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Mademoiselle ó (1966) ó Richardson

Night of the long knives

Society is only possible with shared prosperity; a chicken in every pot is the best way to hide a hard scrabble life; when the chickens start disappearing, the plucking begins. The film opens with a religious procession through the countryside with an old Priest marking his territory; but the parade immediately disperses at the tinkling of a bell, leaving only the holy man, his French maid and a few altar boys to trudge on alone through the fields without a single soul following in their wake. Ave Marias and Our Fathers are no longer useful magic against a committed pyromaniac with an endless supply of kindling and match sticks.

Like everyone else in the village, the new school teacher races to the fires, but she is forbidden to help. She is forced to stand idle and watch. She picks up a useful bit of dirt at the first fire when one of the women in the darkness says Hot Pants (the hunky Italian lumberjack) belongs to her and another woman quickly reprimands her and says he belongs to the village. The men bend their backs in the fields then bend their elbows in the tavern. The women divide their time between housework and the church. The lustier women are taking full advantage of his stay in the area to tear off a piece of earthy paradise whenever they can. Itís simply a matter of a nod and a wink, or in his case, a glance with or without the smolder.

And so, for days and weeks the school teacher has been hunting him and finally locates his current work location in the forest. We get half-way through the film before Hot Pants (Manou) and she finally meet officially at the snake belt scene in the woods. He apologizes to the school teacher for his sonís chronic tardiness (Bruno helps with the work) and is grateful for the special attention she gives his son, revealing why this Italian lunkhead is so damn irresistible; he is completely clueless. At that point in the story, Bruno no longer even shows up at school; her wanton cruelty has already driven him away. This meeting is then immediately intercut with a series of flashbacks that fills in the various backstories. The three main characters in the film are essentially outsiders that will never be allowed into this closed community.

During one flashback scene she tells a shopkeeper she didnít know there were any (other) strangers in the village. But she is not being honest. She did spot Manou once last summer, coming upon him taking a cat nap during work on one of her many strolls through the forest, but being sexually repressed was too afraid to approach him. The long winter has emboldened her somewhat; she makes herself available to him (she isnít whistling Dixie) by mirroring his cat naps in the woods. Manou notices her from time to time pretending to catch some zees, but never approaches her. In addition to her teaching duties, she is in charge of all the paper work at the mayorís office / police station. She is the official stenographer (a typewriter is too complicated for the men) of the village; her pocket watch (a symbol of her twisted authority) is always visually askew; it never dangles free and is always clasped firmly or tucked chastely into a side pocket.

The second time the school teacher stumbles across Hot Pants is when he is returning from a tryst one night and she turns tail and hides behind a hay stack. Transfixed by his passing within a few feet of her, she unconsciously reaches out to touch him and drops her cigarette; this magnificent sensual beast ignites both her passion and the haystack she is hiding in. She doesnít notice the flames until itís too late. But this fire is Kismet; Manou returns to fight her blaze almost as if he was performing a private mating ritual for her. His breathless performance is an immediate catalyst for her transformation. At night, the tom cats begin to call to her just as she calls to him with her fires. We can see a kind of fetishism blossom within her when her carefully constructed alter-ego steps out into the darkness, rather than going out to burn some poor bastardís home down around them while they sleep; itís almost as if Ms. Mayhem going to visit to an underground sex club.

An important change for Manou is that brought his son with him this year and enough time has passed since his wifeís death that he is now fondly remembering the pleasures of domestic life, He would love to settle down again. The school teacher taking an interest in his son is the first sign of genuine acceptance by the community which he responds to whole heartedly. Manou puts a lot of effort into integrating into the community, even risking his life at the fires. The men dismiss this as mere showboating for the womenóand there may be something to tható at the first fire in the film (which is already the third or fourth fire in the story) heís grown so blasť about the whole thing, he runs in and out of the burning building with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

But Manou is between a rock and a hard place. The men never passed up an opportunity to make a gibe at the passing woodsman, but now this playful hazing is curdling into xenophobic rage. There is no evidence against him; half the village can place him at the procession during the flood but that doesnít stop everyone from suggesting as a wily immigrant he can be in two places at once. Not one of his lovers will come forward to proclaim his innocence because that would reveal her adultery. The cops are interested in stitching up his son (being even more vulnerable than him) as the fire starter. Manou is simply low hanging fruit here.

Usually an old film from the sixties is clearly dated somehow, but this retains a lot of its original lustre in two key ways: the sound design recalls an ancient world without distractions. This shrieking cacophony of sound has become like a forgotten language for our modern ears. Once upon a time, each silence, each sound brought forth a specific image of a chirping insect, a song bird or a prowling beast and with it a swirl of orchestral connotations and meanings rooted in the passing seasons. Spending a night in the forest would be a truly scary proposition now; what kind of fantastic beasts would our imaginations conjure up?

Part of the flashback sequence containing the first fire

The second way is the graphic dissonance* which gives off a feeling of constant unease; the story always remains slightly impenetrable. The stark black verticals of the trees are visual obstructions and obstacles to the eye and to the characters. The lush foliage flattens the visual space. A lot of the film takes place at night in a village without street or porch lights which further reduces the images to two dimensions. Leaves of grass, stalks of weeds, blossomy boughs, and fields of flowers in the foreground produce hairline fractures in the image and obscure the action in the background. The figures remain subsumed to the landscape. The school teacher says that Manou has the most beautiful blue eyes she has ever seen, but this being a black and white film weíll just have to take her word for it. And all this is all lensed with a precise framing from a camera that never moves and never judges.

Likes? At the sluice gate scene the sweat pours off her face, suggesting that part of the story is taking place during a heat wave, itís hot and sticky and people are short tempered and cranky; a thunder storm would bring blessed relief. She is also metaphorically unleashing the flood gates of desire, but the difficulty she has cranking open the water gate suggests a certain sexual dysfunction. The men begin to huddle together in packs (a sign that they are afraid). And at the very first crime scene, the cops symbolically catch the criminal red handed, but being a lofty denizen beyond suspicion, they both release the evil back into their world.

There is a nice ending where the younger cop has waited for her car, then pedals like a schoolboy in a series of scenes through the countryside towards her one room apartment to breathlessly announce that her getaway car will soon be there. The younger cop was clearly sweet on the school teacher, but never dared to act upon it. This ends with him taking a breather in the village square and throwing an acorn at a local beauty. Idiot! Clearly transferring his romantic attentions to a better target; life goes on.

But the film doesnít easily give up its scandalous betrayals. During date night, all the moral pillars of the village have gathered in a room and know exactly what is happening outside in the darkness. In the morning each one reclaims their position by officially condoning and sanctioning the mob; becoming a society founded upon criminality and hypocrisy. Brunoís tarnished masculinity is only suggested faintly. There is a scene where she tutors him after school and she gets up and goes to the front of the class and leaves her undies on the chair next to him. Leaping Lizards! A veiled allusion that in addition to helping him bone up on his French, Ms. Mayhem (the defiler of all things wholesome and innocent) has also consummated their relationship.

During one of her patrols for Manou, a farmer in his field shouts up the hill to her going into the forest: ďYouíre on the wrong path Mademoiselle. If you go into the woods, you are going to find the wolf.Ē He busts a gut. He is of course totally misreading the situation, in this twisted fairy tale she is not the defenceless princess in the story, she is the evil stepmother and when she goes into the forest Ö ten minutes later, the entire cast of The Lion King comes running out. During one of their love scenes, she takes Manouís St. Christopherís medallion in her teeth and rips it from his throat, which is a mite too sacrilegious even for his taste (and quite possibly a fatal emasculation) with his talisman broken he is now at the mercy of his enemies. Itís clear that Haneke drew some inspiration from this film for The Piano Teacher.

There are visual bookends to the film: where the religious procession disappeared from the priest at the beginning, at the end the villagers swarm boisterously around Mademoiselle in her getaway car to loudly wish her goodbye, and just as quickly abandon and forget her the moment she leaves, never bothering to even learn her name. Bruno remains alone in the silent courtyard, orphaned and emotionally scarred by his stay in this village, no one to remarks his passage or wishes him well.

Mademoiselle ó


* An example of graphic dissonance would be the money shot in the Film Noir where the light through the venetian blinds slices across a character trapping them in a metaphorical cage of their own making or when a troubled character peers into a cracked mirror and their psyche is reflected in broken pieces.