Sunday, 8 August 2010

Canicule (Dog Day) (1984)

As is my wont, I have watched a ridiculous number of films over the last week or so -- some vaguely entertaining and some absolutely appalling ("Year One" or "Observe and Report" anyone?). However one of these movies has lodged itself firmly in my mind and I keep thinking about it. There is always a frisson of excitement and pleasure when I come across a film of which I knew nothing previously; this French flick starring Lee Marvin in one of his last roles before his death in 1987 was something of a revelation. Whether he took the work as a tax-break or for a French vacation, or for some star exposure in a dwindling career I can't say; nor can I tell you whether he was actually speaking the French dialogue or post-dubbed. What I can tell you is that it was a weird and very black oddity and for that reason alone of great interest to me. If you were to look up the users' comments for this film on IMDb, you would be awash in a sea of negativity, claiming that the role was unworthy of Marvin, that he was walking through it in a daze, that it was only the French having a go at making an American gangster film, etc. Nonsense!

Marvin has always been a charismatic screen presence, whether as a macho thug in "Prime Cut" or as the drunken cowboy and his metal-nosed doppelganger in "Cat Ballou"; he is almost (but not quite) the whole show here. He plays a bad-ass bank-robber called Jimmy Cobb, in France with his ladyfriend Tina Louise, who sticks up a local bank for millions (mysteriously in dollar bills) and who is then pursued by an army of cops after killing various bystanders including a young boy and by crippling others with his trademark kneecapping. We find him in his fashionable dandyish gear, including a flower in his buttonhole, running across endless fields of billowing wheat in the Normandy countryside (quite a spiffy cinematic image that) with police helicopters in pursuit. He takes refuge in the barn of a nearby farm but finds himself in a cesspit of immorality, as the farm's inhabitants are even more venal than he. The family consists of three middle-aged siblings: the eldest of whom renovates derelict fairground statues, a middle sister who is a raving nymphomaniac attacking anything in trousers, and the younger brother who is an insatiable satyr married to young Miou-Miou (nearly unrecognizable here). She actually owns the farm, having inherited it from her father, but she is dominated by the unsavoury sibs after becoming pregnant by her pig of a husband. There is one scene where he disguises himself as a straw-stuffed scarecrow in order to do some pervy spying on topless Swedish campers nearby; I don't think you find much of that sort of behaviour in American gangster movies. Also in the household is a batty aging housekeeper who is being threatened with being sent to an old folks' home. They all know that Cobb is in the area and he is soon spotted and captured by them; they want his loot as do a number of other local crooks headquartered at a nearby brothel.

However Miou-Miou's 13-year old son has seen where Cobb has buried the stolen cash, dug it up, and reburied it. This is where this film becomes magical for me, since the role is taken by David Bennent. This Swiss-born actor is forever a part of film history by having taken the lead role in the German picture "The Tin Drum" (1979), playing a precocious and extremely peculiar child who ends up having sex with an adult. Bennent suffers from some genetic growth disorder (but he is not a dwarf) and was actually 18 when "Canicule" was made. Subsequent appearances were as Gump in 1985's "Legend" (one of the little people) and more recently in the horrid "She Hate Me" (not that I recognized him there). He is still appearing in movies, but the thrust of his career has been on stage. However this particular movie belongs as much to him as to Marvin, as he takes a chunk of the money to the brothel for initiation into life's so-called pleasures and as he seeks fame (to add to his fortune) by being the one who actually captures Marvin. Not that this is unlikely, since by the end of the film only he and his mother are still alive. The body count cheerfully builds and no one is immune: the family, the campers, a selection of policemen, the farm's dogs, and just about anyone who gets in the way of the rampant greed and sexual desire on display.

The nay-sayers on IMDb may have a point, but there was so much about this movie that tickled my fancy that I just might want to revisit it again some time soon. And to me, that's entertainment!
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