Women on the Margins: Cinema of Jean-Claude Brisseau is a collection of three of the French director’s films: 1978’s Life the Way it Is, 1992’s Céline and 2000’s Workers for the Good Lord. Though it’s not hard to see a great many details that connect these films, it is, at first, a little puzzling as to why these three in particular are together under the heading “Women on the Margins”. Those familiar with Brisseau might suggest that other works, such as 2002’s Secret Things, the story of a stripper and a barmaid who use sex to advance themselves socially and financially only to find themselves still occupying marginalized positions, manipulated and controlled by their ultimate conquest.
Brisseau is celebrated as a realist and a master of social commentary in cinema. The films in this collection may not seem to fit easily together in terms of “Women on the Margins”, but a closer look will reveal that they all do, indeed, address that very topic, albeit sometimes in less obvious ways.
La vie comme ça (Life the Way it Is) is about women in the workforce, and it is a stark and often disturbing realist commentary on the violence and inequity in the world of the working class. Agnes leaves school for a job in a factory, and she and her friend Florence take an apartment in a council block, where poor families and elderly tenants face fear, violence and despair on a daily basis. The oppression of her living conditions are mirrored at her workplace, where all the women are subject to sexual harassment, abuse and alienation from the male management, as well as to the mean-spirited competition from their co-workers.
Add to that the fact that at the time (late ‘70s) it was still customary for female employees to do what amounts to purposeless busy-work, and it’s easy to see how Agnes’s hopes for the future slide into futility. Brisseau films much of the workplace scenes in a documentary style, which gives the indignities Agnes is subjected to when she tries to report a superior for harassment a much more immediate and visceral feeling. Agnes is the main protagonist, but what Brisseau is trying to illustrate through her is happening to others, it’s going on all around her throughout the film. Life the Way it Is is essentially a documentation of the separation, isolation and degradation of a human being—in this case, a woman—who has been abandoned by society.
Céline deals with a woman, actually, with two women, who have also been abandoned in a sense. However, it is a much more uplifting example of “Women on the Margins”. Céline is a young woman whose father died in her arms shortly after revealing that she was adopted. She seeks comfort from her boyfriend, who, upon discovering she’s not heir to the fortune he thought, leaves her. She is abandoned, alone and bereft. She attempts suicide.
Genevieve, a home care nurse, finds her and takes her home to care for her. But it isn’t a one-sided relationship, for as Genevieve nurses Céline and teaches her yoga to help deal with her grief, Céline also brings Genevieve back to life. Over time, the two form a bond strengthened by Céline’s developing spiritual healing gifts. The miracles she begins to manifest are matched by Brisseau’s visual sensibilities. The cinematography is breath-taking and sometimes surreal. It’s almost meditative to behold. Where Life the Way It Is was a picture of concrete and hardship, Céline is a visual evocation of extreme feminine spirituality.
The third film in this group, Les savates du bon dieu, which translates to Workers for the Good Lord, is the one that is initially difficult to place beside the other two. It’s not about women, per se. The main character is a young man named Fred. Fred goes on a crime spree after his wife, Elodie, leaves with their child. Actor-director Andre S. Lebarthe says of the film, in the disc’s preface, “For a cinephile, it’s clear, Les savates du bon dieu is Authur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde with a sprinkling of The 1001 Nights. Or, in other words, a film noir that turns into a fairy story.” Everything about this film is purposefully presented in the language of cinema itself. According to Lebarthe, Brisseau tells this story in a language of violence. Everything is violence. Especially love. Fred and Elodie are the meaning of the phrase “madly in love”.
Workers for the Good Lord (2000)
Viewers should note, Jean Claude Brisseau doesn’t shy away from his own brand of realism in any way, whether it’s violence or sexuality. In these three films, however, it isn’t really gratuitous. You get the sense that any shot that lingers too long or seems somehow over the top is specifically to show the characters’ heightened perception of the act or sensation. In Workers for the Good Lord, Fred is the personification of heightened sensation. This is why it isn’t jarring when the film moves from heist movie action to fairy tale fantasy to love story. That is how Fred (and Brisseau) view the events that occur. And that right there is how this film fits “Women On the Margins”, because the women in Fred’s life are somewhat marginal characters in his life. They fulfill roles in his story—his impossible ideal, Elodie, who betrays his love; his Grandmother, who exists to take care of him; and Sandine, who goes along with his criminal misadventures because she loves him—all of these women could be seen as simply means to move Fred forward. In the language of cinema, in the language of this film, the woman are plot devices.
As a collection Women on the Margins encompasses much more than Brisseau’s unique portrayals of women in cinema; it also provides many examples of the many forms of realism that the director’s work has presented over his career. Beyond that, each individual film is an exciting, entertaining, visually rich and thought-provoking piece of storytelling.
Women on the Margins: Cinema of Jean-Claude Brisseau has special features on each film. Life the Way it Is includes an onscreen preface by Luc Moullet, as well as the full documentary feature The Angel and the Woman: The Cinema of Jean-Claude Brisseau, which is filled with interviews and commentary of many of Brisseau’s collaborators, film historians, and Brisseau himself. Celine includes a particularly informative onscreen preface by Phillippe Le Guay. Workers for the Good Lord‘s insightful preface is courtesy of the aforementioned actor-director, Andre S. Lebarthe.