Marco Ferreri’s Don’t Touch The White Woman boasts a unique premise: a satirical and often absurdist historical reenactment of Custer’s famed Battle at Little Big Horn, more famously known as Custer’s Last Stand. The absurdist elements are increasingly accentuated by the fact that all proceedings take place on the streets of 1970s (then modern-day) Paris, with military engagements playing out on a vast construction site. The characters are adorned with historically correct uniforms and sport a variety of beards and sabers, galloping on stallions through Parisian suburbs while onlookers in T-shirts and jeans look on. A plump anthropologist adorned in sweaters bearing the insignia of American colleges lurks throughout, often feasting on a bag of chips. This is Ferreri’s vision of American corruption, the poisonous effects of the American myth and the mistreatment of American Indians. Unfortunately, Don’t Touch The White Woman is labored and slow to develop, mired in repetition and seemingly in love with its own cleverness.
The satire kicks into gear when the effeminate but much-revered George Armstrong Custer (Marcello Mastroianni) rides into town, intent on routing Indian chief Sitting Bull (Alain Cuny) and the various tribes that have congregated around the construction site. What follows is a lengthy and laborious series of conversations playing on the idea of “divine right,” as the buffoonish Custer discusses the “savagery of the Indian” with a variety of historical stand-ins. As a larger than life figure, Custer is flattered at every opportunity even as he attempts feebly to act modest. He lusts after and is frequently seen courting Marie-Hélène de Boismonfrais (Catherine Deneuve), a nurse who is at first more concerned with maintaining personal fidelity than the advances of the general. Custer is also seen clashing with pop-culture icon Buffalo Bill (Michel Piccoli), the latter having succumbed to fame but unafraid to show it. Custer’s blood-thirst eventually draws Sitting Bull into the fray and the aforementioned battle takes place.
As fascinating as the material promises to be, you quickly lose interest as Ferreri (who co-wrote the script with Rafael Azcona) strains to bring some consistently fresh insight to the table. No doubt inspired by the role of the United States in the Vietnam War, the film is hardly immodest enough to provoke an intellectual response. Perhaps time had not been kind to the film, or we as audiences now need to be shocked into action by pseudo-documentaries like Bruno, but Don’t Touch The White Woman often feels so over-the-top that it falls flat, the satire neither effective nor particularly humorous.
The anger on screen may not have been subdued but as dialogue repeats again and again, actors struggle to bring dimension to their characters. Classic satires like Kubrick’s exceptional Dr. Strangelove work with the help of memorable characters (George C. Scott’s fevered performance as General Turgidson reaches the kind of manic pitch that no one in the cast of Don’t Touch The White Woman seems to be able to generate. Ferreri’s cast plays the characters as gentlemanly racists, regarding the Indians as savages who must leave their lands so that they can lay down some railroad tracks. Ferreri wants you to emphasize with the Indians but reveals his hand too early in the game, choreographing exhausting tribal meets where leaders sit in stereotypically stoic poses and say few words. Alain Cuny plays leader Sitting Bull as a quiet man with a weathered face who rarely shows any signs of emotion. Historical accuracy or stereotypical farce? Don’t Touch The White Woman does not seem to know and loses much credibility, as it feels un-researched, seemingly gathering up the facts known in popular culture and throwing them together as it sees fit.
In the end, what rescues the film from turgid boredom is the work of the cast, who show some real effort in extracting laughs from their characters' various ticks. Mastroianni makes for a relatively interesting Custer, a would-be officer and a cardboard-thin gentleman whose allegiance to his country is dimwitted at best. Custer dominates most of the film, and Mastroianni masters walking regally and reclining comfortably. Catherine Deneuve’s role is emaciated but the famed actress still manages to bring her grace and beauty as well as faint on cue. The rest of the cast acquits as well as can be expected, with Michel Piccoli standing out in bringing the proper panache to the cowardly but recognition-hungry Buffalo Bill. Overall however, Don’t Touch The White Woman is a recommendation for strong enthusiasts of absurdist work who are prepared to accept an uneven picture with some brief moments of humor.
DVD Bonus Features
A three minute featurette titled “Excerpt from the Documentary: 'Marco Ferreri: The Director Who Came From the Future'” is the only extra on the disc.
"Don't Touch the White Woman" is on sale July 14, 2009 and is rated . Drama, Foreign, War, Western. Directed by Marco Ferreri. Written by Marco Ferreri, Rafael Azcona . Starring Catherine Deneuve, Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Ugo Tognazzi.