Four Hairdressers in Heat; Remembering Vincent Canby

Tonie Marshall’s Venus Beauty Institute , from her own screenplay, has won several French César awards: best picture, best director, best screenplay and best young actress (Audrey Tautou). Curiously, the French honors did not include best actress for Nathalie Baye as Angèle, the film’s clearly dominant performance. One of four women ministering to the cosmetic needs of their gender in a beauty shop, Ms. Baye’s Angèle is nothing less than mesmerizing as she moves about the Parisian spa and its environs in search of men for conversation and occasional sex. I say “occasional” because she says no to the men she picks up as often as she says yes, and spends much of the film rejecting the advances of Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan), a sculptor who is her most ardent and persistent suitor. Angèle likes, above all, to talk endlessly about her relationships as they are happening, to the consternation of the man she happens to be with at the moment. This eternal clash between Mars and Venus provides much of the humor in the film.

A more maddening piece of satiric repetition is the tinkling refrain every time the door of the spa is opened. Since there are innumerable entrances in the course of the film, and most of the action takes place on the premises of the Venus Beauty Institute, the recurring tinkling seems to suggest a soul-destroying process at work. Yet the tone of the film lacks the bitterness and pessimism of Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), Claude Chabrol’s classic contemplation of four shopworkers in Paris. Instead, there is a satisfying feeling of services professionally rendered in a generous atmosphere of female complicity in the conspiracy to attract, arouse and deceive men.

In this context, Bulle Ogier’s Nadine exercises a generally benign presence as the owner of the enterprise, the work force of which consists of the aforementioned Angèle, the oldest of the workers, the seemingly innocent Marie (Ms. Tautou), and the defiantly flirtatious and ostentatiously voluptuous Samantha (Mathilde Seigner). Yet it is Angèle rather than Nadine who exhibits a maternal concern for Marie and Samantha when she thinks either is getting in over her head. Indeed, Angèle seems to be everywhere at once as she tries to get her own emotional life in order.

Still, Venus Beauty Institute seems to be a strange choice for French film industry accolades. It doesn’t seem to be about anything on a political or sociological level. It is certainly far from being a scathing exposé of the beauty industry; its touch is too light and too whimsical for that. The shameless exhibitionism of one of the customers as she parades nude in front of the spa’s public windows seems a bit unreal, if not surreal. The final scene in particular, with its pistol-wielding buildup to a crime of passion, fizzles out in a dream-like happy ending in long shot that is not really an ending at all, but merely an arbitrary stop.

Indeed, Ms. Marshall seems to be more comfortable with the routines of everyday life than with the presumed ecstasies of ever-after. She has been so seduced by the indestructible feistiness of her main character that she can’t find a cap for her bottle of explosively high spirits. Ms. Baye thus does not merely steal Venus Beauty Institute from her co-stars, she blows it to smithereens. And this is no mean feat for a woman in her early 40′s on-screen and her early 50′s off-screen.

My one regret in not having lived in Paris for the past four decades is that I have not been able to keep up with all the French films and all the French actresses over that period. Aside from the fond memories I would have about all the sensual variations in the cinematic careers of Ms. Baye and Ms. Ogier, I would be less startled by the apparitions in old age of Micheline Presle from Devil in the Flesh (1946) and Emmanuelle Riva from Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). In fact, I didn’t recognize them at first in their roles as Angèle’s aunts, though to me they remain unforgettable in their earlier manifestations.

Vincent Canby: Writer, Francophile, Best Man

Vincent Canby (1924-2000) was probably the most gifted film critic for The New York Times since Frank Nugent, who held that title in the 30′s, and he may have been the best prose writer ever among Times critics.

I believe I first met Canby back in 1964, when he was a reviewer at Variety . I had just returned from the Mar Del Plata Film Festival in Argentina. The top editors had not sent a staff correspondent to the festival because it was the year Hollywood was boycotting Argentina due to some esoteric exchange controversy between the two industries. James Mason, Van Heflin and Susan Oliver showed up anyway, and so I had the shreds of a story. Anyway, my meeting with Vincent in a West Side bistro to approve the publication of my article proved to be very pleasant. I was struck back then with how smart and sophisticated he was about the nuts and bolts of the movie business, and how unimpressed he was by the usual vanity camouflages of the big egos in the trade. As a journalist, he was a solid craftsman, and I was still a bit of a hustler, but we spoke the same language.

Still, when I asked Vincent five years later to be the best man at my wedding to Molly Haskell, he was initially surprised. We had not been all that close since our first meeting. Was my life all that empty? I imagined him wondering. Well, I suppose it was. I sensed that Vince was a bit of a loner, too, though I discovered later that he had more true friends than many of his hail-fellow-well-met colleagues. Anyway, he kindly consented and, from that moment on, he was someone Molly and I considered a friend, no matter how seldom we saw each other. He was the best kind of friend, someone whom you could trust implicitly never to say anything against you to anyone else.

Yet though we were friends, we were never ideological allies. He was a bit more left than I was, and considerably less auteurist. Indeed, at the rehearsal dinner he pulled out a mock telegram from Lola Montez holding back her tears for my betrayal. I doubt that anyone at the dinner besides Molly and me got the joke by recalling my Ophülsian frenzy six years earlier. But his “telegram” reminded me that we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on movies. Far from it. In fact, his close friendship with Lillian Hellman made me feel awkward about how I disparaged her Stalinist slickness in print, but, unperturbed, he introduced me to her at Sardi’s without a hitch.

Sardi’s. I somehow identify Vincent with Sardi’s, and what it represented as a low-key watering hole for Times journalists and theatrical celebrities. Elaine’s was not for Vincent, despite the frequent presence there of his beloved Woody Allen. I say “beloved” because, as a critic, Vince stayed with Woody longer than I did. Vince enjoyed wryness for its own sake; hence, he was a great admirer of Robert Downey’s Putney Swope , which to my eyes and ears came down to one or two jokes and two or three expletives.

Still, I shared his Francophilia, though I came to prefer Eric Rohmer to François Truffaut. In the history of senior Times movie reviewers, Vince was singularly generous to the second- and third-string under him. In many ways he was the antithesis of Bosley Crowther, who was the most powerful, and power-conscious, film reviewer in the history of The Times . Vince couldn’t have cared less about power and influence, though a great deal of it accrued to him automatically without his having to lift a finger to promote himself. And he seldom did.

On several occasions, Molly and I double-dated with Vince and Penelope Gilliatt, who, as far as I know, was the only woman in Vince’s life. In recent years, we watched him struggle manfully against the cancer that finally killed him. We realized belatedly that we had always loved him and were too sophisticated to say the words out loud. We were grateful that, in the end, he’d found a guardian angel in his cousin, Ridgely Trufant, who helped keep all his old friends around him.