Judge Joe Armenio hopes for the kids' sake that not all French summer camps are this dysfunctional.
"I itch in the same places you do!"—Philippe
The Best Way To Walk was the 1976 debut of French director Claude Miller (Alias Betty, L'Effrontee), who got his start as an assistant to several New Wave directors, most notably Francois Truffaut. Like Truffaut's first film, The 400 Blows, The Best Way To Walk is a coming of age story; it's set in 1960 and deals with the relationship between two young men who work as counselors at a summer camp for boys. Drama instructor Philippe (Patrick Bouchitey), the son of the camp's ineffectual director, is a sensitive intellectual, while Marc (Patrick Dewaere), a physical education teacher, is aggressive and boorish. The contrast between them is established in an early sequence set in the drama class. We see a series of close-ups of the effeminate make-up and costumes of the drama students, while Marc's vigorous athletes march and bellow distractingly right outside their window. The athletes sing boastfully that theirs is "The Best Way To Walk," a line which Miller takes to summarize Marc's position that there is only one acceptable kind of masculinity. That night, Philippe and his cronies watch Bergman's Wild Strawberries on TV, while Marc's crew play cards and tell dirty jokes; later in the night, when the power cuts out, Marc goes looking for candles and stumbles on Philippe dressed in women's clothing.
At this point it's already clear that these are not so much characters as collections of clichÉs about masculinity, and nothing that follows serves to complicate them much. Philippe, afraid that Marc will give away his secret, befriends him, suggesting that their respective classes socialize with each other; predictably, one of Philippe's delicate charges gets hurt playing dodge ball, while Marc's young brutes turn a theatrical production into a brawl. Marc makes Philippe's life difficult, forcing him to listen to dirty jokes about homosexuality, teasing him about his intellectualism and lack of sexual prowess, even suggesting that he might want Philippe to do him "favors." (This is potentially an interesting moment, but Miller ruins it with his heavy directorial hand, having Marc deliver the line while Philippe is suggestively on his hands and knees cleaning up a spill.)
Having spent about forty minutes in the company of irritating Marc and sullen Philippe, it is something of a relief when we are introduced to a third main character: Philippe's girlfriend from home, Chantal (Christine Pascal). She brings some welcome warmth to the film, but her character remains a cipher throughout, defined only by her femininity and inexplicably unwavering devotion to Philippe. The second half of the film, then, is the story of Philippe's attempts to embrace Chantal's love, which he can only do by overcoming the self-hatred which comes from his inability to be conventionally masculine (a self-hatred to which Marc gives external voice). Affected by Marc's taunts about his lack of sexual experience, Philippe tries roughly to seduce Chantal on her first visit to the camp, with inevitably disastrous results, although she assures him that she still loves him and wants to be with him, that she finds Marc "cheap and pretentious." Feeling angered and emasculated over Chantal's preference for Philippe, Marc steps up his campaign of humiliation, and things come to a head at the farewell party which marks the end of the summer.
(Warning! Plot spoilers ahead.)
Philippe, who has suggested that the farewell bash be a costume party, comes dressed as a woman, showing that he has finally accepted his own particular brand of masculinity (while Chantal comes dressed as a man, indicating her acceptance of him). Marc plays along at first, but becomes increasingly irritated as Philippe flaunts his cross-dressing and even makes sexual advances, which leads Philippe to a rather implausible and dramatically ineffective act of violence. Philippe has, it seems, finally purged himself of self-hatred and can accept his girlfriend's love, as we see in an epilogue, set "several years later," in which happily coupled Philippe and Chantal purchase a home from a now-reformed Marc. Besides tying up narrative loose ends too neatly, this epilogue is also ideologically troubling because it evades the issue of homosexuality. There may be many varying and acceptable kinds of masculinity, Miller is saying, but they all seem to include relationships with women: While conventionally virile behavior isn't a necessary component of manliness, heterosexuality is. (Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh, since Philippe is clearly attracted to men as well as women, but there does seem to be an aspect of pandering to mainstream tastes in the boy-girl happy ending.)
Miller's style is as elegant as befits a student of Truffaut, but not especially exciting, and when he does try for a striking image, the strain shows. For example, after Philippe's failed seduction of Chantal, Miller shows us an overhead image of the two lovers, naked, in a verdant park. He is evoking the Garden of Eden, but to what purpose? Perhaps it's meant to be ironic, since the characters' experience has been anything but idyllic, but the irony seems misplaced in an otherwise straightforward film that contains no other religious imagery.
The DVD transfer is acceptable if not pristine; there are some specks. The sound of the music over the opening credits is a bit harsh and distorted, but there's very little music in the rest of the film and the dialogue comes across fine. The only extra of note is a collection of trailers from four other Claude Miller films, none of which made me particularly anxious to see the movies in question (probably not the fault of the films so much as an inherent deficiency of trailers).
I wouldn't be particularly anxious to see The Best Way To Walk, either, if I were you. It's not a waste of time, especially for those with an interest in French cinema and/or issues of masculinity, but there are plenty of better films to see first.
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Studio: Wellspring Media
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