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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jean-Baptiste Léonetti | Carré blanc (White Square)

learning to pretend
by Douglas Messerli












Jean-Baptiste Léonetti (writer and director) Carré blanc (White Square)   / 2011

Léonetti’s first feature film, Carré blanc, is a rather stylish but dramatically empty dystopian view of the future. This director’s future is more pernicious, in some ways, than was Orwell’s or Huxley’s in that instead of an all-powerful central government controlling behavior and thought, here—in what is perhaps a sign of the times—large corporations are in control. Certainly the government is in collaboration, encouraging through large speakers night and day throughout the city for its populace to produce babies (even girls of 12 are encouraged to get artificial inseminations) and for families to play, what is clearly the popular sport, croquet.

     Léonetti shows us only two of these corporations—perhaps part of the same “white square” industrial combines—but different in their roles. The first organization, for which the mother of the “hero” works, is a meat-processing plant. But the meat being processed is apparently human flesh, cut up and cured into sandwich meat for an eagerly waiting public. After all, they have plenty of human corpses available. Large numbers of the population, we soon discover, jump from balconies in despair (many of the high rises contain nets over parking lots, where it is suggested cars should not park). Others, we later perceive, are pummeled to death by gangs of executives, or tortured to death by executive evaluators, testing the loyalty and inventiveness of their employees.

     Families are encouraged to have children, consequently, because it is a society that is losing much of its population to the violence and heartlessness imbued by the society itself. Who would want to bring a child into this dreadful world, only to see it emotionally and, ultimately, virtually “chewed up?”

  In the very first scene we observe the young Philippe’s (Sami Bouajila) mother climbing a fence to escape the human meat plant wherein she works, her suicide quickly following. The young boy, furious with his mother for her cowardice, is taken in to a facility for the numerous parentless children, and taught how to violently torture one another for their failures, for their lack of quick-thinking and skills at survival. Early on Philippe attempts suicide by hanging himself, saved by a young girl, Marie, who later becomes his wife. But the scars never leave, as he is punished by having to beat to death another child who has mistakenly agreed to get into one of the numerous black body bags. The society, the teacher explains, has no room for someone willing to enter such a space.

    Philippe’s mother has warned him that he will have learn “how to pretend” in order to survive, a lesson which, we soon realize, he has learned only too well. For Philippe, we are shown, as grown into an adult who tortures the company’s workers. When asked to stand flat against a wall and then back-up, employees cannot comprehend what to do, as they dutifully attempt the impossible, obviously failing. Not one of them imagines that they might turn laterally against the wall and back up alongside it. Told to remain in the circle while they are beaten with heavy sticks, no one of them perceives that the cardboard circle might be moved away from the man intent on the punishment.

     Obedience is required, but they seldom challenge the strictures enough that they might be saved. It reminds me of the laboratory experiments with students at the University of Wisconsin—an experiment in which I myself participated—where individuals were told that on the other end of the connection there were participants trying to learn lessons; one had the choice, when they made mistakes, of electrically shocking them at three levels of power. Many participants chose the highest level of pain, particularly as the experiment continued. Contrarily, I usually chose the lowest so that they might not give up. But none of us asked why we were being told to send shocks to other human beings!

     Meanwhile, Marie has left Philippe, in part, because he refuses to have a child and, primarily, because of the role he has taken on for himself, that of being another monster in a world of monsters determined to survive. Yet, Marie cannot entirely abandon him, and returns again and again, haunting his offices, trying to convince him of the errors of his life.

     Like others in this society, Philippe is tortured by his own actions, but cannot cease the “pretense” that might allow him to survive.

     But this is precisely where Léonetti’s script is the weakest, because we lose contact with the vague and sometimes vapid acts of a man who himself has suffered just such abuses. Of course, any psychologist might tell us that it is often the abused who go on to abuse others; violence begets violence; monsters come from a monstrous society.

     The worst monsters of this work appear as roving bands of wanabee office execs, beating and killing a waiter who accidently drops a champagne tray at a party, attempting to beat and kill Marie simply because she stares at them with a mixture of amazement and disgust. A company parking guard saves the day by threatening the group with a toy gun. And he, in turn, is seen as one of the most tortured beings of all, forced to smile at every company employee while trapped within a box from which he is released for only a few counted seconds, never permitted to actually speak.

     Yet as the film moves towards these moral implications, it seems to lose its way, the story elliptically unfolding in time, unnecesssarily criss-crossing between the characters’ childhoods and their insufferable existence in the present. After Marie takes matters into her own hands, killing one of the murderers by running over him in a car, Philippe begins to awaken from his own self-induced trance. But she too has now become a kind of monster, and Philippe’s recognition of his own monstrousness cannot redeem his acts. How will either of them survive in a world of this sort? Both survive suicide, he for the second time (the net has saved them from the fate of Philippe's mother). The legions of violent workers, however, will clearly not cease their hate. If the now wiser couple are even able to survive long enough to produce Marie’s long-sought child, can they live to raise it up with an understanding of moral consequence?

     Léonetti’s film asks some fascinating questions, but makes no attempt to actually deal with them, the director's visions coming alive more in the scenes of torture and abuse than in the potential salvation of his heroes. Perhaps, the director hints, the monsters will destroy their own kind; when asked by the company director to punish the four murderers, Philippe presents them with a bottle of champagne sitting upon on a table. The winner will be the one who can first drink the entire bottle. The four rush forward, furiously and brutally battling with each other, before one crashes the bottle into one man’s head. On the table there were also four straws, but none of them could imagine that they might have shared the substance. The other three soon after kill Jean-Luc, the most violent of their group. Yet there is little evidence that they will not soon turn again against the innocent and the weak, destroying those who might refuse to pretend.

Los Angeles, November 12, 2011

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