Helmer won an Oscar, three Cesars and a Cannes jury prize
The name Bertrand Blier used to mean something. In the ’70s and ’80s, the French director was synonymous with a certain brand of subversive absurdism, making wild, transgressive comedies such as “Going Places” and “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” where murder wasn’t necessarily a crime and otherwise inexcusable acts of rape stood as outbursts of uncontainable passion.
Blier won three Cesars, a Cannes grand jury prize and even a foreign language Oscar (for “Handkerchiefs”) and was honored last week at the City of Lights, City of Angels film festival in L.A. But mention his name to anyone of my generation — heck, anyone under the age of 40 — and you get blank stares.
While Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Resnais and a half dozen other essential French auteurs are still being taught in film school and screened regularly in repertory, Blier has somehow fallen off the map with younger audiences. Look him up on Wikipedia, and you find an empty one-line entry — “Bertrand Blier (born 14 March 1939) is a French screenwriter and film director. Born in Boulogne-Billancourt, France. He is the son of Bernard Blier.” — that gives no sense of his influence or impact.
I know at least one older film critic who counts “Going Places” as the seminal foreign film in his life, single-handedly sparking his appetite for subtitled cinema. Like a cross between a road-trip movie and a Molotov cocktail, “Going Places” follows two unattached rascals (Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere) who set off on a sex- and crime-filled spree, rejecting all that is holy about polite French society while forcefully trying to reconcile their place within it.
“Going Places” (originally released as “The Waltzers” in the U.S.) was a “whopping” hit on the arthouse circuit, according to Variety reports from 1974. The film connected with a certain late-hippie restlessness as young auds embraced Blier’s radical decision to tell a story about randy drifters, instead of the usual bourgeois subjects — a la “Easy Rider” a few years earlier.
“I was very angry, and I wanted to make a movie that was somewhat obscene,” Blier recalled during a COLCOA Q&A last week. “There were a lot of movies at that time about dentists who would go and vacation in St. Tropez (so “Going Places”) was kind of an attack against the public about the taste of French people.”
The film was plenty shocking — as in a scene where Jeanne Moreau, playing a randy ex-con the two thugs seduce along the way, sticks a pistol in the most profane of places and pulls the trigger. That ability to throw audiences off-balance continued in Blier’s subsequent works as well, most notably “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs,” which reteamed Depardieu and Dewaere in a less anarchic, but equally impolite trouncing of sexual mores, as the two men try to sustain a three-way relationship with Carole Laure.
“What always interested me was to show men who don’t understand anything about women. It’s very autobiographical, because I don’t either,” he said.
Though the edgy writer-director had another hit in 1990’s “Too Beautiful for You,” the conventional wisdom suggests Blier lost his edge as his career went on. Still, it’s hard to imagine that being the case, based on his latest film, “The Clink of Ice.” In the pic, a misanthropic writer (played by Jean Dujardin but conceived for longtime collaborator Depardieu, whom Blier flippantly calls “too fat right now”) receives an unwelcome visit from his brain tumor, personified as a pesky houseguest (French comedian Albert Dupontel) only he can see.
Though the subject matter may be more mature in “The Clink of Ice” (Blier’s last head-on treatment of man’s fear of death, “Buffet Froid,” took a more flippant approach to mortality, as characters murdered one another willy-nilly), the execution is as confrontational as ever, daring to find comedy in a terminal cancer story.
So what are the odds that young cine-astes will rediscover Blier? Tastes have changed, with “Jackass” and reality TV diluting our sense of where the boundaries lie, and yet, as someone who stumbled across Blier’s work for the first time just two years ago, I can attest that his films feel as fresh and free-wheeling today as they must have been in their initial release. It’s time we remembered his name.