Coming up as a cinema snob in adolescence, your average hetero boy’s sexual desire-the hyper-wattage of which tends to outstrip FCC broadcast regulations, thereby causing a lot of, um, fritz on the signal-is thankfully managed by a chronological succession of fantastic Parisian lips. Anna Karina (in early Godard), Deneuve (in everything), and then: bam. The modern era. It belongs to Isabelle Huppert. Forget Courtney Cox’s insulting Cougartown weaksauce. It’s enough to make you believe in a God, the way Huppert gets more dangerous-and more unbearably desirable-with every passing year. You thought she was peaking as a labial cutter in Michel Haneke’s film adaptation of Jelenik’s The Piano Teacher back in 2001? That was dumb of you. Naturally, Huppert upped the erotic ante by signing on for a film adaptation of a Georges Bataille incest tale, Ma Mere.
All of which is to say: damn, girl. You might just be the story of my eye for this whole frighteningly exhilarating decade.
So when BAM told us that Huppert would star in their staging of the Heiner MÃƒÂ¼ller play Quartett-itself fitfully derived from the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses-I was basically guaranteed to go. And look, I’m already mad at life because director Robert Wilson’s sole New York staging of the Philip Glass opera Einstein On the Beach happened before I was born-so the fact that he would be directing Huppert amounted to a ridiculous buttercream icing on top.
Still, I was afraid that I’d see Quartett and love it for the evanescent fumes of its participants’ past successes, even if the production itself blew. But it didn’t. It really didn’t. You can fault Wilson for having stock moves: deep reds and blues on the lighting tip, “surprise” non-diegetic sounds amplified at ear-splitting volume, or his ritualized, glacially-paced blocking. But then there’s also the if-it-ain’t-broke argument: these theatrical gestures are all still powerful in performance, just like David Lynch’s grab-bag of tricks retains the power to spook after all these years. (Yes, it’s a dark room, and yes, it sounds like the electricity is going out. Hide under your seat anyway.)
MÃƒÂ¼ller’s text (I was previously unfamiliar, BTW), is constructed from jaw-droppingly heavy bricks of Eros-writing, which Wilson-in minimalist fashion-has Huppert split up and repeat in these hypnotic, cellular breakdowns. It’s like looking at the same photograph in a series of bracketed exposures. Each time she runs her tongue over the line, it brightens or darkens.
Even if you find Wilson’s approach familiar, his tics at least put Huppert’s artful voice front and center. The effect is akin to watching an artisan construction worker blast a brilliant, perfect cube into thousands of also-brilliant smaller creations, and employing a jackhammer to perform all that division. It doesn’t even matter if you’re not familiar with the Dangerous Liaisons original. (All you need to know is that these former lovers are torturing each other, in old age, with their respective tales of past conquests.) It’s straight fire like this (in French, with English subs projected above the stage):
MERTEUIL: Did you find the way back into your own hide, Valmont. There is no man whose member won’t stiffen at the thought of his dear flesh departing, fear makes philosophers. Welcome to sin and forget the poor box before piety overpowers you and you forget your one true vocation. What else have you learned but to maneuver your cock into a cunt resembling the one you once fell out of, always with the same more or less pleasant result, and always deluded that the applause of those alien mucous membranes is meant for you, and only you, that those screams of lust are addressed to you, while you are nothing but a barren vehicle, indifferent and totally interchangeable, for the lust of the woman who is using you, the power drunk fool of her creation. You know well enough that every man is one man too few for a woman. You also know, Valmont: soon enough fate will catch up with you and you won’t even be that anymore, a man too few. Even the gravedigger will enjoy himself with us.
VALMONT: I am bored with the bestiality of our conversation. Every word rips a gash, every smile bares a fang. We should let tigers play our parts. Another bite, please, another strike of the paw. The stage craft of wild beasts.
A pair of dancers stand in for the pair during these conversations-slipping one another into nooses, leather straps and whatnot-all behind a scrim. A fifth character, an old man, is added to this quartet with no explanation. He performs a funky dance in between set changes that I could’ve done without, but no matter: his interludes at least gave (a lot of) people the opportunity to bail on the performance without interrupting any of the talky parts.
Anyway, this thing plays one more time, on Saturday. It’s pretty sold out, but some people were getting in on standby Thursday night, from what I could see. And if you can’t make it, well, it’s still worth checking out MÃƒÂ¼ller via Amazon or from your local library.
But here’s yet another consolation prize (of sorts): a leak of
one of the hotter songs from Don’t Stop, the long-delayed
second album from the Norwegian bubblegum-indie blogstar Annie,
which comes out next Tuesday. My Love Is Better plows some
of the same ground as Quartett, oddly enough.
The dance-all-night guitar hook was played by the dude from Franz Ferdinand-making perhaps a better argument for Franz Ferdinand’s existence than I ever expected was possible. More importantly, the lyric is a come-hither-cum-get-your-ass-away-from-me switchblade: “I’ll let you go down if you go away / I need to know you’re happy to play / I’ll let you touch me every now and then / And if you want some yeah I’ll tell you when (when when),” Annie sings toward the end, before diving into her chorus for the last time:
My love is better (Than your love)
My heart is better (Than your heart)
My moves are better (Than your moves)
My shoes smell better
And I’m be-be-be-better
My kiss is wetter (Than your kiss)
My lips are better (Than your tricks)
You know you never (Had my hips)
I’m so much better (So eat this)
Including a “better heart” in the middle of any thorough itemization of advantages one has over an ex-lover carries a useful poetic undercurrent: how much better can that ruthless heart really be, after all? It’s a hot contradiction. Could it be that-whether in pop music or in avant-garde theater-this taunting unavailability turns out to be perhaps slightly more than half the fun of coupling? Happy weekend, everyone. Go get some.
Previously: The Pleasure Principle
Seth Colter Walls is a culture reporter at Newsweek. Previously, he wrote about U.S. and Middle East politics for a variety of outlets.