Three Against Nature

THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA (1976)

‘An insult to any audience’ concludes the review of Lewis John Carlino’s film The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (hereafter referred to as Sailor) in my damaged-in-transit Waterstones-freebie edition of the Time Out Film Guide. It also alludes to an ‘exploding seagull’.

The reviews on Amazon were more positive (‘Product delivered ahead of time and was as expected’) but it was the exploding seagull and the promise of being insulted that drove me down to Cex to buy that second-hand DVD I had hesitated over a few days previously. In between shelf and counter, it dropped in price by a whole pound – it seemed like fate was at work. But as Sarah Miles discovers in Sailor, these things can be deceptive.

I haven’t read the Yukio Mishima novel of the same name on which this is based, but I would like to, if only to discover what there is about it that might make the reader think that it would work better if the action were relocated from Yokohama to Devon. Presumably this is what Lewis John Carlino thought, and this, in fact, is one of the attractions of the film, discovering the answer to the question: how will it translate?

And the answer is: badly. But not as badly as I’d hoped.

Widow Anne (Sarah Miles) lives in a coastal town with her son Jonathan (Jonathan Kahn) and housekeeper, quite happily it seems except that Jonathan has fallen under the influence of a precocious schoolfriend (Earl Rhodes) who has assembled a small gang around him. Clearly a budding Tory backbencher, he names himself ‘Chief’ and regales his followers with his half-baked Fascistic philosophy about ‘order and purity’, inspired by the life-cycle of the amoeba and fuelled by sexual repression.

We first see him reacting with disgust to the sight of his followers eagerly flicking through a sex manual he has procured for them: ‘I hope your boyish curiosity about such trivia is satisfied!’, he snaps.

It’s fair to say that he isn’t a particularly charismatic leader, given as he is to calling his followers ‘cretins’ and ‘bloody twits’ and storming off in a strop shouting: ‘You’ll never understand me!’ But his acolytes seem only to take this as further evidence of his ‘first-rate mind’ and gather round him in awe as he dissects his pet cat Cedric, partly as a punishment for his giving up the noble pursuit of hunting rodents in favour of home comforts.

Meanwhile, not quite in the spirit of his leader’s austere teachings, our young hero is busy watching his mother masturbating through a hole in his bedroom wall. Then Kris Kristofferson as the titular sailor, Jim, arrives. ‘It’s a big one!’, cries Anne, on first hearing his ship’s horn – words which possibly turn out to be prophetic; at any rate he is soon joining her in the bedroom and thus inadvertently contributing to Jonathan’s further education.

Though initially he worships Jim, Jonathan’s attitude changes when Jim opts to give up the sea and become a permanent fixture in his life, and he reverts heavily back to Chief’s worldview, whose ‘perfect order’ Jim seems to threaten. When his peephole is discovered, this seems to represent a last straw for Jonathan, and Jim – who in the eyes of the boys has betrayed his masculinity by allowing himself to become domesticated – is slated to go the way of Cedric.

And so he does. In the last shot Douglas Slocombe’s camera pulls away from the clifftop on which slumps the drugged Jim with the kids in their bright red school uniforms scrambling atop him, presumably cutting him up (or perhaps ‘merely’ castrating him).

Try as I might I find it hard to imagine this happening in England, even among public schoolboys, and there’s a part of my mind that wants to replace the central group of figures with the more conventional image of Anne and Jim embracing. Yet this is possibly the best shot in the film – apart from the gorgeous seascapes of the opening credits – as it does seem to unite the two registers the film should be working in: the romantic and the ominous, the sweeping and the swooping.

Mostly they are kept apart. The love story is served up straight and there is little sense of threat or tension playing about the edges of it – at times it’s even quite soppy, though Miles is good. The Bad Seed psychological horror aspect of the film plays out, unexcitingly, in an equally self-contained way, possibly reflecting the idea that children live in their own world, beneath the notice of adults. But the effect is of two films trying to inhabit the same space, a space which neither really deserves to occupy.

Perhaps a more stylised and self-consciously arty approach might have made this work, or at least have made it fail more spectacularly and enjoyably – as it is there’s a sense that a tasteless premise has been handled with drearily good taste. And the seagull doesn’t exactly explode, although one of the kids feeds it a firecracker.

But no animals were harmed etc etc.

MADEMOISELLE (1966)

I don’t remember whether we had any such assurances in the end credits of Mademoiselle (seen at the BFI) in which Jeanne Moreau plays a village schoolteacher so at odds with nature that she takes a sadistic pleasure in poisoning cattle and reaching into bird’s nests to crush their eggs. (Sailor also features an egg-crushing scene by the way; there, however, the eggs are boiled).

Moreau’s Mademoiselle is very prim and proper on the outside, but secretly she’s a kind of witch, bringing havoc to the village, flooding farms and burning barns. The twist is that whereas one can imagine a perfectly innocent woman being designated a witch for causing such disasters in a small village, here Mademoiselle’s appearance of purity deflects all suspicion, which falls instead on Italian lumberjack Manou (Ettore Manni).

It isn’t just Manou’s foreignness that makes him a likely scapegoat, he has also been getting the village men riled up by sleeping with their wives. Mademoiselle is riled up too, in a different way, but she experiences her own desire for Manou as something approximating a conflagration which, like Joan of Arc, she will have to bear.

Manou jests that he is ‘too weak’ to resist women but Mademoiselle experiences his power as something akin to a force of nature. But although she gives Sailor‘s Chief a run for his money in the sexual repression stakes, she succumbs to Manou eventually, resulting in a long, oddly fascinating outdoor sex scene in which she goes through all sorts of contortions (obliterating herself by lying down in his shadow, for example) while he responds with amusement and tenderness.

Then she allows the villagers to think that he raped her and they beat him to death. Oh dear. The film ends with his orphaned son (who Mademoiselle took to humiliating in class, after establishing a close relationship with him initially) spitting at her as she leaves for pastures new. His father spat on her too, during the sex scene. Then, she lapped it up – now, she looks uneasy.

Uneasy is the word for this, which is based on a script by France’s answer to Mishima, Jean Genet, but directed by Tony Richardson, who gives the impression that he doesn’t quite know what to do with it – it’s left to Moreau to give the film some sort of coherence with her persuasive performance. David Watkin’s black-and-white photography helps.

The power structure here might best be described as: women have power over children; men have power over women (the village women who cuckold their men by sleeping with Manou are only giving in to a higher masculine power). Perhaps this set-up is akin to Sailor‘s ‘perfect order’ – at any rate, despite Mademoiselle’s heroic efforts, it is barely shaken. Hence a degree of inertia I suppose.

THE WILD BOYS

Both of the above films are about attempts to defy nature – whether that is nature conceived as essentially feminine, as in Sailor, or nature as masculine (or at least in thrall to masculinity), in Mademoiselle. Perhaps this is one reason why they don’t quite work (though Mademoiselle is no disaster) – they don’t have the chutzpah to carry off that kind of perversity.

Or perhaps you can’t defy nature, since you can’t ever really know where it ends and you begin. Hailing, like Mademoiselle, from France, and also in glorious black-and-white, Bertrand Mandico’s The Wild Boys (seen at the ICA) is about a group of privileged boys (played by girls), in thrall to a mysterious deity called TREVOR, who sexually assault their female teacher during a recital of the witches scene in Macbeth, and inadvertently send her to her death tied to the back of a horse, which trots off into a chasm. And that’s just the start.

They are punished by being sent off on a voyage with a sea captain rather less kindly than Kris Kristofferson (Sam Louwyck), who puts nooses round their necks and winches them, choking, cabin-wards whenever they act up. Eventually they wind up on an island of highly sexed vegetation (‘groping grass’ and ejaculating flowers) where their constant diet of hairy fruit finally causes their genitals to drop off so that they become women – although in ‘reality’ they already were of course (those performances didn’t fool anyone and probably weren’t meant to).

Under the instruction of the formerly male scientist Dr. Séverine (Elina Löwensohn), the captain’s accomplice and lover, whose womb contains a gun, they set out to, probably, conquer the world, though one former boy – Tanguy (Anaël Snoek) – who hasn’t completed the transition from male to female and only has one breast (like the captain, now dead), stays behind.

No lack of chutzpah here then. We also get rape, murder, and a dog with a human head who seems to be some sort of avatar of the captain. The Wild Boys is the title of a William Burroughs book which I don’t think I’ve read, as well as a Duran Duran song (thankfully not included). I suppose this is based to some degree on Burroughs’ book: certainly the lean, sardonic, white-suited Dr. Séverine is a dead ringer for Burroughs and the scenario here recalls the sort of pulp adventure stories that he twisted to his own ends.

Also, we probably shouldn’t forget that other William (Golding) and Lord Of The Flies or perhaps even R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, the book that inspired LOTF. Perhaps we can see this as a boy’s adventure story being read by a teenage girl, creating all kinds of weird interference – but ‘reading’ this in search of meanings is bound to yield too many, all of them contradicting themselves.

Is this a celebration of femininity or is it, conversely, about the demonisation of men, who are being excluded from their ‘own’ story? Is it saying that men should become women or that they can’t (as the gun in Dr. Séverine’s womb might suggest)?

The casting of the girls as boys seems to throw everything off, but happily so. Once you have adjusted, the film becomes straightforwardly enjoyable almost in the way of the adventure stories it perverts, as an exploration of exotic territory, luxuriant and unsettling.

Well OK, ‘straightforward’ might be overstating it. But it can be pronounced seaworthy, I think. It’s as pretty to look at as a Guy Maddin film, but has a lot more forward thrust than he generally manages.

Sailor and Mademoiselle both seemed to be awkwardly trying to squeeze the work of a literary outlaw into a conventional narrative – or at least, a real location. In setting the controls for somewhere outside of the world as we know it The Wild Boys fares better. It is as if the energies which the first two films are not quite able to handle are unleashed in The Wild Boys; but not quite contained, or resolved, which is as it should be.

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