Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Bernie or can gratuitous violence be funny?

Less than a decade ago a French boy in Caen, Normandie introduced me to Albert Dupontel: the intro was short, sth like "I will show you a film by a guy I really like. He does everything, acting, directing, script-writing. And his sense of humour rocks". It was like this that I watched Le Createur; I cannot recall much, I guess it did not impress me as much as expected. I do remember the guy had a disturbing face, though.

Yesterday night in Brussels a German boy insisted on us (Michael, Manos, me and himself) watching a film of his choice, a "very funny, but a bit sick" film, as he said. "Do you know Bernie"? he asked, but the only Bernie I knew was the one of Weekend at Bernie's (1989). It slowly transpired that Bernie was Albert Dupontel's first feature film, crazy and not belonging to any discernible film genre, but belonging nevertheless to my favourite philosophical trend of my academic years: post-modernism.

Bernie (1996) was nominated for a César in the Meilleure Première Oeuvre (Best First Work) category, which comes as quite a surprise, thinking of the guts that they had at the Césars back then, as now they are far more conservative in their choices of the contestants --and this film is definitely no film for the mass audience.

Checking online, I see that people who gave Bernie a chance a long time after it went out in the cinemas, understand its place among the cult French films, talk a lot about its "second degré" quality --a phrase basically aknowledging that the film can only be understood on a second level, which differentiates from the obvious message that the image on the screen sends out-- but they do not cheer for it all that much. Which basically proves that they do not get it.

After this lengthy introduction, I can cut the long story short and say what I have to say about this French bizzarerie: it goes among the same lines with Sitcom (1998) by Francois Ozon and other provocative films of that time, when certain directors tried to experiment with the medium itself and not so much with the content. Having that in mind, the viewer can find a safe way to read and enjoy such kind of films, but it definitely needs some training for those who are easily disturbed by gratuitous violence, immoral/paranoid characters and vulgarity in general. Let me remind you Clockwork Orange (which scores of course at a totally different quality level) and its not-easy-to digest scenes of violence and sexual assault. That one falls under the category of a parable on personal freedom and choice, but what I'm trying to say is that both films require a key in order for them to be read correctly and not insulting the viewer with their excess.

To answer to the question "what is this film all about" I would summarize some of its qualities, without analysing them much. Being a parody, Bernie is not actually creating violence by itself, it just immitates and drives to the extreme filmic text that is already out there; a) it plays with the world "enculé", a common french insult in French films and it visualises it for the pure fun of it --which can be a bit disgusting, though b) it questions the clichés of representation for a number of things like the happy family, the romantic couple, the quest for identity and it even takes over the famous --already from the Greek tragedies-- scene of identification between two relatives after a long time i.e. Orestes and Electra etc and makes good fun of it. c) it references numerous film genres and uses the pastiche technique to create one entity out of them: the film starts as a quest for identity drama, goes on finely depicting a psychopath, thus getting closer to films describing mind-disturbed characters and their need to fit in, then takes over the family hatred genre like War of the Roses and continues in a never-ending play of mix and match, with a very funny parody of the hostage liberation films towards the end. d) the main character uses a camera to recite his wonderful deeds, as a critique to self-referentiality and issues of self-consciousness. These are only some examples of the thick layering of the film.

After all that fuss, yes, gratuitous violence can certainly be funny, especially if it is read in the proper way and if it gets the right distance from any attempt to be measured with aesthetics in mind --well, unfortunately issues of aesthetics cannot always be applied. But I do understand people who cannot relate to such a complicated reading of such a random, yet such a complex film; then I guess I have to add a last comment: it can only be fully enjoyed by French speaking audience.

P.S. A big thank you to Ollie, who gave me the opportunity to think a little bit more on the topic.

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