Stung by Patrice Leconte’s latest underwhelming effort (A Promise) at the IFT last month, I dusted off one of my old favourites, The Hairdresser’s Husband, to be reminded of former glories. For a moment there, back in the 90s, we seemed to have a new Truffaut and a new Michel Deville, all rolled into one.
The film itself is a paean to childhood (for which read boyhood) infatuations, those peculiarly intense attachments some of us never quite get over; it’s about how one man, well into middle age, finally gets his dream. At which point some will no doubt sneer, ‘male wish-fulfilment fantasy’, and dismiss the whole thing, which would be their loss. What they would miss would be the extraordinary, playful charm of one of France’s top actors of the 70s (Jean Rochefort who, along with Piccoli and Noiret, sums up a whole generation’s worth of national film production), and the radiant, melting smile of Italy’s Anna Galiena, who never quite made it to international stardom either.
This man who as a boy dreams of marrying a hairdresser, from the moment he basks in the sweet body odour and ample bosom of an Alsatian redhead, whose only interests otherwise are Arabian classical music and crossword puzzles, meets, propositions and marries the gorgeous Mathilde, and together they live in modest seclusion, without friends, and without much income, to judge by the paucity of clients that come through the door.
But then, like all perfect things, it has to break, or fade, and Mathilde is determined it shall not fade. It is this bitter, melancholic conclusion to the film that I would like to discuss here, one we have glimpsed earlier via mute close-up shots of Rochefort’s expressionless (because all but lifeless) features under voiceover narration. Indeed, his performance throughout is a constant yin and yang of animation followed by repose.
We are watching Antoine (Rochefort’s character) from the point of view of two regular customers outside the salon. He is alone now, alone with his crosswords, as if Mathilde had simply gone out for a moment (indeed that is what he tells the customer who at this point enters). They sit together in silence for a while. The man, who is clearly of Maghrébin origin, picks up a magazine. Then Antoine hospitably proposes a little shampoo. The man accepts and Antoine obliges, performing a function he has watched Mathilde do a hundred times, though it is the first time in the film we see him do anything resembling work!
Suddenly, Antoine goes to the tape player and presses play and, as has happened on two occasions earlier in the film, proceeds to dance to the Arabian music that issues from the speakers and the cinema’s principal soundtrack. It is a somewhat gawky, comical dance, that he has invented himself, essentially imitating the moves of an Arabian dancing girl, swaying, dipping and running this way and that. The customer, who knows a thing or two of his culture, compliments Antoine on his improvised, untutored efforts, to be met with a delighted: ‘Vous trouvez?’ (Do you really think so?) But then, just as abruptly, he goes and switches the machine off, returning to his seat, as if nothing had happened.
‘The hairdresser won’t be long’, he assures the bemused customer, and we recognise the bitter truth of denial or, worse, madness. He has returned to the dream he has inhabited most of his life, and who is to say he is wrong? As we register this, Nyman’s elegiac music kicks in, one of two tracks he composed for Leconte (the other was Monsieur Hire), closer in character to The Piano than anything he did for Greenaway, and the camera peers down on the salon from aloft, capturing the whole composition in Leconte’s favoured anamorphic format: the customer looking, the man bowed over his crossword, the space in between. It is one of the saddest endings in all cinema, perhaps because it is so close to perfection, recalling the idyll that was, just as it registers an unbridgeable absence.
Note: just in case you are tempted to buy the Second Sight DVD of the movie, the dual layering unforgiveably triggers a pause in playback right before the credits roll at this fragile point in the film, shattering the atmosphere established.