Remembering a Forgotten Masterpiece
Movie Review – Le Passion de la Caille (The Passion of the Quail)
Directed by Guido Moroné
Starring Giovanni Antonio Ninaninini, Mimi Douchinette, Cassänia Röse, and Gerard Depardieu
An orange cat with a slice of lemon meringue pie for a head sits in the forest. It doesn’t move, and it makes no sound. It simply sits there as the wind blows around it. For over ten minutes, the camera hardly moves, save for a very slow zoom into the animal’s weeping, triangular head. Gradually we see that the wind has covered the meringue with dirt and tiny pieces of dried out leaves.
This absurdist image is a central metaphor of French/Italian/Greek filmmaker Guido Moroné’s little-seen 1968 masterpiece Le Passion de la Caille (The Passion of the Quail), the story of three existentialists (all played by Giovanni Ninaninini) and their relationship with a homely Italian prostitute (Mimi Douchinette), her Siamese cat (Cassänia Röse), and her two French poodles (Ninaninini again.) The film follows them from Amsterdam to Tehran where they meet up with a mysterious laughing dwarf (a boyish Gerard Depardieu), who prophesizes that the seven will one day bring about the End of Days.
Moroné was a master of savage satirical Surrealism and a true iconoclast. At his creative peak in the late 60’s and early 70’s, he rivaled Godard in the ferocity of his vision and Buñuel in his sense of anarchy. But his vision was even more bizarre. Moroné was obsessed with pie, and not the kind Darren Aronofsky makes movies about, but the kind your grandmother makes. In fact, virtually all the director’s films contain a scene involving pie. In Train Nebbish (Nebbish Train, 1964), a young Jewish train conductor who lives with his mother is forced to make pie for her. In Tonnerre d’Applaudissements (Thunder Applause, 1979), the Greek god Zeus comes to Earth in the guise of a UPS delivery man who stalks a young woman by constantly leaving pies at her doorstep. There are lemon pies, banana pies, French silk pies, strawberry pies, the whole gamut of pies throughout his films. Moroné’s entire resume is in fact, a dessert cart of pie.
But Le Passion de la Caille, like all the director’s films, is so much more than dessert. There’s real meat to this movie. There are also torrid sex scenes, transgender circus performers (in the late 60’s no less), and long (sometimes very long) ruminations on the meaning of life and the nature of women, goldfish, pizza, Frisbees, and butterscotch candles. Moroné’s palette of absurdity is vast, but through editing, ingenious staging and a wry sense of humor, these outlandish moments come miraculously together, like pieces in a puzzle, to create an emotionally devastating climax.
Moroné’s influences include Melies, Buñuel, Kurasawa, the painter Joan Miro, and surprisingly, Sergei Eistenstein, the Russian master known for his pioneering theories in montage. Moroné famously parodied Eisenstein by juxtapositioning conflicting shots of fruitcake in the notorious food fight sequence of Pâtisserie Vide (Empty Pastry, 1984). He began his career with Fellini, another big influence, as an assistant editor on La Dolce Vita (1959), and directed his first film, Tarte Volée (Stolen Pie) in 1962. The film debuted at Cannes and was an immediate sensation. For a brief period, he was a cause célèbre amongst the international film elete. But his next two films were eviscerated by critics. Les Rêves Mouillés de Fifi Bodine (The Wet Dreams of Fifi Bodine, 1964) was universally reviled and its sequel Un Sandwich en Enver (A Sandwich in Hell, 1965) fared even worse, sparking riots at the French theater where it debuted.
By the “release” of Le Passion de la Caille in 1968, Moroné was all but forgotten. Originally rejected for American distribution, Passion was finally screened for critics in 1992 where it was declared a masterpiece by the likes of Roger Ebert, Judith Crist and Andrew Sarris, who added Moroné to his “Pantheon” of great directors. This sparked a brief but unsuccessful run in American art house theaters in the mid-90s. Today the film is difficult to find. Released on laser disc in 1997, it received little interest from viewers. I had the privilege of seeing it in that format this winter as part of the Suburban Festival of Surrealism at Knob Noster Community College in Knob Noster, Missouri, where the millennial-dominated crowd gave it a standing ovation. I can only describe the feeling in the auditorium that night as communal and electric. There was a very real sense that we had witnessed something truly rare and exceptional, something that both united us and made us hungry.
Despite his absurdities, Moroné was, in real life, a passionate man who is thought to have suffered from depression. Jacque de Coupagé, the legendary French/ German/ Asian cinematographer who photographed three of the director’s films, told this revealing story in a 2007 “Vanity Fair” article. “I remember one day we were on the set in the middle of a take when suddenly he screamed at everyone, ‘Your mothers are all whores for pizza.’ Everybody burst out laughing, including Moroné. But later, when everyone had left, I saw him on the darkened set eating pizza and weeping.” This serious side of the director’s character informs every frame of Le Passion de la Caille despite the film’s ludicrous comic facade. Moroné sees in images of food, sexuality, and comic torture, the living forces of human nature and perhaps, the sad wall these forces throw themselves against in futile attempts at self-improvement that ultimately lead to decay.
Renowned Italian/ Spanish/ Portuguese/ Inuit actor, Giovanni Antonio Ninaninini, who often acted as Moroné’s on-screen alter ego, is the film’s radiantly virile soul. He brilliantly captures the melancholy, the perversion, the love of pastry that is the essence of this great filmmaker. If the casting of the same actor in five roles, including two non-humans, seems like a gimmick, Ninaninini is more than up to the task. He’s dark but amiable, profound but silly, and like the film and its creator, both sophisticated and stupid. Together, they were unquestionably among French cinema’s great visionaries and Le Passion de la Caille is their greatest vision.
As for the film’s title, there is no quail in the film. No one mentions or alludes to a quail. And there’s not even the slightest visual reference to a quail. Is it just another Moroné joke on the audience, a symbol of the director’s contempt for everyone and everything? Is it a metaphor for the vanity of life? Does it, as Moroné once suggested in an interview with “Cahiers du Cinema,” have something to do with what he called “dessert territoriality?” In the end, it’s hard to say exactly what it all means, but you know it means something, because hey, it’s Moroné. Anyway, have a happy April Fool’s Day.