Franco my dear, I don’t give a damn

Les Routes Du Sud (Joseph Losey, 1978)

My first viewing of a very hard-to-find film by my favourite director. It’s a fairly quiet, twilight film, one of looking back and summing up. All those battles and struggles, where did they get us? It’s nostalgic in the sense that it holds youth up against the old guard in their youth and decides that they don’t meet the mark. It demonstrates an anxiety about the impassable gulf between the veterans and their kids who have “no good, brave causes” to fight for. It’s also, sorry to say, pretty boring for long stretches.

Jean Larrea (Yves Montand, looking a lot like Chris Langham) is an exiled Spaniard who fought in the civil war. Now he’s a novelist and scriptwriter with a farmhouse outside Cherbourg, a doting wife Eve and a son with whom he’s perpetually fighting. To keep his hand in, he sometimes smuggles anti-Franco newssheets into Spain and does little jobs to help out the resistance. His son Laurent reminds them it’s 1975 and mocks the futility of it, and Montand is perpetually throwing him out of the room, the house, or telling him to go to hell.

You feel that the film wants you to share the dad’s/Losey’s Victor Meldrew viewpoint and despair at these directionless, glib youngsters; but it’s hard to disagree with them. “20 years worshipping Stalin, then 20 years wondering how he could have been fooled”, mocks the son. Larrea’s house has all the stock references- a framed photo of the falling soldier above his desk, a large print of Guernica, and we’re supposed to revere his cause. Personally I’ve always been baffled by the romance attached to the Spanish Civil War. Yes, the bad guys won, but were the other side any less bad? When both sides are bloodthirsty lots who suppress criticism, you might as well take the conservative Catholic as Uncle Joe.

Larrea is working on a new script and, as in The Romantic Englishwoman, the images forming in his mind appear on screen. As he sits on the beach, three Russian soldiers on horseback gallop towards the front of the frame. His film is about Korvik, the German soldier who defected to Russia in order to warn them about Hitler’s plans to invade. Stalin decided he was an agent provocateur and had him shot; he dies a terrified boy, with his fist making the communist salute. As in The Romantic Englishwoman, his champagne-quaffing producer would prefer a thriller because nobody will put up the money for such a story. “Unless they are masochists”, remarks Laurent. He does have a point. The prodcuer’s chauffeur empties the ice bucket onto the driveway before taking off.

It’s a visually strong film, with a couple of striking images; such as Larrea mourning his wife by driving to the shore and sitting, head on arms and arms on wheel, as the tide pulls in and waves lap around his wheels. At the last moment he wakes from his reverie, u-turns the car and speeds off. Similarly, a rare moment of communion between father and son sees them play football with an onion in the empty, moonlit food market off Las Ramblas. But it suffers from a soundtrack that jars terribly. Michel Legrand offers a rewrite of his Eve soundtrack; effervescent jazz with an insistent, be-boppin’ double bass throughout. In that film it was perfect, here it feels downright odd.

At the outset Laurent has been dragged back from Paris to spend some time with his parents, when they get a call from Spain. Jean would go, but he’s busy with the script so Eve goes instead. Laurent, clearly a mummy’s boy, is furious and sulks. Terribly oedipal. Father and son try to get on, but every time it ends in animosity and Laurent leaves. Jean and a friend are watching the news, and see the Paris police being heavy-handed with anti-Franco protestors. A close up of Laurent being introduced to Mr Baton, shouting slogans in defiance.

Jean rushes to Paris and gets his son out of trouble. The gesture is not appreciated and his son doesn’t stick around. Instead we meet his friend Julia (the beautiful Miou Miou), who starts following Montand in the street. She’s full of questions and impertinent remarks. She follows him all the way to the door of his Paris flat, which he closes in her face. Then comes a call from the embassy in Spain. There’s been an accident and Eve is dead.

Jean and Laurent head to Barcelona and meet up with resistance contacts in the Joan Miro museum. Eve’s mission saved a resistance leader from falling into the hands of the police. Once it had been carried out, she died in a car crash on her way home. Laurent rages that the Spaniards seem to consider it a “fair exchange” that his mother died so their man might live. He’s told one thing has nothing to do with another.

Larrea Sr is back in his farmhouse -a picture of numb pain, spinning a pistol chamber with one bullet in it- when Laurent and Julia turn up unannounced. Within seconds the men are at each others’ throats. Jean puts the gun to his head and fires, then tosses the gun to his son. Julia pushes Laurent’s hand from his temple and the bullet shatters a mirror. Montand embraces him as they weep and wail, we suspect a fashionable nod to The Deer Hunter.

Laurent flees in the middle of the night, leaving his whimsical floosie to papa. She is offered the train fare home but fancies a few days in the country, it’s been “a torrid year”. There’s a seduction scene which makes The Servant seem like big romance. Jean is changing his son’s bedsheets when, quite abruptly, she flops onto the bed. “My name is Julia. I prefer the guys I sleep with to know my name.” She undoes the button and zip on her jeans. Cut to exterior.

Julia hangs around for a while; airy, sarcastic and seeing everything as a dysfunctional game. Larrea tries to ask about his son, since they seem incapable of talking to one another. At the end of the film Laurent confirms that “I gave her to you so you could talk to me through her, love me through her”.

“You’re blocking his way. He wants to write, you’re a famous writer. There was one woman who really mattered to him, you were sleeping with her.”

“So what should I do, kill myself?”

“Not a bad idea.”

Julia installs two giggling girls from the village into the farmhouse, they eat all Larrea’s food. The typical Losey intruder. Late one night Jean walks in on them sniggering and yawning at an old video of Eve & himself being interviewed on TV. In a rage he drives the girls straight back to the village, the camera showing the view from the windscreen as the car hurtles through country tracks at dangerous speeds. Most likely Larrea wishes it had been he in the accident. Julia is gone on his return; “Didn’t you say I was free? X” scrawled upon the wall in marker pen.

Laurent comes back to return Eve’s handbag, which Julia had taken with her. They found her diary in a secret compartment. Her marriage left her with no sense of self and she found escape in an affair with Miguel, their contact in Spain. Jean tells the kids he knew all about it, and is unconcerned. He doesn’t really believe in family ties or the institution of marriage anyway. We’re not sure- he ends up throwing the diary on a bonfire.

Franco dies, Jean takes Julia to Spain. People walk the streets in stunned silence. He meets Miguel and friends, and expresses anguish that Franco died in bed, a contented old man. What good did they achieve? Will the old guard allow democracy to change the conservative status quo? Julia scoffs at these questions. In Paris, father and son have one last brief, tentative exchange and Laurent walks out as the film fizzles out. Warmer than most Losey films, then, but best forgotten I think.


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