19 January 2022

Elsa Rysto's Love Hurts (2020)

Love Hurts has one of those annoying English titles that directors are increasingly giving French language films: the logic is of course that an English title attracts more people because many more people speak English than French. And certainly there's the excuse that this thirty-two minute film is inspired by American movies, the soundtrack is laden with American songs from the sixties, and 'Love Hurts' is the title of one of them, but not played on this film. Fine, but all the same...

Elsa Rysto's favourite film is Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, her second favourite is A Clockwork Orange, and although these are two films are wildly different in content and style, etc, a definite logic follows from this when we watch Love Hurts: Sam (Noée Abita) is one of the two main characters, Troy (Andranic Manet) the other, and this is a movie about gratuitous violence – and love.

When the shy, easily impressionable Sam first meets Troy he takes her aside in a woodland setting and at first frightens her, then frightens her some more by asking her to hit him, but hard, as he can't feel pain. She asks if he's high on pain-killers, but no. And she gets bloody knuckles as he asks for more and shows no reaction to the hit he takes.

This, all right, is adolescence and kids have to go through everything, have to experience extremes in growing up, and hey, that's part of growing up itself. But Sam goes though various emotions, as kids do, and although the rest of the school know that Troy has been expelled for violence, and it's said that he beat a guy into a coma, she still sides with him, fights for him, is him, because that's what love's all about: no? Psychotic? What?

Patrice Leconte's Dogora : Ouvrons les yeux (2004)

During a French interview, Patrice Leconte said that the film he regrets making is Circulez, y'a rien à voir as it was one comedy too many. He likes Dogora more than any of his other films because hardly anyone has seen it. I'd not even heard of it, so set about rectifying that situation: it's available on YouTube and has been for five years, although so far the link has received less than six thousand views, and I can guess that many of those people don't hang around to watch the whole film. The reason for this is that there's no dialogue, but a large number of generally non-sequential scenes set in Cambodia only with the music of Étienne Perruchon on the soundtrack. Occasionally there are 'words' spoken as a chorus to this music, although this is in 'Dogorien', an imaginary language 'invented' by Perruchon.

Leconte's film, which is unlike anything he's ever done before, is a homage to the country and its people. It shows both urban scenes, mainly of the roads and the people and transport passing, and many scenes of the rural area, harvesting the fields, collecting the sap from trees to make rubber, etc. It is intensely poetic, and although the music blends in harmoniously with the scenes – loud and fast for busy street scenes, softer and slower for the calmer areas – I found it a little too intrusive, and I can sympathise with anyone thinking that these 'European' sounds are out of synch with what we see onscreen.

18 January 2022

Sam Karmann's Omnibus (1992)

As a director, Sam Karmann is perhaps best known for the cult feature Kennedy et moi (1999), an adaptation of Jean-Paul Dubois's novel of the same name. That was his second film and his first feature, although before that he made a humorous eight-minute short into which a number of events are crammed, the final one being even more absurd than the rest.

There are no names mentioned, but the ticket inspector (Jacques Martial) on a train asks a passenger (Daniel Rialet) for his ticket, which he nonchalently does, but the inspector says it's insufficient. This the traveller doesn't understand as he's always caught the same train to Cateau-Cambredis. The inspector replies that the train has now changed schedule and goes direct to Desvres without stopping at Cateau-Cambredis. The traveller follows the inspector and tells him that his job, his livelihood and his family will be put in danger if he can no longer get to work, and he becomes distraught and starts to cry.

The inspector says it's nothing to do with him but the driver (Christian Rauth), and introduces the man to him. The driver says he can't stop at Cateau-Cambredis because it's not in his schedule, so the passenger repeats his tale of woe. In the end the driver says he won't stop there but he'll drive very slowly through the station so the man can jump out, which he does. But just as the passengers on the train are applauding him, a burly man on the end carriage grabs the man back on the train, thinking he's about to miss catching it.

17 January 2022

Jérôme Bonnell's Les Hautes herbes (2021)

This is my first Bonnell, which isn't the cinema production the director intended but a television mini-series split into three parts for Arte. It seems that this is a slight deviation from his usual love tangle in that it is also a policier, or thriller.

Eve Merrieu (Emmanuel Devos) is a fortysomething woman having a 'break' away from men and living in a house near the village of Vernou-sur-Brenne, Touraine, where everyone knows each other. She falls from her step-ladder while picking plums to make jam, and the obliging young Mounir Sefaoui (Raphaël Acloque) is just riding by on his bike and strides over the fence to help her. After acertaining that there's no damage, she invites him into her house for a drink and they talk.

This is far from such large cities as Paris, although there's a local gilets jaunes demonstration about the closure of a local factory, and farmers are finding it difficult to maintain a living, particularly as their children are very reluctant to take over the reins of a failing business so migrate to the large cities. For this reason, although it angers Eve, farmers set on often foreign workers (and Mounir is Algerian) for no money, just food and lodging. While talking to Mounir, Eve notices a kind a talisman around his neck and asks him about it.

Around the same time, the mother of the ten-year-old Jules (Antonin Chaussoy) is effectively made homeless as his mother has had a scooter accident and is in a coma: he goes to stay at the home of a couple, the wife being, we later discover, the daughter of Eve: Lucille (Louise Chevillotte) and Glenn (Jonathan Couzinié). Jules is quite a presence in the film because, although he says virtually nothing (apart from to the loving Lucille) his eyes are everywhere and he misses nothing: much of the action is seen through his eyes.

And then Eve finds out that Mounir has disappeared, been gone for a few days without saying a word. She even finds the necklace and begins to be very suspicious: he doesn't seem to be the type of person just to leave like that. But the farmer isn't interested and neither are the police: he's an adult and free to come and go as he pleases, and anyway they don't want to waste time and money searching for someone who hasn't disappeared under circumstances which can't be classed as suspicious. Only the lowly rural cop Maud Lefort (India Hair) shows any interest, and says she'll look out for anything she thinks might look odd.

Meanwhile Jules integrates a little more with his temporary family and Glenn saves him from a bully: in retrospect it looks as if he's going to strangle the bully, but he just lets him go. And Jules is forever vigilant, eager to learn what's going on around him: that's how he comes to learn that Lucille's having an affair with Cyril Belhomert (Clément Bertani), meeting him for sex in a deserted barn. Jules says nothing but is worried, and the relationship between Lucille and Glenn is perhaps not what it should be?

Meanwhile Eve continues to find out things about Mounir, although if he's been murdered any character in the village could be responsible as they're all a little odd and/or secretive. And then it happens: Cyril disappears and the village is swarming with cop cars. Lucille doesn't want to speak to her mother so doesn't answer the cellphone. And Glenn has taken Jules to a funfair, where Jules notices that Glenn has Cyril's lighter.

Now, OK, the depressed and quite possibly disturbed Glenn might have a motive for killing Cyril, but where does Mounir fit in this? Lucille won't answer the phone, so Eve will go to her house and show her something her investigations have dredged up: a photo of Mounir lying lovingly with Lucille: the missing motive.

Meanwhile Glenn knows that Jules knows that he's the killer, and takes him to a deserted house where he's buried the two bodies: as he says, like Jules, his eyes are everywhere. And it looks like a third murder coming up, only Maud turns up and grabs the gun before a distraught Glenn can kill himself. I'll have to see more Bonnell films: he chooses to take long scenes, lingering over expressions, examining the emotions, etc.

Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Lover (1992)

I've already written about Marguerite Duras's novel L'Amant (1984) – of which this is an adaptation by a French director but in English – and I noted that the Goncourt-winning book isn't her best work: in fact to be honest it's far from it. But although a film version is necessarily different, Duras, having spoken to Annaud a few times before the film was completed, found it 'bizarre' that he thought it was his film: Annaud must have found Duras's attitude bizarre too, and he'd formerly had no problems adapting Umberto Eco's novel Il nome della rosa to the screen, and Eco certainly spoke of his novel and Annaud's film: two distinct entities. Duras had previously called her novel 'shit' and said she was drunk when she wrote it: so she wrote another version of her autobiographical story which was published in 1991 as L'Amant de la Chine du Nord, although Annaud didn't bother to read it. Duras's verdict: 'Rien ne m'attache au film, c'est un fantasme d'un nommé Annaud' ('I have no relation to this film, it's a fantasy by someone called Annaud'.)

Annaud also had problems finding the two protagonists, although he first found Tony Leung Ka-fai as the fifteen-year-old girl's lover, but the girl herself was a problem. Eventually Annaud's wife spotted a model, Jane March, in a fashion magazine, and this was her first role as an actor: she was in fact just eighteen, although she in parts (particularly before the deflowering) just about passes for fifteen.

What can we say of the film? Certainly the choice of the two actors is a good decision as both play very well, and as I remember it this seems to stick closely to the book, although – for obvious commercial reasons – there does appear to be an over-emphasis on the erotic side: the French Wikipédia entry for Jane March (but not the English version as I write) correctly states that March was dubbed 'the sinner from Pinner' (she was born in nearby Edgware and apparently attended school in Pinner). This year, of course, marks the film's thirtieth anniversary.

16 January 2022

Guillaume Brac's À L’Abordage (2021)

Édouard (Édouard Sulpice) is a BlaBlaCar driver in his mother's car, and supposed to be picking up two women to drop off at Die (Drôme) before going to his mother's. But he's very surprised, in fact annoyed, when two guys appear (and very late at that): Félix (Éric Nantchouang), who's on his way, he believes, to give a pleasant surprise to a young woman he danced with and spent an innocent night with on the banks of the Seine, Alma (Asma Messaoudene), who took the train earlier in the day to Die, where her parents have a house they spend the summer in; and Félix's best friend Chérif (Salif Cissé).

Félix works as a homehelp to the elderly, and Chérif has rather clumsily taken a week's leave from his job in a small supermarket. The pair are very different from each other: Félix is black, hot-tempered, handsome, tall and slim, whereas Chérif (also black) is very calm, quite chubby, and a fair bit smaller – in fact, he's far removed from the neurotypical, as he seems to have an unusually large knowledge for someone of his poor education and job status, he prefers to read literary classics rather than his cellphone, and he avoids sports activities, saying he has otitis.

The three don't get on well at first. Félix makes fun of Édouard for his mother phoning him and calling him 'chaton' ('kitten'), and Édouard objects to him eating crisps in his mother's car. When they stop off at a motorway aire, Édouard shouts at them for talking amongst themselves and ignoring him, saying this isn't the etiquette of co-voiturage. He's even more annoyed when he's persuaded by Félix into having a look at the town before taking them to the campsite, and he reverses into a heavy object in a narrow street and makes it with difficulty to the campsite to afterwards learn at the garage that it will take 'une grosse semaine' ('at least a week') for parts to come for the wheel bearing to be fixed.

So Édouard is forced to sleep in the same tent as the snoring Chérif, although the two learn to relate to each other in the multi-lingual campsite also inhabited by the English and the strongly Francophile Dutch. And as Édouard and Chérif (who don't have partners at home) watch the mild loveplay of Félix and Alma in the river, Chérif concludes that they are both 'galériens' ('losers': the Americanised sub-titling translates this as 'washouts'!)

Although this modernised Rohmerian tale is essentially a light psychological study in diversity, showing how (often very different) people can come together, jump in and join (the title À L’Abordage isn't for nothing), it also highlights how arguments can come close to the surface, often caused indirectly by unrelated psychological trauma: examples of this are the fight during the canyoning episode, or Félix – who has just split up with Alma largely because his inappropriate, over-enthusiastic behaviour turns her off – suggests that Chérif is gay because he passes so much of his time with unavailable women. And this comment in turn has a knock-on effect with Chérif, who turns down the suggestion by Héléna (Ana Blagojevic) that he look after her baby Nina for two hours while she has a massage to relieve her tension.

Chérif's obviously disinterested attentions to Nina have been an example of his difference: while the others have played sports or love/sex games, he's spent much of his time as a casual babysitter, a substitute father as Héléna's partner – whom she only once mentions (and only as 'il') has been called away. Furthermore, this relationship between Chérif and Héléna is another example of the meeting of different classes, although they have a geographical similarity: Chérif comes from La Courneuve, Héléna grew up in adjoining Stains and they both remember the same supermarkets.

Towards the end there's a scene in which Chérif and Héléna, having left the rather weird staff member Nicolas (Nicolas Pietri) – who is now off duty with a sprained arm, is terrified of the end of the world, and whom Alma sees as a slit-your-throat pessimist – in charge of Nina while they go to the camp bar for a drink. They're met by Édouard, who invites Chérif to sing karaoke, but he's shyly very reluctant until everyone in the bar joins in chanting 'Chérif!' and Héléna encourages him to join her in singing: à l'abordage! Héléna chooses 'Aline', a 1965 summer hit by Christophe, which is appropriate because it's about sand, beach and lost love (although Félix is absent).

In the morning we find Chérif and Héléna staring lovingly at each other in bed naked, Édouard cleaning the shower block mirror as he's changed places with Nicolas and needs money for car repairs, and Félix being lulled awake by a young woman playing the guitar and singing: she turns out to the clown the trio saw amusing kids when they went on a visit to Die. A delightful film.

15 January 2022

Kamir Aïnouz's Cigar au miel | Honey Cigar (2020)

This is 1993*, and seventeen-year-old Selma (Zoé Adjani) (the niece), of French and Algerian nationality, lives in Neuilly-sur-Seine, no less, with her lawyer father (Lyes Salem) and gynaecologist mother (Amira Casar), and their home not only screams wealth but Algeria. She's just entering the ECIP business school and has to undergo a gruesome, sex-obsessed hazing ceremony. And it's a good job her parents don't know about it as they have strict views, although religion holds a back position here, and they have a Christmas tree. Not that religion can hold such a position in Algeria in those times, and the television set frequently announces the latest activities of l'État Islamique. (But the cigar reference isn't phallic: it's an Algerian delicacy, which Selma nevertheless does eat with her relatives in Algeria in, I thought, a rather suggestive way.)

The guys she mixes with at the school come from the HLMs, such as Julien (Louis Peres), who wants to sleep with her, and at one point asks her if she's a virgin as she's held him off for so long. But she's made it clear enough before that she isn't, although of course she's lying. To save face, though, she loses her virginity to a cucumber. Obviously her parents want to see her married off so they think of the highly respectable businessman Luka Toumi (Idir Chender), who's so respectable that he invites her for dinner, which she never gets, although she does get raped by him. Such is life, the traumas of which, of course, she has to live with.

She also sees Julien kissing a young woman at Julien's year's post-grad party, and this adds to the trauma. Very briefly, Julien drifts into her life again, but is due to leave for Singapore, never to be seen again. By this time her mother has moved her consultancy to Algeria, and Selma must of course soldier on in Paris.

*In the circumstances, it seems appropriate that we hear Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries singing 'Zombie' ('With their tanks, and their bombs', etc) when Julien and the then virgin Selma are dancing to it, although there's a slight anachronism here: 'Zombie' wasn't released until the following year: 1994.

Rémi Chayé's Calamity, une enfance de Martha Jane Cannary (2020)

Calamity is a harmless but charming cartoon love story to the Wild West whose director is so careful about the use of language that he even goes out of his way to (on several occasions) avoid this film even getting a PG certificate: a nasty person is referred to as 'bouse' ('dung') rather than 'merde'!

This is the partial, and much imagined rather than researched, tale of Martha Jane Cannery, who is of course more familiarly known as Calamity Jane, probably from the highly sanitised 1953 David Butler film starring Doris Day. It's a kind of coming-of-age story of a convoy of pioneers heading west for Oregon in 1863 by wagon train. The Cannary family without the mother (who's dead) is the last to join, and as a poor family is seen in a poor light.

But when the father falls ill young and rather 'masculine' Martha steps in, and although she is green at first she soon learns how to steer the family out of trouble, and in fact chases after Samson, who appears to have stolen many items from the train, retrieves them, and becomes the train scout for her knowledge and her heroic actions. (Inevitably, there's a shot of Monument Valley, made very famous in John Ford/John Wayne movies.)

Delphine Lehericey's Le Milieu de l'horizon (2019)

This Swiss-Belgian film is set in an unnamed place in 1976 and adapted from Roland Buti's 2013 novel of the same name. It's entirely set in a rural context, mainly in and around a farm during a period of severe drought in which animals are dying, crops are rotting through lack of water, and a farmer has killed himself due to the situation. Jean (Thibaut Evrard) took his farm over from his father and it now looks as if he's facing ruin.

But Le Milieu de l'horizon is seen exclusively through the eyes of Jean's thirteen-year-old son Gus (Luc Bruchez), who's obviously obsessed with sex, steals soft porn magazines from the local store and gloats over them, even ogles the breasts of his mother Nicole (Laetitia Casta), gets upset when he sees his older sister Léa (Lisa Harder) kissing her boyfriend, etc. So sex in some way or other is his main interest when he's not helping his father and his mentally handicapped cousin Rudy (Fred Hotier) collect up the dead factory-farmed chickens, milk the cattle or whatever.

But at the heart of this film, and really at the heart of the drama (and this is in part what makes the movie so interesting and unusual) is the presence of the new arrival to the film for a few days: Nicole's friend Cécile (Clémence Poésy), who like Nicole appears to be fanatical about a book club they're in. And although we see Cécile handing Nicole a book over the dining room table, we don't actually hear either of them talking about books. Some time later, after Gus's sort-of girlfriend Mado (Sasha Gravat Harsch) and of course Gus himself has discovered the real nature of the relationship, he (in a mixture of embarrassment and disgust) tears out the f.e.p. of a copy of Romain Gary's (here as Émile Ajar) La Vie devant soi. On it was Cécile's confession of undying love to his mother.

And that's a good title to choose: what kind of life does this family have in front of it with a failing farm and a lesbian mother? At the dinner table again, Léa is probably joking innocently when she says Gus is sulking because 'Il est jaloux, il a plus sa maman maintenant' ('He's jealous because he's lost his mother now'). But it's at this same table that Jean will angrily storm at Nicole about her contact with Cécile, and soon the whole village is talking about it and it's going to cause, directly or indirectly, quite an amount of violence. This is a highly watchable psychological thriller certainly shot on a low budget.

11 January 2022

Diane Kurys's À la folie (1994)

Diane Kurys dedicated her first feature film, Diabolo Menthe (1977), to her sister, adding that she still hasn't returned the orange pullover she lent her. As dedications go, this may be slightly unusual, although on the surface at least it's perhaps by no means as cryptic as some. But the interesting thing here is that Kurys's films often involve the family, and we know that Kurys has a love-hate relationship with her sister.

À la folie may generally be considered less autobiographical than others of her films for a number of reasons, although two sisters are present, as well as children (initially). I certainly don't intend to draw any analogies between autobiography and fiction here, although everyone writes from experience,  sometimes second-hand (through books or stories told, etc). The title of the film obviously relates to a common expression. What is the playful answer to the statement 'Je t'aime'? 'Un peu, beaucoup, à la folie, pas du tout ?' For all the three main characters, all of these answers can be applied at least once, often more, maybe on each of these occasions.

À la folie not only received negative reviews, but was generally panned by almost the whole press, and even to find any non-professional review is very difficult. Obviously it's normal to love or hate a work, but this one seems to have been greeted with general incomprehension. I'm feeling my way around Diane Kurys's films, and this is only the second I've viewed after La Baule-les-Pins, which – in spite of a the occasional quirkiness – seems (initially at least) far less complex than this film which came out four years later. Not only more complex, but far weirder.

First we have two female actors – the sisters Anne Parillaud (as Alice) and Béatrice Dalle (as Elsa), both of whom have appeared in leading roles in what was known as the 'cinéma du look', Luc Besson's Nikita (1990) and Jean-Jacques Beineix's 37°2 le matin (1986) respectively; then Elsa's husband Douglas (Alain Chabat), by whom she has two children, and who as an actor was more noted for comedies; and then there's the far less known Patrick Aurignac (here as Franck), who had (in real life) spent many years in prison, and directed just one film: Mémoires d'un con, made just two years after À la folie and who shot himself dead in the same year as his badly-received film was released.

Elsa leaves her adulterous husband and her two children – about whom she seems to mention no more - on the pretext of buying milk, and yet she takes the coach for Paris in her slippers and Douglas's raincoat to see Alice, the sister she's not seen for two years, and who doesn't seem too interested in their parents. Alice is a budding artist who tells her agent Sanders (Bernard Verley) that she doesn't feel professionally ready for New York and the cultural hike; and then her boyfriend Franck moves in with her, fridge and all, without prior warning; and then the unwanted cherry on the unwanted cake: Elsa turns up suddenly on her doorstep (or near, but that's another point), having left her family.

What existential horrors are there for Alice alone? She's professionally far from certain that she wants NYC at the moment, her lover (an amateur boxer) has dumped himself on her, as has her not-too-familiar sister. What ensues is an odd ménage à trois, with conflicting but constantly changing loyalties, hell seen as other people, minor violence (or threat) being the norm.

But what are we to make of this hotchpotch? Things we don't expect to happen in fact happen: Franck, at the risk to his life, goes on top of the high story of the apartment to rescue the life of a pigeon stuck to the pantry grill, and which he feeds in the apartment; how much, if anything, that we see is in fact real? Is Alice's (symbolic?) enchainment to the radiator really an excuse for Elsa to have sex with Franck and not an attempt to restrain her from killing herself?

All three people here are trapped within their own minds, but also within those of the other two, but there is humour here. Initially, Franck is for Elsa moving, asking her how long she's staying, Alice says as long as she likes, and Franck walks off, ironically saying 'On va rigoler !" ('We're gonna have a blast!'). The most humorous moment (in its surreality) is when Douglas comes looking for Elsa, who is hiding under Alice's bed, but Douglas sees this, shoves his face down from the bed to talk to her and then joins his wife under the bed and attempts a conversation while they're on their bellies on the floor. Franck asks while he's down there if he wants a beer but he says whiskey; Alice tells Franck to drive Thomas back to the train station (La Gare de Lyon). But what of the crude drawing of the dog Elsa had originally slid under Alice's door? It's a dead one with a cross on it. When they lived at home, their father said that Alice had 'du chien', which could mean she was cute? What of this and its relation to a dead dog?

Well, in the final scenes Alice is about to break through as an artist, is now in New York with a new boyfriend, so all's OK? Not quite, as Alice gets another dead dog drawing shoved under her door. Real, or just meaning that you can't go home again as you never left? If shit sticks, that includes dogshit, and you can never be free? Just thinking aloud as it were, but I adored this film.

10 January 2022

Diane Kurys's La Baule-les-Pins (1990)

This is 1958 and the Lorskie family are spending their holidays in La Baule-les-Pins, Loire-Atlantique, only this year it's different because divorce is looming, and Kurys investigates the question both from the point of view of the parents and the children. Léna (Nathalie Baye) and Michel (Richard Berry) and their daughters, Frédérique (Julie Bataille) and Sophie (Candice Lefranc), stay with Léna's sister Bella (Zabou Breitman) and her husband Léon (Jean-Pierre Bacri), who have four children. This time, however, Léna joins the group some days later, as does Michel separately.

The main difference though is that Léna's lover Jean-Claude (Vincent Lindon) has surreptitiously come to La Baule and is 'secretly' but increasingly obviously meeting Léna. The, er, climax is when Michel loses his temper with Léna and would have no doubt seriously injured her if Fréderique hadn't intervened.

Jean Boyer's Coiffeur pour dames (1952)

Mario (Ferdandel) is a highly sought after women's hairdresser in a small shop in Provence who works with Gaëtan (Manuel Gary). But Gaëtan is shunned by most of the women because Mario has the magic touch with women's hair, turning his job into an art form. And although he's married to Aline (Blanchette Brunoy), all the women find him sexually attractive, and on one occasion he's forced out of bed with Edmonde (Arlette Poirier) onto the cold balcony in pyjamas hiding from Edmonde's married lover M. Brochant (Georges Lannes), who's unexpectedly turned up at her apartment.

But Mario dreams of moving to Paris where he can exercise his skills in an expensive environment, and fortunately his cleverness with a pair of scissors is matched to his psychological cunning: he's able to manipulate women's minds as well as their hair, his craftwork soon brings M. Brochant and Geneviève (Renée Devillers) back together, and as she's stinking rich he soon has a thriving salon on the Champs-Élysées.

However, he's the victim of his own success, and his women are falling over themselves for his favours. And such is his overweening egotism that he thinks he can divorce from Aline and marry the Brochants' twenty-year-old daughter Denise (Françoise Soulié). But he soon realises he's being stupid, risking his health and decides to go on a second honeymoon: with Aline in Provence!

A light comedy as irresistable as women find Mario, although I can't help thinking that this is aimed at Ferdandel's own egotism, or is there some self-parody that he's playing to?

8 January 2022

Olivier Dahan's La Môme | La Vie en rose (2007)

This biopic – and biopics can be hellishly diffcult to represent – is obviously designed with an international audience in mind, particularly those who at least know a little of the great Édith Piaf: it has, after all, a different title in the English version, in French no less, but of course named after one of the most famous of her songs. And there are, of course, many more songs in the movie. What positive things can I say about this film? Marion Cotillard's acting is superb, and somehow she's not only managed to convincingly show Piaf at various stages of her life, but also get round the question of her small height: a truly magnificent performance.

But the film itself? Oh. It weaves in and out of different periods for no apparent reason, it's a stew of scenes that not only don't follow from each other but seem sewn together with meaningless logic. If this were intended to be a cinematic version of a patchwork quilt it would be brilliant. As it is though, it's a hopeless failure. I was waiting for an appearance of someone acting Moustaki to give a tiny hint of redemption but no. And even a little humour wouldn't have gone amiss, such as the time in 1961 when she tried to seduce Johnny Hallyday – to his horror! Or wasn't that occasion generally known at the time of the film's release? Whatever – even Marion Cotillard can't save this turkey.

Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

As so many people have seen this film, and as the plot is so intricate, it seems pointless to spend a huge amount of time on detail: it's perhaps enough to say that this doesn't take place in France (where Anderson has a home in Paris, and is fascinated by the country) but mainly in Germany, notably Görlitz, where the 'hotel' seen is in fact a disused department store: the exterior shots of the place show a model. Stefan Zweig was an inspiration behind the tale.

In a madcap, fast-action film that in some respects reminded me of something that might have come from the brains of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, this is a story within a story. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a book and the narrator (Tom Wilkinson) meets the elderly owner of the run-down hotel, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), who tells him of the hotel in the 1930s, and of how he came into possession of the building.

Zero was a mere bell boy receiving instructions from Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), a gigolo concierge whose speciality was attracting elderly women to repeat visits there. That's how Gustav came into possession of a priceless painting at the hotel, in fact of the hotel itself. And although the concierge is murdered by Nazis and so unable to enjoy his wealth, Zero inherited it.

7 January 2022

François Truffaut's Domicile conjugal | Bed and Board (1970)

This is the fourth film in the Antoine Doinel series, and of course he hasn't grown up, or maybe doesn't want to grow up, or is an insensitive Aspie. Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud as always) is now married to Christine (Claude Jade): he works for a florist, and she teaches violin. And she's proud to be married, although he still exhibits the same immaturity/awkwardness/Asperger sydrome traits as in previous films.

Christine becomes pregnant and Antoine begins to work (by default and misunderstanding) in Paris for an American research company: Antoine's main job is showing foreign visitors the hydraulics of miniature boats. There's a clash: Christine wants to call the child Ghislain, although Antoine officially registers him as 'Alphonse', after (it seems) Daudet (or could it be Benjamin Constant's nouvelle?. And then Antoine falls for, and has a relationship (largely instigated by Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer)) with a Japanese visitor. As in Baisés volés, they also exchange messages while the other is there, and soon Christine has had enough because she realises what's going on.

But then it's not long before Antoine too has has enough of Kyoko's speechlessness and various 'foreign' ways, and at a restaurant with Kyoko, bored with her because she says nothing to him, Antoine phones Christine three long times. He returns to find Kyoko gone with an insulting note, and goes back to Christine and Alphonse, or Ghislain.

Odd things to note in the film: at Christine's parents Antoine mentions their 'striglias' plants, which he says are often confused with 'oubiglias': neither of these plants exist, although his parents-in-law don't react; nor do they to react to Antoine telling them that Mothers' Day is a Nazi invention. There is also a scene in which a distinct caricature of Jacques Tati waits at a métro platform and then boards a train. Maybe not the best of the saga, but still interesting.

François Truffaut's Baisés volés | Stolen Kisses (1962)

The third part of the Antoine Doinel story begins and ends with the Charles Trenet song 'Que reste-t-il de nos amours ?', which contains the words 'baisés volés'. Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) has left the army, is in love with Christine (Claude Jade) and for a short time gets a job working at night in a hotel  reception. Until, that is, he's duped by a private detective into uncovering an adultery, meaning that he has been indiscreet and opened a door he shouldn't have: it's difficult to tell if it's a mixture of immaturity, difficulty with handling social situations, shyness, awkwardness, or something else. Doinel was created more than sixty years ago, and perhaps today he'd be diagnosed at a minor level on the autistic spectrum. Certainly a number of his problems in these more enlightened times could be put down to Asperger syndrome.

So he's now set on as a private investigator, although he isn't good at that either. Engaged to seek out exactly what shoeshop owner Monsieur Tabard's (Michael Lonsdale's) problems are with people, his stalking is so evident that a woman tells a cop she's got a guy following her. Plus, Antoine has fallen in love with Tabard's wife Fabienne (Delphine Seyrig), and of course although he never openly confesses this to her, everyone (apart from Tabard who has his own problems) is aware in the shop of Antoine's love.

Balzac, as might be expected with Truffaut, is in there, and the book in question is Le Lys dans la vallée, which Fabienne realises. She visits Antoine when he's in bed, tries to put him straight on the novel, and tries to ease his sexual problems in a few hours. Result: Fabienne is forgotten and Antoine is once again free to be with Christine. But, of course, he can't directly communicate his feelings to get the thing going.

Antoine is now a TV repairer, Christine (much like most of Doinel's women) has to be the one to make the first move, and she takes advantage of this by sabotaging her own TV, or rather her parents' TV while they're away. And they end up in bed. Over breakfast, it's difficult to use words, so (again directly but not directly, even Aspie-like) the couple pass a number of post-its to each other, instantly reacting by writing back. The viewer doesn't see these notes because they're private, but it's clear from their faces that he's asked her to marry him and she's agreed.

6 January 2022

François Truffaut's Antoine et Colette (1962)

Antoine et Colette is the second – but short (thirty-minute) – appearance of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) after the first feature Les Quatre cents coups (1959) and before the other three features: Baisés volés (1968), Domicile conjugal (1970) and L'Amour en fuite (1978). Antoine et Colette was part of a series of five shorts by different directors gathered as 'L'Amour à 20 ans': it was originally entitled 'Paris'. It is of course autobiographical and Jean-Pierre Léaud is to some extent modelled on Truffaut.

There is even a self-referential scene here taken from Les Quatre cents coups, where Antoine's very young friend René Bigey (Patrick Auffay) – with the equally young Antoine hiding – is caught misbehaving and smoking by his father M. Bigey (Georges Flamant). But the film begins with a view of Paris streets, and then to a seventeen-year-old Antoine waking up to Guy Béart singing on the radio:

Le matin, je m'éveille en chantant

Et le soir, je me couche en dansant*.

Antoine (like Truffaut) has had parent problems and leads an independent existence, working in a record factory. This has its advantages as he is given free tickets to free concerts, and invites his friend René (still Patrick Auffay) along with him to one. And it's there that he sees Colette (Marie-France Pisier) and can't stop looking at her. And soon they start going out.

Antoine meets Colette's mother (Rosy Varte) and her step-father (François Darbon), he appeals to them, and they are soon inviting him to dinner. Antoine is very happy with this arrangement, and soon moves into a room opposite Colette. However, he is young for his age, a little shy and perhaps rather wimpish: Colette is soon tiring of him and begins to go out with the more rugged and self-assured Albert (Jean-François Adam).

The concluding music, sung by George Delerue, has the same title as this the series of films: 'L'Amour à 20 ans'.

*In Jamais la même chose : Chroniques 2015 - 2017 François Morel says of Guy Béart, who died in 2015, that when people like him die, a person tends to 'faire son Perec', and continues by listing things he (mainly) remembers about Béart in imitation of Perec's 'Je me souviens...' fashion. The problem is that in his second line Morel has him going to bed not dancing but singing!

3 January 2022

Barbet Schroeder's Maîtresse (1975)

The pronunciation of the 't' in 'Barbet' is entirely optional, although the watching of this film without cuts was strictly limited to a very few people right up to 2003. Why? Well, we might wonder because the sexual content of this film – essentially a fictional exploration of sado-masochism, pain and pleasure, seems very tame fare today, but of course it takes time for legal processes to come into practice.

Here is a young and naive Olivier (Gérard Depardieu) freshly arrived in the centre of Paris, joining his mate with whom he intends to stay until he gets himself fixed, and they're off doing door-to-door sales of art books. But they don't have much luck until they come upon Ariane (Bulle Ogier) in her plush apartment. On learning that the apartment downstairs is empty, Olivier's pal (rather reluctantly on Olivier's part) decides that they should see what's on (robbing) offer downstairs.

But they're caught in the act because the lower apartment belongs to Ariane too: as a prostitute not of her own body but the exploitation of others' via sado-masochism, this is her den that the duo have stumbled on. And soon Olivier is casting his chum aside for the luxurious pleasures that Ariane has to offer: he's by no means taking advantage of her though, because he's hopelessly smitten. And so is Ariane, who finds it difficult to cope with mixed sensations: after all, Olivier is her lover and has no part in the sado-masochistic side of things.

In fact, apart from the nailing of genitals (which we don't actually see) the most disturbing part of this film is the (obviously real) stunning and bleeding of a horse for the purpose of meat: Olivier used to work in an abattoir. And this banned film is in fact a tender love story, almost ending in the deaths of the two main characters in an instance of orgasm and car crash, following Olivier's discovery that the mysterious Gautier (Holger Löwenadler) isn't in fact Ariane's pimp. I enjoyed this far more than Schroeder's More and La Vallée, and it seems almost a criminal offense that the viewing of the full version of Maîtresse was disallowed for such a long time.

Jean Rollin's Le Frisson des vampires | Shivers of the Vampires (1970)

Le Frisson des vampires is Jean Rollin's third film, following Le Viol du vampire and La Vampire nue, but although it's another vampire film it's a little more subdued than the two former ones. The marriage between Ise (Sandra Julien) and Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand) isn't yet consummated, and just before their honeymoon they leave for Normandy to visit Ise's cousins Hermann (Michel Delahaye) and William (Jacques Robiolles), who live(d?) in a former fortress near the sea. But although the couple are informed of the recent death of the cousins, that's not quite true, and of course we're in vampire territory again. It would take far too much time to go into further details, but suffice to say that this is Jean Rollin some time before his porno period. But still erotic? Well, according to the definition of the seventies, yes.

2 January 2022

Henri Verneuil's Mayrig (1991)

Robert Guédigian's grandfather in Germany was immensely proud to learn that his grandson hadn't, unlike like the earlier Charles Aznavour and Henri Verneuil (both of Armenian descent), Gallicised his Armenian name. But this is a huge celebration not only of Henri Verneuil's ancestry, but of the dedication of his parents and close relatives and their friends to his success as a result of their efforts. By extension, it's an enormous love letter to surviving Armenian culture.

The film has as an introduction the trial of Soghomon Tehlirian for the murder in Berlin in 1921 of Talaat Pacha, one of the principle leaders of the Armenian genocide by the Turks, which as I write this is still only officially recognised by thirty-one countries. Although clearly guilty, Tehlirian was unanimously cleared of assassination, which many Armenians learned on having fled Turkey. Among those (in this first film version of Verneuil's life) are the parents of 'Azad', Hagop Zakarian (Omar Sharif) and Araxi (Claudia Cardinale), who arrive in Marseille with very little French: 'Mayrig' means 'mother' in Armenian.

Here we have the flight from Turkey of a group of Armenians, their initial life as outcasts in Marseille. Azad has to tolerate living in slums, racism in school, and finally being accepted into French society. It's a long haul, but this is a brilliant, unforgettable film which obviously serves as Verneuil's penultimate farewell.

1 January 2022

Jean Girault's Le Permis de conduire (1974)

Jean Girault is beyond doubt an underrated director: OK, he's not up there with the big ones, but his comedies are well done, burlesque even, but not as crazy as might is expected: there's certainly some criticism of French society, its mindless bureaucracy, and the established order here. But then isn't that a primary purpose of comedy, to laugh at conventions as much (if not more) than to mindlessly entertain?

Michel Martenot (Louis Velle) lives somewhere in L'Île-de-France with his wife Geneviève (Pascale Roberts) and two children, and is a banker. His brother-in-law Bastien (Jacques Jouanneau) has a garage nearby. But problems start when Michel is promoted to assistant director of a branch in Paris: he's never learned to drive, and must use public transport. But transilien transport being what it (still) is, it means he will have to change four times, which means that he will have to leave early and arrive home late. He's exhausted at both ends, and using a bicycle to commute some of the way proves even worse: chains break, if you try to mend them people might think (in all your dirt), that you're a ne'er-do-well, etc.

So the only thing for Michel is learn to drive, which means renting a hotel room in Paris on weekdays until he can pass his test. And hey! He passes his theory, it's only a step away before he gets a full licence, so the family prepare for the celebration with bottles of champagne, and he hasn't the spunk to confess that he's failed miserably at the practical. Which is why he's (inexplicably to Bastien, Geneviève and kids), unable to decide on the car he wants, so he just has to stay at the hotel a little longer.

I forgot: Michel's quite a magnet to women, and when he literally bumps into Nathalie (Sandra Julien), who's also taking a driving lesson, well, they take a quick cognac in a café, she lives nearby, and what's the point of Michel returning to the hotel? But Nathalie is smitten and Michel's life is from now on more of a prison: a beautiful one, but all the same...

All the same, Nathalie gets Michel a false driving license for free, although he drives into a one-way street, a cop stops him, but hey there's a heavily pregnant woman and Michel drives her to hospital under police escort, he's a hero, and his bank thinks that too. There are many complications and misunderstandings (some of which are indirectly true, but that's another story), but as a result of his heroism Michel's promoted again – but what does that matter now that he's in an apartment in Paris with his family? Ask the cops.

René Clair's Porte des lilas | The Gates of Paris (1957)

René Clair's Porte des lilas is based on René Fallet's novel La Grand Ceinture, and it is fitting that a very rare acting appearance of one of the main stars, the awesome singer George Brassens, was a friend of Fallet. He plays L'Artiste, an unemployed guy like his friend Juju (Pierre Brasseur), an alcoholic who frequents the local café run by Alphonse (Raymond Bussières), whose daughter Maria (Dany Carrel) is in constant presence there.

And then along comes Pierre Barbier (Henri Vidal), a man who's killed three men and is escaping from the police. Barbier hides in L'Artiste's cellar, and being anarchists (Brassens is in some respects playing to type) the two friends conceal him from the law. Meanwhile Maria, who has fallen in love with Barbier, wants to go away with him, but the problem for the now sober Juju is that he's fallen in love with Maria. Maria obtains the money for Barbier's escape, with which she intends to leave with him. But on learning that Barbier isn't interested and will simply run away with the money, Juju kills him with Barbier's own gun.

31 December 2021

Cédric Klapisch's Peut-être (1999)

The ideas behind this film struck me as highly interesting, although having seen it on YouTube I'm glad I didn't bother to buy this, the worst Cédric Klapisch film – out of eight more – that I've seen. I've no idea how much it cost for this film to be made, although it must have been a tiny fraction of Klapisch's previous feature, Un air de famille: surely his best film to date.

It's New Year's Eve 1999 and the young Arthur (Romain Duris) is watching a sci-fi film before going to a fancy dress party where everyone will be wearing clothes and make-up that they imagine will be worn in the future. Interestingly, and digressively, he seems to live opposite 57 rue de Turbigo, where there is a huge angel undoubtedly made more famous by Agnès Varda's short film Les dites Cariatides. But anyway, he's concerned that his companion Lucie (Géraldine Pailhas) has stopped taking the pill.

At the party he has sex with Lucie in the bathroom, and he withdraws, causing the audience to see a trail of sperm flying out of harm's way. And Lucie's angry as she doesn't understand why her partner didn't come inside her: well, he's just not ready for a family, yeah? It's more complicated than that.

Taking a post-coital piss, Arthur notices a problem with the bathroom roof, and investigates. This leads to another bathroom, then to other rooms, and soon he finds himself leaving the building and into a timewarp, into another world. A world largely covered by sand (some of this was filmed in Douz, Tunisia) but still in part recognisable as the Paris he's not in fact left in geographical terms. This is a kind of post-apocalyptic, or maybe global climatic France in 2070, when the sand invades, covering the past as when the Roman empire was buried by its future. Along with simple solar-powered vehicles, horse-drawn ones can be seen, and there are camels and ostriches: this is a world where low-tech and high-tech meet in harmony. And where Arthur will meet his aged son Ako (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The idea is interesting, and it's one which could have been used subtly and intelligently. Unfortunately it degenerates fantastically: save the future, save your future by having sex. Sorry, but I'm not in any way convinced: this to me reads like a Catholic tract which the Pope couldn't have objected to! All the same, this is not the worst ever pro-Catholic film: the truly loathsome Énorme directed by Sophie Letourneur, which encourages men to break the law and create unwanted pregnancies, is horrific!

30 December 2021

Claude Zidi's Les Bidasses en folie (1971)

There is a tradition in French cinema of army comedies, and after all national service could at one point last up to six years. But some years after the popularity of this kind of movie comes Les Bidasses en folie, which is a comedy, and in 1971 it was unusual to have such a comedy, although this one mixes the burlesque with criticism of the established order. In fact, coming so briefly after the events of 1968, this wonderful film is a total assault on the Establishment.

At the time of the appearance of Les Bidasses en folie, the pop group Les Charlots (after Charlie Chaplin, after 'charlot' meaning 'clown'), the band had a hit with 'Merci Patron', which was a heavily ironic song thanking the boss for allowing them to work for him, saying that they were very happy with him, clocking on, and so on.

So the five stars of this comedy are the members of Les Charlots (originally the backing band Les Problèmes to Antoine): Jean-Guy (Jean-Guy Fechner), Phil (Gérard Filippetti), Gérard (Gérard Rinaldi), Jean (Jean Sarrus), and Luis (Luis Rego). They're interested in peace and love, singing and dancing, no war. So when they get called up they act like clowns, fuck everything up, and continue to do so until they're thrown out of the army for being dangerous. This is a wonderful hymn to anarchism, although I'm concerned that it's been read incorrectly as a crap film: it is not, it is a hugely important film with an enormous message to the world.

Jean Boyer's Le Trou normand | Crazy for Love (1952)

This is set in the imaginary village of Courteville (in reality La Vieille-Lyre not far from Évreux). Thirtysomething Hippolyte Lemoine (Bourvil) may not be the full whatever currency you care to mention, but he's clearly a thoroughly decent guy and when his uncle dies he leaves everything to him – on condition that Hippolyte passes his elementary school exams – the dead man's lover Augustine (Jane Marken), whose daughter is Javotte (a very young Brigitte Bardot), is obviously furious because she expected to inherit, especially the auberge Le Trou normand.

Much of the plot involves Augustine's attempts to gain what she believes are her rightful possessions, and thwarting Hippolyte's attempts at getting an education. She tries to convince Hippolyte that her daughter is in love with him, although there are many complications and in the end he triumphs – not just as a result of the will of the townspeople, but of his uncle's codicil. A joy to watch, but when isn't Bourvil a joy to watch?

Philippe de Broca's Tendre poulet | Dear Detective (1978)

Dear Detective. Whatever genius invented that title couldn't possibly translate the pun in the title anyway. Admittedly, 'Tender Chicken' would hardly have been a suitable title for Annie Girardot (playing police chief Lise Tanquerelle at the age of about fifty-seven), but then there's a missed pun: 'poulet' is slang for cop. And Lise literally runs into Antoine Lemercier (Philippe Noiret), who's a teacher of Greek at the Sorbonne, as she's driving and he's riding a bicycle. And they turn out to be old friends when they were in class together, so there's a joining point.

And although they'd both love to cement that joining point in a relationship, Lise is held up by a series of apparently pointless murders, which is of course the MacGuffin: it keeps the attention and holds the suspense: this is not really about a series of murders but about will they/won't they get together? We really don't care why the presumably sexually depraved and psychotic concierge Charmille (Hubert Deschamps) killed those people.

In the end, of course Lise and Antoine get together, and there was even a sequel in 1980, when Lise and Antoine went on honeymoon in Greece: On a volé la cuisse de Jupiter (Jupiter's Thigh). Reviewers haven't been kind to the follow-up.

24 December 2021

Henri Verneuil's Le Grand chef | Gangster Boss (1959)

I know I have a thing about title translations (OK, translation in general) but 'Gangster Boss' is surely one of the most stupid. What's wrong with 'The Big Chief', which is not only more literal but far more appropriate? This is adapted from O. Henry's story 'The Ransom of Red Chief'. Anyway, Antoine (Fernandel) and Paolo (Gino Cervi) work in a car wash but want to run their own: and the best way they can think of getting money is by kidnapping young Éric (Joël Papouf), the son of wealthy Alain Jumelin (Jean-Jacques Delbo).

The first problem with their scheme is that they're not built in the gangster mode, they're just big softies. And the second is that Eric is a handful, causing Antoine and Paolo endless trouble with his Red Indian games, and giving them sleepless nights. In the end they give up on the ransom and just hand Eric back. The trouble is that the Jumelin household have the same problems with Eric, and as penance the would-be kidnappers have to look after Eric every Sunday, which is not a prospect they relish. This, of course, is the burlesque side of Henri Verneuil.

23 December 2021

Bernard Tanguy's Je pourrais être votre grand-mère | I Could Be Your Grandmother (2010)

Je pourrais être votre grand-mère is a much-awarded eighteen-minute short concerning SDF (homeless) immigrants and people's reactions to them. A business lawyer has one camped out opposite his comfortable apartment, all her belongings at her sides. She has a semi-literate sign in front of her asking for help, and the lawyer can't sleep, imagining this woman as his peasant grandmother tending animals. He tears up the cardboard package of an internet supermarket firm and in felt tip writes 'Je pourrais être votre grand-mère' ('I could be your grandmother') and gives it to the woman the following day for her to display.

In the evening, when he returns to his apartment, the woman shouts 'Merci, merci!' to him, and shakes the generous takings she's received that day. The problem is, other SDFs copy the card verbatim in hope of the same success, but the lawyer is understandably troubled when he sees not only a young SDF woman with the same sign, but also a young man: they can't possibly be grandmothers.

So the lawyer makes new signs, such as 'parti de rien, arrivé nulle part' ('left with nothing, arrived nowhere'); 'vivre à découvert' ('living without shelter'); a wink to Obama's election slogan saying (in English) '1€ Yes, you can'; criticisms of world trade, such as 'Golden parachute' (again in English); a 'soldes' (sale) sign reduced from 1€ to 2€; 'ISF*/SDF on a tous des problèmes' ('Fortune tax/NFA we all have problems'); to be realistic (and inevitably controversial), there's even a person holding a bottle of wine with a can of Special Brew at the side with a sign 'Que celui qui n'a jamais BU jette la première pierre' (a slight variation of the biblical 'let him who is without sin cast the first stone', but with "has never DRUNK" to replace the original).

And there's the sign 'La faim justifie les moyens' ('The hunger/end justifies the means', with a pun on 'faim' and 'fin'), although there are problems. This, although short, is an important film.

*In 2017, Édouard Philippe's government, under Macron, decided to sugar the pill for the wealthy by abolishing the ISF in favour of the IFI (impôt sur la fortune immobilière), a stealth tax in favour of the rich.

Henri Verneuil's L'Affaire d'une nuit | It Happened All Night (1960)

Michel (Roger Hanin) meets his old childhood friend Antoine (Pierre Mondy) – who could almost be one of Francis Veber's Pignons (or Perrins) – and they linger a while with Antoine's lovely wife Christine (Pascale Petit) at a café terrasse in central Paris until Antoine has to go to an old soldiers' reunion and Michel drops Christine off at a shop but then keeps driving around as he wants to see her again. With Christine's help he buys a new jacket, and eventually he takes her home and stays there for a time, in love, and knowing that Antoine won't be back until late. Even when it gets to the time for Antoine to return he persuades her to go for a drive with him which they spend loving. They get lost, the car gets stuck in the mud, and suddenly it's six in the morning and they have to find excuses. It's been easy making telephone calls to Michel's wife about delays with a customer, but how to explain things to Antoine?

Christine has taken a turn (?), she's been raped (??) and she's turned up on Michel's doorstep (???): now who would believe that apart from a candidate for Veber's Pignons? Of course, Antoine doesn't believe it, he believes that Christine has a lover, but never does it enter his head that the lover is Michel! No, Antoine's leaving: does the Légion Étrangière accept Pignons recruits at his age? Not one of Verneuil's best, but highly watchable all the same. 

Alain Cavalier's L'Insoumis | The Unvanquished (1964)

Thomas Vlassenroot (Alain Delon) is a young guy from Luxembourg doing military service in Algeria who deserts in 1961 after le putsch des généraux. But his lieutenant, Fraser (Georges Géret), now with the OAS, persuades him to kidnap the lawyer Dominique Servet (Léa Massari), whose work is to defend the Algerian revolutionaries: his payment will be enough for him to return to Luxembourg. But Thomas takes pity on Dominique and releases her, and his affection for her will lead to his downfall. The final image of the dying Thomas was famously used on the cover of the Smiths' album The Queen is Dead.

22 December 2021

Henri Verneuil's Mille milliards de dollars (1982)

Yes, that's a thousand billion dollars, a huge sum of money today and obviously considerably much more huge in 1982. But that's the value of a few multi-national companies, and although GTI is a fictional company it's easy to figure out that it could represent a particular American concern. The plot of this is far too complicated to go into here, but this is Henri Verneuil's attack on international capitalism and the power it has, with just one man – La Tribune journalist Paul Kerjean (Patrick Deweare in one of his final roles) as the hero trying to untangle the various nets of corruption involved, at great risk to his life. An important film from Verneuil.

21 December 2021

Chel White's Dirt (1998)

Dirt is a bizarre, surreal, four-minute short starring, written and narrated by Joe Frank. We first see him in a restaurant, and he tells us about his obsession with dirt (meaning soil). It began in childhood, when kids judged who could put the most dirt in their ears, noses and mouths. While the others vomited, the narrator never did and always won. Later, he would bury himself, delighting in the gritty earth. During the restaurant meal with a couple, we see him finding it necessary to have soil added to anything he eats. He grows tendrils, vegetables grow from his body, and he eats them, making him self-sustaining, he's his own eco-system, he is empowered. My only wonder is how many takes it took Joe Frank to tell this story without laughing.

Mansour Sora Wade's Fary l'ânesse (1987)

Les Contes d'Amadou Koumba is a collection of nineteen tales from Senegal and other African countries which were first gathered in book form in 1947. They were transcribed and translated from the original wolof into French by Birago Diop from the tales by the griot Amadou, the son of Koumba. 'Fari l'anesse' is one of them, which Diop describes as a story about a donkey which metamorphoses into a beautiful woman in order to live in a place not devastated by famine. There are variations on the theme, one telling of a king who wants to marry a woman with no imperfections. It is generally seen as a story with a moral: man's search for perfection can lead to great disapointment.

In Mansour Sora Wade's twenty-minute film, in wolof, wealthy village peasant Serigne Ibra (Mame Ndoumbé Diop) seeks to marry a young woman who has no imperfecctions, not even a scar. Eventually the woman, Fary (Dienaba Diallo), appears and Ibra marries her. She makes frequent trips outside the village and a curious Moor follows her and discovers the secret: she has gone to join her fellow donkeys, and changes back into one when with them. The Moor returns to the village and the story spreads around, making Ibra the laughing stock of the village until he discovers the truth for himself.

20 December 2021

Germaine Dulac's La Cigarette (1919)

Egyptologist and museum curator Pierre Guérande (Gabriel Signoret) has, at the age of forty-eight, married the young Denise (Andrée Brabant), but he begins to fear for the relationship when his wife's friend Irène de Tramont (Genevieve Williams) comes on the scene. Irène's friend Maurice Herbert introduces Denise to him, and it seems to Pierre that he's lost his love to a guy who is 'modern': not only does he dance the tango but he's a golf ace and teaches Denise how to play the game. Pierre begins to believe that he's yesterday's papers, only fit for the sexual scrapheap, and decides – much like the elderly Egyptian prince he knows so much about – that he has to perform a sophisticated suicide. But at an unexpected moment: he poisons one of his cigarettes, mixes them up, and he'll die at an unknown time.

The problem is that he has to be very wary of anyone else – such as his wife – touching any of his cigarettes. But when he's down to his last one – and he knows that that must be the lethal one – Denise starts to smoke it. He snatches it from her, but then learns the truth: Maurice has never been anything more than a friend, Pierre is a man of culture, and that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with youth as Denise loves him: in fact Pierre has been winding himself up a tree he can't climb down unless it's explained to him. For a silent movie, there are a large number of words.

Barbet Schroeder's La Vallée | Obscured by Clouds (1972)


Barbet Schoeder's second feature again concerns hippies, this time in search of an unmapped valley in Papua Nuew Guinea 'obscured by clouds'. And again it has the music of Pink Floyd. Viviane (Bulle Ogier) is a diplomat's wife in search of rare exotic bird feathers who by chance meets Olivier (Michael Gothard) who's living in a tent with a few other hippies, notably Gaëtan (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), who's would be the leader if hippies believed in leaders. So she decides to join them. Their long trail leads to Viviane learning how to conquer jealousy and learn about free love; a friendly encounter with the Mapuga tribe and a gruesome pig-battering sequence; travel by jeep, then horseback, and finishing on foot. The photography is beautiful, the psychological relationships very believable, although I couldn't help but wonder if Olivier had been right: weren't they just tourists? OK, they reached the valley, but had it really been worth the effort?

Louis Delluc's's Fièvre (1921)

Fièvre is now one hundred years old, and with La Femme de nulle part is one of the important of the seven films Delluc made in his short life. Originally called 'La Boue' ('Mud') the title was changed after a few cuts had to be made for reasons of censorship. It is set in Marseille, although the only glimpses of France's second city which we see are short shots unrelated to the general narrative: set in a rough bar, the emphasis is on showing this film as if in the theatre. 

At first we just see Topinelli (Gaston Modot) and his wife Sarah (Ève Francis, actually Delluc's wife) and several customers: four playing cards, a drunk on his own, Patience (Solange Sicard) who is waiting (no doubt in vain) for a man to return, and a woman with a pipe. Sarah too once waited for a man, and then settled into marriage with the brutish Topinelli, And then a number of sailors arrive.

They bring back trophies from their travels: a monkey, a parrot that talks Japanese, a statue of a Chinaman, the tooth of a swordfish, and so on. But the trophy Militis (Edmond Van Daële) brings is a docile Asian woman he's married, played by Elena Sagrary. Other women arrive and the place takes on the appearance of a brothel, with much drinking, talking, groping and dancing.

Sarah recognises Militis as the man who left her, they talk, Topinelli is told to be careful of his wife, the two men fight and Militis ends up dead on the floor. Before the police come the bar has emptied, with just Sarah by Militis, and the police take her away, thinking she is the killer.

Germaine Dulac's La Souriante Madame Beudet | The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923)

Germaine Dulac's silent avant-garde movie La Souriante Madame Beudet is seen by many critics as the first explicit feminist film, and the title is distinctly ironic.

Madeleine Beudet (Germaine Dermoz) lives in a provincial town with her husband (played by Alexandre Arquillière), who is a grotesque merchant draper in the Beudet et Labas firm. Beudet lives for money, his wife for culture. In spite of her physically comfortable bourgeois existence she is bitterly miserable and a number of images, such as a tennis player whisking her husband away or the vision of a handsome man: a fantasy or a memory – appear as images or superimpostions in the film to reveal her state of mind.

Three particular lines from Baudelaire's 'La Mort des amants' strike her. They are from Les Fleurs du mal, and from the first stanza of the poem, which was incidentally one of Les Cinq poèmes de Charles Baudelaire which Debussy used as song and piano melodies:

'Nous aurons des lits pleins d'odeurs légères,

Des divans profonds comme des tombeaux,

Et d'étranges fleurs sur des étagères 

[...].'

The Beudets have been invited to the theatre to see Faust, although Madeleine (imagining her husband as Mephistopheles) refuses and while she is alone she loads Baudet's gun which he frequently plays with, pretending to kill himself. But she is stricken with remorse and sees images of the court. But before she can retrieve the gun and unload it Baudet has hold of it, and, thinking of course that it is empty, points it at Madeleine and fires. Fortunately he hits the wall, but his stupidity (and his egotism) lead him to believe that it was his wife who sought to kill herself. Return to normality.

19 December 2021

Walerian Borowczyk's Le Théâtre de monsieur et madame Kabal | Mr and Mrs Kabal's Theatre (1967)

Initially Borowczyk's first feature – an animated creation with usually strange metallic noises (rather than music) – this seems almost completely bewildering. And although it remains bewildering to some extent, in retrospect it takes on more significance. This is certainly an absurd world in which the principal figure – the fearsome Madame Kabal – is rubbed out a number of times by the illustrator, a representation of whom appears in order to introduce himself to the woman. But it would be difficult to speak of what we are seeing as being in any way a regular narrative: it's more of a long series of often shape-changing figures with no apparent reason for their metamorphosis: virtually nothing is constant, and possibly the large number of butterflies in the film – which of course undergo four changes in their life – is an indication of this change of life.

But there are also animals, which are unrecognisable as any in existence, with the possible exception of maggots. And there is much mechanical behaviour, even the suggestion of the making of bombs (this being the time of the Cold War). And then there's Monsieur Kabal.

M. Kabal is a minor figure in this in comparison with his wife: he makes fewer appearances in the film, and is much smaller in size, quite probably dominated by his wife. He also seems to be spending quite an extent of time looking through his binoculars to the world outside the drawn one, where short film clips show us the 'real' moving world in colour, frequently with scantily clad young women.

18 December 2021

Walerian Borowczyk's Blanche (1971)

Walerian Borowczyk's Blanche is set in a convincingly medieval (thirteenth century) context with musical instruments of the time. The lord of the manor (Michel Simon) in his eighties and is married to a very young and beautiful woman played by Borowczyk's wife Ligia Branice as the Blanche of the title. And everyone falls in love with her, including (mutually) her stepson Nicolas (Lawrence Trimble) and the people visiting the castle, such as the king himself (Georges Wilson) and his page Bartoloméo (Jacques Perrin). Much blood will be spent, and not a great number of the protagonists will survive, apart from the king and the dove (which surely in some respects represents Blanche herself?).

This is said by many to be Borowczyk's best film, and I can believe it: a sumptuous feast.

Zoé Wittock's Jumbo (2020)

Zoé Wittock calls this film a 'romantic fairy story', which it certainly is, and she was inspired to make it on learning that Erika Eiffel had married the Tour d'Eiffel: in fact she sought out Erika to visit her before making the film. Jeanne Tantois (Noémie Merlant in a brilliant performance) is a young woman living with her mother Marguerette (Emmanuelle Bercot), now in a single-parent relationship and who only with difficulty could be more different from her daughter: Marguerette is a non-too-bright bartmaid eager for sexual encounters she can come upon; Jeanne works in an amusement park (actually Plopsa Coo in Belgium), is very shy and sexually inexperienced, and quite possibly at some low level in the autistic spectrum, but then who isn't?

Wittock didn't choose the Tour Eiffel as it is too static, but tentatively Jeanne develops a relationship with the machine Move-It, which she renames Jumbo and which she rapidly falls in love with, reading signs from the machine that it is responding to her attentions. The park director Marc (Bastien Bouillon) is attracted to her but can't understand her. As she tends the park at night she gets to see Jumbo a great deal, and on one occasion has an orgasm: the oil from the machine is seen in the light of sexual fluid, and there's an almost surreal sequence in which she bathes in the oil.

If the main theme is objectophilia, the sub-plot is the intolerance of humans towards difference, of not accepting people and ridiculing them because they don't fit in with the norm: her mother thinks she's crazy; Marc (who on one occasion has indifferent sex with her but still lusts after her) is as insensitive as her mother: at the annual amusement park ceremony he presents Jeanne with an employee of the year award, and then says that Move-It is moving on because (falsely he claims) it's not attaracting enough people. On stage Jeanne attacks him.

Later, Marguerette's new boyfriend Hubert – who has previously remained in the background and not seemed to have much to say – berates Marc for his intolerance and tells him to leave Marguerette's property, only to turn to her, criticise her for her intolerance and inhumanity to Jeanne, and promptly leaves Marguerette. Yes, Marguerette has a lot of growing up to do very quickly, and almost the final scene shows her, Hubert and Jeanne standing underneath Jumbo, with Hubert and Marguerette (separately) playing the role of vicar, with Jeanne dressed in white with a bridal veil.

For a first feature this is a stunning movie, and let's be honest: it's an important one too.