Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Le Magnifique

Le Magnifique posterUpon first glimpsing of the cliché movie poster for the 1973 film Le Magnifique (literally “The Magnificent”), which pictures a suave and handsome leading man clutching an automatic weapon and standing above the figure of a sexy, scantily-clad co-star, you may envision a James Bond-esque espionage movie of adventure, skin, and martinis; shaken, not stirred. Jumping at the opportunity to see a different culture’s take on this genre, you begin the film . . . and are utterly appalled.

The opening scene brings us to a fiesta in a town square on the coast of Mexico. There’s a mariachi band, dancers, festive colors, and a conspicuous Frenchman who strides to a telephone booth to tell his secret agent bureau that, due to his unfailing sixth sense, he doesn’t think he’s been spotted. With that statement, the phone booth is lifted off the ground by a helicopter and plopped into the nearby ocean, where underwater divers proceed to set a tiger shark upon the trapped agent. Fake blood ensues. Apparently, the only man worthy enough to fix this "situation in Mexico" is the dapper and debonair Bob St. Clare (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a secret agent extraordinaire who can chat on the phone while fighting five men, and has a keen eye for deadly infiltrators. He immediately flies to Acapulco and meets his attractive French informant, Tatiana (Jacqueline Bisset). The movie continues with a ridiculous slew of B-movie comedy: spies at every turn, fake blood, and cheesy lines. Bob and Tatiana are sharing a romantic moment on the beach, when suddenly innumerable scuba divers with machine guns come at them from every angle. As the camera pans over the gun fight, an oblivious woman vacuuming the sand walks through the scene in the opposite direction . . . wait! A woman vacuuming the sand!?

Here you are flung out of the Mexican dreamland and into the Parisian apartment of writer François Merlin (also played by Jean-Paul Belmondo), whose maid is vacuuming loudly in the background. Evidently, he can’t continue typing with all the noise and it soon becomes apparent that the entire first section of Le Magnifique has been a glimpse into his stereotypical, paperback espionage novel, and here is where you realize this film is more than its first half hour. The movie becomes a magical setting where the effects of François's life can be seen in his writing, such as the sound of his typing becoming Bob’s gun shots, or the novel's characters not being able to speak the letters that have malfunctioned on François's keyboard. Even the people in his life have small bit-parts in the book, such as his cranky electrician being a henchman that is killed off, or the cop, who didn’t give François a ticket in real life, being shown mercy. The two opposing worlds become entangled with one another in the mind of François: syllables typed become glimpses of the book, paragraphs become scenes, and the overall effect is delightful.

However, it appears as though François can never be Bob St. Clare, and as such he will never get the girl of his dreams, Christine (also played by Jacqueline Bisset), who lives above him and is played in the novel by, of course, the sexy Tatiana. François fantasizes about Christine, but they have never met. When they finally do, she realizes he is a writer and immediately studies all 42 of his novels, hoping to write her sociology thesis on what creates the desire for these wacky characters which the readers know and love. The plot proceeds with François on a rollercoaster of anxious moods (Does Christine love him? Does she love Bob St. Clare?), which leaves his novel’s characters in a mess. For example, a scene may be first written with Bob making love to Tatiana, but the next day the scene is rewritten with Bob as a bumbling idiot, due to François's jealousy of the secret agent. Christine begins talking to François's editor, Mr. Charron (Vittorio Caprioli), for more information on her research, but Charron sets out to court the oblivious Christine, and François becomes suspicious. And so the novel continues with Charron becoming Karpof, the evil Albanian colonel, who tries to steal Tatiana from Bob. After many unfortunate situations of seeing only what he suspects of Christine and Charron, François finally discovers that she is in love with him, not Charron or the fictitious Bob. The novel's end is rewritten to justify the real-life happy ending of François and Christine. And just as Charron walks away, below their window, François tosses the manuscript papers of the finished novel off the balcony and lets them rain down on his editor. In this ending, François, with Christine at his side, finds the true happiness which was beyond his imagination.

The location of Mexico plays a central role in Le Magnifique, but only as a fictitious get-away filled with lust and espionage. The scenes flaunting Acapulco from an aerial view seem like advertisements for Mexican resorts, complete with exciting mariachi music and large swimming pools. Bob St. Clare is shown water-skiing behind a motorboat or relaxing in a lounge chair when he’s not out fighting crime. However, this perception of Mexico is perfectly normal when it is noted that François surrounds himself with brochures and magazines of exotic Mexican destinations in order to create the settings for his novel, such as a sunny beach or a mysterious Aztec temple. The movie references Mexico numerous times as a vacation destination, such as when Merlin describes his novel’s setting to his editor and Charron leans back and exclaims, “Ah, I love Acapulco! I’ll be spending this winter there.” Mexico is also seen as a place of no inhibitions, such as when François leans in to kiss Christine and then apologizes, saying, “I’m a fool, for a moment I thought we were in Mexico.” Christine responds brusquely with “Well, we’re not in Mexico,” alluding to the fact that they are in the real world and Mexico is just a fantasy. Later, Christine expresses her love for the magic of the novels as she sighs, “I just had to go down one floor and I found myself in Mexico.” The message which this movie sends out to its audience is powerful and suspicious: If François’ novel reflects his actual life, do the brochures then reflect a true Mexico?

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