The Story of a Three-Day Pass: Weekend, by David Bax
Melvin Van Peebles’ The Story of a Three-Day Pass was restored with funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association well before the HFPA’s recent scandals in which, among other embarrassments, their diversity consultant quit and they expelled their own former president for sending an email to members calling Black Lives Matter a “racist hate group.” Still, it’s unavoidable that these shocking revelations will come up when discussing the film’s new release, given that it happens to be the debut feature of one of the most important Black directors in American cinema history. Hopefully any such extra attention at least helps the film’s visibility given that not only is it a very good restoration (there are some grainy close-ups but those may have been blown up from the negative and thus inherent to the source elements), it’s a flat out great movie.
Adapted from Van Peebles’ own 1967 novel, La Permission, The Story of a Three-Day Pass details what happens when newly promoted American military grunt Turner (Harry Baird) is granted some extended R&R to celebrate his new position. At a Parisian nightclub, he meets a young Frenchwoman named Miriam (Nicole Berger) and the two become quickly infatuated with one another, soon deciding to drive to Normandy to spend the rest of the weekend at the beach.
For the bulk of the movie, these two are the only characters of any consequence on screen and, happily, their chemistry is combustible. Baird, though he seems less than sure of himself when acting out Van Peebles’ more fantastical elements, generally has exactly the mix of shyness and swagger to which a smart, young, beautiful woman like Miriam might be attracted. And Berger is a sustained bolt of electric energy, fueling the couple’s voyage and maybe the entire film seemingly with just the power of her brain and body, making it particularly tragic to learn that she died from injuries sustained in a car wreck between the movie’s production and its release.
What Miriam seems unable to grasp, though, is that her being white and Turner being Black is a problem for some people even if it isn’t for her. Turner has no such blinders on, of course. His internalized awareness is observable from the very first scene, in which he argues with himself in the mirror about whether or not his promotion is a result of his being an “Uncle Tom.” That mental conversation is no outlier, either; Turner seems constantly in the process of either psyching himself up or psyching himself out about whatever he’s about to do. When he and Miriam go to bed, for instance, we see the encounter play out in two different fantasy scenarios in Turner’s head. In one, he’s a dashing member of the old European aristocracy; perhaps the hotel room is actually in his chambers at Versailles. In the other, he’s a stereotypical African tribesman and Miriam is more a sacrificial virgin than an eager paramour. The question of how Turner really sees himself–or whether he’s even able to do so through the thicket of all the ways he’s seen by others–is the the central psychological mechanism of The Story of a Three-Day Pass.
Fantasy sequences like those mentioned above appear throughout the film, such as Turner imagining a crowd of dancers parting like the Red Sea when he’s trying to get up the courage to go talk to a woman. They’re all a part of Van Peebles’ distinctively buoyant and impulsive style. Those familiar with his most famous film, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, will recognize his adroitness at impressionistic filmmaking, the way his images in sequence have more of an emotional relationship to one another than a logical one. The jump cuts and freeze frames here seem to pay homage to the New Wave filmmakers in whose country Van Peebles made The Story of a Three-Day Pass. Meanwhile, a sequence in which Turner and Miriam talk in bed while we watch war and newsreel footage can’t help but recall Left Bank lion Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.
If that makes it sound too much like Van Peebles is too stuck in his own head, fear not. From the funky, brassy opening title music to the wonderfully funny, largely wordless montage of Turner wandering around Paris before he meets Miriam, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, like Sweetback, is proof that it’s possible to address heavy, sometimes painful questions while still having a blast.