"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

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.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A French Children’s classics : Les Petites Filles Modèles, by the Comtesse de Ségur (1857)

Illustrated by Bertall.

Portrait of the Comtesse de Ségur circa 1840I am translating the dialogue of the film adaptation of Les Petites Filles Modèles, a classic of French children’s literature, written by Russian-born author Sophie Feodorovna Rostopchine, Comtesse de Ségur.

The mother of eight children, the Comtesse de Ségur wrote Les Petites Filles Modèles (“The Perfect Little Girls”), her first novel and a resounding success, in 1857, at age 58. All her books were published by Louis Hachette in a newly-launched series for young children, the now mythical Bibliothèque Rose Illustrée – which over the years grew with many other enduring children’s classics, such as Enid Blyton’s works in translation.

Les Petites Filles Modèles depicts the peaceful life of Camille and Madeleine de Fleurville, two very well-behaved little girls aged eight and seven, under the strict moral guidance of their widowed mother. After a coach accident, the small family welcomes the two new members into their manor house: Mme de Rosbourg, who is without news of her husband lost at sea, and her young daughter Marguerite. They sometimes receive the visit of Camille and Madeleine’s orphaned neighbour Sophie, who, though good at heart, is selfish and dishonest as a result of the abusive treatment received at the hands of her stepmother. As the stepmother, Mrs Fichini, sets out for a tour abroad (eventually marrying a Count Blagowski in Italy), Sophie come to stay with them, and the rest of the book is devoted to her transformation into a good little girl.

The book is part of a trilogy made up of Les Malheurs de Sophie ("Sophie’s Misfortunes", 1859) - which portrays events preceding those of Les Petites Filles Modèles – and of Les Vacances ("The Holidays", 1859), a sequel. The precise date is never specified, but most likely the action takes place roughly at the time of writing, either during the Second Empire or immediately before, during the Third Republic. It is said that Mme de Fleurville’s husband “died in a fight against the Arabs, six years ago” (Petites Filles, Chapter IV), most likely a reference to the colonial war for the conquest of Algeria; there was for example a major battle in at Sidi-Brahim in 1845, during which all but 11 French soldiers were killed.

Chapter 20: La Pauvre Femme (The Poor Woman)
Like Blyton’s books the Comtesse de Ségur’s works are marvellously un-PC, with their moralizing tone, militant Christianity, conservative morality, sentimentality, and rather paternalistic attitudes towards the poor – the finely-clad ladies giving alms to poor deserving women crying of gratitude. The modern squeamish reader might be further put off by the description of Sophie’s cruelty towards animals – disapproved of, not the Christian thing to do - or the numerous instances of corporal punishment – criticized: not sound as a general method of education, but justified in some cases ; he might cringe or laugh at the medical treatments advocated – leech and bleeding are the best of cures, except when you have been bitten by an enraged dog, in which case bathing in salted water and eating garlic will make you whole again (Petites Filles, VI).

Chapter 11: Jeannette la Voleuse (Jeannette the thief)
This all sounds terribly dreary (well, except the leeches and the garlic of course) yet mysteriously, Les Petites Filles Modèles et les Malheurs de Sophie continue to fascinate entire generations of French-speaking little girls - English-speaking children have Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, which seems terribly unfair. Maybe the appeal lies in that it is so outlandishly different from the life of the child reader – Chapter X in Les Petites Filles begins for example with a list of all the different clothes and accessories of Marguerite’s doll, filling up three drawers and two pages.

More essentially, Les Petites Filles Modèles et Les Malheurs de Sophie are not just rigid morality tales (although they are certainly that too). There is subtle subversion at work (arguably very, very slight) in the evident complicity of the author for the ever-inventive Sophie, her namesake, with which the reader is bound to sympathize, despite her propensity to mischief, or precisely because of it. The books are also lit by discreet humour, such as this passage in chapter XVI, in which Sophie says that she regrets her gluttony, which made her sick, to which Marguerite replies with guilty honesty: “It’s true; Mama, always tells me that when one eats oneself sick, one looks like a little pig.” “Sophie”, the narrator adds dryly, “did not appreciate the comparison and became to become restless in her bed.”

See my other posts on the works of the Comtesse de Ségur:
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
Les Petites Filles Modèles: extract in English (Chap. 16)