Two old grouches, of diametrically opposed beliefs, verbally slug out issues of life, death, sex and the rest in “Les cotelettes,” a typically provocative piece of absurdist theater from vet writer-helmer Bertrand Blier that starts intriguingly but loses its way from the midpoint on. Despite sparky playing by Philippe Noiret and Michel Bouquet as the ornery oldsters — reprising their roles in Blier’s legit original — the script’s darts start falling way short of their targets as pic progresses. Reception at Cannes was decidedly sniffy, signaling few offshore sales and mild biz likely even in Gaul.
Though Blier’s movies have always shown an acute visual sense, especially in his use of widescreen, his scripts have been principally dialogue-driven, his characters challenging each other — and established society in general — with non-conventional ideas. In that respect, the wall-to-wall dialogue in “Les cotelettes” (literally, “The Lamb Chops”) comes as no surprise; and Blier’s facility for melding the gross and poetic, slang and literate, is still strong. What’s changed is society itself: There’s a strong sense of Blier tilting at windmills, of a ’70s/’80s provocateur trying to shock a world that is now almost unshockable.
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High-concept opening is absolutely typical of Blier’s greatest works, like “Les valseuses,” “Buffet froid,” “Tenue de soiree” or “Trop belle pour toi.” Here, a seemingly upper middle-class family of three is interrupted during dinner by knocking on the apartment door. Eventually a complete stranger causing the commotion is let in. He blithely announces, “I’m here to piss you off.”As in “Tenue de soiree,” pic plunges straight into a loony, theatrical idea in which the principals start challenging each other’s complacency.
The three diners are 64-year-old Leonce (Noiret), his teen son, Xavier (Jerome Hardelay), and Leonce’s mistress, Agathe (Anne Suarez), 30. The interloper is 70-something Potier (Bouquet) who starts in on the delicate Xavier, suggesting he may be a “fag”–at which point, Agathe drags the boy into the bedroom to decide the issue one way or the other. Mixed in with all the verbal hijinks are off-center touches, such as over-insistent use of music and interior design in the apartment (neon curlicues) that seems way out of place.
Leonce, who’s just left his wife and is proud of it, is a wealthy leftist, while Potier is a penurious rightist. It’s an obvious, if slightly nuanced, juxtaposition of beliefs; but what’s surprising is that Blier’s script doesn’t dwell on the men’s politics. Pretty soon they find they have more in common than they thought — especially an attraction to Leonce’s Algerian maid, Nacifa (Farida Rahouadj), and a fascination with Death (Catherine Hiegel).
Early on, pic starts freely cutting — in the middle of conversations — between interiors in the men’s apartments, Leonce’s swank Provence villa, and several stunning, summery landscapes. There’s almost no timeline in the conventional sense: The dialogue is everything and, apart from a couple of striking visual ideas (such as Leonce’s open-air pool), it’s easy to see how the whole thing could just as easily have been set on a stage.
By the halfway point, however, even the well-turned dialogue, which is hard for non-French speakers to fully appreciate, starts punching the air. Beyond obvious subjects like sex and death, Blier seems unable to take his original idea in any meaningful direction, and the ending (featuring the Jean-Claude Gallotta dance company) is simply ludicrous instead of being outrageously ludicrous.
Cast gives its most, with little to choose between grizzled vets Noiret and Bouquet, equally adept at venomous insults and weary philosophizing. Femme roles, as often in Blier’s films, are secondary and largely stereotypical sexually. Francois Catonne’s widescreen lensing is splendidly appointed, and the running time is at least short.