“Mademoiselle (1968, Tony Richardson). The wildest screenplay I can remember written by none other than Saint Jean Genet himself. In a remote French farming village lives a frustrated school mistress (Jeanne Moreau) whose suppressed sexual desires explode into secret wanton acts of violence. She delights in smashing birds’ nests, poisoning the farm animals’ drinking water, drowning pigs and setting fire to her neighbor’s houses, all in the name of sexual gratification. But the village blames the new stud in town for all her mayhem, so Jeanne springs into action. She lures him into a field and, in what is easily the most startling scene in the film, seduces him by crawling on all fours like a dog and licking his hands and boots. That accomplished, Jeanne immediately cries rape and the villagers stone him to death. A heroine only Jean Genet could create in this midnight movie way before its time.”
I would have read Waters’ intriguing description of Mademoiselle when I was still in my teens but only just now got around to watching it. (When Jeanne Moreau – one of the essential faces of mid-century European art cinema - died last year, I added loads of her films to my Cinema Paradiso wish list). Mademoiselle is less lurid and sensational than Waters makes it sound – it’s actually a punishingly austere and slow-moving, bleak art movie. But boy, it’s still genuinely bizarre and disturbing! (Especially the images of animals in torment. Apparently, the audience booed at Mademoiselle’s Cannes premiere in '68. I can kind of understand why!). Genet’s script explores his recurring preoccupations: the nature of evil, sadomasochism, violence, Catholic hypocrisy. The school teacher’s thwarted erotic obsession with the Italian lumberjack finds a twisted expression in acts of deliberate destruction: sexual and emotional repression unleashes evil. Interestingly, Genet wrote the script with Anouk Aimee in mind. Much as I love Aimee, who else but Moreau – with her hints of perversity and eerily aloof self-possession - could essay a role like this? I love her secret Mona Lisa-like half-smirk as she surveys the chaos and flames she’s created. (In real life, Mademoiselle’s director Tony Richardson was then married to Vanessa Redgrave but would abandon her to be with Moreau). Richardson wanted Marlon Brando for the male lead but thank god it went instead to the insanely rugged and handsome Ettore Manni. He’s so sexy you can understand why Moreau goes berserk over him! Mademoiselle was a French-English co-production: the Italian characters speak in Italian with English subtitles while the French peasants are dubbed in English, with British-accents, which feels weird. The film’s message about anti-immigrant prejudice and the scapegoating of minorities certainly feels timely. Fifty years later, time has not mellowed Mademoiselle!
Further reading: many years later Moreau would star in another Jean Genet adaptation - Querelle (1982), R W Fassbinder's last film.
Read my epic 2010 interview with John Waters here.