A voyeuristic journey into the lurid underworld of a Parisian peep-show.
Writer-director Viviane Candas' first feature ogles a group of tired stereotypes…I mean women…employed at a cheesy peep show in the back of a Parisian porn shop. Kim's a mysterious, tattooed Asian mute; Fame is an aspiring actress trying to resist the lure of porno producers (if a girl does porn she'll never get legitimate work); Rita's an African songbird; Justine's the inexperienced girl; and Nana's a haggard, drug-addicted blonde whose specialty is a kinky incest show, which comes in handy thematically when a loser named Lebel shows up claiming to be her father. Not much happens during the movie's 83 minutes, really. Nico, the shop's owner, perpetually bemoans the decline of peep shows and frets about possible police raids; Rita gets fired for babysitting her sister's infant while on nudie duty and is replaced by a zaftig newbie willing to shake her ample moneymaker because her husband's out of work; Lebel reveals to a vagrant he's spent the last 20 years in the pen for killing his wife because she did some nude modeling behind his back. The centerpiece of the plot—and I use the term plot liberally—is Lebel's trying to lure Nana away from both her addiction and the peep show lifestyle. The various intrigues are for naught, though, because Candas is so busy showing us a plethora of film student shots of the girls framed in mirrors, video monitors, and shower stalls in order to hammer home the hyper-obvious theme of voyeurism and the caging of female sexuality we never quite find time to care about the women or their struggles.
The Bathers' lack of compelling plot isn't a problem per se. What is is its horribly conflicted construction. A no-plot, pseudo-documentary art film about peep show girls is fine and dandy, but Candas' movie has a series of unfolding events that seem to want to be a plot. Moreover, the unfolding events seem to want to be the sort of plot—haunted daddy trying to rescue lost-soul daughter—that actually requires us to sympathize with the characters, which, by extension, requires that the characters actually be characters. Unfortunately, they're just (mostly naked) bodies with trite motivations. Candas wastes her time (and ours) making observations both academic and obvious about the male tendency to both worship and fear female sexuality, as well as idealize and subjugate women's bodies (hence the title's pretentious reference to the sumptuous nude studies of Auguste Renoir). Revealing the girls' humanity would've been far more captivating. The misfire is particularly frustrating in light of how effectively Candas' and cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux's claustrophobic compositions meld with Daniel Teruggi's abstract and atmospheric score to create an oppressive, disheartening tone. Unfortunately, that tone suggests an emotional depth that proves phantom under the most cursory critical glance.
The DVD itself suffers from a combination of source limitations and an apathetic transfer. The picture is anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1, and most of its problems are rooted in the production's low budget and the Candas' lack of experience. The handful of scenes that take place outside the peep show are visual disasters, riddled with lighting hot spots and characterized by washed-out colors—they have a technical quality approaching family vacation videos from an overcast day at Disneyland. Scenes inside the porn shop are significantly better in quality. The most annoying short cut in the DVD transfer is the subtitles, which are burned into the image. If that's not bad enough, the white lettering is frequently illegible, washed out entirely against bright backgrounds, during the aforementioned outdoor sequences.
The French stereo audio option is sufficient for a soundtrack that is primarily dialogue, but Teruggi's creepy, ambient score would've benefited from a surround treatment. Still, what's there has no hiss or distortion and, while there are volume shifts due to its being a location recording, it leaves little to complain about.
The only extras are trailers for TLA Releasing discs Between Your Legs, Km.O, Children of Hannibal, and Suicide Club. There's no trailer for the feature itself.
In the end, The Bathers feels very much like a student exercise, nothing more than poorly executed style coupled with an unsophisticated stab at substance. The tone is weirdly engaging, though. I hope Candas has the opportunity to give feature filmmaking another try. As for The Bathers, skip it. Tone alone doesn't sell a picture. If you want a complex examination of male cognitive dissonance regarding female sexuality, executed with complete aesthetic mastery, go watch some Fellini.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
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