A sexy stranger lands in the midst of a settled, community-sanctioned relationship with convulsive results. It's the story of Picnic, Titanic, and just about half the films noir ever made, but so intrinsic to the promise of the movies that it will never grow stale.
However else they may differ, Anne Fontaine's Dry Cleaning and Edoardo Winspeare's Pizzicata two new European movies following that recipe and opening this week could both take their epigram from Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents. "The feeling of happiness derived from the satisfaction of a wild instinctual impulse untamed by the ego is incomparably more intense than that derived from sating an instinct that has been tamed." Which is not to say that it is easier to watch someone else change their life on the screen than to think about your own.
In Fontaine's feature, the ego-tamed instincts belong to a hardworking married couple, Nicole (Miou-Miou) and Jean-Marie (Charles Berling), who operate a dry-cleaning establishment in the drab provincial town of Belfort, France. The movie shows something, if only a bit, of the oppressive heat, chemical fumes, and unending obligations of the dry-cleaning life. As professional enemies of dirt, sweat, and accidental spills, the couple could be seen as veritable instinct police. Indeed, Jean-Marie's emphasis on the importance of ironing a sharp pants crease suggests that the family business is less a matter of pressing than repressing.
As the dry cleaners never take vacations or, except for Sunday mass, even a day off, wild instinctual impulse arrives from without in the form of a suggestively incestuous brother-sister act called the "Queens of the Night." Improbably booked at a local bar, it's a tasteful show: the pair engage in sensuously synchronous grinding in matching lamé gowns, feathered boas, veiled hats while perched upon a rotating divan. The dry cleaners are turned on and tempted to change their lives, up to a point, especially after the act's flirtatious, omnisexual male member, Loïc (newcomer Stanislas Merhar), appears in the shop to get a stain removed from his gown.
The physical stain is erased; a psychic one takes its place. Nicole and Jean-Marie return to catch Loïc and his sister, Marylin, cross-dressed and posed on a motorcycle, lip-synching a duet by Franco-pop retro-icons Johnny Halliday and Sylvie Vartan. The ensuing elaborate approach-avoidance dance grows more intense after the Drones of the Day follow the Queens of the Night to Basel (otherwise known as the Sodom of the Alps) and the gay disco where Loïc and Marylin are cavorting in the guise of two Bavarian maidens. Marylin takes off, apparently setting the stage for a petit-bourgeois Teorema.
Dry Cleaning, which attracted much favorable attention when shown here last spring at the Walter Reade's French series, is a movie about sexual obsession that, at least for its first half, has a sunny, zipless feel. With the exception of the dry cleaners' sullen, sad-sack child (unusual in a French film), the principals are all thin, well-dressed, and très-très cute Miou-Miou in particular. Working-class heroine that she is, this always-engaging actress is never too tired to twinkle for the camera. Less delightfully, the dry-cleaning household includes a loquacious grandmother who needs no encouragement to serenade all with an old cabaret song.
Grandma is soon dispensed with, but the tongues of Belfort really start to wag once Loïc moves in with Nicole and Jean-Marie and enters their employ. Although the kid shows a remarkable affinity (or perhaps we should say instinct) for the dry- cleaning operation, the house is even steamier than the shop. Actually, the whole setup upstairs living quarters, first-floor business, basement storeroom corresponds roughly with the paradigm of superego-ego-id. But who exactly is domesticating whom?
More contrived than structured, better written than directed, Dry Cleaning ultimately abandons its initial sense of humor. If the movie lacks the ferocity to really bore in on the peculiar ménage established between the drag artist and the dry cleaners, it's never less than a compelling spectacle of tortured ambivalence.
The more conventional sexy stranger in Pizzicata is an American bomber pilot who bails out over southern Italy (and into the arms of the local peasantry) during the summer of 1943. World war notwithstanding, the provinces here are far more appealing than in Dry Cleaning. The landscape where the American finds himself is a timeless paradise of zephyr breezes and twittering birds.
The pilot is discovered by a peasant paterfamilias and, naturally, this grizzled pillar of gruff dignity (who, were Pizzicata a Euro-pudding dubfest, would have doubtless been played by Maximilian Schell) has fathered two ripe, barefoot babes with perfect posture and teeth to match. Considering this excellent luck, it seems no particular miracle that the American representative of a realm even more fabulous than the dives where the Queens of the Night strut their stuff would turn out to be Italian-born, scarcely wounded, and, once he regains consciousness, eagerly on the make. The family passes him off as a visiting relative, which, given his relative absence of personality, presents little problem.
Studied, sun-soaked, and somewhat elliptical, Pizzicata is a movie that aspires to the elemental. Winspeare, directing his first feature after a number of documentaries, favors a visual style based on fixed camera positions and deliberate lateral pans across rows of symmetrically arranged performers. As befits this schematic mise-en-scène (and insofar as power is transferred from the family to the community), civilization is much more powerful here than in Dry Cleaning, not to mention more obviously exotic. Sublimation if not discontent is manifest in a series of funerals, festivals, and local rituals ranging from courtship to exorcism. The dancing here is better too, not to mention the hysterical female dervish writhing.
The American disrupts the social order with his desire for the peasant's daughter who has been promised to the son of the town's richest citizen. But, although Pizzicata shares the same doomed trajectory as Dry Cleaning, the means by which society exacts its toll lacks an equivalent tension. If the situation is Freudian, the characters are prepsychological. This is the sort of movie where the women naturally sing in the fields and there is no shortage of carefully framed picturesque customs. (The glorified ethnography has the flavor of Tony Gatlif's gypsy movies without their nutty intensity.)
In the end, Pizzicata is less a drama than a sound-and-light show performed for tourists in the main square of a picture-postcard town. Although Cosimo Cinieri, who plays the old peasant, is the movie's lone professional actor, the rest of the cast might just as well have been handpicked by Giorgio Armani.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.