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MOVIES: QUIRKY CRISES : 'Menage': A Doozy at Defying Gender and Identity Lines

October 24, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Our screens, not to mention our lives, seem rife with identity confusion these days; if it isn't racial (see adjacent "Soul Man" review), it's sexual (see below).

But the absolute doozy in the matter of defectors across all definable lines of gender and identity is Bertrand Blier's bracing and astonishing "Menage," with Gerard Depardieu, Miou-Miou and Michel Blanc, who, understandably, took best actor at Cannes this year for his soulful performance.

Before it goes into a tailspin of indecisiveness, "Menage" (at the Music Hall) manages to challenge most of our comfortably held beliefs about sexuality. (And even in subtitled translation, it might conceivably drive conservatives in the audience straight for the exits.)

It begins in a scruffy cafe, where a bummed-out Miou-Miou is screaming at her mild, white-mouse, balding husband, Blanc. She is precise in the dimensions of her contempt for his ability to take care of them. She hates living in a trailer. She longs for a change of underwear. She might kill for a hot bath.

Unexpectedly, a stranger approaches, thwacks her a mighty one, throws a thousand francs at her, and then another, and explains severely to her husband that "A man's gotta get himself respected." It is ex-con Depardieu, who almost immediately proclaims his love--for the small, mustachioed Blanc.

Thus begins one of the most hilarious pursuits since Joe E. Brown cast a covetous eye on Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot." The sometimes bisexual, mostly gay Depardieu, a frigate tattooed on his barreled chest, is a force not to be ignored. The absolutely straight Blanc, back-pedaling and wide-eyed, is aghast. Miou-Miou is pragmatic. Depardieu is a sirocco in the tepid climes of their lives. He is excitement, danger, money. What's her husband so skittish about?

All three set about for a little suburban breaking-and-entering, which, when led by Depardieu, defines the meaning of the word flair. It's his nose, you see--the sort once described in a quite different film as a "great hooter." It's a nose that can sniff out gold bars, even in an attic, and can produce the contemptuous "tax dodgers!" within seconds of entering the house.

It is all part of his courtship of Blanc. Depardieu woos him classically, cunningly, with the ardor of Cyrano and the language of Norman Mailer. This suitor is very, very hard to resist.

Director Blier has worked in all sorts of permutations of a pair or a triangle before, in the acidly unpleasant "Going Places," in "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs" and in "My Best Friend's Girl." But never with quite this insouciance or blithe assurance.

He wants us as off-balance, as challenged and--possibly--as accepting as Blanc, which may be a tall order. Blier admires those with a certain adaptability in their makeup. Most of all, he wants us to consider a starry sky in which the stars may not be fixed in their places at all.

The grand, dizzying rush of the film's first two-thirds makes the disintegration of its final section all the more disappointing. Blier has never been particularly clever at endings, but he has never been as inspired in his beginnings as this, either.

Having taken his characters through every permutation of relationships, Blier runs amok with his film. All one can salvage from the wreckage is the warming satisfaction that comes from three performers in magnificent form, and these days that is nothing to take lightly.

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