B&W, 1966, 103 mins. 36 secs.
Directed by Tony Richardson
Starring Jeanne Moreau, Ettore Manni, Keith Skinner, Umberto Orsini
BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1)
The line between art cinema and shocking sleaze can be very, very thin, with directors like Pasolini, Fellini, and Bergman known to fling taboo content in the faces of completely unprepared viewers. One of the more under the radar entries from the 1960s era of this approach is Mademoiselle, a study in psychopathic, destructive behavior and mob mentality from director Tony Richardson, who had recently reached Oscar glory with 1963's Tom Jones and followed it up with a shocking double header of this film and the black comedy The Loved One. On top of that the film was developed from a screenplay by none other than French playwright and provocateur Jean Genet, which isn't much of a surprise if you're familiar with some of his other work. A tough sell at the time and never really given its due, the film won a major champion in no less than John Waters, who sang its praises alongside other troubling films ranging from Boom! to Salo. Of course, that should give you some idea of what you're in for here.
In a pastoral French village, a school teacher only referred to as "Mademoiselle" (Moreau) seems like a typical single schoolmarm who keeps order in the classroom and belittles kids who step out of line by doing things like wearing shorts. In fact, as we see in the opening scene, she's a deeply dysfunctional soul who smashes eggs in nests and unleashes a flood on her town... just because she can. On top of that she's also a closet pyromaniac who creeps around at night setting barns and houses on fire, but her routine is disrupted by study Italian woodsman Manou (spaghetti western staple Manni), who keeps a pet snake, knows how to rescue horses from a river, and sleeps around with some of the town wives. A night of passion between them ignites some very kinky degradation fantasies as well as the realization that she might have the perfect person to deflect blame for her crimes, setting off even more turmoil among the locals.
Laden with sexual symbolism (that snake!) and twisted melodrama that had many critics scoffing at the time, Mademoiselle is an undeniably gripping viewing experience that's easier to appreciate now as a forerunner to arty madwoman shockers to come like The Piano Teacher and Antichrist. As you'd expect, Moreau is superb here etching a terrifying and reprehensible character who's figured out how to use her standing in the community (not to mention the inherent tendency to doubt the statements of children) to get away with all kinds of antisocial behavior in broad daylight. However, the MVP here may actually be cinematographer David Watkin (who later won an Oscar for Out of Africa and also shot The Devils and To the Devil a Daughter), here delivering a string of gorgeous scope, black-and-white compositions that make the film a real feast for the eyes.
This film was the unlikely result of an alliance between two production companies, France's Procinex and Britain's legendary Woodfall Film Productions, which was co-founded by Richardson and produced such revolutionary films as Tom Jones and Look Back in Anger. In the U.S. it was handled by Lopert Pictures Corporation, a subsidiary of United Artists the company used to handle its foreign imports (such as Persona, King of Hearts, and Never On Sunday) as well as some of its more troubling titles like Billy Wilder's Kiss Me Stupid. The exact language of this one is a bit tricky; the scenes with Manni, co-star Umberto Orisni (Emmanuelle 2), and some of the other Italian cast members were all shot in Italian and remained that way in virtually every version with subtitles where necessary. However, the scenes with Moreau and the French villagers were shot twice, In English and French, which wasn't a unique occurrence at the time (also employed in films like The Swimming Pool, The Sicilian Clan, parts of Spirits of the Dead, and much later, Nosferatu the Vampyre). The first U.S. home video release was a VHS from MGM that contained the general English-language release version with Moreau and the other French actors delivering their lines in nicely accented English; a U.S. DVD later emerged from MGM in 2002, looking pretty rough in a non-anamorphic letterboxed transfer but presenting the alternate French-language version with optional yellow English subtitles for the first time.
In 2020, the BFI premiered the film on Blu-ray featuring the English-language version with Italian segments in their original language as usual; those have optional subtitles, while optional English SDH subs are also provided for the entire feature. The LPCM mono audio sounds solid given the limited amount of dialogue or music in the film. Not surprisingly, the image quality blows away the lackluster releases before it; there's some visible element damage in the opening credits, but after that it's mostly smooth sailing with just a few bits of age-related debris popping up at times. The black levels look especially great here, and you can finally make out all the little details in the forest shots that mostly turned to mush before this. A new audio commentary by Adrian Martin starts off by refuting the supposed involvement of Marguerite Duras and then goes into the history behind the film with a focus on Genet, Richardson, and Moreau. In a new video interview with Keith Skinner (36m2s), the actor (who plays Manni's put-upon son) discusses his entry into acting, a goof up involving The Beatles, his entry into Woodfall, the film's rocky reception at Cannes, and his later roles including a screen test for Franco Zeffirelli. Though not touted as such, this release is also a double feature of sorts since it also includes a second feature film, 1982's Doll's Eye (74m26s), a strangely sinister look at the intersecting lives of three women (an academic, a switchboard operator, and an escort) in London, with male characters and voice overs showing how they're perceived and classified on a daily basis. A very curious and challenging rarity, this one's well worth checking out though taken from a modest SD source; in particular, it's fun seeing a starring role for actress Bernice Stegers, who had just come off of starring in Lamberto Bava's Macabre and Federico Fellini's City of Women and would appear in Xtro the same year. The theatrical trailer (full screen but in much better shape than the one on the DVD) is also included along with a substantial image gallery (6m). The first pressing comes packaged with an insert booklet featuring liner notes by Jon Dear and Neil young plus notes on Genet by Jane Giles and a piece on Doll's Eye by its director, Jan Worth.
Reviewed on September 15, 2020