17 November 2019

François Ozon's Un lever de rideau (2006)

Un lever de rideau is the result of the film Angel being delayed, and is a 26-minute film adapted from Henri de Monterlant's play Un Incompris (1943). And it very much looks like a play, with just scenes in a flat, mostly just one room. Bruno (Louis Garrel) is waiting for his girlfriend Rosette (Vahina Giocante) and talking to his friend Pierre (Mattieu Amalric).

Rosette is late and Bruno has sworn that if she is more than forty-five minutes late then the relationship is over, in spite of the fact that he loves her. Pierre tries to reason with his madness, but to no avail: this is another case of supreme subjectivity – we think for instance of the man refusing to have sex with the light on in the 'Love in the Dark' section of Scènes de lit.

Rosette arrives a few minutes after Bruno's deadline with the excuse that she bought some plums on the way for him. But she is too late, in spite of them having sex shortly following her arrival. Because of Bruno's intransigence, they are in a stalemate situation, neither of them able to move. But at the same time, Bruno is obviously shattered, hurt by a situation of his own making.

François Ozon's Regarde la mer (1997)

Regarde la mer, like La Robe d'été, is set on l'Île-d'Yeu, an island in Vendée only reached by boat.* Essentially this medium length (52 minute) film with only the two central characters have speaking parts (with the exception of a few unheard calls from the husband at the end): Sasha (Sasha Hails) and Tatiana (Marina De Van). Sasha's husband is away for a short time, leaving his wife in their holiday home to look after their baby child. Soon, a female drifter – who in some ways could be said to resemble a non-dangerous version of Mona in Varda's Sans toit ni loi – arrives and Sasha's world is overturned.

Tatiana has a tent and wants to pitch it near Sasha's home, although she's hardly polite when Sasha not only agrees, but encourages Tatiana, inviting her to a meal (and at the end of which Tatiana licks her plate clean like a dog), welcoming her outside the next morning to breakfast, in which Tatiana apparently rather begrudgingly merely has a coffee, no gratitude expressed. In fact, the weirder Tatiana gets and the more objectionable she becomes the more Sasha seems to become endeared to her.

And Sasha's excitement, even transformation it might be said, deepens as the whole odd business continues: on seeing Tatiana retire to her tent, Sasha watches it as she masturbates on the edge of a chair back. The next day on the beach, Sasha asks what Tatiana is looking at, to which comes the reply 'men fucking in the wood'. As if under some strange kind of spell Sasha ventures into the wood – an obvious gay cruising area – and imitates the men by standing against a tree as if in wait. A man comes along and begins caressing her breasts, although she directs his attention to her bikini bottom and he begins licking. It's impossible to tell if this is fantasy or supposed to represent reality in the film, but then some of Ozon's films work like this.

Sasha's husband phones her to let her know that he's returning the following morning and Sasha says Tatiana can spend the night in her home. While Sasha and her child are asleep Tatiana – who's revealed that she once had an abortion – watches the sleeping couple with tear running down her face and strips naked. When Sasha's husband returns he unzips the tent to find his dead wife naked and bound up, her vulva stiched up. The last shots we see are of Tatiana on the boat to the mainland, the baby in her arms.

* Vendée's other isand is Noirmoutier, which can be reached by road, and of course is associated with Agnès Varda, who had a home there with her husband Jacques Demy.

16 November 2019

François Ozon's Scènes de lit (1997)

As suggested in the title, these are bed scenes, although certainly not of a voyeuristic nature – in fact there're mostly awkward, even impossible. Ozon shot this 26-minute film in a bored moment, but I wouldn't write it off as trifling. We have sex seen from different, er, angles here, but by no means in an insalubrious sense. I've no idea if the scenes here are typical or untypical – no one can know, because by definition the sex act (not that it's visible here) is unseen. These are perhaps suggestions of happenings (or most probably non-happenings) in bed. There are seven titled scenes here:

–– 'Le trou noir': a man (François Delaive) goes to a prostitute to witness her renowned feat: performing fellatio while singing La Marseilliaise.

–– 'Monsieur Propre': A couple are about to have sex when the man talks about his belief that personal hygiene is a capitalist weapon, and that he doesn't wash. Unsurprisingly, the woman leaves.

–– 'Madame': A fifty-two-year-old woman picks up a nineteen-year-old guy and they end in bed together, although the woman is unsure. The young man does his best, but they remain in bed, separate.

–– 'Tête bêche': A man and a woman lie in bed in the head to toe. She counts down from one hundred in Spanish while the man alternates the countdown in French. They become increasingly excited as they near 69, which marks the end and the beginning, presumably, of them practicing soixante-neuf.

–– 'L'Homme idéal': A woman is distraught because her lover has left her, but on playing out the role of her partner to her female friend, the two become sexually involved with one another.

–– 'Love in the Dark': A man cannot have sex with a woman because she doesn't want to turn out the light, whereas the man can't have sex with the light on. In the end, he masturbates without the woman doing anything.

–– 'Les Puceaux': Virginity, but of a different kind: one of the men hasn't had sex with a man, whereas the second hasn't had sex with a woman. Slowly, first via fellatio, the homosexual virgin begins his initiation ceremony.

We can see the extreme subjectivity, the lack of ability to concern oneself with others, in the males in 'Monsieur Propre' and 'Love in the Dark' as for example in Bruno with regard to Rosette in Ozon's adaptation of Montherlant's play Le Lever du rideau. And change of sexual identity is present here too in 'Les Puceaux' and 'Love in the Dark'.

François Ozon's Une robe d'été (1996)

Une robe été is a short of 15 minutes. Luc1 (Frédéric Mangenot) is on holiday with his boyfriend Sébastien (Sébastien Charles), who is potentially disturbing the neighbours by singing along to the gay icon Sheila's version of 'Bang Bang', and really camping it up.2 Luc is annoyed and goes for a cycle to the beach. There, he is alone and strips off naked to swim in the sea and later sunbathe, still naked, but with his belly to the sand.

A Spanish woman of about thirty (Lucia Sanchez) comes along and asks him for a light, he tells her he's seventeen, she lies and says she's the same age, then asks if he wants to go into the woods with her as she fancies sex. He tentatively agrees, says it's his first time, and after they've had sex she produces a lighter for the post-coital cigarette: yes, that's another lie she's told, but then she originally asked for a light to get talking to him. Luc admits that he's lied because he's had sex before.

On returning to the beach the naked Luc finds his clothes have been stolen, the woman lends him her dress until the next morning, when she leaves on the boat. Bidden, he kisses her as they part and he cycles off to join Sébastien, who has enthusiastic sex with him on the kitchen table.

Luc returns to the beach with the dress he's mended (Sébastien having torn it in the sex session), but the Spanish woman tells he to keep it, and they part with a passionate kiss.

There's some transgression here, questions of sexual identity: Luc, a homosexual (whatever that means) has enjoyed heterosexual activity, as Paul in Une rose entre nous hasn't disliked (as a heterosexual, whatever that means) sex with Yves. Identity, who we are or what we think we are, is constantly shifting, and can't pin us down, can't nail us to a stereotype to which we don't belong.

1. In reverse, Luc spells cul, the French for arse.

2. This scene reminds me of Stephen Caffrey dancing and camping it up to 'Dreamgirls' in  Norman René's seminal gay film Longtime Companion (1990).

François Ozon's Une Rose entre nous (1994)

A 27-minute film. Une Rose entre nous stars hairdressing assistant Paul (Rodolphe Lesage), who works with the camp Rémy (Christophe Hémon). One day Rose (Sasha Halls), a French-speaking English woman, asks for her hair to by dyed 'squirrel-red', is offended by the result and storms out of the salon shouting strong insults in English. When Paul catches up with her she arranges for them to meet outside a night club.

It's a gay nightclub, and Paul is drawn into Rose's plot for them to prostitute themselves to two older men there: Robert (Jacques Disse) and Yves (Francis Arnaud). Rose refuses to have sex with Robert, although Paul doesn't with Yves, but is very annoyed about the profit Rose made, although they go back to her place and have sex. In the morning he tells Rose he's going out to buy croissants, that he'll be back soon, but goes back to his hairdressing job, sharing his food with Rémy, feeling light spirited.

Definite transgression here, but particularly of a sexual nature.

15 November 2019

François Ozon's La Petite Mort (1995)

François Ozon's early short (26 minutes) La Petite Mort  bears some resemblances to the slightly earlier Victor, such as the themes of the death of the father, homosexuality, and identity. But the protagonist here, Paul (François Delaive) is not an adolescent but in his twenties and living with his lover Martial (Martial Jacques), although he is still a troubled soul. He is a photographer and specialises at the time we meet him in shots of males at the moment of masturbatory orgasm: the title of the film refers to the 'little death' of orgasm as opposed to actual death.

Actual death, though, is present here. Paul's sister Camille (Camille Japy) takes him to see his dying father – from whom he's been estranged – although he flees from him when his father (the unnamed Michel Beaujard) doesn't recognise him and calls him 'monsieur'. This denial of identity is reproduced when Paul – wearing Martial's trousers – can't pay the train ticket inspector the fare and has to get off at the next station.

Paul sneaks into the hospital to photograph his father asleep, uncovers his body and takes shots of his nakedness, of his genitals, then develops the films at home. He cuts the eyes out of a like-size photo of his father's face and holds it up as a mask to look out of, the father and the son joined.

His sister – who previously ejected him from the private hospital room on seeing him take the photos – reconciles herself with him and presents him with a box of photos of Paul as a child and with his father. When he returns to Martial he is able to have sex with him again, as he was unable to before.

François Ozon's Victor (1993)

François Ozon's first short film, Photo de famille (1988), made when he was only twenty-one, contains a number of elements that would play a part in his future films. An obviously amateur seven-minute silent movie in which his parents, his brother and his sister star, this features his brother Guillaume administering a lethal dose of poison in a cup of coffee to his mother, stabbing his sister to death with a pair of scissors, and smothering his father as he lies asleep on the sofa. Guillaume then drags the dead onto the sofa and poses for a photo between them. Of course, we all have to kill our parents metaphorically, and this is a version of the process on film.

Victor is a mixture of a horror story and a comedy, a fantasy and a reality. The adolescent Victor practices his suicide by holding a gun to his mouth, is interrupted by the cry of the maid, and then we hear two shots: no, he's not missed the first time, but he's killed his parents and can't seem to do the same to himself.

The maid discovers his deed and starts wearing his mother's dress, then invites her boyfriend in, they have passionate sex (slyly witnessed by Victor), they steal the family jewels – which Victor helps them with – and they initiate him into a kind of sexual threesome. (There are a number of brief but obviously homoerotic sequences.) Victor masturbates in the garden near a naked statue although his sperm is unconvincing, he waves farewell to the maid and boyfriend as they drive off in the parents' car, he buries the bodies in the garden, asks the aged gardener (vaguely) about his problem, but the gardener has nothing to do with what happens in the house. We last see Victor taking an RER train somewhere.

13 November 2019

André Baillon: Histoire d'une Marie (1921); repr. with Afterword by Pierre Schoentjes 2013

André Baillon's Histoire d'une Marie is a largely autobiographical novel in that the main character is Marie Guillot (changing the name from Baillon's wife Marie Vandenberghe), André Baillon is here represented as Henry Brulot and Baillon's second woman (Germaine Lievens) as Germaine Lévine.

The first part of the book sees Marie with her brutish father and good mother who is nevtheless too busy to care for her daughter's education. When Marie gets pregnant by her boyfriend Victor she leaves for Brussels, but unfortunately her child dies and Hector marries someone else. Marie goes to live London with the pimp Vladimir, who hands her over to d'Artagnan, although Marie escapes to Belgium.

In Brussels Marie joins a brothel until François rescues her to live with him, although he dies and Marie is left with little money. She becomes a laundress and puts a small ad in a paper with a view to meeting a man for Sunday walks. As soon as Henry replies she discounts other applicants and soon goes to live with him in Forest near Brussels, where (like Baillon) he lives near a cemetery.

Henry, though, lives very frugally, with pretensions of becoming an author, but can't put words together in the right way. They move to a rural setting in Campine, where Henry also fails at being a farmer.  And Marie is later arrested for once more prostituting herself. It's only when he leaves Marie for the pianist Germaine that he writes a book, which is a success.

To his muse Germaine Lievens, André Baillon dedicates Histoire d'une Marie.

12 November 2019

François Truffaut's La Femme d'à côté | The Woman Next Door (1981)

It's difficult for the viewer – and it was probably equally difficult for Truffaut himself – to figure out if Mathilde (Fanny Ardent) is a femme fatale or if both Mathilde and her lover Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) are both fated. Personally I go for the femme fatale idea, but it is in any case an extraordinary coincidence that brings the two former lovers back together, as neighbours.

Seven or eight years before, Bernard had a stormy but deeply intense relationship with Mathilde, although both are now married (Bernard to Arlette (Michèle Baumgartner) and Mathilde to Philippe (Henri Garcin). And now Mathilde wants to resume the affair, and after avoiding her Bernard capitulates, and the pair meet in the daytime in a hotel.

Neither Mathilde's nor Bernard's partners have any suspicions (Mathilde even having spoken about an affair with a 'manic depressive' to Bernard) of the former relationship, until Bernard explodes at a garden party, so bringing the affair into the open. Mathilde is subsequently hospitalised owing to a nervous breakdown, and when she recovers Philippe and Mathilde leave their property. But then Mathilde returns at night and blows both of their skulls off the planet during a final sex episode. Truffaut is obsessed with women, or should that be sex?

11 November 2019

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Foutaises (1990)

Foutaises, meaning something of little or no importance or use, 'stars' Dominique Pinon simply listing his likes and dislikes. For instance, he likes opening a book after his holidays and finding sand betweens the leaves; putting his socks on; leaving for holidays (although the holidays themselves are unmentioned); the Bois de Boulogne on bank holidays; taking escalators the wrong way, etc, etc. But he hates butchers' stalls; pulling out nose hairs (with tweezers); leaving a single pea on his plate; bearded men without mustaches; dead Christmas trees in January; the end of television programmes, etc. This eight-minute film is obviously a series of lists, as underlined early on in the shot of the open pages of Georges Perec's Je me souviens, in which he lists things he remembers.

There's something of Asperger's syndrome here (which of course we all have to a certain extent), but most of all there are some embryonic opening scenes of Jeunet's Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain.

Christopher Thomson, Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire

My thanks to Edwinstowe Historical Society for informing this May of the erection of a plaque to Christopher Thomson (1799-1871). The plaque reads:

'Christopher Thomson
1799-1871
Sailor, Comedian, Social Reformer, Artist, Author
and advocate for the local Oddfellows.
He contributed much to supporting the community
of Edwinstowe setting up a "Penny Library",
"Night Classes" and lectures, as well as
"Self-Help" groups from 1838-1849.
This building (formerly the Old Library
built 1913) followed in
a similar tradition.'

Robin Hood and Maid Marian, Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire

I missed this statue of Robin Hood and Maid Marian when I last visited Edwinstowe, so here it is. It's on the High Street, is by Neale Andrew and was unveiled here in 1998.

Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's Grave, Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire

Seven years ago Alan Smith sent me a photo of Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's grave in Ewinstowe, which had been restored after lying with its cross broken for a number of years. As I no longer live in the Nottingham area and spend several months in France every year these days, I don't often get the opportunity to visit much in England. Here though, is the relatively new cross and base photographed today: I noted that Brewer's name is still legible, but wonder for how long. As a reminder, this is what the brand new cross was like in September 2012:


10 November 2019

François Truffaut's Une belle fille comme moi | Such a Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972)

Truffaut's Une belle fille comme moi is a film in which Camille Bliss (Bernadette LaFont) is interviewed in prison by Stanislas Prévine (André Dussollier), a man writing a thesis on women murders. Camille manipulates him so much that he believes her, is attracted to her, and in spite of his secretary (who is obviously in love with him) believes what she says.

From Camille's words recorded on Stanislas's tape recorder the viewer is taken via a series of flashbacks through her childhood with her brutish father, her marriage to Clovis Bliss (Philippe Léotard), her relationship with the rodent exterminator Arthur (Charles Denner), with the singer Sam Golden (Guy Marchand) and the blackmailing lawyer Me Murene, all of whom she has a sexual relationship with.

 Finally, Stanislas discovers that she isn't guilty of the murder of the religiously obsessed Arthur, so she is free to go and become a famous singer. Stanislas imagines that she is his, although Camille frames him for the murder of Clovis –and Stanislas ends in jail.

One of Truffaut's femmes fatales, and this black comedy is a delight to watch.

Gérard Oury's La Grand Vadrouille | Don't Look Now: We're Being Shot at (1962)

Gérard Oury's La Grande Vadrouille – very weirdly translated as Don't Look Now We're Being Shot at – is one of the top grossing films in the history of French cinema, although this was a huge budget movie in no small part due to Terry-Thomas's enormous demand. The film is set in occupied France in 1942, when a British fighter plane is shot down in an air raid and the occupants parachute to Paris. Two are imprisoned, but the other three, Reginald Brook, or 'Big Moustache' (Terry-Thomas), is rescued when he lands in the Zoo de Vincennes; the second, Claudio Brook (Peter Cunningham), lands when the house painter Augustin Bouvet (Bourvil) is at work; and Alan MacIntosh (Mile Marshall, lands on the roof of L'Opéra Garnier, finding refuge with Stanislas Lefort (Louis de Funès).

The main problem is how to transport the 'enemy' to neutral territory, although this will involve a huge number of capers: multiple disguises, misunderstandings, two heterosexuals sleeping in the same bed as the enemy, many more cases of mistaken identity, coding issues in Turkish baths not registered in, say, La Vérité si je mens, the 'superior' Stanislas pick-a-backing the 'inferior' Augustin, and so on.

Apart from a number of areas in Paris, Beaune (Côte-d'or) and Vézenay (Yonne) are among the towns featured in this film, which is both very popular and well worth watching (at least more than once).

9 November 2019

François Truffaut's Les Mistons | The Brats | The Kids (1958)

Maurice Pons published a series of stories in 1955, out of which came Truffaut's short. Les Mistons (translated as The Brats, The Kids or The Mischief Makers) is under eighteen minutes long, and features Bernadette (Bernadette Lafont), Gérard (Gérard Blain), five pre-adolescents and the voice-over by Michel François. This short concerns five schoolboys following Bernadette as she leaves her bicycle by a tree to bathe (during which time they smell the saddle), they watch her kiss Gérard and follow the lovers to various places such as the arena in Nîmes. She later learns of his death. Elements in this film obviously predate Truffaut's later films.

Bernadette Lafont became a nouvelle vague muse, she played in Chabrol's Le Beau Serge (1957) with her husband, and then in Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). She also worked with many other demanding directors, including Truffaut, Edouard Molinaro, Costa-Gavras, Louis Malle and Jean-Daniel Pollet.

Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7 | Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Agnès Varda's Cléo de 5 à 7 was shot in (more or less) real time in June 1961 in Paris, with the main character Cléo (Corinne Marchand) as a young pop singer who fears that she has cancer, and she has to attend hospital in two hours to find out the results of her medical. Cléo is superstitious and the essentially black and white film begins in colour when she's having a tarot card reading; later she's frightened of a hat being put on a bed and mirrors breaking: mirrors are all over, and Cléo looks at herself, as if wondering what she is, or how long she will be. Added to this are such shots of a funeral parlour and several clocks remind of the passing of time, the death that awaits her.

Cléo's journey through Paris begins by her taking a taxi with her friend and housekeeper from Rue Rivoli over the Seine. At the Dôme on Boulevard Raspail she puts a loud record of hers on the juke box, isn't recognised (as if she's already dead?) and drinks a swift cognac. At her studio-cum-apartment she is briefly joined by her lover, then by her songwriters (one being Michel Legrand), although she leaves and sees a friend, then takes a taxi which takes her beyond the steps on the Rue des Artistes near what is now Allée Samuel Beckett (even though it's not an allée) and lands in Parc Montsouris. In the park she meets Antoine (Antoine Bourseiller), to whom she tells her story, and as a soldier in the Algerian war he hasn't chosen to fight in, he is only too aware of possible impending death.

Above all this is an experimental film, not just with the real time business but there's a film within a film within a film, a silent movie with exaggerated movements starring Jean-Luc Godard and his wife Anna Karina, in which death is prominent but ends happily: Varda didn't like Godard's dark glasses, and in the silent movie the glasses are seen as giving him a black vision of life. Antoine has given her a more optimistic way of looking at things, but he has to return to fight, as must Cléo. Nouvelle vague this cetainly is, and I'm still uncertain if Varda and her husband Demy aren't the main figures in it.

7 November 2019

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne's Deux jours, une nuit | Two Days, One Night (1995)

This is another gritty, realistic movie with a strong social interest from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne set of course in Seraing, Belgium. Their work in many respects strongly resembles that of Ken Loach.

Here we have the married Sandra (Marion Cotillard) battling with work problems. She's a worker for a solar power panel business who's been off work with depression, during which time her boss has re-organised the work schedule, meaning that the workers have to choose between receiving a bonus and Sandra keeping her job.

Under pressure of the foreman, the workers have provisionally voted against Sandra, although Juliette (Catherine Salée) has obtained a stay of execution until a concluding vote on Monday: Sandra has just a weekend in which to muster support.

And most of the film involves Sandra trying to gather support, often in trying circumstances: amongst the definite there are the definitely against, those who are precarious financially, she even indirectly causes violence in working for her cause, but in the end she only just loses, which is strangely encouraging.

Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie (1995)

This above shot of the title here shows Léo Ferré's L'Île du Guesclin in the background: most of the film is set in this area of Brittany, with Saint-Coulomb as the village featuring in it. The film is adapted from Ruth Rendall's The Judgment in Stone (1977), itself inspired (as was Jean Genet's play Les Bonnes (1947)) by the true story of the Papin sisters, who murdered their employees in 1933.

Chabrol said that he wasn't a Marxist, although he added that he had made a Marxist film. The two principal characters who  quickly become friends are Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), a servant in the Lelièvre household, and Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a postal clerk in the village. Both young women have troubled pasts, Jeanne has a strong hatred for the bourgeoisie, and the timid Sophie hides a the fact that she is ashamed of being unable to read.

Taking many lessons from Hitchcock's films, this movie is shot through with suspense, and both the music and the long shots dwelling on the wealth and culture displayed in the house prepare the viewer for the unknown but obviously sinister events to come.

On seeing the Lelièvre family's library, Jeanne fishes out Céline's Voyage au bout de la nuit, asks Sophie if she's read it, and decides to 'borrow' it herself. There is perhaps a double irony here: Jeanne doesn't seem like the kind of person who would enjoy Céline or even understand the book, although at the same time one wonders if Georges Lelièvre (Jean-Pierre Cassel) or his wife Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) would appreciate this anti-capitalist book.

Georges seems particularly proud of his cultural knowledge, and swiftly recognises a quotation one his dinner guests mentions as being from Nietzsche. Towards the end, the family (Georges, Catherine, daughter Melinda and son Gilles) all sit on the sofa to watch Mozart's opera Don Giovanni: an activity which strongly contrasts with Sophie and Jeanne's liking for low-brow television programmes. Jeanne hates the family because they are rich, showing that the class war still exists. Melinda's remark (made twice) about 'people like you' (i.e. illiterate) and George's apparently great surprise that illiterate people exist in France towards the end of the millennium clearly show that class divisions and class ignorance are still prominent: there's no political correctness here. Inevitably it all ends in a bloodbath, with Sophie following it up by symbolically shooting at the bookcase. A powerful film.

6 November 2019

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain | Amelie (2001)

OK, another moan about the translation, but what a leap from Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain to simple Amelie, without even an accent on the 'e', as if a British or an American audience would be put off knowing the film is French, or even worse by realising that it is subtitled. Mercifully, my DVD didn't come with subtitles, so I have no idea what horrors they hold.

This is in fact the third time I've watched this film, and each time it still seems fresh, reminding me of a number of things I'd forgotten. But it's difficult to know where to start just by mentioning a few sentences that sum up this movie that is so well known and in a sense crazy: the humour comes from the characters and following on from that from their actions, not particularly from the words used here. In such a way, it's easy to understand the movie's huge success abroad: this is not slapstick, but the actions make it a modern relation to Tati's films, even go back to Chaplin or Keaton. What is obvious is that the characters are an exaggeration of similar characters we know in 'real life', even of ourselves.

Sometimes Amélie (Audrey Tautou), an outsider in that she was educated at home because it was thought that she had a bad heart, can be mischievous and play games on people she doesn't like: as a young girl she secretly annoys a neighbour by climbing on the roof and interferes with his TV aerial during an important football match he's watching; in the same spirit (now grown up) she doesn't like the way the local greengrocer humiliates his assistant, so she gains entrance to his house to wreak gentle and harmless havoc, although he does at times appear to doubt his  own sanity. Mainly, though, Amélie does good.

The beginning of Amélie's activities as a do-gooder (in the most positive sense of the term) is when finds an old box of children's treasures in a hole in the skirting board of her bathroom. Finding out the man's name is Dominique Bretodeau is just the first part of the detective work, but she eventually manages to track him down, but is too timid to reveal herself: she leaves the box in a telephone booth which she phones as he passes, he is overjoyed to discover it, and (still not revealing herself) follows him into a bar and listens to him tell the barkeepers his amazing story.

From then on she continues the good work: she brings her grieving, widowed father back to life by borrowing his precious garden gnome and having an air hostess post shots of the gnome from various places in the world; her concierge Madeleine has been depressive since her husband's death forty years before, but Amélie fakes a letter 'written' by him and 'lost in the post', thus inspiring fresh life into Madeleine; and she brings together the tobacconist and lottery ticket seller Georgette (Isabelle Nanty) and Joseph (Dominique Pinon). But this is all vicarious, and her personal life is devoted to others.

Georgette and Joseph, er, come together in Le Café des 2 moulins in Rue Lepic, the windmills being the Moulin Rouge and the Moulin de la Galette, both of which are in Montmartre, where much of Amélie Poulain is set, and the café is where Amélie works. I took the photo below in September 2018. 

The principal story within the stories of the movie, though, concerns Amélie's fascination with, and eventual love for, Nino (Mathieux Kassovitz), who works in a sex shop and rides a bécane. His obsession is collecting photos customers have rejected from Photomatons on the métro, often tearing them up. By chance Amélie finds an album Nino has made containing these photos (often pieced together), and is inevitably smitten.

The story of how Amélie and Nino get together is beyond the scope of this comment, but this is a wondrous film, as indeed are probably the majority of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films, although so far I've only seen Un long dimanche de fiançailles and Delicatessen.

 

5 November 2019

Agnès Varda's Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2008)

'The  Gleaners and I'! I'm aware that I have almost an obsession with translations, but wow is that a bad one. The suggestion in English is of opposition: gleaners against a single person, whereas the French links a number of people and one individual doing the same thing. It's best to largely ignore the distinction made in this film between a glaneur and a grappilleur – in  other words someone who picks something up from the ground contrary to a height (say, potatoes versus grapes on the vine) – although it's nevertheless an interesting one. And although glaner, like 'glean', can have a literal and a figurative sense, isn't 'glean' used far more figuratively in English?

'We're going gleaning.' No, I don't like it. 'We're going scrumping.' I like it, but it doesn't quite fit because it has a suggestion of schoolkid misbehaviour, and anyway does anyone use the word anymore? 'Scavenging'? Again, there's a slightly dodgy suggestion that isn't present in 'glean'. So glean it must be?

I'm digressing hugely because I've strayed from Varda's film, which a number of people seem to think is her best, or one of her best. Well, it's certainly extremely interesting, concerns a very contemporary theme (waste), but surely most people just find some of her other films too difficult for consumption?

Les Glaneurs et les glaneuses is episodic, a collection of instances of, er, gleaning. We have, for example, people collecting potatoes that have been rejected because too big or too small, too misshapen or cut, etc; we have the collection of grapes rejected or missed during the vendenge; we have people collecting oysters; we have a secondhand goods shop; and we have a visit to Bohdan Litnianski and his brut art  in the Jardin des Merveilles in Viry-Noureuil (Aisne), which of course should be gleaning information, but the Litnianskis didn't seem too forthcoming in their explanations.

This DVD includes an hour-long film two years on from this movie, in which not everyone is any longer there or in the same place, partly because of death, partly because of move of home, etc. Perhaps the most interesting things are the responses Varda received as a result of people seeing this film, particularly as a result of it being shown on television. A terrifying thing: one member of a trailer park had found a boyfriend and drank less now, whereas she used to drink 'a lot'. Varda asks: 'What is a lot?' 'Ten or fifteen litres a day'. 'Of what?' 'Rosé.' Erm...

Agnès Varda's Les Plages d'Agnès | The Beaches of Agnès (2008)

Les Plages d'Agnès (which inevitably translates terribly in English) is Varda's autobiography, but of course a very quirky one: imagine any other film director setting up mirrors and old family photos on the sand. As is to be expected, there are similarities between this film and Jacquot de Nantes, Varda's tribute to her husband Jacques Demy.

At the beginning of Les Plages Varda says that if she were split down the middle there would be a beach, that the North Sea and sand were a beginning for her. She starts with a beach in Belgium, and states that her childhood in Belgium is lovingly remembered by the beaches she went to in that country during her early holidays: Knokke-Le-Zoute (which reminds me of Brel's song), Blankenberg, Ostende, Mariakerke, Middelkerke, La Panne and Zeebrugge.

Varda's family fled from Belgium to Sète – a town usually evoking Paul Valéry and Georges Brassens who were born and buried there – which holds particularly important memories for her. It was there too that she directed her first film, La Pointe Courte (1954), which is an experimental film inspired by William Faulkner's The Wild Palms (1939). This book today is usually called If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, which consists of two interwoven short stories: 'The Wild Palms' and 'Old Man'.1

Other beaches included in the film are in the peninsula of Noirmoutier, where Jacques Demy had much earlier spent his holidays, and where the couple bought a former windmill overlooking the beach at La Guérinière.

Venice Beach also features within the context of the hippie period of free love and the Black Panthers, etc.

As opposed to what the title might suggest, Les Plages d'Agnès isn't just about beaches, but is a kind of collage with reconstructions of Varda's memories – old photos, clips from films, modern filming of places mentioned, reflections on the past, etc. A delight.

La Pointe Courte was a small fishing village now incorporated into Sète itself.
2  Varda's forename was 'Arlette' because she was conceived in Arles, although she changed this name officially to Agnès.

3 November 2019

Agnès Varda's Jacquot de Nantes (1991)

Jacquot de Nantes is Agnès Varda's tribute to her husband, the film director Jacques Demy, who was known as 'Jacquot' in his childhood. He grew up in Nantes, and in the film we see three different versions of children playing him as we go from pre-war, through the war to Jacquot becoming Jacques at the end as he moves to the bright lights of film school in Paris.

The film is mainly in black and white to match the period, although it reverts to colour during epiphanic moments, or shots where Demy's colour films excepts are shown, or when the camera dwells in close-ups of Demy's dying body: he was initially said (according to his wishes) to have died of cancer, although he died of AIDS.* There are brief scenes from such films as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, La Peau d'âne, Le Joueur de flûte, and the amazing mid-19th century shopping centre, Le Passage Pommeraye in Nantes, from Lola, etc.

Demy was brought up around his car mechanic father's garage, and although his father wants his son to follow him professionally Jacquot is obsessed with the cimema, constructing brief movies with his camera: the original Garage Demy in L'allée des tanneurs was used in the shooting, and Varda was thrilled that some of Demy's original films from his youth were found there so many years after.

The originality of Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg partly lies in the fact that the film is entirely related in song, and Jacquot de Nantes is full of songs sung by a number of the characters, and songs are a frequent backcloth to the action, notably Charles Trenet singing 'Le Temps des cerises' as a perceived song of revolt during the war. Varda made a remarkable tribute to her husband.

*Inevitably Jacques Demy's films have, since 2008, been researched for homosexual motifs, which Varda dismissed as 'un ruisseau dans un fleuve'.

2 November 2019

Cédric Klapisch's L'Auberge espagnole (2002)

L'Auberge espagnole is the first of three films Cédric Klapisch has directed including the same group of people, and was followed by Les Poupées russes (2005) and Casse-tête chinois (2013). It plunges us into a polyglottal universe in which several nationalities live with each other in Barcelona.

Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris) would like to be a writer, although (much to the annoyance of his girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou)), he leaves for Barcelona to study economics for a year as an Erasmus scholar: a friend of his father's says a knowledge of Spanish will enable him to get a job at the Ministère des Finances. He finds himself sharing accommodation with other students: the Belgian Isabelle (Cécile de France), the English Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the Spanish Soledad (Cristina Brondo), the Italian Alessandro (Federico D'Anna), the German Tobias (Barnaby Metschurat) and the Danish Lars (Christian Pagh).

Trouble emerges when Wendy's boyfriend William comes to stay for short time with them: he is not only obviously immature, but part of that immaturity is clear from his steriotypical attitudes to those of other nationalities. Klapisch is depicting the problems many face in a multicultural world. However, William redeems himself later, when all the inmates draw together, but that's another story.

Xavier is at first attracted to Isabelle until he discovers she's lesbian, although she gives him lessons in seduction, and Xavier is soon in a love affair with Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche), the wife of a doctor who initially put him up for a few days until he found lodgings. Later, Martine breaks up with him, as does Anne-Sophie, and of course he's miserable.

At the end, Xavier (whose Spanish has made great improvements) is set on at the Ministère des Finances but he takes flight almost as soon as he gets there: he knows where his vocation lies. To be continued.

Agnès Varda's Le Bonheur | Happiness (1965)

Le Bonheur was Agnès Varda's third full-length film, and her first in colour. It caused something of a scandal at the time because the sexual morals in it were contrary to the norm, and the film received an 18 certificate.

This is a simple, but disturbing, story in which picnics in the woods are set against a painterly, Impressionistic background. First we have idyllic shots of the young carpenter François Chevalier (Jean-Claude Drouot) with his wife Thérèse (Claire Drouot) and their son and daughter, before François meets Émilie Savignard (Marie-France Boyer), who works for the PTT. Then a secret love affair begins between François and Émilie, which François honestly and alarmingly casually reveals to his wife, seeing nothing wrong with having two relationships at the same time: it's 'happiness'.

Émilie, however, doesn't relate to François's idea of happiness, and after a love-making scene in the woods while the children are asleep, she apparently kills herself. After a necessary period of mourning, François re-joins with Émilie, and the two continue as a new family, with the two children. Today, it is still evident why people found the film so shocking.

1 November 2019

Bruno Dumont's Camille Claudel 1915 (2013)

Bruno Dumont's Camillle Claudel 1915 – as distinct from Bruno Nuytten's 1988 biopic Camille Claudel – concerns just three days in the former sculptor's life. And she's eagerly waiting for her poet and dramatist brother Paul to pay her a visit.

This is a ninety-one minute film, although on the surface not a great deal happens, and the director Robert Bresson was brought strongly to my mind, the long shots dwelling on faces and things. This is very French cinema, a world away from the brash short shots of Hollywood.

It is a painful film, with Juliette being confined by her family to the Montdevergues asylum near Avignon, Vaucluse, well out of the way from anyone close to her, well away from the art by which she can express herself.

Although she cooks for herself because she fears that she'll be poisoned, she is a long way from the apparently hopelessly insane, and is very distanced from them and the sounds they make, although sometimes she can relate to their pain.

Her brother Paul sees her sculpture as her madness, and is himself portrayed as maddened by his religion: the two only meet face to face, in no way mind to mind, but then Camille says so little.

30 October 2019

Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache's Intouchables | Intouchable (2011)

In spite of the profound differences between the two films, Intouchables (directed by Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache) kept reminding me of Eddie Murphy in Trading Places, and has at least a few similarities: something to do with a black villain turned good guy or something, I suppose. This film was inspired by a true story: the relationship between the tetraplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo (author of the book Le Second Souffle) and his home help Abdel Yasmin Sellou. Here, the rich Philippe (François Cluzet) and the improbable ex-con as home help Driss (Omar Sy) try to understand each other, although of course all the elements are set up here for two completely incompatible individuals just not getting on.

The reverse applies though, and both Philippe and Driss are due for an important education about other cultures and classes. At first overawed by his new situation in a house of a rich person and all the trappings that come with it, Driss takes a little time to adjust and accept the responsibility he now has, and it's not too difficult to imagine why it's been so popular in the US – black guy from the projects suddenly hoisted into an Upper East Side standard of living as a comparison, for instance.

It's not so much the cultural gap itself that's important here, but what two men from different cultures can learn from each other. Philippe comes to learn what the excitement of living on the edge can be, how soothing a few blasts from a spliff can be, how stimulating the world of popular music can be, in a word exactly how much this apparently no-hoper can teach him. And what does Driss learn, apart from the difficulties of paraplegics and how they too can enjoy a sex life, if much removed from the norm? Plus travel on a (private) plane and hang-gliding? Far, far more. At the end of his contract, Driss shows he knows what an alexandrine is, and at a glance can recognise a Dali painting, for example. Maybe on the surface not a lot, but then things can and no doubt will escalate.

Philippe and Driss are highly unusual friends, and of course the reality has been highly exaggerated. My version of the DVD has English subtitles I can't switch off, but maybe that's not such a bad thing: Georges Marchais, for instance, is mentioned in the original but his name is changed to a more recognisable (American) one in the subtitles, although I forget who. I know that when we read a book in French we're not at all reading the same book that people are reading in translation, but I'm reminded that subtitlers of films play a similar game.

Intouchables is a piece of fluff, full of completely unbelievable actions, with no pretensions to be a great film, but so what? It's still highly enjoyable cinema that doesn't insult anyone's intelligence.

29 October 2019

Agnès Varda's Sans toit ni loi | Vagabond (2008)

Agnès Varda's Sans toit ni loi – unsurprisingly – is abysmally translated into English as Vagabond. This film is based on truth in that it concerns a young woman who was sans toit ni loi – literally without a roof and without law, and an expression punning on the expression sans foi ni loi, roof replacing faith.

Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) is the principal character here, many of the others being non-professionals. This can't be called a documentary, nor even a biopic: very little is known of the dead young woman, other than that she drifted around places, walking or hitching, having sex with the odd person she came across, occasionally finding the odd job and mixing with marginals or agricultural workers, drinking, smoking pot, often acting contrary to the norms of mainstream society.

Not that she made specific criticisms of or actions against society – she said very little at all – but she was, dare I use the word, an outsider par excellence. Her roof was temporary, being her tent which she pitched – camping sauvage – in any place she found she found suitable, including a cemetery.

Death – the same one – begins and ends this story. And it's from here that Varda begins her story, which is inevitably false but with some truths, many culled from the people who knew her, in so far as it was possible to know her.

28 October 2019

Philippe Claudel's Il y a longtemps que je t'aime | I've loved you for so long (2008)

Philippe Claudel's first-directed film Il y a longtemps que je t'aime is translated literally as I've loved you for so long, but what's lost in translation is the fact that this is the first line of the chorus of a very well known nursery song. What else can I say about the film? That it's about a woman, medical doctor Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas), who's just been released from prison after a fifteen-year sentence, although we don't know why. Her sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein) knows why, and she warmly greets Juliette into the home she shares with two adopted Asian children, her dumb father-in-law and her husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), who also knows why, and is initially cold to Juliette.

We come to learn what Juliette's crime is when she tells a potential employer that she murdered her six-year-old son. The man's reaction is to tell her to 'piss off', which is a reaction that was perhaps to be expected. The big question, of course, is why she killed her son, which certainly neither Léa nor Luc know, although Léa continues to encourage her coming back to life, and Luc very much warms to her as she loses her frosty exterior.

She finds a job as a secretary in a hospital, although her boss gently asks her to be a little less distanced from her work colleagues, although of course he understands. She calmly (but obviously in anger) asks him what exactly does he understand. And there we have the central problem: what, for that matter, does the viewer understand after he or she knows the truth?

Juliette's son Pierre had a fatal illness and she realised that he was increasingly in greater pain as the illness progressed: she felt compelled to end his misery, and so gave him a lethal injection: in other words she did the one thing a loving mother could only do under the circumstances. And she said nothing in court, nothing in her defence. Let's be honest: for this act of compassion, for this act of – yes, for this act of love – she tortures herself in prison for fifteen years, she is stripped of her doctoral qualifications, she causes tremendous anguish to her sister and her mother (now stricken by Alzheimer's), for what exactly? So Juliette can play at martyrdom, and in so doing hurt even more people?

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime is finely acted, it has some very moving moments, but I'm sure I'm not the only one to have felt mindlessly cheated by this melodramatic tear-jerker, this hopelessly unbelievable film which collapses so bizarrely in on itself. Charity shop fodder.

Jacque Chardonne: Les Varais (1929)

The novel Les Varais refers not to a family of that name but to a property in Charente, where the whole of this novel is set, and which is where Chardonne spent his childhood. He is the son of the writer Pierre-Henri Simon and was noted for his extreme right-wing views, although none of them appear in this early novel. Chardonne dedicates the novel to Maurice Delamain, also born in Barbezieux.

Les Varais was once buildings and vineyards but the owner Devermont turned the place into a dairy farm with bang up-to-date machinery. His son Frédéric is unmarried until he's about thirty, when he starts being interested in the elusive Marie who lives with her father not too far away, although she is very aloof and hardly seems interested in men. However, when she meets Frédéric she finds him different from other men she's encountered. So they marry and live happily in Les Varais, where Devermont is pleased that her father has a prosperous wine trade.

But years later things go drastically wrong: the manager Condé says the banker Ladvèze wants to see him, and his words are very strong. Les Varais is losing money fast, which the banker puts down to Devermont and all his new machinery, and says there's really no choice: unless Frédéric takes over the business it will collapse. Unfortunately, Devermont will not listen to this and Frédéric must continue to take more money from Marie's inheritance to make good the loss.

But it doesn't make good the loss and the dairy continues to lose huge amounts of money. The accountant's figures seem to make perfect sense from what Frédéric can tell. Unlike other people though he doesn't suspect Condé of stealing huge amounts from the farm. The result is that Frédéric becomes a morose, angry and almost mad man: not the shadow of the man she married. And the married couple wilt away.

27 October 2019

Guillaume Canet's Les Petits Mouchoirs (2010)

Unlike American cinema, the French movie world isn't exactly overrun by films de potes, or buddy movies. But then, Guillaume Canet did spend a little time in the States, he's obviously influenced by American directors, and there isn't a single background song that doesn't have English words. But this is still a very French film.

Friends Max (François Cluzet) and his wife Véronique (Valérie Bonneton), Ludo (Jean Dujardin), Marie (Marion Cotillard), Vincent (Benoît Magimel) and his wife Juliette (Anne Marivin), Eric (Gilles Lellouche) and others go every year for two weeks to rich Max's holiday home in Cap Ferrat. But this year a terrible accident has happened: on leaving a night club in the early hours of the morning Ludo went though a red light, a lorry hit him and he is now in intensive care. The friends discuss if it is morally justifiable to leave for a good time, with Marie (once a lover of Ludo's) being very dubious. But they take off all the same.

The title – which as usual doesn't quite hit the right spot in English translation – refers to the secrets we all keep hidden under wraps. Even before they leave though Vincent confesses to Max that he likes his hands, and even (although, er, he's not gay at all) that he's in love with him. Very bad move: Max is exaggeratedly homophobic, and this will lead to catastrophe.

Even though Ludo isn't there he is there in the minds of the friends, and sometimes anger rises to the surface, although of course we know that this may well be caused by the petits mouchoirs. Juliette keeps hers to herself, although he see her – obviously sexually frustrated – looking at the internet for sexual release. But they (sometimes guiltily of course) enjoy themselves a great deal, waterskiing, drinking endlessly, laughing at videos of themselves from previous years. Apart from the older Max, the friends are chronologically late thirties, early forties, but their behaviour verges on the adolescent. Apart, again, from the outsider of the group, neighbour Jean-Louis (Joel Dupuch) who is the non-professional actor who is a real-life oyster farmer.

The big fireworks come when Max's (whose behaviour is almost inevitably bad) more or less calls Vincent a pédé (queer), with the result that Vincent thumps he in the face, packs the family's bags and away they go.

The next day is Jean-Louis's big moment to yell at the assembled company: there they are acting like nothing is important, while he's phoned the hospital and discovered Ludo died that morning. Time for big sobs, time for guilt big time. This short summary doesn't do this brilliant psychological film much justice, but I tried.

Claude Sautet's Mado (1976)

Claude Sautet's Mado came out in 1976, at the end of Les Trente Glorieuses: from the rebuilding of Europe after the war, when French (along with most of Europe) had seen large economic growth, greater general wealth, and had an optimistic outlook. Then the oil crisis spelled a slowing down of the party, and this is seen in the unemployment in the film (Alex and Pierre at the beginning), girls feeling forced to prostitute themselves to survive (such as Mado (Ottavia Piccolo) herself), and a pessimistic outlook.

But the threatened failure of the property business of Simon (Michel Piccoli) is not due to the economic outlook of the time, but to his partner being duped by the crook Lépidon (Julien Guiomar) and putting a bullet through his head.

So now Simon has more problems than before: he's tried marriage twice, but being incapable of liking themself, how can he be suited to live with another woman? He is finishing his relationship with Hélène (Romy Schneider) but seems to be over-affectionate towards Mado, whom he uses for paid sex but would obviously prefer a lasting relationship. Mado too is friends with Alex and Pierre (who becomes Simon's chauffeur). And in fact it is Mado who will pull Simon out of the economic mess he's in, but at the expense of the life of Reynald Manecca (Charles Denner), the main man in Mado's life, whom she doesn't charge for sex, but who started out as a cleint.

In spite of the gloom everyone washes his or her sorrows in alcohol: Alex, Pierre and their friends in the local bar; at the beginning the property executives enjoying the highly expensive Château Margaux 1947; the generally frequent drinking. And at the end – in two bizarre and almost surreal sequences – everyone (apart from Lépidon's mob of course) takes refuge from the rain at a very alcoholic private party in a bar, and leaving it they take the wrong road, end up stuck in the mud and continue the celebrations with drink stashed in a boot of ones the cars, warming themselves over a makeshift fire. But the last scene is shot around Hélène apparently entering a detox clinic.

Patrice Leconte's La Fille sur le pont | The Girl on the Bridge (1999)

Starring Vanessa Paradis (as Adèle) and Daniel Auteuil (as Gabor), La Fille sur le pont is partly a thriller, partly a weird, very off-centre love story. Adèle is a troubled girl with a troubled history who is about to jump off a bridge. Gabor comes along and tries is save her, but she jumps anyway, he follows her and saves her anyway.

Gabor is a knife thrower, the man who throws knives at girls and whose skill means he misses: well, almost always. What has Adèle to lose but have knives thrown at her as they both make lots of money, visit different countries and live a life on the edge: the edge of a knife blade.

This is a very odd film, revealing a strange attraction in which Gabor's phallic blades must always miss, in which Adèle's fear seems to be mixed with the thrill – almost – of orgasm. Not that there's any sex between them though, although they seems jealous of each other when seen in an amorous act with another person.

This is a film of chance, winners and losers, a magic-filled fantasy in which the viewer too is on the edge. Eventually Adèle leaves a liner where they're performing, takes a lifeboat on a whim with a man she steals from his wife. And the wife continues the act on the boat as the woman Gabor throws knives at, until a knife pierces her leg.

And Gabor is washed up on the shore of his own existence, living in poverty until he is the one waiting to jump from the bridge. Until Adèle comes along that is. The wheel has come full circle.

26 October 2019

Raw Vision, Autumn 2019

This is the first time I've bought a copy of Raw Vision, and quite fascinating it is. Under the title is 'OUTSIDER ART BRUT': 'art brut' I''m happy with, although 'Outsider art' as an expression poses many problems, such as: What does it mean? Who is to be included and who excluded? Since Roger Cardinal coined the term in 1972 it seems increasingly meaningless as a translation of 'art brut'. But then I'm not at all happy with the word 'raw' as a translation of brut, which makes it sound like a piece of meat or a vegetable. All the same, the Anglophone world is used to the term 'outsider' in this context, so I guess it will still hang around for some time.

This autumn 2019 issue is devoted to, ahem, 'Women in Outsider Art' and includes a large section (including the front cover) on the work of Danielle Jacqui whose Maison de celle qui peint we were fortunate enough to visit in Roquevaire several months ago. Also included in separate articles are Marie Von Bruenchenhein, her husband Eugene's muse; Anne Marie Grgich and her painted books; Sister Gertrude Moragan's religious paintings; recently discovered embroideries of Madge Gill; Ody Saban and kus; Lee Godie and self-portraits (often with writing; Olga Frantskevich's rugs of war atrocities; and a paragraph (picture) of fifty women artists.

23 October 2019

Francis Veber's Le Dîner de cons | The Dinner Game (1998)

François Pignon (or François Perrin) is a frequently changing character in a number of French films, and has been so on and off since the first cinematic one: Jacques Brel in L'Emmerdeur (1973).  The screenplay writer, Francis Veber, also directed Le Dîner de cons: coyly called The Diner Game in English to avoid the translation of con, which I'd translate as something similar to 'twat'. The film was initially a play, also starring the superb con Jacques Villeret as Pignon, and has been something of a cult film for many years: even Gauvin Sers mentions as one of his conditions for a future girlfriend that she isn't annoyed by him launching into quotations from the film. And there are certainly many quotable moments.

I'm not about to go into the plot, which is very convoluted, but I shall simply mention the basic idea and a few memorable moments. Pierre Brochant (Therry Lhermite) is a wealthy publisher and not an altogether pleasant individual to be honest:  how can he be when he's part of a Wednesday evening group of his friends who meet with a con who expounds on his passionate hobby, such as flying boomerangs or even (perhaps) collecting soup ladles? After this dîner de cons, the friends decide on who won by bringing the biggest con.

Pierre hasn't found a con for the week, although a chance encounter of a friend of his leads to the friend enthusing over a solid gold one: François Pignon builds models of famous buildings – such as the Tour Eiffel, San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, Le Pont de Tancarville and so on, with matchsticks, and he knows all about the exact angle they should be placed at.

One of the dialogues most treasured by devotees is where Pignon is encouraged to ring Juste Leblanc (Francis Huster) posing as a Belgian director wanting to set to the big screen the (very bad) novel he wrote with his ex-companion Christine (Alexandra Vandernoot), who ran off with Pierre and now appears to have run from Pierre (perhaps back to Juste), asking to speak to the co-author, meaning that he wants to speak to Christine. To repeat, Leblanc is 'Juste' Leblanc, by which the con understands 'just', meaning he hasn't a first name, but it takes a while for it to sink in: what do you expect from a con? Later, Pignon will have the same misunderstanding with Pierre's mistress, who is called Marlène Sasseur, although from 'Sasseur' Pignon understands 'sa soeur', Pierre's sister.

Eventually, after many more twists, Pignon manages to effect a probable reconciliation between Christine and Pierre, showing that's he's not quite the con we've been led to believe.... oh, or is he? A film that's very difficult not to love, even if it might not be the most politically correct ever made – but then was it part of the backlash?

22 October 2019

Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire (1989)

Patrice Leconte's Monsieur Hire is the second filmed version of George Simenon's Les Fiançailles de Monsieur Hire (1933), the first being Julien Duvivier's Panique (1946), although that film wasn't as faithful to the book as this is. To some, this movie – perhaps like most Leconte movies in general – might seem a little slow, a little encumbered by long shots, but that is how Leconte does it, lingering lovingly over the sensations of the characters, allowing the audience not only to favour the moments gently, but also to speculate on the psychology of the characters.

From the opening scenes we know that a girl in her early twenties has been murdered, although not the motive. We also know the Inspector (André Wilms) dealing with the case, and that he strongly suspects Monsieur Hire (not his real name, but a changed one) and wonders why Hire (Michel Blanc) is so detested. For detested he is: children bang on his door out of mischief, his neighbours stare at his behind his back, his gets flour bombs thrown at him, etc.

Monsieur Hire is also very odd: he not only dresses impeccably to go to his tailoring business, but he keeps rats in a cage and when one dies he wraps it up in scrap tailoring material and throws it in the river. To counteract his negative aspects, he has numerous tenpin bowling trophies, a sport at which he's recognised as a star, someone who can make a strike blindfolded.

But then again there's definitely something very creepy, very unsavoury about him because he spends hour after hour watching Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), the girl in the opposite flat, watching her every movement, the way she irons, the way she undresses, the way she makes love to her boyfriend Émile (Éric Thuillier). She wants to marry Émile, and then notices Hire watching her, becomes obsessed by it.

But she appears not to dislike Hire's voyeurism, even seems to be enjoying it, she visits Hire, invites him out for a meal. She comes to learn of his voyeuristic habits, even learns that he is sick of paying for sex, that Hire loves her. Can she possibly be in love with Hire, this much older weird man, a man she discovers has seen Émile kill the young girl? Hire comes to believe it, and the signs she shows would suggest that too, the ecstatic (?) expressions (unseen by Hire) she makes when he touches her lovingly during public events. But surely this is just a mask, a make-believe, surely she is merely entrapping Hire?

As the net moves in closer on Hire he plans to go away with her, frees his rats, packs his bag at waits at the station. But she doesn't come and he returns home to find the Inspector with Alice: the murdered girl's bag has been found in his wardrobe – all the time Alice was playing a double game and her planting of the bag seals the frame-up and the bizarre Hire must be guilty. Hire escapes via the rooftops but falls to his death. Only afterwards does the Inspector discover that all along Hire had been innocent – he has left the proof in a locker.

Monsieur Hire is not only a thriller, not only a crime story, but a festival of the senses and proof of what an amazing film maker Patrice Leconte is.

Patrice Leconte's L'Homme du train | The Man on the Train (2002)

Patrice Leconte's L'Homme du train has only two characters of note: Manesquier (Jean Rochefort) and Milan (Johnny Hallyday). On the surface they couldn't be more different from each other – Manesquier is a taciturn, scarcely educated bank robber with brusque manners, whereas Milan is a retired French school teacher interested in poetry and playing the piano.

But from these highly improbable details stems a brief but hugely powerful bromance. Manesquier enters town (in reality Annonay, although it isn't mentioned) in the evening when everywhere's shutting down and he buys some aspirins for his headache. Milan is just leaving the shop and knows that no hotels are open that time of year, so puts Manesquier up for the night, and has lunch with him the next day and so on for a few days.

Milan knows that Manesquier has come to raid the bank, but far from being annoyed is exited. When Manesquier isn't there he tries on his leather, fringed jacket, trying out Western expressions, and is well aware that his guest has guns with him. His wish is to try using a gun himself, try to knock tin cans down, and in the budding relationship Manesquier is only too willing to allow him to do so. In effect he is trying on the role of the man he would like to have been.

Meanwhile a similar transformation is taking place in Manesquier too: on hearing Milan give a young boy a private lesson, which is on Paul-Jean Toulet's poem 'En Arles', when the boy has left, he asks why the poet says 'Prends garde à douceur des choses', which he finds an odd expression. And later he asks about a line of poetry he knows: 'Sur le Pont Neuf j'ai rencontré', which is in fact the first line of a poem by Aragon, and Milan continues it for him. Even more tellingly, Milan isn't in when his private lesson pupil calls so Manesquier holds the book in question, which is Balzac's Eugénie Grandet – even though he knows nothing about it – and asks the boy questions on the story, what it is about: remarkably, it is evident from the nature of the questions that Manesquier would have made an extremely good teacher if his life hadn't gone the other way.

In an awesome kind of ballet of death – on the Saturday of the bank robbery the two men part company, Milan going to an important hospital operation – the robbery and the operation are constantly juxtaposed, as if each takes place at the exact time. And both men die at the same time, although they both come alive again for a few moments. They, or their souls, cross the street barely noticing one another, Milan takes his place on the train for Manesquier's return journey, and Manesquier goes to Milan's house to try out the piano. Spellbinding.

21 October 2019

Claude Chabrol's Les Innocents aux mains sales | Innocents with Dirty Hands (1975)

Claude Chabrol is of course another auteur of nouvelle vague cinema, generally thought to have been much influenced by Hitchcock, although he claimed that Fritz Lang was a bigger one. Here though we can see the hand of the master Hitchcock in Chabrol's work. This is a dark thriller with a number of twists and changing allegiances in it, the cops providing most of any humour there is, although these are clever rather than bungling cops.

The movie begins on a light note, with neighbour and writer Jeff Marle flying a kite near Draguignan (Var), which lands right on the ass of Julie Wormster (Romy Schneider), who is sunbathing naked on her back lawn, her husband Louis being absent at the time. Jeff timidly opens his mouth and Julie tells him to get it, which he does and then she asks provocatively him if there's anything else he wants. Cut.

Jeff becomes friendly with Julie and Louis, although we can see there's tension between the married couple because Louis is a hopeless whisky drinker, and when he staggers off to bed Jeff and Julie have passionate sex on the carpet. Soon the lovers form a murderous pact: Julie will club her drunken husband to death, Jeff will cart the body off to his boat and dump him in the sea. Julie, of course, will draw Louis's money from the bank.

So the cops question Julie, who is only too ready to provide an alibi for Jeff, who was far away driving the car Louis had 'given permission' for him to drive. She also remarks that her husband may have fallen overboard as he has a bad heart. Trouble is, the cops can't find a drowned body, blood found on the boat belongs to Jeff not Louis, and the car Jeff was supposedly driving went off a cliff. Furthermore, Julie walks right into it by going to the bank and enquires about her husband's money, and he's emptied the account. Furthermore, his doctor reveals that he has no heart problems.

There are of course more twists before we discover that both Louis and Jeff are alive. The dénouement comes thick and fast.

François Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste | Shoot the Pianist (1960)

Tirez sur le pianiste wasn't the first of the nouvelle vague films, but it was certainly one of them, if one of the most influential. And an innovation is that it, although of course influenced by American cinema (B movies and noir), it is a mixture of genres: film noir, love story, gangster, even a bit of (subdued) comedy. The main characters are Charlie Kohler/Édouard Saroyan (Charles Aznavour), Léna (Marie Dubois), Thérèse Saroyan (Nicole Berger) and Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), and the main themes in a way could be said to be women (or womanhood) and shyness.

The mood is set when Charlie's brother Chico, pursued by gangsters, runs into a lamp post and wounds his head. He then seeks out Charlie who's working as a pianist in a dive bar. And here we have the absurd blending in, with Boby Lapointe singing incomprehensible words (for those unfamiliar with him) from both his songs 'Marcelle' and 'Framboise', the second to cover up for Charlie as he deals with his brother's problems.

Charlie occasionally has a free ride with his prostitute neighbour Clarisse, who represents the sensual side of a relationship. But it's Léna (the representative of romantic love) who knows about Charlie's true identity, who is aware of his being a classical pianist previously, but who receded into anonymity after his wife tragically killed herself. She wants Charlie to go back to the true performer he was but he has problems with his timidity, and tries to overcome it by buying secondhand books on it.

Slowly they become a couple, but in a crazy twist he kills the jealous Plyne in self defence and is taken by Léna to the chalet where Chico is holed out. But the bungling gangsters come, Léna is killed in the snow in a scene pre-figuring La Sirène du Mississippi, and Charlie is again left to a fate of playing mechanically in the dive bar, his expressionless face ironically expressing a great deal. A classic haunting film with haunting music, one of Truffaut's more remarkable in spite of its underrated ranking.