Film Society of Lincoln Center's retrospective of Chéreau's work, Patrice Chéreau: The Love That Dares, runs from February 28-March 5, 2014

Nothing if not protean, Patrice Chéreau’s four-decades-plus career has encompassed  opera and theater as well as film. His works in different media are not merely complementary but inextricably intertwined. The demands Chéreau makes on spectators are high—not because his films are “difficult” or “obscure” in the usual sense, but because they are infused with an emotional force unprecedented in its physical intensity—so much so that the viewer is sometimes left exhausted.

Queen Margot

Queen Margot

Luchino Visconti comes to mind as an obvious predecessor to this 64-year-old director’s multiform auteur profile, except that Visconti didn’t link the three mediums quite so decisively. Nor did he appear on screen as Chéreau has, having acted in Andrzej Wajda’s Danton, Youssef Chahine’s Adieu Bonaparte, Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac, Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf, and Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, among others. While this may make him sound like France’s answer to Sydney Pollack, Chéreau took these roles mainly for the experience and considers himself not as a workaday actor but as a physical object at the disposal of other filmmakers.

Of course, Chéreau’s career couldn’t be further from the middle-of-the-road professionalism of Pollack and, in terms of style, is of a different sensual order than that of Visconti. And that isn’t just because Chéreau is explicitly gay, rather than implicitly as in Visconti’s case. Rather, it’s because Chéreau evokes André Breton’s demand that art “will be convulsive or not at all.” And the central site of these convulsions is the human body.

“I make films in order to approach bodies and because the theater can’t give me this physical density. I am fascinated by the violence of bodies as they . . . go up against each other,” Chéreau declared in an interview. Such “violence” is obvious in the still shocking finale of L’Homme blessé (83) and, on a much gentler level, in the frantic bustle of the mourners in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (98). But there’s an even deeper level to Chéreauvian physicality, as his viscerally disturbing yet deeply touching Son frère (03) makes clear. For the climax of this drama of fraternal love astride the grave, a pair of nurses shave all the hair from the body of Thomas (Bruno Todeschini) in preparation for an operation to remove his spleen in the hope of arresting a mysterious blood disease that is sapping the life out of him. The stark reality of Todeschini’s hairy corpus is simply overwhelming. We have never been presented with a body on screen in quite this way: the viewer is forced to intimately contemplate a man in extreme distress, and the process and uncertain consequences of the operation to come. “Stark realism” has never been like this.

Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train

Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train

This difference could be anticipated from the beginning. Born in Lezigne in 1944 to a pair of painters, Chéreau got his start at age 15 as director, actor, and stage manager of his high-school theater. By 1966 he had established a public theater in the Paris suburb of Sartrouville, where he staged plays by Kuan Han-ching; the following year he worked with the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. A series of stage triumphs—including Victor Hugo’s L’Intervention in 1964 (when he was only 20), Shakespeare’s Richard II (70), and Marivaux’s La Fausse Suivante (71), each executed with a vigor not normally associated with classical theater—culminated with his 1972 staging of Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre in Paris. It was the latter that anticipated Chéreau’s U.S. breakout film, Queen Margot (94).

Based on Alexander Dumas and starring Isabelle Adjani, this historical-spectacle rendering of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre resembled a collaboration between the Rossellini of The Rise of Louis XIV and the Dario Argento of Suspiria (Asia Argento is perhaps not coincidentally among the cast). Executed with a sense of baroque relish not normally associated with period films, Queen Margot was far from Chéreau’s maiden cinematic effort. Four television films and four theatrical features preceded it—the first being The Flesh of the Orchid (75).

Flesh of the Orchid

The Flesh of the Orchid

An adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s sequel to No Orchids For Miss Blandish (itself filmed once in 1948 and a second time by Robert Aldrich as The Grissom Gang in 1971), The Flesh of the Orchid is a sensational genre exercise. Whereas the first novel dealt with an heiress kidnapped by hoodlums, the sequel focuses on her mentally troubled daughter (played with perverse lusciousness by Charlotte Rampling), who, while on the lam from a psychiatric hospital, is preyed upon by a clutch of grandes dames (Edwige Feuillère, Alida Valli, and Simone Signoret) scheming to get their hands on her inheritance. Add a pair of hired thugs (Hans Christian Blech and Francois Simon), a mysterious “protector” (Bruno Cremer), plus our heroine’s tendency to gouge out the eyes of any man who gets too close, and you’ve got yourself a truly unique exercise in Grand Guignol, even by the standards of an era in which Rampling became a star via Liliana Cavani’s concentration-camp romp The Night Porter.

While it was a minor hit in Europe, Chéreau himself dismisses The Flesh of the Orchid as “all over the place.” But there’s no mistaking the talent on display, and the film’s focus on physicality is striking: whereas Cavani had Rampling pose and strut as a kind of Nazi Pussycat Doll, Chéreau most frequently shows her supine—a coiled snake ready to strike. And the forthrightly sensual manner in which he films Cremer and Hugues Quester (as one of Rampling’s unlucky assailants/victims) anticipates the visual homoerotics that will dominate subsequent films.

Chéreau directed his first opera, Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, in 1969. A striking production of Tales of Hoffmann followed. But his production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which premiered at Bayreuth in 1976, aired on PBS in 1980, and can be found on DVD, was a clear cultural breakthrough and a major scandal. Wagner had never been performed so directly, sensually, and above all comprehensively. Fights broke out in the audience. Bomb threats were made. Altogether it seemed a Götterdämmerung of the sort Wagner wouldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams.

But after the smoke cleared, it became evident that Chéreau hadn’t violated Wagner at all—he’d gotten right to the beating heart of the composer’s magnum opus. Chéreau set The Ring in the 1870s, i.e., at the time of its writing, and costumed the Gods in the clothing of the 19th-century upper classes. Dispensing with fantasy mumbo-jumbo, he treated them as real people with real emotions and motives, and found an emotional throughline for every character so that the story became palpable in ways that it had never been before. As a result, Wotan’s relationship with Brunhilde is truly touching—particularly in the finale to Die Walküre—and the relationship of Siegfried’s future parents, the incestuous twins Siegmund and Siegliede (played by the drop-dead-gorgeous Peter Hoffman and the equally lovely Jeanine Altmeyer), exudes an intense, distinctly modern sexuality. Chéreau would later observe “With a singer the whole body is used. If you sing Wagner you need to use your body in a certain way . . . That’s the beautiful thing with singers—they’re acting with their bodies.”

Judith Therpauve

Judith Therpauve

After this workout, Chéreau re-sumed his filmmaking career with the modest Judith Therpauve (78), a low-key drama about a World War II widow managing a newspaper, starring Simone Signoret and Philippe Léotard. Five years later came the tumultuous arrival of L’Homme blessé. Co-scripted by Chéreau and Hervé Guibert (the brilliant young writer who would shock the world with his 1990 AIDS memoir To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life) and inspired in equal part by Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal and Chéreau’s own adventures in New York’s West Village, it portrays the exceedingly violent coming-out of Henri (Jean-Hugues Anglade in the role that made him a star), a young man who discovers his true sexual identity following a chance encounter with the gay world inside an enormous railway station. Henri is mesmerized by and falls in love with Jean (Vittorio Mezzogiorno), a mentally unstable vagrant who abruptly sets upon him in a men’s bathroom. After what ranks as the longest and most passionate same-sex kiss in film history, Jean rebuffs Henri, who from then on does whatever he can to recapture the other man’s attention, going so far as to accompany him as he robs unwitting cruisers and steals from potential tricks (the most memorable played by the film’s producer, Claude Berri). Despite everything, Henri is never able to truly connect. He walks out on his flustered parents (Armin Mueller-Stahl and Annick Alane), meets a mysterious woman (Lisa Kreuzer) as in thrall to Jean as he is, and most tellingly of all, semi-befriends a pathetic yet oddly elegant older gentleman named Bosman (Roland Bertin), who is also in love with Jean but is resigned to his unrequited feelings. Worldly-wise regarding the social margins, Bosman takes Jean to a local lover’s lane and remarks “Here are ‘normal’ couples,” as if to demonstrate that sexuality has nothing to do with “normality.” In L’Homme blessé, all forms of love are furtive.

But Henri lacks Bosman’s patience, and the film ends with what might be likened to a gay Liebestod. This violent conclusion might for some place L’Homme blessé in the same class as Cruising. But Friedkin’s shallow peep-show (all too eager to separate a gay “them” from a presumably straight “us”) lacks both Chéreau’s insight and his uncompromising toughness. It’s this lack of compromise that marks the bloody spectacle of Queen Margot 11 years later, and can be found in his masterpiece, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, as well as Intimacy (01), Son frère, Gabrielle (05), and even his 1996 telefilm adaptation of Bernard-Marie Koltes’s cryptic two-hander In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields. Here Chéreau co-stars with Pascale Greggory as a “dealer” and his “customer” respectively—although Koltes never discloses the precise object of their transaction. But knowing Chéreau, we can easily guess: it’s love itself.