30 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

29 November 2019

Gilles Mimouni's L'Appartement (1996)

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

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

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

28 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 November 2019

Claude Chabrol's Une partie de plaisir | Pleasure Party (1974)

So Philippe (Paul Gégauff) tells his (then real-life) wife Esther (Danièle Gégauff) that he's had several extramarital relationships, although she hasn't, but he tells her it's a good thing: well, this is the mid-seventies. So Esther goes to bed with Habib (Giancarlo Sisti) but doesn't tell Philippe everything: about how she feels, for instance. And Philippe's jealousy continues as Esther continues to see Habib.

The viewer can obviously see that Philippe is an egotistical slimeball, maybe (there are suggestions of it in his possessiveness and his control freakery) a real egomanic. But he obviously manages to fool the much younger (and much married, her second husband being Habib) English woman Paula (Sylvia Murdoch) because she marries him, and the couple leave the wedding reception with Philippe driving off drunk as a skunk.

Skunk would be a very polite word to use for Philippe, who can't forget Esther, tries (in the pleasant environment of the Jardin d'acclimatation) to use his very young child (by Esther), Élise (Clémence Gégauff – yes, his real daughter) as a go-between as he wants to get back with her.* But (his unbelievable pride wounded because Esther won't accept him back), he knocks her to the ground and kicks her to death in a cemetery. Élise, with a childminder, visits him in prison, he says her mother's gone and a journey, and all three will be back in a few years or so. Yeah, sure. Chabrol was a brilliant director.

* Paula is loaded, but that doesn't interest Philippe: what matters is control.

Cédric Klapisch's Un air de famille | Family Resemblances (1996)

Un Air de famille began as a play by Agnès Jaoui et Jean-Pierre Bacri, which is no doubt evident from the claustrophobic atmosphere of this film. Au Père tranquille is the rather shabby café-restaurant where the Ménard family – the mother (Claire Maurier) and her children Henri (Jean-Pierre Bacri), who owns the café, Betty (Agnès Jaoui), Philippe Ménard (Wladimir Yordanoff) and his wife Yolande (Catherine Frot) meet every Friday. This particular Friday is Yolande's birthday.

Missing here is Henri's wife Arlette, who has left him for a while, although it's some time before this will be revealed. But it's clear that Henri, who no doubt it's too much given to good moods, is in an even worse one today. The self-obsessed Philippe isn't in a good mood either: the successful member of the family, he's just appeared on television and worried endlessly about whether he didn't smile enough, wore the wrong tie, etc. His wife Yolande comes across as downtrodden, her mother-in-law dotes on Philippe, and she criticises Betty for (at thirty) not being married and for using language 'unbecoming' of her – needless to say, Betty is the rebel of the family secretly having a relationship with Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), Henri's flunky.

There are a number of amusing moments, such when Yolande lets her hair down (well, kicks off her shoes) and delightedly – almost sexually enjoys a dance with Denis, her husband having scornfully refused; when Henri visits Arlette in the apartment block where she's staying and the kids gathered outside join in his cries of 'Arlette!' to her; when towards the end Betty joins Denis in passionate embrace and Yolande realises that their relationship is far deeper than she had thought, and sees Denis as her 'brother-in-law', the 'son-in-law' of the mother; and many more instances of verbal humour.

The film ends shortly after Henri receives a phone call from Arlette, and he says that he's going to be a better person. The viewer suspects that this will be pretty hard to do, as Cédric Klapisch has depicted quite a gloomy view of relationships in this surprisingly gripping movie. The only overdone elements perhaps are the repeated scenes of an ironically very happy childhood with Dalida singing 'Come prima' (and incidentally, Klapisch himself playing the happy father).

26 November 2019

Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's Delicatessen (1991)

How exactly do you begin to describe this first feature? The headline of an edition of the weekly L'Express seemed to see it as a French Monty Python, and then quite rightly set the issue straight by saying that the film is like nothing ever seen: agreed, as to compare it with Monty Python would be a grave insult to this highly inventive movie. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where transactions are by barter (such as in chick peas), the subdued colours of brown and dark yellow predominate and reflect on the dismal, sordid and terrifying world depicted (which is incidentally at the same time highly amusing). Almost everything seems to come from a former age. Louison (Dominique Pinon), a former circus clown whose partner was a chimpanzee, has applied for a job with butcher Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who in fact deals in human flesh and finds Louison to be meagre fare.

Clapet's daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) falls for him, and there is a scene in which she invites him for tea, and although she bungles everything by not wearing her glasses Lousison isn't put out in his equal enthusiasm for her. But the tenants of the building in general are frightened of receiving the butcher's knife, and the atmosphere is tense.

The tenants are a bizarre assortment of characters: the brothers who make boxes which when turned make a sound like a cow (boîtes à meuh); the man who, in his flat-cum-swamp, raises frogs and snails; the woman who devises extremely elaborate (but unsuccessful) means of killing herself, etc. We mustn't forget, of course, the men that the worried Julie gets into contact with: 'les troglodistes', who are vegetarians plotting rebellion in the sewers.

Needless to say, the finale of Delicatessen is an apocalypse in itself, with the lovers Louison and Julie playing musical saw and cello on the roof of the building. A French cinema classic surely more inventive than Amélie Poulain?

25 November 2019

Claude Chabrol's Rien ne va plus (1997)

Rien ne va plus is Chabrol's fiftieth feature film – and although far from his best – is rivetting, complicated, and to some extent incredible: but then, what do you expect?

The roulette wheel begins the film, conforming to the title, and then we see Betty (Isabelle Huppert) in conversation with another player, pretending (highly improbably) to want to sleep with him, spiking his drink in the bar while he goes to fetch her a packet of cigarettes, and when the man falls asleep in his room Betty and her much older partner Victor (Michel Serrault) raid his wallet, she practices his signature for the chequebook, and they leave: yeah, they're just small-time con-merchants, travelling around in a camper van.

Until, that is, Betty meets Maurice (François Cluzet), who holds the funds of customers of a dental congress (5,000,000 Swiss francs), and the two really hit it off. But Betty and Victor are really up to their necks in it, and they're soon involved with a suitcase changing hands (more than once), Maurice being tortured to death and finishing with a dart in his eye, and, well it's too involved to explain but at least Betty and Victor come out of it all right.

Christine Corsini's Partir | Leaving (2009)

Suzanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a former physiotherapist married to surgeon Samuel (Yvan Attal) with their two teenaged children. She is approaching fifty and for twenty years has been a housewife and mother to the couple's children. The real action begins when she meets Ivan (Sergi López) who is involved in building being carried out on the house.

Corsini had noted that in the cinema it's usually the man who leaves the house, but wanted to show it from the a female perspective. Quite quickly Suzanne becomes attracted to Ivan, a man of Spanish origin who lives in a very modest flat. It's in this flat that Suzanne discovers a sexual passion that's completely new to her, and she becomes so obsessed with her relationship that she moves in with Ivan.

Samuel handles the affair very badly and reacts with anger and violence. He cancels her access to the bank with the intention of making it impossible for the couple to survive economically, although for a time they strive to pull through. But when Suzanne discovers that Samuel is away for several days she and Ivan remove paintings and other valuables from the house, resulting in Samuel getting Ivan arrested for theft.

There has, of course, always been a double sexual standard, and when Suzanne is forced by economical survival to return to the family fold it appears that he has won. Samuel's sexual performance is not just automatic though: it looks more like rape, and all his attempts to pull the family back together backfire on him when Suzanne shoots at his heart when he's in post-coital sleep.

24 November 2019

Jean Cormier and Symbad de Lassus: Blondin : 20 ans déjà ! (2011)

This is a tribute, a long love letter not written by two people – his long-term friend Jean Cormier and Blondin's grandson – but also, for example, his first wife Sylviane, his daughters Laurence and Anne, the 'Hussard' (like his friend Roger Nimier (1925-62) Michel Déon), Bernard Pivot, etc.

Jean Cormier (1945-2018), along with fellow writer and sports journalist Denis Lalanne, created the Festival Singe-Germain, which of course puns on Blondin's novel Un singe en hiver and the Saint-Germain area he frequented.

But this book is not just a celebration Antoine Blondin the writer, nor even Blondin the famed drinker, but Blondin as a sports writer, particularly of the Tour de France, of which he covered twenty-seven, from 1954 to 1982. He wrote for L'Équipe, following the cyclists in the famous '101': he couldn't drive, but went with, for instance, the leader Pierre Chaney, Jacques Augendre and Jean Bobet, all of whom have a word here to say about Blondin. During the Tour it may have been beer in the morning, pastis at noon and the strong stuff in the evening, but not of course for Jean Fargues, the driver.

Bobet's is perhaps the most interesting account, as he was his hotel room mate during the Tour, and when he talks about being awoken in the morning by Blondin playing at bullfighting with a towel and a chair, he was seeing in advance what he would see Bébel (Jean-Pierre Belmondo) play out to the cars in the film Un singe en hiver, and indeed what Blondin played to the cars on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Also of interest is what the Tour doctor Philippe Miserez says, that Blondin (who smoked two packets of cigarettes a day) was not killed by the demon drink but the demon nicotine: if he hadn't smoked, he'd no doubt have been around when this book was written, making it absurd to celebrate the twenty years since his death: he may have been a drunkard, but he wasn't an alcoholic.

François Truffaut's La Sirène du Mississippi (1969)

Truffaut adapted this film from William Irish's thriller Waltz into Darkness (1949), which would have been a good title for this film.1 But if you're going to use another title, why not give a proper translation of 'Sirène' here: not as 'mermaid', which suggests a pleasant creature, but as 'Siren', which indicates that you're dealing with danger: this is about another of Truffaut's femmes fatales. When Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo) meets 'Julie Roussel' (Catherine Deneuve) in Réunion off the boat from New Caledonia he is in serious trouble, expecially as he is immediately smitten by this beautiful young woman he is to marry when he expected to find a rather plain woman: they had been corresponding following a small ad in a newspaper.

'Julie' lies about the photo she sent Louis (which is a lie in itself as she never sent it), and Louis admits that he too lied about being the foreman of a cigarette factory and plantation when he's in fact the owner. They're swiftly married, Louis (without even thinking) puts his wife's name on his personal and business account, and by the time Berthe (Nelly Borgeaud), the real Julie's sister, wonders why she's not heard from her, the false Julie has run off with Louis's money. Berthe and Louis hire a private detective, Comolli (Michel Bouquet) to trace 'Julie'.

Louis flies to France and by chance – one of those remarkable coincidences frequently found in films – discovers she's working in a night club in Antibes. Louis finds her – her real name is Marion Vergano – and is prepared to kill her but she wins him all over again, relating her poor childhood, telling him her lover Richard killed Julie, and she has no more money. Hiring a house for them near Aix-en-Provence Louis – in another of those coincidences – runs into Comolli, gives him the slip, but when he turns up at the hired house determined to find Marion, Louis is forced to kill him. Louis and Marion flee to Lyon, Louis briefly returning to Réunion to buy himself out. At a café in Lyon though they discover from a newspaper that a flood has uncovered the body and they are being sought: a small ad in a paper began the relationship, and it seems that a front page headline will end it. And they can't return to their accommodation to retrieve the money as the place is crawling with cops.

They escape to a chalet2 where Marion – the two of them having almost no money left – begins to kill Louis with rat poison, which he realises and tells her he's not worried about dying for her, whereupon she relents and the audience last sees them walking from the chalet in the snow, presumably towards Switzerland.

1 In 1968 Truffaut had adapted Irish's novel The Bride Wore Black (1940): this time a literal translation.

2 The chalet is the same one used in Tirez sur le pianist (1960) in Le Sappey-en-Chartreuse, Isère. It was also used in Bertrand Blier's Buffet froid (1979).

23 November 2019

Patrice Leconte's Tango (1993)

At the end of Tango,  L'Élégant, aka François (Phillippe Noiret), says of the 'rebirth' of Marie (Miou-Miou): 'Même mortes, elles continuent à nous faire chier' ('Even when they're dead [women] continue to fuck us up.)' Oddly, it reminded me of Osgood (Joe E. Brown's) famous 'Well... nobody's perfect!' invraisembleable closing shot at the end of Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959). Not that Wilder's film is mysogynistic, but Tango is. François prefers masturbation to a relationship with the other, although the hotel scene of him watching a porn film on TV while drinking several mini-bottles of cognac from the mini-bar is (I hope intended to be) pathetic. This is a kind of buddy movie with a difference, in part a road movie too, and also an (unromantic, mostly) comedy. Buñuel's influence is in there, but more particularly that of Bertrand Blier.

Furious because of Marie's infidelity, Vincent (Richard Bohringer) kills both his wife and her lover with his low-flying plane and the judge very surprisingly declares Vincent not guilty. But this act will come back to haunt Vincent when François seeks his help for his nephew Paul (Thierry Lhermitte) by killing his unfaithful wife Marie: Paul has been serially unfaithful but, hey, let's uphold the double standard. Vincent isn't happy about the debt he's inherited, but has no real choice but to go by it, so it's all down to finding Marie. Which isn't easy, and this is the road movie part, where Paul starts hallucinating, their car is trashed, but they eventually find Marie in Africa.

Bang! She's dead, although Vincent didn't aim her way and Marie pretended. And then Vincent meets her in a supermarket, Marie then visits the trio and we're back to the beginning of this post.

Before the quotation in the first paragraph, François, sending Vincent out on an errand, tells him not to forget 'la boule de vanille', and he repeats this, as if it were of the utmost importance. Why is vanilla so important? We're reminded of Antoine (Jean Rochefort) in Leconte's Le Mari de la coiffeuse saying 'La mort est jaune citron et sent la vanille' ('Death is lemon yellow and smells of vanilla.') What?

Not one of Leconte's best films, but... I don't know.

22 November 2019

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Le Fils | The Son (2002)

Le Fils has very few characters, very little language, and no soundtrack. But its austerity never makes it boring, it is always gripping, full of suspense, in fact a remarkable film by the remarkable Dardenne brothers, mainly set as ususal in Seraing, Liège, Belgium. In its spartan way, I'd even call it a psychological thriller.

Olivier (Olivier Gourmet) is a carpenter who works in a rehabilitation centre for past offenders and we are surrounded by wood, we learn about wood as Olivier's students learn about wood: they have books which tell them how to identify different kinds, and they carry fold-up measures that they carry in a slot pocket in their overalls.

And then one day Francis (Morgan Marinne) comes to join the team, although for some reason Olivier doesn't initially want to accept him as a member of his class, but agrees a little later. But his behaviour towards Francis is cold, unlike the others he doesn't name him, although he is thorough and teaches him the skills required. Nevertheless he eyes him all the time suspiciously, even 'borrows' his keys to secretly visit his flat, lie on his bed as if trying to put himself in Francis's position. It may even cross the viewer's mind that there is something sexual behind his motives, wonder in what way his bizarre actions are, if at all, linked to his separation from his wife.

Meanwhile Francis seems to be growingly attached to Olivier, following his instructions, finding out how much he knows about measurements. During a long ride in Olivier's car to collect some wood from a warehouse Olivier questions Francis about his long detention, they buy patisseries from a shop but Olivier brusquely insists that they pay separately, they go to a café where Olivier drinks a coffee and Francis a coke. The scene where they play table football in the café is in retrospect almost surreal.

At the warehouse Olivier questions Francis on the identity of a few woods, and eventually tells him that Francis is the killer of his son. The viewer has seen the build-up to this moment, realises why Olivier has been watching Francis so strangely and so intensely, realises that the man is broken, his life destroyed by the death of his child. We have watched his meticulous work with wood, we have watched his meticulous washing of his sandwich box, and now we watch as he hunts down Francis, who after learning that he killed Olivier's son runs and hides in the warehouse of wood, as if he can escape from his past.

After a chase in the warehouse, between the different woods in the warehouse, Francis runs out and is caught by Olivier, and the film captures his breathlessness, which seems to match the hopelessness. He can, and wants, to strangle Francis, but doesn't. He leaves him, but Francis returns to help him load the wood into the trailer.

Devastating. What director needs to spend millions to get people to be entranced by such dramas?

21 November 2019

François Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003)

If François Ozon's Swimming Pool had been by Shakespeare it might have been labelled a 'problem play' because it doesn't altogether cohere, but then that's probably the idea: many things in it are slightly out of sync. It stars Charlotte Rampling as the novelist Sarah Morgon with the publisher John (Charles Dance).

At the beginning, when Sarah is going to see John on the tube in London, she rebuffs an admirer of her detective Dorwell novels by telling her she's not the person she thinks she is. Throughout the film the viewer will ask him- or herself who she actually is, but no matter. Sarah is tired, so Charles suggests she relax at his place near Lacoste, Vaucluse, while she works on her novel.

This is when the film alternates between Sarah's wobbly French and the even more wobbly English of John's young daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), who soon unexpectedly joins her at Charles' holiday home. You could call this a generation conflict, but Sarah doesn't take to Julie and her bringing home guys from the village to have noisy sex with, although she seems to be becoming strangely attracted to Julie, especially after the episode with Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour), who Julie starts sucking by the swimming pool, causing Sarah to jealously stop their antics by throwing a heavy object into the pool near them.

But when Sarah discovers Julie has killed Franck she helps her bury the body in the garden and swears she won't tell anyone: very strange behaviour, as if she's playing in one of her novels. And then when she returns to London and sees John's only daughter, who doesn't look at all like Julie... Could it be that most of what we've been watching is merely Sarah's novel theatricalised?

François Ozon's 5x2 (2004)

The slightly odd title relates to the form of the film, which, like arguably all of François Ozon's movies, is experimental. The movie is in five parts, each separated by a blank screen for a few seconds, but the parts are in reverse chronological order, essentially concerning two (2) married people. As with most of Ozon's films, people – particularly couples, who are hardly ever, or only briefly, couples at all – overwhelmingly don't get on with each other.

The first part begins in the solicitor's office, where the protagonists Gilles Ferron (Stéphane Freiss) and Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) get divorced. They then go to a hotel and have sex, although this is far more like a rape. After staging an obviously fake suicide attempt while Marion is in the bathroom, Gilles pathetically asks Marion if there's any chance of reconciliation, which she replies to by leaving without a word.

The second part is an evening dinner party at Gilles and Marion's place – not long before the first part, although it's uncertain exactly when – and Gille's brother Christophe (Antoine Chappey) joins them with his younger boyfriend Mathieu (Marc Ruchmann). Here infidelity is talked about, with Mathieu speaking of its unimportance (Christophe agreeing), and Gilles speaking of an orgy he and his wife went too, in which he engaged in extramarital sex (with Marion's assent), but without her participation. After Mathieu (who is going to a party) and Christophe (who Mathieu suggests is too old for it) leave and Gilles (in contradiction to what he has said to Christophe in private) tells Marion that the gay couple's relationship won't last very long and that (although the viewer hasn't heard this) Christophe and Mathieu don't have sex.

The third part begins in a hospital corridor and Marion has given birth prematurely. It's by no means certain why Gilles goes with his mother-in-law to see the baby but doesn't see Marion herself, only phones her.

The fourth part opens with the wedding vows, the reception and the 'happy' couple going to bed but doing nothing because Gilles falls asleep while Marion is primed for sex. Marion gets dressed, avoids the reception where only her parents are dancing and Christophe is chatting up the waiter over a spliff, and meets a young American who forces himself upon her although she passionately responds eventually, to return guiltily to her new husband to tell him (while he's asleep) that she loves him.

The final part is set in Italy, where Gilles is on holiday with his former girlfriend Valérie (Géraldin Pailhas). They obviously have a number of differences and while there, he coincidentally meets Marion, someone he vaguely knows from work, and she's on holiday on her own four months after finsihing with her boyfriend. When Valérie goes off for a day on her own they meet, ask each other personal questions and go off for a swim in the sea. And so ends another Ozon film, but at the beginning.

19 November 2019

Éric Rohmer's Conte d'hiver | A Winter's Tale | A Tale of Winter (1992)

Éric Rohmer's Conte d'hiver is part of his Contes des quatre saisons tetralogy and of course is loosely based on Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1623), which iself is based on Robert Greene's romance Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (1588). Here though, this is a modern take on Shakespeare's play.

Rohmer being more interested in words than plot, there is little action in the film. Félicie (Charlotte Véry) falls in love with Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche) on holiday and leaves him her address so they can contact each other in Paris, but five years later Félice is without Charles but with their four-year-old daughter Élise: she made a slip-up with the address and Charles couldn't give her his address as he was a trainee cook moving around a lot at the time. In between time, Félicie has befriended two men: Maxence (Michel Voletti), a hairdresser, and Loïc (Hervé Furic), a librarian. However, although she loves both men in different ways, she can't commit herself, but she tries: finding Loïc too intellectually crushing, she leaves for Nevers with Élise to join Maxence in his hairdressing salon, although she has a revelation in the cathedral and returns to Maxence only to tell him she's returning to Paris because she can't live with a man she's not fully in love with.

Because this is a Rohmer film there's a deal of talking, particularly philosophical talk, and although Félicie has learned a lot from Loïc she still feels the discussions he has with his friends a little tedious. She has always mentioned her feelings about Charles to both men, and Charles is always the elephant in the room. Félicie believes in coincidence (with or without divine collusion), and is convinced that one day she will find her lover again. During a theatrical production of The Winter's Tale that Loïc takes her to, she has another revelation and breaks into tears when the 'statue' Hermione comes to life: evidently, she sees in this a symbol of Charles being 'reborn'. This is no means the only similarity with Shakespeare's play – such as the existence of Perdita, Leontes's daughter, who also has never met her mother – but the important thing is that Charles is in fact 'resurrected' at Christmas when Félicie meets him on a bus. The great American film critic Robert Ebert claimed Rohmer couldn't make a dud film, and I believe he was right.

18 November 2019

François Ozon's Angel (2006)

Generally speaking, François Ozon's first completely English-speaking film was poorly received critically in England, but well received critically in France. Quite simply, outside of France the film world didn't understand Ozon. In a Guardian interview in 2009 with Ryan Gilbey, Ozon said 'When I make a film, I always assume the audience is clever'. That doesn't necessarily mean that the non-French-speaking world isn't clever, but that they just weren't ready for a film force that would come and hit them right where it counts: in the head. Critics didn't understand Ozon because he is not only highly film literate, but unpredictable: he uses a number of different movie genres, sometimes in the same movie.

Influenced in particular by Douglas Sirk movie melodramas of the 1950s and at the time rated B-movie material but now revised as quality stuff, Ozon gives us Angel in 2006, set in the Edwardian period and loosely based on the English writer Elizabeth Tayor's novel Angel (1957). Angel Deverill (Ramola Garai) is the precocious schoolgirl who doesn't read but writes, although her English teacher tells her she is influenced by Dickens and, er, Marie Corelli. Corelli is the obvious link here, because Angel, a working-class kid convinced that she has tremendous writing gifts, has some similarities to Corelli. Corelli was convinced of her brilliance as a writer, although she wrote mediocre books which sold in huge numbers, became very rich and settled down in Stratford-upon-Avon, where she was noted for being propelled along the river in a gondola.

Similarly, Angel sells tons of books and becomes immensely rich. But she then buys a palatial property which she furnishes in appallingly bad gaudy taste, fills with servants and pets, marries a wastrel and a philanderer and the audience – in spite of wondering how things will end, in spite of hating Angel for her newly-found class hatred – hopes he will disappear before he ruins her.

All this time though Angel has been a Sartrean model of mauvaise foi: she lives a fantasy, believes she's a great writer, thinks her husband Esmé (Michael Fassbender) is a great painter, she lies about everything. Even when Esmé hangs himself, she lies to a reporter that he loved their home 'Paradise' and died of a heart attack, until...

Until by chance she finds a letter in a book, addressed to the mistress Edmé had been keeping, lying to her that the money he was spending was on gambling debts.

This is a hugely overblown film, packed with clichés, such as the rainbow over the early lovers as they kiss, the images where they spent their honeymoon: Venice (the gondola in the foreground), Greece (the Acropolis in the background), and Egypt (the pyramids in the background). Angel details the triumph of illusion (or delusion) over reality. Until Angel sickens not only because of the death of her loved ones, but because she's lost control of her life, she rushes out of her palace in her bare feet in the snow to rescue her kitten, and finally she sees that the only person who's ever loved her is her doting female secretary Nora (Lucy Russell). And what can Nora say to her publisher Theo (Sam Neill) when he suggests she writes about Angel's life because she knew her best: 'Which life? The life she lived, or the life she dreamed?'

This film, which concerns the impossible life dividing appearance and ineluctable reality, of the lies we tell not only to others but to ourselves too, probably describes the only life we can ever have, the only life we're worth, all that hell allows.

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
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.