Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Student's Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 4. March 26 1968
Films — Snakes and Sex
Snakes and Sex
The last fortnight has seen the arrival of a film of unusual interest. Summer Fires although it is not entirely successful, is sufficiently absorbing and off-beat to merit some attention.
Tony Richardson's Summer Fires, from a screenplay by Jean Genet, has received more than its share of crass abuse. Reviewing this account of the relationship between a woodcutter of husky proportions and a 'psychopathic virgin', one critic wrote: "Manou meets her, his powersaw slung over one shoulder: a blatant sex symbol, and one that troubles slightly because it's so blatant."
Now this is a bit hard to take. Manou is a woodcutter; he works with a power-saw; whenever going to and from work he carries the saw over his shoulder. Ergo, when he meets the woman on his way from work, he is carrying the saw. Why postulate a sex symbol when the man is obviously sexy enough anyway?
The review goes on: "Then, round his waist he has a snake, offering to Mademoiselle to fondle: one almost cries inwardly at the unnecessary flaw in the subtle surface of symbolism." Where is the subtle symbolism that is flawed? Presumably snakes are common in these forests, and presumably Manou is enough of a sensualist to enjoy one crawling round his gut. When a slag like this meets a Jeanne Moreau on a country road, what better way to tantalise the senses than to offer a smooth, sliding snake for caressing, and at the same time engineering the 'accidental' contact of human flesh? The snake is not a blatant symbol at all, it's a blatant come-on.
The attitude of this reviewer stems from his opening comment: "The trouble with Mademoiselle (the French title) is that it sets itself too high a standard." Well, the trouble with critics like this is that they think anything authored by Genet and Richardson must be "high" in some way or other. Having postulated the edifice they can then knock it down. Yet these same critics will lavish praise on kitchen sink trifles like A Taste of Honey, The Entertainer or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, all of which are lesser works than Summer Fires, Richardson's best film to date.
Genet's contributions are obvious, in the subject itself, a pattern of sexual obsession, and, in the various trimmings of cruelty, animalism, 'perversion', eroticism, and so on. Perhaps I was unjust in describing the film as "not entirely successful", but the extended love-play between Moreau and Ettore Manni bothers me.
The observation there is too intimate to be wholly erotic, and, unlike in The Loved One, too involved and 'sincere' to be voyeuristic. But it seems to me that the wood-cutter's role changes from being a naturalistic character, to some kind of artificial proponent in a complex sexual-psychological scheme being worked out in Genet's mind.
The wood-cutter's behaviour in these scenes, that is his acceptance of and participation in Moreau's prolonged advance-retreat mating game, seems to be inconsistent with the character that we know from what has gone before. This disquiet, however, is a purely personal reaction, and probably misses whatever it was Genet and Richardson had in mind.
Richardson's direction is unusual, in that Summer Fires is one of the very few films of the last fifty years in which there is no camera movement whatsoever. Contrary to my expectations (I find camera movements intrinsically exciting), this method seems to work.
I suspect, though, that Richardson's static compositions might easily have become boring without the help of David Watkin's incredibly beautiful black and white photography. The play of light and dark and the shading of tones creates an almost hypnotic visual surface.
Finally, part of the considerable interest of Summer Fires is provided by Manni, giving a lusty performance as the wood-cutter, and by an excellent juvenile actor, Kevin Skinner, who plays his son.
— Rex Benson.