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Parlor Games

Director Tonie Marshall on love, boring explanations and Venus Beauty Institute

At a time when so many French films are set in factories, dying school systems and industrial wastelands populated by unemployed grousers with sneers and cigarettes glued to their lips, Tonie Marshall‘s Venus Beauty Institute comes as something of a surprise. Centered on a gleaming, candy-colored beauty salon with private rooms for tanning, skin treatments and massage, the film tells the story of Angele (Nathalie Baye), a 40-something beautician whose job it is to smooth wrinkles and soothe cares even as her own wrinkles and cares crisscross dramatically. Inside the salon she’s the soul of compassion, but outside she‘s a different creature altogether: lovelorn, acid-tongued and apt to pick up men as casually as a prostitute. ”This is a democracy,“ she calls out to one man fleeing her. ”Men and women have the same rights. You dump me, I stalk you. We’re even!“

Filled with a number of delightful minor as well as major roles (including cameos by Marshall‘s fellow directors Brigitte Rouan and Claire Denis), Venus Beauty Institute is notable for its humor, verve, and forgiving view of our personal hangups and foibles. The movie has a wonderfully casual, off-the-cuff feel, and moves as briskly as Angele talks. Its romanticism is disillusioned, but no less romantic for that, and it does not flinch from the grotesque. One of the salon’s few male clients is a mean-looking widower who once received a skin graft for his face that came from his late wife‘s buttocks. Now he comes to the salon for facials to keep his wife’s skin in optimal condition. Despite this rather unappetizing premise, Marie, the salon‘s youngest beautician, falls for him.

For me, one scene in particular shows why this film is so refreshing. It’s not an important scene, just revealing. In it, a man walks into the salon and asks the 20-year-old Marie for a massage with ”the finishing touch.“ Marie, who‘s still green enough to feel awkward about these things, gently dodges the question. The man repeats his request, and Marie sidesteps him again. Finally, Angele, who’s been working in back, comes steaming into the reception area and lets the man have it. ”Take your prick to a specialist and leave her alone!“ she yells at him, and kicks him out the door. And that‘s it: end of scene. In an American film, that confrontation would have been milked to death, with the intruder turned into a loathsome, drooling pervert, because the more politically correct we become the more obsessively we dwell on depravity and ugliness until our screens reek of the stuff. But here it’s over in a flash, and the man, who‘s essentially harmless, is accorded exactly the amount of importance he deserves -- not much. Venus Beauty is a slight movie, but it’s intelligent and wise.

I met Tonie Marshall over breakfast at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, a few days after her film had opened the ”City of Lights, City of Angels“ film festival at the DGA last April. A slender, energetic woman born in 1951, Marshall has made three previous features (Pentimento, Pas Tres Catholique and Enfants de Salaud), but Venus Beauty is by far her most successful film. Made for only a couple of million dollars, this year it won four Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscars), including the awards for best French film, best director and best screenplay -- a first for a woman director.

L.A.Weekly: What were you trying to do in Venus Beauty Institute? What was in your mind when you wrote the first line?

Tonie Marshall: I wanted to write a part about a woman who completely falls apart with love, very complicated, who wants it and doesn‘t want it, but I didn’t know what she would do for a living. One night I passed in front of a beauty parlor, all pink, and inside there was a sort of crazy girl moving just like she was dancing, but [in fact] she was organizing everything. It was like an image from a Jacques Demy film, it was incredible. And I said, ”Well, that‘s a movie image, first of all.“ And then I went to that place -- because I [don’t usually go] to beauty parlors -- as a customer just to see. And in those little cabines I heard so many things! Everything in the film is true. Either I heard it, or . . . Everything is real.

I thought you must have worked in a beauty parlor at one point, actually. There was so much material.

No, not at all. I was just a customer, and I went again and again, and after that I made a sort of friendship with a beautician and with a former patronne named Nadine, who inspired the part for Bulle Ogier . . . I discovered it was not a place about appearance or being young again. It‘s really a place where women come and say something really deep and cruel, and I think it’s not the kind of thing they would say at a psychoanalyst. It‘s not organized. It’s not elaborated. They sort of trash themselves.

Did you receive government funding for this film?

Yes. But initially nobody wanted the film, nobody. They all said, ”Oh, Nathalie Baye, she‘s so boring, she’s finished.“ There‘s a horrible expression in French, vielle peau -- old skin. [People said,] ”It’s an old-skin movie,“ that sort of thing. It was really tough. But you need to be rejected sometimes. It makes you think about what you‘re doing if people reject you.

I like the fact that there are so many feelings in the film. Everyone wants to fall in love or is in love, and then you have all the clients coming in with their emotional upsets, complaints and worries. Yet the film doesn’t seem to be affected by that. It isn‘t cloying or sentimental itself.

Yes, I hate that. [The film] is much tougher. It’s real life, I think.

Had it been an American film, with the four main female characters, I think there would have been a lot of political buttons being pushed -- ”girl power,“ all that sort of stuff. Obviously it didn‘t interest you to do that.

No, not at all. In American movies, most of the time, not all -- we shouldn’t generalize, I hate that -- there‘s a desire to be so clear, and to give a very definite place to each character. In my movie, nobody is completely nice, nobody is completely right, and they’re all mysterious. Even in France, they ask me why the young girl‘s going with that old man, because it’s improbable. I don‘t care if it can happen or not, but in the movie it can happen and be a moment of pure sexual love. I just can’t explain everything. If I do, it‘s boring.

One thing I liked about the movie was that you didn’t villainize the men. Whereas here, in a film like that I think they would have been -- the guy hanging around outside the beauty parlor staring, the older man who would have been practically a sex criminal because he‘s 60 and she’s 20 . . . You didn‘t do any of that.

Yes, it starts a little bit in France, [people] wanting to be expressed in the image of their community, which is really, really boring . . . I’m fighting with French journalists, because since the last two years we are the country where there are 60 or 70 women directors, and we are a success, and this is unique in the world. So suddenly they‘ve discovered that, the journalists, and they say there is a women’s cinema. That‘s so boring! We’re always fighting against that image. Everyone says that Venus Beauty is a thing about women, because it‘s set in a beauty parlor. Okay! But that was not my point. It was not my point to say something about women generally. It was to say something about love, which is really mixed up for everybody.

Venus Beauty Institute opens Friday, October 27 at the Royal.