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Short Circuits in the Social Order

Pourquoi Pas! Directed by Coline Serreau at the Orson Welles

By Deirdre M. Donahue

IGNORE THE TITLE. Director Coline Serreau's new film, Pourquoi Pas! is not yet another link in that chain of European fast--film cinema called "romantic comedy". It does not send its American audiences out into the night tingling with a Gallic glow--a glow derived from watching lithe, continental bodies tumble about in a variety of Kama Sutra positions. Yes, there is plenty of sex in Pourquoi Pas!, and all persuasions, but it is a natural extension of the plot and not the sole motivation behind the film, as is the case in anything starring Laura Antonnelli. The title wrongly suggests a certain flippant, "what-the-hell-as-long-as-it's-kinky" mindlessness which does a great injustice to this excellent film.

Rather, Pourquoi Pas! explores with intelligence and subtlety the vagaries of human desire. With neither snickers nor excessive sentiment Serreau unfolds the relationship between two men and a woman. The homosexual bond between Louis and Fernand is accorded the same frankness and sensitivity as the heterosexual union with Alexa. The erotic interplay between the two men lays to rest the hoary cinematic cliche that the sight of two men kissing repulses women. Serreau's skill as director and Jean--Francois Robin's delicate photography present the embrace with a warm dignity.

That, in fact, is the secret behind Pourquoi Pas!'s success; the central characters are not free-floating gonads but human beings whose sexuality reflects their emotional needs. Although the film deals with people outside the established social order, they are not refugees from a doctoral dissertation on nuts and sluts. Serreau never allows Pourquoi Pas! to dissolve into a lecture-diatribe on the joys of alternative lifestyles or role reversals.

FERNAND, LOUIS, AND ALEXA are simply three people who live in a run-down suburban house; each has joys and sorrows outside of the commonly shared bedroom. A darkly handsome man, Fernand (Sami Frey) exists as the pivot. He is the one who cooks, cleans and generally maintains order amid chaos. The shock of seeing this massive embodiment of conventional virility doing the "family's" mending is dissipated by Fernand's softness of manner and voice. It is his nature to be a gentle, mothering person. This overflowing warmth has been cruelly diverted away from his own children because their Ron Ziegler look-alike stepfather will not allow them to see "the lousy fag." The poignance of his longing is captured in a shot of Fernand furtively watching his children from behind a park tree. As his face softens with love, the scene loses all of its initial humor and we see the tragedy of a sexual code which forbids a father from ever knowing his children. Sami Frey's performance catches every nuance of Fernand's complicated nature--from his inability to grasp abstract concepts to his generosity to his amusing kvetchiness about what slobs Alexa and Louis are.

Haunted by his mother's madness, Louis (Mario Gonzales) has the ephemeral charm of a wide-eyed waif. A twilight dance on the lawn with Sylvie (Nicole Jamet) reveals the mad, musical magic within him. It is a lyrical moment of which Serreau and her cast should be proud.

THE MOVIE attacks the very foundation of the established moral order; the man-woman unit is outdated according to Serreau. Fernand meets and falls in love with a delicate blonde, Sylvie. Their impossibly romantic meeting is right out of 1930 s screwball comedy. Everything seems perfect--she's beautiful, rich and looks like Carole Lombard; he's handsome, poor and resembles Clark Gable. After an idyllic ten days together, they return to the suburban house where Alexa and Louis have been anxiously waiting. Suddenly, things change. The steady current of attraction no longer flows in a closed circle around Fernand and Sylvie but rather short-circuits into a series of sparks between Fernand/Alexa, Sylvie/Alexa, Louis/Fernand, and Louis/Sylvie. The breadth and variety of human desire expressed in this film reveal how ludicrous fidelity et al has become.

Or does it? Serreau makes her point extremely well; her film is beautifully cast, well-written and technically flawless. But her approach has a gaping hole in it. The skill with which she sensitively portrayed those outside of society apparently vanished when she was called upon to portray those within. To emphasize just how happy and fulfilled Fernand, Alexa and Louis are, she reduces the film's "straights" into one-dimensional jokes. Fernand's ex-wife is a case in point. She sports grotesque polyester clothes, has a permanent Pat Nixon hairdo and screams continually at her children. Her voice grates across the screen like razors on a chalk board. Yet two questions arise--if she was this horrible, why would a man of Fernand's obvious sensibility ever have married her, and second, can Serreau have no compassion at all for this lower middle class French woman whose husband leaves her with two small children for another man?

Alexa's husband is accorded the same, insensitive treatment. An eager, upwardly mobile businessman, his agony and rage at being left is trivialized into a despicable obsession with keeping up appearances. In making her case for sexual tolerance, Serreau commits reverse discrimination. This lack of tolerance flaws but does not destroy the impact of Pourquoi Pas! The film gives promise of great things to come from Coline Serreau.

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