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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: “Les Stances a Sophie” (Mizrahi, 1971)

The presences of the exemplary Nouvelle Vague icons Bernadette Lafont and Bulle Ogier in the female lead roles notwithstanding, what cachet 1971's Les Stances a Sophie has accrued over the years is largely extra-cinematical. Its soundtrack, composed and performed by the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago—then comprised of hornmen Joseph Bowie, bassist Malachi Flavors, drummer Don Moye, and singer Fontella Bass (previously of "Rescue Me" fame and at the time married to Bowie) was for many years a much sought-after item among contemporary jazz fans, and with excellent reason. Like many free-music pioneers, the Art Ensemble decamped to Paris in the late '60s, where there was both a larger and more welcoming audience for its work and at least one pioneering record label (BYG, cofounded by a group of French jazzbos that included future Celluioid Records founder Jean Karakos) throwing studio time at any number of adventurous artists. The Ensemble's work for this soundtrack finds them folding classical themes and contemporary soul stylings into its already effortlessly eclectic and daring musical bag. "Theme de Yoyo," with Bass declaiming a critique of the battle of the sexes that's a raw counterpoint to some of the more politely limned tensions playing out in the film at that point, is an ever-bracing piece that suggests all sorts of post-Brechtian possibilities for movie music—possibilities that really haven't been too thoroughly explored since. It's also pretty killer when listened to entirely on its own.
Mizrahi had met the Art Ensemble some time prior to adapting Christiane Rochefort's femininst novel to the screen, and contracted them to both create the soundtrack and appear in the picture. "Theme de Yoyo" and the live sequence featuring the group aside, it's a sometimes awkward fit, despite the fact that the bourgeois-bohemian white folks who comprise the film's characters would appear to be fairly well-informed on jazz. That's a copy of John Coltrane's extremely challenging Ascension right behind Lafont's jeans, above.
The picture's title is from a bit of vulgar French rhyming slang—none of the characters here are named Sophie. Rather, Lafont plays Celine, a free spirit whose affair with the rather more stuffy Phillipe (Michel Duchaussoy) looks pretty damn unpromising from the start. "I want to love one woman who would represent all women," Phillipe declaims as he and Celine sit at the foot of an electrical tower. "I would like to love all men as if they were one man," Celine counters. In case we don't get the point, Mizrahi's camera pans up to show the warning plaques on the tower: "Zone de Confusion," not to mention "Danger de Mort."
Fundamental philosophical differences aside, the two marry anyway; Phillipe sweeps Celine into his very proper French home (she doesn't re-hang that Ho Chi Minh portrait), Celine finds a soul mate in Julia (Ogier), the oppressed wife of Phillipe's piggish best pal Jean Pierre (Serge Marquand, the naked fellow above, responding to a dare from Celine), there's much consciousness-raising and eventual tragedy...and then Celine goes and checks out the Art Ensemble, and has a brief chat after the gig with Mitchell, who pronounces the sexual habits of white Europeans "a drag."
Indeed. Mizrahi would later go on to more overtly sentimental fare such as Madame Rosa and I Wrote A Letter To My Love, and in a lot of ways Sophie feels like a conventional midcult exploration of themes that would be plumbed with far more brutal honesty a few years later in Eustache's La Maman and La Putain, also starring Lafont. Sophie is obviously a far more representative piece of 1971 French cinema than Rivette's Out One (also featuring Lafont and Ogier) of that year is, and as such it's a potent reminder of something we shouldn't need to be reminded of—mainstream is mainstream wherever you go. The Art ensemble's music and presence are the most groundbreaking things about the picture, so it should come as little surprise that the Region 2 disc of Sophie is issued not a by cinephile DVD label but by Soul Jazz, the wonderful British music label that's reissuing a CD of the soundtrack alongside this DVD, which contains an informative booklet and a nearly half-hour video interview with Ensemble member Joseph Jarman. In its promo materials for the film, Soul Jazz cites "great clothes" as a signal feature of the film...
That guy in the second picture doesn’t have great clothes! Partial refund?
The Art Ensemble of Chicago plays the kind of freeform music that’s been largely written out of the approved Wynton Marsalis-Ken Burns jazz timeline. Their commitment to spontaneity and collective improvisation has made their work highly erratic: albums of blazing originality and power sit alongside wandering, aimless discs in which the group’s trademark menagerie of “little instruments” — kazoos, whistles, bike horns, finger cymbals and the like alongside traditional jazz axes — come off sounding like an art therapy session at the local group home. But a few of their records have followed me through various format changes, and at the top of the heap is their soundtrack for the 1971 film Les Stances a Sophie, the DVD release of which is covered here by Glenn Kenny . . .

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