"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Netsuke: Japanese Art in Miniature at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Small is beautiful

Toad with puffed throat. 19th century, stag antler.
The Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge is hosting a small, but noteworthy exhibition of netsuke (Japanese:根付), miniature sculptures invented in 17th-century Japan. These delicately carved objects, often made of ivory or wood, were used as toggles securing pouches called sagemono to kimono' sashes (obi). Some 250 items are on display in the Octagon Gallery on the third floor of this fantastic museum, covering a variety of subjects such as everyday life, myths, legends and tales, animals, and Noh masks. Although the netsukes on display are organized thematically, one case is devoted to unusual material, such as lacquer or pottery.

Octopus with twisted tentacles. Late 20th century.Two rabbits eating loquats. Late 18th century to 19th century, ivory with stained detail. A wasp eating a pear. Mid -19th century.

Eleven items were singled out as the finest in the Museum, and proudly displayed in a case right in the middle of the gallery. One of these, a resting monkey, was chosen – very rightly in my uninformed opinion – to adorn the poster for the exhibition. It is difficult not be fascinated by the perfect purity of the lines and shape, combining with the meticulous details of the eyes and hairs.
An adult monkey and its young, with pomegranate fruit and figure of Daruma. Late 19th-early 20th century. A resting monkey. Mid-19th century.An itinerant musician playing a flute, a samisen and a percussion instrument.Figure of dutchman. 18th century.

I had to go back several times to the exhibition for my sketches; focusing one’s attention on such diminutive and elaborate things is very tiring indeed. I usually find that sketching works of art make me see them better, but this was even truer for the netsuke. In particular I was fascinated by the patterns on the dress of the sculpture of Ono no Tofu, a 10th century calligrapher. When you first set eyes on it you encompass the figure with its hat and an umbrella and fan and the toad at his foot. The clothes are patterned, and soon you distinguish the different patterns for the jacket and the trousers and the hat; the pattern for the jacket, you see, combine complex arabesques and huge floral motives; then you realize that the flowers are finely ribbed, and that the line for the arabesque is not a continuous line, but composed of very short scratches. An almost vertiginous experience…

Ono no Tofu wearing ceremonial garments and holding a fan and an umbrella. Late 19th century.
Be sure to check the Museum’s online exhibition on netsuke. I also heartily recommend catching up on a previous, remarkable exhibition about the influence of Darwin’s ideas on the 19th century visual arts.
Manju formed of a group of 7 noh theatre masks; Late 19th century, ivory.

Netsuke: Japanese Art in Miniature
Until Sun 30 May 2010
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Octagon Gallery (Gallery 10)

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Comtesse de Ségur /5: Les Petites Filles Modèles (1858), extract.

Poster for the film Les Petites Filles Modèles by Clément Scheider
An education... My poster for Clément Schneider's adaptation of Les Petites Filles Modèles. More information here.

To conclude my series on the two most famous books by the Countess de Ségur, here is an extract in English from Chap. 16 of Les Petites Filles Modèles ("Perfect Little Girls"), entitled "Le Cabinet de Pénitence" ("The Punishment Room").

To get inspiration for my translation I looked for roughly contemporary English texts with similar themes. An obvious choice was the first part of Jane Eyre, describing the heroine’s childhood. Interestingly both books feature a scene in which the female child is locked in a room to make penance, and threatened (by Mme de Fleurville in Les Petites Filles Modèles; by a servant, Miss Abbott, in Jane Eyre) with the prospect of dying suddenly, before repenting from the cardinal sin of anger.

The similarity ends here however. In Jane Eyre, the child is punished unjustly, and locked in the room where her uncle died. In the throes of extreme fear, she begs her aunt to release her, but the aunt remains deaf to her pleading. In Les Petites Filles Modèles, Sophie is punished for striking her little friend Marguerite, who had rightly criticized her selfishness. Mme de Fleurville forgives Sophie as soon as she sees that the girl sincerely regrets her actions, although she still maintains the punishment.

The original text of Les Petites Filles Modèles, in French, can be found here. As I am neither a native speaker of English nor a professional translator, I will be very grateful for any suggestion of improvement to my text.

Les Petites Filles Modèles, XVI - The Punishment Room (extract).

Meanwhile Sophie, left alone in the punishment room, was crying not out of repentance, but out of rage. She examined the closet to see if there was any means of escape: the window was so high that she could not reach it even by standing on the table; the door, against which she threw herself violently, was too solid to break. She looked for something to break, to tear. The walls were bare, painted grey. There was no furniture but a plain straw chair and a table of plain white wood; the inkwell was a simple hole made into the table, filled with ink; that left only the quill, the paper and the book that she was meant to copy from. Sophie grabbed the quill, flung it to the floor, stamped on it; she tore the paper into a thousand pieces, she swooped on the book, tore every page, which she crumpled and tore to pieces ; she also meant to break up the chair, but was not strong enough and collapsed to the floor panting and sweating. When there was nothing left to break or tear, she had no choice but to calm down. Her anger subsided little by little; she started to think, and was terrified by what she had done.

Sophie closed her eyes, but sleep did not come. She was worried; the slightest noise made her start; every moment she fancied someone was opening the door. One hour passed. She heard the key turn into the keyhole; she was not mistaken this time. The door opened, Mme de Fleurville entered. Sophie stood up, dumbfounded. Mme de Fleurville looked at the papers and ordered quietly:

“Clean this up, miss.”

Sophie did not move.

“I am asking you to pick up these papers, miss,” repeated Mme de Fleurville.

Sophie still made no move. Mme de Fleurville remained calm.

“You will not obey? That is a mistake. You’re only making your case and your punishment worse. Elisa, come one moment, please.”

Elisa entered and was astounded by the mess she saw.

"My good Elisa", said Mme de Fleurville, "would you please clean all this up? Miss Sophie here tore to pieces some paper and a book. Would you then kindly bring me another book of devotion, some paper and a quill?"

While Elisa was sweeping the paper, Mme de Fleurville sat on the chair and looked at Sophie, who, terrified by the calm demeanour of Mme de Fleurville, would have given anything not to have torn the book, the paper and stamped on the quill. After Elisa brought the objects required, Mme de Fleurville stood up, called Sophie calmly, made her sit on the chair and said:

“You shall write out ten times the prayer Our Father, miss, as I told you before; you shall have for only diner bread, soup and water; you shall pay the objects that you destroyed out of the money you receive every week for your little pleasures. Instead of going back to see your friends, you shall spend your days here, except for two hours’ walk with Elisa, who has received orders not to talk to you. I shall have your meal sent here. You shall be set free from your prison only when repentance, true repentance, is in your heart, when you have begged God to forgive you for your callousness towards the poor, your greed and selfishness, your rage against Marguerite, your angry and vicious disposition, which made you tear up everything that you could possibly break and tear, your rebellious character, which incited you to disobey my orders. I was hoping to find you in the right disposition for repentance; but, from what I can see, I will have to wait for tomorrow. Farewell, miss. Pray to the Lord that He does not strike you dead tonight before you repent.”

Mme de Fleurville walked to the door; she was already turning the key when Sophie, rushing towards her, caught her by her dress, fell to her knees, seized her hands, which she covered with kisses and tears, and through her tears said these words – the only words she could utter:

“Forgive me! Forgive me!”

Mme de Fleurville remained motionless, considering Sophie, who was still on her knees; eventually she bent down, embraced her and told her in a gentle voice:

“My dear child, repentance atones for many sins. You were very guilty towards God and then myself. The sincere regrets that you feel will probably earn you forgiveness, but they do not free you from your punishment: you will not go back to your friends before tomorrow evening, and you shall do all the rest as I ordered.”

SOPHIE, forcefully. — O Madam, dear Madam, punishment will be sweet, because it will be an expiation. I am deeply touched by your kindness. Your forgiveness is all that I ask. O madam, I was so mean, so revolting. Could your ever forgive me?

MADAME DE FLEURVILLE, kissing her. — From all my heart, child. Be assured that I bear you no ill feeling. Ask God to forgive you, as you asked me. I shall have your diner sent here and then you shall write everything I asked you to write, and you shall finish your day by reading a book that will be brought to you.

Once again Mme de Fleurville kissed Sophie, who was kissing her hands and could not bear to let go of her ; she pulled away and left the room, this time without taking the precaution of locking it.

See my other posts on the works of the Comtesse de Ségur:
Les Petites Filles Modèles: plot summary and review.
Mothers (and fathers) in Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie.
Les Malheurs de Sophie: plot summary and extract in English (Chap.15).
Corporal and moral punishement in Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Comtesse de Ségur /4 : Corporal punishment in Les Petites Filles Modèles

Cruel but Just.

Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie , the 19th century best-selling books by the Comtesse de Ségur, are all about education. Corporal punishment features prominently in them, not surprisingly as it was still very much part of the norm in the 1850s. The Comtesse de Ségur's denunciation of senseless and cruel punishements such as those administered by Mme Fichini or Mother Léonard, is common to many of her contemporaries (see for example Dickens' portrayal of abusive stepfather Murstone in David Copperfield).

She swooped down on Sophie and flogged her violently
Don't spare the rod, spoil the child... Madame Fichini and Sophie in Chap. 8.

Chap. 8 of Les Petites Filles Modèles is a particularly horrific case in point. Sophie almost drowns because of carelessness; when her stepmother discovers what happened she is furious, because Sophie spoilt her dress:

Before anyone could react, she took a strong birch rod from under her shawl, swooped down on Sophie and flogged her violently, in spite of the poor girl’s screams, of Camille and Madeleine’s tears and supplications, and of Mme de Fleurville and Elisa’s indignant condemnations. She ceased to strike her only when the rod broke in her hands; then she threw the pieces and left the room. Mme de Fleurville followed her to express her displeasure at such unfair and barbarous punishment. “Believe me, dear ladies” Mme Fichini replied, “this is the only way to bring up children; the whip is the best of teachers. As for me, I never use any other.”
By punishing Sophie all the time, for a wrong reason or no reason at all, Mme Fichini encourages fatalism and empties the punishment of all meaning, thereby preventing remorse. This is particularly clear in the scene in which Sophie wrecks havoc in the penance room in which she was locked by Mme de Fleurville and is momentarily scared by the consequences of actions:

“What will Mme de Fleurville say”, she thought, “What punishment will she inflict on me? For she is sure to punish me. Oh well ! She will flog me. My stepmother flogged me so much that I’m used to it now. Let’s not think about it anymore; let’s try to sleep. (chap. 16)
The Comtesse de Ségur's attitude towards corporal punishment is slightly ambiguous however; she justifies it in some circumstances. Madame de Réan, Sophie’s mother, described as a positive figure of authority in Les Malheurs de Sophie, occasionally uses it:

Without a word [Madame de Réan] took Sophie and whipped her as never before. In vain did Sophie scream or beg for mercy; she was whipped soundly, and it must be said that she deserved it.” (Les Malheurs de Sophie, Chap 18)
 Both Madame de Réan and Madame de Fleurville however prefer to bring about repentance in the child, by a reflection on the consequences of bad behaviour. Punishment, as remorse, becomes internalized.

Mme de Fleurville even explicitly states that she never uses corporal punishment (Petites Filles, Chap. 15), which does not make her any less formidable or severe; indeed quite the reverse. The scene of Sophie’s "conversion" – there is no other word for this – in chap. 17 is, in fact, extremely violent, only the violence is mental. Sophie, as we saw, was only superficially frightened by the possibility of being flogged. But she is seized by real terror when Mme de Fleurville’s leaves her after her extremely severe sermon; she is terrified of being left by Mme de Fleurville, and of going to hell – abandoned by God.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Comtesse de Ségur /3: Les Malheurs de Sophie (1859), extract.

Sade explained to my daughter.

Les Malheur de Sophie ("Sophie's Misfortunes") describes the life of Sophie before the events of Les Petites Filles Modèles, when she still lives with her parents in the French countryside. She is a lively, adventurous child who keeps getting into mischief with the critical complicity of her cousin Paul. Each chapter, with a few exceptions, follow a similar pattern: Sophie does something bad or stupid; she is found out or confesses her mischief; and she gets punished –or not - by her mother Mme de Réan, who uses each incident to teach a moral lesson.

The punishments administered by the mother are as varied as Sophie’s mischief. They range from from lenient (admonition, small fine) to very harsh (corporal punishment, in just one instance). While apparently not as harsh, the punishment devised by the mother in Chap. 6 is rather outlandish, and not little cruel, which is paradoxical, given it punishes an act of crualty:
Outraged by Sophie’s cruaulty, Mme de Réan pulled Sophie’s ear forcefully. Sophie cried out, sprung up and stood trembling in front of her Mama.

“You are a wicked girl, miss, torturing this bee in spite of what I told you when you salted and cut my poor little fishesto pieces.
SOPHIE. — I forgot, Mama, I swear I forgot.
MADAME DE REAN. — I will make sure that you remember, Miss, first by taking this knife from you, which will be given back to you in one year, not before; and also, by making you wear the pieces of the bee on a ribbon around your neck, until they turn into dust.”

In vain did Sophie beg her mama not to force her to wear the bee around her neck; the mother called the servant, asked her to bring a black ribbon, slipped the pieces of the bee unto it and attached them to Sophie’s neck. (Sophie, Chap. 6)
Chapter 15, departs a little from the usual narrative pattern. It adds an intermediary frame: the moral lesson derives from the mother’s tale about another disobedient little girl. Whereas Sophie’s punishments mainly come from outside (although she is also sometimes plagued by remorse) here the child inflicts the punishment on herself, in an act of almost sadistic violence. What is even more striking (forgive the pun) is that the gesture is lauded by the mother, who channels Sophie’s reactions by introducing her tale with the words: “Listen carefully; this is a noble gesture from Elizabeth.”, words echoed by Sophie at the end: “That was a very noble thing for Elisabeth to do.”

Here is my translation of the passage. The original text in French can be found here.

Les Malheurs de Sophie, XV - Élisabeth.

One day Sophie was sitting in her small armchair, looking thoughtful.

“What are you thinking about ?” asked her Mama.

SOPHIE. — I am thinking about Elisabeth Chéneau, Mama.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — Why are you thinking about her?

SOPHIE. — Why, I noticed yesterday that she had a long scratch on her arm, and when I asked her how she received it, she blushed, hid her arm and told me in a whisper: “Hush; I did this to punish myself.” I am trying to understand what she meant.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — I will explain, if you wish; for I too noticed this scratch, and her mama told me how she came to receive it. Listen carefully; this is a noble gesture from Elizabeth.

Sophie, delighted to be told a story, pulled her small armchair closer from her mother to listen better.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — You know that Elisabeth is a good girl, but that unfortunately she is prone to anger (Sophie looked down) Sometimes during her fits of anger she even hits her maid. She is sorry afterwards, but she only thinks about it after, not before. Two days ago she was ironing her dolls’ clothes and linen. Her maid would put the irons into the fire, lest Elisabeth burnt herself. Elisabeth was annoyed not to be able to heat them herself; her maid forbade her, and stopped her every time she tried to do so. At last Elizabeth managed to reach the fireplace, and was about to put down the iron when the maid saw it, removed the iron and said:

“I forbid you to iron, since you won’t listen to me; I’m putting the irons back into the wardrobe.”
“I want my irons”, shouted Elizabeth, “I want my irons”!
“No, miss, you won’t have them.”
“Mean Louise, give them back to me”, said Elisabeth angrily.
“No, you won’t have them. See! They’re locked away”, added Louise, removing the key from the wardrobe.

The furious girl wanted to grab the key from the maid’s hands, but couldn’t. Then in her anger she scratched Louise’s arm so fiercely that the blood ran. When Elisabeth saw the blood, she was sorry; she begged Louise to forgive her, she kissed her arm, she bathed it. The kind Louise, seeing her affliction, assured her that her arm didn’t hurt.

“No”, sobbed Elisabeth, “I deserve to suffer what I did to you; please scratch my arm as I scratched yours, so that I suffer as much as you.”

You can imagine that the maid refused to do what Elisabeth was asking, and the girl did not insist. She was very kind the rest of the day, and went to bed very quietly. The following morning, when the maid woke her, she saw blood on the sheet, and looking at her arm, she saw that it was horribly scratched. “Who hurt you thus my poor child”, she cried out.

“I did”, answered Elisabeth, “to punish myself for scratching you yesterday. When I went to bed, I thought only fair that I should suffer like you, and I scratched my arm until the blood ran.”

The maid, feeling moved, kissed Elizabeth, who promised she would be a good girl from now on.
Do you understand now what Elisabeth told you and why she blushed?

SOPHIE. — Yes, Mama, I understand very well. That was a very noble thing for Elisabeth to do. Yes,. I think she will never get angry again, now that she knows how wrong it is.

MADAME DE RÉAN, smilling. — Don’t you ever do things that you know to be wrong?

SOPHIE, embarrassed — But I am younger, Mama; I am four, and Elizabeth is five years old.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — It is does make much difference; remember how one week ago you became angry with Paul, who is such a nice boy.

SOPHIE. — You are right Mama ; but still I believe that I won’t do it again, as I know it is wrong.

MADAME DE RÉAN. — I hope that you are right, Sophie, but be careful not to think yourself better than you really are. This is called pride, and you know that pride is a very bad fault.

Sophie did not answer, but she had a satisfied smile which meant that she would, undoubtedly, always be a good girl. Poor Sophie was soon humbled, for this is what happened two day later…

See my other posts on the works of the Comtesse de Ségur:
Les Petites Filles Modèles: plot summary and review.
Mothers (and fathers) in Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie.
Corporal and moral punishement in Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie
Les Petites Filles Modèles: extract in English (Chap. 16)

Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Insurance Man, by Alan Bennett (1986)

Portrait of the artist as a bureaucrat.

Prague, 1945. An old man called Franz comes to consult a doctor about lung disease. As the doctor ask him about his professional past, the man recalls a strange episode of his life, before the First World War, when he briefly worked in a dye factory.

One day Franz notices a curious patch on his torso - which spreads days after days. As soon as the industry finds out, they sack him, claiming that the rash has nothing to do with the dye aspersions to which he is regularly exposed. Franz, who has just become engaged, does not dare to reveal anything to his fiancée. On the advice of the sympathetic boss’ assistant, Beatrice, he goes to the Workers Accident Insurance. It is the beginning of a nightmarish quest through the maze of the Insurance Company, peopled with embittered doctors, insensitive functionaries, and endless strings of maimed workers patiently waiting for compensations that never come. More than compensation, the young man wants someone to tell him what is wrong with him. Maybe the elusive Doctor Kafka, to whom his file has been entrusted, will be able to help…

Alan Bennett’s The Insurance Man is a curious piece which deliberately puts you on wrong tracks (assuming there is a right one). The extended flashback about the incident of the dye factory sheds light into Franz’s present condition, but in a very roundabout way. How the two are connected becomes clear only at the end, in a darkly ironic twist of fate that Kafka wouldn’t have disowned.

The atmosphere of the film is, if I may say, straightforwardly Kafka-esque. Franz develops “scales” on his skin, which make his appearance monstrous and turn him into a pariah, like Gregor Samsa from The Metamorphosis ; his doomed struggle with a tentacular bureaucracy will be familiar to readers of The Trial. At the complete opposite of Bennett’s minimalist TV monologue A Woman of No Importance, The Insurance Man uses a full range of cinematographic effects to recreate the claustrophobic maze of the Insurance Company, shot in shades of blues, greys and blacks. A crazy old woman reminiscent of Bleak House’s Miss Flite acts as Franz's “guide” through the bureaucratic inferno.

The play is peppered with black humour, such as the initial shot - a close-up on a man’s face, whose full meaning is revealed only by the subsequent zoom out. One of the best passage has to be the doctor’s monologue, extolling the virtues of pessimism in the face of a crippled woman, naked and silently crying– its conclusion is that far from seeking compensation, the victims of work accidents should pay for the invaluable insight that they gained into the cruelty of life.

Kafka points out at some point that the workers who come to see him all smile when they speak about their accidents. The reason, he suggests, is that they feel they have to apologize somehow for the horrible accidents that happened to them through no fault of their own, because they have been formatted to think that way. The character gives a chilling dissection of unalloyed capitalism, which allows individuals to get injured because of appalling working conditions, and then discards them as unfit to work while putting the blame of them.

But things aren't that clear cut. For a start, we never know for sure whether Franz's skin skin disease was indeed caused by dye aspersions at work, as him and Kafka suppose. The other workers do not seem to suffer from it, and Franz’s rash disappears mysteriously a couple of month later. “I just got engaged” is the answer that slips out of Franz’s lips instantly, when he is asked if anything changed in his life recently. The two elements, it is suggested, might be linked. The atmosphere at the house of Franz’s in-laws is easily as stifling as the Insurance Company, and the breaking off of the engagement comes as a real liberation.

Bennett explains in an introduction to the play (available on the DVD Boxset Alan Bennett at the BBC) that The Insurance Man is not so much about Kafka as what he created. Nevertheless it features an intaglio portrait of sorts. Interestingly Kafka’s writing activity is never touched upon. Far from the clichéd image of “the neurotic writer”, Kafka is shown as socially adept, looked up by his colleagues and appreciated by his superior who shower him with promotions. Daniel Day-Lewis, oozing charisma, gives the ambiguous portrait of a man of superior intelligence, acutely aware of the distress around him and of the unfairness and absurdity of the system, but ultimately powerless.

The Insurance Man (UK, 1986). Directed Richard Eyre; script by Alan Bennett. For Screen Two, BBC. Starring Daniel Day Lewis, Robert Hines, and Jim Broadbent.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Les Petites Filles Modèles /2: Mother Power.

Mme de Fleurville had invited a few neighbours for dinner.
Men... but where are they ?! The neighbours in Chapter IX  of Les Petites Filles Modèles

It is stricking how men, or more exactly husbands and fathers, are conspicuously absent from the universe of Les Petites Filles Modèles. Mme de Fleurville’s husband was killed in action; Mme de Rosbourg’s husband is lost at sea; Mme Fichini became a widow soon after marrying Sophie’s father. One of the poor women helped by Mme de Rosbourg lost her husband on the same ship. Even Hurel the butcher, a positive masculine figure – he finds Sophie and Marguerite lost in a forest, and hands safely to Mme de Rosbourg – drowns a few chapters later. Although Sophie’s father is still alive in Les Malheurs de Sophie, he is mentioned only twice – the second time in absentio, through a present sent to Sophie from Paris; Sophie’s education is left entirely to her mother.

Interestingly this is not reflected at all in Bertall’s illustrations of Les Petites Filles. Out of 19 illustrations, 13 feature men, and 4 out of them even feature only men, mostly absent or unimportant characters, such as the seafarer lost at sea with Mme de Rosbourg’s husband, the Count Blagowski, a schoolteacher, or musicians at a party. The “few neighbours” that Mme de Fleurville receives for dinner in Chapter 9 are represented by a group of four smart men with proud demeanours, giving the impression that beside Mme Fichini all her guests are men – which is unlikely to be the case for a respectable widow like Mme de Fleurville.

On occasions however Bertall’s drawings are are a perfect incarnation of De Ségur’s text. The illustration immediately following, depicting the arrival of Mrs Fichini, is one of the most interesting, in my opinion. The three main adult characters of the book are represented together; Mme de Rosbourg and Mme de Fleurville - the good mothers - in the left side of the picture, facing the abusive stepmother Mme Fichini. The fat figure of Mme Fichini, made even more enormous by her ridiculous flounced dress, eclipses the small figure of Sophie, literally reduced to a shadow.

Here I am my dear ladies, she said, getting off the coach.
Full moon... Mme Fichini in Chapter IX of Les Petites Filles

Mothers, or mother-like figures, are indeed, omnipresent in De Ségur’s two books. For example, Sophie’s mother is the only character, beside Sophie herself, to appear in every single chapter of Les Malheurs.

Eugène de Ségur is said to have nicknamed his wife, who gave him eight children, "la mère Gigogne", or "Mother Gigogne" in reference to wooden Russian dolls that nest one inside the other. Les Petites Filles Modèles shows a different side to this image of the Mother Gigogne. It is interesting to note that the little girls Camille and Madeleine are conferred maternal authority over the younger Marguerite by their own mother: “You will be responsible for [Marguerite’s] education, under the guidance of her mama and me”, says Mme de Fleurville to her daughters (Chap. 4). It is not long before Camille exercises her authority upon Marguerite, ordering her to take some fresh air against the young girl’s wishes. In Chap. 2 the symbolic relation between the two older girls and their new companion is even explicitly stated. In their first conversation together, Madeleine and Camille try to get the name of Mme de Rosbourg, still in a coma, out of Marguerite. Eventually Camille and Madeleine introduce themselves, and Marguerite answers: “You will be my little mamas. Mama Camille and Mama Madeleine.” The chapter ends with Mme de Fleurville asking Marguerite “to play with her two little mamas, so that her big mama may sleep.”

See my other posts on the works of the Comtesse de Ségur:

Les Petites Filles Modèles: plot summary and review.
Les Malheurs de Sophie: plot summary and extract in English (Chap.15)
Corporal and moral punishement in Les Petites Filles Modèles and Les Malheurs de Sophie
Les Petites Filles Modèles: extract in English (Chap. 16)

Saturday, 13 February 2010

D'Artagnan and Three Musketeers (д'Артаньян и три мушкетёра), by Georgi Yungvald-Khilkevich (1979)

Musketeers of the world, unite!

I have seen weird films in my time – including a Bhutanese film, and a Greek B movie entitled Attack of the Giant Moussaka. None however got close to the degree of improbability of D'Artagnan and Three Musketeers by Georgi Yungvald-Khilkevich, a Soviet pop musical from the late seventies. Yes, that’s right, a - Soviet - pop musical. If you thought Soviet and songs were synonyms with “Red Army Choir” or with “ruddy-cheeked, sturdy Kolkhoze farmers singing the merits of collective agriculture boisterously”, it is time to let go of your prejudices and discover this little gem of escapist entertainment.

I must say that I was surprised by the film’s lack of communist propaganda – not, mind you, that it is easy to find in Dumas’ original work; unless you consider the famous “One for all…” an apology of collectivism! Indeed, if any, the only political subtext is be of a subversive kind: in one of the first scenes a street singer makes fun of the police state established by puppet-master Cardinal Richelieu, singing that “Frenchmen cannot sneeze without the Cardinal knowing”.

As a musical, it is mildly impressive. The songs are suitably kitsch and catchy, mixing seventies pop with traditional Russian sonorities, but the choreography is inexistent, apart from one vague attempt at filming the corps of musketeers in fencing training from above.

There are some very weird and rather disreputable shots, which add a certain charm to the whole – random close up of cows or flocks of geese; and one dialogue scene made of a painfully obvious succession of reverse shots, with an ugly frontal of the Cardinal staring at the camera.

The film has pure pantomime moments, such as the scene where two camp agents of the Cardinal set a trap for the Queen’s confidante Constance Bonacieux: in the process of fastening her to a pillar one of the them manages to bind his colleague as well, before receiving a thorough shaving at the hand of d’Artagnan.

If you prefer nonsense and absurd situations, there is plenty of that too. The fight scene where D’Artagnan, about duel the three musketeers, ends up fighting the Cardinal’s guards with them, is completely surreal: inexplicably in the middle of the square where the battle rages there are three completely impassive veiled women sitting in front of big baskets of feathers, who don’t bat an eyelid as the feathers get blown away and bodies fall around them. The battle concluded, D’Artagnan is seen breaking the shell of a hard-boiled egg on the pommel of his sword and eating it, with the bodies of the guards in the background.

The fight scene is immediately followed by a musical set-piece, one of the highlight of the first part: pretty boy and casuist Aramis, winking at the camera, explains in song that despite evidence pointing to the contrary he is not a duellist (duel being bad in the eyes of the Lord); he is merely helping to correct the less successful aspects of Creation, such as the Cardinal’s thuggish guards.

Possibly the most improbable thing about this film is how it still manages to stay true to the original characters and the spirit of the novel. D'Artagnan is decidedly dashing, the cardinal suitably scary and silky, the action scenes are highly enjoyable and the whole thing is garanteed to put you in a buoyant mood. Definitely worth checking up on Youtube. If only for the pleasure of of hearing D’Artagnan singing his pride of being a Gascon in Russian.

D'Artagnan and Three Musketeers (Russian: д'Артаньян и три мушкетёра; d'Artanyan i tri mushketyora) (USSR, 1979). A TV mini series by Georgi Yungvald-Khilkevich, adapted from the novel The Three Musqueteers (Les Trois Mousquetaires) by Alexandre Dumas, père.
Part I: "Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d'Artagnan" (Атос, Портос, Арамис и д’Артаньян)
Part II: "Queen's Pendants" (Подвески королевы)
Part III: "The Adventures Continue" (Приключения продолжаются)
Starring Mikhail Boyarsky, Veniamin Smekhov, Igor Starygin, Valentin Smirnitsky, Margarita Terekhova.