8 November 2000 | the red duchess
Potentially lachrymose plot turned into philosophical rumination on the body, desire etc.
'Haut les coeurs!' is the kind of film you could imagine Hollywood reducing/inflating into a mawkish, overblown weepie. Its story - a pregnant woman discovers she has breast cancer, and must choose between her life and the baby's - seems ripe for tears, hugs, screams, big set-pieces full of tearful speeches and hugs, and maybe the odd miracle or, that wonderful thing, a sacrificial mother.
This is what a snooty 'arthouse' lover is supposed to say. 'Haut' certainly would not be made in America. It is very low-key, so studious in its efforts to avoid melodrama as to become numbing. Although the director's style focuses relentlessly on the female lead, and is full of close-ups and mid-shots, although we are given access to all the major plot developments, and her reactions to them, as well as of those closest to her, this is a strangely distanced film, which manages to keep a dignified restraint while seeming to show all. Although inside we must assume a whirlpool of terror, nausea, dread, mental breakdown (and I can assume, I've been there) the film's form never shows this, Emma's environment is still shot with such an uunnaturally clean image that even the dust seems sterilised. This mode is very similar to the films of Agnes Varda, especially early ones such as 'Le Bonheur' - although the story and settings are realistic, they are heightened, as if airbrushed, through composition and colour, so that this artifice conflicts jarringly with the very physical torments endured by Emma.
This is such a decent, understanding picture I feel monstrous for suggesting that is is actually structured around a pun on the French words for pregnant and breast - 'enceinte' and 'sein', a pun that expresses the paradox that Emma holds life and death inside her, and that these aren't some metaphysical ideas, but firmly linked to a body that is both growing and disintegrating (although Anspach isn't above using this paradox metaphorically with regard to Emma's social relationship, or the irony that it is her nurturing breast that is cancerous). this culminates in the horrific situation whereby Emma must give birth and have her breast removed on the same day. The only other scene that manages to break the anti-septic calm is when Simon shaves Emma's head against a flaming red background, literally disfiguring her femininity. A little bit more of this would have been to my taste, but then I've always been a sucker for melodrama.
This is a film where the usual workings of cinematic desire are reversed, where the woman and her body are not near-abstractions to be fetishised, but bodies full of the decay cinema is supposed to suspend. The absence of Emma's breast becomes a different kind of fetishism that turns voyeuristic desire on its head.
'Haut' seems to show everything, but does it? Anspach keeps inserting plot elemennnnts that might lurch toward melodrama, but are left tantalisingly undeveloped - what did Simon, one of those obnoxiously selfish intellectual males French cinema throws up ad nauseum, get up to with his female colleague? What did Emma do with the doctor after the nightclub? One of the most significent plot-points, dubiously echoing Emma's corporeal absence, is Olivier's big lie, his pretence to be abroad so he can avoid the reality of his sister's condition (I'm with him, I'm afraid). The final sequences, in their gleaming white sheen, though still realistic, seem hallucinatory, dreamlike, fetishistic, even spiritual. This is a film with more mystery (in both senses - this is a film about a mother and child, after all) than first appears.