Don’t Touch The White Woman isn’t nearly as outrageous as its title suggests, though it is crazy smart. If it elicits any laughs, they are the kind that are accompanied by golf claps – a response that has more to do with the head than the heart. Like Blazing Saddles if Mel Brooks was high brow.
This amalgam of allegory and era is consistently clever if not always 100% entertaining and demands not only your full attention, but a strong sense of American and French history. The story goes something like this – General Custer (Marcello Mastroianni in a ridiculous wig that is probably the strongest straight joke of the movie), under the leadership of President Nixon, heads a movement to “pacify” and remove the natives living in a Parisian mall that is being demolished to allow for construction of a railroad. A character named Professor Pinkerton but credited as The CIA Agent (Paolo Villaggio), a man dressed in a variety of university sweatshirts and calling himself an anthropologist but secretly running the show from the sidelines, steps in from time to time, at one point showing Custer’s soldiers how to behead the natives. And the natives, led by Sitting Bull (Alain Cuny), form a coalition of tribes to strike back, heading toward the famous final (and surprisingly bloody) showdown between Bull and Custer.
Custer is portrayed here as a racist, genocidal politician. His love interest, Marie-HÃ©lÃ¨ne de Boismonfrais (Catherine Deneuve), is the ‘white woman’ of the title and seems to share his views (“It’s too bad there are so many Indians.”) And while they are clearly the villains of the story, in the end the Indians are portrayed as the savages they so often are stereotyped as. And in this Fererri brings into focus one interesting truth lying amidst the rest of his many ideas – neither army in a war is really all that noble. They all become killers and savages. And maybe one side really is fighting for the right reasons, but the war itself is always ugly. And it so it shall always be – as the Mad Indian notes at the end “There will be other Custers to kill, Sitting Bull.”
This type of material most likely hit a lot harder in 1974, as it seems to be a critique of the Indian, Algerian and Vietnam wars in part and of the cycle of war in general. And maybe it didn’t hit hard at all considering how it obscures its points with some unfocused plot threads. The main plot, Custer vs. the indians set in Paris, is straight forward enough and the connection between the story and the setting is strong: the demolished mall, Les Halles, Paris’ largest central market, was taken down in 1971 to make way for a new railway hub (though anyone not living in France at the time might need to get a little research under their belt to fully appreciate this link). Connecting Custer to Paris through the use of the demolished Les Halles as a traditional American Western backdrop – fragments of brick buildings poke up at the sky like Monument Valley – is an inspired idea and a visual that truly pays off. But throwing in the CIA Agent and Nixon make for an uneasy fit and these elements feel like they’re being shoehorned in to make the movie feel bigger or at least more relevant to the times. And unfortunately, 35 years on, relevance is not this film’s strong suit.
It’s disappointing, too, that for a movie this ambitious and filled with performances this broad, there’s really no great comedy to speak of. Two liners that play between moments and feel like gags (Young Woman: “What’s the violin for?” Old Woman: “I really enjoy playing the violin in the countryside.”) fall short. But the film is clearly more interested in social commentary than yukking it up, and in that it does a fine job.
The video is 1.66:1. The transfer shows its age, but is generally crisp. The audio is mono. The sound mix is strong but without nuance, as any mono track would be. The film is presented in French with English subtitles.
Excerpt from the documentary “Marco Ferreri: The Director Who Came From the Future”: a very short clip from a larger documentary featuring interviews with Fererri and some cast and crew. Not uninteresting, but a little too short to really add value to this edition of the film. (2:09)
The film is dizzingly ambitious with all the threads it holds and crosses. Inevitably it loses its grasp on several, but it is still a movie that could improve from several viewings.
Koch Lorber Films presents Don’t Touch The White Woman. Directed by: Marco Ferreri. Starring: Catherine Denueve, Marcello Mastroianni, Philippe Noiret, Ugo Tognazzi. Written by: Rafael Azcona & Marco Ferreri. Running time: 109min. Rating: NR. Released on DVD: July 14, 2009. Available at Amazon.com