Skin of Sorrow: La Peau de Chagrin (2010)

The Skin of Sorrow opens with the camera panning down from an amorous couple to a bird’s eye view of a roulette table. The strange, distant echoes of laughter combined with the slowed movements of the hazy figures inside the casino create a dream like quality as desperate, young Raphaël de Valentin (Thomas Coumans) takes a seat at a roulette table. He bets a gold napoleon, and the wheel spins to the sound of a slowed heart beat. Valentin loses, of course, and stumbles away from the table. He considers suicide by drowning but this results in humiliation. So then it’s onto a shop of curios where the blind shop owner (Jean-Pierre Marielle) suspecting Valentin is considering suicide, offers him “a more enjoyable tool.” He offers him the “skin of sorrow,” the skin of an onager. On the skin, in Sanskrit, is written “want and your wishes will come true.” The shop owner explains:

The power of the skin of sorrow has a price. It will shrink after all the wishes according to their importance. And your life will shrink as well. You won’t live long.

In spite of the dire warning, Valentin is not deterred. After all, in his current, bitter mood, he’s ready to toss away his life anyway.

Almost immediately, Valentin’s luck begins to change. He’s dragged off to a party by his friend Rastignac (Julien Honoré), a man who swears there are many ways to become rich in Paris. That night, Valentin is given a prestigious job as editor-in chief, is solicited by a prostitute, and joins in an orgy. While indulging in the pleasures of the flesh, Valentin is given the news that he’s now fabulously wealthy thanks to a huge, unexpected legacy.

Valentin’s rapid change of fortune does nothing to improve his character. He leaves his lodgings where he survived by providing piano lessons to the landlady’s daughter, Pauline (Annabelle Hettmann) and begins pursuing a worthless, cold society beauty Fedora (Mylène Jampanoï). Even though Valentin is aware that the skin shrinks with every wish, he still wishes for things aren’t worth the cost. Then, as the skin shrinks smaller and smaller, Valentin begins to understand the value of life, but his knowledge comes too late. This is, of course, a moral tale. The film is beautifully made, a pleasure to watch and the costumes are excellent. Throughout the film, the hint of magic and otherworldly powers are laced subtly into the soundtrack. There are a couple of sex scenes and I could say that Balzac is rolling in his grave about the sexed-up changes to his book, but you never know, Balzac might enjoy this version.

In French with subtitles.

The Deserted Woman: Balzac

In his short story, The Deserted Woman, Balzac is back on familiar ground writing about another unhappily married woman, but the twist here is that the woman had a lover, left her husband and was subsequently abandoned.  It’s 1822, and Mme de Beauseant, a woman with a soiled reputation, now lives a reclusive life in her high-walled estate, Courcelles, in Lower Normandy.

Wealthy, twenty-three-year-old (at another point we’re told he’s 22) Gaston de Nueil is sent from Paris to his cousin’s house in Lower Normandy to recover from “an inflammatory complaint, brought on by overstudy, or perhaps by excess of some other kind.” After we read a bit more about Gaston, the speculation about “overstudy” seems unlikely, and that leaves the other possibility at the root of his exile, “excess of some other kind.” And this last possibility seems increasingly likely as the story continues. Gaston is an obsessive and a Romantic–a dangerous combination. Unfortunately his temperament is not suited to the social climate at his cousin’s house, and he very soon meets and is bored by “the whole town.” Balzac can’t resist a dig at this provincial society and the stratification of the local aristocracy–big fish in a small pond:

First of all comes the family whose claims to nobility are regarded as incontestable, and of the highest antiquity in the department, though no one has so much as heard of them a bare fifty leagues away.

Balzac has so much fun with these provincials that he carries on poking fun at the locals for a few pages.

A couple of evenings spent at his cousin Mme de Sainte-Severe’s home and poor Gaston is bored to tears, enjoys a few days of “vegetable happiness,” is beginning to find that he has “sunk back into the lifeless life of the provinces,” and then he overhears a tantalizing conversation regarding a certain Mme de Beauseant:

The women appeared to take counsel of each other by a glance; there was a sudden silence in the room, and it was felt that their attitude was one of disapproval.

“Does this Mme de Beauseant happen to be the lady whose adventure with M. d’Ajuda-Pinto made so much noise?” asked Gaston of his neighbor.

“The very same,” he was told. “She came to Courcelles after the marriage of the Marquis d’Adjuda; nobody visits her. She has, besides, too much sense not to see that she is in a false position, so she has made no attempt to see any one. M. de Champignelles and a few gentlemen went to call upon her, but she would see no one but M. de Champignelles, perhaps because he is a connection with the family.

Mme de Beauseant is considered “quite mad,” and the argument for that is that she left her husband “a well-bred man of the world, who would have been quite ready to listen to reason.” So the implication here seems to be that the fact she had an affair is not why she is considered “quite mad,” but her sanity is in question because she left her husband–a man who, no doubt, has affairs of his own and would have turned a blind eye to those of his wife.

With a sense of “fatality,” (and just how fatal this is becomes apparent by the story’s end), Gaston feels drawn to Mme de Beauseant, and although she lives  a life of seclusion, he plots to gain access to her under false pretences. His youth may excuse part of his selfish drive, for he either fails to grasp or simply doesn’t care that he’s placing Mme de Beauseant in a very vulnerable position. He does, of course, eventually meet this woman, and it’s for the reader to decide if she is a femme fatale or if Gaston is the homme fatale in this story–a story which works with a stunning symmetry.

As always, Balzac’s great talent is his insight into human nature. Gaston, the obsessive romantic can’t help himself when faced with this tragic figure of Mme de Beauseant, a woman who’s already broken the rules of society and has staked all on the promises given to her by a lover. Gaston is captivated by Mme de Beauseant:

The triple aureole of beauty, nobleness, and misfortune dazzled him.

In one scene Mme de Beauseant echoes Julie from A Woman of Thirty with her tale of how she “endured the torture of a forced marriage of suitability.” Julie compares a loveless marriage to prostitution, and both Mme de Beauseant and Julie express the opinion that young girls are forced to make choices when they are too young to know what they want. In A Woman of Thirty, however, Julie’s father tried and failed to stop her from marrying a man he knew would make her unhappy. We don’t have that background information in The Deserted Woman. Balzac is generous to Gaston and chalks up his stubborn drive to wear down Mme de Beauseant’s defenses to the folly of youth, but youth passes …

Balzac argues that love between two people is something to be cherished and valued:

The pleasure of loving, like some rare flower, needs the most careful ingenuity of culture. Time alone, and two souls attuned each to each, can discover all its resources, and call into being all the tender and delicate delights for which we are steeped in a thousand superstitions, imagining them to be inherent in the heart that lavishes them upon us. It is this wonderful response on one nature to another, this religious belief, this certainty of finding peculiar or excessive happiness in the presence of one we love, that accounts in part for perdurable attachments and long-lived passion.

The Deserted Woman is a story of forbidden passion and the sacrifices we are willing to make for love, but it’s also an examination of human nature and motivation. While Balzac clearly has a lot to say about the choices facing women in the 19th century, he also brings in the issue of the pressures facing men. Gaston is the second son, but his elder brother is expected to die young and that places enormous pressure upon Gaston as the heir. If true love is a rare thing, how many people are willing to pay the price? Mme de Beauseant has proved that she’s sacrifice her reputation for love, but does Gaston have the staying power necessary to defy the rules of the society?

Guy Savage

A Woman of Thirty

Balzac’s flawed novel, A Woman of Thirty, is essentially a character study of a woman named Julie who makes incorrect choices, ruins her life and the consequences of those choices to her children. The plot starts off very well but then loses its focus, finally wandering into dodgy soap territory laced with coincidence. The story title implies that we will see Julie as a woman of thirty, and it’s true, we do see Julie as an unhappy thirty-year-old, but the story spans over thirty years and continues until 1844 when Julie is about 50. Balzac draws a portrait of a miserable marriage–a marriage of unequal sensibilities. Julie is an intelligent, sensitive woman paired with a man of mediocre talents which are masked by his rank and wealth. The observations Balzac makes on this subject were worth a post of their own, and while A Woman of Thirty is flawed, it has moments of sheer Balzac brilliance.

The story opens in 1813, April, on “a morning which gave promise of one those bright days when Parisians, for the first time in the year, behold dry pavement underfoot and a cloudless sky overhead.” This perfect weather is a glorious backdrop for the spectacle about to take place at the Tuileries–a “magnificent review” of Napoleon’s forces just before he sets out on  ”upon the disastrous campaign” which ended in Napoleon’s defeat. Balzac specifically tells us which battles will be won and which battles will be lost, but all this is in the future as crowds, pumped up with patriotism, gather to watch the colourful “military manoeuvres.”

In the crowd is a beautiful young girl named Julie who’s excitedly dragging her father along to watch the spectacle. It’s clear that she’s there to see someone very specific–Colonel Victor D’Aiglemont. Julie cannot hide her emotions, and her father, guessing that his daughter is in love, warns her not to marry D’Aiglemont. Julie argues, and her father predicts only misery if Julie insists on marrying this man:

Girls are apt to imagine noble and enchanting and totally imaginary figures in their own minds; they have fanciful extravagant ideas about men, and sentiment, and life; and then they innocently endow somebody or other with all the perfections of their day-dreams and put their trust in him. They fall in love with this imaginary creature in the man of their choice; and then, when it is too late to escape from their fate, behold their first idol, the illusion made fair with their fancies, turns to an odious skeleton. Julie, I would rather you fall in love with an old man than with the colonel. Ah! If you could but see things from the standpoint of ten years hence, you would admit that my old experience was right. I know what Victor is, that gaiety of his is simply animal spirits–the gaiety of the barracks. He has no ability, and he is a spendthrift. He is one of those men whom Heaven created to eat and digest four meals a day, to sleep, to fall in love with the first woman that comes to hand, and to fight. He does not understand life. His kind heart, for he has a kind heart, will perhaps lead him to give his purse to a sufferer or a comrade; but he is careless, he has not the delicacy of heart which makes us slaves to a woman’s happiness, he is ignorant, he is selfish. There are plenty of buts–

After this initial scene, each of the subsequent periodic glimpses into Julie’s life reveal the consequences of the choices she made in the previous section. The opening sequence shows Napoleon’s armies gathering, the final glories of the Napoleonic Empire just as it’s about to fall. Interestingly, Balzac parallels this by placing Julie on the brink of her life–about to make a disastrous choice in falling for Victor. Fast forward a year. Julie’s father is dead, Julie is married to Victor, and she’s already thoroughly miserable….

The marriage between Victor and Julie stumbles along; she’s bitterly unhappy and grows pale and ill, and he, complaining to his friends about his delicate wife, consoles himself with other women.

One of the interesting aspects of the story is Balzac’s frank approach to marital sex. At one point Julie, left by Victor with an elderly aunt, writes a letter to a friend warning her of the miseries of marriage, and the old Marquise reads the letter. In the letter Julie warns her friend, Louisa, that after “a few days of marriage, [and] you will be what I am already–ugly, wretched, and old.” A major complaint is sex with an oblique reference to “the last outburst of delicious merriment” right before Victor gets into the marital bed for the first time. After reading Julie’s letter to Louisa, Victor’s aunt, the worldly, elderly Marquise tells Julie:

“If a dish at table is not to our taste, there is no occasion to disgust others, with it, child.”

The Marquise grasps that when it comes to sex with Victor, Julie finds “it impossible to share his pleasures.” At one point, after winning back Victor’s attentions, Julie manages to convince him that sex is no longer part of their relationship. Victor and Julie grow apart; he has affairs and he tells his friends that they would act as he does is they ”had a pretty wife so fragile that for the past two years you might not so much as kiss her hand for fear of damaging her.”  We hear Victor’s side of the matter in a speech with an interesting analogy as he confides to a friend:

Do not you encumber yourself with one of those fragile ornaments, only fit to put in a glass case, so brittle and so costly that you are always obliged to be careful of them. They tell me that you are afraid of snow or wet for that fine horse of yours; how often do you ride him? That is just my own case. It is true that my wife gives me no ground for jealousy, but my marriage is purely ornamental business; if you think that I am a married man, you are grossly mistaken. So there is some excuse for my unfaithfulness.

A Woman of Thirty is a study in character. We know that Victor is weak and not particularly intelligent. There’s no substance underneath that flashy uniform. At first it’s fairly easy to blame all of Julie’s woes on her husband-after all she was warned about Victor by her father. But then Balzac raises the fascinating issue of sexual incompatibility. There’s a hint that Victor’s just a tad too brutish for Julie. Julie and Victor’s incompatibility is underscored by her love for two other men; in the case of one man, this is not the sort of love that includes passion and sex. It’s agape love–self-sacrifice, devotion and worship. Julie’s passion for the second man brings dire consequences to her family. Some female characters in Balzac pour all their passion into religion, but that’s an option that fails for Julie. She tries to find consolation in religion but cannot.

Balzac’s novel isn’t a general statement against marriage (Julie’s friend Louisa does marry in spite of her friend’s advice and is very happy), but it is a cautionary tale about the misery of marriage between two people of varying sensibilities. Julie possibly could have been happy if she’d married a different sort of man. Interestingly Victor seems to grow a little better with age while Julie’s disappointments warp her relationship with her daughter and lead to tragedy.

The plot goes on for far too long and the woman of thirty becomes a bitterly, unhappy woman of fifty who struggles with lifelong disappointments and depression. The plot turns soapy at the end with an implausible coincidence involving pirates.

The idea behind the novel is excellent–Balzac creates a series of snapshots of a woman’s unhappy life, and due to the timing of those snapshots the reader sees the direct cause and effect connection. Balzac’s attack on unhappy marriage and sexual incompatibility must have caused tongues to wag in the salons of Paris. Julie complains that her husband “seeks me too often,” and Balzac poses the question that perhaps Julie’s “abhorrence of passion,” is a result of her “girlish first love” latching on to the first object of her adoration before she knew “the forbidden but frenzied bliss for which some women will renounce all the laws of prudence and the principles of conduct upon which society is based.” Of course, Julie does get to taste that “forbidden but frenzied bliss” only to pay for those moments of madness dearly later.

There are many marvelous passages here even though the plot falls off the deep end by the book’s conclusion, and here’s Julie speaking her mind to a Curé on the subject of marriage–specifically a loveless marriage in which she compares sex between husband and wife to sex between a prostitute and her customers:

You pour scorn on the miserable creatures who sell themselves for a few coins to any passer-by, though want and hunger absolve the brief union; while another union, horrible for quite other reasons, is tolerated, nay encouraged, by society, and a young and innocent girl is married to a man whom she has only met occasionally during the previous three months. She is sold for her whole lifetime. It is true that the price is high! If you allow her no compensation for her sorrows, you might at least respect her, but no, the most virtuous of women cannot escape calumny. This is our fate in its double aspect. Open prostitution and shame; secret prostitution and unhappiness. As for the poor, portionless girls, they may die or go mad, without a soul to pity them. Beauty and virtue are marketable in the bazaar where souls and bodies are bought and sold–in the den of selfishness which you call society.

It’s a wonderful speech, and through Julie’s voice we can hear Balzac loud and clear. But in this impassioned speech Julie seems to forget that her marriage to Victor was not arranged–in fact she insisted upon it against her father’s wishes. She seems to be absolving herself of any personal responsibility now that she faces a life sentences for a decision she made as an inexperienced young girl. In spite of the book’s flaws (it should have ended with Julie at thirty), it’s interesting for its revolutionary view of the misery of married life and its frank approach to married sex.

Guy Savage