In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Brad Mariano looks at French master Jacques Demy’s oddity A Slightly Pregnant Man
Date Watched: 15th February, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 42
Cinephiles rejoiced last year at the announcement of Criterion’s release of The Essential Jacques Demy, bringing many of the French master’s most beloved films to home video after new restorations. There was of course minor squabbling as to the contents, as happens whenever a word like ‘essential’ is used – his 1969 film Model Shop was cited as a sad omission (which I haven’t seen, available only on long out-of-print DVD) but for the most part, the right boxes were ticked. There are, however, a number of Demy films that are comparatively fairly unknown – his fairytale adaptation The Pied Piper and glam-rock tribute to Cocteau, Parking, just some of the elusive projects in his body of work that aren’t particularly well traversed outside of well-known classics like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or The Young Girls of Rochefort. Almost entire decades of his work would have qualified for this segment, a surprising fact considering the esteem he is generally held in by cinephiles. As a comparison, Eric Rohmer (a contemporary I wouldn’t have thought was much more popular nowadays than Demy) doesn’t have a single one of his 23 theatrical films eligible. So where to start? Considering its provocative title and surprising DVD availability in Australia, I jumped at A Slightly Pregnant Man.
At face value, this film really is the high-concept comedy promised by the title. Marco Mezzetti (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian driving instructor living in France with his fiancé Irene (Catherine Deneuve), who slowly starts to experience bouts of queasiness, has cravings for strawberries and… well, I’m sure you get it from here. Combined with a shape of belly not seen again on a male until Gucci Mane, Marco is pronounced four months pregnant, a medical marvel and media sensation, and that’s kind of the movie. Apparently conceived (*winks*) from a hypothetical between Demy and wife Agnes Varda during their pregnancy, it does feel essentially like an in-joke that went too far and accidentally became a movie, but once the startling amount of talent came on board (regular composer Michel Legrand is here as well) they make a go of it and turned it into something far better than I think many anticipated, and it succeeds on two main levels, being its satire on social currents of the time and the use of Mastroianni – not just in his fun performance, but the parody of his screen image that it entails.
The film’s main thematic armature is around the prevailing gender roles of the 1970s. The film does offer a tongue-in-cheek scientific explanation when he is first reported pregnant – that all the hormones in chickens have caused subsequent hormonal imbalances in humans. It’s a fun jab at the first wave of organic food hysteria that started to pervade the public consciousness in that era, but the actual effects are intended more as a metaphor for gender relations and the shifting gender roles that arose in the post-war decades: Marco’s son Lucas, when told the news, asks with a child’s innocence, “Is it because of women’s liberation?” The notion that women can now assume men’s jobs/attributes, and vice versa, is taken to the extreme in swapping biological functions as well. It clearly positions itself as progressive – less as a “men have it easy” film hypothesising about the difficulties men would face having to carry out the maternal function, and more as an inversion of masculine anxiety that happened in the face of a rising feminist culture, and the insecurity that women threatened male occupations and power. The film presupposes that the natural extension of this train of thought is that a man threatened by female autonomy, and the idea that a woman will take the role of a man, at least subconsciously fears that by inference he will assume some of the less enviable functions of a traditional woman. It’s a farce that humours and makes humourous this warped thinking. In the film’s funniest line, they also keep this within the scope of heteronormative relationships – when Marco’s doctor discovers he is pregnant and asks him if he is homosexual, he replies that “only a man and a woman can have a baby!”.
The casting of Mastroianni is particularly important. There are of course pragmatic reasons why you would cast Mastroianni – a walking legend of Italian cinema by 1973, having broken out as a major world cinema star after his lead role in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960 – but particularly interesting is the dialogue with his screen persona. Continually the film calls Marco an embodiment “the modern man”, most hilariously by media and advertising executives. Mastroianni’s Fellini alter egos and other roles as romantic man (often nicknames the “Latin Lover”) and effortless cool make him the perfect masculine figure to subvert, even though his male characters are often more complicated than that 1 But further still are some of Mastroianni’s own views, as someone with relatively well-documented conservative views on women. In one of his most famous interviews in 1965, he speaks at length how “women are changing into men, and men are becoming woman” and how men are no longer as “virile” as before. Some of the lines in the interview are nearly directly copied or parodied, and seem unlikely to be coincidental, or at the very least both occupy the same discourse of the era 2 He’s game, and even if he doesn’t understand that he embodies a lot of the sort of views the film mocks, he has fun with the role.
Not all the satire hits, however, and there are areas you wish were taken further. The media attention given to Marco could have been a more hard-hitting indictment of tabloid culture, and though the film seems to have some ideas and cynicism towards the medical profession, its message feels muted in this regard. Likewise, Deneuve feels under-utilised, ostensibly there as a modern, working woman but with not a lot to chew on to make her role work juxtaposed with Mastroianni, and her presence feels more like stunt casting – a year before the film’s release, Mastroianni and Deneueve of course had a child together in real life (actress Chiara Mastroianni, although by all accounts it was Deneuve who gave birth to her). But what you have overall is an enjoyable film as a fun satire on the socio-political discourses of the times, combined with a fun Mastroianni performance closer to his anxious cuckolded husband in Divorce, Italian Style than suave Marcello in La Dolce Vita. Combined with Legrand’s rich score and Demy trademark strong use of colours and idiosyncratic mis-en-scene (inexplicable phallic statues of giant gold thumbs in the doctor’s office, or Deneuve’s bohemian hairdressing boutique stand out) it may not be an ‘essential’ Demy, but an entertaining, intriguing minor work.