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Maybe You Had to Be There

Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me directed by Francois Truffaut at the Allston Cinema

SUCH A GORGEOUS Kid Like Me is a funny movie. Now, The 400 Blows was a zany movie. Shoot the Piano Player was a really zany movie. But this is about as zany overall as Mississippi Mermaid. I laughed, in spots, as raucously as you can laugh in a nearly empty screening room. And I was swept, protesting, into a story I considered not only tired, but even maudlin in spots. The problem is that I, weaned as an appreciative viewer of foreign films on Truffaut, have come to expect perhaps too much of him. There is the inevitable disappointment that comes with a full house misplayed into three of a kind.

There is a scene in Shoot the Piano Player: Two thugs have kidnapped the hero's son. They have him in a car, and are called upon to entertain him. One thug claims to have a valuable possession. To back up the claim he say, "If this is not true, may my mother drop dead on the spot." Cut to the mother, dropping dead on the spot. This is early Truffaut, mixing genres eagerly, producing a film steeped in two classically American traditions -- slapstick and gangsters, with a third, sentiment mixed with melancholy that is curiously his own. It is this mixture, along with the autobiographical nature of these early films, that marked his potential.

It turns out that Truffaut isn't interested in genius. What surfaces here is caution. Stylistically, and structurally, we've all seen the match of Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me. In fact, the movie's most flamboyant technical act are its credits. They are highly contrasted, so that there are no middle ground greys, and then tinted in vivid pinks, greens, and oranges. A sequence of a car passing through the countryside, the effect is very surreal.

OTHERWISE, it's quite standard. The movie is a twice-removed flashback, with homage to the traditional modes of segueing into that flashback. The first scene, a shelf of books moves slowly back into an entire library. A patron seeks a certain book. There is a story behind the book. Our story. The head librarian becomes wistful, his voice wavy and echoed. We have a movie. From there, we descend once more, from a trial room, into a set of vignettes, each brought on by slow close-up of a portable tape recorder, as the dreamer's voice is raised.

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The structural familiarity spreads itself into the story. Camille Bliss (Bernadette Lafont), thoroughly resistable convict, is the subject of a sociology thesis on "Criminal Women." Camille has nothing going for her at all -- ingnorant, vulgar, even hook-nosed--and yet Stanislas (Andre Dussollier) chooses her as subject over, we are told, an axe murderer and a homicidal Pole, for no discernable reason. No matter. From the outset, her insidious charm is clear. And that's half the story -- her complete captivation of Stanislas, the dryest of men, competent and professional but obviously ill-at-ease, even rapped, when placed in a court room alone with such an overwhelming personality.

The rest of the story is Camille's, a chronicle of her ascendancy. She becomes a singer, or more accurately a star. Truffaut, who co-wrote the screenplay from Henry Farrell's novel, stresses her lack of morality. She kills and seduces with equal emotionlessness, even as she verbally seduces the naive sociologist. His complete trust, which becomes a more telling kind of hypnotism, is rewarded by betrayal. The act is in part a reemphasis of the insidiousness of her charm, for in framing Stanislas for a murder she committed (her fourth, with attempts at five and six also during the film), she uses his lawyer to help destroy the crucial piece of evidence against her -- a house. Truffaut indicts her by closing in on their holding hands, on French television, at the site. Stanislas, who watches this on a prison television, ends the movie reeling dazedly around the prison courtyard.

TRUFFAUT must, for the sake of reconciling his complex plot with his use of the comic, fuse his pasts and presents. The flashback technique is phased out by removing the interview scenes, which finally involve Stanislas in the comic action of the film. The first two-thirds of the film are episodic, a series of connected vignettes.

It is on these vignettes that Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me stands. Truffaut is able to return to his influences and loves, and make sequences reminiscent of the chaos of his earlier films. They are numerous, and of nearly equal quality, but their prime value is to allow the director to characterize. And this film is filled with characters. Husband Clovis (Philippe Leotard), a drunken, brawling, truly ignorant ass of a man, whose battered, yet ornamented bright red Peugeot echoes so many street-customized '57 Chevies; who is introduced by his racy two-toned shoes. Saloon singer Sam Golden (Guy Marchand), Truffaut's parodied homage to Bogart and gangsters, a man who can only have sexual intercourse accompanied by a sound effects record of the Indy 500.

It is from these characters that Truffaut constructs his vignettes, and each is uniformly chaotic. The best is Sam Golden's saloon sequence. Golden, black-shirted and white-tied, delivers a classic big band blues arrangement of a my-baby-done-me-wrong torcher, and does it in phonetic English as the camera roams over the crowd, Vegas in the South of France, eagerly fondling waitress Camille, while her lout husband seethes. From there, Truffaut films a short Western sequence. It's as if his characters had been dropped onto a John Ford backlot and allowed to pursue each other at random. These scenes are regularly scheduled.

What they prove is that Truffaut has honed an eye for the straightforwardly comic. His stylistic caution is underscored because, in doing so, he echoes the safest of the comic modes, situation comedy. More generally, there is an influence of television throughout. The final half-hour is screened as television -- not as sitcom, but as a parodied adventure series.

It seems that Camille has been jailed for committing only one murder, of Arthur, a philosophically inclined exterminator and the only man throughout who genuinely loves her. (Her three other encounters -- Clovis, Sam Golden, and Murene, a shyster -- are strictly gents after a nice piece of ass). They make a suicide pact, planning to jump off a church tower. Typically, Camille reneges. The authorities figure Arthur was pushed. The last half-hour clears her, and then inexplicably jumps to her stardom, with the movie's final twist. Not only does this sequence reveal Truffaut's television influences, but it establishes a newer gift of self-parody. What will free Camille is a movie of the church, shot by a nine-year-old, who, once discovered, refuses to show the film. "It's in rushes," he says.

The story is too traditionally Truffaut -- a confrontation of innocence (equated with intellect) and brazen, vulgar ignorance that becomes a gutter sophistication. The ending, with Camille's inexplicable ascendance and her final betrayal, are barely believable. Truffaut assists her with a foil in Helene; nondescript where Camille is vibrant, proper where she is vulgar, and whose studied disapproval of the experiment masks incipient love. At the end of the film she and Camille pass at the jailer's desk during visiting hours; Camille on her way out, Helene unable to get in. As the film ends, she types the manuscript; her porch overlooks the prison yard; a song called "I Will Wait," plays over the credits. Somehow it's touching.

THERE IS a bare cohesiveness that sets Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me apart from Truffaut's other films, in spite of similarities, stylistic and otherwise, that draw it close. It is a film of individual brilliance in sequences, scenes, and even in single frames, as well as the director's nearly traditional ease and genius of characterization. In 1959, Truffaut was going to be a genius. He isn't, and it's because he hasn't tried. He simply doesn't want to tax himself, and he'd prefer not to tax us either. He could make forgettable movies; he does not. There is no paradox, only the director's caution. tuned to a precise knowledge of the familiar and the comic. Truffaut makes movies that are merely funny, but makes merely funny movies almost an art.

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