Henry Miller remains one of the 20th century ‘s most famous author’s of erotic fiction. His works were candid, and self-revelatory, caring not one iota for preserving an air of mystery concerning his hedonistic life, or for niceties. Miller wrote frankly about male desire, sex and its inherent addiction that would often reveal the riotous attitudes towards free love, which proliferated his lifestyle, as self indulgent, sexist ventures, which inevitably led to loneliness.
There have been numerous adaptations of Miller’s works, the most oft filmed, at three counts, remains QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY, and it is the 1970 version by director Jens Jørgen Thorsen that’s considered by many to come closest to expounding Miller’s philosophy and recall the free spirited excess of its time.
The film charts a series of adventures in which penniless Joey (Paul Valjean), a fictionalised version of Miller, and French pal, Carl (Wayne Rodda), roam the cafes, clubs, and Parisian sidewalks, picking up women.
We first see the pair visited by their stoned neighbour who offers them uninhibited sex for a couple of hundred francs to pay the rent. The sequence immediately makes no bones about the protagonist’s misogynistic anti-feminism and narcism; whilst the woman scrawls Dadaist poetry in the bathroom, Joey recalls seeing a bundle of francs, hidden in a copy of Goethe’s “Faust”, and, subsequently forgotten by his flatmate Carl. On-screen cartoon-like thought bubbles divulge that Joey decides to pay the woman with the cash, and steal it back later. He also reveals that he once let Carl starve for several days, knowing his friend had the money in the book, but said nothing knowing the cash might serve him personally at a later date.
The next day, Joey is still sexually unfulfilled and picks up a woman called Nys (Ulla Lemvigh-Miller) in a café. Following a session back at her flat, Joey hands her the last of his cash. Hungry, he roams the rest of the day staring at food in the markets and shops, which results in a series of bizarre food fantasy dreams. Carl returns home accompanied by a young Danish runaway called Colette (Elsebeth Reingaard) who claims to be seventeen, but whose childish mannerisms are those of a schoolgirl. The men take advantage of her naivety, as she irons and cleans for them, whilst sucking on lollipops in between shots of her wandering the streets in skimpy dresses.
Bawdy verses by Country Joe McDonald play over a sequence of brief cutaways of comical escapades involving different conquests like X-rated Benny Hill sketches: “Little Colette she had no sense. Serving the breakfast without her pants. She’s boiling the coffee and burning the eggs. All her brains are between her legs”. And “There were two girls from the café. We picked both of them up one day. We took both of them back to the flat and the red haired one gave Carl the clap”.
Carl starts to fall for young Colette and so has mixed reservations when she is finally picked up by the police, and returned to her parent. The parents agree to drop charges of unlawful sex with the girl on the condition that the two men agree to never see Colette again.
In order to forget their experience, Carl and Joey take a trip to Luxembourg, where they patrol bars, have sex with a woman in a park, and decide to leave when they encounter hostility in a small-minded area that refuses to serve Joey on account of his Jewish appearance. Returning to Paris, they hang out at a jazz bar, home to a plethora of wanton women, who vie for the men’s attentions by fumbling in their underpants. The pair leave with a trio of libertines, and soon we are treated to a pretty horrid bathroom orgy where Joey lies in a tub full of red wine and French bread which the naked revellers gorge themselves upon, and masturbate with the empties.
Further debauchery follows, as we visit further bars and Kafkaesque parties where trantric hippies sprout intellectual gibberish, and women jump into bed at the whiff of a compliment. Throughout proceedings the men’s comments are rife with sexism. Upon inviting back to the flat a beautiful Danish woman called Christine (Susanne Krage), Carl remarks to Joey that “She’s the best cunt you ever dug up”. Carl persuades her to take part in a foursome that includes his latest “love”, but she ducks out halfway through screaming, “perverts”, as she is overcome by guilt. The film ends with Joey, Carl and the remaining woman rolling around in laughter as Christine’s cries of outrage ring in their ears.
Although the film undoubtedly shocked in the 70s, today QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY will raise a few knowing giggles from an audience who view the hedonistic attitudes of the film’s characters as dated, and, immature in their naïve pursuit of sexual liberation and frivolous attitude towards the responsibilities of love. Whilst Miller was undoubtedly an intellectual, whose voluminous reading included Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Elie Faure, his famous dictum (quoted in an accompanying interview on the DVD with Miller’s publisher Barney Rosset): “We are all guilty of crime, the great crime of not living life to the full”, resulted in five marriages, abundant venereal diseases, and the first three quarters of his life spent drifting in an out of abject poverty. Despite encouragement from his most famous lover, Anaïs Nin, who proved instrumental in the French publication of Miller’s first major work “Tropic of Cancer” in 1934, the novel found itself banned in English speaking countries due to its explicit sexuality and profanities. Subsequent books including “Black Spring” (1936) and “Tropic of Capricorn” (1939) were also prohibited, and it wasn’t until the early 60s that the Supreme Court in the USA decided to overturn the veto, and allow publishers in the west free reign to publish his works.
It was at this time that Danish experimental filmmaker Jens Jørgen Thorsen was searching for subject matter for a film to appeal to the 60s generation. He set about updating Miller’s 1940 novel, by hiring Country Joe McDonald to record the soundtrack, and supplement party scenes with 60s bohemians. The employment of local prostitutes for their uninhibited attitudes towards the explicit sex scenes give the film a relaxed, disaffected, if somewhat surreal appearance, which together with its innovative use of subtitle exposition, photo-montage, and voice-overs assembled from Miller’s texts resemble an underground film, albeit one with higher production value. The film also benefits from black and white photography that compliments its decadent subject matter. Thanks to Blue-Underground for once more providing us with a superb DVD presentation, loaded with extras, which serves as a fascinating time capsule to the 60s free-love generation, and a timely reminder of how attitudes towards sex and censorship have come full circle.
QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY is available in the USA from Blue Underground and has been released under license in the UK by Arrow Films.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Jens Jørgen Thorsen
France / 1970 / 91 minutes.
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
A Blue Underground DVD Release (USA) / An Arrow Films Release (UK)
All Region. NTSC. Dolby Digital Mono
QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY