Wednesday, May 16, 2012

101. MANON '70 (1968)

This film by writer-director Jean Aurel (better known in the States for his scripts for François Truffaut's last three pictures than for the 14 he directed himself) is supposedly a contemporary adaptation of the classic 1731 novel MANON LESCAUT by Abbé Prevost. The novel had previously been filmed numerous times since the silent days, most famously as Henri-Georges Clouzot's politicized adaptation of 1949, called simply MANON. Aurel's version somewhat anticipates what Clouzot might have done with a second stab at the material, as it incorporates various Op Art, haute couture and Jet Set touches, but Clouzot surely would have never signed off on a film so lacking in substance. MANON '70, made two years before its professed timeline, is reasonably diverting but almost defiantly "light," betraying the grand tragedy of the source material so completely, one wonders what it hoped to gain by wearing the mask of literary provenance. However, it seems to have inspired a more genuine tragedy in turn: Radley Metzger's similarly titled CAMILLE 2000 (1969), a likewise updated romantic tragedy based on THE LADY OF THE CAMELIAS (1848) by Alexandre Dumas fils, a book that contains direct references to the earlier novel and indeed seems to be patterned on it. Metzger's film aces this one in every department.

Catherine Deneuve plays Manon, a tall blonde ice princess, the sight of whom -- fondling a First Class air ticket to Paris in a Tokyo airport waiting area -- inspires fellow traveler Des Grieux (Sami Frey), a radio commentator, to upgrade his ticket. The six-hour flight is a tournament of stolen glances, denied, met and teasingly returned. Our hero notices that Manon is not flying alone, but this doesn't prevent him from whispering an invitation into her ear as her luggage is being loaded into her companion's town car. At the last minute, she grabs one of her bags and hops into Des Grieux's taxi, where the two spontaneous lovers neck their way to a quick eternal bond -- one that is almost immediately threatened by the subject of fidelity, which they discuss in a hotel bathtub. Manon promises Des Grieux her soul, but she cannot offer him carnal exclusivity because she is, in fact, a top line call girl, pimped by Jean-Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy), who claims to be her brother but is very free with overfamiliar kisses. Des Grieux promises that, if he ever discovers she has slept with another man, it will be over between them; but his lack of financial means, indicated by that earlier coach airline ticket, guarantees that Manon will stray, because she cannot resist the finer things in life -- clothes, travel, leisure, money -- or the men who can give them to her. Among the men lining up to please her are Simon (Paul Hubschmid) and an American named Ravaggi (Robert Webber), both of whom are actively deceived -- Ravaggi to the extent of being told that Des Grieux, a guest imposed on his hospitality, is Manon's brother. Rather than ending with Manon's famous death, the film permits Des Grieux to sabotage her profitable arrangement with Ravaggi instead, after the millionaire boasts of his intention to marry her. Elsa Martinelli appears briefly as another of Jean-Paul's call girls who offers him distraction from Manon's first disappearance, and Chris Avram (Bava's BAY OF BLOOD) is Deneuve's initial escort.

Aurel's film is essentially a protracted dance between Manon and Des Grieux as they war between themselves, their love and their earthly desires. One wonders what he was hoping to say, if anything, about the state of love in the more open, experimental relationships of this era. Deneuve (adorned in fabulous clothes throughout) and Frey lend the struggle some fascination, but Aurel seems incapable of turning up the heat to make the couple's dynamic feel much more than cerebral. Whenever the film leaves their metaphysics to nudge the story forward (as in the pathetic scenes of  Des Grieux at work), it becomes paper thin. Some musical interest is added by the participation of Serge Gainsbourg, who supplies some poppy, sitar-plucking tracks heard in nightclubs.

Viewed via Lionsgate DVD. In French (and partial English) with permanent English subtitles, it's available only as part of the box set titled CATHERINE DENEUVE 5-FILM COLLECTION.

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