Monday, September 7, 2020

The Jesus Rolls: Blier Country

Bobby Cannavale, Audrey Tautou and John Turturro in The Jesus Rolls (2019).

It takes guts these days to remake Bertrand Blier’s freewheeling, anarchic 1974 screwball sex farce Going Places, and that’s what John Turturro has done in The Jesus Rolls (available on Prime). Blier ran afoul of feminist critics back in the seventies when he made Going Places and, four years later, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs. Both films star Gérard Depardieu and the late Patrick Dewaere as stumblebum buddies whose chronic misunderstanding of women is at the heart of both the comedy (in both pictures) and the sadness (in the final scenes of Get Out Your Handkerchiefs). In Going Places, they play Jean-Claude and Pierrot, scruffy, hedonistic auto mechanics in their mid-twenties whose desire for instant gratification is as unmediated as it is in little boys. They pursue sexual pleasure with exactly the same heedlessness and inability to imagine the consequences as they display when they steal a car. The emblem of the movie is a motif of images in which they run for their lives – from the gun-toting owner of a beauty salon whose beloved vehicle they borrowed just for a little drive, from a revenge murder they unwittingly get involved in, and so on. They’re hopeless schlubs whose epic miscalculations trigger one fiasco after another while the universe laughs uproariously at their antics. They’re constantly on the move, but in this context “going places” means “going nowhere”; the movie ends with them (and the woman they share, played by Miou-Miou) relaxing in relative peace and enjoyment of life, but they’re wanted by the law and we know there’s no place they can escape to. The French title of both the movie and Blier’s novel, on which it’s based, is Les Valseuses, which means “balls” and makes it explicit that their relentless bumbling is linked inextricably to their gender. But it’s impossible to envision an audience that would welcome the film now, since Blier takes the prerogative of an artist and makes these morons likable. God preserve the writer or director (Blier co-wrote the screenplay with Philippe Dumarçay) who doesn’t wag a cautionary finger at ill-behaved characters to make sure we know we're supposed to disapprove of them.

Going Places suggests Henry Miller in its blending of the vulgar and the lyrical. I wouldn’t go that far in describing The Jesus Rolls, though it’s beautifully – sometimes exquisitely – lit by Frederick Elmes. Turturro, who wrote and directed the movie and plays the Depardieu character, here called Jesus, has tamed down the material somewhat, eliminating the scene where Pierrot, rechristened Petey and played by Bobby Cannavale, suckles a nursing mother on a train and the deflowering of a sixteen-year-old virgin (Isabelle Huppert, at the beginning of her career). Still, the picture is bold enough. Turturro has directed six full-length pictures and two shorts since 1992; his projects are always offbeat and they tend to come in under the radar. The only one I’d seen before The Jesus Rolls is the 2014 Fading Gigolo, an original screenplay about a man who hires himself out to service women in order to help out a friend in financial straits (Woody Allen) who acts as his pimp.  It’s a funny, rather sweet movie in which Turturro gives an inventive, stylish performance as the gigolo. In The Jesus Rolls he’s reshaped Blier’s Jean-Claude into a character that fans of The Big Lebowski, the 1998 Coen Brothers movie, will recognize right away: Jesus Quintana, ex-con and bowling champ. The Jesus Rolls begins with Jesus’s release from jail – the warden who sends him off is Christopher Walken – where Petey, his former cellmate and best pal, is awaiting him. Turturro plays Jesus as a luscious parody of self-adoring macho charm. Svelte and liquid in his movements, his hair in long braids (and sometimes pushed up under a hairnet), his eyes soft, a beatific smile playing on his lips, he’s like a comic amalgam of every Latin lover from old Hollywood movies – Ricardo Cortez, George Metaxa, Ricardo Montalban – with the lascivious element upfront. He speaks his lines in his head voice but it’s filtered through a sort of damp fog, as if he were talking through moist silk. He was hilarious in The Big Lebowski, but it was barely more than a cameo. In The Jesus Rolls he parlays it into a starring role, and he gives a star performance.

For those who know Going Places this Americanized movie takes some getting used to, even though it’s pretty faithful to the original. It’s louder and messier, though Turturro demonstrates real skill at staging the farce scenes, especially the climax, which lays on an ironic twist that wasn’t in the Blier. Petey is the more reticent and less brave of the pair, which isn’t exactly the way Dewaere played the part, but Turturro may have shaped it for Cannavale’s personality and to accommodate his limitations. He’s a good actor and he does well with the role but he doesn’t have Dewaere’s wit or his inspired looseness, his way of making every conversation sound like he’s improvising. It isn’t fair, though, to put Cannavale down for not being Patrick Dewaere, who trained with an experimental troupe called Café de la Gare and had a genuine comic genius. (He killed himself at the age of thirty-five.) I had more trouble with Audrey Tautou in the Miou-Miou part, Marie, the shampoo girl who goes along with the two clowns after they return her boss/lover’s car and he starts shooting at them. It’s a prize comic role: the sexy, agreeable woman who generously beds any man who wants her but has never experienced an orgasm herself – and then, when she does, becomes addicted to it. Tautou gives herself over to the character, but she doesn’t bring much to it besides her gameness and the crazy French lilt she gives to her English lines. She’s funny, though, and she gets funnier as the movie goes along.

Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere in Going Places (Les valseuses) (1974).

At the exact center point of The Jesus Rolls, seeking a woman who embodies complete sexual desire, Jesus and Petey wait outside a prison and befriend one who has just gotten out after a decade of incarceration. In Going Places the character is played by the great Jeanne Moreau, and she lifts the film into the stratosphere. Here it’s Susan Sarandon as Jean, and though she’s only on screen for about fifteen minutes, she grounds the movie; she also gives it a core of mystery. Nothing the two men do comes out the way they expect – because, of course, they don’t have a clue about women. But the conclusion of this episode throws them for an entirely different loop.           

Turturro has added a character, Jesus’s mother, a whore whose session with a john he and Petey interrupt when he drops by to visit her after he gets out of the slammer (early, for good behavior – though more specifically for winning the prison bowling championship). It’s only one scene, but the mutually proud, non-judgmental mother-son relationship is a good gag, and in a casting coup the mother is played by Sonia Braga. Jon Hamm shows up briefly as the beauty salon owner. He’s not at his best; he often isn’t in movies – the big screen seems to provoke him to act bigger and be frenetic.  Later on, when Marie lets the two guys into the salon we see that her boss has hung huge photographs of himself on the walls, and his poses in them are more fun than anything Hamm does when live. Pete Davidson of Saturday Night Live plays Jack, Jean’s son, who gets out of jail two months after his mother and whom Jesus and Petey more or less adopt out of affection for her. They share their house, their food and, in a spirit of camaraderie, Marie – and then it turns out to be Jack who awakens her in bed; they hear her cries of passion while they’re fishing nearby and they rush home to listen outside the window. (Blier built the entire final section of Get Out Your Handkerchiefs on that moment.) Davidson’s goofy laconicism adds another bright color to the movie’s palette.

The experience of Going Places is inseparable from the pleasures of Stéphane Grappelli’s jazz violin on the soundtrack, which is simultaneously transporting and melancholy. The Jesus Rolls substitutes a fine Latin-infused score by Emilie Simon and sweet vocals by The Gipsy Kings. (The singers, Tonino Baliardo and Nicolas Reyes, appear as guitar-strumming inmates in the opening sequence, where Jesus gets released.) Turturro’s a brainy filmmaker; he’s thought out all the ways he wants to riff on Blier’s original – like hiring Frederick Elmes, who’s as gifted as Blier’s cinematographer Bruno Nuytten. The movie opened before the pandemic but not widely, and it received no attention. It deserves to be seen.  

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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