This delightful sequel to 'Thomas Graal's Best Film' seems like an absolute retraction of its predecessor's subversiveness. Where that film presented us with a heroine who ran away from home when she disagreed with her aristocratic parents, and humiliated them in the name of independence; who crossed class-barriers to work as a secretary; who did not immediately yield to a persistent lover, only giving in on her terms; here we have a woman solely defined by her home and by her role as wife and mother. Her strict aspirations for her child are made mockery of, and her adaption of an Isadora Duncan-style feminism is deemed unfeminine; she is encouraged to return to her chic, elegant, coquettish ways that are specifically infantilised.
In the first film, Graal's masculine power could only be expressed in the fantasy of his screenplay; here, his short story reveals to his wife the errors of her ways. The one narrative disruption - Graal trying to remember where he put the ring on his wedding day, he points the congregation in another direction so he can search unobserved - restores order, although it does result in a very funny set-piece.
It is easy to caricature the comedies of Stiller as mere predecessors of Lubitsch, but there is a similarity in the way both directors treat sex and the battle of the sexes as a game. The second sequence, in which husband and wife declare war because one wants a daughter and the other a son, is framed as a game, with the house a symmetrical playing board with its defining spaces from which the characters fire their volleys.
Although the argument is supposed to be about offspring (something, obviously, neither can help), it is really about frustrated consummation - when the row begins in the carriage, Bessie won't let Graal finger her posie of roses, while he destroys his hat on an immobile phallic statue in his study. It's only the threat of an outsider (a wonderfully barmy scene involving a drunken Count and poet, given a marvellously surreal entrance, stumbling down a huge flight of steps), and the spilling of a private difficulty, into a public spectacle (including the hurling of coins to the peasants in the merde-strewn streets), that decides the issue - and it is Bessie who decides it.
This sex-game motif is returned to for the climax, when Bessie seems to give in to Graal's sexist demands for femininity - she seems to give in, but she is literally playing a role, putting on a set of clothes that confer a certain identity; in the game that follows, she is in control, and once again this is figured in the house, where Bessie's sexual power is revealed in her controlling the key to her room. Her power is sophisticated and intellectual, Graal's is rather bestial, sublimated in a brutal hunting expedition with a long, loaded rifle liable to shoot off anywhere (having previously revealed himself a Bunuellian fetishist, sniffing his wife's shoes).
After all, if Bessie is infantilised at the end, than Graal has been on this level all along, not only in the relationship he has with his kid (an adorable sequence in one of the few convincing films about a baby: to amuse his kid, Graal puts a bin over their dog, to adorable effect), but in the bachelor shambles from which he emerges at the beginning, in contrast to his bride's prepared control, significantly surrounded by children.
There is a sophisticated use of mirrors in the film, not only in mirroring scenes, but in visually expressing the division inherent in these characters; for example, between what they want and what their partners want them to be. When Bessie, having been described as unfeminine, notes this division by looking in a mirror, the shot could be misogynistic, or it could be a recognition that the only way to negotiate rigid situations is to adopt various roles.
Another threat to the apparent conservatism, besides the still ironic and deflating narrator (as well as Graal's winks to camera), is the way the film is put together. It seems less a coherent narrative, than at least four different films put together - the farce of the wedding; the sex-war over the child; the domestic comedy over rearing the child; and the final comedy of identities. These four sections are obviously connected by the characters in them, but the characters themselves don't have the same attitudes or motivations in each one. This isn't poor scripting, but a recognition that people in their daily lives aren't consistent, coherent characters, but a series of different, often contradictory selves, which will always disrupt repressive attempts at uniformity.
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