Free spirits, nihilists, professional nonconformists, and unabashed civilization despisers count author Henry Miller (1891-1980) as one of their patron saints. It's not hard to see why. Miller's numerous books espouse a carefree lifestyle that rejects hierarchy, embraces living in the moment, and condones a reckless lifestyle marked by free expression, drink, and experimentation of all sorts. I suspect the phrase "I'll try anything once" describes Miller's philosophy to a T. In now lionized books like "Tropic of Cancer" and "Tropic of Capricorn," Miller outlined his own outlaw lifestyle during his tenure as an American expatriate in Paris. "Quiet Days of Clichy," another book about his days in France, documents his friendship with Alfred Perles and their subsequent wild and wacky adventures. While I haven't read a word of any of Miller's books, I did recently sit down to a 1970 film version of "Clichy" directed by Jen Jorgen Thorsen. It's no mistake this film arrived in theaters--at least the ones daring enough to screen it--during the heights of the counterculture. The ideas expressed in the movie certainly fit the worldview of many American and European youths in that era. A word of warning at the outset: if you dislike racy depictions of "human interaction," avoid this film at all costs.
Meet Joey (Paul Valjean) and Carl (Wayne Rodda), two devil may care miscreants roaming around the highways and byways of France picking up women, drinking, and generally having a fun time. In more ways than one, it's surprising Joey is so successful with the ladies: he's bald, thin, and wears glasses. Nonetheless, he and Carl bring back to their filthy apartment a string of young French women looking for a night of carousing. Since both men don't have stable employment, the daily struggle for existence moves to the forefront whenever the ladies disappear. For example, finding enough money for food is always a problem. Joey spends the better part of an evening roaming the streets of Paris looking for handouts. When that fails, he launches into a thorough scouring of the apartment's kitchen before finding something in the trash on which he may dine. Fun, eh? Expect to see many seemingly mundane scenes like this one stretched out for minutes at a time. I say "seemingly" because there is a philosophy behind the characters' day to day activities. Whether it is a philosophy either realistic or worth engaging in is an interesting question, but it strikes at the heart of Miller's worldview.
Most of "Quiet Days of Clichy" deals with the women. We see Carl bring a young, mentally challenged girl back to the apartment amidst much consternation from Joey. A minor engaging in the sorts of activities these two take part in every day could cause problems with the authorities. One day the two men follow this girl around the city watching what she does from afar. Why? Because they have nothing better to do, of course! Since many of the women Carl and Joey bring back to the apartment are harridans, most of these encounters deteriorate into arguments about fiscal matters. Even a fun evening that involves a bathtub, wine, and a lot of laughter eventually turns ugly when discussions of payment enter the picture. The relationships between these two guys and the women they seek to spend time with often contain an ugly, misogynistic tone. Whether that tone finds expression in Miller's books or not I don't know, but that sort of behavior shouldn't fly at all in the nice, shiny modern age. Feminists will sputter in rage over the activities of these two cads.
Good grief, it's difficult to write a summary of this film! Primarily because nothing much happens beyond two guys out and about looking for a good time. Even the trip they take to Luxembourg doesn't show us all that much. But as I wrote earlier, that's the point. It's the idea of living from moment to moment, never planning anything and never reducing oneself to another person's whims that fuels the activities in this movie. When viewing the picture through this lens, "Quiet Days in Clichy" succeeds wildly. Another factor that makes this film worth viewing is Thorsen's direction and editing techniques. He occasionally uses cartoon dialogue bubbles to express the characters' inner thoughts, and his reliance on rapid-fire cuts give the film an amazingly modern feel. This is the sort of MTV style editing techniques adopted by nearly every television show and blockbuster type film since 1985, but Thorsen did it first. The black and white film stock doesn't prohibit us in any way from enjoying the city and country scenery that forms the backdrop for much of the movie's action. An unforgettable score from none other than Country Joe MacDonald will keep you humming--I'm humming the title track now, in fact--for ages after the film ends.
I'm not surprised at all to learn Blue Underground transferred this film to DVD. As usual, they did an excellent job. The extras alone will keep you busy: a trailer, two easter eggs, stills, cast and crew biographies, an eleven minute interview with Country Joe MacDonald, and an extensive interview with Grove Press's Barney Rosset, Miller's American publisher who led the fight to lift the numerous bans on the writer's books, provide more than enough background on the film. While I think many of the situations in the film are silly, if not downright eye rollingly ridiculous, I have to give Thorsen's picture and the DVD high marks.