Thursday, July 20, 2006

An Intelligent Primitive

A GIRL IS A GUN aka AN ADVENTURE OF BILLY THE KID
(Luc Moullet, France, 1971, 35mm, 100 mins.)


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"Reminiscent of the finale of Duel in the Sun, but pushed to the level of excruciating lunatic farce, with a touch of Fuller's madness."
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum

Sometimes described as an "acid Western," A Girl is a Gun is not so much a freak-out--no special effects, no trippy graphics--as it's just plain weird (a subtle distinction, but a distinction, nonetheless). Of the four Moullet films I've seen, including Tati-esque short An Attempt at an Opening, this bizarro riff on the classic American genre is also the least funny. I don't mean that as a dig. It's just that I had pegged Moullet as the most comical Cahiers contributor-turned-auteur when this entry came along to up-end my thesis.

It's not that A Girl Is a Gun doesn't have any laughs, but that it doesn't have as many as the witty Brigitte and Brigitte or ironic Comedy of Work, with its shambling Mike Leigh-meets-Aki Kaurismäki vibe. Just as Brigitte was a product of its time, so too is A Girl is a Gun. One film is unmistakably part of the French New Wave, while the other has more in common with Anglo-American counter-cultural classics, like the Terry Southern-penned The Magic Christian (with Ringo Starr) or the Jack Nicholson co-written Head (with the Monkees).

In other words, there's a rock and roll spirit running through this thing, even if it doesn't feature any rock stars. Then again, Jean-Pierre Léaud comes close, I suppose. His "Billy le Kid" is certainly dressed for the part with his floppy hair, striped trousers, and fashionable boots. He could fit as comfortably into the Old West as the Carnaby Street scene of the early-1970s. But it's the droney soundtrack, by Moullet's brother Patrice, that plunges into full-bore psychedelia. A Girl is a Gun is also dubbed into twangy English for most of its running time. It wasn't a decision foisted upon Moullet, but rather one he made for himself. It definitely adds to the weirdness.
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The only known picture of Billy the Kid
As for Billy, the character, he's a man on the run, both from the white authorities and the scalp-happy natives. The setting is the Mexican border. Whether that means Texas or New Mexico, I couldn't say. At times, the landscape looks like something out of a John Ford film, i.e. Monument Valley. At others, it evokes the craggy Italy of Antonioni's L'Avventura. (Moullet makes use of desert, forest, and rocky hills.) I think both impressions are intentional, especially since there's a purposefully pretentious moment in the picture when Léaud looks into the camera, in frame-filling close-up, and explains that he doesn't understand Woman, but is willing to learn.
Also, he spends the first 15 minutes dragging Woman around by a rope. Her name is Ann and she's played by the full-figured Rachel Kesterber (The Last Tango in Paris), who has a good inch on Léaud. (He may be prettier, but she's sexier.) They meet cute, by the way, when he digs her out of the sand, ties her up, and takes off for the border. You could write off his behavior as sexist, but just wait. First, it occurred to me that Moullet was commenting on Ford's The Quiet Man, in which John Wayne drags Maureen O'Hara around Ireland. Also, the balance of power will shift, so it's not as if Billy is trying to "tame" her. Rather, he doesn't trust her (gender aside). Once he realizes she's okay, he unties her. Alas, his suspicion is justified.
The two spend the last 15 minutes running from and towards each other. Is it love? Or hate? By this point, A Girl is a Gun has morphed from a Western into full-blown melodrama. Moullet has cited King Vidor's Duel in the Sun as an influence and that definitely comes across although, as with the other selections in the "French King of Comedy" series, it was shot on a shoe-string budget and the print isn't in the best of shape. That said, not one of these films is available on video: You snooze, you lose. Plus, A Girl was edited by Jean Eustache (The Mother and the Whore with Léaud).
Speaking of the late Eustache. In writing about Brigitte and Brigitte, I referenced Tigrero, a film made by Aki Kaurismäki's brother Mika, which features Sam Fuller and Jim Jarmusch. Well, I'm convinced that Jarmusch, who dedicated Broken Flowers to Eustache, borrowed the final shot in this film for Mystery Train. Just substitute Masatoshi Nagase for Léaud, replace blood with smeared lipstick...
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Luc Moullet
Note: I had intended to write about Comedy of Work (1987, 90 mins.) and Attempt at an Opening (1988, 15 mins.), but that was before I realized I would take up so much space with A Girl is a Gun. Suffice to say both are very funny and well worth your time. If you need more encouragement, please click here.
"Fuller is a primitive, but an intelligent primitive, which is what gives his work such unusual resonances; the spectacle of the physical world, the spectacle of the earth, is his best source of inspiration, and if he is attached to human beings, it is only to the extent that they are themselves attached to the earth."
-- Luc Moullet on Sam Fuller
FRENCH KING OF COMEDY: SEVEN WONDERS OF LUC MOULLET runs from July 21-27 at the Northwest Film Forum. A Girl is a Gun plays with An Attempt at an Opening July 24-25, Mon. and Tues. at 7 and 9pm and Comedy of Work plays July 26-27, Wed. at 7pm and Thurs. at 9pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please visit www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206/329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.

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