(Waylaid by a few days of feeling under the weather, but on we go:)
Day 15 – ZOU ZOU (Marc Allégret, France, 1934)
The iconic Josephine Baker’s first sound film is a star vehicle that appears to shoehorn every known cliché into an already-ragged “a star is born” storyline, but is saved by a certain weirdness underlying the hackneyed plot points—and Baker herself, of course. The Josephine Baker we generally remember today—the “banana dress,” exposed breasts, frenzied dancing, stylized posing—are generally absent here, as by the 1930’s the American-born dancer had transitioned into a chic European superstar, more cosmopolitan grand dame than zany expatriate flapper. The story stars Baker and Jean Gabin playing characters who were raised as twins(!) and whose sibling affection morphs into something more romantic in adulthood(!!) that entangles them in a love triangle with Baker’s coworker and best friend(!!!).
Along the way is the transparent buildup to Baker’s eventual discovery by a local theater revue. Ultimately the pleasure is not in the nonsensical plot, but the individual elements encountered along the way. The casual nudity, as well as the frank discussion of sexual exchange—there is no pretense involved in discussing a number of “kept” individuals of both genders, and a lot of banter about what certain characters are like in bed—is quite startling, and there are interesting glimpses into contemporary working class life. Indeed, I found myself more entranced by the elaborate social and labor rituals displayed by the use of cast irons at the local launderette than I ever was by the gargantuan musical numbers (though those were charming too in their implausible scale and obvious desperation to equivocate Hollywood). This film caught Gabin right before he became a major star himself, which pretty much hands the film over to Baker, whose charmingly goofball performance rather took me by surprise; she seems far more eager to play the clown than the diva or even sex goddess.
But perhaps what’s most interesting, when viewed from today, is Baker’s seemingly uncomplicated status as a sex symbol within the film: tropes of exoticism are certainly at play, but it’s interesting to witness how she traipses through all of these lily-white spaces as a black woman (and obviously so) and no one ever bats an eye… certainly this film should not be taken as a realistic reflection of racial relations in interwar Europe, but it is nonetheless interesting to consider it must have been assumed an audience would accept on some level the possibility of cross-racial romance (the film was a success in Europe, but, tellingly, didn’t make a mark in America). Perhaps one might wish for such a historically important film to add up to a bit more in the end, but it’s all worth it to glimpse a legend in the flesh.
[Watch Zou Zou on Fandor here.]