THE EUROPEAN TOUCH
If we want to encircle the elusive X that provides the specific touch of European cinema, the first thing to do is to forget the canon of pretentious high art films from the 1950s (Rossellini, Bergman) which today cannot but appear hopelessly outdated and ridiculously pretentious. Perhaps, the only way to proceed is to take a risk and simply begin with a particular impression.
Some time ago I saw the East German hit Die Legende von Paul und Paula (Heinz Carow, 1973), a comedy about a love triangle with a happy ending: the heroine, a single mother, gets her man who finally abandons his wife for her. In the last shot, we see her walking merrily on an East Berlin street; she then turns into an ominously dark U-Bahn tunnel, and a voice-over informs us that she will soon die at the birth of her third child – this unexpected bitter ending of a comedy immediately stroke me as specifically European, as something possible only in Europe, even if Europe meant in this case the oppressive DDR regime.
So, perhaps, “Europe in cinema” at its purest stands for such a unique mixture of comedy and melancholy which we find today in the works of von Trier and Haneke, and which survived even in the Hollywood films of Ernst Lubitsch. Let us take Trouble In Paradise, his first absolute masterpiece, the story of Gaston and Lily, a couple of happy burglars robbing the rich, whose life gets complicated when Gaston falls in love with Mariette, one of their wealthy victims. The lyrics of a song heard during the credits provide a definition of the “trouble” alluded to: “That’s paradise / while arms entwine and lips are kissing / but if there’s something missing / that signifies / trouble in paradise.” To put it in a brutally direct way, “trouble in paradise” is thus Lubitsch’s name for il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel. Maybe, this brings us to what “Lubitsch touch” is at its most elementary – an ingenious way to make this failure work. That is to say, instead of reading the fact that there is no sexual relationship as a traumatic obstacle on account of which every love affair has to end up in some kind of tragic failure, this very obstacle can be turned into a comic resource, it can function as something to be circumvented, alluded to, played with, exploited, manipulated, made fun of … in short, sexualized. Sexuality is an exploit which thrives on its own ultimate failure.
So where is the trouble in paradise in Trouble in Paradise? The first answer that imposes itself is: the true “paradisical” sexual relationship would have been the one with Mariette, which in why it has to remain impossible/unfulfilled. This unfulfillment confers on the film’s end a touch of melancholy: all the laughter and boisterousness of the film’s last minute, all the merry display of the partnership between Gaston and Lily, when the couple exchanges the stolen objects, does only fill in the void of this melancholy.
There is, however, also the possibility of the exactly opposite reading: what if the true paradise is actually the scandalous love affair of Gaston and Lily, two chic thieves fending for themselves? What if, in a tantalizing irony, Mariette is the snake luring Gaston from his blissfully sinful Garden of Eden? What if Paradise, the good life, is the life of crime full of glamour and risks, and evil temptation comes in the form of Mariette whose wealth holds the promise an easy-going dolce vita without real criminal daring or subterfuge, only the humdrum hypocrisy of the respectable classes?
Recall Gaston’s sincere and raw outburst, enacted with no elegance or ironic distance, the first and only one in the film, after Mariette refuses to call the police when he tells her that the chairman of the board of her company is for years systematically stealing millions from her. Gaston’s reproach is that, while Mariette was immediately ready to call the police when an ordinary burglar like him steals from her a comparatively small amount of money or wealth, she is ready to turn a blind eye when a member of her own respectable high class steals millions. Is Gaston here not paraphrasing Brecht’s famous statement “what is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank”? What is a direct robbery like those of Gaston and Lily compared to the theft of millions done in the guise of obscure financial operations?
There is, however, another aspect which has to be noted here: is Gaston’s and Lily’s life of crime really so “full of glamour and risks”? Aren’t, beneath the surface of glamour and risk of their thievery, the two of them “a quintessential bourgeois couple, conscientious professional types with expensive tastes? Gaston and Mariette, on the other hand, are the really romantic pair, the adventurous and risk-taking lovers. In returning to Lily and lawlessness, Gaston is doing the sensible thing — returning to his proper place in life. Recall G.K. Chesterton’s famous passage from famous “Defense of Detective Story” in which he remarks how the detective story "keeps in some sense before the mind the fact that civilization itself is the most sensational of departures and the most romantic of rebellions. When the detective in a police romance stands alone, and somewhat fatuously fearless amid the knives and fists of a thief's kitchen, it does certainly serve to make us remember that it is the agent of social justice who is the original and poetic figure, while the burglars and footpads are merely placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves. /The police romance/ is based on the fact that morality is the most dark and daring of conspiracies.”
Is this not also the best definition of Gaston and Lily? Are these two burglars not “placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves,” i.e., living in their paradise before the fall into ethical passion? What is crucial here is the parallel between crime (theft) and sexual promiscuity: what if, in our postmodern world of ordained transgression, in which the marital commitment is perceived as ridiculously out of time, those who cling to it are the true subversives? What if, today, straight marriage is "the most dark and daring of all transgressions"? This, exactly, is the underlying premise of Lubitsch's Design for Living: a woman leads a satisfied, calm life with two men; as a dangerous experiment, she tries single marriage; however, the attempt miserably fails, and she returns to the safety of living with two men – the participants of this ménage a trois are “placid old cosmic conservatives, happy in the immemorial respectability of apes and wolves.” Exactly the same thing happens in Trouble in Paradise: the true temptation is the respectful marriage of Gaston and Mariette.
And, again, my hypothesis is that such thorough ambiguity, such mixture of comedy and melancholic loss, is specifically European, the gift of Europe to Hollywood. So what would have been a Lubitsch film for today? There already is a film which fits perfectly this description: Strella by Panos Koutras (Greece, 2009), a completely independent production with nearly all the roles played by non-professionals, a cult movie winning numerous prizes. Here is the story: Yiorgos is released from prison after 14 years of incarceration for a murder he committed in his small Greek village. (He found his 17-years old brother playing sex games with his 5 years old son and, in an outbreak of rage, he killed him.) During his long stay in prison, he lost contact with his son Leonidas whom he now tries to trace. He spends his first night out in a cheap downtown hotel in Athens, where he meets Strella, a young transsexual prostitute. They spend the night together and soon they fall in love, Yiorgos is accepted by the circle of Strella’s tranny friends, and admires her personification of Maria Callas. However, he soon discovers that Strella IS his son Leonidas with whom he lost contact: Strella was following him when he left prison and waited for him in the corridor of the hotel. She first just wanted to see him, by after he made a pass at her, she went along… Traumatized, Yiorgos runs away and breaks down, but the couple reestablishes contact and discovers that, in spite of the impossibility of continuing their sexual relation, they really care for each other. They gradually find a modus vivendi, and the final scene takes place at a New Year celebration: Strella, her friends and Yiorgos all gather at her place, with a small child that Strella decides to take care of, the son of a deceased friend of hers. The child gives body to their love and to the deadlock of their relationship.
Strella brings perversion to its ridiculously-sublime climax. When, early in the film, Yiorgos discovers that the beloved/desired woman is a transvestite and accepts this without further ado, with no pathetic shock: after he notices that his sexual partner is a man, the partner simply says “I am a tranny. Do you have a problem with that?”, and they go on kissing and embracing. What follows is the truly traumatic discovery that Strella is his own son he was looking and who knowingly seduced him - here, Yiorgos’s reaction is the same as Fergus’s when he sees Dil’s penis in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game: disgusted, je escapes in panic and wanders around in the city, unable to cope with what he discovered. The outcome is similar to The Crying Game: the trauma is overcome through love, a happy family with a small son emerges.
We should resist the temptation to mobilize the psychoanalytic apparatus and search for some deep interpretation of the father-son incest: there is nothing to interpret, the situation at the film’s end is completely normal, the situation of a genuine family happiness. As such, the film serves as a test for the advocates of Christian family values: embrace THIS authentic family of Yiorgos, Strella and the adopted child, or shut up about Christianity. The family that emerges at the film’s end is a proper sacred family, something like God father living with Christ and fucking him, the ultimate gay marriage AND parental incest.
So if we are looking for a European film canon, it stretches from Lubitsch to Koutras: Strella is a Lubitsch film for today, today’s “trouble in paradise” which occurs when you discover that your gay lover is your son. Even if the family of father and son violates all divine prohibitions, one can be sure there will be for the two of them a small room vacant in the annex of Heaven, as the good-humored Devil says to the hero of Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait.