19 July 2001 | the red duchess
Third outing for the brawny FBI agent later to be immortalised by Godard.
Or, as the more appropriately hard-boiled English title has it, 'Dames Don't Care!' This is the third Lemmy Caution adventure, the real thing before Godard spliced him in a post-modern blender for 'Alphaville' in the 1960s. Lemmy is a hard-drinking, lascivious, violent FBI special agent who operates in France solving relatively mundane crimes. He has the build of John Wayne, and his films are full of extended, masochistic brawls, the fist-fighting equivalent of swashbuckling. What saves Lemmy from the neanderthal fascismo of Mickey Spillane is his charming gaucheness as an American in France.
The opening sequence is emblematic of the pleasures on offer in a Lemmy Caution film. After credits of an almost atonal jazz scree drowning more familiar Latin rhythms, a sports car blunders through an eerie, desert-like space up to a nightclub, the Casa Antica, emitting a loud, tottering drunk, who insults the usher, lunges into the club, demanding the best table, the best whiskey, the best chair. The nightclub is a gloriously kitsch affair, recreating ancient Greek ruins, with broken columns, and discreetly Nazi-like statues.
Our American alco spots a man he doesn't like, dancing with a beautiful lady. He coarsely heckles him, and goads him into fighting. So begins, in these archly theatrical surroundings, the first of many ritualistic pummellings. The lush, though powerful, eventually concedes defeat, and offers his rival a drink as peace offering. It turns out this enemy is actually a contact, and the inebriate is Lemmy Caution, stiffly sober although we've seen him drinking most of a whiskey bottle.
The contact in involved in a case involving the apparent suicide of a banker, and compromising letters to his wife, who was recently found with a large amount of counterfeit banknotes. Lemmy searches her house, and on returning surreptitiously to the closed night-club, finds the murdered contact stuffed in a fridge. Continuing his investigations with the help of the French police, Lemmy discovers the suicide's adultery, his ex-chauffeur's rise in power with designs on the wife, and decides all the clues point to the lubricious Henrietta. Not before bedding her, of course.
'Les Femmes s'en balancent' is a strange hybrid of a film. The murder-mystery plot is straight out of Agatha Christie, complete with red herrings, suspects and a final gathering where the great detective reveals the solution. The milieu of night-clubs, jazz, fraud, sexual intrigue, class tension and brutal violence is more familiar from hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir. The irrepressible Lemmy, easily foiling all resistance, and irresistable to women, is more of a comic book proto-James Bond figure than a sour private eye - Godard wanted to call his Lemmy Caution adventure 'Tarzan versus IBM', which sounds about right.
Aesthetically, the film's style is as flat and functional as a modest American B-movie (the low-budget extends to trips to Rome, but not very convincing sets): few stylistic flourishes; set-ups and situations propelling the narrative. The strikingly aggressive use of jazz, however, looks forward to 'Touch of Evil' (Welles was in Europe at the time); the exterior scenes have a mysterious, almost surreal feel; and the acting is so knowing (Lemmy and Henrietta frequently wink to the audience) as to make the potentially offensive cheerfully camp. Sociologists will probably see something in the FBI agent usurping power from the local police, but Lemmy is more brawns than brains.