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About Gazon maudit . . .

France has long been a gold mine for Hollywood movies, but in the case of Josiane Balasko's supremely raw and sophisticated French Twist, at least Americans will get a chance to see the original before they're offered the Disney remake. It makes its appearance on our screens intact, the only change being the title.

Which makes sense, since almost no one in France, where the film has been a box-office winner since last February, even knows what Gazon maudit means. Balasko, surprisingly elegant and feminine after her appearance in truck-driver trousers and clodhopper shoes in the movie, explains the older title's origins.

"I showed the original script to Bertrand Blier." she says. "He said it was terrible. He suggested I rewrite it. When I wrote the second version, he said, `Why don't you call this film Gazon maudit?' It's a very old expression. `Gazon' is like grass, it also can mean pubic hair. `Maudit' means forbidden, suggesting that since this grass was touched by women and not men, it was evil. One of Baudelaire's poems uses it; it's called `The Damned Woman' and it speaks about lesbians as condemned."

In effect, Twist is a variation on another Blier film, Ménage (1986), in which Gerard Depardieu and Michel Blanc play the Balasko and Victoria Abril roles. Balasko acknowledges Blier's influence but denies that the story is a copy of his movie.

"I love Bertrand Blier. But I have heard this story from the real life. A philandering real-estate agent whose seemingly quiet wife became involved with another woman. She says to her husband, `It's her and me. If you don't want this woman, you go away.' And the man accepted. In real life, though, the man finally attempted suicide, so I decided to make the movie a comedy. It could have just as easily been a tragedy. I think that all the subjects of comedy must be tragic. I wanted to make a film about a subject that has been ghettoized into something to be seen by the broadest possible audience. When people see the movie they come out happy, because it proposes solutions that even though they are utopian, they make them dream."

Part of Balasko's method in turning potentially tragic and certainly controversial material into solid, if R-rated, family fare is to draw on the tradition of French vaudeville. She admits that her characters have stereotypical roots, but they are stereotypes she gleefully subverts.

"I made the decision that my characters had to be stereotypes. Both the lesbian as a seducer and the other woman as a housewife. In French vaudeville there's a tradition of stereotypes of the lover, the husband, the wife, and so on. I use those and change things around a little bit.

She feels that associating such untraditional behavior with traditional conventions makes it easier for a mainstream audience to accept. "I have a lot of lesbian friends, and the fact that they dress like men can be shocking. But you realize that they are exactly the same as other women once you pass that obstacle. I think this is a movie about love, not only homosexual love. This lesbian made things happen, made the couple get back together. Once she is here, they are making love real good."

The people at Disney Studios seem to agree with Balasko's belief in the film's feel-good nature. She concedes that they have shown interest in the rights for an American version.

"We have talks. I think if the film is ever made here, Kathy Bates would be a very good Marijo. For me, though, Alain Chabat is a little sexier than John Turturro. He doesn't have Alain's butt."

Chabat gets to display that feature in one memorable scene in which he scornfully flaunts his manhood at Marijo.

"It was so difficult for me not to laugh. Not because he was naked, but because his eyes were so terrified when he saw me. I was laughing so much we had to stop shooting."

As for her own nude and love scenes with Abril, Balasko, who has been married for 15 years and has two children, felt no qualms. "I like to be different; it's not interesting for me to play myself. At the end of the day, though, I was glad to leave my trousers on the set."

Is it a family movie? With some trepidation, Balasko took her 12-year-old daughter to see it.

"I was a little nervous that she would be traumatized. At the end she said to me, `Good job, Mom.' "

-- Peter Keough