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Claude Chabrol DVD boxset

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Pleasure Party
cast: Paul Gegauff, Daniele Gegauff, Clemence Gegauff, Paula Moore, and Giancarlo Sisti

director: Claude Chabrol

100 minutes (18) 1975
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Pleasure Party, also known in its original language as Une Partie De Plaisir (and, in a more apt piece of translation, A Piece Of Pleasure), is a film that features a number of quirky and fateful production decisions. The first is that the family unit that forms the nucleus of the story is, in fact, a real family... right down to the agonisingly cute Clemence Gegauff who plays Elsie. The second is that Paul Gegauff, who plays the boorish and tyrannical Philippe is not only the writer of the film but a writer of a number of Chabrol's better known works. The third is that less than ten years after portraying a brutal murderer, here, Gegauff himself would be stabbed to death by his second wife.

The film begins with Philippe and Esther on an island. They capture crabs in jars, they mess about and then they make love. It is clear from the beginning that Philippe is a domineering man who thinks he knows everything and puts very little stock in the opinions of his wife. Despite this, the couple seem happy. Then Philippe declares that in ten years of marriage, he has been unfaithful ten times and that this means nothing... any more than taking a drink or smoking a cigarette. Esther is not pleased but she accepts Philippe's justifications. Philippe decides that it would be best for the couple if they were to have an open relationship and sleep with other people. The problem is that Esther takes him at his word.

The family are wealthy, living in a large country house without seeming to need to work and every weekend their friends descend upon them filling the house with great talk, great food and sex. Having been told that she is now in an open relationship, Esther goes to bed with Habib (Sisti), a fashionable young man with a guitar and a laidback attitude who gets under the skin of the more rigorously minded Philippe. Despite this, he tolerates the relationship. However, before long Habib begins inviting his friends to the house... equally laidback and fashionable young men who rail against science and speak of Eastern religion and mysticism all of which begins to rub off on Esther. The problem is not that Philippe is possessive or jealous of whom his wife is sleeping with, rather it is that he cannot abide people other than him determining what it is that Esther should think. Predictably, Philippe makes a scene and pushes Esther into Habib's arms forcing him to break into Habib's apartment in the middle of the night and order his wife home. Once home he imposes limits upon the openness of the relationship but Esther's submissive acceptance only enrages him more and he begins to demand acts of submission from her. Clearly the marriage is doomed.

Up until this point, the film operates as a 'be careful what you wish for' morality tale about foolish men whose pride cannot live up to the libertarian principles they want to live their lives by, and the film is undeniably powerful in this end. Chabrol and Gegauff deliver an absolutely scathing critique of the kind of masculine sexuality that is frequently depicted in French cinema, whereupon people fall in and out of bed with each other without any repercussions for their relationships with others. Indeed, in this respect the film covers very similar ground to Jean Jacques Tachella's Cousin, Cousine, which also appeared in 1975. Gegauff is particularly well cast as the pompous lothario, as he is handsome enough to be seductive but also slightly too old for his clothes, and almost comedic in his tendency to swan about the house with no shirt on and with a long thin cigar sticking out of his mouth. However, while the first two acts of the film clearly function as a morality tale, the third act is a more nebulous affair that focuses more closely on Philippe's mental state.

Having separated from Esther, Philippe marries a British girl (Moore) who just happens to be Habib's ex-wife. However, almost immediately, Philippe realises that something isn't right. He returns to the island he visited with Esther and realises that his new wife is far less passive and docile than Esther. As a result, Philippe starts to use his daughter as a means of putting pressure on Esther to get back with him. However, Esther has moved on and has no interest in getting back with her old husband and Philippe brutally beats her to death for her troubles.

This final act features Philippe utterly at sea. Suddenly without money he finds himself dependent upon his wife and he becomes consumed with the fact that he is unhappy and that the world owes him the return of Esther because of this unhappiness. His brutal act of violence is as predictable as it is shocking and is an entirely fitting end for a man so endlessly tyrannical and carelessly unkind.

Ultimately, despite working well on all levels, Pleasure Party suffers as a result of how profoundly unpleasant and unsympathetic all of the characters are. Philippe is almost unbearable from the off and his fellow males are no better; listless self-serving egomaniacs one and all. Indeed, given how profoundly unpleasant the men in this film are, you might be forgiven for expecting the women to be likeable, but they are not. Daniele Gegauff's Esther is an empty shell, utterly in thrall to the men in her life and only ever capable of making a stand once in her life, for which she is rewarded with a brutal death. Philippe waxes endlessly about how Esther has fallen under the thrall of these young fashionable men but Chabrol never spends any time even mentioning Esther's beliefs... we only have Philippe's take on the situation to go by. Paula Moore's Sylvia Murdoch is not much better as she is again empty, she reacts to Philippe's attempts at domination but only enough to make it clear that she has views and tastes of her own... we never really learn what they are.

Pleasure Party is a film whose deep misanthropy leaves a bitter aftertaste. Clearly intended as a critique of masculinity, it ultimately fails by refusing to give any of its female characters the depth they need and crave. It is almost as though Chabrol and Gegauff realised the failings of man but considered women to be little better anyway. Well performed, nicely shot and interestingly plotted, Pleasure Party is an interesting rather than an enjoyable viewing experience. The DVD is a part of the Claude Chabrol collection - volume two boxset and has no extras at all.

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