ERTRAND BLIER'S films tend not to elicit mild reactions.While his 1973 "Going Places" was a hit in France, American critics either campared it flatteringly to the literature of Henty Miller and Ben Jonson or condemned it as "sordid," "cruel" and "loathsome." Scared by the sex and violence, Home Box Office rushed to delete "Going Places" from its schedule; and when Blier's next feature, the 1975 "Femmes Fatales," reached this country, it was shown mostly in theaters that cater to pornography.
Response to the young Frenchman's most recent film, "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs" -- scheduled to open in Washington this week -- has been almost precisely the opposite. It brought euphoric reviews in "The New Yorker" and at the New York Film Festival this fall. The National Society of Film Critics voted it best film of the year. And audiences have hopped on the bandwagon and, more important, on line to make its fourth week at New York's Paris Theatre more profitable than that of the previous recordholder, "Cousin, Cousine."
Yet, in France, "people don't laugh very much at it," confides %bertrand Blier. "For example, when a 13-year-old child gets a 25-year-old woman pregnant, for me that's funny. But in France, they say, 'No, that's impossible.' "Some Americans also have their doubts about Blier's humor. Andrew Sarris of "The Village Voice," for example, finds his films "extraordinarily misogynous by any standards."
"That's good," remarks the 39-year-old French director, smiling provocatively beneath his neatly trimmed beard. "Iinvariably, you shock some people and stimulate others. When everyone agrees, that's a very bad sign. As a filmmaker, it's best to stretch yourself to your limits."
As a filmmaker, Blier has tended to tell variations on a controversial story: Two virile, uncouth, not very bright young men set out to divine, conquer, or evade the mystery of woman and end up getting the raw end of the deal. A comely, slft-spoken man, dressed in a white wool turtle-neck, flannel trousers, and an American-looking tweed sports jacket, Blier himself appears to have little in common with the scruffy, clumsy, occasionally sentimental heroes of his films. (In both "Going Places" and "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," these heroes are played by Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere). A slight paunch is the only sign of indulgence I can detect in a man who makes films about supremely indulgent men. He's just flown into New York to publicize "Handkerchiefs," and we're having coffee at his suite in the Algonquin Hotel. He's tired, but alert and, perhaps because I'm a woman and outcries against his film have generally been of a feminist order, a bit wary at first. At we begin talking about "Handkerchiefs," he very soon relaxes.
Briefly, "Handkerchiefs" is an offbeat tale of two men, a woman who never smiles, and a child. Its muchpraised opening scene shows a man and his wife in a Paris cafe. The wife picks at her food. The man is too worried about her to have much of an appetite. Suddenly, he gets an idea: He'll offer his wife as a gift to a total stranger a few tables away. Maybe this will satisfy them all. The rest of the film follows these men -- the husband (Depardieu) who is obsessed with his wife's happiness, the other fellow (Dewaere) who is obsessed with Mozart -- as they follow the wife, Solange (played by Carol Laure), who is, in turn, obsessed with knitting and getting pregnant. By the end of the film, an adolescent boy has made Solange both pregnant and happy, and the two men are out in the cold.
"Handkerchiefs" has been described as a kind if erotic fantasy, and many seem to agree with Pauline Kael that "it makes you feel unreasonably happy." Where the two pals in "Going Places" grab at everything -- mostly females -- with no regard for property, fair play or a woman's fight to decide whether or not she wants to sleep with them, the characters in "Handkerchiefs" are gentler.
"'Handkerchiefs' is my favorite of my films so far," muses Blier. "and in appearance, yes, it is more whimsical and less abrasive, less political than 'Going Places.' Yet, really I think 'Handkerchiefs' is the more subversive film. In 'Going Places,' where the two men steal cars and hold up picnickers and force women to submit to them, the provocation is visible. 'Handkerchiefs,' on the other hand, is a very soft, very seductive film. But, if you look carefully, all the traditional values are upset here: the couples, the family, maternity. For example, the young boy says to the CarolLaure character: 'Although you never carried me in your belly, I feel better with you than I do with my own mother' -- that's a subversive statment. Basically, all the traditional values fall apart in this film. But there's no message here. I detest messages: false messages, perhaps; I like to play with false messages.
"I'm often asked why the characters behave the way they do -- rather ludicrously -- in this film, and truthfully I can't say," he continues. "I thought about the film on and off for about three years before I began writing; so when I did write, the ideas came out spontaneously. I almost didn't know what I was writing. What I like in films and in literature are stories and characters that surprise me."
Bertrand Blier, who tells "people in the book world that I am a cineaste and people in the film world that I am essentially a novelist," was born in France, the son of the French comic Bernard Blier, in 1939. "Being the son of an actor, it was easy to get into cinema," he suggests modestly. "I was able to make a first film when I was 23 called 'Hitler.' Connais pas ?, which was a cinema verite documentary about a cross-section of young French people between the ages of 14 and 20 who were born after the war." Blier shot each interview separately against a black background and then edited them so that it seemed the children were speaking to one another. "The results were funny," he recalls. "I made it look as if the son of a worker was talking to the son of a boss. The one said: 'I get up at 7 a.m. and have a cup of black coffee.' And the other replied, 'I get up at 11, the maid brings me my rolls, and I insist on English jelly, without butter -- I don't like butter.'"
In 1966 Blier made a short film called "La Grimace" and in 1967 another called "Breakdown." But during most of this period he was out of work. "My 20s were a difficult time for me, and that's when I started to write," he recalls. "Going Places" is based on his successful first novel, and the essential difference between them is that "the book deals more with prison. The scene with the ex-convict, played by Jeanne Moreau in the movie, is much more important in the novel."
Next, Blier went on to script and direct "Femmes Fatales," which he feels no one has properly understood. "It's a farce, a fable, really," he explains, "as different as day to night from 'Handkerchiefs.' It's about a civil war between men and women. It opens in a gynecologist's office and ends up on a desert island, inside the body of a beautiful black woman."
It is also, Blier admits, "a challenge to the feminist movement in France," which brings him up to a ciscussion of the role of women in his films.
"So many people have called me a misogynist that I begin to think maybe they're right," he states, smiling enigmatically. "I don't think about the problems of misogyny when I write a script, but afterwards people call me a misogynist. 'Handkerchiefs' is essentially a masculine film -- it was written by me, and the main parts are played by two male actors. For me, the Carol Laure character, the wife Solange, is the perfect symbol of femininity -- the ideal -- because no one understands her. That's the masculine point of view, the inability to understand a woman.
"I think men, myself, for instance, understand very few things about women. That's what I make films about -- men who don't understand what goes on in a woman's mind. And I've spoken to a lot of women who say the same thing -- that they don't know what goes on in a man's mind."
Is he against the feminist movement? "Of course, no one can be against equal rights under the law and at work," he replies, "but I'm against the exaggerations of the feminist movement. I don't know what happens here, but in France there's a kind of feminist terrorism among French intellectuals, and I'm against all forms of terrorism. There are men filmmakers and writers who reinforce this by calling themselves feminist, and that's wrong. A man should never deny his masculinity."
On the other hand, Blier is not sympathetic to the macho mentality. "I was never a bachelor," he says. "I've always lived with women. Now, I've been married for 10 years, and my wife and I have a child; so you see I've really studied women's problems firsthand, and I know these problems are very difficult to solve, maybe impossible. For a while, my wife worked and had someone else take care of our child. Now she prefers to stay home with it herself. Who knows, maybe in a year she'll want to go back to work?"
I point out that many have found the woman in "Handkerchiefs," though an enigmatic figure, to be the most sympathetic of the characters while the men are maladroit to put it mildly. "Yes," he laughs. "The men in 'Handkerchiefs' aren't exactly idiots, but they come pretty close to that. They're very intelligent in their hearts, but more fragile than the woman in their heads. In their own petty way, these two men try to revolutionize things, and the result is catastrophic."
In all his films, the catastrophies afflict the men more profoundly than they do the women whom these men invariably fail to satisfy. In "Going Places," for instance, the lead woman, played by the actress Miou-Miou, learns to enjoy sex not with either of the virile young pals, but with an unattractive, slightly deranged man fresh from prison. In "Handkerchiefs," only an inexperienced adolescent can provide the woman with the baby she longs for. "Yes, that's very important to me!" exclaims Blier. "In fact, I have a personal conviction that is a bit poetic, and that is that a woman is really a woman when she discovers tenderness, a sentimental fragility in a man.
"But there's irony in these sequences as well," he adds quickly. "In the French vaudeville tradition, there is always an unattractive cuckold. I tried to reverse that convention by making the husband strong and handsome, while the lover is less healthy, less virile, less physically appealing. So you see, this might be a good answer to those who say I'm a misogynist!"
At a mention of Mozart, whose music is frequently heard on "Handkerchief's soundtrack, Blier smiles suddenly and leans forward. "It's because of Mozart that I wrote this film," he confides. "I was on vacation after finishing 'Going Places,' and I listened to a lot of music... The idea came to me to make a film about two imbeciles who speak about Mozart as they would about soccer.I wrote the scene very quickly, and it appears just as I wrote it then in the film. The neighbor comes in to complain about the noise. The wife is very sad. The two men are transfixed by the music all right, I said to myself, now what happens before, and what happens after?
"The child in the film is supposed to represent the young Mozart." But the child likes Schubert, I protest. "Ah, but that's to put you off the track," replies Blier.
"I wanted the real Mozart to appear at the end of the film. In one ending, I had the woman die, and at the moment of death we see her walking through an old village where she hears Mozart's music. She comes upon a child playing the piono, and we know this is Mozart. And then, I had Mozart speak to her just the way her imbecilic husband, the Depardieu character, does. 'You want to have a child? Oh, don't be sad....' That ending would have worked well in a book, but not in cinema."
Blier is not eager to talk about what does work in cinema, and while his films have been compared in tone and style to those of such masters as Bunuel, he finds nothing extraordinary about the look of his films. Essentially, as an artist and as a man, he is interested in an arena that is out of vogue in movies today: love, the relationships between men and women.
"What interests me, and this is why I continue to write and to make films, is the question of what will become of men and women in 20 years. I ask myself how we'll live at that time, and I don't know the answer, but it's fun to speculate. I know things will be different. Maybe we'll live on another planet or maybe we'll go back to the 19th century.
"At this point," he continues, "we're in a period of extraordinary confusion. In France, for instance, for several years no one married, and now they're beginning to marry again. Men of 30 today try not to be jealous, but they don't succeed, and neither do women. All this makes me feel old. Everyghing is up in the air. Today, you don't offer your wife as a gift to another man, but tomorrow you might."
Bertrand Blier is not sure what he himself will be doing tomorrow. He's written a comedy about mass murder that "scares all the producers in France. It is supposed to star Depardieu again and also my father Bernard Blier, but no one wants to give me a dollar to make it. So now I don't know what I will do next." Whatever it is, Blier's next project is certain to be controversial.