In an interview with Michael Phillips that appeared last week in the Chicago Tribune, John Turturro cited French novelist and filmmaker Bertrand Blier as a major influence on Fading Gigolo, the new movie he wrote, directed, and stars in. He also said he’s working on a loose remake of Blier’s breakthrough feature Going Places (1974). These statements provide useful insight into Fading Gigolo, which feels out of step with current U.S. cinema in its frank, yet prosaic sex talk and its curious, not-quite-dreamlike sensibility. Blier is no longer au courant in U.S. film culture, but his films were regularly distributed here for about two decades—at the height of his popularity, the National Society of Film Critics named his Get Out Your Handkerchiefs the best film of 1978. (It’s commonly accepted that the movie received the distinction because the two front-runners, Days of Heaven and The Deer Hunter, split the majority vote down the middle—even so, the award speaks to Blier’s U.S. reception at the time.) In the unlikely event that Turturro’s film becomes a sleeper hit, perhaps it will renew interest in this singular French talent.
Blier’s movies often revolve around sexual fantasies, though they’re less concerned with validating those fantasies (as Hollywood sex comedies often do) than with interrogating the sexual imagination that brings them into being. One of Blier’s stylistic signatures is to stage exterior scenes without any extras, suggesting his characters occupy their own private worlds. Heightening the sense of interiority, he often has his protagonists address the camera directly, making spectators into their confidants. (As a director, Blier clearly learned from Alain Resnais, specifically in the use of extended camera movements to evoke the flow of thought.) Mundane experience gives way to absurd complications and back again, typically returning us to the protagonists’ solitude. As such, the films can feel pensive and melancholy even when they’re making jokes about pedophilia (Handkerchiefs, Beau Pere), infidelity (Too Beautiful for You), or murder (Buffet Froid).
Taken literally, these movies are extremely tasteless. The fantasies under consideration are usually chauvinistic, and Blier’s poker-faced direction precludes direct commentary on their chauvinism. (That he presents the fantasies as patently impossible would suggest he doesn’t endorse them, yet his work never fails to offend somebody.) Instead he asks viewers to take dreamer and dream as one and sort out the particulars later. In deconstructing the films one arrives at insights into cultural forces that shape the characters’ imaginations—prejudices associated with class and regional backgrounds—that aren’t apparent on first viewing.
Fading Gigolo invites this sort of reflection. On the one hand, the idea of Sharon Stone (playing a successful dermatologist) paying a 50-ish, working-class florist (Turturro) for sex—after an elderly bookseller played Woody Allen arranges the tryst!—couldn’t be more ludicrous. Yet Turturro realizes their encounter patiently, establishing an eerily becalmed atmosphere reminiscent of Blier. Is this the actualization of the Turturro character’s fantasy, as he’s not only having sex with Sharon Stone but getting paid for it? Or is the fantasy Stone’s? By paying for the encounter, she gets to enjoy being ravished by a rugged, working-class type while having control over the situation—thus experiencing simultaneously pleasures of submission and domination. Bound up in this scenario are some rather serious questions about present-day class and gender divisions in the U.S. Rather than present these issues as self-contained, Turturro (like Blier before him) ponders how they infiltrate our most intimate relationships.
This line of thinking tends to make U.S. audiences uncomfortable, as evidenced by the derisive laughter that Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—two of the most serious movies ever made about this country—continue to provoke. In that regard, it’s less surprising that Blier fell out of favor with U.S. movie culture than that he managed to engage with it for as long as he did.