This article was originally published in the French monthly cinema journal Positif, no. 290, April 1985. It is published here with the kind permission of the author.
Translated from the French by Edith Nicolas, with thanks to Adrian Martin and Gabriel Stibio.
In A Shot in the Dark (1964), a photograph of the President of the French Republic shaking hands with Inspector Clouseau is attached to a wall. Admittedly the Head of State wanted to congratulate the police officer in person.
And rightly so. Historians should be grateful to American director Blake Edwards, and to Peter Sellers, the British comedian, for having given definitive shape to a curiosity: Gaullist ridicule. Their take on it is so elegant and so precise that the antics of a Jacques Chirac in Reporters (Raymond Depardon, 1981) 1 seem to be a pale imitation of the actor’s posturing. And the tremolos of Michel Debré 2 are a dull echo of the violin solo that Clouseau, much to his wife’s chagrin—for he is eager to express his passion—performs while in bed in The Pink Panther (1964). (This film is the first of seven such ‘crimsoned cats’; the other five are a somewhat ‘degenerate breed’ 3, and though at times skillful and entertaining, they still lack the vigor and charm of the first two films.)
Gaullist ridicule is not among comic conventions we can cover ourselves in; we have to be draped in its stately magnitude to understand it.
To explain, let us first consider the standard comic convention of a dignified character—a caricature of dignity, in fact—who finds himself the victim of a brutal absurdity, gag or circumstance. We could stop there, for this was the opinion of Saint-Évremond for whom “buffoonery entertains the honest man only in small intervals.” 4 But we could also pursue with interest the reactions of the unfortunate character, whose seriousness bears the failure. Within the tradition of American comedy, the humor of a Cary Grant, for example, sometimes bestows on the victim an imperturbable strength; while in Billy Wilder or in Frank Capra, the consistent appearance of the idiot very often relies on the misunderstanding, lasting or not, that such a character is all at once an obsessive, or a virtual maniac. Whereas in slapstick, at least since the coming of sound, the fall guy transcends the materiality of laughter, as if by pulling faces he could, in hindsight, usurp the joke’s inventiveness and virtue. Jerry Lewis has given us some of the best examples of this.
But Gaullist ridicule is characterised by a new kind of stoicism in the face of ridicule and absurdity.
Clouseau’s resilience has no source other than the very dignity occasioned by suffering. His dignified style endures the farce around him; but this endurance seems gratuitous enough to justify any enterprise designed to baffle it. How smug is the ridiculous character! What indifference to external judgment, what self-satisfaction, what blissful awareness of his own valour, which owes nothing to the degrading need to control one’s success or failure. In this way, the grandeur of France fed itself on its colonial failures and on the gibes that accompanied her foreign policy; and in the same way Clouseau’s honour is secured and increased by his superb delusion, rather than by an obvious and laudable circumspection, or by his achievements, which are in inverse proportion to their likelihood.
(The central vein of Edwards’ work results from a cross between slapstick and American social satire; but his application of Laurel and Hardy’s style has some basis in the comedy of manners, which also expresses moral asides with a preposterous crudity.)
Note: the unshakeable character of Clouseau—whom Sellers transports into the character of the Indian actor, Hrundi V. Baksi, in The Party (1968)—requires as its complement the comic grimaces of Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom). Beginning with the second film, A Shot in the Dark, he invades the remaining series of Panther films at the expense of sophisticated comedy. Clouseau, having become an ideal figure, authorises neither human observation nor narrative fantasy; it is Dreyfus who now incites the audience to compassionate laughter.
A Plebian Pragmatism
Boileau, Art Poetique 1,84: “The Parnassus spoke the language of the market place” 5 is the definition of slapstick: to plunge the serious into the trivial.
But to give, as a joke, an epic nobility to laughable matter is to enter into mock-heroics, itself an esthetic category the author opposes to the former.
In Clouseau the meeting of such inconsistencies produces a new form of enjoyable absurdity: when the mechanic rationality of a gag triumphs over human dignity, it makes for slapstick, but when dignity resists the mechanical, then reason itself is challenged and, with respect to humanity, makes for superior humor.
Many a critic has reproached Edwards for his vulgarity. What on earth are they saying?
Isn’t the first requirement of vulgarity to overemphasise the social status of an attitude? That such social whirl should govern taste or disgust (or even an extended curiosity, like sociology); such complacency is equally naïve. There is nothing common or snobbish in Edwards’ style, even though he consistently defies good taste and decorum, as well as pushing the limits of common sense. His extensive parties—Hollywood or Roman style—are both decadent and vulgar, but just as laughable when viewed in the light of sophistication as of Pantagruelism. 6
Is what we incorrectly call vulgarity therefore not just a plebian pragmatism, a natural ordeal, and proof that gender ultimately determines the outcome? The transvestite in Gunn (1967), as in Victor/Victoria (1982) and elsewhere, must finally give precedence to the truth. Thus Edwards films illustrate the law of double values that defines comedy: the game that conceals a body has its merit, but only the unveiling reveals its true value. A sudden glimpse of nudity, not to upset the prudish, is regularly the motif for a crucial scene.
But because the transvestite’s variety emphasises the invariable, he/she is also the ideal expression of Gaullist ridicule. By this logic, Gaullist ridicule includes nudity, and in the event Clouseau will disguise himself as a nudist. Similarly, Seller’s surprising French accent—which bears no relation to that of Maurice Chevalier—connotes the strength of a monolithic individual against the universality of the code. These two similar forms thus contribute to a joyful collapse of meaning: the disguise threatens identity just as mumbling confounds intelligibility.
The submarine in Operation Petticoat (1959) only functions thanks to a bra and girdle that replace missing engine parts. An invisible bust, an immaterial belly, agitated as if by a hiccup, or an irresistible jerk, and behold we have the representation of the cause of laughter: the shaking of the diaphragm, but sublimated by their efficiency, lightened by the negation of any flesh, only outlined by the playful elasticity that brings about a useful movement. The mechanical transmission of an effect depends on a grotesque allusion to the body, as if those hilarious jerks could only negatively communicate the depths of the viewer’s intestines while mocking the movements of the body. Rameau 7 claimed that harmony is pleasing only because of an agreement between the vibrating pattern of the “bodies producing sound” and “us, who are bodies harmonically passive”; between the disembodied laughter of a machine and our hilariously passive bodies Edwards only needs to carve out a geometrical space of corkscrewing convulsions, of the immediacy of panic, however jovial, and where the feelings of the comic and its physiological expression come to join each other. As in other genres—tears in tearjerkers or fear in horror—laughter here becomes a vital element.
The birth contractions in Micki and Maude (1984), the earthquake in The Man Who Loved Women (1984), the rhythm of the famous Bolero in “10” (1979), the bottles of champagne shaken too much, the pancakes overcooked in Darling Lili (1970), the unpredictable leaps of karate enthusiasts, and a hundred other ‘roller-coaster rides’ make up a vast convulsive and gay landscape, an allegory for a buoyant humanity.
This is not the laughter of the spleen, bitter and melancholy, but a great burst which liberates the chest. Descartes: “The surprise of admiration, which, being linked to joy, can open the orifices of the heart so promptly that a great abundance of blood swells the lungs.” 8 We laugh in universal agreement with the convulsions. But these seizures also take the gut into account: the multiple gastrological allusions confirm that laughter digests the absurd. Laughter is not the only one to do so, but it is the first: the physical truth of laughter is in response to the nudity that gives a character its authenticity.
The Paradoxical Couple
Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Howard Hawks; together with Billy Wilder, who is 15 years his senior, Edwards continues in the tradition of the American romantic comedy. After having ruled over The Perfect Furlough (1959), and haunted Operation Petticoat, the amorous constitution of a paradoxical couple, which is a key element of romantic comedy, makes its reappearance in The Great Race (1965), Darling Lili, “10”, S.O.B., and Micki and Maude. A constitution that is simultaneously about the dynamics of passion and the pact that is implied in a loving relationship. The paradox is found as much in their amorous encounters as in the terms of their agreement.
Such is the rule. The originality of Edwards comes from multiple dissymmetries.
First of all, unlike Lubitsch or Wilder, Edwards isn’t really interested in the couple’s progress, nor in the character’s upheavals. Rather than setting out the differences between man and woman, Edwards orchestrates their encounters in such a way as to comically exaggerate the differences that separate them. More importantly, beyond the pretexts provided by a uniform or by feminism, royalty or by conjugal fidelity, it is always feminine modesty or suspicion that delays the constitution of the couple, and the man’s frivolity that prevents the establishment of a lasting union: it is a radical vision of the problems of seduction which defines all the plots. What matters is getting the woman in bed and bringing the man to negotiate. Despite the mores of the time, “10” barely modifies this device: a laughable beauty, Bo Derek intends nevertheless to submit the protagonist to her unusual customary law.
Like Hawks, Edwards enjoys playing around with the most surprising conditions: artificial prohibitions (The Perfect Furlough), forced confinement (Operation Petticoat), quibbles over principles of courtesy and eagerness (The Great Race), stupid speculations (“10”, S.O.B.), alliances against types (Victor/Victoria), make Edwards’ couples somewhat formalistic. Even bigamy (Micki and Maude) seems to obey such fastidious conventions: in “10”, a legal framework prescribes the revelry of a protagonist who must always define himself within that law. The various incarnations of sophistry—the impresario, the lawyer and the psychoanalyst—are there to embody that law and guide one’s conscience.
The clarity of these treaties act, no doubt, as the dogmatic constraints that marital fidelity had once played in comedies of long ago. An immutable point: while exposing such futile conventions, the story and its heroes re-establish its deeper truth. But Edwards’ characters, being social adventurers, transgress with either joy or ridicule their own canonical rules. Moreover, the contracts are explicit: they cannot be affected in any way without being emptied of their contents; the instability of life, or sedition pure and simple, makes a mockery of all such principles, whether real or imagined.
A motif of The Pink Panther and of Micki and Maude shows Edwards has a Lubitsch-like grace: while the heroes engage in formal negotiations, intoxication leads them to an illicit and dumb agreement. This is the other side to the constitution of the couple, where impetuosity or coincidence will always outstrip the pretentious claims of the lawmaker. The claims to which he subscribes are therefore subject to unceasing alterations. The revision, the grand moral issue that comes with an obligatory scene, offers Edwards abundant material to ridicule; what selfishness and bad faith when we want to correct the standards of which we have upheld or recognised the need!
Such occasions are sometimes only hypocritical overloads: in S.O.B., Felix Farmer (Robert Mulligan) modifies his film so much that we see five distinct versions of the same musical number. The final version is a quintessentially provocative but disembodied number: we see Julie Andrews’ breasts, but her character has lost all of her sensual naïveté; art, dreams and rehearsals have transformed her into an empty image. At the same time, however, Farmer’s cynicism drives him to abandon all of his principles to the point of madness, and this pathetic erasure generates a severe uneasiness.
The Accommodation of the Flesh
Desire, the carnal body, and reproduction, are always at stake. Because his comedies are filled with urbanity as well as impoliteness, so arise a number of pastoral or naturalistic emblems: the winemakers in The Perfect Furlough tread the grapes with their bare feet, a pig acts up in Operation Petticoat, the sculptor in The Man Who Loved Women discovers the joys of inspiration when in close contact with skin, in Victor/Victoria a wretched insect passes through and in the waves of cream which plaster Natalie Woods’ corset in The Great Race, each one of us can discern a physical as well as a painterly body.
In snow (The Perfect Furlough, The Pink Panther), flour, or even in water where too many heroes sink with a blissful nonchalance, Edwards’ slapstick vein imagines a flesh gone culinary: sorbet, crumbs, crust, whipped cream, roasting or bain-marie, a world of preparation is in the making. But the hero is mostly slipping into a voluptuous abandon, for which alcoholism is the metaphor, unless it is the other way around.
Such a bodily theme, of such a pulsating flesh, should be described as panic. A generous and rustic nature eventually prevails over the characters prone to sophistication and refined taste. The judgment of nature falls silent, as does the consent they bring about. While words tinker in misleading coherences, spontaneity abides its time. It is the ‘No’ that desire changes into ‘Yes’, the magic of the metamorphosis which reveals the nature, the inexplicable nature, of Venus for Lucrece, the “amiable banditrix” of Raymond Queneau. 9
Devastating too, as the body of course means death, as inevitable as the ejaculation of champagne when pressure has accumulated in the bottle. The discovery of a dying man on the beach in S.O.B., the final destination of the passion in The Man Who Loved Women, or that submarine which, having acquired a pink complexion, draws the hostility of its own fleet, and more widely still, the inertia of Clouseau, a dead weight who is the cause of all the catastrophes, explains an ever impending sense of disaster; they are as many witnesses, slow enough though indisputable, of mortality. In a more touching way, one’s consent to grow old in “10” and to procreate in Micki and Maude are synonyms of that truth of the body.
The bottle of champagne, the party theme, the imminence of the death and the joke, express a unique structure, which is well described by Pierre Murat: “All Edwards’ art consists in dilating each second of our expectations, stretching it to the maximum, playing with it in a way as to generate a slight anxiety within us.” 10
Days of Wine and Roses (1963), which is an admirable melodrama, sums up well this illusory struggle between flight and fate, since the alcohol embodies at one and the same time the unfortunate fate of Lee Remick and the best instrument to ease her into euphoria.
Similarly, Edwards willingly practices a comedy whose advanced warnings are misleading. Here are a few situations in which we can guess straight away where they will lead: an inspector of police enters a nudist colony; the two wives of a bigamist give birth in the same clinic; a masked ball; a bathtub with a man and a woman. The virtue of Edwards’ style consists in deploying hair-raising situations, delighting the viewer with a regularity that doesn’t rule out anxiety, and then, the joke! shattering all in a supreme, unexpected, violent flash. Surprised by a deviation, a superlative, but also by a logic, because the final projection disposes of nothing which hasn’t been pre-determined, and the audience does not resist: a big laugh blooms and crowns its tranquil hilarity.
While on hold, between the announcement and the shattering, there is room for diversions and opportunities. But the slow burn does not prevent the fateful explosion: the mechanism continues to relax its spring until the trigger is released, just as life wears out until death. We plunge ourselves into it quite agreeably until we suffocate. The gaiety leads to a joyous panic. This organisation of time also involves an arrangement of space: a region central and secret, inevitable but patient, opposes itself to an uplifting chaos which occupies all the apparent space.
Pink or black? Why must we always conclude? Superimposed on Edwards’ inventive humor is a great laugh of panic, where we discover, in the convulsions that protest against its necessity, an invincible and contradictory nature. The work of Blake Edwards invites us instead to agree to a life without principles, including the one that has inevitably just been mentioned.
- Reporters is a documentary exposé of the world of news-gathering photographers, in which appears Jacques Chirac, who at that time was the Mayor of Paris. ↩
- Michel Debré (1912 – 1996) was a Gaullist politician who served under President Charles de Gaulle as the first Prime Minister of the Fifth Republic from 1959 to 1962. Masson explained that the “tremolos” refers to the fact that Debré never spoke about France, and French grandeur, without a passionate treble in his voice. ↩
- The other five ‘crimsoned cats’ are The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), The Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), and The Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). Understandably, Masson does not include here Inspector Clouseau (1968), which starred Alan Arkin in the title role, and for which Edwards had no involvement. Since the time of writing, another three Panther films have been added to the ‘litter’—Son of the Pink Panther (1993), The Pink Panther (2006) and The Pink Panther 2 (2009). But only the former was directed by Edwards and can be said to be a sequel, whereas the other two are remakes. ↩
- The quote is from an essay titled “De la comédie italienne” (“The Italian Comedy”) written in 1677 by Charles de Saint-Évremond (1610 – 1703), who was a French soldier, epicurean, and essayist of great wit and irony. ↩
- Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636 – 1711) was a French poet and critic. L’Art poétique is a four-volume work in which Boileau laid down some general precepts and rules for various forms of poetry. In the original French text, “the market place” is actually “des Halles”, referring to the famous wholesale market known as “the belly of Paris”, and which was once located in the 1st arrondissement; while “Parnassus” likely refers to the mythical Mount Parnassus where resides Apollo and the Muses and is considered the home of poetry. ↩
- Pantagruelism derives from Gargantua and Pantagruel, the five-book narrative by Rabelais (1494 – 1553), and is said to designate buffoonery as a cover for social satire. In the prologue of the ‘Fourth Book’, Rabelais defines Pantagruelism as “a certain gaiety of spirit steeped in disregard of things fortuitous”. ↩
- Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764) was a renowned French composer of the Baroque era, as well a major music theorist. ↩
- Masson is quoting Art. 126 of Les passion de l’ame, the fourth volume of Oeuvres Philosophiques de Descartes, compiled by Louis Aimé Martin from original texts by René Descartes (1596 – 1650). ↩
- Masson is referring to the poem Petite Cosmogonie Portative (and the stanza which begins “Aimable banditrix des hommes volupté / qui donnes à l’être un trou pour éjaculer” [IV, 110]), written in 1950 by Queneau (1903 – 1976). ↩
- From Télérama (no. 1709): Pierre Murat is a staff journalist for this French weekly magazine of television, radio and film. ↩