Directed and written by Vera Belmont
With Charlotte Valandrey, Lambert Wilson, Marthe Keller, Gunter Lamprecht, and Laurent Terzieff.
Can a slogan-spouting French Communist teenager find true love, in spite of the Party line, with a roguish photographer who peddles his wares to “honest fascist” magazines? Even if these strange bedfellows do meet in Paris? Nadia (Charlotte Valandrey), 15-year-old daughter of Polish Jew emigres, and a singularly spunky denizen of the working-class communist subculture of Paris in the early 1950s, equally idolizes Scarlett O’Hara and Joseph Stalin–so you know something has got to give. By film’s end, one fan club or the other will be missing a member. In the splendidly scripted Red Kiss (Rouge Baiser) (1985), director-writer Vera Belmont romps down a trail blazed by Dusan Makavejev (WR: Mysteries of the Organism) to explore the devious dialectical urges at war within Nadia, torn between a heartfelt belief in dubious Red rhetoric and the uneasy lure of silk stockings and cosmetics, between a blazing idealism and the nasty truths threatening to snuff it. But where Makavejev takes exuberantly wacky and gory pokes at puritanical Party creeds, Belmont lets wry observation, pathos, and poignant humor do this “dirty work,” and to no less effect.
Refreshingly free of polemics or cynicism, Red Kiss is a razor-edged yet remarkably charming treatment of one young woman’s coming-of-age within a politically blinkered (yet, in many other ways, admirable) Parisian community. As Nadia unravels the knot of confusions composing her tempestuous identity, director Belmont widens her thematic focus to explore the double-edged role of hope for her comrades, and of how this community’s faith came to be so misplaced in a fantasyland version of reality. (PTL members can testify that the Russkies aren’t the only folks who do a roaring trade trafficking in dupes.)
Red Kiss opens in 1937 with a black-and-white sequence in a drab Paris flat where Bronka (Marthe Keller), pregnant with Nadia, helps her subversive lover, Moishe (Laurent Terzieff), scoot out a window seconds before the cops burst in. Later, at a train station where the starry-eyed Moishe is embarking for what he imagines is the safe haven–heaven, even–of Moscow, the lovers vow to reunite in the workers’ paradise. He chugs off to partake of Stalin’s paranoiac hospitality for 15 years in the winter wonderland of Siberia.
Cut to 1952. Nadia and her fellow conspirator, ten-year-old sister Rosa, are postering the town Red. The gendarmes rudely interrupt their decorative efforts, give chase, and our wily young proletarians give their class oppressors the slip. The girlish urban guerrillas take fleeting refuge in a cemetery vault-turned-nightclub where Nadia displays a rare talent for preaching Marxism-Leninism while otherwise having a rollicking good time–until the police raid this fine and private place. Nadia scribbles unanswered letters to Stalin, boasts that Soviet science is, during this heyday of Lysenkoism, the world’s finest, regards fellow CP members as “one big family,” sneers at Coca-Cola drinkers, and, despite all that, is brimming with life, humor, and brio. The only contradiction she can’t satisfactorily explain according to Party catechism is herself: caught between a genuine yearning to live up to impossibly pure images of revolutionary womanhood and her really rather ordinary cravings for a bit of wild fun, her hunger for uncensored experience. Thus, Comrade Nadia cannot but draw the nagging conclusion that, deep down, she is unredeemably a “bad girl.” She fouls up regularly at her dead-end tailoring job, sells too few copies of the Daily Worker, and in abject penitence takes for her lover the stupefyingly dull and righteous CP youth leader.
Up in a cinema projection booth where her boorish lover labors, Nadia watches raptly while Rita Hayworth unleashes the scorching “Put the Blame on Mame” in Gilda. The performance is “great,” Nadia comments, contemplating the temptress: “What’s bad is the ideology implied.” On that screen, however, is a sensual fire that she wants to play with. But Nadia also dutifully plays in the streets during communist demonstrations, and, in a clash with riot police she unwisely calls “Nazis,” is duly bashed senseless, which proves her point, I guess. Stephane (Lambert Wilson), a photographer, scoops her out of further harm’s way, retreating to the friendlier confines of his flat where the still bleeding and unconscious girl, skirt artfully nudged upward, is “posed” for news shots at his leisure. Upon recovering, she will meet her “first bourgeois,” and a dashing, handsome, and flippant one at that. Actually, Stephane comes nowhere near the formal Party definition of these exotic capitalist creatures, but, despite his fundamentally decent instincts, he’ll do. Stephane delivers her, unmolested, at the family doorstep.
Concocting an elaborate lie to explain her evening’s activities to Bronka and her husband, Herschel (Gunter Lamprecht, the lead in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz), Nadia is pressed at a Party meeting to relate in public her harrowing night in a satyr-ridden police station. (“As modest as Rosa Luxemburg,” beams an admiring comrade. “Don’t exaggerate,” Herschel chides the admirer.) Nadia is just warming to her task when Stephane, appearing, breaks in with delightfully insincere applause. Afterward, Stephane tantalizes Nadia with a job offer so vaguely worded and possibly sordid–nude posing, she excitedly infers–that she can’t refuse visiting his lair again. Alas, Stephane only wants a guide to help him navigate the youth underground for a photo essay.
In all the teasing banter, and in the glimpses into Nadia’s subculture, the script seeks more to sift out sympathetically the moral drive behind the characters’ actions and (misguided, if you will) loyalties than to take cheap shots at the inviting target of an insulated community in thrall to a Party that then followed a spinelessly pro-Soviet line. Director Belmont eschews any hint of condescension, striving successfully instead to understand–if hardly to approve of–the fully rounded, complexly motivated people filling Nadia’s small and ideologically “sanitary” world. The tone is one of regret, not recrimination (though some young would-be apparatchiks reap well-warranted abuse). Stephane, no less than Nadia, “comes of age” through their unfolding love affair, and Nadia, in her personal awakening, surrenders her Party membership (actually, she is purged) but does not “grow out of” her values.
A letter arrives from Moscow, not from Stalin, but from Moishe, who is free at last and journeying back to Paris from the Gulag. Welcomed rousingly by the Party committee, and more nervously by Bronka, Moishe commences to liquidate his comrades’ illusions about the many-splendored thing they suppose Stalinist Russia to be. “You were once a revolutionary,” a man indignantly protests. “That’s why,” Moishe replies, “they sent me to the camps.” All Moishe desires now is to haul Bronka, a vision in her “Scarlett O’Hara” white dress, off with him to America. And it is Bronka (Keller conveys a marvelously calm and indomitable spirit) who latterly emerges as the soul of the film in scenes musing on the Occupation, when “reactionaries fought beside us and friends betrayed us,” who infuses Nadia with her tender strength, and radiates a wise and credible faith that punches through illusions yet is not disillusionable.
Red Kiss is a tender, tough, and touching achievement, flawlessly executed, and a superb cinematic delving into the murky human depths where, as the slogan of another era has it, the “personal is the political.” Sometimes. The human heart defies even dialectical analysis.