Film/DVD: review

A Slightly Pregnant Man
L'Événement le plus important depuis que l'homme a marché sur la lune

A Slightly Pregnant Man
Written and Directed by Jacques Demy
 
1973, France — 92 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85 — Comedy

A comedy about the complications which ensue when a man learns that he is going to give birth to a baby... himself.

Review

ImageThe secret of this film's original French title, L'Événement le plus important depuis que l'homme a marché sur la lune ('the greatest event since man walked on the moon), is revealed in the English title, A Slightly Pregnant Man. But it's unlikely that anyone going to see Jacques Demy's genial and modest comedy would not already have known that it's about the amusing complications which arise when a man finds out that he's going to have a baby. As Demy once remarked, this movie "began as a joke," when his wife, filmmaker Agnès Varda, was pregnant with their son Mathieu, and "she talked about it constantly." Varda retorted, "If you men could get pregnant, you'd behave differently with women...." When Demy's friends Catherine Deneuve, who starred in several of his films (including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and Marcello Mastroianni (Fellini's La Dolce Vita) said they wanted to do a comedy together, all of the pieces came together and Demy gave birth, as it were, to this movie, the first entry in the small but growing sub-genre of men having babies... themselves. On an autobiographical note, Demy also drew on his happy childhood memories, before the Nazi occupation, of his father working in his garage while his mother pumped gas, in between doing women's hair at her beauty salon.

ImageIn the picture, Marco Mazetti (Mastroianni) is an easygoing Parisian driving school instructor who discovers that he is pregnant, much to the surprise of his fiancée – hairdresser Irene de Fontenoy (Deneuve), their young son (growing up, quite happily, out of wedlock), Marco's business partner and best friend Lucien (Claude Melki), and, by the movie's end, most of the people on earth. We follow Marco as his pregnancy (already in "the fourth month") is diagnosed by a doctor fond of inordinately long cigarettes (Micheline Presle as Dr. Delavigne), poked and prodded by scientists, exploited by advertising excecutives (I was rooting for Marco to find himself a good lawyer, which he doesn't), and generally turned into a global celebrity.

It would be hard for Demy, or most filmmakers, to top a genre-defining and internationally beloved classic like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or even his richly-textured and moving debut film, Lola. To enjoy A Slightly Pregnant Man, you might want to put away comparisons to those extraordinary films, at least for now. On the other hand, if Demy had not already proven his creative genius, I'm not sure how many people, including myself, would be interested in this picture. With filmmakers I admire and enjoy, I want to see all of their works: Below is Demy's complete filmography (I have now reviewed all of his films currently available on DVD, linked from the respective titles). And although somewhat hidden, Demy has a few interesting developments on his perennial themes of gender, love, and integrity.

ImageThis is a sweet-natured, funny movie, but it is also perhaps the most modest work of Demy's career. Its charm lies primarily in its actors, rather than its underwritten characters. Marco and Irene rely for their appeal too much on the brilliantly understated performances of the great Mastroianni (whose role here is 180 degrees removed from his jaded reporter in La Dolce Vita) and Deneuve (Polanski's 1965 Repulsion, Buñuel's 1967 Belle de jour). If Demy had given their characters more to do and, more importantly, more emotional range, this would have been a far stronger picture. Demy may have intended the matter of fact response to Marco's pregnancy, by almost everyone, as a running gag, but it doesn't play. If he had made Irene more resistant to Marco's delicate condition, their relationship could have been both more emotionally rich and funnier too: just think of the possibilities.

Overall, the screenplay could have benefited from a few more drafts, to develop the situations, as well as the characters. Unfortunately for the structure, Demy waits until the midpoint – 45 minutes into this 92-minute movie – to have Marco's pregnancy diagnosed. That's way too late. If Demy had cut the opening half considerably, it would have allowed him to put some zip into the story and, most importantly, get us to the crucial revelation much sooner, say, twenty minutes into the picture – the traditional time, in virtually every feature-length film, for the first major plot twist to occur (here is a brief look at cinematic dramatic structure). If he had started the gimmick sooner, he would have given himself that much more time to develop it, through both the characters and a much wider variety of scenes. The additional situations would have allowed for more laughs and, dare I say, more thematic richness. In the first half, its focus on Marco and Irene skirts the world of screwball comedy, then in the second half it all but abandons the couple and shifts gears towards broad (alas, here that means vague) social satire of science, advertising, and media. But never gives the movie enough character development, richness of ideas, or even energy, to allow either of those forms to blossom. Although Monkey Business (1952) is not Hawks's comic masterpiece (which would be Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday), Demy still might have found some inspiration in that 'fountain of youth' science/fantasy comedy which succeeds in yoking together screwball comedy and satire – which seems to be Demy's intention here.

My biggest problem with Demy's picture is that it needs an opposing force, perhaps an ultra right-wing bigot to start a campaign against Marco – maybe he could be Irene's politically ambitious uncle, to keep the story more in a family way. Please raise your hand if you do not know that this bigot, after waging an (unintentionally comic) all-out campaign, will find in the final ten minutes that he has a proverbial bun in his own oven, and have a conversion experience which allows him to embrace Marco and the hundreds of similarly gravid guys around the globe (hey, this is a feel-good comedy).

ImageLet me make a confession: during the movie, I couldn't stop imagining a Broadway musical version, with a better-structured storyline (including an antagonist, as suggested above) and some fabulously brassy music and lyrics along the line of Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage aux Folles). Imagine the advertising execs, from near the end of Demy's film, bursting into a show-stopping production number called "Tomorrow's Man!" Demy provides a virtual draft of this song in his dialogue, the pacing of which already feels like a comic ensemble number – and its climax, with the montage of pregnant men in various situations, from golf to the opera, could be even more effective onstage, with a swelling orchestra and staged like a Ziegfeld Follies show-stopper. There are several more obvious spots for musicalization (including a couple of duets for Marco and Irene, a power ballad or two, quirkily diverse comedy turns for the featured characters, and of course the "Strawberry Song"), but if you enjoy this form of fantasization, I'll let you whip up your own 'dream' libretto and score. Of course, the fact that what was on the screen allowed me enough time to sketch out not only an alternate narrative structure but several songs, while thinking about what I was going to say in this review, well, as I said, this screenplay needed richer characters, better-developed scenes, and a much wider dramatic arc. In a nutshell, this movie is too easygoing and note-joke, and hence flat.

ImageStill, there are several elements I enjoyed, besides Mastroianni and Deneuve's performances. I liked the bright colors, especially Demy's use of orange, which dominates the film (no other predominantly orange-hued movie comes to mind). In fact, Demy uses a bright, inviting, deeply-saturated palette here, as in many of his films, of which The Young Girls of Rochefort seems the closest. There are some funky props, like the huge golden finger which, for some unexplained reason, dominates the scientist's office (could it be 'the fickle finger of Fate'?). Deneuve once remarked about the picture that, "I played a hairdresser in angora sweaters." She reminds us that Demy might have been making a sly allusion to angora-loving cross-dressing director Ed Wood, whose notorious Glen or Glenda? (1953) was first sex-change movie. And Michel Legrand's score, while literally downplayed, is effective at buoying up scenes. Legrand does have one belting tune, with a lyric based on the original French title, sung by real-life pop diva Mireille Mathieu as herself. But like too many scenes, her big turn seems forced. It feels like Demy and Legrand wanted an excuse to get an infectious song into the story, and hence onto the soundtrack album. Unfortunately, it's Mathieu's song which, inadvertently, makes Marco so sick that he has to leave the theatre (although we do get to hear the number in its entirety).

ImageAlthough Mastroianni and Deneuve were appealing, even with their underwritten parts, the character I wanted to see more of was Lucien Soumain, Marco's closest friend. As a performer, Claude Melki seemed the best fit of anyone in the film – while Mastroianni and Deneuve underplayed their roles (Deneuve's hair was more overtly dramatic than she), all of the other supporting players overacted, certainly at Demy's insistence. At first this approach was amusing, but its regularity made it quickly grow tiresome: overplaying does not automatically equal satire. I suspect Demy wanted a '50s Hollywood type of high stylization, as in Singin' in the Rain or The Band Wagon; he was more successful at achieving that feel in his 1967 musical, The Young Girls of Rochefort (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is more of a pop/folk opera than a musical per se). That 'playing to the balcony' approach works better with, say, Micheline Presle as Dr. Delavigne, whose character has a wider range of emotions to express than André Falcon as Scipion Lemeu, the one-note head of the ad agency. But Lucien is an intriguing character, both open and sly, silly and sexy; in fact, he's so appealing – perhaps because, more than any other character, he seems comfortable in his own skin – that he's able to warm the sheets of even the ultra-mannish "lesbian" actress Ramona Martinez (a monocle-wearing Alice Sapritch).

ImageThis brings us to another level of the film: its play with gender. Of course, the central premise of the movie is about knocking gender roles on their heads (feel free to substitute another metaphorical body part of your choice). This seems a natural, as it were, outgrowth of the women's liberation movement. Judging by the several scenes in Demy's film which reference its French incarnation, it was still controversial in 1973 (this film was not released in the US until four years later, and has been virtually unseen until this new DVD release).

Even before Demy, male pregnancy had popped up in world mythology (Athena springing from Zeus's head; the norse trickster god Loki giving birth), not to mention supermarket tabloids, where it remains a popular urban legend. On the other hand, the male sea horse does take and fertilize the ovum of the female, then bear the offspring – and science may conceivably [wink] one day allow male pregnancies. (This film, not to its credit, has a scientist begin talking about the necessary medical procedures for Marco's birth, but Demy quickly cuts away without any details; the "explanation" for what caused Marco's condition is impossibly vague – something about eating hormonally-altered chickens and gender "transferenc": huh?). In the wake of this movie, there were some other attempts to mine this vein, both comedic – the not-very-funny Rabbit Test (directed by Joan Rivers and starring Billy Crystal, 1978) and the better-but-still-no-cigar Junior (directed by Ivan Reitman and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, 1994) – and science fictional / dramatic in Enemy Mine (directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Louis Gossett Jr., 1985) and Alien Nation, both the feature film (directed by Graham Baker, 1988) and the subsequent television series and TV movies.

I can imagine that some men – including gay director Wolfgang Petersen and even the bisexual Demy who had children with his wife, Agnès Varda – would be moved by the possibility of being able to give birth themselves. But while Petersen rises to melodramatic heights in his film (one wonders how much better Enemy Mine might have been if it had had an adequate budget), Demy – a decade and a half earlier, of course – skirts the issue, and its deep emotional component, with laughs. Of course, that's still how the theme is treated in pop culture. Yet Demy does include not one but two separate sets of jokes about Lucien being the "father" of Marco's child. This raises the issue of "homosexuality," but like virtually every other "heavy" theme in this film, it's tossed away the moment after its raised. On the other hand, no one in the film seems horrified or disgusted at the notion of someone being gay, just as they – in an even less likely turn – are never horrified or disgusted by male pregnancy.

ImagePerhaps the only tension in the film comes peripherally, as Demy loads the margins of this film with same-sex stereotypes, from mannish women (some of whom are prominent in Irene's beauty salon) to fey gay-guys with poofy silk scarves (Ramona's entourage, sycophants at the ad agency) who look like they're on their way to audition for The Boys in the Band. What I find so creepy about these (literally) marginalized characters is that they have no character, no dimension, no real life, in contrast to so many of the similarly backgrounded straight-identified characters who are, if anything, too effervescent. I don't mean to be snarky; I just want to highlight this particular aspect of the film's background. It seems that Demy is expressing, whether consciously or not, the tension between a (progressive) male fantasy of a man being able to give birth and the (reactionary) limits of social possibilities for same-sex-oriented people, at least as they appeared in the early '70s. Of course, biological reality can be a whole other ball game, as we see later in this film.

Despite its modest intentions, I enjoyed A Slightly Pregnant Man's geniality and playful style. If you are interested in Demy, Deneuve, Mastroianni – or expectant fathers – then this movie is self-recommending.

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Crew

  • Written & Directed by Jacques Demy
  • Music by Michel Legrand
  • Cinematography by Andréas Winding
  • Edited by Anne-Marie Cotret
  • Production Design by Bernard Evein
  • Costume Design by Gitt Magrini

Cast

  • Marcello Mastroianni as Marco Mazetti
  • Catherine Deneuve as Irène de Fontenoy
  • Claude Melki as Lucien Soumain
  • Micheline Presle as Dr. Delavigne
  • Marisa Pavan as Maria Mazetti
  • Mireille Mathieu as herself
  • André Falcon as Scipion Lemeu
  • Maurice Biraud as Lamarie
  • Alice Sapritch as Ramona Martinez

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DVD

Koch Lorber Films presents the DVD debut of A Slightly Pregnant Man in a transfer with first-rate image and sound, including both the original French soundtrack and an alternate dubbed English version.

DVD Details

Reviewed March 8, 2006

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