31 January 2020

Joëlle Désiré Marchand: Alexandra David-Néel, passeur pour notre temps (2016)

Joëlle Désiré Marchand's biography on Alexandra David-Néel is most probably the best on this amazing explorer and writer, although perhaps not the definitive one: at around 250 pages of relatively large print, there is of course much unmentioned, but then David-Néel herself wrote her own stories, frequently sending later published details of her activities back to her amazingly tolerant husband Philippe in her many letters from Asia.

Alexandra (or Louise-Eugénie-Alexandrine) David was born in Saint-Mandé in 1868, then on the outskirts of Paris. Six years later her family moved to Ixelles, Belgium, where such exiles as Élisée Reclus and Jules Verne's publisher Jules Hetzel lived. Her father was journalist (and former teacher) Louis and her mother the Belgian-born Alexandrine. Alexandra's parents were very different from each other, and hardly an inspiration to her, although Louis's anarchist friend Élisée was a major influence: he wrote the Preface to Alexandra David's anarchist Pour la vie (1898).

Alexandra David grew up exploring the area's Bois de la Cambre, later venturing further out as her passion for travel grew, as did her interest in things intellectual, such as Buddhism in particular, theosophy, and feminism. Although she began her working life as a soprano, it was with more than a little surprise to some, though, that in 1904 she married the engineer Philippe Neel [sic], who was to fund many of Alexandra's future journeys in what amounts to an extraordinary relationship in which she refused, in spite of a number of pleas, to divorce him.

This book is the obvious fruit of much research, delving into Alexandra David Néel's long journeys. The fourteen-year-long journey through India, Tibet and the forbidden city of Llasa – making her the first western woman ever to do so – is a stunning tale of a trek in sub-zero conditions, often without food and worn-out footwear, open to human predators and the frequent threat of death. All this was achieved with her faithful young 'servant' Aphur Yongden, whom she adopted as a son and brought back to France, where she set up home in Digne-les-Bains, where her house is now a museum dedicated to her: she died at the age of 101 in 1969, almost thirty years after her husband.

The book, in less detail, goes on to chart more journeys by this truly remarkable woman.

Bernard-Marie Koltès: Combat de nègre et de chiens (1979)

Bernard-Marie Koltès didn't intend Combat de nègre et de chiens to be about Africa and blacks: he's not an African writer, he says. Therefore, he continues, there is nothing of neocolonialism to be understood here, nothing about racial issues. This is simply a place in the world, and on one occasion he spent a month in the African bush seeing friends on a public works building site. This was a place with five or six houses surrounded by barbed wire with watch towers. About a dozen whites lived there terrorised by the outside world, with black armed guards all around. It was shortly after the Biafran war and gangs of pillagers were around. At night the guards used weird noises to keep themselves awake, and it was this noise that made Koltès decide to write this play, in which 'petit-bourgeois' activities (such as in the 16th arrondissement, Koltès notes) take place.

Combat de nègre et de chiens is a kind of huis clos in which only four characters are seen. There are three whites: Horn, who is the sixty-year-old boss of the site; Cal, the thirty-year-old engineer who suggests that Horn is impotent; and Léone, the woman who has come from Paris and whom Horn intends to marry. Alboury is the black who has come to the site to take back his brother ostensibly killed in an accident, but in reality shot and hidden in a sewer by Cal.

The atmosphere is of fear, impending violence, misunderstanding. The four characters frequently fail to understand each other and communication is often one or more stages removed from the intended target: they don't talk to each other but through, around or completely divorced from the supposed interlocutor. It could be argued of course that this is the way most people normally communicate with each other, egotistically and with little or no interest in or comprehension of the other: the shadow Samuel Beckett casts is very long. And in addition too, Koltès is a member of the highly esteemed group of writers published by Minuit. This is a fascinating piece of work.

30 January 2020

Gérard Oberlé: Palomas Canyon (2002)

This isn't so much a book as a runaway train, or an indefinable piece of literature which I can't even begin to sum up. There's a wonderful almost hour-long radio program online on France Inter in which François Busnel interviews Oberlé and he talks about his wanderlust, the Morvan, his working on medieval books, his being sacked from teaching in school (pre-'68) for wearing a roll-neck sweater instead of a tie and being chummy with the kids, his love of good food and wine, and so on.

Here we have a modern day western, or detective story, or thriller, or horror story, or a buddy movie, or I don't know what else. This is about one of Claude Chassignet's visits to his good friend Tom Kenton in Arizona, and although he went to school with Kenton in Switzerland and although Kenton is a former film director, he much resembles the American novelist Jim Harrison, whom Oberlé didn't go to school with but met in a restaurant terrace: Harrison too was a bon vivant.

We're in hunting territory, although Claude has seen so many horrors wielding a firearm that he can no longer do it. But there is also human quarry here, poor Mexican immigrants to pot shots at, and this is all masterminded by a thug who has interests in the sleaziest dive in nearby Araucania.

A large amount of this is about food and especially good wine, getting drunk and, er, trying to find the owner of a pair of blue panties. In retrospect all the characters are larger than life, perhaps in particular (in one part of his anatomy) Big Dick. There are also many allusions to writers and quotations from them. Frequently, the often old slang reminds me of the writer San Antonio (Frédéric Dard).

24 January 2020

Vanessa Springora: Le Consentement (2020)

The subject of paedophilia isn't unusual in French literature, and apart from the obvious Henry de Montherlant, Roger Peyrefitte and Tony Duvert there have been four relatively recent books written by the younger person involved. There was Christophe Tison's Il m'aimait (2004), in which Tison describes the abuse he willingly underwent by a cultivated man, and although he had to go through psychotherapy afterwards, he refuses to give the man's name because of the cultural benefits he gained from the relationship. For several years as an adolescent Nathalie Rheims had a somewhat restrained relationship with 'Pierre' (Jacques Toja of the Comédie-Française), and Place Colette (2015) is a part fictionalised version of it, in which there is no criticism of Toja. This is very far removed from Flavie Flament's La Consolation (2016), in which Flament reveals her rape by photographer David Hamilton, who also underwent psychotherapy as a result of his abuse of her, although much to her chagrin Hamilton killed himself shortly after the publication: he had opted out of suffering.

In a number of his books, perhaps particularly in Les Moins de seize ans (1974), Gabriel Matzneff has advocated paedophilia, and frequently openly voiced his love of underage girls. One notorious example is in an extraordinary clip from an Apostrophes programme in 1990, headed by Bernard Pivot, who recently resigned from being head of the Académie Goncourt. The clip is extraordinary in that there is almost complete acceptance of Matzneff's paedophilia, apart from the strong objection to the tenor of the conversation by Québecoise writer Denise Bombadier. How could Pivot treat such a subject so flippantly, many asked on social media, as Pivot's reaction to the clip is astounding: he evoked a different era, a time when literature came before morals, and a little later – equally pathetically – said that he just couldn't find the words. In 1990?

In 2011 Frédéric Beigbeder, in Premier bilan après l'apocalypse, which is a list of Beigbeder's favourite one hundred books mainly from 1950 through to the date of his book, he lists Matzneff's Ivre du vin perdu at number 16. According to Beigbeder, 'il faut séparer l'art de la loi' ('we must separate art from the law'). He goes on to say: 'Tant qu'on ne me prouvera pas que Matzneff est Marc Dutroux, alors qu'on lui flanque la paix' ('As long as it's not proved to me that Matzneff is Marc Dutroux [the serial paedphile killer] then leave him be'). Number 84 on Beigbeder's list is Roland Jaccard's Une fille pour l'été (2000). Jaccard is a great friend of Matzneff's ('almost a brother'), and following the attacks on Matzneff by his former adolescent 'lover' Vanessa Springora in Le Consentement (2020) has posted a number of times on his own blog, mentioning the Piscine Deligny ('lieu mythique du glamour et du sexe') ('mythical place of glamour and sex'). He adds: 'Gabriel y emmenait Vanessa Springora, une lycéenne de 14 ans. Celle par qui trente-cinq ans plus tard le scandale allait arriver. Depuis, Gabriel s’est réfugié en Italie, je reçois des menaces de mort. Après le Paradis, l’Enfer. Je suis consterné.' ('Gabriel took Vanessa Springora, a 14-year-old lycéecenne, there. It's because of her that this scandal happened thirty-five years later. Since then, Gabriel has taken refuge in Italy, I have received death threats. After Paradise, Hell. I am staggered.' Poor Matznezz, poor Jaccard.

Since Vanessa Springora's explosive book, which is a bestseller, Beigbeder has revealed he is 'horriblement coupable' ('horrendously guilty') for his part in giving Matzneff the Renaudot essai prize in 2013: he says he thought the man was a fantasist, which is frankly unbelievable: over decades, Matzneff has never hidden his sexual preferences, frequently detailing examples of paedophilia in the history of the world, as if to give his own paedophilia authenticity.

And as for the book itself, yes, it is explosive, although there is nothing graphic in it, just the truth as Vanessa Springora sees it. There are very few names here, Vanessa is just 'V', Gabriel Matneff is just 'G', etc. Vanessa comes from a broken home in which her parents were constantly arguing, but she's intellectually very curious, and at at the end of her thirteenth year sees Matzneff interested in her, and in spite of her mother calling him a paedophile succumbs to the sexual temptations of a fifty-year-old man at fourteen. The sex initially is anal as she has to have an operation on her impenetrable hymen, but it continues for many months, with her mother's knowledge. Vanessa thinks it's love, but things will prove otherwise.

When Vanessa seeks to read one of Matzneff's books, the bookshop employee directs her to a 'safer' book of his, and the first sentence mentions 16 March 1972, the exact date when she was born: it must be a message rather than a coincidence. The relationship continues, Vanessa skips school to be with her lover, and the end is inevitable. Vanessa sees Matzneff in a café with another young girl when he had told her that he was going to a book-signing in Belgium. And then Vanessa reads what Matzneff has written, his trips to the Philippines to fuck young boys, etc. When she leaves him she goes to Cioran (also a friend of Matzneff and Jaccard from the Piscine Deligny), but he too puts literature before morality.

Slowly, through severe mental trauma and help from true friends, Vanessa Springora comes through, and Le Consentement is an exorcism of Gabriel Matzneff, an affirmation of her life, and her book will be hugely powerful as a weapon against all sexual predators who deprive their victims of their youth.

19 January 2020

Jean-Luc Godard's Week-end (1967)

Godard's Week-end is often regarded, and advertised, as a film to shock, containing as it does scenes of murder, rape and cannibalism, but this is nonsense because these violent scenes take place off-scene. Godard is certainly film director who has a great ability to shock, but not in the content of his films as such, more in the extremely original way he makes them. The plot of Week-end isn't really important, which is just as well because there isn't really one there, and the motivation behind the action is in effect a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin. A married couple, Roland Durand (Jean Yann) and Corinne (Mireille Darc) are on their way to Corinne's parents and after their inheritance, even if it means murder. They get held up by a big traffic accident, crash their car, and on their return journey are kidnapped by the Front de Liberation de la Seine-et-Oise. Roland is killed trying to escape and Corinne becomes a member of the group.

It's what happens on the way that is the focus of interest, as well as what Godard is saying. This was Godard's last commercial film before he moved on to another stage of film-making. It is apocalyptic, an extreme beyond which it is difficult to imagine going beyond, and although it is now viewed as a great film, at the time of release it baffled many people. It is, as might be expected, a continuation of Godard's criticism of consumer capitalism, but Godard pushes the boundaries as never before.

The main point of attention is the car, that hugely important extension of the human being, and here Godard goes out of his way to illustrate how it has become a symbol not only of wealth but also worth, how it distorts reality to the point of madness. In fact, to the point that the car – far from being an advance in civilisation – actually not only enslaves us but turns us into savages. This is seen near the beginning of the film when the Durands set out on their journey of greed and a child dressed in redskin gear yells at Roland for bumping into his father's parked car. Despite Roland's attempt to bribe the child into silence, the mother comes out and throws tennis balls at him, and her husband fires a shotgun. (Many people in the film have guns.)

And then comes the famous eight-minute tracking shot of a traffic jam due to an accident with several fatalities. Although the viewer is blasted out by car horns, the individualism that the car symbolises has been transgressed and the road is now a stationary public space with men playing ball with children in other cars, people picnicking, playing chess on the tarmac, and card games on car bonnets. As the Durands eventually pass the dead bodies they do so casually, as if what they see is an everyday occurrence. And scenes such as this as repeated, with multiple burning car pile-ups and bodies strewn across the countryside being passed very casually. In fact – perhaps a more disturbing thing – the wrecks seem positioned in such a way as to appear almost as works of art.

On their way, the Durands also meet 'Emily Brontë', Tom Thumb, and 'Saint-Just': Godard, as usual, is throwing in various cultural references, and a Mozart is played on a piano in a farmyard, Jean-Pierre Léaud sings Guy Béart's 'Allô...tu m'entends ?' in a phone box, the terrorist's drummer quotes from Lautréamont's Chants de Maldoror, there is an allusion to Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'œil, etc. In this last mentioned scene there is perhaps one of the most extreme distancing devices in the film: Corrine is speaking to a man friend about sex, and although she's in her underwear there is an absence of titillation because the lighting is too dark to see much at all, and the background music frequently drowns out the language spoken.

Week-end is nevertheless a dazzling tour de force, to some extent a prediction of May 1968, although the most shocking scenes are the murder of a pig and a fowl.

18 January 2020

Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1962)

Pierrot le fou (adapted from Lionel White's novel Obsession  (1962)) marks a transitional phase in Godard's work, starting what Douglas Morrey (Jean-Luc Godard, 2004) describes as a move from the 'domestic space' of À bout de souffle and Le Mépris to more rapid changes that were to come in French society, notably of course the événements of 1968 and its sweeping changes, which I would suggest were more social, psychological, artistic and generally intellectual than political.

Considered incomprehensible by many, Pierrot le fou as 'story' is easy is sum up: Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) leaves his family and bourgeois home for Marianne (Anna Karina), his baby-sitter and five years previously his lover. Staying at her place for the night (and ignoring the minor matter of the blood-soaked body on a bed), he vaguely discovers Marianne's implications in an arms smuggling racket). They escape to the south-east of France, where the racketeers come after them. There are several murders, until Marianne eventually secretly leaves Ferdinard, although he follows and kills her, and then blows himself up by tying sticks of dynamite around his head.

Within the bones of this story are a number of other details making for a highly complex – and at the same time brilliantly innovative and highly influential – film. This is to some extent a road movie in which cars are stolen as in À bout de souffle, but it's also a gangster film, a film noir, a weird musical, and other genres: it's as if Godard is incorporating as many of them into this movie as he can.

Pierrot le fou also has many cultural references, and it is easy to pick out the mention of Céline's Guignol's Band (as well as a line saying 'voyage au bout de la nuit'), Balzac (as part of a telephone number), the cartoon Les Pieds nickelés, Picasso, and the copies of various paintings on walls. Morrey pinpoints several references to Rimbaud, and the vowels at first displayed in the title of the film are an obvious allusion to Rimbaud's famous poem 'Voyelles'. There are also many obvious or semi-obscure references to Godard's previous films.

Many of the literary references are from Ferdinand, who in the beginning even reads to his young son a passage from a book on the history of art: he is fond of making quotations, and often jots his thoughts down in a notebook. His bookishness is not shared with Marianne, who prefers to share her world through her feelings rather than words. Here we find one of Godard's themes in his films: the inability of words to convey thoughts.

I haven't touched on the criticisms of consumer society (most seen at the party at the beginning where the guests talk in terms of commercial products), the postmodernism, or the criticisms of war, but Pierrot le fou is a remarkably complex film, certainly one of the best French films ever made.

17 January 2020

Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre sa vie | My Life to Live (1962)

Vivre sa vie is of course an early Godard, and extends the theme of prostitution in his second (ten-minute) short, La Coquette (1955). Its main characters are Nana Kleinfrankenheim (Anna Karina), Raoul (Sady Rebbot), Paul (André S. Labarthe) and Yvette (Guylaine Schlumberger). Brecht's influence with its distancing effects has often been noted, although Douglas Morrey in his book Jean-Luc Godard in the 'French Film Directors' series believes that he is just as much influenced by Bresson: perhaps the twelve tableaux relate more to the stations of the cross; there's Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, and Bresson released Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc just before Vivre as vie; Godard wanted to adapt Bernanos's novel Mouchette to film, which Bresson did later, etc.

The film begins with a Brechtian distancing device though as we see, in one of the many café scenes, Nana (the reference to Zola is too obvious) talking to Paul just after leaving him, only both of them are turned towards the bar and we only see their backs. In the second tableau, which is set in the record store where Nana works part-time, the camera tracks, as Morrey says, along the shelves of vinyl albums as it will later do along a wall lined with prostitutes: everything is consumer capitalism, including human bodies. Nana tries without success to borrow some money and in the end loses her accommodation through not paying the rent. 

Death is frequently present, and Nana is moved to tears as she watches the silent La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, where Jeanne learns that she is to be burned at the stake. After this, she talks to a photographer in a bar who wants to take partly unclothed shots of her, suggesting that it could be the start of her career as an actress, which she aspires to. She agrees.

In the fourth tableau Nana is in a police station being cross-examined because a woman has complained about her: the woman dropped a 1000 franc note, but Nana gave it back to her and the woman probably only made the complaint because she thought Nana was a prostitute. Nana admits that she has no fixed address and mainly stays with men friends. In tableau five Nana does in fact take her first customer to a hotel, although the encounter is obviously painfully and amateurishly done on the part of Nana.

In tableau six Nana is out on the street again and meets her friend Yvette, who is a prostitute. They go to a bar and Yvette introduces her to Raoul, a pimp. But Raoul leaves and doesn't return, there are gunshots outside and a man is shot: another reminder of death. In tableau seven Nana is in a bar ostensibly overlooking a boulevard, although the people and the traffic are stationary: it looks like a huge mural, and is probably meant to be another distancing effect. Here Nana writes (very slowly and with a few minor errors) to a brothel keeper but is interrupted by Raoul who proposes that he become her pimp.

Godard was inspired to write Vivre sa vie by Marcel Sacotte's book La Prostitution, and in Raoul's car with Nana we hear Godard himself (voice off) quoting from the text about medical controls, hygiene, finding customers, prices, the risk of pregnancy, etc. And so Nana learns her trade.

Death appears again in a philosophical scene Nana has in a bar with Brice Parain (Godard's former philosophy teacher), when the philosopher speaks to her about the painful death of Porthos in Vingt ans après. And in the final tableau we again have Godard's voice off reading a passage from Poe's short story 'The Oval Portrait', which ends in the death of a woman. And of course the film ends when Nana wants to leave Raoul's web of prostitution, but is caught between two pimps and shot dead. An very powerful film with not a hint of sentimentality.

16 January 2020

Tony Shaw, PhD thesis: 'The Work of Lionel Britton' (2007)

I've only just noticed that the Open University's Open Research Online has put my whole thesis out there, which makes the messy posts I put on here earlier redundant: 'The Work of Lionel Britton' . The main thing to add is that the box reference numbers relating to the material at Special Collections at Southern Illinois University are out of date, and that Lionel Britton's will mentioned in the last paragraph of Introduction B is entirely false: I originally discovered the information in an online document from The University of Texas, Austin, listing wills of writers. But I later discovered that the information was incorrect because it related to another English Lionel Britton, who was not a writer. The Lionel Britton above died intestate.

13 January 2020

Claude Faraldo's Bof...Anatomie d'un livreur | Who Cares: Anatomy of a Delivery Boy (1971)

Bof...Anatomie d'un livreur begins with a quotation from Paul Lafargue's Droit à l'ivresse (1848) (The Right to Be Lazy), a seminal anti-work book which inspired Moustaki to write a song of the same name praising the writer and his ideas. Moustaki of course was a friend of Albert Cossery, who shared the same views as Lafargue and embedded them in the heroes of his novels. Although La Jeune Morte (1965) is Faraldo's first made film, it wasn't in fact released so Bof can be considered as his first film. But rather more obscure even Themroc, it hasn't quite managed the cult status of the latter.

Also unlike Themroc,  Bof has clearly discernable words. It begins with the nameless son (Julian Negulesco) living with his nameless mother (Marie Mergey) and father (Paul Crauchet). We see the son starting his first job for wine firm Noé, using a small delivery cart.* Often he has to climb many stairs to reach Parisian apartments, which with fifteen one-litre bottles is a great deal for anyone, and he arrives at his first customer exhausted, but not too exhausted to have sex with her.

The son later befriends a black road sweeper and on his way home catches the eye of Germaine (Marie Dubois), who responds rather tantalisingly to him but they don't have a conversation. Another day, though, she slouches in the window with her legs spread out, giving the son a few view of her underwear. He soon passes his test to drive a lorry full of wine: obviously a huge improvement. The son decides he's leaving home to live with Germaine, and his father keeps patting him on the back telling his son so many times that it's normal that it is evidently having a great effect on him: his wife is not exactly a bundle of fun.

And so we see a great change in the father, and although the viewer doesn't directly see anything, it seems reasonably clear that he kills his wife (as he later confesses to his son). And he hesitates a great deal before deciding to forget about work, so he sits by the river and throws his clocking-in card in it, visits his wife's grave and basks in the sun. He later, workless, joins his son and partner in their home, and is even allowed to have sex with Germaine, but not without a number of unspoken, embarrassed gestures which Germaine finds quite astonishing: why can't they just tell her what's wanted of her, and of course she agrees.

Soon the trio becomes a quartet when the father sees Nana (Marie-Hélène Breillat) about to pocket a dress but puts it back on the rail when she sees him looking through the window, although he enters the shop and stuffs the flimsy article in his hat. Soon too, both father and son are sleeping with Nana: it's a kind of commune anyway, isn't it?

The son continues his deliveries until he damages the lorry driving off the verge of the road, but he goes home and they all decide – with the road sweeper too – to go off to 'the south'.

This film by no means has the impact of Themroc, doesn't have a similar star-filled cast, but you can certainly see what Faraldo was working towards, see a vision of utopia in there: workless society with sexual freedom, etc. Themroc confused a number of people, and others thought Bof and Themroc a mere product of their times, but Faraldo continued to believe in these ideas up to his death in 2008.

*Claude Faraldo had a job for a number of years delivering Nicolas wine. This part of the film is in great detail, and is really difficult to watch, such are the obviously autobiographical details that Faraldo puts into the effort of the son to manage the stairs with his great load.

10 January 2020

Claude Faraldo's Themroc (1973)

If the director Claude Faraldo is remembered for anything it's for the obscure Themroc (1973), an anarchist vision of the destruction of the capitalist system where consumerism rules. And to start, of course, work is very much a part of this system, in which people are defined by what they do for a living. The protagonist Themroc lives in an apartment with his elderly mother (Jeanne Herviale) and his sister (Béatrice Romand), whose naked body he gloats on while she's asleep. He goes to work as a house painter with his friend by bicycle, then bus, then métro, and walking out of the métro the narrative is frequently interrupted by shots of the events of his day so far: his thoughts as he follows the crowd.

With the exception of a few words on the screen designating the unnamed mother, sister and copain, etc. only a pretend language is spoken: sounds which resemble meaningful words are made, but have no meaning apart from the manner in which they're expressed. Did I hear 'allez' and 'nada'? No, they were no doubt purely coincidental sounds. Themroc tends to use grunting, animal-like noises of the stereotypical caveman, but then he comes to live in a kind of cave and has the strength of a horse: he can lift a car, and carry two policemen at once.

At his workplace, in Club Med 'gentil organisateur' fashion, we have 'gentil gardien' 'gentil sous directeur', and so on. Painting window frames Themroc stumbles upon a manager caressing this secretary, who then opens the window to protest but hits Themroc's nose which bleeds profusely. But when Themroc goes to the gentil directeur he's given the sack. That's when he really loses it. Returning home he builds himself into a room by cementing himself by breeze blocks he's taken from a building site, staving in the window, its frame and the wall attached to it and throws all the material objects out of it and onto the street.

His loving sister makes her way up to the room, or cave, by a rope ladder, and they have sex: Faraldo is obviously trying to break as many taboos as possible in this film. Meanwhile the neighbour opposite (Francesca Romana Coluzzi) samples Themroc's sexual goods: the revolutionary ethos is spreading. The woman lives with her rather timid partner (Coluche in a tie, holding onto a treasured ornament) and their daughter(?) played by the thumb-sucking Miou-Miou. Before long they too have a no wall and all their material possessions (apart from the precious ornament) are out in the street.

The noise of course attracts the police, who try to climb the rope ladder but are knocked back by Themroc, then they try to smoke them out but don't succeed. A mason (Patrick Dewaere) tries to fill in the hole where there's no wall, but Themroc gently plays with him as he works, and with his sister they take his shirt off and stroke his body, until in the end they lure him in, he's won over to the revolutionary cause and knocks his work down again.

Themroc avoids an encounter with the police by sneaking out at night, drinking gutter water rather like an animal (why bother with the trappings of civilisation?) and bags two cops, leading to the female neighbour opposite to call him 'Rockthem'. Both families feast on the flesh of the police, of course.

And the whole business ends in glorious chaos, another neighbour smashing his car, his pride and joy that he's been polishing throughout the film. It seems the whole street almost is won over to animal anarchy as they listen enraptured to the orgasmic wails and howls from Themroc's cave, the Miou-Miou character still sucking her thumb and probably masturbating.

Only ten days have passed this year, but I think it'll be a while before I see a more devastating film than this. And I'll certainly never forget it.

8 January 2020

Claude Chabrol's Landru (1963)

This is one of Chabrol's earlier films and from a fait divers, starring a very heavily made-up (in fact so much so as to look rather ridiculous) Charles Denner as Henri Landru, the man who during World War I took advantage of the scarcity of men to woo, rob and incinerate a number of vulnerable women. He continued to claim his innocence right up to and beyond his death sentence.

Woman follows woman, met at Luxembourg through small ads or discreetly chased in the street, only to end in his oven, the smell of which appalls the English neighbours, but inexplicably they don't make a fuss about it. The number of women and the shots of the smoking chimney tended to bore me, although the trial scenes – in which Landru continued to proclaim his innocence and make fun of the court – are very interesting in a macabre kind of way. Very far from Chabrol's best, but still watchable: once.

7 January 2020

Claude Chabrol's Juste avant la nuit | Just Before Nightfall (1971)

Juste avant la nuit  is based on the novel The Thin Line (1951) by Edward Atiyah, and on the face of it can be considered as a kind of retake of La Femme Infidèle. This is the final of the Hélène series, with Hélène (Stéphane Audran) married to Charles (Michel Bouquet), whose best friend is François (François Tellier) – not called Paul in this film.

The film begins with a masochistic episode, Charles killing his masochistic lover, getting rid of evidence, having a few whiskies in a bar, being sick in the toilet, and meeting François in the bar. Visibly, he is psychologically troubled.

His trouble will continue, after the body is discovered, investigation has taken place, and the police are still no closer to finding the answer. Charles feels as though he's having a nervous breakdown, has to tell someone of his troubles, so tells Hélène of his affair with Laura. And later, of his (almost accidental) murder of her. Hélène continues to support Charles: what else can she do, as she's financially and familiarly tied to him. But (religious? moral?) guilt hounds Charles.

He tells François and asks if he should confess to the police, but François is stoical: he loves Charles, and then there's the scandal, why disturb the (bourgeois) universe? Because, of course, Charles wants to give himself up, purge himself, but he's the only person who wants this.

The solution to a suicidal Charles? Well, suicide, or is it euthanasia? Anyway, his kids soon forget the business.

6 January 2020

Claude Chabrol's Que la bête meure | The Beast Must Die (1969)

Que la bête meure is based on a novel by Nicholas Blake, The Beast Must Die (1938), which was translated into French under the same title as the film. Homer's Illiad is mentioned in this film, and both of course are stories of revenge.

This film is part of the 'Hélène' series, starring Caroline Cellier as Hélène Lanson and a Chabrolian figure Charles Thénier (Michel Duchaussoy), who is a children's book writer and a widower, and the Gégauffian figure Paul Decourt (Jean Yanne). The police appearing to be next to useless on the hit-and-run crash in a village in Brittany that caused the death of Charles's son, Charles decides to find the criminal involved and kill him. Charles finds out that a Ford Mustang with a dented left front wing was stuck in the mud the same day, and that the son of an agricultural worker who helped the driver out recognised the passenger as the female actor as Hélène Lanson. So Charles seeks her out in Paris.

Charles and Hélène become lovers, he asks her questions about her family and learns of her garage owner brother-in-law Paul in Brittany (with whom she has had an affair), and they go there for a few days. Paul is a highly objectionable, uncouth middle-aged yob who delights in demeaning people as a cover for his cowardice and insecurity, although he allows Charles to his workshop, where Charles discovers that he is selling his Mustang for an unknown reason.

Soon, Paul reveals to Charles that he has read his notebook about his ostensible new book, in which Charles makes it patently clear that he intends to kill Paul. Charles leaves, and there is an almost surreal sequence in which Charles and Hélène watch a TV newsflash in which they are requested back to Paul's home, as he has died under odd circumstances.

With the exception of Paul's mother, probably several people wanted the death of Paul, although Charles's incriminating notes of course pinpoint to his guilt: putting rat poison in his medication. As Charles is cross-examined at the police station, Philippe Decourt (Marc Di Napoli) confesses to his father's murder: Philippe has seen Charles as his 'real', spiritual father, so is he taking the rap for him? Charles later writes to Hélène stating that he is in fact the murderer, that he can't allow Philippe to assume the guilt, and is sailing into his death. To me, the jury is permanently out: this film has no closure, and we don't know who killed Paul: Philippe, after all, did produce the bottle of poison.

5 January 2020

Claude Chabrol's La Femme infidèle | The Unfaithful Wife (1968)

La Femme infidèle is seen by Guy Austin in Claude Chabrol (French Film Directors series) as the first genuine film in the Hélène series, and that particular Hélène is Hélène Desvallées (Stéphane Audran), the wife of Charles (Michel Bouquet), who is having an affair with Victor Pégala (Maurice Ronet): Chabrol himself stated that none of his Chabrolian characters (called Charles) could be seen to kill a person called Paul (a Gégauffian character), hence the name Victor.

And, of course, Charles kills Victor after learning from the private detective he's hired, Bignon (Serge Bento), that Victor is having an affair with his wife. Charles is seen wiping his finger prints from every object touched in Victor's place, including the huge cigarette lighter that had in fact been an anniversary present from Charles to Hélène, and then dragging the wrapped body to his car and dumping it in the river.

This surprisingly brings a lift to their marriage, things are more together (including the jigsaw of their son Michel (Stéphane di Napoli)), even if Charles does have to go to the police and presumably confess to the murder.

4 January 2020

Claude Chabrol's Les Biches | The Does (1967)

Les Biches refers to the does chalked by the pavement artist Why (Jacqueline Sassard) on the Pont des Arts as the rich and predatory Fréderique (Stéphane Audray) looks on until Why packs up and is picked up by the elder woman. Reading Guy Austin's Claude Chabrol in Manchester University Press's 'French Film Directors' series, it's interesting to note the observation about two prints sold by a bouquiniste in the film: Fréderique wants to know why they have different prices, and is told that one is the original, the other is a copy: a first-and-only-time viewer of Les Biches would find difficulty understanding this as an allusion to the real and the fake Fréderique at the end of the film.

I'm unsure of Austin's take on vampirism in Les Biches, although it's fascinating to learn of Chabrol's relationship with Paul Gégauff, the writer who frequently co-wrote screenplays with the director, very occasionally on his own. There's often a character like the younger Chabrol ('innocent, reserved, repressed') and a Gégauffian one ('cynical, charismatic, provocative'), often called 'Charles' and 'Paul' respectively.

In Les Biches though there's only a Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who breaks the lesbian Fréderique/Why duo when he first goes for Why, then Fréderique falls for him, leaving Why murderously jealous and taking on the perssona (and clothing) of Fréderique.

Guy Austin includes this (spiritually if not factually) in the Hélène cycle, although there is of course no actual Hélène.

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne's Rosetta (1999)

Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne), 18, loses her job after her trial period ends. She lives in a trailer park in Belgium with her alcoholic mother (Anne Yernaux) who prostitutes herself. Described in this superb film is not only the grimness of the day-to-day life of people close to the bottom of the heap but the sheer resiliance as Rosetta traps fish in a bottle and tries to find other work. She makes friends with Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione) who works on a waffle stand and works for his boss (played by Olivier Gourmet) for a few days and tries to find more work with him.

Separately both Rosetta and Riquet fall into the water, recalling the Dardenne's L'Enfant, and the sounds of their breathing, with no background music, form a backcloth to the action, emphasising the endurance that is their lives.

As Riquet is robbing the boss, Rosetta grasses him up, he's sacked and Rosetta takes his place. Riquet then frightens her by chasing her around on his moped. Later she has to pick her drunken mother up and drags her to bed and is lugging a gas container back to the caravan while Riquet corners her. She looks desperate, tearful and without hope. A film of staggering bleakness.

Lætitia Colombani's À la folie... pas du tout | He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (2002)

À la folie... pas du tout is the first film by Lætitia Colombani, who is now better known as a writer. Essentially the film is in two parts, the first being from the point of view of Angélique (Audrey Tautou), a young student of fine arts in love with cardiologist Loïc Le Garrec (Samuel Le Bihan), who is married with a pregnant wife. She sends Loïc presents anonymously and doesn't listen to the reason of those around her, particularly her friends Héloïse (Sophie Guillemin) and David (Clément Sibony), who's in love with her. She waits at the airport for a trip to Italy with Loïc, but he doesn't turn up. She goes home, lies on the floor and turns on the gas.

And then things change dramatically as we see the situation from Loïc's point of view. Loïc starts receiving presents but doesn't know from whom, although the situation is driving a wedge between him and his wife, and both are deeply affected psychologically by Angélique's behaviour. Loïc believes that another woman is the cause of the trouble, becomes angry with her, but she dies of a heart attack, the police suspecting him of murder. Meanwhile Loïc's wife has a miscarriage: Angélique saw a baby as a threat to her imagined relationship with Loïc. Here lies the basic problem: there is no relationship and Loïc is totally unaware of the existence of Angélique.

Angélique lives in a nearby house and the surgeon does his best to help a young woman who madly loves him but whom he doesn't know, and she is taken to hospital. Loïc realises that Angélique is his loving tormentor, tells her there's nothing between them, and she knocks him out and is taken to a psychiatric hospital. Lost in translation of the title in English, even though it's literal, is the word 'folie'.

If this were a true story of course, the orderly chipping off the art brut that Angélique has made – a figure of Loïc made out of the medication she didn't take – would be an act of huge vandalism.

2 January 2020

Philippe Haïm's Barracuda (1997)

A rather spooky film with Monsieur Clément (Jean Rochefort) as the lonely and deranged apartment dweller who invites new resident Luc (Guillaume Canet) to dinner with him while Luc's pregnant wife Margot (Claire Keim) is away for a few days. Clément's walls are padded and lined with photos of Fred Astaire. Even worse, there's a slightly Psycho-like element: Clément's wife is dead and a model of her is at the dinner table. Unsurprisingly, Luc makes a getaway but is knocked out by Clément.

As difficult as it is to believe, the elderly Clément manages to keep the young Luc in his apartment for nine months, telling him that he's killed Margot. But when Luc sees Margot pleading for information on TV he breaks free and kills Clément. Rochefort is of course brilliant, but this is not even the best film I've seen so far this year (and it's only a day old). This is not Misery.

Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses (1974)

Les Valseuses is a ground-breaking film of the 1970s, and in particular led to making Gérard Depardieu and Bertrand Blier household names. It shows amoral behaviour, is violent, sexy and at the same time amusing. A pair of petty thieves in their twenties – Jean-Claude (Gérard Lepardieu) and Pierrot (Patrick Dewaere) – run riot having sex with women, stealing where they can, menacing people and generally having what they consider to be a good time.

They have little respect for anyone, terrify an elderly woman and rob her, terrify a young mother on a train, and steal a number of cars and quite an amount of money from the doctor who helps Pierrot with a gun injury when a man shot him between the legs for stealing his car. A hopelessly bad couple of men then?

Well, yes, although you can't help but laugh at them and, oddly, like them, although this is no comedy. Take, for instance, the way they break into a deserted house and guess the age of a young girl who lives there with her family, the way they look at her underwear and sniff her knickers to judge her age, like connoisseurs of vintage wine. Or Pierrot pleading with the gun-wielding hairdresser to spare him as he only 'borrowed' his car.

Marie-Ange (Miou-Miou) is the hairdresser's assistant who goes off with the pair and then returns, although they go back to her a few times, using her for sex and she's a willing partner to a threesome (well, this is the 1970s), but they're not happy with her because she's not having noisy orgasms and throwing herself around. Cue for the older Jeanne Pirolle (Jeanne Moreau) to leave prison after a number of years and team up in a threesome, only to leave the room while the pair are deep in post-coital sleep, lie on the other bed and, in despair, shoot a bullet between her legs. This of course recalls the bullet the hairdresser fired between Pierrot's legs, as the trio recalls the trio in Jules et Jim, and Jeanne's suicide recalls Catherine's suicide in Jules et Jim. In a minor and much more different way, the sexual initiation of the sixteen-year-old Jacqueline (an early performance by Isabelle Huppert) also remembers the famous Jules et Jim trio.

As Jean-Claude, Pierrot and Marie-Ange drive off we know not where, they enter a tunnel, and everything is black as the screen credits begin to roll. It seems a fitting ending: a drive into nothingness.

1 January 2020

François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962)

Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), a Frenchman but whose forename is pronounced with a 'd' sound as in English, are friends in pre-World War I France, and meet and fall in love with Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). This brilliant French classic is so well known that I shall spare readers the details of the rest of the plot, which has echoes in many subsequent films. No, I merely list some of the moments in this film which particularly affect me, most of them I'm sure of which appeal to many other people too: to me a work of art is not really the sum of its parts, but made up of moments, many of which remain with us long after we've forgotten other moments, even the plot. One such example in another film is Bo Widerberg's Elvira Madigan, where we see the red wine slowly leaving the down-turned bottle, as the relationship of the lovers flows out of them. But I digress – my Jules et Jim moments:

–– Catherine (as 'Thomas') wearing a checked cap and moustache, passing off as a man when 'another' asks 'him' for a light, and then winning the race on the bridge by cheating.

–– The trio finding fascinating but – importantly – financially worthless objects on their walk through the woods.

–– Catherine casually jumping into the river and being retrieved by a very concerned Jules et Jim.

–– Albert (Serge Rezvani/Cyrus Bassiak) playing his unforgettable 'Le Tourbillon de la vie' to the equally unforgettable song by Jeanne Moreau. Legendary.

–– Catherine killing both herself and Jim in a car in Limay, Mantes-la-Jolie (Yvelines).

–– Jules walking away in Père Lachaise after seeing the ashes of Catherine and Jim put in their pigeon holes in the external part of the columbarium, walking past the grave of George Courteline.

A beautiful movie.