15 January 2021

Franco Ferreri's La Grande Bouffe (1973)


La Grande Bouffe is a satire on consumerism and decadent bourgeois society. Four men, who are all called by their real names – Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), Philippe (Philippe Noiret), Michel (Michel Piccoli), and Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi) – are so sick of their tedious lives that they decide to shut themselves in a villa and eat themselves to death. Ugo, a restaurant owner who delights in acting like 'Godfather' Marlon Brando, is the chef; Philippe is a high-class magistrate who lives with his nursemaid Nicole (Michèle Alexandre); Marcello is a pilot and a sexual predator; and Michel is a television producer and presenter. 

Everything is done in the worst of possible tastes. Vanloads of full of food arrive, prostitutes are supplied by Marcello, and a grand festival of noshing, sex, farting and shitting begins. The actual property (here belonging to Philippe) is 68 rue Boileau in the 16e arrondissement, and schoolteacher Andréa (Andréa Ferréol) joins them as she's interested in the tree in the garden underneath which Nicolas Boileau wrote his poetry. (The site is now the Vietnamese Embassy.)

Gradually, all four friends die, although the first, Marcello, marches out of the villa exasperated by his impotence, intending to leave in a 1920s Bugatti, but is found frozen in the car in the morning; Michel dies of indigestion; Ugo stuffs himself to death; and Philippe dies under a bench under the Boileau tree after eating a cake made by Andréa in the shape of two breasts.

The back support of the bench has a common quotation in English by Dorothy Frances Gurney: 'Kiss of the sun for pardon. Song of the birds for mirth. You're closer to God's heart in a garden than any place else on earth.'

14 January 2021

Éric Rohmer's Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle | Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987)


Quatre aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle are, as the title indicates, four short films following the same two young girls: Reinette (Joëlle Miquel) and Mirabelle (Jessica Forde). Each section is given a title:

L'Heure Bleue

This involves Mirabelle, on holiday in the country, cycling through the hamlet of Saincy, near Rebais, Seine-et-Marne, when she has a puncture and doesn't seem to have a clue as to what to do with it. Reinette, about the same age, walks up to her fixes it. She invites Rainette into the converted hayloft where she lives in the summer, and Mirabelle stays with her for a few days: the attraction is watching the moment the sun rises (reminiscent of Le Rayon vert). But the real attraction is Rainette's paintings: she wants to learn art in Paris, although her paintings show a remarkable untutored skill which Rainette possesses. But she's not heard of surrealism, and nor has she heard of the subject Mirabelle is studying: ethnology.

Le Garçon de café

Reinette and Mirabelle are now living together in Paris. They agree to meet in a café, Reinette arrives there first where she installs herself at the terrasse, and the waiter asks her for the 4.50 francs in advance. She only has a 200 franc note, which the waiter refuses and doesn't believe that she's waiting for a friend. When Mirabelle arrives she doesn't have change either, and the waiter gets nastier. When he goes inside, the girls run off, although Reinette returns the next day with the money.

Le Mendiant, la Kleptomane et l'Arnaqueuse

Paris is of course full of beggars and Mirabelle gently rebukes Reinette for giving money to one: it can get expensive.

In a supermarket Mirabelle notices a woman putting champagne, salmon and duck pâté in a bag in her supermarket trolley, and also notices two store detectives watching her. At the checkout Mirabelle secretly steals the woman's bag, the woman is accosted but the store detectives find of course find nothing. Mirabelle intends to return the bag to the woman but can't reach her in all the traffic so just takes the bag home. She explains everything to Reinette, saying she was trying to help the woman who must have been suffering from cleptomania, Reinette doesn't understand the logic and refuses to partake of the stolen goods: she can't see how Mirabell has acted morally correctly.

At a station Reinette gives 6.40 francs to a woman claiming she has problems, although it's an old trick and Reinette sees her doing the same to another woman, she challenges her, and the woman starts crying.

La Vente du tableau

Reinette can't afford to pay her part of the rent as the money she's expecting from her grandmother seems to be held up, so she feels she has to go back to the countryside. Mirabelle tells her to try to sell her paintings. A gallery dealer (Fabrice Luchini) agrees to see a painting, likes it and is surprised that Reinette doesn't appear to have heard of Magritte or Dali. He agrees to display the painting on a fifty-fifty basis: he'll ask for 2000 francs. But Reinette wants to be paid now, and she starts to cry. Mirabelle, who's acting as a potential customer, argues with the dealer until he pays Reinette. Shortly aferwards two customers are very interested in the painting. The price: 4000 francs.

Éric Rohmer's L'Ami de mon amie | My Girlfriend's Boyfriend (1987)


This is Éric Rohmer's sixth and final film in his 'Comédies et proverbes' series, and the subtitle 'Mes amis de mes amis' ('My friends' friends are my friends') is a reference to a French proverb as well as a reference to Goethe's novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) (1809). The setting is the new conurbation of Cergy-Pontoise.

Blanche (Emmanuelle Chaulet) is a young and very shy worker in local government who currently has no boyfriend and not even any friends. And then she meets the very outgoing Léa (Sophie Renoir), who quickly becomes a very good friend. Léa is just concluding her studies and partly lives with Fabien (Éric Viellard), although isn't exactly ecstatic about the relationship. In fact Léa seems more interested in getting Blanche together with Alexandre, an engineer with a PhD who works for EDF and has a reputation as a skirt-chasing braggart.

And then Léa goes on holiday without Fabien, Blanche seems torn between Alexandre and Fabien, but is given to crying spells and regrets that she has shyly turned down the opportunity to become more acquainted with either Alexandre or Fabien. However, she goes swimming and windsurfing with Fabien, discovers that she more than likes him, and they end up in bed together.

If Rohmer's La Femme de l'aviateur is a film of jealousy, then L'Ami de mon amie is a film of guilt, and Blanche is shot through with guilt for having slept with the boyfriend of her best friend. But Fabien doesn't feel the same because he realises that Léa – attracted to the life of luxury – isn't really his type, but Blanche is.

When Léa returns from holiday she announces to Blanche (much to her unspoken chagrin) that she is back with Fabien, although this is very short lasting and she soon lures herself into Alexandre's clutches: much to the delight of all concerned, as Blanche can now lead a guilt-free relationship with Fabien.

13 January 2021

Éric Rohmer's La Femme de l'aviateur | The Aviator's Wife (1981)


La Femme de l'aviateur is the first film in Rohmer's 'Comédies et Proverbes' series and is set in Paris. This time the sub-title is 'On ne saurait penser à rien' ('We couldn't think of nothing', a variation of Alfred de Musset's 'On ne saurait penser à rien' ('We couldn't think of everything').

The irony of the title is that we never see the pilot's wife, although we see her husband, if in fact he is the husband of someone we never see. What is important here, as with all of Rohmer's films, is discussion, the possibility or the impossibility of love, but not certainties, just philosophilcal speculations.

François (Philippe Marlaud) is a university student of law working in a postal sorting office (which reminded me of Cosmo in Patrick Lapeyre's novel Paula ou personne) to get by, and is in love with Anne (Marie Rivière, Rohmer's actrice fétiche), although she's received a visit from her (former?) lover Christian (Mathieu Carrière, who's been away for three months), who has told her his wife is pregnant and she's returning to her.

François doesn't know this and tries to talk to Anne, but she's not in talking mode. By chance, François sees Christian with a woman in a bar, follows them on a bus and then follows them into parc des Buttes-Chaumont.* Shortly before this he gets talking to Lucie (Anne-Laure Meury), a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl interested in languages. And detective stories: François seems interesting. And he tells Anne the story, they tail Christian and his companion, but Anne has to go but leaves her address as she wants to know the end of the story.

And then François is rebuffed by Anne, who is depressed about Christian concluding her romance with her, in spite of not being in favour of marriage, which kills things. So where does François stand? Certainly on soggy ground when he sees one of his workmates much involved with Lucie. Life is a lottery, surely?

*This park was designed by Adolphe Alphand, who was also responsible for his development of the parc Montsouris, the parc Monceau, the bois du Boulogne, the bois de Vincennes, and many other places. This has nothing to do with the story, but is nevertheless very interesting.

12 January 2021

Éric Rohmer's Pauline à la plage | Pauline at the Beach (1983)


Pauline à la plage is the third film in Rohmer's 'Comédies et Proverbes' series and is set in Jullouville, near Granville, Manche. Marion (Arielle Dombasle) takes her fifteen-year-old cousin Pauline (Amanda Longet) to her holiday home for a few weeks' break. There they meet Marion's former lover Pierre (Pascal Greggory), who's a windsurfer, and his friend Henri (Féodor Atkine). Later, Sylvain (Simon de La Brosse) will chat up Pauline, and Louisette, the marchande de bonbons, will play a crucial part in the events.

Rohmer is of course a highly literary director, and at the beginning of the movie we have a quotation from Chrétien de Troyes: 'Qui trop parole, il se mesfait', which I would translate as 'The person who talks too much creates his own problems'. This is an excellent description of the film, which in many ways resembles a play with half the scenes at the seaside. The startling thing is that in almost forty years the film has aged so little, although this in part is certainly due to the lack of clothing: this is Normandy, but obviously in the heat of the summer.

Forgetting Chrétien de Troyes, this film could almost be a modernised play by Shakespeare, with Rohmerian dicussions thrown in. Love is the most important thing of interest, with Marion – having experienced one marriage but not love – seeking that sensation. Pauline, being so young, of course hasn't been there, apart from when she was twelve, but then that hardly counts; Henri seems to have become immune; but Pierre is obviously in love with his former lover.

At a dance Marion snubs Pierre, kisses Henri, sleeps with him and is falling into a place Henri obviously doesn't recognise, as proved by the fact that he has noisy sex with Luisette while Marion is showing Pauline the Mont Saint Michel. But then Marion returns early, just in time to catch Luisette hiding in the bathroom with, er, Pauline's boyfriend Syvain. There's a hell of a lot of unravelling to do here, lies to be made, then undone, until the truth isn't known by all, as indeed it shouldn't be. Yep, Shakespeare's written all over this.

Jean Renoir's Une partie de campagne | A Day in the Country (1936; release 1946)


Renoir's Une partie de campagne is adapted from Maupassant's story of the same name, lasts just forty minutes, and concerns the Dufour family's day trip from Paris to the countryside (Bezons, which has changed a little since then). Cyprien (André Gabriello) is the ironmonger father, Juliette (Jane Marken) his wife, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) his daughter, Anatole (Paul Temps) Henriette's fiancé and Gabrielle Fontan plays Cyprien's mother-in-law. They borrow the milkman's horse and cart and stop by an auberge by the river, where they order a meal.

There is a clear difference in classes here: the lust as the canotiers Henri (Georges Darnoux) and Rodophe (Jacques Brunius) watch Juliette and Henriette on the swings, particularly Rodolphe trying to see up Henriette's skirt, is one of the major moments in the film; the clumsy city clothes of the Parisians are out of place compared with the appropriate light clothing of the canotiers. Rodophe takes Juliette in his boat, Henri takes Henriette, and they are both easily seduced while Cyprien and the pathetic Anatole are left fishing.

At a later date Henriette is with her husband Anatole on the riverbank where she was with Henri and, while Anatole is snoozing, she sees Henri a short distance away. Both are visibly moved to see the other.

11 January 2021

Jean Rollin's La Vampire nue | The Nude Vampire (1969)

Jean Rollin (1938-2010) was the son of the actor Claude Martin and Denise Lefroi, who when he was one year old formed a liasion with Georges Bataille, with whom she lived in Vézelay until 1943. But Bataille met Diane Kotchoubey De Beauharnais and there was a brief ménage à trois until Denise left with Jean.

Rollin is noted for his erotic vampire films, of which this is his second. La Vampire nue is easier to sum up than it is to describe. There's a general dream-ike atmosphere although the film in general is marred by a B-movie feel, as if this isn't the main feature. Pierre Radamante (Olivier Rollin, Jean's half-brother) falls in love with a young girl (Caroline Cartier) who's trying to escape from beast-headed men he later discovers are working for his father Georges (Maurice Lemaître): they think she's a vampire and want to experiment on her to discover the secret of immortality.

I could go on but the plot gets very complicated. It's enough to say that she's not a vampire but an immortal, and Pierre in the end joins her in immortality. OK, this was only Rollin's second film, but to say it creaks somewhat is putting it mildly, and I really think all the bare-breasted women must have been there for the box office. I can understand why this film got really mixed (but mainly negative) reviews from professional and amateur reviewers alike, but it might be interesting to see how Rollin fares with a later movie of his.

10 January 2021

Catherine Breillat's Romance (1999)


This is a pornographic film. Not. Rather, it's anti-pornographic, although it had to cross a number of censors' walls in order to convince. OK, there's a small amount of graphic, real (meaning unsimulated) sex in this movie, but it's in no way titillating, nothing here is designed to arouse men's lust. This is a feminist film in which Breillat's intention is to depict image as idea, characters with emotions: quite a distance from porn.

Virtually everything is seen from a female point of view, with the protagonist Marie (Catherine Ducey) being the watcher and the doer, and she provides the voiceovers. She lives with her boyfriend Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) in a flat that is almost entirely white, not modern, chic white but hospital white, virgin, characterless, sterile. And sterility, or sexlessness, is the name of the game here. Marie (now there's a name!) hates cotton as she finds it stifling, and yet Paul wears a white cotton tee-shirt in bed and only reluctantly takes it off when Marie asks him to. But even though he has a hard-on and she starts sucking he's not interested: in fact he's not interested in sex.

Already the tables have been turned here: the macho male is hoist by his own petard. At the beginning of the film Paul (a male model) is seen being made up for a photo session by posing (ahem) as a bullfighter in the arena in Arles with a woman he has to pose on tiptoe with in order to redress the balance of height. But Marie is so sexually frustrated that she seeks an outlet elsewhere, and sneaks out of bed with Paul to take his car and drive into central Paris to a bar where she finds herself staring at a man.*

The coup here is that Breillat has recruited Rocco Siffredi, the hardcore porn star, to be Marie's physical Paul, here known as Paolo: in other words he fulfils her sexual needs, but that's all: he's just an object Marie's using, a reversal of the usual objectification of woman.

Then there's the sale mec in the corridor who offers to lick Marie for 'cent balles' as she goes home after watching the sexless Paul reading Bukowski in a restaurant on his own, and although she's not against the licking he then rapes her. Plus, although dyslexic, she (rather badly) teaches French to young kids and attracts the attentions of the head teacher Robert (François Berléand), who invites Marie back to his place, tells her on two occasions that he's fucked 10,000 woman, and introduces her to the delights of sado-masochism.

Paul, Paolo and Robert are all made to look a little ridiculous here, as if Marie had triumphed over them, but who is the real winner when Marie gets pregnant and she blows up his flat? Or is that just a dream, like most of this movie? No matter how many times I might watch it, my conclusions will probably change frequently.

*Thanks to Google I was able to see that Marie had driven 4.5 km from 99-101 rue Bobillat, 17e, to Le Basile bar on the corner of rue Grenelle and rue St Guillaume, 7e.

9 January 2021

Andrew Kötting's The Whalebone Box (2020)


 And I thought Edith Walks was crazy. The Whalebone box itself goes back a long way in human time, in fact thirty years. It was then that sculptor Steve Dilworth in Tarbert, Harris – interested in once living objects, shamanism and other things – gave the box to Iain Sinclair, who promised to return it. Sinclair now thinks it's time. It is made from the bone of a washed-up whale and is said to contain a metal box filled with sea water. That's why – although we're not told this in the film – we sometimes see a different box here, in cardboard: Sinclair says he's an old man and the box is heavy; Kötting agrees and says it's like a car battery and you can only carry one of those so far.

So there we are, and the journey back to Harris begins, Kötting and Sinclair going with their 'muse' Eden Kötting, the director's daughter who has a genetic disorder and whose words are given subtitles: this film is in part from her dreams. Obviously there are many literary quotations, such as by Basil Bunting, whose grave in the Quaker cemetery in Briggflatts, Cumbria is visited on the way, and there's mention of T. S. Eliot's walking tour with Ezra Pound.

And of course there are songs, such as the disturbingly shrill 'Murdered Mermaid's Song' by MacGillivray, or the French rap band Quai des Brumes singing 'Julien et Mathias'. This latter may seem surprising, but then Kötting and Eden live part of the time in the French Pyrenees, and a digression in the film is a visit to the ruins of a castle in the times of the Cathars on Mont Ségur, which Sinclair considers crucial. This still doesn't give anything like an idea of the strangeness of the film, but how's this for a quotation from Sinclair, who of course is preoccupied by the relativity of time:

'You just find a right place to go and that's always a site within this forest. There might be a rock over there that would allow you access to the time of your great-grandfather, to the moment in the garden. There might be a waterfall over there which allows you through to the time of your mother's childhood. There are places you go to access time, the ghosts come into the forest and at that point linear time begins.'

No matter how much I stare at the words above I still think: 'This is hippie crap!' Very weird film, quite fascinating, but Sinclair's words, often admittedly fascinating too, sometimes just seem to clog it up.

Andrew Kötting's Edith Walks (2017)


This, like Swandown, is a journey with Iain Sinclair, although here it's a walk involving several other people. And it's even crazier. The purpose of this is in memory of King Harold (killed in 1066, of course) and his wife. The journey, or pilgrimage, is in reverse order, beginning from where King Harold's remains are said to be, Waltham Abbey, and ending in St Leonards-on-Sea, where there's a sculpture of the pair.

Harold's wife, Edith Swan-Neck, is a character on the march played by singer and actor Claudia Barton, and the others – apart from Kötting and Sinclair – are percussionist David Aylward, who drums, plays bicycle spokes and anything else he can get a sound from; writer and 'wizard' Alan Moore, who believes time is a box and that Hereward the Wake was a reincarnation of Harold: and Anonymous Bosch, who uses a pinhole camera.

The troupe meet with many incidents on the way, and – as is usual – Kötting fills the film with snippets of different films, the most notable being a 1966 ninth centenary reinactment of the Battle of Hastings performed by young school children and devised by three local head teachers. Wonderful, total insanity. Brexit was of course one inspiration, trying to put together what has has been torn apart, like England in 1066 and the pieces of Harold himself. The film, by the way, lasts just one hour sixty-six seconds!

Andrew Kötting's Lek and the Dogs (2017)


This is the last of Kötting's Earthworks (or Landworks) trilogy, which also includes This Filthy Earth (2001) and the French-made Ivul (2009), in all three of which French perormance artist and actor Xavier Tchili appears as 'Lek'. This film is based on Hattie Naylor's play Ivan and the Dogs, which itself is based on the true story of the Russian Ivan Mishukov, who as a child left his Moscow home following abuse from his stepfather and his alcoholic mother. He spent two years living  with a pack of dogs which accepted him, although the time Lek spends with the dogs is much longer. With its overvoices by ‘body psychotherapist’, ‘child psychologist’ and ‘animal behaviourist’ it appears very much like a documentary on one of the most terrifying forms of alienation.

There is also something of Samuel Beckett's play Krapp's Last Tape in this, along with Tarkovsky's film Stalker, although it is in a space of its own. Kötting'x Lek is less adaptable than the non-fictional Ivan, and he leaves his girlfriend Mina and his child to return to the world he knew before. At the end of the film I thought Lek was walking around a dog cemetery, and then a quotation from Eugene O'Neill: 'There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.'

8 January 2021

Andrew Kötting's Swandown (2012)


I know this is an insane premise but then could a mixture of Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair be anything else? This is a journey on a swan-necked pedalo from Hastings to the site of the Olypic Games taken in 2011: a total of 160 miles. We meet Alan Moore on the way, who says (probably more in seriousness than jest) that what the film is about is that Ian Sinclair doesn't want anything to happen in Hackney without his permission. And Sinclair on the dreaded Olympics: 'There's not a thing there that stands up to the reality of being on the River Thames.' So there we have it.

All kinds of odd things happen: for instance, somewhere west of Bodiam Castle they drift past a young woman who seems to be doing an impression of Millais's Ophelia painting (suicide on the river, that is), but both Sinclair and Kötting totally ignore her: stage-managed, of course, and it's for laughs, but it gives a general taste of the film. There are also shots from silent movies, quotations from poems and books, all of course to be expected.

The merry pair travelled for four weeks in September and October 2011, during which they got through 84 litres of water, two bottles of whisky, six bottles of wine and twenty-four cans of Special Brew. They also 'got through' eight pairs of sunglasses, a tailormade suit, a pair of walking boots and, er, a camper van. (Well, that's what it says at the end of the film.) It is also noted that Kötting wore the same clothes every day, although Sinclair 'was changed regularly.'

I'm sure I don't have to say that the whole thing is absolutely preposterous, but of course also really enjoyable.

Andrew Kötting's This Filthy Earth (2001)


Andrew Kötting's second film throws us into a frightening world set, I'd say, in at an unknown English place sometime in the first half of the twentieth century. It relentlessly pursues the unbelievable violence, prejudice and wilful ignorance in a self-isolating (yes, I know that word is now overused!) rural community where lust for money, sex and drink are the ruling desires, but not necessarily in that order.

No compromises are made here, and I can only shudder to think what an awful mess Hollywood would have made of this.  The elderly farmer father (Dudley Suttton) is very difficult to get on with (as are most of the characters here. His daughters Kath (Demelza Randall)  and Francine (Rebecca Palmer) work on the farm and the brutish Buto (Shane Attwooll) essentially marries Kate as he is after the property, and indeed begins to declare to most people shortly after marriage that it's his land. As for Kath, well, she's just grateful for a regular sex life. Oh, and Buto's brother is always drunk but has the nickname of 'Jesus Christ' because of his dark long hair and his beard.

Loosely based on Zola's novel La Terre, this is a grim world full of dirt, terrible weather and almost universal piggish behaviour. In fact apart from the weather, I was very much reminded of Adoul's Le Souffle.

Francine is touching though, as is the Russian farmhand Lek (Xavier Tchili), who is inevitably the brunt of so many racist insults. It's Lek who's the most competent of the whole bunch, but as the outsider he's also deeply hated and is the village scapegoat: if anything goes wrong, he's the cause.

I could write quite an amount on this devastating naturalistic movie, but suffice to say that it's a gem.

6 January 2021

Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'arc | The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)


Originally intended as a talkie, this silent film is considered by many critics as not only a brilliant classic of the silent age, but as a classic of cinema tout court, one of the best films ever made. Here, Jeanne d'arc (Renée Falconetti) is forced into a farcical trial in which it is demanded that she recant her perceived heresy, her hearing voices directly from God, and to 'admit' that she heard voices from the devil. For that, her life will be spared.

Of course, Jeanne refuses to listen to the hypocrites and is burned at the stake. Many believed that a saint had been burned. A stunning film by any measure.

Lisa Barras D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's Good Vibrations (2016)


This is the (partly fictionalised) story of the iconic Terri Hooley, who of course set up the 'Good Vibrations' record shop in Belfast, which was seen by some as a crazy thing to go during the Troubles in the 1980s. Terri has no objection to crazy, and at now over seventy – admitting that he has to slow down a bit and that it took him a week to recover from a visit to Amsterdam – also admits that he has the mental age of an eleven-year-old. Some exaggeration there of course, but we understand what he means, and also understand how he must have felt during the generally more positive side of his musical life shown here.

So Terri starts the 'Good Vibrations' shop in the early 1980s – which incidentally has been through at least eleven lives – and a little later started the record label of the same name due to the booming Belfast punk scene. Such bands as The Outcasts were prominent, although the most noted one is of course The Undertones, whose 'Teenage Kicks' became so legendary.

Terri is seen giving his all to ensure that John Peel hears 'Teenage Kicks', a record which he plays twice in a row - something he'd never done before. The sight of Terri (played by Richard Dormer) and his partner Ruth (Jodie Whittaker) dancing for joy when they listen to this magic moment must be the highlight of the film. (Peel always called it his all-time favourite song, and even had a line of it inscribed on his headstone.)

This is the story of a guy who's definitely not in it for the money but the sheer love of rebellious music that is intended to break through any sectarian boundaries.

Alain Jessua: Crèvecœur (1999)

Many French film directors are also writers, but Alain Jessua (1932-2017) made films until 1997 (one intial short and nine features), and then turned novelist, with eight to his credit. Le Crèvecœur ('Crève-cœur' meaning 'heartbreak') is a fictional village here, and in this first novel are many of the features in his films: desperation, artificiality, sex, the future, technology, surveillance, a general sense of anarchy, etc.

France is now essentially an urban country, with people being encouraged (almost forced) to move out of the country, which is a lawless zone where savage human 'rats' terrorise the remaining people. Paris is now a spotless city with polished pavements and businesses run by the state: the penalty for dropping litter is a three-month prison sentence, although it's all right for people to have sex (discreetly?) in churches, as long as condoms are not discarded as litter. Churches are for anyone to enjoy, especially the mainly elderly prayers, and there are images of Muhammad along with other religious icons.

There are essentially two interlinked stories here, with the young Isabelle being rescued from being raped by two 'rats' in a savage area by two cops, and the commissaire Chêne taking her under his control. He's given two weeks to solve the mystery of this girl, whom he 'adopts' into his childless family and who slowly comes to appreciate him not as a potential (and illegal) lover but as someone who genuinely wants to help her – a rare thing in the world that France has now become.

And France is now a police state, where everyone dutifully watches everyone else, including the 'rats', some of whom work for the cops: it's impossible to know what information is being gathered on you. Here cameras don't seem too widely available, but they are left in homes as bugging devices.

There are 'visiophones' and it's by a 'disquette' that Chêne learns of the history of Isabelle's step-father Louis Moulin and his grandfather, the information on it slowly unravelling as this fascinating novel progresses.

4 January 2021

Bruno Dumont's Hors Satan | Outside Satan (2011)

As I mentioned in a recent post, Hors Satan is influenced by Dreyer's Ordet*, although there are many differences: unlike Ordet, Hors Satan is almost entirely set outside; there is very little language and even that – French viewers have complained – is often inaudible because of natural background sounds; there is physical  violence, although little mental violence; no character is named, only a dog.

Le Gars is David Dewaele and La Fille is Alexandra Lemâtre, and the photography of Yves Cape is exceptional. In terms of genesis, the hermit in Dumont's La Vie de Christ was the inspiration: he wanted to make a film about this hermit, although it must be added that Dumont is an atheist. Le Gars sleeps rough in the area to the north of Boulogne-sur-Mer, and le Fort d'Ambleteuse appears in a few of the shots, on one occasion close up.

The fascinating point in this controversial film is that Le Gars can be read as a holy figure, Christ even, or maybe Satan, maybe both. He has a strong platonic relationship with the pale, much younger Goth-type Fille, and although she'd like to make the relationship physical he is opposed to it. At the beginning he kills her sexually abusive stepfather with a rifle which (casually) seems to appear by magic: oddly, the police don't question this odd stranger who is so linked to the murdered father's daughter, but then Le Gars seems to have some kind of (spiritual?) immunity. Later, when La fille mentions that the warden has tried to chat her up, even(!) kissed her, the obviously jealous Gars beats the shit out of him, probably even kills him, but the police don't pay him any mind.

Not only do the wind and the birds make noises, but we hear the breath of any physical action of the characters, including walking around the dunes where Le Gars lives. He not only lives outside time, but outside society, although he's obviously highly respected and cures a young girl, for which his mother thanks him as if he were Christ. For food, he just knocks on doors and is given sandwiches: La Fille even takes in his dirty clothing and hands it back clean. He spends much time praying, looking at the vastness of the ocean and wandering around the dunes with or without La Fille.

There's a fire in one scene, a huge one without any obvious cause. Le Gars walks with La Fille, instructs her to walk on water (in fact on bricks very thinly dividing two small areas of water) and the fire is out. It's a miracle (remember Dreyer)!

There are also noisy human sounds in this film, shouts, shreaks, maybe of torture, maybe of ecstasy, maybe of both. A female hiker asks him the way, he just points without turning to look at her, she joins him, they go through a fence towards the sea, sit down and she produces two beers, puts her arm around his neck and tells him he can fuck her, does he want to? He nods, she strips naked, he remains fully clothed but unzipped and she screams as he fucks her, she foams at the mouth and he kisses her too at the same time as he puts his hand to her throat. Silence. Has he killed her? No, maybe not, as she dives into the water as if she's been reborn again. Later, the police are seen removing a body.

Le Gars is taken away by the police and then released. Then a man neither Le Gars nor La Fille have a liking for is arrested for the murders, his dog (the only being with a name in this film) takes to him, and they both leave the hamlet and walk off to another town. This film is mysterious, inscrutable, exasperating for many, but the meaning can be debated forever: the mark of a truly great film.

*The influence of Robert Bresson is also obvious.

Ousmane Sembène's La Noire de... | Black Girl (1966)

Ousmane Sembène, who is perhaps better known as a writer – particularly of Les Bouts de bois de Dieu (1966) – than a film director, certainly intended his film La Noire de... to mean more than the English version Black Girl*. The 'de' can mean 'from', as in 'from Senegal', but possession is surely indicated here? The black girl (and even the word 'girl' is demeaning) belonging to... who? A nameless white couple of slave drivers in fact.

The illiterate Diouana has sought work as a housekeeper or nursemaid in Dakar, where the white family was very reasonable to her and her main task was looking after the children. Obviously she welcomed going to work in Antibes for them with open arms: a chance to see the former mother country, to live on the Côte d'Azur!

Unfortunately things don't work out at all as planned, and – the children presumably being away at a boarding school – she is expected to be a maid, making all the meals, doing the washing up, the washing and the laundering, obeying her employers' every whim, not even being allowed the chance of seeing anything of the environment she's in: she knows no one, can't communicate her problems, and is treated as a slave, held prisoner to the couple who present her to friends as an exotic toy. Her employers have no conception that they are destroying her, call her lazy and don't understand why she is unhappy. She must be ill.

Diouana is definitely ill, although her illness is entirely caused by her employers. She chooses to end her life by slitting her throat in the bath. She becomes a brief 'fait divers' in the local newspaper, and on the husband's return to the bidonville where Diouana's mother lives, the reception he receives is very cold.

'La Noire de...' was originally published as a short story in the magazine Présence africaine in 1961, and the following year by Présence africaine publishers in a collection of the author's short stories called Voltaïque.

3 January 2021

Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet | The Word (1955)


Many film directors have been influenced by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and among those influenced by his Ordet are Bruno Dumont in Hors Satan and Denys Arcand's Jésus de MontréalOrdet was adapted from the 1932 play by Kaj Munk. Its dramatic roots are evident from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, shot almost entirely indoors in two homes, although even then virtually entirely in a farmhouse.

The essential story is of this farming family which is very religious. The father Morten Borgen lives with his three sons – Johannes, Mikkel and Anders, and his daughter-in-law Inger  who is married to Mikkel.

Johannes is the problem because, although his father intended him to be a pastor, his head became turned by reading Kierkegaard and he now seems to be in full nervous breakdown mode, spending time out on the sand dunes and quoting from the bible as if he were Christ.

However, Johannes states that Inger – now sleeping after her child died during labour – is now in fact dead, which is correct. And when Johannes returns from the dunes to a house full of mourners and a horse-drawn hearse outside, he says, to the consternation of those in the house, that she can be ressurrected. He asks her to awaken, which she does, then this miracle turns the atheist Mikkel into a believer. The closing scene is one of the most moving in movie history.

It sounds strange that such a film – filled as it is with religious zeal and petty religious sectarian rivalry – should have such relevance to the (serious) film industry today, but it does. Critic Robert Ebert said that Ordet is 'a difficult film to enter. But once you're inside, it is impossible to escape'.

2 January 2021

Fabrice Du Welz's Adoration (2019)


Fabrice Du Welz's Adoration essentially concerns two young people: the twelve-year-old Paul (Thomas Gioria) and the slightly older Gloria (Fantine Harduin), who is a dangerous paranoid patient at the remote psychiatric hospital in Belgium where Paul's mother works, and where she has sworn that her son will have no involvement with the patients.

Paul seems a little odd in some ways, possibly slightly autistic, although his mother is odd too: she asks him, for instance, if Paul finds Gloria prettier than her. In any case Paul, bored by his seclusion in the woods where the hospital is, is obviously smitten by this powerful and inefffable creature that is Gloria, and will not listen to his mother's or the staff's concerns about him having anything to do with her.

Nevertheless Paul – an extremely gentle young man who cries on learning of the death of a chaffinch he has freed from netting, and knows about the habits of barn owls (birds are important in this film) – runs away with Gloria, and (very inventively) she tells him of the imprisonment she is suffering from her uncle who is after her money. Gloria pushes Dr Loisel (Gwendolyn Gourenec) down the stairs to her death and the two escape.

And it's a precarious escape with Paul and Gloria living on berries and anything they can steal from places. Gloria wants to go to a house in Brittany (4000 miles away), so Paul (completely smitten by this increasingly maniacal, beautiful creature) is game for it.

Their run includes train-hopping Belgian-style, finding a houseboat where the owners have their faith in them and Gloria burns their home down because she thinks they're snake-eyed pigs, and all the time, even as she's drawing more dependent on and closer to Paul, the more she behaves violently towards him.

Towards the end, after being knocked out by his amoureuse on a rowing boat with an outboard motor that they've found, Paul finds himself in the riverside home of Hinkel (Benoît Poelvoorde), a man who has a huge tatoo of a grey heron on his back, and for years has visited the grey herons nearby, the monogamous grey herons living where he hears the voice of his dead wife and communicates with her. No, he's not mad and Paul puts his arm round him. While Gloria is still sleeping, Hinkel tries to fish the true story from Paul as he knows Gloria is very sick. He gets Paul to play the three-egg game with him, and in so doing finds the phone number of Paul's mother.

Gloria – who has been growing increasingly paranoid about hens and her uncle (and Hinkel has hens) – instructs Paul to kill the man. He doesn't, but as Hinkel is driving them away Gloria strangles him, Paul and a bloodied Gloria crawl from the car and continue going somewhere (or nowhere) in the boat, faithful herons flying ahead.

This is quite a movie.

Céline Sciamma's Tomboy (2011)


The French for 'tomboy' is 'garçon manqué', but that expression is probably avoided here as a title to avoid confusion with David Delrieux's film of the name made the previous year. Laure (Zoé Héran) is ten years ago and certainly makes a convincing boy. She has recently moved with her family – her unnamed parents and her younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) – to a flat in a new area. School has yet to begin, and this is very much a film in which children at play have a high profile.

On first meeting Lisa (Jeanne Disson) Laure says her name is Michaël, and is introduced to the other local children – all boys apart from Lisa – and is wholly accepted as a boy. Inevitably, despite this acceptance her days as a boy are numbered. The first hurdle is playing football for a time: her breasts undeveloped, she can remove her tee-shirt with no problem, but if she wants to go to the toilet she can't just go near the bushes at the edge of the pitch and stick out what she doesn't have to stick out. So she goes into the forest, but the boys call her (male, of course) name, she wets herself, and is of course laughed at.

Another ordeal is swimming, although she deals with that by putting a piece of plasticene between her legs. Then her sister Jeanne wants to see 'Michaël's' friends so she has to be sworn to secrecy. During the family evening meal Jeanne, when asked by her mother if she had a good time with Laure's friends, says she did, and that her favourite is Michaël: both girls laugh stupidly at this.

But time is closing in and Jeanne can't understand why Michaël's name isn't on the list of pupils attending the school lessons. There are only two weeks to go but in fact it's Laure herself who brings about the resolution of the problem: a boy pushes Jeanne, Laure hits him and his mother appears on the family doorstep with her son complaining about Michaël's behaviour. What Michaël? The secret's out and Laure is now seen as an oddity by her former friends.

This film, in its simple way, is making a very important point about difference, about the outsider trapped in a gender she (in this case) can't relate to. In 2019 Sciamma went on to win the Queer Palm at Cannes with Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, which was translated as Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Nicolas Bedos's La Belle époque (2019)


This second feature by Nicolas Bedos took some critics by surprise with its intellegence and its complexity, although some thought the film was hopeless. Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is in his sixties and his career as a cartoonist has come to a stop, although he still draws. He's married to psychoanalyst Marianne (Fanny Ardent) who's having an affair with François (Denis Podalydès), Victor's friend.

The problem is that Victor is technophobic: he can't understand computers, doesn't have a mobile phone, hates his wife's GPS, and while in bed with his wife – who's wearing a virtual reality headset – he's reading Modiano's Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue. This title is significant because he sees the café La Belle Époque in Lyon as the most important turning point in his life, where he met Marianne.

The couple's rich son Maxime (Michaël Cohen) has a friend from childhood, Antoine (Guillaume Canet) – who's known and respected Victor – and to perk his father up he's given him an invitation to Antoine's Les Voyageurs du temps. This is a business for wealthy people which is a mixture of theatrical artifice and historical reconstruction in which clients can visit a studio set at any time they choose to live in for the day (or more) – they could be visiting Ernest Hemingway, Hitler, a king's court hundreds of years ago, etc. It's like a film set with actors playing their roles strictly according to the given period. Victor chooses to return to 16 May 1974, the day he met Marianne. The secretary takes his measurements to supply him with the correct clothing to wear, asks him questions about what happened on this occasion, what was said, etc, so that this can be reproduced. Victor willingly supplies the many sketches he made of the occasion: the idea isn't that Victor will be travelling back in time, but that the flavour of the period will return to him.

This is where viewers unfamiliar with French culture will miss out on a number of things that have been recreated when Victor visits the past, such as seeing Danièle Gilbert's golden moptop hairstyle on television; the six eggs in their holder in the bar; the Renaud lookalike in the corner with his guitar; the newspaper France-Soir; the Suze drink, and so on.

Victor is enchanted when he meets Margot (Doria Tillier) playing Marianne and asks her questions, the answers to which are provided by Antoine and his team swiftly consulting the internet and Victor's dusty drawings: they can see what's happening through a two-way mirror, and the actors have earpieces through which the information is conveyed. So far so good, and this is highly imaginative stuff.

The trouble is partly that fantasy mixes too much with reality. I found the second part both too contrived and predictable: the hippy scenes weren't convincing, especially the parody of the orgy; obviously Victor would fall in love with Margot; and Marianne – really irritated by François's snoring and even wearing her VR headset when he's licking her – will of course return to Victor. Yes, it had to be a happy ending.

1 January 2021

Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep (1996)


Olivier Asseyas's Irma Vep is a film about a film crew making a remake of Louis Feuillade's silent ten-part classic Les Vampires (1915), with Musidora playing the rooftop jewel thief Irma Vep (an anagram of 'vampire').

The film gives several stabs at the state of the film industry of the time, with the director of the remake being played by Truffaut's iconic Nouvelle Vague actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, here seen as a neurotic, superannuated director (René Vidal) trying to capture back his former glory. He's chosen to have Maggie Cheung (who plays herself playing herself in Assayas's film) as Irma Vep, and it becomes apparent that he's interested in her playing in a skintight black latex suit bought from a sex shop. (Interestingly, Asseyas himself must have been taken by it too, and not so long afterwards he married Cheung, although they separated in 2001.)

The lesbian dress designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard), also a heroin dealer who incidentally is sexually attracted to Maggie, tells her over a meal in a cafeteria that Hollywood is all money and show for very little return. And during an interview Maggie is told by her interviewer (played by Antoine Basier) that René's cinema is passé, as is today's French cinema, which is all about navel-gazing solely designed for intellectuals: in part, no doubt Asseyas agreed with these sentiments.

Although Maggie – speaking no French and the film thus being filled with French and mainly badly spoken English (especially by Léaud) – seems really lost in this insane world, she tries to get into the part, even to the point of stealing jewels from her hotel (in her latex gear) and throwing them into the street from the rooftop: very odd scenes.

René hates the filming and walks out on the first takes, later attacks his wife and has a nervous breakdown. There is no way he can continue the film. It is decided that the director José Murano (played by Lou Castel, who also imitated Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Fassbinder's own Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (Beware of a Holy Whore) (1971)) will take René's place, although Murano is adamant that Maggie must go as a Chinese woman playing the lead part in a French remake is ridiculous: he chooses Laure (Nathalie Boutefeu) for the role, and of course a new stuntperson will have to be found.

A crazy, fun film who film lovers who will appreciate the references, and maybe a more important film of Assayas's than some critics have said.

31 December 2020

Olivier Assayas's Personal Shopper (2017)


The title of an article in the Los Angeles Times's 11 March 2017 is 'Director Olivier Assayas’ films are obsessed with public image and female celebrity, including his latest, "Personal Shopper"'. Most of this film revolves around Maureen (Kristen Stewart), who is a 'personal shopper', meaning that she buys goods for rich customers who don't have the time or effort to do so themselves. She works for Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) in Paris, and of whom we (and Maureen) see virtually nothing, which is partly why she is so pissed off.

But Maureen had a twin brother (Lewis), who died of a heart defect that she may or may not have too. But Lewis was a medium, and Maureen (neither a believer nor a disbeliever in the paranormal) feels that he may have left his presence in his home in the Parisian area where he lived with his partner Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz). She spends some days in the house and sees the angry ghost of a woman who spews out ectoplasm, and then goes. Perhaps that's the end of the problems.

But as Maureen embarks on a vicarious shopping spree for Kyra, visiting London by train, she gets a constant flood of texts from an unknown person, and suspects that that person is the spirit of Lewis. The viewer is somewhat less believing, realising that there is an unknown problem here, and that Maureen is perhaps leading herself into a kind of adolescent trap that most women would have worked out beforehand: a ghost who can not only text but you can see taking time to text? Nah.

In the end it's proved (or is it?) to be the married Kyra's lover (but only for sex(?)) Ingo (Lars Eidinger) who's been sending the texts, and who murders Kyra. And as Maureen leaves Paris to join her boyfriend (who's been working in Muscat, Oman) in the mountains, why is it that an empty glass in the primitive holiday home moves by itself and then crashes? Real, imagined or poltergeist? As Kristen Stewart herself says: 'There is this default reality that we all agree to live in with each other; [Maureen] is not in it at all.' She says that her character is the loneliest person she's ever played.

In the film, there are two specific people mentioned in relation to the paranormal: the female Swedish painter and theosophist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), a pioneer of abstract art; she was interested in the paranormal, taking part in and organising spiritualist sessions; some of her abstract paintings, examples of automatic art, were made in a state of semi-trance. Victor Hugo (1802-85) is also mentioned (and played by Benjamin Biolay!): Hugo was exiled in Jersey from 1853-4 and tried (in table-turning sessions) to make contact with the his daughter Léopoldine Vacquerie (1824-43), who drowned at Villequier at the age of nineteen.

This French film is in English, although there are insignificant short scenes in (unsubtitled) French and German. All the same, in any language it pays to watch this brilliant and deliberately irresoluts  film more than once.

29 December 2020

Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery (2014)


Some of Gemma Bovery (adapted from Posy Simmonds' graphic novel, as was Tamara Drewe) is filmed in Lyons-la-Forêt, which is in Normandy, which is where academic Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) moves to with his wife Valérie (Isabelle Candelier) to continue his late father's bakery business. But he can't forget books and he's just as crazed by them as Don Quixote or, er, Emma Bovary. And then the English couple Charles Bovery (only one vowel change) and Gemma Bovery (a consonant extra as well as the changed vowel) move opposite the Joubert house.

Martin is eager to please in every way, although he's more than a shade too old to please Emma sexually: Hervé de Bressigny, younger than Gemma, will satisfy that need. And as the dogs sniff around each other, the smitten Martin sniffs around Gemma, spying on the couple. He's given her an English copy of Flaubert's Madame Bovary to read, warning her that her activities will lead to death: he's particularly concerned about the arsenic she uses for the mice.

Inevitably, Gemma dies and Martin assumes it's arsenic. But he's wrong: she's choked on a piece of his bread.

And so Charles packs his bags but someones else moves in. A Russian girl? But she speaks perfect French! Ah, has she read Anna Karenina? Martin is at it again.

Conclusion? A personal one: you can't watch experimental, 'art house' (much as I hate the expression) movies all the time!

Xavier Legrand's Avant que de tout perdre | Just Before Losing Everything (2013)


Avant que de tout perdre is Xavier Legrand's first film, a thirty-minute short and forerunner to his first feature Jusqu'à la garde (or Custody) (2017), a film about a violent male husband and the problems with the custody of the son. The same actors appear with three of the same names: Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Ménochet) as the parents and Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux as the daughter: in Jusqu'à la garde the son Julien was played by Thomas Gioria.

At first a woman (Miriam) waits for a child (Julien) and then collects a tearful adolescent Joséphine from a bus stop, giving final kisses to her boyfriend. She then swiftly drives to work, saying she's leaving forthwith to drive five hours to her sister. The staff at her workplace tell her she should have complained to the police, but she's only interested in escaping. Then her husband calls at the reception desk, she quickly puts on her former uniform in an office, where the extent of her injuries are apparent, particularly the large bruise on her leg. She goes to have a few words to reassure Antoine that things are as normal, returns to the office in panic and only makes her getaway after some difficulties. It is a tense film with a great deal of detail packed into a short space.

It won the Grand prix du Festival de Clermont-Ferrand in 2013, was nominated for and Oscar in the fictional short category in 2014 and received the César for the best short film the same year. On the other hand, Cahiers du cinéma saw it as a telefilm on automatic pilot.

28 December 2020

Damien Odoul's Le Souffle | Deep Breath (2002)


The adolescent David (Pierre-Louis Bonnetblanc) is the main character in Le Souffle, which shows the non-tourist side of agricultural France, in Limousin. This is Odoul's second feature, following Morasseix ! in 1992. Here, David is sent to his uncle's farm, although he can't escape from the trappings of urban France, listening to rap on his earphones.

But neither David nor his new surroundings seem any more cultivated than each other: David pisses outside the outside WC, as does one of his uncle's friend's, and the brutality with which animals are treated by both David and the farm workers have no essential difference. There is a méchoui (with rabbit savagely slaughtered for the occasion, and wine flowinging abundantly), followed by David's drunken behavour which seems to be no different from that of most of the farm workers. 

Although, the viewpoint of the film being seen through David's eyes, it's not always easy to distinguish between David's reality and the outside world. And it's difficult to tell when pagan rituals merge into Catholic rituals, and vice versa: certainly the gospel-type music seems to be making a message beyond the rap and heavy metal, beyond the old-fashioned rock-'n'-roll of the (non)-avuncular adults. His uncle's 'Qu'est-ce que tu branles ?' ('What are you wanking about at?') is certainly appropriate on one occasion, although on another he appears to be hugging a tree: a 21st century hippie? Certainly it's there in the spirit of rebellion, but not in the spirit of violence.

Jacques Demy's La Baie des anges | The Bay of Angels (1963)


Jean Fournier (Claude Mann) has a menial job in a bank in Paris and his friend Caron (Paul Guers) has just bought a new car and has a great deal of money: he reveals  that he has won the money gambling at the casino, and tells Jean that he ought to do the same, that winning money is easy. Although La Baie des anges is very different from Demy's better known films, it nevertheless contains two elements present in them: chance, or the aleatory nature of life, and fantasy, or the world of dreams.

Jean is very dubious about Caron's idea, although he's also tempted. He's far more cautious than Caron, although he decides to go the casino in Enghien-les-Bains in Ile-de-France. Jean, who lives with his widowed father, makes a good profit and tells his father about it, although his father (obviously a staunch Catholic judging from the pictures on the walls) is angry. He's further angry by Jean's choosing to go to the Côte d’Azur for his holidays instead of Loiret as usual.

And Jean finds a very different world there, not just of casinos but of one particular, beautiful and fascinating platinum blonde, Jackie Demaistre (Jeanne Moreau). Gambling is her addiction and she isn't even put off by losing: she would even lose her last franc and spend the night on the streets than not gamble her money. Jean, ever cautious (only less so) becomes drawn into her web of fantasy and madness, they get rich, buy a flash car and expensive clothes, go to a luxurious hotel in Monte Carlo and lose their money again.

The main problem is that Jean feels like a puppy dog to Jackie, although she says he's her good luck charm, her horse. In love with Jacky and unable to understand why she seems incapable of reciprocating it, he leaves her at the casino table but she runs after him.

27 December 2020

Jacques Demy's Lola (1961)

This dazzling black and white film – with pre-echoes of both Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) – is only superficially (or in jigsaw fashion) narrative and can hardly be approached in terms of conventional narrative because it's packed with so many chance encounters and coincidences which take the film to other spaces.

The events can, however, be summed up quite easily, even if such an approach misses out on the essence:

 Lola (Anouk Aimée) works in a cabaret called 'El Dorado' (actually the art nouveau La Cigale restaurant in Nantes), and has a son by Michel (Jacques Harden), who returns rich after seven years in search of El Dorado in the Pacific, and the three get together in the end.

– Marc (Richard Cassard) meets his old friend 'Lola' in a shopping centre (in fact in Le Passage Pommeraye, Nantes, where several scenes take place), falls in love with her, but her heart yearns for her first love Michel, meaning that Marc's first love ('Lola') stands no chance of reciprocation.

– Frankie is an American sailor on leave again in Nantes, and like his shipmates frequents the cabaret. Lola has had a short sexual liaison with him because he looks like Michel, who was also a sailor.

– Madame Desnoyer runs into Marc in a bookshop and he visits her several times. Towards the end she is forced to chase after her twelve-year-old daughter  who has run off to join her uncle.

Within these narratives are links to the same narratives, or links to other films by Demy, of which these are only a few:

– Lola's real name is Cécile, like Mme Desnoyer's daughter: also, both Cécile and Mme Desnoyers (whose husband is dead) are single mothers.

– Mme Desnoyers used to live in Cherbourg, where her daughter has left for, where Frankie's ship is due to leave for Chicago, and of course where Demy's later Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is set.

– Frankie is the young Cécile's first love, a chaste one unlike the maturity of Frankie's relationship with the older Cécile.

– 'Michel' is the older Cécile's lover's forename; the same name is Marc's surname.

Education is one of the film's themes, such as:

– There is a dance teacher (played by Carlo Nell), and a dance school is visible in the background of the final scene to take place in Le Passage Pommeraye.

– Frankie wants to be a teacher: he's learning French and the young Cécile is learning English. Marc gives the young Cécile a French-English dictionary.

– In Les Demoiselles de Rochefort Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) teaches dance, whereas Françoise Dorléac gives singing lessons.

The characters weave in and out of different places in the centre of Nantes, often bumping into each other or passing one another in the street without knowing the links they have. In this way, the 'Demy-monde' shows the aleatory nature of existence. All the main characters leave Nantes in the end. Lola is Demy's first fim, and his first masterpiece.

26 December 2020

Jacques Demy's Peau d’Âne | Donkey Skin (1965)


Jacques Demy's Peau d’Âne is a glorious, and very faithful in terms of the story, recreation of Charles Perrault's fairy story Peau d’Âne (1694), said to be the first French fairy story ever.

A king's wife dies, telling him (Jean Marais) that he must marry a woman more beautiful than her. In order for a male to follow, the king is under pressure, but can find no beautiful new queen: the only person is his daughter (Catherine Deneuve). The princess is horrified at the thought (of incest presumably) and seeks help from her fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig), who comes up with several suberfuges to avoid the marraige and in the end finds one: the princess says she'll marry her father if he brings her the skin of the ass whose droppings are gems and gold coins that have been making the kingdom rich. Amazingly, the king agrees and lays the skin on her bed while she's sleeping.

The godmother then wakes the princess up, tells her to put on the ass's skin as a disguise, and to leave the castle using one of her magic wands. Incognito, the princess finds a tumbledown cabin in the woods in which to live and finds work as servant to a female witch who spits toads. Then the handsome prince of a neighbouring kingdom (Jacques Perrin), sexually frustrated because he can find no one to love, wanders in the wood and sees a rose (with the princess's lips) who tells him not to give up: he then sees the beautiful princess in her humble cabin dressed her finery and is smitten.

The prince learns that the girl's name is Peau d’Âne, and from then on takes to his bed, lovestruck. His parents are in despair until the prince asks for Peau d’Âne to bake him a cake, which she does, and includes her precious ring, which he nearly chokes on. After announcing that he will marry the woman the ring fits, this is an excuse for every quack and mountebank to sell love potions, but eventually – after every nubile woman has tried on the ill-fitting ring – along comes Peau d’Âne, a perfect fit, who then throws down her animal clothing to reveal a princess.

Whereupon, all the princes in the world converge on the realm, including the neighbouring king, who appears – several centuries out of time – in a helicopter with the princess's godmother, who is to be the king's new wife.

The bare bones of the story are perhaps a bit of a yawn, but on the other hand the sheer colour in the film is a feast: bright, garish, the contrasts between the red faces of the servants and the red horses in the princess's world and the blueness of the prince's world, for instance, are very notable. As of course is the music, which echoes that of the two previous films of Demy's in which Catherine Deneuve appeared in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. Several châteaux were used in the film: Chambord, Plessis-Bourré, Neuville (Yvelines), and Pierrefonds (Oise).

Apart from the obvious anachronism of the helicopter, there are several quotations from times after Perrault, an influence by Cocteau, a reference of course to the flower power of the sixties, the prince's desire to be free from parental restrictions, etc. Even the cake itself which the prince eats is a reference to the 'space cake' (laced with cannabis) that Demy and Varda took: for the end of the seventeenth century, this is a very hippie film.

25 December 2020

Klaus Biesenbach (ed.): Henry Darger (2009; repr. 2019)


Henry Darger (1892-1973) lived most of his life in Chicago, latterly in a two-roomed flat at 851 West Webster Avenue. He'd had an awful childhood, his mother dying when he was a baby, and (his father being incapable of work) was sent to a Catholic boys' home as a child. His education ended at the age of twelve, when he was sent to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. Five years later, he escaped and caught the train to Decatur, from where he walked 175 miles back to Chicago. His working life was mainly spent in hospitals, particularly washing up. When he was admitted to hospital shortly before his death it was left to his landlord, the artist Nathan Lerner, to clear out the stuff he'd accumulated over the decades: it was to prove unbelievable.

Darger had spent many years writing a colossal novel he was constantly tinkering with but which he never finished, called 'In the Realms of the Unreal', about a war between an alliance of four (Catholic) nations and one which believed in child slavery. A group of female pre-pubescent children, the Vivians, are the heroes of the novel. Darger had always wanted to have or adopt a child, never wanted to grow up, and his literary influences reflect that: cartoons, Alice in Wonderland, but especially L. Frank Baum's Oz books: Ozma was a transsexual and Darger is noted for his young girls have male genitals.

This book is one of those rarities: a huge coffee table book with academics writing, many of Darger's glorious paintings (including eight three-page gatefolds) and it is one to be treasured. 'Outsider art' is already being considered as a derogatory term, and it seems particularly disrespectful here: Darger may have been self-taught, but he is still a major artist.

Various: Paris vu par (1965)


It was Barbet Schroeder's idea to give a bit of pep to the Nouvelle Vague by having a number of players – we can hardly call them 'members' as this was never a movement – make a movie. And the result was six shorts by noted directors, each taking a part of Paris in which Paris vu par was made: Saint-Germain des Prés (Jean Douchet); Gare du Nord (Jean Rouch); Rue Saint-Denis (Jean-Daniel Pollet); Place de l'Etoile (Eric Rohmer); Montparnasse and Levallois (Jean-Luc Godard); and Pharmacie la Muette (Claude Chabrol). In all, the six films last 95 minutes and are an excellent display of the cinematic talent of the time.

Two of the shorts end in death, two in broken relationships, two prominently show street scenes, and two essentially men at work. Douchet shows a one-night-stand in which the man says he's going to Mexico, although he's in fact a model in a life class; Rouch has a woman arguing with her partner about changing their lives, although when she's presented with the opportunity she turns it down: oddly, this seems very Rohmerian, concerning an essentially philosophical issue; Pollet again turns to Claude Malki as a shy person reluctant to enjoy the pleasures of the prostitute he's paid; Rohmer, with his paranoid shirt salesman, seems to be suggesting a man-to-man confrontation is to be avoided, whereas man-to-woman handle accidents in a very civil fashion; in Godard's short, as in Montparnasse where the metal sculptor throws his fickle girlfriend out, in Levallois her car bodywork lover does the same; and finally Chabrol's film has the son of an endlessly arguing couple (Chabrol himself and his own wife (and actrice fétiche) Stéphane Audran) wearing ear plugs to silence the rowing and so not hear his mother's cries when she falls down the stairs and cracks her skull – when the son leaves the house, ironically he stands by Pharmacie la Muette – La Muette is an area of Paris, the silence ear plugs give, and the permanent state of his mother.

Brilliant stuff, but was it impossible to find a female director, such as Agnès Varda?

24 December 2020

Jean-Daniel Pollet's L'Amour c'est gai, l'amour c'est triste (1971)

After seeing Méditerranée and L'Ordre by Jean-Pollet, indeed after seeing his grave in Cadenet (Vaucluse), it came as some surprise to learn that the director I'd associated with avant-garde films also made weird situation comedies. I can't imagine Philippe Sollers or any of the Tel quel team heralding this film as a masterpiece, but...

We have something of a French version of a Broadway farce,  a vaudeville, with the shy, clown-like tailor Léon (Claude Melki) living in a two-room flat with his sister Marie (Bernadette Lafont), who pretends to be a fortune teller but is in reality a prostitute with her 'boyfriend' Maxime (Jean-Pierre Marielle) as her pimp, which Léon only latterly discovers. And then the unfortunate Arlette (Chantal Goya) arrives from Morlaix carrying little physical but much mental baggage and Léon falls in love with her but is unable to express it.

There are many shenanigans, Arlette is substituted as a prostitute but (unknown to her) Léon pays to would-be johns' money to Maxime, and anyway Arlette isn't so much a tart with a heart as a someone who hasn't the heart to be a tart. But the film is saved from a happy ending as Arlette goes away. It could have been worse. 

Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu | The Rules of the Game (1939)


Martin O'Shaughnessy, in his Jean Renoir (2000), which is part of Manchester University Press's excellent 'French Film Directors' series, includes this film in his 'The Popular Front Years' chapter, a film made just before Renoir retreated to the States, and which O'Shaughnessy sees as a considerable contrast to the 'dark intensity of La Bête humaine', the film which preceded it. O'Shaughnessy argues that Renoir now had the freedom to delve into other areas, his main influences in this film being Marivaux, Beaumarchais and Musset: the theatrical take is self-evident.

This is not a space to talk about a well-known film, although suffice to mention that the film centres on changing love interests, mistaken identity, concealed misdemeanurs (or crimes), conflicting differences (and interests) between classes, etc.

There is a constant reminder of war and the senseless play and the horror of it: the cull of game, the pantomime of the men playing Jews, and perhaps most of all the skeletons that walk among the audience: almost a prediction.