Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Midi Minuit (1970)

Helene (Sylvie Fennec) and her beau Jacques (Jacques Portet) drive all the way out to the middle of nowhere to visit their pal Laurent Lorrain (Laurent Vergez), who is staying with his bizarro family of tortured/torturing artists.  Things get weird, to say the very least.

Pierre Phillipe’s Midi Minuit (aka Moon and Midnight) is excruciatingly odd and chaotic, yet it still manages to be captivating (probably because of its odd, chaotic structure).  It could easily stand comfortably next to the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky or Juan Lopez Moctezuma.  Not surprisingly, it also fits nicely in line with their Mouvement Panique which was founded on the idea of transgression surpassing the surreality in vogue at the time.  By that same token, Midi Minuit feels a bit toned down from something along the lines of, say, Alucarda.  Sure, there is the scene where Helene spies a woman held captive in chains, and later said woman is having sex with a man, suggesting in the way it’s portrayed that she is being used specifically as a sex object, just not necessarily unwillingly (these chains will come into play again later on in the film in a similar context).  But there are also scenes where characters, especially the creepy, quasi-pedophilic father Robert (Daniel Emilfork, perhaps better known for his appearance in City of Lost Children), will discuss things at length which feel both oblique and expositional.  

There’s no real plot to speak of, much like in Radley Metzger’s similarly-premised Score, but elements of one creep around the edges and cause moments in the film to happen that further reinforce its points.  Instead, the film is, first and foremost, about the discovery of Helene and Jacques that they, and by extension the audience, are all a bit mad.  They just need to discover it within themselves and allow it to blossom, and the Lorrain family is the key to this.  “Nympho” sister Elsa (the stunning Beatrice Arnac) goes through men like she goes through paint, and after she has them wrapped around her little finger, she dumps them in fickle acts of whimsy.  These jiltings typically involve her suggesting that her latest stud beat up her current one.  Sex and violence are inextricable to Elsa, because these are the only things she sees as useful in her self-centered world (the inspiration for her art, perhaps?), and she is up front about all of it.  Naturally, Jacques falls under her spell, and it costs him in more than one way.  Conversely, Laurent is sensitive on the outside, as evidenced by his wearing of a caftan and walking around shoeless like a hippie cult member.  He and Helene connect on a soulful, emotional level, but it won’t be until much later that his big secret is revealed (I have to say, it’s a doozy).  Elsa and Laurent share the same basic nature (read: insanity), just one is external and the other is internal.  It almost doesn’t matter which one of them draws in which of the outsider couple.  Jacques and Helene were going to be pulled in no matter what, because it’s all part of our base human nature.

Bearing this in mind, there is the metaphor of art as it relates to madness.  Robert enjoys acting out (non-sexual, at least onscreen) stories and/or fantasies with his coterie of young playmates, and he isn’t above getting a kick out of drugging someone (courtesy of uni-browed boy toy and all-around chemist Walerian [Patrick Jouane]) and watching the results.  His art is philosophical in nature; after all, he’s the ring leader.  The youngest Lorrain sibling (Veronique Lucchesi) performs pagan rituals involving pigeon sacrifices, takes and beats prisoners in militaristic roleplaying games, and revels in jesting about the “sadic of the garrigue” (basically, “the sadist of the Mediterranean region of Southern France where this film is set” … I think).  According to Elsa, she’s “on the right path.”  Speaking of Elsa, her paintings are High Renaissance in style (from what I could discern of them), especially in how they focus on the representation of the flawless (male) human form.  Laurent’s art is primarily in metalworks, perfectly shaped and alluring in its shininess while also having the ability to wound with its sharp edges and pointy ends.  In the same way that the insanity within Elsa and Laurent is displayed as external and internal, respectively, their art seems to be the opposite; Elsa’s is more traditional, while Laurent’s is experimental.  Even the “estate” the Lorrains live on reflects madness and art as lifestyles.  The place is in ruins.  The rooms are strewn with fur throw rugs and stuff that appears to be trash and lamp sculptures that have to be manipulated to operate.  The “family dining room” is more or less a cave with a large round stone table.  The images of decay are married to the images of art floating around the place, and they form a union between art and psychopathy that weighs heavy on every frame of the film.

Midi Minuit is at constant odds with itself, the same as the characters embody the duality of beauty and madness.  We get Hitchcockian moments like in the shot where Helene is stripping down to go skinnydipping, and the camera pulls back to reveal a dead man lying on the hill overlooking the water.  Then we get constant smash cuts to things which may be only tangentially connected to the scene they’re cut into, may be some portent of things to come, or may be just images intended to shake up the viewer from traditional modes of watching films, fragmenting linear narrative with non-sequitur symbolic images.  For example, as Laurent, Helene, and Jacques are driving around, there is a quick cut to an image of the same person in chains Helene saw earlier (or maybe it’s someone else), only this time the person is in a car which is being driven around.  There is no other reference to this image in this context in the film at all.  Helene and Robert have a conversation that is loaded with metaphorical subtext (both in what’s said and in what’s seen; Helene is explicitly included in Robert’s childish theatrics, and she either plays along or gives in to it) but relates directly to Helene’s feelings for Laurent.  The film jumps around like mad (no pun intended), and even though I honestly couldn’t say precisely what’s going on at a given moment or what it necessarily means, I still found myself ultimately following along and rather enjoying the ride.  For me, it appeals just enough to the avant garde and the exploitative sides of my cinephilic character (there’s that madness creeping in?).  It’s as visceral as it is elliptical, and while I would say it won’t appeal to every cinematic taste by a long stretch, it’s very much recommended by me to those with more adventurous filmic appetites.

MVT:  The film is so bizarre.  Yup, that’s about it.

Make or Break:  The first dinner scene will fully let the viewer know whether or not Midi Minuit will play to their fancy.

Score:  7/10            

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