"The Best Way," the new French movie opening today at the Dupont Circle, is something of a revelation: a remarkably intelligent and confident first feature by Claude Miller, Francois Truffaut's former production manager. Shot in the Auvergne in the summer of 1975, when Miller was 33, the film became a critical and popular success last year in France and was previewed at the American Film Institute Theater about six months ago.
The original title, "La meilleure facon de marcher," means "the best way to get along" and comes from a French Army marching song, heard during the course of the film, which is set at a summer camp for boys in 1960. The key lines, sung by a group of boys returning from the playing fields, go "The best way to get along is ours . . . Put one foot in front of the other . . ."
The screenplay, an original by Miller and Luc Beraud, traces the evolution of an unfortunate, humilitating, sexually ambiguous personality clash between two young men employed as camp counselors - brusque, athletic, outgoing Marc, played by Patrick Dewaere, and shy, intellectual, retiring Philippe, play by Patrick Bouchitey. Using the metaphor suggested by the title, the film depicts a relationship that starts on the wrong foot and intensifies in awkwardness and misunderstanding, due to the suspicious hostility of one character and the apologetic embarrassment of another.
The trouble begins when a thunderstorm blows out the electricity. Marc, hunting for enough candles to continue a card game with some other counselors, barges into Philippe's room at a most inooportune time: wearing rouge, mascara and a frilly red dress, Philippe is discovered red-handed, so to speak, in a little "mad moment" of erotic fantasy. In the aftermath Philippe feels driven to seek assurances from Marc that his secret won't be revealed, that all is forgotten, an effort that inspired Marc to treat Philippe with a smoldering ironic contempt that eventually provokes a climactic blow-up.
Neither antagonist is conceived as homosexual, although there are homsexual undercurrents in the conflict which surface explicitly in the climactic scenes. "The Best Way" could enjoy a curious sort of dual appeal: It may interest heterosexual and homosexual viewers without having quite the same implications for both groups.
Depending on their own predilections and experience, different members of the audience may react differently to the ambiguous elements in the history. For example, the shocking Exhibit A of Philippe's red dress is obviously considered insignificant by Miller but damning by Marc. The director equates Philippe's little secret with another counselor's preference for pronographic photos. Ironically, the discovery of these photos by Philippe's father, the pompous camp director, leads to the collector's dismissal.
Like Marc, some viewers may be inclined to read more definitive tendencies into that red dress than the director himself perceives. Moreover, it won't be only uneasy heterosexuals who are tempted to jump to conclusions about Philippe. One can imagine homosexuals responding to his behavior with a shock of recognition, and in his desperation to win Marc's respect Philippe assumes supplicating attitudes that almost beg to be misconstrued and abused. The most disturbing thing about the boys' conflict is that it seems to encourage their weakest character traits, Marc's inclination to bully and Philippe's inclination to suffer.
The ambiguities are enhanced by the astute, unsentimental performances of Dewaere and Bouchitey, who don't patronize the characters' weaknesses for an instant. Bewaere, who played passive second fiddle to Gerard Depardieu in "Going Places," becomes the commanding physical presence in "The Best Way." He looks as powerful as Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire" or Mifune in "Seven Samurai" and embodies a similar kind of childish masculine forcefulness.
While Dewaere carries Marc's agressive immaturity to ridiculous but plausible extremes, Bouchitey, who is built along the lines of the young Anthony Perkins, performs comparable wonders with Philippe's slightly insufferable passivity and "sensitivity." It's a credit to these young actors that one ultimately doesn't blame anyone for the misunderstanding: Sensitive Philippe has aggravated his problems quite as much as insensitive Marc.
With the unlucky exception of the closing scenes, which are staged too hysterically and blithely, respectively, Miller directs with admirable assurance and incisiveness. There doesn't appear to be a wasted movement anywhere. Each new character, observation, complication or nuance falls into place so casually yet precisely that one can take pleasure in craftsmanship without feeling the least removed from the flow of the story-telling.