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Gallic playboys

The French are deservedly famous for a number of things — the Eiffel Tower, fine wine, fine food, yapping poodles. And playboys. A far cry from the American variety, I can tell you.

Hugh Hefner spent 20 years trying to cultivate the consumer image of the savvy young gent, just over 30, who was equally adept with a cocktail shaker, a hi-fi and a bra snap. This rather benign fantasy was hijacked by Larry Flynt and his shotgun-shack pornography. In the Flynt aesthetic, the perfect playboy is an updated version of Bo Duke, beholden to the Pamela Anderson Lee trinity of unholies — plucked brow, piercings and tattoos.

But Hef and Larry send out the same message: Women are objects to be enjoyed as totems of your virility in the bedroom and the showroom. It is a sterile, vulgar world of conquest and display far from the coasts.

In sharp contrast, the French playboy wears his pathos if not well at least with style on his sand-covered Speedos. In 36 Fillete (1988), Lili, a precociously busty little flirt, runs roughshod over the men populating the seedy beach resort where she is stranded with her feuding parents. After a first night on the prowl in which she meets a middle-aged salesman playing at Casanova and Jean-Pierre Léaud playing a grown-up version of the ill-tempered adolescent he made famous in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), she meets Maurice, a fast-talking alcoholic charmer. Maurice is suspicious of the girl but can’t help himself.

Lili lures her prey back to his hotel room where she proceeds to rabbit-punch Maurice’s libido with some impressive cockteasing disguised as conversation. If Lili has held our attention until now, it is Maurice who takes it away. In Lili he sees himself — lonely, hard-bitten yet hungry for innocence. As the night wears on, sex becomes an afterthought; the mood has turned nostalgic, a mutual longing for what they have both lost — and will not be able to find in each other.

But isn’t that what the beach is all about? The end of summer vacation and its little love affairs? Alas 35 is not 15, for a man or woman, and not all those love affairs end with rose-colored tears.

Romain, the cad in Year of the Jellyfish (1984), is trying to enjoy a romp with Claude, a shapely vamp on the lam from Paris and her square husband. But Chris (Valerie Kaprinsky, best remembered for her part in the American remake of Breathless), her equally shapely teenage daughter, won’t let him. Romain, flirty as he is, has her number and he doesn’t want anything to do with it. Confused about the power of her wiles, Chris must settle for lurid dalliances with a slew of unsavory characters until she finally corners Romain on his yacht.

Needless to say, Romain meets an unhappy demise and, although director Christopher Frank lards his film with an opaque narration of psychobabble, we are left unsure why Romain must check out. Because he finally succumbed to the kid? Because he slept with a married woman? Or simply because he was a playboy? This sort of moralizing is blissfully absent from 36 Fillete.

A far lighter touch can be found in Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach (1983). Cinematographer Nestor Almendros is rightly celebrated for his work on this film — all the images are rich with the natural light of late August, when the air turns a bit cooler at night and the sun drops a bit quicker into the horizon.

Charged with looking after her teenage cousin Pauline for the summer, Marion takes her to the North Coast town of Deauville for a bit of sun and surf. There, the two quickly draw the attention of admirers. Marion is set upon by Pierre, an aging windsurfer who’s a bit of a drag because he can’t forget an affair with Marion that ended badly for him.

Henri, a very laid-back ethnologist waiting to see which one of his friends is going to invite him on their yacht, has no problem bedding Marion. He has a way of making everything very smooth, including the sheets. Meanwhile, Pauline falls under the spell of Sylvain, a toothy young buck as untutored in love as she.

Unfortunately, their budding romance is polluted with the schemings of the adults. Pierre tries to sour Marion on Henri, while Henri conspires to cover his romp with a crazy hippie chick by having Sylvain take the fall. The kids rebel, demanding that they be left to enjoy love without the complications the adults insist upon for themselves. Only Henri seems to have the temperament and self-confidence to listen. His ship comes in and he takes off, somewhat relieved that he’s escaping the mess he helped create. Timothy Dugdale writes about arts and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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