In the magnificent “First Cow”, broadcast tonight on OCS City, the men pick bilberries and do the laundry. A perfect example of a film which, along with others, deconstructs the virile codes of the western.
The western, before, was simple: tough guys with strong chins, fantastic rides, larigot duels, drunken brawls in the saloon… In other words, concentrated testosterone essence, spread – “manspread” – on the screen, in the service of willingly patriotic, colonialist and, as long as possible, misogynistic values.
Today, things get more complicated: men no longer necessarily compare the size of their Colt, as in The Red River, but the one of their dreams… With First Cow, on OCS this Sunday, July 3, Kelly Reichardt deconstructs the virile mythology of the Wild West. His heroes are not the rough trappers populating 1820s Oregon, but a cook and a Chinese immigrant. Two delicate, sensitive friends, embarked on a risky business: at night, they secretly draw milk from the only cow present on the territory to make and sell delicious donuts that could ensure their fortune. The conquest of the West, for these sweet dreamers, goes through that of the stomach. And as a grandiose horizon, it is the opening of a bakery that monopolizes their minds.
No savage outfit, therefore, on the program of their modest, but nevertheless dangerous, adventures. If they risk their heads with their dairy shenanigans, the accomplices are above all filmed in a gentle and ritualized domestic daily life. These two do the laundry, sew, cook, sweep and decorate their interiors, make a cranberry clafoutis… Reichardt reverses the roles usually associated with the feminine condition, having fun shifting the gaze. Even in a saloon scene where a big guy arrives with a cradle, under the jokes of the other customers. To whom he hastens to swing mandals, papa poule, of course, but a little touchy all the same.
A domestic, naturalistic and gourmet chronicle, this film is also and above all a touching story of friendship, fraternity, without competition or power relations. A hymn to solidarity, a kind of anti-western, draped in the tinsel of the genre.
This is not the first time that the filmmaker has reversed the codes of the “Wild Wild West”: In The Last Track (broadcast on July 7 on OCS), she had already reviewed and corrected the myth, bringing it back to its most trivial aspects: walking under an implacable sun, preparing tea, making a fire, fetching water… The story follows the laborious progress, anti-spectacular as possible, of a convoy of pioneers, men and women lost in Oregon, trying to survive in the hell of a mineral desert. There is nothing heroic in this minimalist, sensory chronicle, where an inversion of power relations between the boastful trapper, hired to guide the convoy, and one of the women in the group (Michelle Williams) emerges along the way. Little by little, the authority of this mother, wise and determined, will end up supplanting that of the macho supposed to know where he is going – and in reality totally clueless. Decline of less and less triumphant masculinity in the face of the affirmation of feminine power.
Of course, Hollywood did not wait for the 2000s to shake up the figure of the cowboy and the codes of the western. By sometimes placing women in the foreground (Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, or Marlene Dietrich in L‘Angel of the cursed) or, more generally, by scratching the image of the dominant male, without weaknesses or doubts (Ruthless, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Man of the West, Little Big Man…). But in recent years, the exploration of the origins of the American myth has been going, more and more openly, through that of the psyche and intimate neuroses. With the adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel The power of the dog (on Netflix), Jane Campion has fun unraveling toxic masculinity, while explaining the homo-erotic subtext that has run through the genre since its inception.
So Phil, the surly cowboy (Benedict Cumberbatch) reigns unchallenged over his land in Montana in the 1920s, while living in the memory, obviously in love, of his deceased mentor, Branco Henry. . If Phil sadizes his brother’s wife and her son, Peter, a boy who is too feminine for his taste, it is he, the alpha male, who finally breaks down, faced with this adolescent who arouses in him as much repulsion as fascination. At the time of its release, the novel caused outrage for daring to scratch the steel-tempered image of the Wild West hero. Jane Campion, she seizes this poisonous story to evoke, above all, the vulnerability and the loneliness of the men of the great plains.
Ang Lee, in 2005, masterfully recounted the violence of restrained feelings, with The Secret of Brokeback Mountain (on Netflix). The chronicle of a secret, impossible love between two cowboys, from the 1960s to the 1980s, in a conservative rural America. With this gay side of On the road to Madison, the filmmaker seized on the codes of the western to deliver a moving melodrama, whose heroes saw themselves condemned to put on the mask of a fixed, heteronormative masculinity, to betray their feelings in order to comply with the rules of the social game.
Those who do not comply, or no longer comply, are the magnificent losers who populate Chloé Zhao’s films. With it, the western becomes the place of the margin, of the forgotten of the system. In The Rider (on Disney +) reveals the magnificent and poignant figure of a young Native American cowboy, condemned to no longer ride a horse after a rodeo accident. His fragility: the metal plate stuck in his head, a real time bomb, which can annihilate him, just as a car accident shattered the destiny of his best friend, now in a wheelchair… The masculinity shown here is that of dented men, for some with multiple disabilities, converted into supermarket employees, living on social assistance and lost illusions. “As a feminist, I think it’s very important to tell girls that they can be strong, but it’s also important to tell boys that they can be vulnerable,” explained the director in an interview with Inrocks. “I want to create different images that young men can identify with. » One day cowboys, who knows, won’t have to hide to cry anymore…
s Full Kelly Reichardt on OCS City.
> First Cow, with John Magaro, Orion Lee, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Sunday July 3 at 8:40 p.m.
> The Last Track, July 6 at 8:40 p.m.