30 December 2019

Coline Serreau's La Belle Verte | The Beautiful Green (1996)

Every once in a while a film or book comes along that socks you in the face. This is one of them, and is what director Coline Serreau calls her most personal film. She wrote the screenplay and takes the leading role, Mila, in it. It begins on a distant planet in which the people live simply and in harmony with one another. They have had an industrial revolution, but that was so long ago that the subject is only taught in archaeology lessons. However, they have a highly developed sense of telepathy, communicating with one another by first putting their feet in water. They eat only natural foods, no pesticides, tobacco, alcohol or meat, and live a great length of time, during which they develop a third set of teeth.

At a meeting they discuss visiting other planets, and almost everyone is reluctant to visit planet Earth, which hasn't been seen by any of them since the Napoleonic era: they see it as a very backward place, the most stupid people dominate the rest, the only use a tenth of their brain cells, it's full of pollution and still uses money, wages wars, believes women are inferior to men, has racists and other social inequalities. However, Mila knows that her mother was born there and would like to visit it. They wave her off as she flies away in a bubble.

She lands in the centre of Paris, but in a park. Venturing out she is horrified to see polluting cars and rubbish on the streets, and the unfriendliness of the people. She asks a shopkeeper something but she isn't understood, so she tries the different Earthly languages stored in her head until she finds French. She is given a sandwich to eat but it only makes her sick because it's basically junk food: she can only 'recharge' by holding a new-born baby, which she does by finding a maternity ward and caressing a baby until the head of department, Max (Vincent Lindon) threatens to call the police: she then uses a movement of  her head to 'disconnect' Max, meaning that he transforms into a perfectly understanding, reasonable human being: all the way through the film, figures of authority are treated as ignorant villains whose essential job is to keep people down. In other words, this is a film with not only an egalitarian message, but a peaceful anarchistic one: we have all been brainwashed into believing the consumerist ethos that more means better, and in the process we have lost our humanity.

Obviously the film is not without its faults, and the (accidentally) disconnected orchestra scene and the (deliberately) disconnected football game (excellent though the latter is by deriding the stupidity of sport) go on for far too long. Having said that, this is a hugely original and inventive film. My only regret is that many viewers will just see it in terms of entertainment and not in terms of very strong social satire. This is not Les Visiteurs.

29 December 2019

François Truffaut's La Peau Douce | The Soft Skin (1964)

I'm not too sure how many films Truffaut made with femmes fatales in them – and L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (1977) must certainly be included as a collection of such women – but there must be a fair number, and La Peau douce is definitely in that number. As an example of a triangular love relationship ending fatally, it reminded me more of La Femme d'à côté (1881) than its slightly earlier Jules et Jim (1962).

A successful writer who has just written a book on Balzac and money and is on a promotion tour, Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) meets air hostess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) on his way to Lisbon and that's it. Of course his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and his young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin, who also played in Jules et Jim ) know nothing of it, at least not yet. And so the series of lies to everyone begins.

Pierre has taken a number of photos of Nicole, plus some of them together, and left the photo shop receipt in his pocket. Meanwhile Nicole has refused to live with Pierre, so it's the end of the story. But not for Sabine, who knows he's now at a regular restaurant, and goes to meet him with a rifle. Bang.

Georges Franju's Les Yeux sans visage | Eyes without a face (1960)

This film is adapted from horror novelist Jean Redon's eponymous 1959 novel. Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) is a famous plastic surgeon determined (clandestinely) to graft a face onto his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob), whose face has been horrifically disfigured in an accident in a car he was driving. Génessier has a laboratory on his property and carries out experiments on his many dogs, and it is not very far from here that his assistant Louise finds an unsuspecting girl whose face he removes and grafts onto that of his daughter, who has been wearing a mask to hide her disfigurement, and who everyone else believe to be dead. It is this part that people have presumably found the most horrifying, although by today's standards this is nothing: what may have seemed like a horror film sixty years ago now looks more like a film filled with poetic beauty.

To his and Christiane's misfortune the new skin tissue begins to deteriorate and Génessier is forced to find a new victim. And this new victim Christiane will take pity on, will free of her bonds before the operation, kill her father's assistant, set the dogs free to savage her father, and walk off into the night.

Despite the age of the film its power is still extremely very strong, and it is obvious why this has become a cult film.

28 December 2019

François Truffaut's Vivement Dimanche ! | Finally Sunday (1983)

This film is based on Charles William's novel The Long Saturday Night (1962), also known as Confidentially Yours. So three years after Le Dernier Métro (1980) we have le dernier Truffaut, in black and white and starring Jean-Louis Trintignant as estate agent Julien, with his improbable secretary Fanny Ardant as Barbara, the young woman who loves him unbeknown to him, but whose sleuthing skills will in the end get him exculpated from the murders of his wife and her lover. But not without more murders, more trauma, anonymous telephone threats, Barbara posing as a prostitute warding off the johns, etc.

This convoluted thriller is a tribute to American film noir, particularly Hitchcock, John Huston and Howard Hawks, to some extent a satire of the genre, and not without its absurdities, perhaps notably when we have the guilty party smoking two cigarettes without realising, and Barbara pretending by telephone to be the wife of commissaire Santelli (Philippe Morier-Genoud). Not Truffaut's best by a long shot, but worth it for the antics of the brilliant Fanny Ardent.

Hey, I didn't even say a word about the crap title translation!

Henri Verneuil's Un singe en hiver | A Monkey in Winter (1970)

Henri Vernueil's Un singe en hiver is of course a classic, full of highly memorable phrases, and largely set in Villerville, Calvados. Starring Jean Gabin (as Albert Quentin) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (as Gabriel Fouquet) it is highly amusing and the kind of film you can watch many times over, but then as it's based on Antoine Blondin's novel of the same name that's perhaps hardly surprising. I've watched a few video clips of Villerville, one being Belmondo's relatively recent return to the village, the other a collection of people watching a showing of the film, with many of them being able to repeat every line of it.

Un singe en hiver is a kind of buddy movie, but only in the second part. The first part shows France (OK, Tigreville (or Villerville, which now has both names)) under Nazi occupation, the village being bombed, and a drunken Albert in the cellar of their hotel/restaurant with his terrified wife. Albert vows that if they come out of the experience alive he'll never drink again.

And then the name of the street changes names from Pétain to De Gaulle and it's fifteen years later. Gabriel lands in a taxi one night in Tigreville and is put up at Hotel Stella (in reality L'Hôtel des Bains), but as there are no alcoholic drinks there he goes to the Cabaret Normand, gets drunk on Picon bière and when the locals start talking about the temperature in Normandy he gets up, does a flamenco and announces 'Ça, c'est le soleil !'. He staggers (or rather is thrown out) leaving the natives to their 'igloos' and 'banquises'. His ex-partner in Spain, he's mentally still in Spain (in spite of his daughter in Tigreville), and Albert mentally still in China, babbling about the length of the 'Yang-Tsé-Kiang' river. Gabriel later gives a daytime bullfight (à la Blondin) with the cars and is arrested for it (à la Blondin).

That Albert will briefly break his teetotal vow is inevitable when confronted by such a charismatic person as Gabriel, but after the fireworks Albert has to return to normality, to see his father's grave as he does every year, and Gabriel has to move on with his daughter. And the monkey? Well, in China in winter they leave the jungle for the town, where the people gather them to return on trains to their rightful place. True? It's truly a super movie.

27 December 2019

Claude Chabrol's Le Boucher | The Butcher (1970)

Le Boucher is set in the village of Trémolat, Dordogne, where Hélène David (Stéphane Audran), aged thirty, runs the village school. During the marriage ceremony of fellow teacher Léon Hamel (Mario Beccaria) she sits next to butcher Paul (or 'Popaul') Thomas (Jean Yanne), who many years earlier left his violent father to partake in more violence in the wars in Indo-China and Algeria. The improbable friendship continues with Paul joining Hélène for meals at her place in the school, going to the cinema, for walks, etc. Paul, who asks about her relationships, is told by Hélène about a relationship she has has some years before and which to some extent traumatised her: Paul says not having sex can send a person mad, Hélène says having sex can send a person mad too, and doesn't want him to kiss her.

There's a murder of a young girl by stabbing, then the murder of Léon's new wife that Hélène is the first to discover, although a cigarette lighter dropped by the body, which is identical to one she has given Paul on his birthday she picks up and puts in her pocket, as if colluding in the murder. She doesn't mention this to a police investigator, although she later asks Paul for a light and is relieved to see him produce her lighter. But she later discovers, on looking for the lighter she took from the scene of the murder, that Paul has taken it, and therefore must be the murderer.

In a long scene previously, Hélène is in the classroom dictating a passage from Balzac's Une femme de trente ans, which in part concerns a woman named Hélène who murders her brother and runs away with a murderer. During this scene Paul appears at the window. The influence of Balzac, as well as Fritz Lang and Hitchcock, on Chabrol is important.

Paul eventually gets his kiss from Hélène, but only as he is dying and on the way to his death in the operating room after stabbing himself in the gut.

Claude Chabrol's La Rupture | The Breach (1970)

Hélène Régnier (Stéphane Audran) is the wife of the psychopathic Charles (Jean-Claude Drouot), who violently begins the film by throwing their child down, who hits his head. In self defence Hélène batters him with a frying pan and rushes from the house, upon which neighbours come to her aid and she is driven to the hospital. Charles has no job and Hélène has run the family on the paltry sum she earns from her barmaid job, has kept the family afloat, although Charles's father is a wealthy businessman, but will do everything he can to protect his son and besmirch the reputation of his daughter-in-law, whom he sees as unfit for Charles: yes, it's of course Chabrol taking a poke at the moneyed hypocritical upper middle class.

Temporarily Hélène finds cheap accommodation at a boarding house opposite the hospital, run by Madame Pinelli (Annie Cordy) and (to a much lesser extent) the alcoholic Monsieur Pinelli (Jean Carmet), and the house more than a little resembles La Maison Vauquier of Balzac's Le Père Goriot. And here to stay on a temporary basis is slimeball Paul Thomas (Jean-Pierre Cassel), in theory staying there because of an illness, in reality there to paint Hélène black. He tries to do this by getting Pinelli into a drunken stupor while his wife is away, drugging the Pinellis' daughter and showing her porn videos by Thomas's girlfriend posing as Hélène, and finally (desperately) spiking Hélène's morning orange juice with LSD.

Needless to say, perhaps, Thomas's plan doesn't work: Hélène has already informed him that she knows he's a plant designed by Régnier père to make her look bad as he wants custody of the child, but anyway Thomas loses what little cool he had by killing Régnier's son Charles.

26 December 2019

Claude Chabrol's Poulet au vinaigre | Cop au Vin (1985)

Chabrol's Poulet au vinaigre – meaning 'chicken with vinegar' but also punning on poulet meaning cop, and rather cleverly (for once) equally punningly translated as Cop au Vin – is a reference to Inspector Lavardin (Jean Poiret), who is good and bad cop in one person. Set in a small town (in reality Forges-les-Eaux, Seine-Maritime), Poulet au vinaigre displays a feast of characters with odd characteristics. The plot is far too complicated to go into, as Chabrol himself recognised, so I can only mention a few things.

Essentially we have Madame Cuno (Stéphane Audran), the slightly crazy dominating and wheelchair-bound mother of Louis (Lucas Belvaux), the young postman who lives with her and suffers her eccentricities. Three men – solicitor Hubert Lavoisier (Michel Bouquet), medical practitioner Dr Philippe Morasseau (Jean Topart) and butcher Gérard Filiol (Jean-Claude Bouillaud) – are after the Cuno house to develop on it, but not if the Cunos have anything to do with it.

And Louis certainly does have something to do with it, as he puts sugar in Filiol's petrol tank, leading to his death when he tries to overtake a lorry. It's about halfway through the film when Lavardin makes his appearance, and he'll use whatever means he chooses to get at his answers: he's not interested in getting search warrants and other permissions, and he beats Louis about the face and thrusts Lavoisier's head under water to extract the truth. But strangely, Lavardin nevertheless has his appeal.

There are many more events in the film, such as the doctor's wife Delphine (Josephine Chaplin) being found dead in a burnt-out car, a body in a statue in Morasseau's garden, and so on. Just a few of the lighter touches are the lustful behaviour of Henriette (Pauline Lafont) towards Louis, the penchant of Lavardin for fried eggs with paprika, Louis's mother's jealousy of her son and the desire of the barman who serves Lavardin for Morasseau's mistress. A highly enjoyable Chabrol.

25 December 2019

Claude Chabrol's La Route de Corinthe | The Road to Corinth (1967)

La Route de Corinthe isn't one of Chabrol's most serious films: it's a spy spoof with a strong sense of the ridiculous. It's also a showcase for Jean Seberg (Shanny), whose French accent has really improved in the seven years since À bout de souffle, unless she was putting the American accent on then. The story behind it is about black boxes being smuggled into Greece to interfere with NATO radar: cue for Chabrol to play a deal of stereotypical Greek background music. Magician Socrate (Steve Eckhardt) sets the scene for the farce right from the beginning: at the frontier check he produces his passport out of the custom's officer's hat, his car is full of doves and rabbits, and a black box is found, meaning he's beaten up by the cops until he automatically magics a cheroot, splits it in two and swallows a cyanide capsule. No time for melodrama: this is sheer farce.

(Literal) cliff-hangers are, as are many casual murders, the order of the day, as the film moves from a quarry with a black box hidden in a head, to a chase via a rose petal trail through a cemetery with a cavernous chapel of rest, and on and on.

Shanny occupies most of the film, and certainly not only because her accent was probably very sexy to the French, and most of the characters want to bed her, probably even the slow-witted Josio (Paolo Giusti), who like the other non-French actors speaks fluent French: subtleties aren't on the menu here. Shanny's husband Robert Ford (Christian Marquand) has been assassinated before he can discover the clue to the black boxes, so she continues in his place, later with the help of intelligence agent Dex (Maurice Ronet). The end is as ludicrous as it begins, with Shanny kissing Dex on the homeward bound plane admidst a host black-attired, black-hatted orthodox Greeks.

This film (made not long before Chabrol made Les Biches) is one of his money spinners, a piece of fluff, but an amusing piece of fluff.

Lucile Hadžihalilović's Innocence (2004)

Innocence is based on Frank Wedekind's Mine-Haha, or the corporeal education of girls (1901)Many French films nibble bits out of normality, many bite chunks out of it, but Lucile Hadžihalilović just blows normality out the window. A reviewer of her first feature Innocence on senscritique.com asks if the film is a Rorschach test, and I find this an extremely perceptive observation: people's impressions of this movie could be highly revelatory of a person's personality, and as for me I found it disturbing, as if I'd walked into a private room by mistake, as if I were being voyeuristic. Here, in an intangibly sinister self-contained boarding school miles from anywhere, young girls are mainly taught dancing plus a little biology. They are dressed in white and divided into age groups by the colour of the ribbon in their hair.

Why does the new girl Iris, who now has no parents, appear in a coffin at the beginning? When a girl disappears, where does she go to? Is this school essentially for grooming dancers to perform in front of an audience just to keep the school alive on the proceeds? Why does the onset of puberty end things (echoes of Amélie Nothomb here)? Is this some kind of religious sect, as the funeral pyre for Laura – the girl who tried to escape but drowned in the attempt – might suggest? Is there intended to be a paedophilic undertone: back to the Rorschach test. If not, why are so many of the scenes of young girls dancing ballets? Is there perhaps a reference to L'Affaire des Ballets Roses of 1959?

The film – intentionally – is full of questions and very few answers. It contains nothing of the horror of the much later Evolution, which involves young boys rather than girls, but there's something weirdly, inexplicably abnormal going on here.

24 December 2019

Alain Guiraudie's L'Inconnu du lac | Stranger by the Lake (2013)

Once again I have to criticise the translation of a film title. Can Stranger by the Lake really be an accurate rendering of L'Inconnu du lac? The person here isn't a stranger, quite the reverse: the person in question is inconnu, unknown, in the midst of an in some ways closed group, and a great danger. Or is he a stranger because he's mad? A bit thin, that one.

Sex, love, desire, nudity, psychosis, hope, despair, friendship, happiness, even utopia are all present here. It's a world that is available to anyone who is homosexual, who knows the rules of gay cruising, and as such can be seen as a paradise of naked bodies for anyone looking for anonymous, or even not-so-anonymous, sex. It's not a huis-clos as it can be left and re-visited many times, or simply passed by. But it has boundaries, and those aren't the boundaries of the huge Lac Sainte-Croix in Var. Several times the camera shows us the unofficial car park, the entrance to a different world from that outside, where the men – and this of course is an all-male film – come to have sex. Or not. Franck (Pierre Deladonchmps) is a friendly guy and soon has conversations with Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao) who has broken up with his partner and usually sits away from the others: he's older and doesn't understand the gay scene, doesn't really understand what being gay is. But he's sociable enough and he and Franck talk about the outside world, of having a drink outside this world, although the camera never moves away from the gay boundaries: the car park, the beach, the wood where we see couples indulge in sometimes graphic sex.

Franck is attracted to Michel (Christophe Paou) in spite of (or partly because of) having seen him drown Pascal Ramière (François Labarthe). He was attracted to him before this but that in no way explains the continuing attraction. Is it the thrill of the danger? It's certainly not a death wish, and the tension is high when he goes to join Michel in the middle of the lake. When his attraction to Michel is wearing off – he doesn't like Michel's idea of restricting their activities to the world of the lake and not the larger outside one – he nearly tells Inspector Damroder the truth, that he has in fact seen Michel commit murder, but he restrains himself. And the price of his silence costs at least two more murders.

While Franck is swimming Henri joins Michel, who rebukes him for not stripping naked, spending all his time not doing anything and Henri says that's what people do on holiday. He reveals that he has worked out that Michel is the murderer, and as he slowly walks towards the wood he looks back at Michel: it is patently obvious that he has a death wish. When Franck sees that the beach is empty he hurries back to find Henri with his throat slit, tries to help him but Henri has succeeded in getting his wish and dies a few seconds later.

With the appearance of Damroder Michel knifes him and Franck runs away, Michel calling for him, telling him he loves him and that he wants to spend the night with him. As Franck calls out for him, the film ends: surely death awaits Franck when he returns to the car park, he can't get out of it alive?

A fascinating and surprisingly complex film that haunts the mind with its unanswered questions.

23 December 2019

Claire Denis's Un beau soleil intérieur | Let the Sunshine in (2017)

Claire Denis's Un beau soleil intérieur, being set in Paris, is far removed from her colonial African films, is freely adapted from Roland Barthes's Fragments d'un discours amoureux (1977), and is co-written by Denis and Christine Angot. Denis loves the word 'Agony' (written in English), which is used as a way of beginning the screenplay. The word was seen as a kind of magic, of fantasy: in a way, it was the theme of their own 'agonies amoureuses' that set off the writing.

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) can't find love. There's (bad) sex from the unbearable, egotistical and married banker Vincent (Xavier Beauvois), who treats her like shit, as he treats barmen. Then there's the neurotic actor with a drink problem (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who regrets sleeping with her. There's Sylvain (Paul Blain), fellow artist (Alex Descas), but no go. Isabelle seems to be losing it when she asks a taxi driver about his happiness. And finally, as fortune teller, there's Gérard Depardieu, who talks a great deal, almost seems to be proposing something with Isabelle, and mentions the expression which provides the title to the film: the film credits rolling by as he finishes his prattle is super.

Very amusing this film certainly is, although by no means everyone appears to have grasped the humour, seeing it as very bleak, which it is at the same time, but then romcom it certainly isn't.

22 December 2019

Robert Guédiguian's La Ville est Tranquille | The Town Is Quiet (2015)

Although I've only seen Robert Guédiguian's Le Promeneur du Champs-de-Mars, which is untypical of many of his twenty-one films, Christophe Kanchieff's book on the film director and his film's prepared me very well for what I was about to see. I think though that, although I personally loved the film, some appear to think it's his most bleak.

Well, Michèle (Ariane Ascaride) slaves away in the fish trade, her husband is an out-of-work alcoholic uninterested in the family, her daughter Fiona (Julie-Marie Parmentier) is a heroin addict with a young daughter and an absent father and prostitutes herself for three hundred francs for anyone who'll have her. And all this is set against the dockers' unrest, traditional political allegiances no longer applying with the working class voting for extreme right-wing racist parties, and so on. Even the parents of Paul (Jean-Pierre Daroussan) don't think they'll vote again, and don't blame their ex-docker son for forking out 3500 francs a month on payments for his taxi, the traitor.

And things get worse as Michèle realises prescribed medicines won't work for Fiona, who has no faith in methadone, and after taking a drug cocktail nearly dies until Ariane bundles her into the shower to come to. The small community of L'Estaque north-east of Marseille is full of little kindnesses, such as Paul filling Michèle's small moped tank so she can get to work, and even giving her three hundred francs free of change when he sees her hustling for custom among the taxi rank. But Paul returns to Michèle for sex as he's fallen for her, although he pays Michèle for the service, a woman hitherto completely faithful to her husband. Meanwhile, Michèle returns to her childhood lover Gérard (Gérard Maylan), who indirectly caused her to have a very bloody abortion: she's got the money to pay for Fiona's farine (smack). And then Paul takes taxi fares out of his permitted hours and loses his licence, thus forcing him to take illegal fares from unsuspecting strangers at the airport.

It can only end in tragedy: Michèle is at her wits end because she can no longer find the money for Fiona'a habit so she gives her a lethal dose and Gérard helps her to make it look like suicide. Then Gérard reveals his despair by shooting his skull off in the street: he's a hired killer as well as a bar owner. And that's without even mentioning other things.

However, the film ends of an upnote: young Sarkis, the enthusiastic piano player, gets his wish for a grand piano and plays in the narrow street to an appreciative audience.

Lucile Hadžihalilović's Evolution (2015)

Very little is certain in Lucile Hadžihalilović's first feature film in ten years, although it's harrowing and mysterious, and certainly some of it bears a suggestion of the dreams of the main character Nicolas (Max Brebant). This film is set on a island (in reality Lanzarote) in a possibly post-apocalyptic era, possibly a dystopian female-dominated society, but there are only strange women in control of pre-adolescents here, no men at all. Nicolas's 'mother' gives him a regular nightly dose of an unknown substance for an unknown reason, and Nicolas escapes from his cell-llike room frequently to do such things as join the other 'inmates' in the burial of a huge lobster or watch a weird ritual of women writhing together naked on the rocks by the seashore.

Nicolas's 'mother' pays close attention to what he's drawing in his sketchbook, as do the nurses, because this seems to be set in a dilapidated hospital, and Nicolas's 'mother' disappear into the background and nurses occupy her space. There are injections to cure Nicolas of an unknown illness: could it be that rebellion is the illness, and the evolution the film's title refers to be the evolution of consciousness? Probably not as the boys in a tank of water witness the birth of a baby, and the viewer can't discover anything because most of the acting is poker-faced, most of the images dreamlike/and or disturbing because they are open to many interpretations. We see a Caesarian birth, operations on Nicolas's navel. Nicolas becomes more inquisitive and a nurse, Stella (Roxane Duran), swims with him and gives him a long underwater kiss. She then goes from the island with him in a rowing boat, leaves him and the film leaves us with the bright lights of a town on another island or mainland.

21 December 2019

Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms (2004)

Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms breaks away from his native Bailleul area of France to the west of America, to the eponymous area with its nearby Joshua trees in the desert. David (David Wissak) and Katia (Katia Golubeva) are the only two actors of any importance in the film, which Dumont intended to be experimental – he had no interest in the dialogue, the story or the characters. It concerns a photographer and his girlfriend driving from Los Angeles in a Hummer to a motel in a desert situation. David is American and communicates with Katia in English and in French, only a basic knowledge of which he has: communication is therefore a problem and they have frequent arguments. They also have frequent very noisy and very violent sounding sex in the desert or in the motel or in the swimming pool.

What the viewer sees is the road, the dirt tracks, the gas stations, the naked bodies, etc, and hears a little of two languages and occasional soundtrack. Nothing much happens until towards the end, when a car appears immediately behind the Hummer on a dirt track in a desert in the middle of nowhere. The Hummer pulls off, the car follows it and hits it. David and Katia get out of the Hummer, three men get out of the car, Katie is stripped naked and held but not physically abused in any other way, whereas David is hit several times on the head with a baseball bat and raped noisily by the third man as David looks at Katia and she screams. The men drive off and Katia crawls to David.

Back at the hotel David is still living, doesn't want to call the police, and after Katia insists that she loves him he inexplicably knifes her a number of times, I suppose confirming – definitively – the nature of the love-hate relationship. The last static scene is from a distance, where we see David's body on the ground in the desert and a cop radioing his fellow workers to block the road. From reading reviews I knew a shock was coming so that knowledge reduced the shock, although nothing here is really explicit.

Claude Chabrol's La Fille coupée en deux | A Girl Cut in Two (2009)

In twentieth-century America the 'Trial of the century' came very early on in the century: 1906, when the fifty-two-year-old architect Stanford White was shot dead by the psychotic millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, whose ex-wife, model and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, had had a long-term sexual relationship with White. The story had already been adapted a few times, and in 2007 was again re-adapted (into the present day) in Claude Chabrol and his daughter-in-law Cécile Maistre's screenplay of La Fille coupée en deux.

Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier) is a very pretty and up-and-coming weather forecaster (Deneige of course means snow – Chabrol loves to play) who rides a moped and lives with her mother Marie (Marie Bunel), who works in a bookshop. She catches the eye of Goncourt-winning novelist Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand), who has just published a new novel and has a book signing the next day, where he invites her to an auction where he buys a copy of erotic writer Pierre Louÿs's La Femme et le pantin (1898).* The two are mutually attracted despite the thirty-year gap in ages: he will teach her things sexual, being a libertine who frequents a sex club where everything happens between closed doors.

And at the same time along comes Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), heir to a huge pharmaceutical fortune, a brat who is uses to getting his own way with everything, and is obviously seriously psychologically disturbed. We can guess this from his having to be restrained from strangling Gabrielle when she refuses to kiss him. And yet, Charles having refused to leave his wife for her, she marries Paul. And Paul is jealous of the fact that someone has taught her to go down on him so well, tearing himself apart because Gabrielle can't get Charles out of his head.

So, at a function where Charles is about to give him a speech, Paul shoots him dead. Paul's mother Geneviève (Caroline Sihol), who has never approved of mixed class marriages, tries to get Gabrielle to hush up the affair in court. She doesn't, and although Paul gets off lightly with seven years in prison, the icy Geneviève refuses to allow Gabrielle a cent of the fortune, although Gabrielle at least tells her she's making off with the car.

In the end, we discover the full meaning of the title: Gabrielle is reduced to the status of a magician's assistant, being cut in two.

The plot may creak a bit – no matter how much Paul is worth, would Gabrielle really risk her life by marrying such an egotistical, psychotic person, for instance? – but the hand of Chabrol is still firm, laying into the hypocrisies of the moneyed class, etc, and evidently influenced by Buñuel – as well as Hitchcock, it goes without saying.

*Buñuel adapted this novel into the film Cet obscur objet du désir (1977).

20 December 2019

François Truffaut's L'Homme qui aimait les femmes | The Man Who Loved Women (1977)

Bertrand Morane (Charles Denner) is in aeronautics and obviously quite comfortable as he has an apartment with a close view of the Tour Eiffel. He stars among a cast of women in this slightly strange but highly enjoyable film about a man in Montpellier who is horrified by dragueurs or tail-chasers, he just loves women, and in his early forties still can't get enough of them. And he goes out of the way to try to get them, such as – in the beginning, after a scene set in the present in which many of his past conquests throw a handful of dirt on his coffin – running into a post in a car park and claiming a woman did it just because he liked the look of her legs and wants her address.

It's not just the idea of women that explains his never-ending thirst, but more that no one woman can satisfy him. He's tried marriage, even got tangled up with Véra (Leslie Canon), but this is not enough for him. One of his readers at the publishing house he's sent his typescript 'The Man Who Loved Women' to is smitten and persuades the other readers and the publisher to release the book. And she's the one who comments on the troupe of women passing his grave: he dies not of a heart attack, or violent Véra getting revenge on him, but simply getting run down after chasing a girl across the street – and, very sick in hospital, reaching out for a nurse and falling from his bed. An interesting twist on Truffaut's many femmes fatales.

Claire Denis's Chocolat (1988)

This is Claire Denis's first featur film, which has strong autobiographical elements and bears some resemblances to White Material, although the later film is much bleaker and is set in an unnamed African country. Chocolat though is set in the final days of Cameroon as a French colony. 'Être chocolat' is an expression meaning to be duped.

France Dalens (Mireille Perrier) walks along a road in French Cameroon, where her father Marc (François Cluzet) was an administrator, and is given a lift to Douala. Then begins the long flashback to when France (now played by Cécile Ducasse) is a young child, with her father and her mother Aimée (Giulia Boschi) and the 'boy' Protée (Isaach de Bankolé), to whom she relates very well.

The film is slow, colourful, languid, much is left unspoken, and the sexual tension between Aimée and Protée is almost tangible until it reaches a non-sexual climax.

Cédric Klapisch's Ce qui nous lie | Back to Burgundy (2016)

Cédric Klapisch's Ce qui nous lie is a title in keeping with the director's principal theme of exploring the nature of relationships, such as familial ones in his earlier Un air de famille (Family Resemblances). The significance of this title (lit. 'What ties us') is unfortunately lost in both the Quéquois title (Retour en Bourgogne) and the English (Back to Burgundy), where the emphasis is on a wine area rather than relationships. The setting is rural Burgundy, where a family owns a thriving vineyard. When their father is dying, brother and sister Jérémie (François Civil) and Juliette (Ana Girardot) greet the return of Jean (Pio Marmaï), although initially Jérémie is full of anger because Jean didn't return for their mother's funeral. The tension is eased, though, when Jean reveals that his wife Alicia (María Valverde) was giving birth to his son at the time. (Jean has been gone for ten years to travel round the world, finally settling to a new life in Australia with his wife and son.)

This is also a time when Jean, as his father is dying and when he discovers (to his great surprise) that his father loved him. With their father dead there is an inheritance problem to solve, and Jean is initially in favour of selling the plantation and the house in part to pay off his debts in Australia. There's a great deal of grape sucking to decide if it's ready for the vendange, a great deal of wine drinking and not a little drunkenness, but in the end blood is thicker than wine and a compromise is reached, meaning that the family still maintains control of the plantation, Jean rents out his share to his siblings, and everyone is content with the situation. It's interesting to compare this with Air de famille.

19 December 2019

Christophe Barratier's Les Choristes | The Chorus (2004)

Les Choristes is Christophe Barratier's first directed film, and is based on Jean Dréville's 1945 film La Cage aux rossignols. It begins in 1999 with the renowned conductor Pierre Morhange (Jacques Perrin) returned from New York to be greeted at his home in Paris by old schoolfriend Pépinot (Didier Flamand), who gives him a diary written by his old music teacher Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot).

Then follows the main part of the film, which is a long flashback to 1949, when out-of-work music teacher Mathieu begins work as a humble pion, a menial supervisory job usually performed by much younger people, particularly (today at least) university students. The school is 'Fond de l'étang' (lit. 'Bottom of the pond'), perhaps a fitting name for an establishment for troubled children run by the violent and egotistical tyrant Rachin (François Berléand).

The children are rowdy and insulting to begin with, although Mathieu decides to introduce discipline by teaching them to sing, soon realising the huge potential of one of the boys, Morhange (now played by Jean-Baptiste Maunier). Mathieu earns a great deal of respect from the boys, who make dramatic progress as a choir, with Morhange as the lead singer: the wish is for him to progress to the music conserservatoire in Lyon.

On the day when Mathieu takes the boys for a walk in the woods the delinquent Pascal Mondain (Grégory Gatignol), who briefly stayed at the school and was beaten by Rachin for a theft he didn't commit, sets fire to the school. Rachin dismisses Mathieu for negligence and forbids the boys to say goodbye to him, although they throw paper planes out of the window wishing him farewell. Taking the bus away from school the young pupil Pépinot (now played by Maxence Perrin) begs Mathieu to allow him to follow him, which he does.

We learn from the mature Morhange that he won the scholarship to the conservatoire, that an investigation into Rachin's thuggish behaviour was carried out and that he was dismissed of his functions. The mature Pépinot reveals that Mathieu continued his life as a music teacher. Oddly, I was reminded of Lindsay Anderson's If..., although that is a much more complicated film, an allegory of revolution seen through the prism of an English private school.

18 December 2019

Jean Rollin's Le Viol du vampire (1968)

It was only by casually looking at the British Film Institute site that I discovered the name of the director Jean Rollin. He made many films, of which the first – conventionally enough – were shorts: his first short was Les Amours jaunes (1958), which is essentially some verses of Tristan Corbière's against a visual background of a seashore. Rollin intended to work with Marguerite Duras on 'L'Intinèraire marin', but it never came to fruition. His first full feature was Le Viol du vampire (1968).

Le Viol du vampire was a failure, probably mainly because the viewers were expecting a horror film but were served with an experimental, partly surrealist film which owes more to Buñuel than to Hammer horror, although the plot may suggest otherwise.

This film is low budget, so much so that the wounds of the victims look, well, like pathetic make-up, some of the acting leaves something to be desired, as do the props, but there's something here. OK, you have to wade through a hugely elaborate plot about four Vampire sisters who live on blood, are said to be 200 years old, and can't bear the sunlight. The nearby villagers are frightened of them, and psychoanalyst Thomas and his friends Marc and Brigitte go out to investigate, Thomas trying to convince them that they aren't what they think they are.

Thomas and friends destroy the crosses villagers have put up around the vampires' home, it is discovered that the lord of the manor has a strong hold over them, and Thomas seems to have amorously converted one of the sisters. But she turns out to be a real vampire and reluctantly turns Thomas into one, and much more continues.

Rollin filmed this as a result of putting two stories together, and although it's impossible to relate in a few words where the plot takes you, there's a queen of the vampires working from a clinic in Paris with Doctor Samsky to create vampires, although Samsky later defects and joins the 'goodies'. Samsky believes he can turn vampires back to normal, although he can't, with the result that the reluctant vampires Thomas and his rebel sister vampire lover have no future as real humans, and Marc, who has unwittingly killed his dead lover Brigitte (who was already dead but turned into a zombie) wanders around Paris with her body in his arms.

Rollin, between 1973 and 1983, became unable to survive economically with his off-centre vampire films alone, so made about twenty pornographic films – such as Hard Penetration (1977), Vibration sexuelles (1977), Hyperpénétrations (1978), Sodomanie (1983) and Folies anales (1983). 

His last film, La Masque de la Méduse, was made in 2010, the year of his death at the age of 72.

16 December 2019

Pierre Salvadori's De vrais mensonges | Beautiful Lies (2003)

Pierre Salvadori's De vrai mensonges is certainly a piece of fluff, but then it is like so many films or plays: mistaken identities, impossible to believe plots, and of course a happy end for two lovers. But's it's also very well accomplished and very amusing, in which (with hindsight) Émilie (Audrey Tautou) again plays matchmaker as in Amélie Poulin, but under very different circumstances.

The unnamed Sète is where the film is, er, set, which is in the background of many of the scenes, although most of the scenes are in the hairdressing salon of Émilie, often with co-stars Nathalie Baye (Émilie's mother), who plays Maddy, and Jean (Sami Boualjila), Émilie's employee (who speaks thirty-one languages, and is in love with Émilie).

Émilie doesn't know anything about Jean, bins the anonymous love letter he writes to her, and then fishes it out to type to her mother, who has been divorced for four years, is mentally rotting away and could do with a shot in the sexual hormones. Alas, big mistake leading to much confusion. But then, would Émilie have been aware of Jean without all the confusion she created? A questionable question.

Yes, this is a very amusing, very well made and very engrossing film. So what's wrong with that?

Patrice Chéreau's Son frère | His Brother (2003)

Based on Philppe Besson's novel of the same name (although partly set in Brittany as opposed to Ìle de Ré), Patrice Chéreau's Son frère is a bleak (but positive) psychological portrait of two brothers. Thomas (Bruno Todeschini), visits his gay brother Luc (Eric Caravaca) after the two have not communicated for some time, and Thomas reveals that he has a rare blood disorder and asked Luc to accompany him to hospital.

There follows a coming together of the brothers held apart for so long, an understanding and blossoming love for each other. Thomas, after trying cortisone and a splenectomy, is told that he could haemorrhage at any time in the future (if at all), but he is incapable of taking it, and his partner Claire (Nathalie Bouttefeu) has left him as Luc now takes over with his concern for his brother.

This is in effect the story of two estranged brothers and how they come to resolve their differences, of how they come to love each other, although in the end Thomas can't accept what's happening to him and walks out into the sea in Brittany to die.

15 December 2019

Claire Denis's Beau travail (2010)

Claire Denis's Beau travail is set in Djibouti with a group of legionnaires under the command of Galoup (Denis Lavant), warrant officer first class. It was inspired by Herman Melville's short story Billy Budd, with which it shares a number of similarities. Above all, this film is a celebration of the male body, with men practicing exercises, almost dancing a ballet and embracing one another, but then visiting night clubs in search of women, or conversely ironing, sweeping, drying clothes and peeling potatoes.

The homosocial tones inevitably give way to homosexual ones, but of course these are only suggested, tweaked out by the images: needless to say, there are very few words in the film, much as in a night club where the music drowns out the spoken word.

What this comes down to is a disgraced officer's memories of a platoon in the desert. Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) is a new recruit, and a very handsome one. He fills Galoup with jealousy due to his repressed homosexual desire and the fact that the commander of the base, Bruno Forrestier (Michel Subor)*, has noted Sentain's noble actions. And Galoup will send Sentain out into the desert with a defective compass, leading to Galoup's court marshalling.

*Michel Subor (as Bruno Forrestier) starred in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat (1963), in which he deserted to Switzerland and joined an extreme right-wing group.

Claire Denis's White Material (2010)

This film is written by both Claire Denis and Marie NDiaye. It brings to mind Denis's first film Chocolat (1988), although it's not set in any specific place, just an unnamed country in Africa where a civil war between the government and the rebels (including children) is being waged.

In a way, the protagonist conjures up Isabelle Huppert's performance in the film adaptation of Marguerite Duras's eponymous novel Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950), which was directed by Rithy Panh in 2008. Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) lives on the coffee plantation of her ex-father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor) and her ex-husband André (Christophe Lambert), alone with her psychologically disturbed son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and now the rebel officer 'Le Boxeur' (Isaach de Bankolé). Due to the imminent danger all her workers have fled but she remains stubbornly waiting for the crop to be harvested and recruits workers from another farm to fulfil the work. The tension mounts, the death count rises, she is advised to move out, but Maria stands her ground, as if waiting stoically for a death sentence.

Manuel is attacked, stripped naked by young rebels and goes mad, shaving his head with revenge in his eyes, much like Travis Bickles (Robert De Niro) in Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The violence continues to grow.

The title of the film obviously relates to white people's goods, as well as the white people in this country. The atmosphere is very bleak, foreboding, the scenes non-sequential, and with a soundtrack by Tindersticks this is quite devastating.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne's L'Enfant | The Child (1996)

The Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant is again set in a bleak Seraing, Liège, with its social problems. Essentially it's a tale of (non)-working-class woe starring twenty-year-old Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and eighteen-year-old Sonia (Déborah François). Bruno gets by on petty theft, using the young schoolboy Steve (Jérémie Ségard) as his accomplice. The couple have a four-month-old baby.

Bruno clearly hasn't grown up: he plays at putting his foot in a puddle to leave a mark on a wall by seeing how far he can jump up it, murders time by playing with a stick in the water, etc. And then he decides to secretly sell the baby, until he tells Sonia what he's done, she faints and has to be rushed to hospital: cue for Bruno to return and reclaim the baby.

All the events are played out against this bleak backdrop, the film bereft of music, actions being repeated quite a lot as if to underline the grimness: desperate phone calls, waiting, making bus journeys and so on. As in Le Fils (in which Renier also stars) any physical effort, the strains and the panting, is heard.

And then the problems begin: Steve grabs an elderly woman's handbag and they whiz off on Steve's moped, although a car follows them and they're forced to hide in the water. And then a change begins to take place when Steve is frozen and Bruno goes to great pains to rub the younger boy's feet and legs: it's almost as if Bruno is at last learning to be a father.

Bruno's transformation as a responsible human being continues when Steve is arrested and Bruno turns himself in to the police, handing in the money he's stolen. And Sonia, who had formerly rejected Bruno, goes to see him in prison and they both break down crying over the futility of it all. It's hardly an upbeat ending, but it shows a strong enough element of promise that the Dardennes like to sign their films off with.

12 December 2019

Patrice Leconte's Le Mari de la coiffeuse | The Hairdresser's Husband (2002)

Patrice Leconte's films are of course intended to 'entertain' in the sense that they aren't made to bore people, but they are emphatically not designed for entertainment value only: quite the reverse, as Leconte's movies are multi-layered and difficult to clearly define.

A number of Leconte's movies have similar themes: suicide (or the thought of it) is quite common, occurring in Le Parfum d'Yvonne, La Fille sur le pont (twice, and although unsuccessful we could argue that the same theme is in itself suicidal); and twice, for instance, in Le Mari de la coiffeuse; ageing is seen as negative, as with the 'old queen' in Le Parfum d'Yvonne, who can't stand the Aznavour song 'Sa jeunesse' reminding him of his age, and Mathilde (Anna Galiena) is concerned about (among other things) an elderly passerby growing older each time she sees him. In Le Mari de la coiffeuse death is ever-present, Antoine being asked by a customer his opinion, to which he replies: 'Death is yellow and smells of vanilla.' 'Are you sure about that asks the customer?' 'I'm taking bets' Antoine confidently replies. All very weird, almost surreal.

Perhaps above all Le Mari de la coiffeuse involves dreams we had in childhood and of how some (particularly Antoine (Jean Rochefort here) wish to carry them well into late adulthood. Antoine as a child is highly attracted to hairdressers, particularly the buxom one who cuts his hair and he luxuriates in her smells and glimpses of her breast. When his father asks him what he wants to be when he grows, Antoine says the husband of a hairdresser: for that he gets a slapped face from his father, who nonetheless is mystified by his own violence. And then, well into his fifties, Antoine finds a considerably younger hairdresser who too falls in love with him at first sight, they get married, and live very happily, Antoine indulging in his voyeuristic penchant.

But how much of this is reality, and how much fantasy, the imaginings of an ageing Antoine who's never grown up, is wide open to question.

11 December 2019

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs | Micmacs à tire-larigot (2013)

Micmacs is the English name for the French film Micmacs à tire-larigot, a title which is difficult to translate: 'Carry-ons Galore', 'Endless Carry-ons', I don't know. But this of course is a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie, and his movies are difficult even to describe. There's a great deal of imagination at work here, and to a great extent I'd describe Jeunet's films as dream-like, so what can you say?

You can begin by saying that the name of the film has been a little slant in French, with the expression à tire-larigot used as a pun to mean that the carry-ons or whatever you choose to call them are actually in a place called Tire-Larigots, a kind of cave made out of scrapyard or recycled material. And in this cave live some lovable troglodytes, such as the African Remington (Omar Sy) with his typewriter, who only uses outmoded expressions; or Calculette (Marie-Julie Baup), who can make fantastic calculations almost instantly; or Fracasse (Dominique Pinon), a former human cannon ball; or Placard (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who's survived the guillotine; or La Môme Caoutchouc (Julie Ferrier), a contortionist; or Petit-Pierre (Michel Crémadès), a character based on the real art brut genius of the same name; or Tambouille (Yolande Moreau), the band's delightful (but not-to-be-messed-with) cook.

Into this motley crew comes Bazil (Dany Boon), who's recently lost his home and his job in a video club* due to being in hospital for some time after receiving a stray bullet to his skull, which is still there as surgeons fear that it might do more damage if removed. Bazil's father lost his life in a land mine explosion, so Bazil's not happy when he discovers himself in the middle of the road between two arms companies: 'La Vigilante de l'Armement' and 'Les Arsenaux d'Aubervilliers': the first killed his father, and the second made the bullet in his head. Obviously, time for some micmacs. This is, as might be expected of Jean-Paul Jeunet, an amazing film.

*It was of course a video club in which Nino worked in Amélie Poulain, or where Quentin Tarantino worked for that matter.

10 December 2019

Christophe Kantcheff: Robert Guédiguian: Cinéaste (2013)

Christophe Kantcheff's Robert Guédiguian is a suberb, lavish 270-page book with many photos by Jérôme Cabanel. Initially this could be seen as a coffee-table publication, although it's far more informed and worthy than most of that category of books. Here are described the various films that Guédiguian (sometimes not ignorantly called the French Ken Loach, who is certainly an influence) directed up to the date of publication, and even a brief mention of two that were in the pipeline: Le Fil d'Ariane (2014) and Une historie de fou (2015).

Guédiguian was born in L'Estaque to the north-west of Marseille, has an accent from the area (I learned from watching an interview on On n'est pas couché), and sets the vast majority of his films either in L'Estaque or the Marseille area. He has his own cooperative company Agat Films and very often his wife Ariane Ascarid and his friends Gérard Méylan and Jean-Pierre Darroussan take lead parts in his films: in fact, the regular viewer has watched them age in the thirty years Guédiguian has been filming.

As a former communist and still to quite far to the left of centre, Guédiguian's films are engagés, often dealing with the problems caused by the post-industrialisation of society: poverty, unemployment, prostitution as a way to makes ends meet, drugs, globalisation in general, gentrification, divide and rule, etc.

In spite of the high quality of his films, Guédiguian is not a high-ranking film maker, his name doesn't easily trip off the tongue of many French speakers as other directors do, and the only film so far to reach audiences of a few million was Marius et Jeannette (1997).

Kantcheff's book covers not only the films separately and at the same time makes comparisons of them collectively, but looks at the role of women as opposed to men in Guédiguian's films, the role of children, the use of nudity, the transmission of knowledge, etc. There are also interviews with the main characters. This is a must for anyone who enjoys good cinema.

7 December 2019

François Ozon's Dans la maison | In the House (2002)

Dans la maison is adapted from Juan Mayorga's play El chico de la última fila (2000), and is in a sense a kind of thriller, although on the surface a banal one in which French teacher Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini, a failed author) becomes intellectually (but not sexually) attracted to his student Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), who shows signs of being gifted, someone who could become a writer. Germain lives with his wife Jeanne (Kristen Scott Thomas), who runs an art gallery, and who's a little concerned about her husband, who hasn't had sex with her for some time, not since his interest in Claude.

Germain encourages Claude, suggests new ways he can approach his writing, although the situation intensifies and Claude, who has befriended his classmate Rafa (Bastien Ughetto), becomes increasingly interested in Rafa's home, which 'smells middle class'. He records his impressions in his compositions which increase in frequency, and which Germain suggests Claude might tackle better.

But fantasy overcomes reality: how much of Rafa's parents house does Claude in fact study, as some writing here is obvious fantasy? Does Claude engage in a passionate kiss with Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), Rafa's mother: certainly that would explain Rafa's falling out with Claude, although of course there's that other passionate kiss that Rafa plants on Claude, Claude calling Rafa a 'sale pédé' ('dirty queer'), and pure imagination certainly must be Claude writing off Rafa as hanging himself.

And then there's Germain being suspended for faking Rafa's maths test in order to continue the relationship he's vicariously living through Claude's writing, Claude leaving home and visiting Germain's flat while he's not there but Jeanne is, and does anything sexual come of that?

In the end the teacher and the student stare at the block of flats from the park and imagine, invent occurrences, and the viewer sees picture windows, in one of which is a murder, although this is obviously in their imagination....isn't it?

6 December 2019

François Ozon's 8 Femmes | 8 Women (2002)

8 Femmes is a major film of François Ozon's, originally intended as a remake of George Cukor's The Women of 1939 until that attempt proved unsuccessful, and then a Robert Thomas 1960s play was adopted, from which Ozon very freely worked to produce a kind of melodrama, or detective story, or (in parts) a musical with a strong eye on the works of Cukor, Hitchcock, Sirk, and so on.

Furthermore, 8 Femmes is a mark of Ozon's maturity as at the age of thirty-four he has gathered such icons as Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardent, Emmanuelle Béart and Darielle Darrieux, plus Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine and Firmine Richard to make up the eight women. Ozon was obviously happy working with women, and stated that a film called 8 Hommes would not have been possible for him.

Without going into the details of the plot of the film (which would take up a lot of space) this is not the usual entertainment fare: it's about what initially appears to be a murder of a man by any of eight women, and each woman has her secrets, any of the eight could be the murderer. So far so Agatha Christie, say, but this is no Agatha Christie mystery.

This is more like a murder mystery without a real murder plot, in fact there is only the thinnest of plots here, or rather a fake plot (McGuffin?) drives the action. Gender intrigue this is, but with relevant songs through the decades to punctuate what is happening or felt. And there is also adultery, lesbianism, violence, intimations of incest, whatever you like. This is a film set in the 1950s which delights in its transgression, and is probably one of the most complex, if not the most complex, that Ozon had done before.

5 December 2019

Claude Sautet's Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (1995)

Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is the final film that Claude Sautet made, and is a wonderful one. Essentially there are two characters here, as in the title, where the badly and underemployed Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) meets the ex-judge and ex-businessman, the wealthy and elderly Mr Arnaud (Michel Serrault).

Mr Arnaud (we don't refer to him as 'Pierre' here) was a brief lover of Nelly's friend Jacqueline (Claire Nadeau), and on one occasion that he meets Nelly he offers to lend her the six months rent she owes, just like that, no strings attached, although Nelly doesn't look surprised but refuses very calmly and then goes home to tell her shiftless workshy husband that she's accepted the money and she's leaving him. This statement is also received as calmly as it is made: most things, no matter how important they are, are said and performed calmly in this film. The important element most of the time is for the viewer to guess the psychology behind the statements or behind the expressionless faces of the protagonists.

Nelly tells another premonitory lie when she tells Mr Arnaud that she has slept with Vincent (Jean-Hugues Anglade), Arnaud's publisher, and that she enjoyed it. She's now working on Arnaud's memoirs at his flat, the 'loan' being forgotten, and Arnaud greatly enjoying Nelly's company, almost, one could say, enjoying a sublimated sexual relationship with Nelly. And Nelly, who is also greatly enjoying the relationship but in a different way, even acts as a kind of editor to Arnaud, mentioning repetitions, obsolete expressions, and places where cuts could be made. She does this seemingly without self-consciousness: again, the viewer has to guess at the thoughts behind the words.

There's a hugely, potentially deeply emabarassing moment Arnaud sits and watches the sleeping Nelly, his hands not touching her but tracing the outline of her shoulders, and wham! She opens her eyes. But her only reaction is to observe that he can't sleep, and she holds his hand until she goes back to sleep again and Arnaud quietly leaves to return to his own bed.

Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is exquisitely handled, there are no unwelcome moments, there is a very limited obvious psychology employed here, suggestion is all-important. There's a moment at the airport when Mr Arnaud appears to be wavering, wants to return to the past. But no, of course he can't, he's packed his past in cardboard cartons, all the books he's read, swapped his past for the future, which will reveal his past in the form of a book. His immediate future is in his life with his past wife, in travel, and then... And then Nelly continues with her future, the past of Mr Arnaud, before she can catch up with another future.

4 December 2019

Cédric Klapisch's Ma part du gâteau | My Piece of the Pie (2011)

Cédric Klapisch recognises that he's left-wing, but also that his films don't make a similar forceful kind of political statement as Ken Loach and Robert Guédiguian.

Pretty Woman is mentioned by a number of reviewers, the Roy Orbison song of the same name is among the string of records played in Ma part du gâteau, and in an interview Klapisch mentions that film, along with Les Intouchables, as movies which illustrate enormous class divides.

Pretty Woman is evidently the more appropriate film to compare Ma part du gâteau with, as it depicts a very rich man making money out of money, confronted an attractive woman of very low social standing, although that is perhaps where the similarities end: Ma part du gâteau doesn't end in the pair getting together but in them separating; Stéphane (Gilles Lellouche) is a ruthless businessman with scarcely any redeeming human features, whereas Richard Gere's businessman has; furthermore, Pretty Woman was over twenty years before Klapisch's film, and the fictional woman in cinema has moved on, evolved.

A frequent criticism made of Ma part du gâteau is that it is caracatural, whereas Klapisch stronogly disagrees: the film was released a little after the sub-prime scandal, and Klapisch states that the guilty rich bankers should have been punished for causing the scandal to begin with: the world really is made up of extremes of rich and poor, and France (Karin Viard), who is an unemployed forty-two-year-old from Dunkirk who finds work as a femme de ménage to Stéphane, of course represents the 99% of the French population, Stéphane the rich 1%. The two groups very rarely meet, and of course never on equal terms.

The politics of the film are obviously the main point of interest, but it is also interesting to see the differences in psychology. Stéphane is obviously highly successful at his job, indeed so successful that he neglects the outside world: he can't keep a woman, he can't look after his child, in fact he's nothing more than a callous child himself. France, on the other hand, in spite of an earlier suicide attempt, is a mature woman determined to survive in a hostile world which is nevertheless still capable of working-class solidarity, and is determined to do the best for her children.

Endings are often difficult, but at least this film avoids any amorous happy end. And on the way to that end there are some very amusing moments, such as France (on two separate occasions) bursting into song when she's ironing: a tremendous performance by Karin Viard and a very engrossing screenplay by Klapisch.

1 December 2019

Éric Rohmer's Le Rayon Vert (1986)

Le Rayon Vert is the fifth (in other words penultimate) film in Rohmer's 'Comédies et proverbes' series*, which is an illustration from Rimbaud's 'Chanson de la plus haute tour': 'Ah ! que le temps vienne | Où les cœurs s'éprennent.' The title alludes to an optical and atmospheric phemomenon: the last ray of the sun, in clear weather conditions taking on a green appearance. This is mentioned by a bit-part character in the film. 

Delphine (Marie Rivière) learns that her girlfriend can't go on holiday to Greece with her for the summer holidays, so she tags along with a friend's visit to Cherbourg, but feels left out of things, she needs a male. So she goes to the French Alps on her own for a night, is unhappy, returns to Paris and then takes off for Biarritz, again on her own. There she meets an extroverted Swedish girl: trouble is, Delphine's introverted, and picking up any old guy and playing language games isn't her idea of fun.

And then, as she's waiting to take the train back from Biarritz she meets a guy who makes a remark on the Dostoevsky she's reading, he says he's going to Saint-jean-de-Luz. She asks if she can go with him, then he asks her to go to Bayonne with him, she sees the Rayon vert, and things are looking up, she thinks.

* The series consisted, with the author inspired in brackets where known, of La Femme de l'aviateur (1981) (Musset); Le Beau Mariage (1982) (La Fontaine); Pauline à la plage (1983) (Chrétien de Troyes); Les Nuits de la pleine lune (1984) (pseudo-Champenois proverb; Le Rayon vert (1986) (Rimbaud); and L'Ami de mon amie (1987) (proverb).

Claude Simon: L'Herbe (1958)

Discoveries are made, things slowly revealed to the reader, and are attained through the many digressions, parentheses, seemingly endless paragraphs and sentences. There is no conventional story, or rather the parentheses are very much part of the story of a dying eighty-four-year-old woman, Marie, whose sister was Eugénie, who (Eugénie) gave up an individual life of her own to bring up her brother Pierre, (who married Sabine), a brother now old and very fat, but who in his time was constantly unfaithful to his wife and by whom he has two daughters (Christine and Irène) and a son, Georges, who marries Louise (although she's thinking of leaving him for her lover): all this information is slowly tweaked or eked out of the ever-rambling narrative. And the book, in Claude Simon's words, appears 'to reveal this enormous disproportion between our actions and the immensity within which they are drowned'.

Here we have a representation of reality in a highly idiosyncratic, non-intellectual style, where sensations are all-important, as is memory (and Simon is associated with the nouveau roman, but this is a loose expression), and Simon believes Proust and Joyce fit into this category (nouveau roman). Writing is an act of creation, but not in an artisanal sense, where the object of creation is known from the beginning, whereas in the novel it isn't known for Simon. The description 'painterly' or 'cinematic' would be a suitable description of the sumptuous musical language, which certainly isn't to everyone's taste (as many find Simon 'difficult').

30 November 2019

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet (2013)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet wanted to make a film with a non-original script, and Reif Larsen’s novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet (2009) was introduced to him, from which he adapted his English-language The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, which was almost entirely set in Québec. It was an unsuccessful film: Harvey Weinstein wanted Jeunet to make cuts, Jeunet refused, and the film went out with virtually no publicity and to very few movie theaters in the United States. According to Jeunet there was also a contract with Netflix to fulfill, but we'll leave it there.

The ten-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, commonly known as T. S. Spivet, or just "T. S." (Kyle Catlett) is a child prodigy, although his teachers fail to recognise it and his parents and sister, well... The family lives far from high cultural territory, on a farm in Montana where his unnamed cowboy father obviously expects him to carry on the business, his mother Dr Clair (Helena Bonham Carter) is too interested in grasshoppers and insects to really concern herself with T. S., his sister Gracie (Niamh Wilson) is too interested in fashion, pop music and becoming famous and his brother Layton (Jakob Davies) accidentally shot himself.

But child prodigy T. S. certainly is: the Smithsonian Institute in Washington phones him to tell him he's won the Baird prize for his invention of a perpetual motion machine, and he's due to give a speech about it, but of course no one knows he's so young. The whole film is a visual feast, as you would expect from Jeunet, and we are still in the dream world he creates (meeting the tramp Dominique Pinon, for instance). From train hopping to hitching, T. S. makes it to the Smithsonian, gives a speech mainly about the death of his brother, is 'interviewed' by a mindless television presenter until his mother Dr Clair comes on the programme, then after that his father floors the presenter and they go home: they don't want their son to be manipulated by the media. but the best use of T. S.'s invention is to rock his mother's cradle for the new baby?

Larsen's book is experimental, and Jeunet tries to meet this experimentation by various diagrams in the film, various maps included in the visuals, etc. I wouldn't call this a fully accomplished movie as the ending is so unsatisfactory, the story just seems to fizzle out, but then professional criticisms of the novel mainly concern the rather inconclusive end.

29 November 2019

Gilles Mimouni's L'Appartement (1996)

L'Appartement is a film in two parts – the past and the present. At the beginning Max (Vincent Cassel) literally bumps into Lucien (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey), his friend he's not seen for a few years, in Montmartre, and since then he's married Muriel (Sandrine Kiberlain). He'll be in touch wih Lucien in five days, as he has to go to Tokyo for four days. But he delays his flight because he sees Lisa (Monica Bellucci), a young woman he was madly in love with earlier (one of the many flashbacks tells us) but she just appears to have walked out on him, although he's still in love with her.

So Max laboriously tracks Lisa down, but in what he thinks is her apartment he meets Alice (who also calls herself Lisa) and (with very little persuasion from her) soon falls for her too. Later, though, he discovers that Alice has been in love with him all the time, been tracing his steps far more than Max has lately been tracing Lisa's, has all her love and movements written in a diary, and although she's Lucien's lover when she eventually meets Max, she's only a lukewarm one.

But Max only finds this out at the last minute, about the time Lisa has been blown up in the apartment, and although he meets Alice at the airport, he also meets Muriel too, so what can he do? Lucien, who is thrown back by the blast of the apartment exploding, is loved by no woman it seems, although Max is loved by three. Confusing? No, not really, although this makes for a very enthralling film.

28 November 2019

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Salaire de la peur | The Wages of Fear (1953)

This is one of the classics of French cinema, and perhaps one of the most well-known French films abroad. Adapted from a novel by Georges Arnaud, this film is set in a central American country, although Clouzot's choice of Guatemala was rejected by the main actor Yves Montand, as was Spain, and Montand refused to work on the film in a country under the yoke of Franco's régime. The film was therefore shot in the rather less hot Camargue and the bambouseraie of Gard.

The introduction – which involves outlining the main characters, showing the setting and Mario (Montand) flirting with the barmaid Linda (Véra Clouzot). Four men are chosen by the Southern Oil Company (SOC) to drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerine over more than 300 miles of hazardous road to put out an oil well fire: the reward is great ($2000), but the chemical mustn't exceed a certain temperature or be bumped in any way or there will be an enormous explosion.

The men chosen in the end are Mario, Jo (Charles Vanel), Luigi (Folco Lulli) and Bimba (Peter Van Eyck). And so begins the journey, fraught with danger, such as a frail wooden bridge, a huge rock in the middle of the road, and a deep pool of oily water. The tension and the suspense are enormous and the atmosphere is expertly directed by Clouzot.

On the way Luigi and Bimba's truck explodes, and the oily water is touch and go, Mario arrives at the fiercely burning oil well with Jo, who has not survived the water. So Mario leaves with his cheque, (too) confidently and too happy, recklessly driving back to Linda, but misses a turn and ends his life thrown out of the burning lorry. 

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne's La Promesse | The Promise (1996)

Unsurprisingly, La Promesse is a social drama from the frères Dardenne set in Seraing, Liège. Igor (Jérémie Renier) is seventeen and works for his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet), who is exploiting immigrant workers: this is a world of usury, blackmail, theft and violence. And then, soon after the business has taken in a group of immigrants on a car carrier, African worker Amidou (Rasmané Ouédraogo) has a fatal fall and Igor promises before he dies that he will look after his wife Assita (Assita Ouedraogo) and her baby.

We first saw Igor looking at a customer's car and then surreptitiously robbing her, but here begins Igor's adulthood, and his moral education: the future of two individuals, both unaware that the father is dead, is in his hands. Igor, his promise made, goes out of his way to help Assita: paying for her housing, humiliating his father. We have seen here how Assita is subjected to racism by being pissed on, but Igor even sells his ring (showing his pact with his father) to help Assita, who becomes a kind of mother figure he looks after.