karma that makes the film much more plot-based than had previously been promised. Chereau ceases to coax us into Claire’s scheme of things once the chase begins, proceeding to rally at her behest in some form of authorial self-righteousness.

 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.

The maddening distance felt during "Flesh" is at war with an admittedly interesting premise, and it’s true that it sustains a firm level of appeal as a loose cannon of sorts. Yet, one can’t help but feel that the real promise and bite of the film remain rooted in its first few unnerving, aggressive, expository scenes, and that it pertains to display its heroine through iconography rather than addressing her concerns within the narrative. As an orchid Claire escapes the clutches of materialist manipulation, but whether she escapes her director’s prism of objectification is another matter.

"Flesh of the Orchid" is available on DVD from November 1st.

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