Sunday, October 24, 2021

Nicholas Maury | Garçon chiffon (My Best Part)

rag doll

by Douglas Messerli

Maud Ameline, Sophie Fillières, and Nicolas Maury (screenplay), Nicholas Maury (director) Garçon chiffon (My Best Part) / 2020

French actor and director Nicolas Maury’s Garçon chiffon (2020) might be translated into English as “rag boy,” closer to the nickname that his mother in this movie calls him, “napkin.” Yet the English language title, My Best Part, mundanely insists upon the role he plays on stage (and off) as the central character Moritz Stiefel in Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, transferring the film away from the parental roots of his psychological sufferings to focus instead on the role he learns to play in life that allows him a new strategy of survival—not necessarily a mistaken interpretation, but still a fairly clumsy one, as if he will now look back upon the incidents the film reveals as something like the character Benjy Stone does in Richard Benjamin’s My Favorite Year, with nostalgic regret.

       Yet we have the pangs of the extreme jealousy that Maury’s remarkable character feels, based on his deep feelings of unworthiness and a recognition of the fragile oddities of his behavior in a world in which everyone else seems to be adapting far better than he, will not simply disappear when the closing of the camera’s shutter after his gentle last musical number about the possibilities  of love. For both Maury and his character Jérémie Meyer are memorable outsiders, figures who once you’ve witnessed you can’t quite erase from your memory. Maury has a strange gracefulness in the manner of Dan Levy’s character David Rose in the Canadian TV series Schitt’s Creek, a highly effeminate masculinity that superficially looks to be so over the top that you might miss the bedrock reality upon which the figure has structured his life.

     Jérémie has the horrible blessing of having a seemingly loving relationship with a hunk of male virility, Albert (Arnaud Valois), who works as a veterinarian. Their relationship, even to the viewer of this film, appears so immediately out of balance, that even we have to wonder how the two have ever come together—perhaps one imagines, in part, because of the wonderful blow jobs Jérémie later admits he loves to enact.

       Unfortunately, Jérémie himself cannot believe his good luck, appearing to do everything he can to undercut the relationship through his constant suspicions that every moment that Albert is apart from him are being spent with someone else who will replace his own love. Obviously such a tenuous sense of commitment can only destroy what true bonds with which relationship might have bound the two, and, unfortunately, in this case, Jérémie is not totally mistaken in his suspicions as he learns late in the film that indeed Albert was developing a more than collegial connection to his doctorial assistant Gianfranco (Andrea Romano).

       Spinning out of control through his byzantine suspicions of his lover, however, we observe Jérémie attempting to regain control of his mania by attending a “Jealousy Anonymous support group” that functions somewhat like Alcoholics Anonymous—except that in the members’ long descriptions of their behavior they create an environment of crazy doubt that might make even the most trusting of individual’s run out and buy a spy cam, which is precisely what Jérémie does, finally cutting the last chord with Albert.

       At the very same moment, moreover, a film role for which Jérémie had been assured only he could play, is cruelly pulled away from him by his seemingly “best friend,” the director who suggests that his decision to put someone else in the role surely hurts him more than Jérémie, which the actor immediately disproves by jabbing a piece of glass into his hand.

       The satire against the film and theater world continues—perhaps a little bit too long—through a scene in which the writer of the film, Sylvie (Laure Calamy) determines to become the actor of her work as well, insisting on hiring Jérémie as her personal acting coach. This time, Jérémie’s stunned crash to the floor is absolutely unintentional but even more devastating to his body.

       Is it any wonder that this apparently fragile being flees to the countryside where he grew up, Limosin, where his mother, recovering from the suicide her own philandering husband and Jérémie’s father, runs a country-based bed-breakfast-and-dinner inn out of her house. Our hero’s mother Bernadette (the marvelous Nathalie Baye) is such a force of energy fed by her need for love from her “rag boy” son—who as a child, evidently was found sleeping at odd places around the house and grounds like he were some rag left behind—and anyone else that happens to cross her path, such as her wonderful new-found handyman Kévin (Théo Christine), that you almost immediately sense why husband and son might have suicidal thoughts.

       Like Jérémie’s Albert, her absolute devotion seems to be too wonderful to be believed—and is! She devours her son in hugs and kisses while evaluating his numerous behavioral tics with the well-meaning tongue slashings of a verbal whip. Her son’s youthful trances into a world anywhere other than the fraught tensions between his mother and father, the bullying of his own youthful girlishness by the taunting boys of the neighborhood, and his inabilities as the son of a mother who can do nearly anything she puts or mind to or find someone nearby to help her accomplish her desires, represents, as she describes it, his “autistic-like behavior.” Jérémie is forced to keep reminding her that momentarily tuning out the pain in childhood fantasies does not necessarily represent autism. And he is forced to keep reminding himself that he is still loved despite his failures to undertake any of the tasks that the young strangers like Kévin, who come in and out of his mother’s life with serial frequency, gracefully accomplish.    

       One cannot imagine another home in which the grown son might feel perfectly comfortable to walk around the house in his jockey underpants or, at times, even naked, particularly given that the fact that it is also filled with other married couples, who are treated by the saintly Bernadette more like family than paying guests.

      Such a looney-like environment, along with stone-cold memorial service in the middle of the woods for his dead father fitfully attended by Jérémie’s mother, the dead man’s second wife, and  a mad mother who keeps mistaking her grandson for own physically effusive son, along with Jérémie’s discovery of Kévin’s late-night practice of swimming nude in the pool followed by chugging down a six-pack of beer makes for a black-comic atmosphere that French cinema has always been more than able to pull off. 

        Final episodes in which Jérémie retreats to his father’s woodside hut, attempts suicide and is rescued by a group of nearby nuns who mysteriously offer him advice and potions to help cure his jealousy, along with a late-night drunken confession by Bernadette of how she discovered the existence of his father’s numerous sexual peccadilloes and affairs through letters hidden away in the books of her personal library all seem too bizarre and border-line surreal to be believed. But then, we have to remind ourselves, My Best Part is a comic psychological study in mania, not a realist story of a quirky family and their friends. And despite all the oddities that this film heaps upon us in its voyage into the wilds before returning us to the presumed “order,” his mother awards  Jérémie the thing he perhaps has always needed, someone for him to look after and love, a beautiful pet dog.

        Final episodes in which Jérémie retreats to his father’s woodside hut, attempts suicide and is rescued by a group of nearby nuns who mysteriously offer him advice and potions to help cure his jealousy, along with a late-night drunken confession by Bernadette of how she discovered the existence of his father’s numerous sexual peccadilloes and affairs through letters hidden away in the books of her personal library all seem too bizarre and border-line surreal to be believed. But then, we have to remind ourselves, My Best Part is a comic psychological study in mania, not a realist story of a quirky family and their friends. And despite all the oddities that this film heaps upon us in its voyage into the wilds before returning us to the presumed “order,” his mother awards  Jérémie the thing he perhaps has always needed, someone for him to look after and love, a beautiful pet dog.

      At least that is what Jérémie must believe as he breaks into song about the love and commitment he will show the beautiful handyman stud who has appeared, out of the night, on his doorstep. And maybe, if we can simply put away our own doubts, Jérémie (and the wonderful man behind his creation, Maury) does, after all, deserve such happiness.

      Perhaps we should perceive Garçon chiffon less as a whole cloth of narrative experience than as a series of rag-like episodes that if carefully picked up and skillfully stitched together create a spread under which one can catch an hour and 48 minutes of comfy pleasure.

Los Angeles, October 24, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (October 2021).    

             

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