Nick Pinkerton on Une Aventure de Billy le Kid (A Girl Is a Gun)
Luc Moullet’s Une Aventure de Billy le Kid is a mad movie, so nothing unlikely that I hear about it surprises me. The story behind this film, the preeminent instance of what we might call the “Bouillabaisse Western,” goes that Moullet, perennially broke, temperamentally incapable of making the sort of work that might improve his situation, and always looking for an angle, sold his third feature to foreign markets under the pretext that it was a proper Euro Western. What he was delivering, however, would almost certainly be inscrutable to anyone who walked into it expecting something from the kill-’em-all Franco Nero school. In fact, inscrutability is an essential element of the film’s strategy. Even if this story is bogus—and one can never be too sure with Moullet—it seems right, for this movie is the work of a trickster, a game without an instruction book. It was released in early 1971, though to call what it had a “release” is an exaggeration. This is also the year of Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, when genre deconstruction was the order of the day, but Moullet’s repudiation of the well-made film is far more radical and complete than even Altman’s, and what he performs here is genre deconstitution.
Shot on 35mm Eastmancolor stock, Une Aventure de Billy le Kid seems like a significant advance, in terms of production value, on Moullet’s previous films, like Brigitte et Brigitte (1966) and The Smugglers (1968), both in scratchy, stomped-on black-and-white, though Moullet’s artfully artless style has changed not at all. The film is a comedy of camera mismanagement in which every 1.85:1 aspect ratio framing is ever so precisely wrong—or fails, rather, to be in the “right” place. Watching it, one is acutely aware of the thin line that separates classical screen grammar from gobbledygook, and the effect is a bit like seeing well-wrought prose suddenly stripped of all punctuation. Only with closer scrutiny does it become apparent that Moullet’s seemingly slapdash approach conceals a sort of precision—as Pauline Kael perspicaciously wrote of The Mother and the Whore, by Jean Eustache, who cut Moullet’s film: “It took three months of editing to make this seem unedited.”
The film stars Jean-Pierre Léaud (presumably the title’s “Billy le Kid”) and Marie-Christine Questerbert (we’ll call her “The Girl,” as she’s never named) as an odd couple thrown together on a punishing trek across the high plains, pursued first by a posse, then by reservation Indians, then by one another. The Girl, initially appearing to be Billy’s hapless hostage, in time reveals that she’s been plotting revenge against him all along. She first appears emerging from under a shallow grave of red sand, seeming to literally be born from dust, like Adam rather than Eve. (This isn’t the film’s only queer Biblical allusion—later, when Billy is at the edge of starvation, he starts munching grass like mad Nebuchadnezzar.) She wears pigtails as an apparent concession to the period setting, but is in every other respect an entirely modern-looking young woman, clad in jeans, a periwinkle sweater, and a diaphanous pink scarf. (Billy is no less anachronistic, sporting vertically striped bell-bottoms that might’ve been slipped from Roger Daltry’s closet.)
Une Aventure de Billy le Kid is, in essence, a chase film, a form which has since the days of Rescued by Rover (1905) periodically been advanced as the quintessence of moving pictures. Yet Moullet was never inspired to create a “taut” thriller, and he tailored Une Aventure de Billy le Kid with decidedly dumpy measurements. It contains exactly six true close-ups, each of Questerbert, and each taken at a moment of decisive change in the central relationship. The first, early, shows her weeping helplessly, playing the role of the victim; the next three, closely clustered, capture her enigmatic smile as she prepares to exact her vengeance on Billy, and her radiant scorn as she reveals the motive for it; the penultimate follows her having her head nearly pushed into the needles of a cactus while vehemently denying that jealousy played any role in her killing Billy’s squaw bride; and the last shows her ragged and bloodied after plummeting headlong off a cliff, about to be reunited with Billy, himself scalped, crippled, and reduced to rags. The image of them dazed, destroyed, and together bookends the film, and is its ironic happy ending—they’re stuck together because they’re too debilitated to fight any longer.
Moullet favors medium-long, long, and very long vantages. He returns frequently to shots taken while looking down from a far opposite slope or up from a gully. Often he’ll let a subject reach the plumb center of an extreme wide shot before they pick up and carry the frame along with them. The movie is a checker pattern of pans, vertical and horizontal, motivated or unmotivated by action in the frame. Moullet’s favorite move is a kind of “missed connection” pan that travels with one figure only to let them fall out of frame just as he picks up another. He films restless figures in the landscape, always playing keep-away or catch-up with one another, and the lone vision of harmonious togetherness is the Girl’s memory of her marital bliss—an embrace on the summit of a peak, viewed from a dwarfing distance.
These are some of the things Une Aventure de Billy le Kid does, though what it opts not to do is just as important. Moullet practices two techniques for shooting action: poorly, and not at all. The movie opens with an instance of the latter approach. A wagon wheel rolls into the frame from screen right, then plops on its side. After a cut, the camera pans toward whence it came, to reveal an unhitched buggy on its side, wheels still lazily rotating. There are three corpses scattered in front of the upended vehicle, and standing over them is a masked desperado with two pistols still drawn. As he moves to holster his six-shooters, there’s a cut on the action that takes us to a slightly closer re-framing, though in this shot the spinning wagon wheel has abruptly ceased its motion, not the last instance of either an ignorance of or disregard for continuity cutting. If we care to quibble any further, we may notice that this “stagecoach” looks an awful lot like a merchant’s handcart, but there isn’t long for such speculation. The bandit unmasks, revealing Léaud’s aquiline visage, begins to gather up sacks of coins strewn on the ground, then walks off camera. Moments after he does, one of the “corpses” stands up and takes off for the hills in a huffing, puffing sprint. Léaud scampers back after the survivor. He pops a warning shot off into the air, then fires seven rounds after his target. (The sound of the gunshots are, I believe, snare hits.) Both Billy and his escaping prey are framed in a wide shot, so we can see that Billy’s got a clear line of fire at close range, but he misses every time. It emerges as a curious “rule” of Une Aventure de Billy le Kid that marksmanship seems to be easier the further away the shooter is: Billy is later clipped by a rifle shot seemingly taken from another territory, and later the Girl picks off his new beau with a bow-and-arrow from an angle that would give William Tell trouble.
Broken into, say, two medium close-ups—Billy drawing and firing, his target getting further and further away—nothing about this opening scene would necessarily register as unusual, but presented as it is, it’s ridiculous. (Moullet’s joke relies on the absence of editing, while one can find visual punchlines that play on the deceptive carving up of screen space in action cutting in such kindred works as UHF and Pootie Tang.) Later in the film, when Billy is being chased across the highlands by a vengeance-mad Indian, Moullet plays variations on the same “mistake.” The pursuit is covered by panning long shots which show the participants to be in plain sight of one another at all times, first the Indian to the left and Billy to the right, then vice-versa. At one point an exhausted Billy plops down to rest, and his enemy, who’s drawn within only a few paces of his target, and who is carrying a spear—which goes un-thrown despite many fine opportunities—sits down as well. The gag is pure Looney Tunes, which one is reminded of often: the red rock formations under the opening credits recall a Chuck Jones desert, Léaud’s temper tantrum on finding himself at the bottom of a pitfall is worthy of Daffy Duck, and the zero-sum face-off between Billy and the Girl is pure Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1952).
Moullet knows exactly what he is doing, and uses this control to constantly reinforce the impression that he has no idea. Outside of George and Mike Kuchar in the United States, I am hard-pressed to name another filmmaker whose career has so fully embodied a lifelong dedication to the values of amateurism as Moullet’s has. In a 1968 interview with Cahiers du cinema, Moullet referred to “the advantages of poverty,” saying, “I think for instance that if The Smugglers had cost twenty percent less, the result would have been better because there would have been something in the film that emphasized this austerity.” Moullet’s 1984 short Barres (Barriers) is a literal illustration of his idea of poverty as the soul of invention, showing the variety of ways that Parisians save themselves a fare by working their way around the turnstiles leading into the Metro, responding to every new security measure with a new, ingenious ruse. (Moullet’s move from an exclusive concentration on feature filmmaking to the production of shorts in the 1980s was, incidentally, inspired by exigency, a need to work more consistently without being beholden to the demands of feature financing. It’s also the reverse trajectory of most filmmakers.)
Whether arrived at through aesthetic conviction, necessity, or a combination of the two, the cinema of austerity, a designation broad enough to include Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) and Marcel Hanoun’s Une simple histoire (1959), is a common ground where the director of the no-budget cheapie and the ascetic aesthetic meet—indeed, they are sometimes one and the same person. (In a 1977 piece for Film Comment, Jonathan Rosenbaum dubbed Moullet the “patron saint of the avant garde B-film.”) Here John Waters’s comments on Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974) are pertinent: “Although it seems like a cast of thousands, it is actually only a handful playing many different roles… Bresson could really save money by having one actor play twenty different parts… Students of film budgets ought to watch this great screen economy at work…”
Moullet shares with Bresson a partiality for placing key action in off-screen space—the aforementioned wagon wheel bouncing into frame to signify an accident; Léaud’s “disappearing” through a hard splice when he tumbles into the pitfall trap and is next seen at the bottom, a cut echoed later in the Girl’s cliffside plunge; posse members who are one minute upright, the next inert and limp on the ground with arrows between their shoulder blades, never actually seen falling. Rather than trying to mask these jarring edits, Moullet emphasizes them, as he flagrantly fails to create seamlessly unified geography from footage shot at disparate locations. In one early scene, Billy draws his pistol and starts out in a run across an inhospitable rocky landscape, which, as the camera pans to follow him, is revealed to be seemingly endless. Moments later, in another shot, Billy coasts to a halt in the grassy turf before a stone farmhouse, then slinks through the door. Whence from this green grass? This farmhouse? No matter—in another moment, Billy’s right back in the same mismatched rocky landscape. (And as if this weren’t enough, it’s later revealed that a crucial plot point took place inside that farmhouse, off camera.)
A great deal of what we think of as professional moviemaking relies on the illusion of the “cheat,” the little tweaks that occur between set-ups—the apple box out-of-frame that gives the short actor a slight advantage on his leading lady, the just-so camera angle that creates a sense of precarious peril. Moullet doesn’t cheat. His Une Aventure de Billy le Kid favors wide shots and wide open spaces not because they are the traditional trappings of the Western, but because they give him nowhere to hide. His decision to fudge scenes by using one set-up instead of two, or foreswearing reshoots, all in the interest of conserving stock and sticking to a budget, hereby takes on the aspect of a statement, a philosophy.
Moullet, like the Kuchars, belongs to the relative minority of filmmakers to come from a working-class milieu. He was born in Paris, October 14, 1937. His parents were of what has been described as peasant stock, and he assisted his father in the management of a small factory that produced uniforms for coalmen. During the Occupation, Moullet père was a supporter of Adolf Hitler, and was sentenced to death after the Liberation—he was acquitted for reason of insanity, or so Moullet tells us in his 2009 autobiographical documentary La terre de la folie, which traces this legacy of madness to Moullet’s ancestral home of the Baronnies, an impoverished, sparsely inhabited mountain region in the Hautes Alpes de Provence, which might be succinctly described as the Alps’ bad side. Moullet has compared the topography to that of the Badlands of the Dakotas, though the cultural affinity might be closer to Appalachia. While the Spaghetti Westerns were shooting in Campania and on Spain’s Altamira Plains, Moullet filmed Une Aventure de Billy le Kid here, in his proverbial, provincial backyard.
We must be cautious in repeating the facts of Moullet’s life, for his game-playing extends to a certain liberality with the facts of his biography—he has, for example, claimed to be descended from an Arab killed in the Battle of Tours, which happened some 1,300 years ago. What follows is fairly certain: Shortly after graduating from Lycée Henri-IV, in 1956, Moullet began contributing to Cahiers. His first published piece was a biography and filmography of Edgar G. Ulmer, another infamous fabulist, and a figure whose career would be shaped by “the advantages of poverty”—or the constraints of it, anyways. Little of Moullet’s criticism has been translated, although one can read his 1959 appreciation of Sam Fuller in the Jim Hillier–edited collection Cahiers du cinéma: The 1950s. The piece contains such impudent assertions as “fascism is beautiful” and “on fascism, only the point of view of someone who has been tempted is of any interest”—quite enough to rouse suspicion that he shared his father’s political sympathies, though in fact Moullet was closest in political temperament to Eustache, another anarchic barrier-smasher. It was in this same piece that Moullet coined the aphorism about moving cameras (“Morality is a question of tracking shots”), which his friend Godard would shortly thereafter invert and take the credit for. In return, Moullet took another Godardism and used it for the English-language appellation of his Western: A Girl Is a Gun. (Godard in fact also borrowed “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”—a paraphrase of D. W. Griffith, passed down through Georges Sadoul and various other sources.)
The phrase “a girl is a gun” actually appears in the film’s “theme song,” a woman’s voice warbling in off-key English over a harrowing backdrop of what sounds like a harmonium, which plays about a dozen minutes into the film, and recurs at the beginning of the third act. (The film’s score was composed by Moullet’s older brother, Patrice, an experimental musician of note who recorded with a group called “Alpes.”) The first time we hear the song, it accompanies the image of Billy dragging his female companion about by a lasso around her waist, like a recalcitrant donkey. A sampling of the lyrics here: “A girl is a hostage that you will deliver to keep your freedom/ A girl is an old pack horse that will carry all the treasure that you’ve stolen and received…” When the song is next heard, the Girl has shot Billy to pieces and left him to suffer, and the lyrics have taken a decided turn: “A girl is nothing but a gun to wound you… In both of your balls and your heart.”
Here it is worth looking at how Une Aventure de Billy le Kid interfaces with the Western, a genre to which masculine autonomy and self-assertion traditionally—both qualities that Moullet lampoons—mean a great deal. It was the first film for Questerbert, who would in years to come distinguish herself as a critic in her own right and an expert in Italian cinema, and would soon appear opposite Moullet in his next feature, 1976’s Anatomy of a Relationship. Co-directed with Moullet’s real-life partner, Antonietta Pizzorno, this warts-and-all domestic drama—in open dialogue with such self-analytical films as Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (both 1972), though less boastfully loutish than either—depicts a relationship where a stalled sex life has given way to conversational sparring, the chief subjects of contention being the clitoris and cinema, including the Western. “In Westerns women are always men’s images of women,” Questerbert/Pizzorno asserts, a rebuke to Moullet’s own version of Griffith/Godard’s equation, stated in an interview: “My films are women and places; women in places. That has been my point of departure.” (Moullet has had an ongoing dialogue with female filmmakers, albeit a tetchy one—he produced Margeurite Duras’s 1972 Nathalie Granger, a poster for which looms over the “action” in Anatomie, and in 2012 made a documentary about Catherine Breillat.)
Writing of Fuller’s Westerns and war films, Moullet refers to “the perpetual struggle against the elements in the course of which man recognizes his dignity,” though in his own burlesquing of the pioneer era, it’s man’s embarrassment and incompetence that are emphasized, much as Moullet emphasizes his own humiliation, his sexual and emotional inadequacy, in Anatomy of a Relationship. The outdoor adventure movie traditionally depends on conveying to an audience some idea of the dimension of the obstacles faced—the map of the territory, as it were—so making the viewer participant in the overcoming of or negotiation around those obstacles. When we’re shown what has to be done and what has to be passed through to do it, stakes are clear, and the result is classical suspense. One imagines that Moullet, an ardent hiker and cyclist who is intimately acquainted with the terrain he’s shooting in, certainly could’ve created traditional set-pieces of that sort here, but has chosen another path entirely—less a matter of taking a path than crashing through the underbrush.
In making a film about masculine ineptitude, part of Moullet’s strategy is to seem to exemplify that ineptitude. Léaud’s Billy lunges ahead in a headstrong manner, though at any given time there’s little indication as to why he is doing whatever he’s doing, and the routes he takes often seem counterintuitive or unnecessarily strenuous—not entirely unlike the choices made by his director. Billy doggy-paddles upstream against rapids, or leaves a breadcrumb trail of shiny silver dollars to the place where he’s hidden his loot, a detail that’s picked up only after his blind initiative has been shown for the farce that it is. Heedlessly pushing on like the red-faced patriarch who refuses to stop for directions, this quintessence of anti-mastery is full of nonsense geography. “Just beyond the snow is the Mexican border, and shade trees,” Billy informs his companion as the camera pans across a broad stretch of tableland to the green mountains beyond, not a particularly convincing stand-in for the Sierra Madre Occidental.
Moullet’s insouciant version of the Western is marked by elements of parody and pastiche. That tuneless theme song, for example, might be his version of “Jidge” Carroll’s ballad “High Riding Woman” in Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957). When Billy, unbidden, begins abruptly to unload his psychological hang-ups on his female companion—“I was eleven when my mother died…” and so on—it plays like a parody of the same sort of scenes as they appear in the psychological Westerns of the Fifties, like Delmer Daves’s Jubal (1956), while the “lust in the dust” sex is Duel in the Sun (1946) by way of Zabriskie Point (1970). The movie lifts postures, scenes, and plot from the whole of the genre’s history, seemingly at random, like Scrabble tiles from a bag. The props, meanwhile, are the sorts of things PAs get fired for bringing to set. When the girl digs a bullet out of the “wound” on Billy’s arm, it looks suspiciously like a wad of bubble gum affixed to his forearm. When he is finally captured by the posse, they prepare to string him up from a hanging tree that’s no taller than a shrub. One of the pursuers, by the way, wears a stick-on handlebar moustache of the sort belonging to villains of the Black Bart school.
Moullet puts no premium on “convincing” performance, either. Léaud frequently indulges in silent melodrama gesticulation that hearkens to the days of William S. Hart. When Billy is shot, his injuries are overplayed, up until the moment he forgets to broadcast them—he’s like a child petitioning for parental attention who drops the pretext the second he notices he’s being ignored. This landscape isn’t a crucible, but a playground. Billy and the girl stop and canoodle on a makeshift bed on a shelf of rugged stone, and as they do so, Indians emerge from fissures in the rock around them. The couple will then be “buried” up to their necks in these same crevasses, but in fact they’ve quite clearly wriggled their way into these traps, and are able to free themselves at will. Later in their journey they come across a “skeleton”—obviously a plastic anatomy class model—whose spine bridges the declivity that they’re crawling along. Though they could step over this obstacle or kick it aside, they wriggle underneath it instead. Instead, the “perpetual struggle against the elements” is entirely self-imposed, and altogether has very little to do with cowboys and Indians, the historical groups, and a great deal to do with cowboys and Indians, the children’s game.
There are two basic kinds of poverty. One is the genteel sort, the poverty that struggles to maintain pride in the face of overwhelming odds, a dignified poverty of frayed cuffs on an irreproachably clean shirt, a poverty that aspires to middle-class comfort, and which the middle-classes can be sentimental about. Then there is the other sort of poverty, the poverty that makes itself an affront, an eyesore, which opts out to begin with. It is to this tradition that Moullet belongs; he doesn’t make an effort to stretch his paltry budget and to approximate Hollywood-style technique with an empty pocketbook, but instead finds a new form that corresponds to his budget exactly.
Une Aventure de Billy le Kid is the most thoroughly bungled movie that I know, and this comprehensive flubbing amounts to a species of rigor. Even Rosenbaum, who admires Moullet’s films, concedes that “he hasn’t much of an eye,” but I beg to differ—it takes a special sort of perfectionist to arrive at this cockeyed symmetry. At every turn you’re aware that the author has identified where the frame needs to be to serve the story . . . and then has put it somewhere else. It’s a masterpiece, only turned inside out.