Koch Lorber // 1974 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // July 22nd, 2009
Champagne is for white men.
A year after his much celebrated La grand bouffe, director Marco Ferreri reassembled the brilliant cast of Marcello Mastroianni (La Dolce Vita), Michel Piccoli (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), Philippe Noiret (Topaz), and Ugo Tognazzi (Barbarella). With the added beauty of Catherine Deneuve (Repulsion), he created this hilariously titled farce, a two-hour anachronism that is a little too heavy handed at times, but still has plenty of good, absurdist fun with the targets of their barbs.
General Terry (Noiret) has a problem. The natives are impeding progress; their savage minds cannot comprehend the idea of private property and the General owns this land. How is he going to build a railroad if they won't listen? There's only one solution: kill them all. He brings in the notorious George A. Custer (Mastroianni) to come in from Washington and lead the troops in a crusade for the progression of capitalism. With Buffalo Bill (Piccoli) along for the ride, frustrating Custer with his antics at every turn, he leads a charge in for a result that he did not expect.
A none-too-subtle attack on American involvement in Vietnam, Don't Touch the White Woman! has its moments, but it beats you over the head with the same idea for so long that the joke becomes tired by the end. Using a mocked-up version of a story told over and over in the history books, we know how the story goes. Because of this, the success of the satire comes from the execution and, while the actors are up to the task, the jokes don't always find their ground. This isn't to call the film bad, far from it. Much of the satire is brilliant in concept and the performers sell it very well, but it doesn't have the bite of La grand bouffe and it grows a little long in the tooth with what is, essentially, the same joke over and over.
It is a funny joke, however. Ferreri takes his scenario from 19th century America and smacks straight into downtown Paris in 1974. On the surface as a visual gag, this is a surreal sight to have Mastroianni in Civil War regalia, trotting down the avenue on horseback, saber in hand. It's great just to watch him do it, but the scenes appear to be shot in afternoon traffic, leading to plenty of confused looks from passers-by. These kinds of anachronisms run throughout the film. While the gag stops being surprising fairly quickly, it's interesting to see how far they take it and how completely the performers sell it. Asking the story to make sense in beside the point; this is about the statement Ferreri makes with the film.
Custer and the American soldiers are presented as the villains, though they're so ridiculous that we have a hard time hating these boobs. We are sympathetic to the natives, whose lands have been usurped and whose people have been killed in the name of progress, expansion, and liberty. Today, this is a common viewpoint of the American destruction of native tribes, but in 1974, this is a biting critique of the role of the U.S. in Vietnam. The statement is effective, but there's an irony here, as well. The filmmakers seem to forget that Vietnam had previously been a French imperial colony, wrested from them in the not-too-distant past. Blind to themselves, they boldly charge forward with their condemnations.
If I used the "pot calling the kettle black" argument, however, satire would rarely work, so focusing on what's strong about Don't Touch the White Woman! -- the look and the performances -- is much more important. The anachronisms are fun distractions that wear a little thin, but it's interesting how well Ferreri creates the illusion of Civil War times when he wants to. Outside of an ever-present photo of Nixon staring at us, many of the interior scenes look realistic and spectacular, going just far enough to make us believe, but without going into meticulous detail or building lavish sets. Much of the credit for this has to go to the performers. They seem so out of place in the world around them, but alone together, they are very natural. These are all legendary performers having a ball and their enjoyment sells the whole film. Deneuve is radiant as Custer's lover. She doesn't have the strongest character in the film and is mostly used to look pretty, but she excels in the comedic scenes she's given, namely her helping a taxidermist stuff native bodies with newspaper for a museum exhibit. Mastroianni is brilliant as Custer, stroking his long, pretty hair and prancing around while barking orders. Special note goes out to Tognazzi, who plays Custer's native scout, forced to endure racist abuse and plotting to take down the white man from the inside. He is perfect in the role, reveling in the abuse and hilariously lashing out in tiny, powerless ways.
Koch Lorber's DVD release of Don't Touch the White Woman! is visually better than most of their work, but it is just as scant on extras as normal. The anamorphic image looks quite good, with realistic flesh tones and strong colors, especially for a film of its age. The transfer has very little in the way of defects, a little grain here and there, but generally quite nice. The sound is very clear; unspectacular, but serviceable. The only extra is an excerpt from the documentary, Marco Ferreri: the Director Who Came from the Future, in which the director and select members of the cast comment briefly on the film. The piece is only about five minutes long, so goes into nearly no detail, and may as well just not have been included.
Don't Touch the White Woman! is a mixed bag, to be sure. It has good intentions, however, and with its quality performances, great title, and effective satire, it's certainly something to check out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated