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Beauty on the Diagonal: Hélène Surgère, Emmanuel Lemoine and “Les belles manières”

A beautiful film that takes beauty as its subject, led by a B actress illuminated in the films of France’s Diagonale directors.
Les belles manières
Jean-Claude Guiguet’s Les belles manières (1978) is a beautiful film, but, more to the point, it is one that has taken beauty as its subject. Not content with merely exemplifying, or with setting itself the all-too-easy task of finding beauty in the world, it is a film about feeling beauty, about the effects and significance of an adored object, the whys and hows of it.
The setting for this investigation is neither here nor there: a grande-bourgeois apartment enveloped in curtains, dark wood, and the comforting presence of family heirlooms, the precious as well as the worthless. It is a space resignedly past decadence, one which has dried out, but that has preserved some of the aroma of its past. A woman and her son live there. The son, overcome with apathy, has become an anchorite; in hopes of luring him out, and to lend an occasional hand with the housework, the woman hires a young man.
The woman is Hélène: Courtray in the film, Surgère in life. Hélène Surgère has a funny face, funny because it’s sad. It is, in fact, a face made for sadness, paired with a spirit sensitive to joy, however fleeting. But in this film, beauty is the only real currency; the characters are always preoccupied with it, they crave or envy it, they need it to go on, and to keep the story going. The camera is no different. Guiguet’s visual style is reserved, usually staying well back and content with static shots or the occasional measured pan. That is, until the point at which it can resist no longer; then it tracks or zooms, and hounds beauty out of its hiding places and into the light. And Guiguet can scent it in strange places. One scene ends on Surgère’s smile, at the exact point at which it passes from something ordinary to a greater spiritual value. After this cut comes another close-up on her smile, in another moment and another place, now miraculously sustained across an ellipsis. In the space between these moments it has become something eternal. But then the camera tracks back, and the scene goes on, and the agony of wondering whether the smile will appear again begins. It’s not that Surgère is stingy with her smile (she gives it readily and with warmth), but she has one of those faces that was seemingly never young, and it would appear that Hélène has presentiments that the film she’s in is a tragedy.
Les belles manières
In the mid-60s, director Paul Vecchiali discovered Surgère in the pages of a photo-roman. He claims her picture seemed to say to him, “Follow me young man, but ask permission before.” He answered that guarded invitation with eleven films of his own and, through his production company Diagonale, he encouraged directors like Guiguet and Noël Simsolo to recognize her cult. Diagonale was an art B outfit… because art cinema has its B movies too. In these unparalleled but second-string films, with second-string subjects, budgets, atmospheres, you find, effectively, the leftovers. Amongst them, B actors: usually those with talent, spirit, but not the look. Hélène Surgère became a muse for films that, like her, may at first appear fastidious, old-fashioned, even a little cheap. These Diagonale films are not MGM lions (or even Schroeder-Rohmerian losanges); in order to pin down their fair share of beauty they have to sneak up on it from behind, at an angle, in moments of apparent weakness.
In the Diagonale cycle, Surgère is often the beauty object. In Femmes femmes (Vecchiali, 1974), something like her breakout film, though playing a failed actress, Surgère’s resemblance to Dietrich is noted. That it is emphasized in the more Pursued-esque porno-thriller Change pas de main (Vecchiali, 1975), where she plays a ruthless candidate for the presidency, makes its significance to her collaboration with Vecchiali clear: Surgère’s is a beauty illuminated, just as Dietrich’s was by von Sternberg. Which is not to say it’s a trick of lighting: only that she is not luminous, does not smolder, that her beauty might be missed were she to take a few steps to the left or the right.
Top: Femmes femmes. Above: Change pas de main
In Guiguet’s Les belles manières,a new beauty somnambulates into the spotlight, and Surgère largely stays in the shadows. It’s easier to watch from there. Emmanuel Lemoine plays the boy she hires, Camille Maillard, a newcomer, unused to Paris and most things, except mute and meaningless hard knocks. Scarred, beetle-browed, stocky Camille fascinates everyone in the Courtray household with his naive, precarious beauty, sure to disappear the day after the next. But he isn’t a cynical Pan like the intruder of Teorema (1969), the creation of another Surgèrite, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Camille neither seeks nor understands their attentions. He just wants a few simple things, such as to be treated as a human being.
For a while he and Hélène become friends, companions with only a harmless, humorous edge of sexual tension to their relationship. Hélène recognizes both his beauty and his goodness, and it is difficult to say which first. Camille’s relationship with Hélène’s son is less ambiguous. Pierre Courtray (Hervé Duhamel) is, like the rest of the film’s characters, prematurely aged. Bitter and angry with a world that he is not wrong in finding insidious, he has mounted his defense by attempting to freeze his own beauty, to mummify it, and succeeded in some part. Bound within the halo of light at the end of his bed, his anger and vanity have made him into a handsome statue. Immobile, he can weather some of the world’s corruption, but has also deadened himself to its virtues. He is vampiric, but because in Camille he sees a possible companion, to be initiated through disillusionment, rather than simply prey.
The distinctly working-class beauty Camille possesses, and which we are complicit with the Courtrays in admiring for much of the film, eventually precipitates a crisis. The trigger is the recognition of that recognition, of Camille’s appreciation by privileged viewers. He realizes then that his beauty has been incorporated into an economy that will not allow his autonomy and equality, and that only accepts his worth in general because of his value in specific. He has no choice but to reject Hélène, whose friendship might be true, but whose social and economic position in relation to him is false. More specifically, he must cease to exist in society, he must go to jail, turn away Hélène’s visits, become anonymous and forgotten.
Emmanuel Lemoine reappears in Guiguet’s next film, Faubourg St Martin (1986). He is not Camille any longer, but his character, François, is perhaps an alternate history of the boy who disappeared. Eight years later, his beauty is gone. A sub-manager at a hotel, he has become too sad, drained, petit-bourgeois to make an impression. He lingers in the background of the frame, and then gossips when it empties: he’s peripheral. That is, until a moment near the end of the film, when once again he shares the spot with a female friend, throws light on his unselfish admiration of another's beauty, and his old illumination comes back, as if from the dead.
Faubourg St Martin
“Your smile bears dreams and all that we can’t explain,” he says. Beauty is corrupted by the world, inevitably. But Guiguet, Vecchiali, Diagonale were able to redefine beauty after corruption, within the chimaera left over from the experiment of ’68, and a cinema tarnished by disappointment. 

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