Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Joe Caligula (France, 1966)

In its own muted, black and white and very French way, Joe Caligula screams its swinging 60s origins at you from its first frame onward. There are the plastic minis, the slim cut suits, the lively beat music (and a fantastic score by Jacques Loussier), the ever present cigarettes, conspicuous posters of Graham Parsons and Francoise Hardy, and a general air of dissolute grooviness. Then there is the hooker who, at the film’s opening, delivers a bored sounding endorsement of the new wave to a john she is pushing toward a brothel:

“It’s exciting. Godard… Chabrol… Come on.”

But is Joe Caligula a new wave film? It may be unfair, but director Jose Benazeraf’s long history of sexploitation filmmaking makes me lean toward no. The thing that Joe Caligula shares with a film like Godard’s Breathless is the cold detachment that Benazera brings to depicting everything from violent action, to lovemaking, to two people sitting silently in a café. This results in a film that, like Breathless, is at once gritty and dreamlike. Yet Benazera seems to lack the mischievous political intent that Godard weaves throughout his quirky narratives. Instead, Joe Caligula comes off more like a genre film in new wave drag—which puts it in good company, given the pervasive influence of that movement throughout commercial cinema at the time.

The film begins with Joe Caligula (Gerard Blain) and his gang arriving in Paris from parts unknown (it is speculated that they are North African Europeans but never confirmed.) Fetishized down to the last detail, the gang is as much a study of movie iconography as actual characters; a group of slick young hoodlums in matching black suits and shades. The gang immediately makes their presence known by conducting a series of violent robberies against small businesses. The city’s underworld is run by a gang of older, more traditional gangsters, and they take exception to Joe and his crew’s anarchic style. When the Caligula gang goes after one of their own, a pimp named Alex (Jean-Jacques Daubin), a gang war ignites—though it could be said to be less a gang war than generational warfare with bullets.

It quickly becomes apparent that Joe and his boys are planning to take over the older crooks’ racket by force—a task they take to with their typical bloodthirsty recklessness. After they dump the flaming corpse of a gangster named Antoine (Marcel Gassouk) at the gangsters' doorstep, the gang war goes white hot. Antoine’s widow, the torch singer/stripper Lea (Maria Vincent), decides to take matters into her own hands and hits the streets, trying to sniff out the location of the Caligula’s gang’s safe house. Joe, meanwhile, takes his sister Brigitte (Jeanne Valerie) and goes on the run. We have earlier seen Joe describe his incestuous feelings to Brigitte in no uncertain terms, and because of that, it is difficult to determine whether her shell-shocked demeanor is the result of past trauma or simply a choice made by the actress playing her.

While Joe Caligula captivates with its mod era stylishness and attitude, it is less likely to do so as a character study. We know from his actions that Joe is a malicious psychopath, but as a character he is completely blank. He is as he does, and beyond that we know virtually nothing about him. In fact, no one in the film even says his name at any point; we only know that he is Joe Caligula because that is the name of the movie that he is in—and that may be the point. It could be that Joe is just a soulless cypher who is doomed to live out a movie archetype to its logical and bloody conclusion, which he does.

Things start to collapse for Joe when Brigitte grows bored with the thug life and goes off on her own. Lea has meanwhile been canvassing the town, asking everyone about a “blond with empty eyes” and her “possibly mad” male companion. When she finally spies Brigitte, sitting alone in a café, she makes short work of luring her back to the brothel, where the gang brutally tortures her. Finally, the gang extracts the info they need, allowing them to close in on Johnny for a climax that is as violent as it is preordained.

I’m fairly certain that the flatness of Joe Caligula’s characters was a directorial choice—and perhaps also a gesture toward a certain vogue in French cinema at the time. And, in pointing that out, I feel no rancor. I am the last person who would want every character in a film I watch to come with a detailed personal history. In fact, the absence of any identifiable human feeling from the film made it that much easier for me to soak in all of its era appropriate cool and aloof visual playfulness. That as well as the odd bits of business—a robbery in which Joe’s gang all wear Beatles wigs, a weirdly rushed torch song that Maria Vincent sings in a distracted whisper—that were more than sufficient to keep my interest from one scene to the next. (The generous amount of female nudity also helped a lot in that regard.)

If that sounds like a pretty utilitarian approach to cinema spectatorship, mark my word: In the wake of Rogue One’s digital skullduggery, watching a film like Joe Caligula could be our best preparation for the films of the future, which will be cast entirely with reanimated husks that display the same combination of glamor and soullessness that the stars of this movie do.

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