Alain Tanner makes a concerted attempt at re-interpreting feminist ideals with his intense and controversial drama “Une flamme dans mon coeur” [Eng. Title: A Flame in My Heart]. However, over the film’s course, he drops the topic and reverts to what he does best – coaxing his protagonist on a philosophical walkabout.
Mercedes (Myriam Mézières) is a gifted theatre actress who can embody the character she’s playing on stage, intensely and unselfconsciously – characteristics that have also permeated into her personal life and relationships, some of which are destructive even. Like her obsessive and domineering boyfriend Johnny (Azize Kabouche) – his all-or-nothing approach is the kind of stress that women would rather do without, but invariably end up courting. Mercedes had tried to end their relationship several times but he still manages to get into her bed every night, thanks to his overbearing ways that she also finds irresistible.
After finally shaking him off by taking refuge in a hotel room, Mercedes goes into town intent on finding herself a new boyfriend, and fancying a guy travelling in a train, she follows him. Pierre (Benoît Régent), a journalist, who is too shy to take the initiative even after receiving the right signals, will become Mercedes’ chosen prey. He is the opposite of Johnny in many respects – educated, employed, courteous, logical, and who like in his chosen profession, prefers to look at things from the outside – without getting involved in proceedings. Unlike Mercedes though, who likes to immerse herself in everything that she does – as she puts it, “be in the centre where it burns”.
After a brief romance, Mercedes moves into Pierre’s apartment. But she will soon be laid out bare for all to see – figuratively as well as literally, when Pierre had to go away on a foreign assignment for two weeks. Her sense of loneliness will reveal an inability to function normally without someone wanting her. Reluctantly turning up for work, she’ll be fired for inexplicably forgetting her lines during rehearsal. Slumped to a couch, she will lie there for several days, naked and unkempt, subsisting on cornflakes and watching TV even after broadcast had ended. Mercedes had always enjoyed having orgasms during sex – and Pierre, the subservient partner in their relationship, had once remarked that he’d never come across a woman who pursued pleasure with as much passion as she did. But in truth, Mercedes misses being owned, used, and abused, and her orgasm through masturbation will only reveal her shame, and hidden masochism.
Upon his return, Pierre is dismayed to find a naked and untidy Mercedes in a flat littered with empty cereal boxes. He’d been trying to call her all these days, and notices that the telephone wire had been snipped as well. Without a job to go to, he wonders what she’s going to do. But Mercedes had already found a new job that Pierre will only be appalled to discover later, when he spots her performing suggestively with her big stuffed chimpanzee toy at a fairground booth, totally naked. When he confronts her afterwards, her repost will reveal a woman with political acumen despite her apparent lack of interest in political articles that Pierre writes for newspapers. She tells him that what she’s doing now is the same as what she was doing while performing Racine’s ‘Berenice’ on stage – essentially selling dreams, and she feels that the lower classes are entitled to their dreams too.
The film’s focus shifts when Mercedes joins Pierre on his next assignment – Tanner is no longer interested in the couple’s politics, and the audience themselves had noticed the pair’s mismatch by now. By taking her out of her natural surroundings and turning her into a foreigner, Mercedes is allowed to completely disengage from herself and feel the alienation both from within and outside – a territory that Tanner is only too familiar exploring. He might not have given himself enough screen time on this occasion for allegory and philosophical musing – the script was after all co-written by Myriam Mézières herself, but he revels in his protagonist’s total isolation all the same.
This might not be Tanner’s finest work, but it has its virtues. Not least is Ms. Mézières’ intense and lay-it-all-bare performance – she disintegrates right in front of the camera as we watch her character loose inhibition and identity. She is frequently naked and in at least one scene, the sex is real, even if not pornographic – when she masturbates in front of television. Shot in 16 mm, and captured in grainy black and white by Acácio de Almeida who also worked with Tanner on ‘In the White City’, the cinematography imbues the film with an abstract dream-like quality by utilising strong contrast – some frames are so exquisite that prints from them could easily find a place in a gallery.
The Striptease: This is the famous (or infamous) striptease scene where Ms. Mézières dances with a stuffed chimpanzee. Apart from showcasing her talents in burlesque, the scene is used to make a political statement, unlike imitations of this scene in films that came after. A typical example is the opening scene in Aurelio Grimaldi’s “La donna lupo”, which not only copied the music, but mimics the black and white style too, with the main difference being the prop that the dancer plays with – a stuffed panda in place of the stuffed chimp. The scene is recreated to portray a teenager’s wet dream. Loredana Cannata certainly is a beautiful and talented actress, but she certainly hasn’t the attitude of a Myriam Mézières, and nor is the film anywhere as accomplished as Tanner’s, and as for the cinematography, let’s not even go there!
Compare the two:
‘Une flamme dans mon coeur’ and ‘La donna lupo’
My DVD is not digitally remastered, but still looks good even if it only comes with German subtitles. The unusual and rare film is certainly Recommended Viewing..!
The Nudity: Myriam Mézières, Azize Kabouche, and Benoît Régent
The film has adult themes and features frequent scenes with nudity, mostly of Myriam Mézières, including one that is also fairly explicit.