Michel Deville can't, or shouldn't, be considered forgotten, can/should he? He's still alive, and his last film was as recent as 2005 (Un fil à la patte, with Emanuelle Beart). Among his past works available with English subtitles are moderately acclaimed minor classics like On a volé la Joconde (The Mona Lisa Has Been Stolen, 1966), Death in a French Garden (1985), Le paltoquet (1986) and La lectrice (1988)—the last three made back-to-back in the eighties during Deville's hottest period internationally. Although it's hard to figure out how the same filmmaker could be responsible for the variety of Deville's work, which ranges from deadly serious political drama to quirky slapstick. Amid this confusion of disparate styles, Deville tends to disappear the more intently one looks for him.
And certainly we can't consider Francoise Fabian a forgotten star, can we? She too is still alive and is still working solidly, and her credits include perennial classics like Belle de Jour, Ma nuit chez Maud (as Maud!), and Jacques Rivette's Out 1.
Yet how often does either name come up in cinephile discussions?
Raphaël ou le débauché (1971), written by Deville's then-partner and frequent collaborator, Nina Companéez (later a director also), is a good place to start if making a case for the brilliance and importance of both artists. A nineteenth century drama based on no literary source yet miraculously seeming to utterly inhabit the society of the time, it's a carefully-constructed story with strong characters and elegant settings, making it quite close to both the Hollywood model of drama and the British convention of period movie, but with an unusual psychological sophistication, wit, and willingness to go that extra mile. As the Swiss playwright and novelist Friedrich Durrenmatt put it, "A story is not finished until it has reached its worst possible outcome."
We begin, more or less, with a foot slipping into a boot. It's not a very convincing period boot, having more than a touch of the 70s boutique about it, which alerts us to both budgetary constraints and a chic style which sometimes sidesteps historical accuracy in search of pretty visuals. And yet it's the last jarring note in the film (unless you're more of an expert on nineteenth-century dress than I am, which I admit is more than possible).
Fabian is Aurore, a sophisticated widow of irreproachable reputation. She resists the wooing of an aged and corrupt judge, who seems to take masochistic delight in being spurned by her, and is apparently content in her life as a single woman. But this is a French movie, so that's not going to last. Enter Maurice Ronet (Le feu follet) as Raphaël, the titular debaucher, who starts to pursue Aurore, at first on a whim, and then with more and more ardor. He finds that her inaccessibility adds immensely to her allure.
At one point, frustrated by the failure of his usual tricks, he attempts rape. Aurore chills his lust with icy contempt, and he backs down. This is pretty interesting to me, since women in the movies are usually portrayed as inarticulate, reduced to screaming or pleading, when threatened with sexual assault. It's certainly not insulting to suggest that such traumatic situations might frequently render the victim incapable of argument, nor is it true to argue that all, or even many rapists might be turned away by a victim who keeps her head and interrogates the wretch about why he's behaving this way. But it's been known to happen, and it's good to see it in a movie.
What happens next is very interesting. Aurore realizes that she's drawn to Raphaël. She never knew sexual passion with her late husband, a much older man who didn't last long into their marriage. Raphaël's crude attempts at seduction have aroused something in her. This is very un-PC, it's true, but then the film's story predates political correctness by some years, and so does it's year of production. Psychologically, it seems valid that Aurore was repelled by the prospective assault itself, but that afterwards she started thinking about sex in a way she hadn't previously.
Now the anachronistic boot is on the other foot. Raphaël realizes that he loves Aurore too much to ruin her, and that her perceived purity is a major part of the attraction. Also that, since her inaccessibility is a turn-on to him, if she yielded, he would be put off. But now Aurore wants to yield. The movie is structured rather like Buster Keaton's The General, in which the first half the pursuit goes one way, and in the second, the direction changes and the hunter becomes the quarry.
Aurore hatches a devilish plan: since her sexual virtue is the barrier between herself and Raphaël, who cannot bring himself to besmirch her, she will destroy her virtuous relationship by going with other men: the shadow of Belle de jour presents itself, and it must be said that Deville gives us a spectacularly glamorous whorehouse.
Perhaps because it's a joint work by a man and a woman, perhaps because of the period it was made, when sexual politics were in an uproar, Raphaël ou le débauché is an uncommonly sophisticated movie, untrammeled by conventional notions of what makes a character sympathetic. Fabian and Ronet, who deserve to be regarded as major stars, rather than second-string arthouse leads, are both magnificent, rightly concerned with making their character believable as human beings, and allowing audience compassion to grow from this credibility, rather than from a play for our sympathies.
There's also a sly sense of humor that springs out at unexpected moments. As is conventional in this kind of setting, the characters are quick with a bon mot, but the funniest moment is also the most tragic, when a character on the verge of suicide analyzes his action and pronounces it, in an aside directed pretty much right at us, as "A bit melodramatic."
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.