27 October 2021

Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern's Mammuth (2010)

Although no doubt inspired by Easy Rider, Mammuth is a road movie all on its own, a bizarre comedy with a surreal atmosphere and effects which perhaps could be expected of Delépine and Kervern. Here we begin with pig abattoir worker Serge Pilardosse (Gérard Depardieu) on his last day of work: the fact that he's given a 2000-piece jigsaw as a leaving present should perhaps give an indication of what kind of film this is. The road trip starts when Serge leaves his wife Catherine (Yolande Moreau) after dusting off his old Münch Mammuth motor cycle: there are a number of his ex-employers who haven't informed the government of his employment, so he isn't entitled to a fair pension until he tracks down those papers: the satire on French bureaucracy is evident.

So a very long-haired but ageing easy rider on a somewhat poor imitation of a Harley-Davidson goes off in search of these papers, and will have little success but on the way meet a number of oddballs, such as the guy at the cemetery where Serge worked as a gravedigger: death is a feature in this film, such as the body Serge finds in the supermarket and no one seems to be concerned about: could it be that this is part of Serge's imagination? As this is very much a trip into Serge's past – the bloodied face of his first girlfriend (played by Isabelle Adjani), who died in a motor cycle accident – will appear a number of times as a ghost of his imagination.

During his road trip he meets his niece Solange (Miss Ming) for the first time in many years. She is very much an amateur sculptor of art brut, and even makes a life-size model of Serge, with an elephant for a heart and a marmoset for a penis. The young Solange should perhaps have tried to make a living out of art brut because she seems to be incapable of finding any regular employment. Is that perhaps because she says weird things in interviews, such as mentioning in one for a cleaner that she's thought of writing her CV on toilet paper in her menstrual blood, or does she just come out with that because she's resigned to never getting a job anyway? Whatever the answer, Serge also meets his cousin Pierre (Albert Delpy) soon after meeting Solange and to celebrate the reunion they attempt (with little success) to bring back their teen years by masturbating each other.

It's uncertain if Serge's metal detecting activities with his rival Benoît Poelvoorde is one of Serge's new pursuits in retirement or belong to another period of his life, but it hardly matters: the whole film is a crazy comment on the crazy nature of life, perhaps best summed up by Catherine angrily spelling out the couple's surname several times to a virtual person on the phone.

25 October 2021

Babouillec: Voyage au centre d'un cerveau d'autiste (2021)

Kylli Sparre's photo on the cover of Babouillec's Voyage au centre d'un cerveau d'autiste is so apt. Being severely autistic, Babouillec is incapable of speech, and it was twenty years before she revealed her ability to communicate through language. But lacking the power to even type, her mother devised a system of cardboard blocks of letters, and painstakingly Hélène Nicolas, who chooses to call herself Babouilllec as a writer, formed words, sentences, even books. However, the staggering truth is that she is not merely writing to communicate mundanities, not just to give an insight into her world of difference, but she uses a highly advanced, highly educated language which is all her own. Many books change lives, but this small one is wholly unforgettable and surely cannot fail to stun anyone reading it. In fact, the urge must be to immediately re-read this unbelievable, poetic work of art whose originality is jaw-dropping. Babouillec, by writing, is also gaining an identity, although paradoxically – in communicating her universe and to a certain extent joining another – she is also losing as well as gaining identity. Contradictions inevitably abound.

She is all too aware that, coming from a space others can only dimly imagine, she is linking up with the norm, the conventional world in which people aren't so much individuals as creatures manufactured by language, taught by words to toe the line and be at one with the social 'reality'. (Pete Seeger's 'Little Boxes' ran through my head much of the time.) Coming from this other world almost as a branded alien being, she wants to be independent, she sees independence as a kind of necessary but in some respects unfortunate state. She asks why existence has been severed and lined into pigeon holes, cut into slices of life, with temporal and spacial rhythms, absence and death. Having been (and in fact still partly being – who knows by how much?) 'a prisoner, a goldfish in a bowl or an aquarium of human height', Babouillec has fought against her solitude to partly merge with 'the coded complications of being born into normality'.

She has published a number of texts, seen her words performed on stage, written a novel (Rouge de soi (2018)), been filmed by Julie Bertuccelli in the well-received Dernières nouvelles du cosmos (2017), etc. And Anouk Grinberg provides a four-page Preface addressed to Babouillec, calling reading her writing 'an astronaut's experience'.

At the end of her 'story', she pays homage not only to the perhaps obvious Temple Grandin, Donna Williams, Marie Curie, Greta Thunberg, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, 'et cetera...'; but also to musicians Beethoven, Mozart and Glenn Gould; also to artists Michael Angelo, da Vinci and Warhol '... et cetera'; and to film directors Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Hitchcock, Spielberg '...Etc.' Many of these people are without doubt far from autistic, but the gene is there, as Babouillec can detect. And as Temple Grandin remarked in a lecture, without autism there'd be no internet. Genius is well understood, but not autism or Asperger Syndrome.

This is a remarkable experience.

22 October 2021

Robert Enrico's Le Vieux Fusil | The Old Gun (1975)

This film won the 1976 Cannes film festival best film award, plus best actor for Philippe Noiret and best score. It is set in late 1944 towards the end of the war, and the massacre is based on the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. The major events take place in the Châteaux de Bruniquel (Tarn-et-Garonne). Julien (Noiret) is a surgeon in Montauban happily married to Clara (Romy Schneider) with a daughter. He thinks it best, under the circumstances of the Nazi presence in Montauban, for his wife and daughter to escape to his old castle. However, when Julien goes to the village he finds that the population has been slaughtered in the church and that the Nazis are spending their final days in France in the castle. When Julien sneaks up there he finds that his daughter has been murdered and his wife incinerated to a castle wall with a flamethrower. Understandably enraged, he at first takes his anger out on religion by knocking down the statues of Christ and Mary, but he is resolved to kill off all remaining Nazis at the castle with an old rifle. Apparently this was at the time seen as a very violent film.

21 October 2021

Robert Hossein's Les Yeux Cernés (1964)

Les Yeux Cernés is a film set in Seefeld (Austria) in which the (almost ex-) husband of Florence (Michèle Morgan) has been shot dead and Commissaire Friedrich (François Patrice) is investigating fully. Highly suspect, perhaps, is the foreman Franz (Robert Hossein himself) in her husband's sawmill. But what has this to do with the young Klara (Marie-France Pisier), the all-too-clever and all-too-sexy daughter in the hotel where Florence is staying? And what about those typed blackmail letters that appear to be sending Florence crazy, as Florence appears to be sending Klara crazy by her (totally innocent) relationship with hunky Franz, Klara's lover? Is Florence hallucinating when she hears the sound of typing all the time? But even in 1964, this film must have come across as a little trite: unfortunately, there's nothing new here.

Jacques Baratier's Piège (1968)

Jacques Baratier considered the cinema as an intellectual adventure as opposed to a profession and associated with such writers as Jacques Audiberti and Fernando Arrabal. Arrabal himself appears at the beginning of the film as a seller of pest and vermin traps when talking and trying to weigh up the brain of Arsène (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée), whom he realises wants to set traps for humans, realises that he is worried about his precious possessions, probably worried about his own psychology. And so the young Arsène buys a large trap and entices recently released female criminals played by Bernadette Lafont and Bulle Ogier to his elaborate home, where they proceed to ransack the place (and eventually destroy it) in a spree which to some extent resembles that of the two young women in Věra Chytilová's Daisies.

But Piège is narrative-lite: this is a surrealistic orgy of destruction, sado-masochism, nightmares, fetichism, etc, where dreams prevail and where sense takes a back seat. Arsène is the leader but also his own executioner, and the end cannot in any way be positive for him. This is a classic of its kind.

20 October 2021

Gérard Pirès's Erotissimo (1969)

The date Gérard Pirès's first feature was released – 1969 – should perhaps give an indication of the content of this very French film: the sexual revolution, criticism of the way society is going, etc. There's a great deal of satire on advertising, although it's advertising which motivates Annie (Annie Girardot) to begin a huge spending spree in order to get her husband Philippe (Jean Yanne) interested in her sexually. But there's very little chance of that when Monsieur Butor – which means 'boor' or 'bittern' in French and which people find amusing in the beginning only, the man adds – is being employed by the tax office to inspect the accounts of Philippe's baby clothing company. So, his thoughts are very far removed from sex. Nevertheless, this is 1969, which is a good excuse for a lot of colour, a lot of female breasts, rock music, action, plus cameo performances by Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Higelin.

Jean-Luc Godard's Charlotte et son jules (1959)

This early, thirteen-minute short 'about' Charlotte and her 'jules' (or boyfriend) Jean is in effect almost entirely a monologue by Jean-Paul Belmondo* in his bedsit where Charlotte (Anne Colette) has returned after leaving him for another. He talks all the time, insults her lover, tells her she loves him, won't let her say a word while she makes faces at him behind his back and a guy (in fact Gérard Blain) waits for her in his car outside. Belmondo says she must love him or why has she returned? She opens her mouth to say 'To pick up my toothbrush', which she does and walks out the door.

*The voice we hear isn't in fact Belmondo's but Godard's, although there's some bad lip-syncing.

Gérard Blain's Un enfant dans la foule | A Child in the Crowd (1976)

Gérard Blain is perhaps better known as a actor than a director, appearing in early films such as Truffaut's Les Mistons (1957) and Chabrol's Le Beau Serge in particular, but this autobiographical work of his is all his own. Although a comparison could be made between Truffaut's films culled from his own life, this shows more the influence of Bressonian austerity, also using non-actors. Blain had an unhappy, lonely childhood and sought the company of a number of other people, seen here mainly (but not exclusively) as older men: of course, as Philippe is played by a pre-adolescent and a thirteen-year-old, any vaguely sexual element (the gift of a tie passed around his neck, for instance) being played down, implied rather than explicit. What we see is a rebellious, theiving young person taking advantage of anyone he can, such as the German enemy, members of the Resistance, and Americans. But his essential care for people shows through in such actions as trying to console a tondue, a young French woman stripped naked, shaved bald and hounded down the street for having a relationship with a Nazi.

19 October 2021

Denis Villeneuve's Enemy (2013)

(At the time of writing I've seen five films directed by the Québéquois Denis Villeneuve, and although they are all different from each other they all involve similar plot elements: an incident triggering existential crisis, and a change of psychic state at or towards the end. For this reason I include this paragraph in parenthesis in each of my comments on the five films.)

Denis Villeneuve's first English language feature. Although I found this film complex and at times enthralling, I didn't see that it in any way came close to the brilliance of Incendies: it seems far too concerned with its own importance, too eager to come within the scope of David Lynch, and not as inventive as Maelström, to which Villeneuve himself has compared it. We have two Jake Gyllenhaals with slightly different names but who appear to be identical twins apart from their rather different personalities (and a ring mark on the finger). This is a film of quest, of lust, of hatred, fascination, and a fatal car crash. Or is it about one person with a split personality? And what does the spider have to say about this? What would it have said if it were a fish?

Denis Villeneuve's Incendies (2010)

(At the time of writing I've seen five films directed by the Québéquois Denis Villeneuve, and although they are all different from each other they all involve similar plot elements: an incident triggering existential crisis, and a change of psychic state at or towards the end. For this reason I include this paragraph in parenthesis in each of my comments on the five films.)

Incendies has a highly complex plot, which I'm not even going to begin to explain: suffice to say that a lawyer, whose former secretary has just died, reveals the contents of the mother's will and gives a letter each to the son and daughter: one to be given to the mother's husband, and the other to their brother. The problem is that neither son nor daughter knew that they had a living father, or that they had another brother at all. This is an at times violent film in which we see the quest of a mother for a son, and then the quest of a daughter (later a son too) for a brother. It's also a story of torture and rape, of unknown incest, where a torturer becomes a father to twins: the son and the daughter. By far the best Denis Villeneuve film I've seen.

Denis Villeneuve's Polytechnique (2009)

Polytechnique, Denis Villeneuve's third feature, is in black and white and is a recreation of the massacre in Montréal twenty years before of fourteen young women at the École Polytechnique by the crazed twenty-five-year-old misogynist Marc Lépine. The murders followed a series of feminist triumphs in Canada, and Lépine initially aimed his semi-automatic rifle at the student females in engineering, those his twisted mind considered to be detested feminists, although he opened fire on any female (or even male) who came across his path towards the end of his bloody spree. His mercy was to kill himself too.

But this recreation is achieved with great respect for anyone (or anyone's relatives) who may have been concerned here, and the characters are fictional. Valérie (Karine Vanasse) and the young man 'J-F' (Sébastien Huberdeau) so traumatised by the massacre that he kills himself as a result of survivor guilt are invented characters, and the killer – whose suicide note is partly read verbatim from the original – isn't even named.

Denis Villeneuve's Maelström (2000)

(At the time of writing I've seen five films directed by the Québéquois Denis Villeneuve, and although they are all different from each other they all involve similar plot elements: an incident triggering existential crisis, and a change of psychic state at or towards the end. For this reason I include this paragraph in parenthesis in each of my comments on the five films.)

Maelström, Denis Villeneuve's second feature, takes us into weirder territory to his début Un 32 août sur terre, if only because the occasional narrator is a fish on a slab about to be decapitated: not to worry, this narration is only occasional. But here we have Bibiane (Marie-Josée Croze) not only going through traumas to start with, but then becoming a hit-and-run driver as she accidentally kills a man when driving drunk. She learns the next day that the man is dead, attends his funeral and meets his son Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault). She lies about how she came to know the man she's killed, and inevitably (this may be weird cinema but it's still cinema) they become lovers. A car trip leads to a guilt trip, leads to, well, who knows? A man is in love with the woman who killed his father, is what.

Denis Villeneuve's Un 32 août sur terre | August 32nd on Earth (1998)


(At the time of writing I've seen five films directed by the Québéquois Denis Villeneuve, and although they are all different from each other they all involve similar plot elements: an incident triggering existential crisis, and a change of psychic state at or towards the end. For this reason I include this paragraph in parenthesis in each of my comments on the five films.)

Simone (Pascale Bussières) loses control of her car as sleep overcomes her. She survives remarkably well physically, although mentally she's changed: she now wants to have a child by her platonic best friend Philippe, who's in a four-month relationship and is alarmed by Simone's wishes. But he agrees to perform the act if they're in the desert. However, an episode in Utah proves fruitless, and the problem is that Philippe is in love with Simone, which she only discovers when it's perhaps too late, when Philippe is in a coma after mindlessly being beaten up.

14 October 2021

Rémy Belvaux's C'est arrivé près de chez vous | Man Bites Dog (1992)


Rémy Belvaux's C'est arrivé près de chez vous (which is rather sensationally translated as Man Bites Dog) is a brilliant but much misunderstood first feature: certainly it is overlong and repetitive, but it can hardly be accused of gratuitous violence because that is the whole point. This film is essentially a profound criticism of, and satire on, the media's approach to violence, the fact that the media wallows in violence in order to capture its audience, to make more money. This is a mockumentary starring casual serial killer Ben (Benoît Poelvoorde), who is followed all the time by Belvaux and André Bonzel, with all of them more or less carrying their own first names.

As the film continues, the two members of the crew (at first distant) become increasingly involved in Ben's murders: they even gang rape one of his victims before him, and help him dispose of his bodies, which he weighs down with concrete ballast so they won't float to the surface. This activity is symbolised at one point when Ben is drinking with the other two, when he plays a game with them in a bar, in which he submerges an olive attached to a sugar cube in each of their drinks and the loser, whose olive floats to the surface first, has to buy the next round. He calls the game 'le petit Grégory', referring to the (still unsolved) murder of the fifteen-year-old Grégory Villemin in 1984, whose body was fished out of the Valogne. I learn that 'le petit Grégory' is translated by the expression 'Dead Little Boy'! Great film, but it's a pity about the sub-titling.

10 October 2021

Pierre Perret and Yvonne de Gaulle

I include a shot here of Yvonne de Gaulle as in the sculpture in Calais by Elizabeth Cibot but without her husband as it's not my style to photograph prominent political figures. Rather, I'm more interested in the forgotten, the hidden, the obscure, the middle finger. In September 2020 Europe 1 interviewed the singer Pierre Perret (then 86) and he said a few words about Yvonne in 1966, when she had attempted to ban one of his songs about summer camps, 'Les jolies colonies de vacances', from the airwaves by calling her friend Roland Dhordain, the director of ORTF. Her problem (although she used the word 'nous', implicating the Général himself), was that the expression 'pipi dans le lavabo' ('peeing (probably best translated as 'weeing' in 1966) in the sink') was in the song. Dhordain still, according to Perret, included it in the playlist, and the song was certainly a huge success and went on to sell 200,000 copies: in effect, a huge 'Up yours' to Yvonne de Gaulle, who surely needed to get a life! Pierre Perret was delighted that Yvonne had honoured him in such a way, calling him 'the shame of France'.

8 October 2021

Le Dragon de Calais in Calais (62), Pas-de-Calais (62)

As I stated last year when I first saw Le Dragon de Calais, which wasn't at the time operational because this was just a day before lockdown in March 2020, François Delarozière is the artistic director of the company La Machine, and is particularly known for Machines de l'île de Nantes. But today, as we walked towards the promenade we could see indications that there was about to be something happening, so we waited. And the wait paid off because the dragon soon emerged from its home and went for a walk, roaring, smoking from the nostrils, occasionally breathing fire and pissing water from its tail at the enthusiasic crowd. Not being a person for rides, I nevertheless checked the price on the website: €9.50 for an hour*, but then this is France: imagine what inflated prices the National Trust would charge if this were within their field!

*The original time mentioned has been altered following the very welcome comment by La Compagnie du Dragon below: I wasn't looking at my watch!





6 October 2021

Jean Raphael (Georges Lafaix) in Dormans (51), Marne (51)

Georges Lafaix (better known as Jean Raphael) (1916-2006) was born in Orléans and died in Dormans, where he is buried. He was brought up in poverty by his grandparents and began his working life at thirteen as a house painter, although his main interest was in music: he used to frequent the dances and cafés in Rue de Lappe, Montmartre. He changed his name and became a noted 'chanteur de charme', initially adopting the style of Tino Rossi and Reda Caire, specialising in the tango. He wrote the words of some of his own songs, such as 'Le Chanteur de nos souvenirs', 'Viva, viva Napoli', and 'Paris sans toi'. 


Jules Crochet in Mareuil-le-Port (51), Marne (51)

Jules Crochet (1902-72*) was born in Dormans, died in Tinqueux near Reims, and was a pioneer of medical aviation. In the 1930s he carried out medical missions in Africa for the French government. A roundabout in Reims was named after him in 1997.

*Wikipédia at the time of writing gives the date of his death as 1974, which clashes with the date of the plaque on his family vault.


4 October 2021

Phare in Verzenay (51), Marne (51)

In order to advertise his brand of champagne, in 1909 Joseph Goulet built a lighthouse on a hill in Verzenay, right in the centre of champagne vineyards. There was a restaurant and theatre in adjacent buildings, and the place became a meeting spot for Rémois (people from Reims) and Sparnaciens (people from Épernay): then, access was facilitated by the CBR (Compagnie des Chemins de Fer within the Reims community), a railway company which no longer exists. The lighthouse was used as an observation post during World War II, but for many years after was left to go to ruin. It was bought by the commune in 1987, and in 1994 steps were taken to create an écomusée which was opened in 1999. This is advertised on their website as open every day, although we saw no signs of life at the time of our visit. But the view! Who needs to climb the lighthouse?



3 October 2021

Pierre Fourny and La poésie à 2 mi-mots, Fère-en-Tardenois (02), Aisne (02)

At the gates on the mairie is what appears to be a letter box, although beneath it is a kind of explanatory plaque. Although the plaque confuses more than it explains, which is perhaps the intention. But the group ALIS (Association Lieux Images et Sons) in Fère-en-Tardenois, founded in 1982 by Pierre Fourny (unmentioned on the plaque) gave the 'letter box' to the town on 17 November 2001: Fère-en-Tardenois becomes the world capital of La poésie à 2 mi-mots. But what exactly does the expression mean?

Pierre Fourny invented La poésie à 2 mi-mots at the beginning of this century, and it has a great resemblance to an original Oulipian constraint. In fact the 'letter box' itself is an example of this poetry, which in the words of Fourny 'est un procédé d'une simplicité désarmante : il consiste simplement à couper les mots d'un trait horizontal. Chacune des deux moitiés de mots obtenues est contenue dans un autre mot, ou plusieurs autres mots': in other words it is an amazingly simple procedure in which words are cut across by a horizontal line. The two halves of the words contain another word or other words. In the example here, the word ECRITES appropriately produces LETTRES, or vice versa. It does of course depend on where you make the cut.




Halle aux Grains, Fère-en-Tardenois (02), Aisne (02)

An inside shot of the seventeenth century covered grain market in Fère-en-Tardenois, built by Madeleine de Savoie, the wife of Anne de Montmorency. In 1917 and 1918 it served as an hôpital militaire.

Château ruins, Fère-en-Tardenois (02), Aisne (02)

I don't normally deal much with castles, particularly as there are so many in France, but this one is rather special. The château ruins a few kilometres from Fère-en-Tardenois are of an old fort built in the thirteenth century. The ruins stand on a mainly artifical mound, and the seven-towered building took over fifty years to construct. But perhaps the most notable thing about this structure in general is the sixty-metre fortified Renaissance bridge leading to the entrance to the château and its septagonal courtyard (to which at the time of writing there is no access).



The view along the bridge looking towards the château courtyard.

2 October 2021

Boîte à lire, Fère-en-Tardenois (02), Aisne (02)

This small boîte à lire is in front of the mairie in Fère-en-Tardenois. As for Fère-en-Tardenois being the Capitale mondiale de la poésie à 2 mi-mots, I'll look into that tomorrow.

30 September 2021

Marcel Dhièvre in Saint-Dizier (52), Haute-Marne (52)

Au Petit Paris was originally a small shop run by Marcel Dhièvre (1898-1977) and his second wife Constance. It was on meeting an Italian painter-decorator named Radici that his imagination was changed, and after World War II, when Marcel and his wife came to live at 478 Ave de la République, in La Noue district of the town, that he began a task that was to last for at least thirty years: decorating his house, transforming it into the art brut showpiece that it now is. The prominent frontal view of the Tour Eiffel and the Arc de Triomphe are testimony to his many trips to Paris to purchase merchandise for the shop. For his art, children in the neighbourhood helped him to collect 'rubbish' from local dumps, bits of broken crockery, pieces of glass, etc. The media became interested in his work in the seventies, although after his death the house began to fall into decay. However, in 1984 the house was declared a 'monument historique', in 1994 Katie Couprie bought the house and began reparations, and since 2018 it has become a 'Bar culturel'. The first image is of the front page of the sixteen-page booklet Il était une fois...au Petit Paris, published by L'Association Au Petit Paris.