Bruce LaBruce’s Academy of the Underrated: Desperate Characters

The Canadian provocateur (and champion of misfit movies) examines the campy ennui and genuine horror of ’70s domesticity.

Desperate Characters, the Frank D. Gilroy film based on the brilliant novel of the same name by Paula Fox (who, strangely enough, happens to be Courtney Love’s grandmother), belongs to a subgenre of ’70s mainstream American films that may have been the last to deal with “adult” topics, as opposed to the infantilized cinema of today, characterized by a permanent regression into childhood fantasies. Films like Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, Melvin Frank’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, John G. Avildsen’s Save the Tiger, and Gilbert Cates’s Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams all dealt with post-1960s, post-sexual revolution social issues filtered through domestic relationships, crumbling marriages and mid-life and small-business crises, along with the general malaise expressed through the particular situation. (The genre actually started in the late sixties with such films as Gene Saks’s The Odd Couple and Bud Yorkin’s Divorce American Style.) These are films populated by horny psychoanalysts, ungrateful or alienated children, extramarital lovers, alcoholic academics, and well-intentioned liberals with highly developed guilt complexes. Looking back from where we stand now, it all seems terribly grown-up, and somehow…glamorous.

It’s hard to imagine now that a film whose entire premise revolves around a woman – one half of a childless, middle-aged, middle-class couple – getting bitten by a possibly rabid cat could get made into a major motion picture, but that’s exactly what the film, and the novel before it, are about. (The latter, published in 1970, is biting, acerbic, and decidedly post-feminist before its time, much like Iris Owens’ After Claude, published three years later.) Of course, the rabies is just the overarching metaphor for a poisoned marriage, a poisoned business deal, and a poisoned society. Shirley MacLaine, looking slightly bloated and girlish with minimal makeup, plays Sophie Bentwood, a 40-year-old woman in a sexless marriage who has even grown disillusioned with her own métier, translating French novels into English. Her husband, Otto (the inestimable Kenneth Mars), has just ended a long-term business relationship with his old friend Charlie, who favors a social conscience over financial gain in their joint law practice. Charlie’s liberal platitudes are one of the major targets of the film; as Claire (Sada Thompson), an old friend of Sophie’s, puts it, “Frankly, I don’t see how Otto stood him this long. All that good liberal stuff spread out so impeccably.” In fact, the hypocrisy of liberal social conscience permeates the film. When Sophie tells the psychoanalyst whose party she and Otto attend that she’s been bitten by a cat, he asks, “What was it, one of those Oriental genetic freaks that cost $700?” (It was actually a stray cat she was feeding chicken livers to on the back porch). When Sophie visits Claire (the name, meaning bright or clear, often given to prophetesses in movies), she says of Sophie’s expensive shoes, “Made by some Italian slave for a lira. What multitudes we all recline on!”

Environmentally conscious in her own limited way, Sophie complains of “the package-wrapping frenzy” that leads to more garbage on the street, deflecting Otto’s more obvious, racist critique, that it is an innate characteristic of the black ghetto they have invaded. The film is predicated on the early white gentrification of traditionally black Brooklyn neighborhoods, already in full swing in the early ’70s, and the concomitant white guilt and paranoia associated with it. At the party, someone has thrown a rock through the window of the psychoanalyst’s house, which the psychoanalyst asks Sophie not to tell his wife about. The next morning, Sophie and Otto look out the window at a black man lying on the street, trying to figure out if he’s dead or drunk. Unexpectedly, Otto grabs her breasts and tries to initiate sex. “Not with that man laying out there,” says Sophie. “Don’t flatter yourself,” replies Otto. Later in the film, a down-on-his-luck black man comes to their back door and asks to use their telephone, complaining that, “Everybody around here thinks black men are killers.” When Otto finally gives him $10 to go away, Sophie implies that Otto only let him in out of white liberal guilt, tacitly acknowledging their encroachment on a traditionally black, working class neighborhood. “There’s good and bad in every race,” Otto allows, displaying the white liberal tolerance the film disdains. “Two more houses sold over there,” he says, prompting Sophie to ask passively, “What happens to the people living in them now?” As the voice of liberal conscience in the film, even she remains unconvincing.

As the central metaphor of the film, the white cat that bites Sophie is streetwise and untamed, associated with the black denizens of the neighborhood. “They’re not pussycats, you know. They’re thugs!” opines Otto of the cat when Sophie insists on feeding it. At one point, the camera even assumes the feline point of view, peering in through the window at the gentrified white couple; the new source of food. Suddenly the film becomes a horror movie, the home invasion trope starkly defined. When the emergency doctor tells the couple that if they don’t catch the cat and have it tested, Sophie will have to get painful rabies shot, a brutal scene of the couple luring it into the house and capturing it ensues. If the cat is found to be disease-free, it will not have to be killed, but Otto chooses to have it euthanized anyway.

Malaise after ’70s malaise is stacked up in the film. Sophie receives a dirty phone call. Otto complains about people talking to themselves in automats. In one memorable shot, the camera pans across a row of people, including Sophie, sitting silently on the subway, staring straight ahead, until the camera rests on a man having an entire conversation with himself. Charlie’s wife declares that her son is “going through a little phase of kleptomania,” while Charlie bemoans the newfound hippie feminism of his wife: “She’s taken up yoga. She’s chopped off her hair. She wants to get a hold of some hashish.” “I’ve had two miscarriages,” Sophie tells Charlie, adding “I have a uterus like a pinball machine.” As in the novel by Fox, whose cynical and bitter dialogue is largely preserved in the film, urban alienation is taken to absurd new heights.

It’s this absurdity, the exaggerated pronouncements of alienation and despair, and the mannered style in which they’re delivered, that ultimately makes Desperate Characters into somewhat of a camp classic, and I mean that in the best possible sense. (Desperate Characters, incidentally, is the very film that Lance Loud goes to see in the episode of An American Family in which his mother, Pat, visits him at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan; he must have reveled in the withering representation of the bourgeois middle class milieu in the film.) “Answering machines are for muffling the screams of the dying,” Sophie declares in a monotone. “I guess I never really liked sex,” Claire declares evenly. When Charlie asks Sophie how she’s coping after the end of her six-month extramarital affair, she replies robotically, “Fatigue, anemia, all the symptoms of irreversible loss.” Otto is even alienated by Ingmar Bergman, the era’s king of bourgeois alienation (his Scenes from a Marriage could be considered part of the same “adult problem” genre). “I’m tired of parties,” he says, complaining about banal conversations. “I don’t care about Fred Astaire and he doesn’t care about me. Ditto Fellini, Truffaut, and Bergman!”

Characters in the film often stare out windows looking at accidents, or sit staring straight ahead like zombies not saying anything. They laugh at jokes too long, and then fall into uncomfortable silences. “What has become of us all?” laments Claire’s pussy-whipped academic husband. “Age,” she replies matter-of-factly. Sada Thompson, who played the Earth Mother on the ’70s TV show Family so beautifully, plays the polar opposite here in the role of Claire, not unlike another Claire of the era, Kate Reid in A Delicate Balance, a film, based on the Edward Albee play, that mines many of the same themes. Thompson has all the best camp lines. “Better a middle-age frump than an aging go-go girl,” she says, explaining why she dresses so slovenly. And my all-time favorite line of alienated doom: “Time to reheat the potage.”

Toward the end of the film, Sophie and Otto decide to escape the horrors of the city and visit their summer home, even thought it’s still winter. When they arrive, they experience a sense of freedom only for a brief moment before discovering the house has been broken into and vandalized. The tables have been turned: Their invasion of the black Brooklyn neighborhood is mirrored by their own victimization by home invasion. “I wouldn’t mind being shot in a revolution, or having my house burned,” says Otto, “But this is meaningless!” Always the pragmatic one, Sophie replies, “Maybe it’s a language you just don’t understand.” Otto flies into a rage. “Are you defending the pigs that shit in your fireplace?” he asks savagely, reducing her to tears. He tries to apologize by kissing her, which, like everything else in the film, turns into a remarkably ugly scene. He forcibly undresses her, and, literally and symbolically, rapes his own wife.

Like the capturing of the cat, it’s a deeply brutal scene, the antithesis of what one might expect from a Hollywood narrative resolution. On the way back to the city, they talk once more about adopting a child. “I exhausted feeling about that subject some time ago,” says Sophie wearily, although a glimmer of hope remains. Back home, on the steps outside their house, Sophie wonders, “Suppose they’ve been here, too,” referring to the vandals that gutted their summer house. “Not yet,” replies Otto. The tone of these final sequences is one of pure horror, the urban flipside of eco-horror movies of the ’70s such as No Blade of Grass and Day of the Animals. There’s no place to hide, nowhere to retreat to that is safe, either in nature or in the urban environment. I guess it should come as no surprise, then, that the world has retreated into a state of oblivious infantilism.

Bruce LaBruce is a filmmaker, writer, photographer and artist based in Toronto, Canada. Recently there have been retrospectives of his films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and at MoMA in New York City. His latest feature, The Misandrists, will be released in 2018.