Madame Rosa (1977)

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Madame Rosa
La Vie Devant Soi
Dir. Moshe Mizrahi
Premiered November 2, 1977

Paris as we know it is not very old. Beginning in the 1860s, the city was demolished piece by piece and rebuilt bigger, cleaner, and easier to get around, this was the beginning of the wide avenues, circles, and monuments we know today. But it was never finished. Go to the Marais, just north of the Île Saint-Louis, and suddenly you are not only in a version of Paris that has disappeared, but an entire way of life in Europe. Preserved in this one corner of the continent is a perfect image of the Old Country; the close cobblestone streets, bars, bookstores, and bakeries of the Jewish ghetto; here alone lives the world of ancient photographs and tragicomic Yiddish tales of life before the Holocaust. Madame Rosa doesn’t take place in the Marais, it takes place in Belleville, and it is set in the 1970s, just as it was filmed, but it is very much in the spirit of such tales.

Belleville in the 1970s was a hub for immigrants, mostly from North Africa, mostly Jews. But it is also near Pigalle, the red light district, and it is this unusual location that makes this story, based on the 1975 novel The Life Before Us, so fascinating. The titular Madame (Simone Signoret) is a deeply traumatized Holocaust survivor and retired prostitute who has made a habit of taking in the abandoned children of her younger colleagues. As a result, this is not so much her story as that of her eldest charge Mohammed (Sami Ben-Youb). With Rosa dying, her other children being sent off, Mohammed is the last person to truly care for her, an incredible burden on the boy as he wonders about his parentage, seeks guidance from an increasingly senile and blind imam (Gabriel Jabbour), and contemplates his nascent adolescence with a beautiful young film editor (Michal Bat-Adam).

Madame Rosa is deeply imperfect. It meanders frustratingly through its first half, and the editing always seems a bit off– in an at least refreshing contrast to badly edited movies from this year, scenes end slightly sooner than they should– but it is a touching and also somewhat disturbing story, anchored by Signoret’s performance and the odd characters around Rosa and Mohammed.

How Did It Do?
Madame Rosa grossed $5.2 million in the United States and around $4 million in France, depending on how much tickets cost there. The film also benefitted greatly from the timing of its release, coinciding as it did with President Carter’s sponsorship of peace talks between Israel and Egypt in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. With a RottenTomatoes score of 83%, many critics openly gave Madame Rosa a pass for its questionably loose narrative and editing in favor of endorsing both its story and production as an example of Arab-Jewish cooperation.

Madame Rosa was the last film released to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it won. By my estimation it shouldn’t have, but there are a couple of reasons why it might have won. The first is political: Molly Haskell of New York Magazine strongly suspected that the award had been given thereto as a compromise for giving Best Supporting Actress to Vanessa Redgrave in light of her…contemporary efforts (That thing keeps coming back, though Madame Rosa’s Israeli director, Moshe Mizrahi, actually agreed with Redgrave). The second is that, while the award probably should’ve gone to A Special Day, the Academy, reflecting Old Hollywood’s longstanding paranoia about scaring away Midwestern Goyim, were spooked by that movie’s unapologetic gay themes, though the notoriously homophobic country of Italy interestingly had no problem submitting it. But I digress.

Next Time: Pete’s Dragon

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That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

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That Obscure Object of Desire
Cet Obscure Objet du Desir
Dir. Luis Buñuel
Premiered August 17, 1977

In the final scene of Luis Buñuel’s last directorial effort, a radio announcer proclaims that an assortment of terrorist groups, who have overrun the oddly placid version of contemporary France and Spain here depicted and made random violence as common as ordering pizza, have suddenly all joined forces. That this should happen is incredibly strange, as the insurgents range from Communists to Anarchists to hardline Catholics. But all have a common interest in changing your mind, and so too does Conchita, the film’s unpredictable titular object of desire.

The film opens in Seville, as wealthy French widower Mathieu (Fernando Rey) cleans up the remains of a violent affair in his hotel. Hoping to return to Paris as quickly as possible, he is disappointed to discover he must change trains in Madrid. Nevertheless, all of the other passengers in his compartment are also headed to Paris, and are intrigued to hear what led him to dump a bucket of cold water on a mysterious woman on the platform. Mathieu assures his captive audience that they will soon understand his actions, but I’m not so certain.

Conchita, comes into Mathieu’s life as his maid. Mathieu immediately takes an erotic interest in her. He claims only to be interested in sex with a woman he truly loves, but Conchita strongly doubts him, and sets out to test whether he truly loves her. So begins an endlessly repeated cat-and-mouse game whereby Mathieu unexpectedly meets Conchita, attempts to woo her, Conchita refuses to have sex with him (but will do anything else), but then angrily leaves him whenever he pushes the issue; over and over from one day to the next, and one country to another. Accordingly, Mathieu, a wealthy man of influence who seems never to have faced rejection, is driven to madness by Conchita’s actions, driving his obsession further.

Adding brilliantly to the confusion is that Conchita is played by two different actresses. At times, the role is performed by Carole Bouquet, at others she is more aggressively inhabited by Angela Molina. That Obscure Object of Desire is one of several adaptations (and amazingly the last to date) of the 1898 novel The Girl and the Puppet, a cautionary tale about the danger of falling into a trap of only wanting what you can’t have. Leave it to Buñuel to take it to an extreme.

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Signs This Was Made in 1977
The terrorist content is a particular feature. Nearly every sequence is accompanied by an act of terror. Jokes are made about the ubiquity of airplane hijackings. The trial of a terrorist group is a major plot point.

How Did It Do?
That Obscure Object of Desire was a hit with critics then and now, earning a 100% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. The decision to cast two actresses as Conchita was particularly praised, impressively for a gimmick born from the adversity of working with the unknown actress who was first hired to play her, and has found its place in the work of filmmakers from B.P. Paquette, to Todd Haynes, to (ugh) Todd Solondz, to me.

Luis Buñuel never made another film, passing away in 1983. His 48-year directorial career was never forgotten.

Next Time: The Duellists