Exquisite Corpse is the debut graphic novel from French caricaturiste protégé Pénélope Bagieu, and is finally making it’s English debut after being published in France way back in 2010. Why such a long wait, especially with the current rush to hyperpromote all things feminism and for female empowerment by way of strong female leads. It’s not like the world of graphic novels and comics are lacking in either department.
But on closer inspection we soon learn that Bagieu’s debut isn’t just the polar opposite of these traits: it’s a dark comedy where nobody is particularly noteworthy, or even likeable. This is why it works as well as it does.
Meet Zoe, a twenty-something trade show model who’s going nowhere fast. Disappointed in how her life is stuck in the doldrums, she happens to spot a mystery man glancing at her from a window in his gigantic mansion. Curious who he might be – or compelled by the need to urinate – she decides to take a chance and ring his buzzer.
Here Zoe meets Thomas Roacher, a world-famous author now, apparently, living as a recluse. Scared that she might be an undercover journalist, yet intrigued by her forwardness, he lets in her in to use the toilet, quickly discovering she’s anything but a member of the literate elite. Her failure to recognize him only makes her more alluring, and the two begin a strange relationship, one where each others’ deficiencies fulfills the others’ needs. When Thomas’ editor – and first wife – Agathe enters the picture things really heat up, and not always for the better.
What follows is a seductive caper that recalls Robert Zemeckis’ underrated black comedy Death Becomes Her, only here the voodoo magic is sex and lust – for approval – and the resurrection
One thing I love about Zoe: she’s unapologetically stupid, though here you might interpret that as ‘being real’ in some superficially empowering way. She’s totally unambitious, a trait even her co-workers tell her, showing little desire for self-improvement both professionally and socially, even supporting a loser boyfriend (an unemployed boyfriend, I might add) she can’t stand. Her relationship with Thomas appears to be entirely motivated by sex and the naive belief that such a coupling is inherently more fascinating than the alternative; more trade show modelling – and being groped by attendees.
The best scene in when Zoe enters a local bookstore, a place she admits she’s never been in before, and is greeted enthusiastically by the owner, his arm around her shoulder and eager to help her join the world of the literati. “What type of movies do you like?” he asks, hoping to build a bridge between cinema and the written word. “Love stories,” she says, leading him to pick out just the right fit: Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur, a brick, she calls it.
But then Zoe asks the bookseller her real question (and real reason for setting foot in the place to begin with): has he heard of Thomas Rocher? This leads to a revelation so startling that she bolts from the store, brick-sized book in hand, without paying.
The book’s preface says Zoe “isn’t the intellectual type”, which means she isn’t smart, and why she doesn’t recognize the “world famous” author Thomas Roacher at first glance. Contention: if you use the phrase “intellectual type” to describe someone of noteworthy intelligence, you most likely aren’t the ‘intellectual type’ yourself.
The book’s title itself is a play on the term (and original title) cadavre exquis, which translates to exquisite corpse (duh), a narrative technique in which several artists contribute to a single piece of work. To say how this figures into Bagieu’s story would be to reveal too much, but it’s a real double-entendre that works well given the pieces at play.
Another is that everyone here, top to bottom, is repulsive. Zoe may be a dunderhead in over her head, but at least she’s trying to keep up. Thomas, whose insecurities and raw talent may have been endearing to some, shows his true narcissism and selfish nature when he spots a copy of Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur, the book Zoe inadvertently pilfered earlier from the bookstore, lying on the table. When Thomas asks Agathe if she’s reading it again, she says no, suggesting it may be Zoe’s copy instead. Thomas laughs this off: as if a dolt like Zoe could ever possibly understand great literature! Ha, ha, ha…
Agathe, Thomas’s first wife and editor, is easily the real villain here, using her wits to manipulate both Zoe and Thomas into unspeakably stupid decisions that, ultimately, truly benefit her and her alone. Then there’s the finale, which I won’t spoil here (the book’s second twist, as it happens), except to say I’m glad Bagieu didn’t go full Legally Blonde with Zoe’s transformation into something – or someone – entirely different from her native personality. Doing so might have ruined the buildup and careful planning prior, and it’s in this lack of progression the book’s real power lay: to show confidence in one’s true nature, even if that nature is totally and completely awful.
Bagieu, une personne célèbre in her native France, is a talented commercial artist and it shows; her artwork and characters here have the look and feel of advertisements, the type where character’s reactions and movements are all fit to specification; it’s a style of glances, where eyes are the pathway to the soul. She presents an incredibly playful style, I’ll grant you, using hyper-cute exaggerations to great effect when showcasing Zoe’s sexualized nature.
Exquisite Corpse is an oddball of a novel, graphical or otherwise. On one level it appears to be making a statement about the perils of fame and self-indulgence. On another it feels like a well-crafted dark comedy, one that’s generally unflattering to its main characters – and feminism as a whole. While some might champion Zoe a true feminist who’s taking matters in her own hands, this isn’t the case; unless feminism now means appropriating another’s talent and learning nothing in the process. Then again, maybe that’s the point: people are terrible, and left to their own devices will eat at one another until nothing is left.