Friday, May 7, 2021

Marcel Carné | L’Air de Paris

married to the ring

by Douglas Messerli

Marcel Carné and Jacques Sigurd (screenplay, based on La Choute by Jacques Viot), Marcel Carné (director) L’Air de Paris / 1954

The 1954 French film L'Air de Paris has a rather simple plot. An ex-boxer, Victor Le Garrec, now an elder boxing manager and leader of a boxing club frequented by young street boys of Paris has just lost his eldest and most promising boxer to an unspecified disease at the age of 23. At the hospital he meets the boy’s close friend, Roland Lesaffre, nicknamed Dédé, a handsome young man going on 24 (his birthday is celebrated in the film) who now works for the railroad, but used to box in his teenage days.

      Victor likes the look of the youth and takes him under his wing, training him intensely and trying him out in an early amateur bout, which he loses. The young man grows dispirited insisting that “I ruin everything. I always have.” But when Victor finds out that the real problem is that the hardworking young man, paid only minimum wage which provides barely enough to rent his derelict room leaving him with no money for food and without any time and peace which might permit him a good night’s sleep (“I can’t box,” he declares, “I’m too worn out.”), the boxing club manager invites Dédé to move in with him and his wife, Blanche, who bitterly agrees to cook for the extra guest.

       Blanche, having inherited a little money, is desirous that they sell the boxing enterprise and move to Nice, but Victor is determined that this may be his last chance to find a winner, allowing him to leave his beloved profession with grace after having been, at the top of his career, and aspirant to being the champion boxer of France before, after his marriage, quickly spiraling into obscurity. 

       As in nearly all great boxing films as various as Kid Galahad, Golden Boy, Knockout, Body and Soul, The Set-Up, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rocky, and Raging Bull, the manger controls everything, putting his new prize talent on an endless regimen of exercises, diet, training routines, and a strict no-woman restriction. Boxing becomes the only thing in Dédé’s life, and for the other young boys in-training he becomes their hero, just as Victor becomes Dédé’s father-figure and hero. The only difference between this manager-boxer duo is that Victor is a true believer and is incorruptible with no ties to the Mafia and other controlling forces. Yet because her bitterness over Victor’s detour in their plans, his wife is dismissive enough to the sensitive young man to almost make him throw his first fight.

        And, of course, as in so very many films in this genre there is a femme fatale (who, in this case, even describes herself as such) perfectly willing to distract the young boxer from focusing on his game. In this case, the dangerous woman is a society figure, Corinne (Marie Daëms), who the younger railroad worker once spotted as she peered out from a stopped train window where he was working nearby, afterwards picking up a small charm which she had dropped, keeping it as a lucky piece.

     Our hero wins the first bout, in part because of Corinne’s presence at the event, but as the affair between them progresses, he begins to skip training and, finally, is ready to give up on boxing; it looks like  the might-have-been winner won’t even be able to last it out for his second match.

     Another rather amazing detour in the usual plot is that Corinne, now in love with the young man, realizes that only if she leaves him might he become a winner, and, having done so, the distressed and angered manager takes on the boy again with the possibility for both of them of leading a briefly charmed life, resolving both their feelings of failure.

      My synopsis makes it sound, admittedly, like an unexceptional film with a rather well-meaning but mostly uneventful plot. And if you genuinely like boxing films, you might describe the work has having a good ending without much focus on the sport itself. Moreover, we never quite learn enough about the shy and tight-lipped youth to get to really know him, even if we find him likeable enough. But then, his insensitivity about the young girl, working in her parents’ grocery next door where Dédé also now works part time, who has fallen in love with him; his disregard of the kindnesses of the grocer and his wife when he refuses even to attend the birthday dinner they have specially prepared for him; and, his absolute betrayal of the kind-hearted Victor, to say nothing of the young man’s abandonment of the only thing at which he might excel to change his pattern of “ruining everything”—are all incidents which do not particularly add up to his being a loveable hero.

        In short, you might well wonder why I am reviewing this film, let alone in a context that places it in the company of other LGBTQ movies.

        But then nothing is at all “simple” about this film. Victor, after all, is played by the great French matinee heartthrob, Jean Gabin, and his wife Blanche is performed by Léonie Marie Julie Bathiat, the legendary actress, singer, and fashion model Arletty who dominated French film, often sharing the bill with Gabin from the mid-1930s to the end of World War II, when she was accused  and found guilty of treason for having had an affair with German Luftwaffe officer, Hans-Jürgen Soehring; her answer to the accusations only contributed to her mythos: “My heart is French but my ass in international.” Arletty played another Blanche, this on stage as Blanche DuBois in the French version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire after her release from prison.

      Our young good-looking hero was acted by Roland Lesaffre, the director’s homosexual partner. And that director was none other that the great French filmmaker behind Quai des brumes (1938), Le Jour se lève (1939), and arguably the best French film ever made in the grand  classical  style of Gallic cinema,  Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise) (1945), Marcel Carné.**

      In fact, if you read this only slightly coded film correctly, I have almost misled you. While it is a film about a boxer and his career, it is far more focused on the love between Victor and his protégé while hinting at several other same-sex relationships and gay figures. Any frisson this work produces—and for gay men and women I believe it does—has to do with these figures and their relationships rather than with the battling boxer genre.

      Let us begin with the film’s obvious gay figure, who have not even yet mentioned, the clothes designer Jean-Marc (Jean Parédès), part of the entourage surrounding Corinne and her designer friend Chantal (Simone Paris). As film critic Alexander Dhoest rather timidly asserts in his essay “How Queer is L’Air de Paris?—Marcel Carné and Queer Authorship”: Jean-Marc is “a camp couturier with a limp wrist and a high-pitched voice...not the kind of homosexual Carné aspired to be.” Yet, in his admiring glances of Dédé represents the director’s gaze. Upon first glimpsing the boy in his fur-trimmed coat with other laborers in a restaurant across from the great food market Les Halles (a now lost Paris monument upon which Carné’s camera spends several moments) Jean-  Marc immediately responds:  “They’re marvelous. Have you seen that fur-lined jacket? The child Hercules!” A moment later he campily cackles, “Look at those stained aprons. What a print for a summer outfit!” before drawing Corinne’s attention once more to the budding boxer, with whom she will spend the night: “Watch the boys, especially the fur-lined jacket.”

       As Dhoest observes when Jean-Marc and Corinne later attend Dédé’s boxing match: “Jean-Marc is ravished at each meeting with Dédé, to such a degree that Corinne has to restrain him from jumping up and sending Dédé flowers during his first big fight.” Indeed Jean-Marc jumps out of his seat in what might be described as his sexual lust for the boy so often that the man seated behind him asks if he had springs attached to his ass. What this stereotypical gay figure accomplishes in his outlandish admiration of the boxer’s appearance is to establish, along with the several female comments about the blonde-haired boy wonder’s attractiveness, is to help make him the perfect object for Victor’s more heterosexually-based homoerotic relationship to his new club member. But through Jean-Marc’s clearly homosexual attraction to him we also recognize that the boy has gay sexual appeal as well as heterosexual appreciation for his beauty, which, in turn, forces us to rethink what his actual relationship was to his now-dead friend who he describes to Victor as his “mate.” And, obviously, it helps us to reconceive the relationship between Victor and Dédé as possibly being something more than simple male-male, mentor-student, father-son-like bonding. 

       But before we forget that early scene at the Les Halles-adjacent café we might take note of Chantal’s disapproval not only of Jean-Marc’s comments but her terror of Corinne’s daring maneuver to approach Dédé which leads to his offer to take her home in a lory. For Chantal, we realize by the end of the film, is Corinne’s Victor, the commanding figure in her life which restrains her in her lesbian attentions from fully entering into a heterosexual pairing. If Chantal has arranged for Corinne to marry a wealthy man, it is not for her sexual desires but for the money that the gentleman will continue to provide her for her business; presumably, Chantal expects that she will continue to provide for Corinne’s sexual needs. None of this is expressed explicitly, but it is precisely what is behind Corinne’s “maneuver,” as I have described it, to shock Chantal while temporarily escaping her clutches.

       In that early scene where Corinne finally arrives with Dédé on her doorstep, she also realizes the boy’s own hesitancy to enter into a heterosexual affair. When she asks him if he might wish to come up to see Chantal’s lavishly-decorated suite in which she lives, he simply answers that he must return home to get some sleep. But her reaction establishes the fact that the naive boy is still a virgin when it comes to women. “Obviously, I can’t force you, but there is one thing I would like to know. Are you stupid, or pathologically timid, or am I particularly ugly this morning?” Even in her appraisal she already knows that the real answer is what he later tells her. He is already married—to boxing, and by extension to Victor upon whom he depends to take him to its altar.

       Before I begin my discussion of that relationship, however, let me make it clear that I realize that nearly all of the boxing genre’s manager-fighter friendships might be interpreted as homoerotic or even vaguely male-on-male love affairs. Since the young fighter is inevitably asked to give up women and join the elder friend at the gym day and nights for long periods of time, the situation might inevitably be read by obsessed gay commentators such as me as something other than what it truly is, a male heterosexual bonding of a coach and his player.

       I have already established the fact that by introducing such an outrageously gay figure, who in earlier days have been referred to as the “pansy” character, Carné appears to establish the fact that Victor, who in no way behaves like the former, is a straight man with no sexual insinuations attached. As I have been describing him, he might love Dédé as a father, a protégé, a vision of youthful self, or even as someone through whom he might redeem his failed self; but surely we cannot contort this friendship into a budding sexual infatuation. But then, as a gay man with little in common with Jean-Marc himelf, Carné knew very well that if representing one such character in the film might distract most viewers from the homoerotic tension between Gabin and Lesaffre, that in fact, there were many possible expressions of homosexual love, not all of them even involving explicit sex. You might say that the old fox purposely distracted the viewer from Victor’s homosexual gaze of the young boxer to demonstrate that it existed nonetheless, as if by somehow pointing elsewhere he only emphasized what was happening right before our very eyes.

       First of all, if he wanted to truly remove any suspicion of a homoerotic relationship between the two he surely would have chosen another actor than the still handsome elder Gabin to play the role, someone more like, for example, Jimmy Durante, Jackie Gleason, Edward G. Robinson, William Conrad, Everett Sloane, Burgess Meredith, or  Nicholas Colasanto—all of who performed as boxing managers and coaches and none of them having any of the attractiveness, let alone sex appeal of Gabin.

       From the beginning, Victor swoops up the young railroad worker with a zeal that surprises even his long-suffering wife, saying things like “ Listen, I told you I’d take you in hand” and offering to bed and board at his own abode. Even Dédé wonders, “What is it that you want?”

       From the beginning, Victor swoops up the young railroad worker with a zeal that surprises even his long-suffering wife, saying things like “ Listen, I told you I’d take you in hand” and offering to bed and board at his own abode. Even Dédé wonders, “What is it that you want?”

       When Victor asks Dédé why he so enjoys boxing, he soon interrupts the boy’s rather simplistic answers to explain it to him in far more queer terms: first establishing the boy as a societal outsider, he reminds him to “Look at the kids [the younger boxes in his charge], they’re all misfits.” He continues:  “The boxer in front of you is just like you, he’s naked. And the best man wins.” Images of Greco-Roman wrestling aside, Victor establishes the “other” in this case as a kind of Narcissus-like figure, an equally beautiful nude male with whom one must do battle almost as a ritual rite to proving one’s worth in order to come of age. Freud couldn’t have described the sexual immersion of the self in love with another like yourself (the image of another man) better.

       When Victor asks Dédé why he so enjoys boxing, he soon interrupts the boy’s rather simplistic answers to explain it to him in far more queer terms: first establishing the boy as a societal outsider, he reminds him to “Look at the kids [the younger boxes in his charge], they’re all misfits.” He continues:  “The boxer in front of you is just like you, he’s naked. And the best man wins.” Images of Greco-Roman wrestling aside, Victor establishes the “other” in this case as a kind of Narcissus-like figure, an equally beautiful nude male with whom one must do battle almost as a ritual rite to proving one’s worth in order to come of age. Freud couldn’t have described the sexual immersion of the self in love with another like yourself (the image of another man) better.

    The boy, when asked by Corinne if he has loved another woman, replies no, only boxing. Boxing, he states, is his only love affair. When she asks if their aren’t others waiting for him after his win, Dédé insists there is only one: “Yet there is one who is waiting for me, who must be calling me every name in the book.” When she responds, “Your coach?” he seems surprised, as she reminds him “You haven’t stop talking about him since we left Central.”

     Visually, Carné doesn’t spare us much. When Victor describes the meaning of boxing, he is sitting the edge of Dédé’s bed. At another point an important interchange occurs with the boy dressed only in his underwear as Victor weighs him, telling him he has to slim down by cutting out the wine at dinner.       

     While erotically messaging the boxer’s back, Victor tells him of an important upcoming bout.


     While erotically messaging the boxer’s back, Victor tells him of an important upcoming bout.

     In boxing films I have observed managers rubbing their boys’ backs to relieve their tension; I’ve seen them role their hands across their faces, even at one point cut open the skin around a swollen eye between rounds. But I don’t believe I ever before saw a scene in which the coach slipped in  hand into his boxer’s shorts to rub his tummy just above his crotch on which cinematographer Roger Hubert’s camera hovers for a startling eight seconds—an eternity in screen time—while Victor gurgles into his boy’s ear “Breathe deeply, my God. Let yourself go man.”

      Is it any wonder that at one point when Blanche declares that she hopes the young boxer will lose, he replies: “You’re jealous, aren’t you?” Her answer: “And why not?”

      Is it any wonder that at one point when Blanche declares that she hopes the young boxer will lose, he replies: “You’re jealous, aren’t you?” Her answer: “And why not?”

      When Victor finally hears from Corinne herself that she is giving up her young lover so that he might pursue his future, he is waiting outside her now empty apartment for Dédé like a formerly jilted lover ready to forgive and make it up. The boxer seems to recover from the punch rather nicely, as the two, now arm and arm go walking off straight toward Notre Dame where, symbolically speaking, they can now be wed. Fin.


     Unlike Jean Cocteau, another great film director of his generation, Carné was generally much more circumspect and closeted when it came to LGBTQ issues in his films. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, while serving on the 1984 jury of the Venice Film Festival, he spoke out quite emphatically in favor of Jean Genet in the form of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle

Los Angeles, May 7, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).

 

*See the 2015 movie, Arletty: A Guilty Passion for a film based, in part, on her life.

**In the 1990s a poll of about 600 French critics and cinema professions voted the work the “Best French Film of the Century.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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