SAVAGE STATE is one of the most lunatic botches ever perpetrated on a movie audience. It is impossible to come up with a single reason why it was necessary to re-release this cinematic blight from 1978. The mere depiction of the nightmare of racial prejudice, here recorded with almost
obscene relish, seldom provides the necessary insight into the problem.
In 1963, a time of de-colonization in French Africa, Laurence (Marie-Christine Barrault) is the center of a storm of societal disapproval for being the lover of a black man, Patrice Doumbe (Doura Mane), the Minister of Health. Prior to this, she was married to a neglectful UNESCO official, Avit
(Jaques Dutronc), whom she left for Gravenoire (Claude Brasseur), an adventurer who has gotten rich exploiting the local population. Avit has come to Africa on business, as well as to search for his wife. Almost immediately, he encounters Gravenoire, who, outraged that his mistress has deserted
him for a black, is only too willing to reunite the two. Upon meeting with her husband, Laurence is conciliatory, but Avit resists her overtures of friendship. Meanwhile, the black population has become incensed that their adored political leader, Doumbe, has "betrayed" them with his affair with
Laurence. They turn against him, and, at the end of a long night in which he is arrested and beaten to a pulp, Doumbe is killed. In grave danger, Laurence attempts to escape from the country with a now-resigned Avit. They seem to have the entire population--black and white--against them, but
finally make it to the airport, and, presumably, to a calmer life.
"Sex is an enormous problem here. The climate drives women's hormones mad," a character says at one point; that is as much of an explanation as is provided for the nonsensical events that are spun out here. The Georges Conchon novel on which the film is based won the prestigious Prix Goncourt
prize in France, and, reportedly, several filmmakers were interested in the material. As a parable of the universality of racism and man's inhumanity to man, the story undoubtedly played better on the printed page. Director-cowriter Francis Girod's work has an archaic feel to it: events take place
with an obscure, primitive abruptness; nothing is gauged dramatically, and there is a feeble music score intermittently laid over the action like an afterthought.
THE SAVAGE STATE resembles the climax of DO THE RIGHT THING, extended for an unconscionable length. Girod overloads it with so many unblinkingly gruesome effects--the mob's attack on Doumbe, a truckload piled with black corpses (victims of the nightly violence), bigoted whites goading young blacks
into raping Laurence--that whatever moral point he is trying to make is nullified. The viewer simply becomes numb, waiting for the next outrage to top the one just witnessed. How is one to respond, for example, to the scene in which the African cabinet ministers mock Doumbe with jungle-drum
rhythms while wearing Savile Row suits?
The characters, for the most part, are unsympathetic, and, apart from Barrault and Mane, the performers have zero rapport with each other. They all seem to be playing some form of ideological monster, but the performances lack creative zest. People are despicable, racism inevitable, Girod
trumpets, as if struck by a miraculous revelation.
As glacially imperial as Grace Kelly, Barrault still evinces some passion in her boudoir scenes with Mane, but her actions become increasingly inscrutable as the tensions mount around her. Her flight in a car from her villa, surrounded by menacing natives at every point, lacks the real terror it
should be invested with, due to Barrault's opacity and the lax direction. Brasseur gives an inexhaustibly offensive and cliched performance that reaches absurd heights in the final moments, during which he records Laurence's and Avit's attempts at escape with a movie camera. The ultimate viewer
ordeal, this last sequence, is staged as if the beleaguered couple were on their way to Golgotha. (Like the obtuse families in horror movies that find themselves in demonically possessed houses, they should have gotten out a hell of lot sooner.) Dutronc is so passive in even the most trying
circumstances that he's almost funny (especially when he and Barrault snipe at each other like Lucy and Desi while fleeing for their lives); Leslie Howard was a tornado of dynamism by comparison. The handsome, elegantly lithe Mane is the only person who commands any respect or compassion;
naturally, he is soon disposed of in relentlessly brutal fashion. Michel Piccoli also appears, doing his cynically resigned, knowing specialty as Orlaville, a police chief, who serves as something of a Greek chorus. Affecting an Ernest Hemingway-ish grizzled, Great White Hunter guise, Orlaville
spends his free time typing up unpublished novels, which one suspects are as witless as this film. (Excessive violence, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations, profanity.)
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