Screwballing Amidst the Mango Trees

Les Sauvages directed by Jean Paul Rappeneau at the Orson Welles

LES SAUVAGES seems to contain all the necessary ingredients for a screwball romp. One unpredictable beautiful blonde who talks with her mouth full, looks great in men's clothing and covers half of Latin America with a Toulouse-Lautrec stashed under her left armpit. One fiery Italian husband-to-be from whom she is fleeing. One innocent bystander who's unfortunate enough to get caught in a revolving door with the crazed blonde and her duffle bag, and who just happens to have made a fortune in the perfume industry, dropped out of civilization, and live on a tiny deserted island. Add a wealthy New York wife who keeps track of her husband via a Miss Mark--a photo-snapping snoop in tourist a clothing. Mix in the usual Venezuelan traffic jams and customs officials. Spice it up with a few out-of-the-ordinary difficulties--such as transporting a red gas stove across an ocean on a tiny boat--and the recipe sounds complete. But not quite.

Missing are the witty repartees of the Hepburn-Grant tradition, the unique complications that give life to the standard chase routines. It is funny when Catherine Deneuve tries to keep her stolen painting afloat while swimming to shore from a sinking ship, but not nearly as funny as it was when Katherine Hepburn wrestled with her little leopard in Bringing Up Baby. The red gas stove is certainly milked for all its comic absurdity, yet Yves Montand cannot do with it half of what Buster Keaton did with a simple pair of bicycle handlebars in Sherlock Jr. Director Jean Paul Rappeneau seems to understand the basic atmospheric conditions of screwball humor, but he fails to enliven his combination of characters and incidents with any modern twists or new routines. He does not realize that this kind of fun cannot be created by haphazardly mixing together elements that worked well for Philippe de Broca and Preston Sturges; the essential ingredients are those the cook pulls from his own secret stock.

As a result, the dialogue in Les Sauvages is not tight enough, the chase scenes ramble on and on and the characters seem to be thrown together rather than playing off each other for maximum comic peaks. More disappointing, however, is the fact that Rappeneau has failed to correct the sexist treatment of women so common in such comedies. Embodied in such catch-all phrases as "charming" or "crazy" lies a blatant sexist attitude which suggests that women wearing nothing but loosely buttoned men's shirts three sizes too large for them, or women who irresponsibly knock over lamps, smash holes in shipbottoms, who make themselves a general and continual pain are excusable if--and only if--they possess enough sex appeal in their baby toenail to put an army of men on the scent for months. Beyond the purely visual level, Deneuve's appeal lies in the certain restlessness perceivable in her every move, the untameable craziness that forces her to stop at nothing--stealing, biting and screaming--to get what she wants. She is the kind of woman who appears to need more than just a little calming; the kind we expect to see tamed when a man decides to strap her across his shoulders, slap her a few good ones on the old backside, and then carry her struggling and scratching all the way up to the bedroom.

Les Sauvages perpetuates the image of women in film that has been so destructive to women in general. It suggests that women who are attractive to men must be wildly energetic, self-centered and beautiful, even at the expense of warmth and tenderness; that although they may flee from one man they are continually on the lookout for another; that women need men to calm them down and set their priorities straight. Les Sauvages projects the old "I know what she needs" attitude and it's just not funny. In fact, it's downright offensive.

All this is not to say that Les Sauvages has no charm. Somehow in the midst of the dizzying swirl of traffic and rain, perfume industrialists and mango trees, a few beautiful moments manage to emerge. When Nelly (the crazy blonde) and Martin (the former perfume magnate) are alone on the island, he calls her up on the phone that connects two straw huts to invite her to dinner and she insists that she is really much, much too busy. She is eating a peach and thumbing absentmindedly through an old magazine. When we discover that Martin is not just a scraggly bearded recluse but a runaway on whom a major corporation is keeping tabs, that the menagerie of bottles and papers on his desk are really essences and litmus for scent-creation, it adds a delightfully absurd new dimension to his character.

Most wonderful of all, however, is the island setting itself. A crazy paradise of flowers and vegetables watered by a bamboo shoot irrigation system, with chicks and ducks squawking away in coops and homemade wine chilling in the well in the cellar. It is colorful and peaceful, save for the screams and yells escaping from Nelly's hut.

YVES MONTAND, with his unshaven face and smiling eyes, making a boat motor in the garage or a classic French dinner in the red gas oven, seems remarkably at home in his role. But Deneuve cannot deliver a line or wrinkle up her face in an expression without looking like a spoilt child who can't take no for an answer. The problem lies not so much in her acting ability as it does in the part of Nelly itself.

But Les Sauvages does not make its appeal through great performances or witty dialogue or stylish cinematography. It simply offers an exotic retreat from stifling sun-baked, urbanism. It suggests a beautiful escape to days filled with tomato eating and sea-green swimming; to a place where exotic flowers can be smelled before they are packaged in half-ounce size bottles.