MOVIE REVIEW : 'L'Etat Sauvage': A Chaotic Portrait of Racism in Africa

In the unnamed African republic that is the setting for "L'Etat Sauvage" (at the Monica 4-Plex), sex, racism, corruption and death swarm over the body politic like maggots over a strangely tranquil sunbather.

It's a literal hellhole, but one with a little style, perhaps a remnant from the French colonials. In a posh hotel, the drunken whites yell racist epithets. In modern ministries, the crooked blacks take bribes and boogie to tribal dances in the middle of Cabinet meetings. Outside, masses riot mindlessly and police wander through the town, piling corpses from the night before into a lorry--and creating a few themselves if the price is right.

One thing seems to preoccupy everybody: interracial sex. Presently, it's occurring en flagrante between the stalwart, progressive minister of health, Patrice Doumbe (Doura Mane), and his French mistress, Laurence (Marie-Christine Barrault): provocatively blond and spiritual-looking. The two seem to share a rather joyless, pro forma union, but they drive everyone else in the country nuts--especially the rioting masses, who follow them around like a sullen marching band.

Elsewhere, Laurence's ex-lover, the vile entrepreneur Gravenoire (Claude Brasseur), is driven to insane grimaces, cackles and hideous plots, hatched with jolly Modimbo (Baaron), Doumbe's main ministry opponent. Laurence's ex-husband, the Candidesque Unesco official Avit (Jacques Dutronc)--understandably hurt at being jilted for both Gravenoire and Doumbe--wanders around in befuddled gloom, trying to decide whether his reactions are simple jealousy or actual racism. And Police Superintendent Orlaville (Michel Piccoli)--an unpublished novelist who, with Doumbe, is apparently the only urbane man in the country--cocks a philosophic eye on everyone, while piling more corpses into the lorry and cane-whipping his grinning assistant.

In a real-life coincidence, the 12-year-old film arrives here a week after the death of co-scenarist Georges Conchon--also the writer of the Prix Goncourt novel on which the script is based. Conchon, legislative secretary in the Central African Republic in the early '60s, obviously wrote from experience. But his experience is just as obviously colored--and skewed. Like many recent American yuppie romantic comedies, this is a you-and-me-against-the-world-babe movie, with the main difference that this world is a writhing snake pit of mad mobs, amoral exploiters and dimwitted plutocrats.

Conchon and director/co-writer Francis Girod try to expose racism by the most dramatic means possible: a story of miscegenation. But they may be unconsciously stumbling into racism themselves. What about the scene where a yowling black mob, whipped up by sadistic whites, dog the persecuted couple, Laurence and Avit, all the way to the airport? Are the "masses" that pliable? Doesn't the once-popular Doumbe have any partisans left?

Girod tries for the hard-edged, iconoclastic lucidity of a Luis Bunuel or a Henri-Georges Clouzot, but he lacks their stylistic elegance and withering irony. His best known film, "The Infernal Trio," also with Piccoli, seemed caught between exposing bourgeois hypocrisy and reveling in its sexy-murderous excesses. There is something too pinched, too remote about his vision; his eye is cool, but his center of gravity seems missing.

In this film, Piccoli, who helped produce it, is excellent. But Michel Piccoli is always excellent; it's almost an axiom. The other actors, quite a talented group, seem stranded in a mix of "A Dry White Season" and "Mandingo." It's not a pleasure to fault "L'Etat Sauvage" (Times-rated Mature), in many ways a brave, nonconformist film. But its own state is confused--trapped between savage iconoclasm, sentimentality and cynicism.

'L'ETAT SAUVAGE'

An Interama Inc. release of a Films 66 production. Executive producer Louis Wimpf. Director Francis Girod. Script Georges Conchon, Girod. Music Pierre Jansen. Camera Pierre Lhomme. Editor Genevieve Winding. With Marie-Christine Barrault, Michel Piccoli, Claude Brasseur, Jacques Dutronc, Doura Mane, Baaron, Rudiger Vogler.

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.

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