31 December 2020

Olivier Assayas's Personal Shopper (2017)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 December 2020

Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery (2014)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

28 December 2020

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

27 December 2020

Jacques Demy's Lola (1961)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 December 2020

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 December 2020

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

 

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

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

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

Various: Paris vu par (1965)

 

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

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

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

24 December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Jean Eustache's Numéro Zéro (2003)

 

Jean Eustache's Numéro Zéro was made in 1971 and (unlike most people) he considered this his first feature film, although it wasn't until TF1 broadcast Odette Robert, a much shortened version of it in its series of films about grandmothers, or rather until Pedro Costa, via Jean-Marie Straub and Bruno Eustache, restored the film and brought it to the screen in 2003, that it could be seen in its glory.

Numéro Zéro is a film taken by two cameras, in 'real time', of Odette Robert (Jean Eustache's maternal grandmother), telling her life story. The film begins with Bruno Eustache (Jean's son by Jeanne Delos) walking down the street with his great-grandmother Odette to buy a baguette. They return to the flat where Jean sits with his back to the audience, Odette settles down to a table opposite her grandson, a bottle of Ballantine's is produced and poured into two glasses with a dish of ice cubes at the side, and Odette talks and talks for two hours, not even being allowed for the scene to be interrupted for her to have a glass of water.

It might not on the surface sound like rivetting viewing for the audience – watching a seventy-year-old woman with dark glasses smoking, drinking and talking animatedly about her life with no interruption, just the occasional remark by the shadowy director. But it is rivetting: we hear a long story of abuse, of Odette being mentally rejected and directly and indirectly attacked by her step-mother jealous of her youth, of her husband's constant philandering, reducing her at one stage to cut his mistress's beautiful hair off and serve it on a plate to him as a dessert. There are many things of fascination here and at the end she says she feels drunk – although the audience can't help feeling that it's hardly a result of the whisky she's been consuming in moderation but drunk on two hours' outpouring of her life. Odette's 'performance' is superb cinema.

22 December 2020

Marcel Hanoun's Une simple histoire (1959)

 

To a small extent this brilliant film by Marcel Hanoun will recall Ken Loach's television film Cathy Come Home (1966), although it was made in France seven years before. This too is about homelessness, although the circumstances and the situations are different from Loach's highly influential film.

Une simple histoire begins with the mother (Micheline Bezancon) and her young child Sylvie (Eliabeth Huart) found by a sympathetic woman sleeping rough on wasteland. She invites them in and leaves them in her home while she goes to work.

There then follows a long flashback in which the mother's backstory is partly revealed: she has come to Paris with her young daughter on leaving Lille, where she can't (for reasons unknown) return to her husband, and where her mother-in-law is hostile to her.

The Paris of the time is hostile to her too: she's a young mother with a child, which in 1959 was classed as a bastard and the woman 'fallen'. She spends much of the time searching for jobs, going from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, eating out in the cold mainly, sometimes taken pity of by strangers, but mostly unwelcome and her money dwindling all the time. The grainy black and white images underline the grimness of this realistic story.

21 December 2020

Giovanni Catelli: The Death of Camus (2020), trans. by Andrew Tanzi from Camus deve morire (2013)

 

So, a book titled The Death of Camus (originally Camus deve morire ('Camus Must Die')) with a Foreword by Paul Auster. Inviting certainly, although is there anything more to be said about Camus's death? Yes, definitely: Auster is right to call this book 'disturbing', and at the same time 'difficult not to agree with [Catelli]'.

Anyone familiar with the biography of Albert Camus (1913-1960) will be aware that he died with his friend Michel Gallimard in a Facel Vega near Villeblevin, the wrecked car hard against a plane tree. And that the passengers in the back seat, Gallimard's wife Janine and daughter Anne, escaped virtually unhurt.

Camus's monument stands very close to the Mairie in Villeblevin.  His coffin was carried out of the Mairie and taken to Lourmarin (Vaucluse), where he is buried and where many people still visit his grave.

The Death of Camus is a work of love, made by Giovanni Catelli who spent some time investigating Camus's death. A sentence from Jan Zábrana's notes, in which he says of the car Camus died in: 'They rigged the tyre with a tool that eventually pierced it when the car was travelling at hign speed'. On a straight road the car started to veer about and ended up hitting plane trees. Now why should that be?

Camus was a defender of justice, a person who didn't mince his words. A man who. having received the much feted Nobel Prize for Literature, also carried a huge power around with him in whatever he said or wrote. He was a strong opponent of Soviet 'Communism', and in particular the hanging of the Hungarian prime minister Imre Nagy by the Soviets. And he loathed the Soviet foreign secretary, Dmitri Shevilov. Obviously he was due for assassination by the KGB and The Death of Camus suggests how this could have been done: sabotaging the Faca Vega when it was parked for the night in Thoissey, where the passengers stopped for the night on their way to Paris.

Catelli's argument is convincing, his investigations thorough, and it is difficult to argue with his findings and his suggestions: Camus was much more than a typical example of people who had been erased from history by the Russians.

This is excellent detective work, although I particularly object to just one sentence: 'Sartre's cynicism, baseness and lust for personal gain masked as cultural interest have long been dismissed as a grave disappointment.' Really? I wasn't aware that cynicism was an offense, 'baseness' is both highly subjective and groundless if (as here) unsupported by examples, and the accusation of 'lust for personal gain masked as cultural interest' is stupifying: Camus bought a nice little town house for his family in Lourmarin on the proceeds of his considerable Nobel award, whereas Sartre refused to accept his award on the grounds that he didn't want to be an institution. Clearly, Catelli has accepted wholesale Michel Onfray's insistent (and shameful) potshots at Sartre in his brilliant (although marred) L'Ordre Libertaire: la vie philosophique d'Albert Camus (2012).

But The Death of Camus is a must to read, and will if not revise people's conventional acceptance of his death, at least make them strongly think twice about it. Am I convinced by this book? I think so.

20 December 2020

Jean-Daniel Pollet's Méditerranée (1963)

 

Jean-Daniel Pollet (1936-2004) made this film in collaboration with Volker Schlöndorff. Pollet made a considerable number of scenes around the Mediterranean to put together this 42-minute film, with the poetic words being written by Philippe Sollers. The music is by Antoine Duhamel, the son of the writer Georges. Godard praised the film in Cahiers du cinéma and was inspired by it make some shots in Le Mépris.

In Substance (128 (2016)), Andrew Ritchey says Méditerranée 'played a crucial role in the development of film theory from the 1960s to the early 1970s'. It was a link between film and the nouveau roman.

Memory, past civilisations, tradition, beauty, pain, water. There are also a number of very unpoetic, gory scenes of bullfighting.

17 December 2020

Jean Eustache's Mes petites amoureuses (1974)

 

The autobiographical Mes petites amoureuses is Jean Eustache's revisiting of his past: he was born in Pessac (Gironde) and then moved to Narbonne (Aude). It was a commercial failure, although now Eustache's reputation has grown immensely. The protagonist of this second (and final) feature by Eustache is Daniel (Martin Loeb) who lives in a village with his grandmother (Jacqueline Dufranne) until his mother (Ingrid Caven) calls him away to the big town where she lives in shabbiness with her Spanish lover José Ramos (Dionys Mascolo)*, an agricultural worker.

His mother can't afford to send Daniel to school: OK, it's free, but there are clothes, books, etc, so no way: he'll have to find his own way. She procures him a kind of job working in a tool/vehicle repair shop where he not only gets by but manages to prove himself far more intelligent and resourceful than the owner, not that the owner has the intelligence to understand that.

But Daniel keeps quiet about his intelligence, in fact keeps quite about most things by saying very little. He can work out how to mend a light on a Solex, but most of all he learns about sex from observation: on his train journey to his mother's town (let's call it Narbonne) he's learned a great deal from three passengers; the screens pulled down, two young men kiss and fondle a young girl, which recalls to some extent the threesome in La Maman et la putain (only of course with two men as opposed to two women; in a scene in a cinema in the city, he learns that a way to enjoy the opposite sex is to whisper to a single girl in front and spend time kissing her.

Mixing with older males at the local café, Daniel also learns the downside of the females of the day: they won't sleep with you before marriage. During a bike ride with several café friends to a neighbouring village he meets a girl, only to learn (on feeling around) that she doesn't want him to go very far because, as his café chums have said, there's no sex before marriage.

*Dionys Macolo was married to Margurite Duras from 1947 to 1956.

16 December 2020

Jean Eustache's Offre d'emploi (1980)

 

Offre d'emploi was Jean Eustache's contribution to the television series Contes Modernes, which featured stories dedicated to the world of work. It lasts for just 18 minutes and was his last work. After finding a job advertisement in the paper while drinking a coffee in a café Pelletier (Michel Delahaye) has an initial inerview and follows this up, as requested, by posting a letter that he writes over a beer in another café.

Letters are subjected to a graphologist's/psychologist's cold, crude, even brutal pseudo-scientific examination and in the end two potential candidates are picked, of whom Pelletier is one. The boss asks the interviewer what she thinks, which is very scientific. Maybe Eustache was trying to make a point, and if so it's a good one: avoid being employed by anyone as the entire system is arbitrary and you're worth more than that!

Jean Eustache's Les Photos d'Alix (1979)

 

Les Photos d'Alix is a short documentary, slightly under 20 minutes, made in 1981 with two people: the gifted photographer Alix Cléo Renaud (who married the ouplipien Jacques in 1980) explaining the making and the aethetics of her photos to Eustache's son Boris.

Alix describes photos she took in France, New York and (apparently her much loved) London: she very much appreciates the distancing the English take from others. She changes a number of photos, double exposing them, blurring them, soft focuses them and creates an illusion of the place in which many are taken, indeed often an illusion of what the viewer is seeing. She suggests that all photos are sentimental, which perhaps make Boris think as he says nothing.

Alix Cléo Renaud died in Paris of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31 in 1983. Her huband Jacques, three years after her death, wrote a collection of poems to her: Quelque chose noir.

Jean Eustache's La Rosière de Pessac 79 (1979)

 

Eleven years after Jean Eustache's fist cinematic return to Pessac with La Rosière de Pessac in 1968, came a second visit with a recording of the same event, but with a slightly changed situation.

La Rosière de Pessac 79 still includes the debate and the vote regarding the most virtuous young woman in the Mairie, the walk to her home, the processional march, the service in the church and the final celebration, but there are some differences. The black and white film has changed to colour, Pessac is dominated by HLMs from one of which La Rosière comes, the celebration is held outside as opposed to inside, and is much more raucous: the drinking song is a little more adventurous: surely unbecoming for such a sober occasion? Yes, I jest. But Eustache didn't, he was just recording.

Two years after this film was made Eustache killed himself – the last of several previously unsuccessful attempts. He was just 42, but leaves behind twelve films, of which of course the marathon La Maman et la putain is recognised as one of the most important films in French cinema.

15 December 2020

Jean Eustache's La Rosière de Pessac (1968)

 

La Rosière de Pessac is a tradition in Pessac (now a part of the Bordeaux conurbation) which honours a young woman every year for her virtuousness. The traditon dates from many centuries and in a number of places, but was renewed in Pessac in 1896 by a bequest and continues today. Jean Eustache, who was born in Pessac, made a documentry (62 minutes) of the events, although not out of nostalgia, historical imperative, or personal interest: he simply wanted to film the action of an event in a place with no voiceover, no ideological content, therefore no mockery at all. If self-importance and the love of pomp can be seen in this then it's in the eye of the viewer via the camera, although the camera is intended to cast a neutral light.

Eustache shows the initial debate and decision to award a young woman la Rosière de Pessac, which involves a discussion and a vote in the town hall. This particular vote in 1968 is for three virtuous young women – a fourth possibility having been excluded as her father was an alcoholic – and the vote as to who of those present should be her godmother. The decisions having been made, the town hall officials – in this three-day event – go to the young woman's family and announce the news with many instances during which people 'faire la bise'. There is then the crowning of the young woman with roses, a ceremony with choir in the church, the presentation of former rosières (including one aged 92), and a dinner attended by many people, with the inclusion of the drinking song 'Boire un petit coup'.

Eustache regretted that no cinematic record was made of earlier celebrations, including during World War I and 1939. He argued that a recording should be taken every year so that a view of the time could be made.

Jean Eustache's Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus | Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes (1966)

 

At only 47 minutes,  Le Père Noël a les yeux bleus (dedicated to Charles Trenet (who else?)) is Jean Eustache's second short. Like Les Mauvaises Fréquentations before, it slowly leads towards the masterpiece which is La Maman et la putain, only more so. The Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Léaud in Eustache's landmark film also stars in this, and is also a penniless drifter cruising the cafés in search of a woman, any woman.

The setting is Narbonne, where Eustache spent his youth. The young Daniel here has equally macho friends who view women as sexual objects, and of importance here is the need to dress respectably. The jobless Daniel has no money to buy new clothes, steals books from booksellers, but dreams of forsaking the same coat that a friend gave him several years before, dreams of buying a duffel coat!

His luck is in when, this being before Christmas, a photographer offers him a job wearing a Father Christmas costume and taking photos of him in the streets of Narbonne with his arm round children and other people. Daniel sees this as an opportunity to buy a duffel coat by the new year, and also get off with girls who allow him to touch them through their winter clothes. His attempts to seduce them though dates backfires, although he manages to buy a duffel coat with this money, as well as working for a lottery in which he can fiddle money.

The final scene is of Daniel and his drunken friends staggering down a street singing about visiting a brothel.

14 December 2020

Jean Eustache's Les Mauvaises fréquentations, aka Du côté de Robinson | Robinson's Place (1973)

 

In 1963 Jean Eustache failed in an attempt to make a short film called 'La Soirée', although the year after he made Les Mauvaises fréquentations, a film 38 minutes long. In it can be seen vaguely similar themes to what was to become his masterpiece, La Maman et la putain, but this time with two young men more down-at-heel but making money (this time illegally) from a woman. Cafés feature prominently, although neither men has any pretence to intellectual sophistication.

The story: one Sunday two dubious characters go in search of a girl. They find one in Montmartre, approach her and discover she's going dancing with a girlfriend, so they join her, although the girlfriend doesn't turn up. They go for a drink elsewhere and one discovers that she's separated with two children. They go looking for another dancehall and find Robinson, where they sit down with a drink but the girl is invited to dance by an older type the girl doesn't like but she accepts because she can't see any other way out. On the third time the same guy asks her to dance the two men get tired, quietly take her purse from her bag, walk out and then run. In the purse are five 'sacs' (fifty francs), so they take the taller guy's motorbike, go into another café and order two whiskies: the waiter, uncertain, says they're 2.50 francs each, they shrug, drink, order two beers, go though the contents of the wallet, share the money and leave. The following Sunday they leave home in search of a new conquest.

Jean Eustache's La Maman et la putain | The Mother and the Whore (1973)

 

The late sixties brought a revolutionary fervour not only to France but to the whole world. It altered people's minds, it opened them up, it intellectualised people, it introduced many millions to new ideas in terms of culture in general. It renewed, refreshed, invigorated, and even if Mai 1968 failed to bring down France, it produced such profound, long-lasting effects which meant the world would never be the same again.

And yet just over fifty years after les événements France is still reeling from the shockwaves of the revolution that both was and wasn't. Vanessa Springora's revelations about the paedophile Gabriel Matzneff in Le Consentement reverberated and threw up buried facts about intellectual France's history of tolerance for paedophilia: The newspaper Libération's stance, the stance of many prominent intellectuals, the fact that the then leader of the Académie Goncourt, Bernard Pivot, had glibly welcomed Matzneff on Apostrophes as late as 1990, were hugely damning facts.

Unlike glib people claim with ignorant insults of 'soixante-huitards' in France (or the slightly different 'Boomer!' insult in the Anglophone world), it's not the sixties that are to blame, but the excesses of it. If the intellectual world pushed so far that even paedophilia was to be accepted, what of conventional heterosexual behaviour? If Philip Larkin was too late to join in the sexual jamboree, what of those who didn't gain from the release of the sexual shackles, but lost out from the excesses of it? And was sexual freedom really such a positive thing for women? All right, it may be significant that the main (male) figure of Jean Eustache's La Maman et la Putain teaches one of the two (female) figures what MLF (Mouvement de liberation des femmes) stands for, but then he's speaking from his imaginary ivory tower, dressed with his foulard round his neck in a faux-casual manner, and brandishing his copy of Proust's La Prisonnière (a novel of possessive, jealous love) at now iconic places such Les Deux Magots and Le Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés – but he's only a male chauvinist hypocrite*, an intello à la con. In 1973, La Maman et la putain heralded the end of the sixties, but not many people were listening.

Eustache's film – the importance of which we've perhaps only relatively recently begun to understand – stars the Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as Alexandre, an intellectual layabout who sponges off his older live-in girlfriend Marie (Françoise Lebrun), the 'maman' who owns a fashionable clothes business. It also stars Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), the nurse who's taken full advantage of the new sexual freedom and has a penchant for alcohol (she's the 'putain', of course); she also has a penchant for Alexandre, and doesn't mind that he can't pick up the tab for the meal they have at Le Train bleu inside the Gare de Lyon. Alexandre spends most of his time flitting about the germainopratin cafés talking to friends (one of whom has an unhealthy interest in the Gestapo) and chatting up the women, playing with their affections: he has the youth and the looks so he thinks he can get away with it: unfortunately he's too immature to realise that he's playing with fire, that you still can't trifle with people's affections through the sexual freedom that's been newly accepted.

The crunch comes when Veronika falls in love with Alexandre and the three end up in bed together: it's not quite triolism (the utopia of the sixties Jimi Hendrix boasted of) but eventually all three of them come to love one another, which is of course a major problem. And it's a problem which concludes the film. Alexandre, with the trio fully clothed on the bed (there's nowhere else to sit anyway) tries to grab a breast of Veronika (who not so long before has insistently pleaded 'Baisez-moi !' ('Fuck me!'), which he does and which leads to Marie taking too many pills – the rules for the new morality haven't been written in stone. But this time Alexandre is violently rebuffed, and Veronika unleashes a long tear-soaked existential howl of pain. This of course is the crux of the issue: Alexandre's egocentric behaviour has boxed all three of them into a corner and it's now pay-off time.

Veronika's rant is stunning, almost definitely the major feature of the film, in which she at first tells Alexandre that sex is nothing, and continues to cry and launches into a drunken monologue in which the word 'baiser' ('fucking') is mentioned many times. It's this speech that is almost symbolic of the death of the sexual revolution, and yet (particularly with its emphasis on sex being necessary for children, and children being necessary) it is so devastating that it almost seems to be advocating a return to pre-sexual revolutionary times. The film ends with Alexandre driving Veronika back to her flat and she pukes into a bowl, leaving him to sit on the kitchen floor in a kind of stupor, at a loss to know what to do. Two women are in love with him, and both are suicidal: time to grow up?

La Maman et la putain is a major work in which the silences are often filled in by the music played in Marie's flat, which tends to be not of the period but before: Marie plays Piaf singing 'Les Amants de Paris'; Veronika sings Tino Rossi's 'Tout simplement', a love song, to Alexandre; and Alexandre plays Damia's 'Un souvenir' and Fréhel's 'La Chanson des Fortifs', a song about a lost Paris, by extension a France that has lost its old songs and singers, and will be renewed by others because there'll always be songs. There'll always be collective moods as well, and La Maman et la Putain brilliantly reflects the death of one.

*The Title La Maman et la putain is of course ironic, being the traditional way chauvinistic men see women: as mothers or prostitutes.

13 December 2020

Jean-Jacques Beineix's Roselyne et les lions | Roselyne and the Lions (1989)

 

This is certainly not a film I would normally watch because it contains what I would call cruelty to animals – namely the taming of lions in a circus. However, the little I do have to say about it essentially relates to Jean-Jaques Beineix's cinema, particularly to my previous post on 37°2 le matin.

Roselyne et les lions (with a literal translation Roselyne and the Lions in English) stars Roselyne (Isabelle Pasco) and Thierry (Gérard Sandoz). Thierry loses interest in school once he discovers a zoo nearby which has lion-taming acts: the immediate relation between the untamed force of Betty in the previous film Beineix made is quite clear.

And although this film (rather obscure and little known even in France) isn't normally included in 'le cinéma du look' movies, it contains several elements normally associated with that group: the film comes within the same timeframe; the images are all-important, taking precedence over the content; the couple become drifters, and even though they become successful it is not in their nature to tie themselves to any contract at all, they are free spirits following their dream outside of any conventional structure, and in fact share the same somewhat rebellious nature as other characters in the sub-genre.

Their one guiding principle, mentioned twice, is that the quickest link from one point to another is by a dream. Roselyne and Thierry live that dream and do not allow anyone else to stand in the way of it.

Jean-Jacques Beineix's 37°2 le matin | Betty Blue (1986; Director's cut 1991)

 

37° 2 le matin, the title of Jean-Jacque Beineix's remarkable film adapted from Philip Djian's eponymous novel, alludes to a pregnant woman's temperature, although the lead actor Betty (Beatrice Dalle's first performance) only thinks she's pregnant, but I'm getting ahead of myself here. The English title is a prosaic Betty Blue, and OK the first name is right and there are masses of blue in the film, but all the same...

Betty's partner is Zorg (Jean-Hugues Anglade), and they're's drifters, marginals, just like many characters in this only highly visual example of what many critics consider to be 'le cinéma du look', an expression that Raphaël Bassan in La Revue du Cinéma (May 1989) dubbed, and which critic Guy Austin has called 'style over substance, spectacle over narrative' in Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction (1999). Roger Ebert found the behaviour of the characters 'senseless and boring', and mentions old 'dirty' French films. Wow, how wrong he was.

Betty has joined Zorg at Guisson-Plage near Narbonne, where Zorg has found a casual job painting the stilted houses pink and blue. Betty sort of helps him. (They later move to Paris and Marvejevols in Lozère, although what happens in the first part sums up most of Betty's behaviour).

Most reviews describe Betty becoming increasingly crazy, which can't be denied although she's an amazing (if tragic) force of nature: she acts on impulse and does things that are totally unacceptable: to keep to the first part of the film, she throws a pot of paint at Zorg's boss's car, shows the same man her public hair when he's behaved sexually inappropriately, and in the end throws a paraffin lamp into their temporary home after throwing their possessions onto the ground.

The very first scene shows pure sexual pleasure of the two making love, the scene culminating in a noisy orgasm on Betty's part. As you'd expect: she's pure id, and as she has no internal parental or policing force as a controlling superego, Zorg having great difficulty trying to tame her.

Initially, when she finds out Zorg has written a novel, she types it out (using one finger) and sends it off the various publishers, convinced he's a great writer, although Zorg hides insulting rejection slips from her. 

Towards the end she is recovering in a psychiatric hospital, strapped to her bed after poking an eye out: she never recovered from finding out she wasn't pregnant after all. The devastated Zorg feels he can only end her undoutedly future misery by smothering her to death. The version I watched on this second viewing was the director's cut, extending a two-hour film by one hour. Contrary to the late Robert Ebert, I wasn't bored for a second.

12 December 2020

Leos Carax's Mauvais sang | Bad Blood | The Night Is Young (1986)

 

In 2012 the influential cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles published an article by Jean-Marc Lalanne suggesting that Jean Eustache's La Maman et la putain (1973) is the film of the 70s, Arnaud Desplechin's Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle) the film of the 90s, and Charles Honoré's Les Chansons d'amour the film of the 2000s. Leos Carax's Mauvais sang (1986) it named as the film of the 80s. Some critics have gone so far as to call it one of French cinema's most important films.

Carax's second feature, Mauvais sang is the second of 'the Alex trilogy', and like the other two films is well within the range of the 'cinéma du look' obsessions: the subway shot early on in the film (surely a homage to Chantal Akerman's News from Home (1977); a marginal main character (Alex); a number of unforgettable and highly visual scenes, such as the funambulesque running and somersaulting sequence to David Bowie's 'Modern Love', and the 'magical' tricks made by Alex to his would-be lover.

The title Mauvais sang – literally 'Bad Blood' but unbelievably stupidly also translated as The Night Is Young – is partly a reference to the title of Rimbaud's second poem in his collection Une saison en enfer (1873): Alex is a Rimbaldian, rebellious character who espouses laziness, the lack of conventional work, but loves cultural pursuits, the arbitrariness of life, etc. And the title is also a reference to AIDS, here fictionally named STBO, which 'affects couples who make love without being in love'.

Alex, in this second view of him, is no longer as aspiring screenplay writer but a magician, a juggler, an acrobat, an (illegal) bonneteau trickster, and so on. Two ageing crooks, Marc (Michel Piccoli) and Hans (Hans Meyer) are threatened to cough up the cash by a usurer nicknamed L'Américaine (Carroll Brooks), and as Alex's father is dead they now turn to his son to steal the vaccine for STBO. Alex leaves his lover Lise (Julie Delpy) and falls straight into an impossible love: he meets Anna (a young Juliette Binoche) who is faithfully – and perhaps a little unbelievably – very much in love with the much older Marc.

This film is a visual and aural feast.

10 December 2020

François Ozon's Frantz (2016)

 

François Ozon's Frantz is something of a bold undertaking, something only an established director would get away with: a film not only in black and white – with the exception of a few scenes in colour evoking happy times – but also half in French, half in German. It might initially seem that Frantz is something of an exception to Ozon's previous work full of sexual ambiguity, although Ozon has always been interested in the nature of identity, in the outsider, and both main characters are seen as outsiders here.

The symmetry of the double language is echoed in several respects by the symmetry of the content: the Frenchman Adrien (Pierre Niney) is first seen in Germany then in France whereas the German woman Anna (Paula Beer) is first seen in Germany and then France; both protagonists play musical instruments and are interested in cultural matters; both Adrien and Anna experience hostility when visiting the others' countries; both speak the others' language fluently, etc.

Most of all, both have very strong emotions about Anna's dead fiancé, killed in World War I. Anna first sees Adrien placing flowers on Frantz's grave – actually not his grave as he was buried in France, but Anna and her would-be in-laws with whom she lives – Doktor Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber) wanted some kind of remembrance of Frantz.

Slowly, both the Hoffmeisters and Anna come to accept the presence of the previous enemy, even welcome him telling of his friendship with their loved one, and Adrien's grief is so great that the audience might easily (especially as this is an Ozon film) suspect a homosexual affair. Not Anna, who warms so much to the cultured Adrien with whom she has so much in common that – with the blessing of her would-be in-laws – she goes to France to seek him out. She has even accepted that Frantz has been killed by Adrien, although she hasn't told Hans and Magda (contrary to Adrien's bidding) anything about this.

Some detective work finds Adrien at his extremely frosty mother's, but also with Fanny, the young woman he's shortly to marry. Exit Anna very quickly, and we hear Magda announcing in a letter from Anna that she's having a wonderful time with Arien and that she doesn't know at present when she'll be returning. So what will Anna be doing? The viewer thinks of the painting in the Louvre that's been shown a few times: Manet's Le Suicidé.

The original source of Frantz is Maurice Rostand's play L'Homme que j'ai tué (1915), which was first adapted to the cinema by Ernst Lubitsch as Broken Lullaby (1932).

9 December 2020

Jean Renoir's Boudu sauvé des eaux | Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)

 

The film critic André Bazin said that the charm of Boudu sauvé des eaux is in the glorification of vulgarity, that the film is 'magnificently obscene'. Well, if it has ever been possible to define 'vulgarity' and 'obscenity' such an imaginary definition has obviously changed radically in the last eighty years. Nevertheless, such viewpoints are still understandable today in relation to Jean Renoir's film, which over the years has continued to attract interest. Originally adapted from René Fauchois's 1919 play of the same name, Boudu sauvé des eaux has been remade as Paul Masursky's Down and Out in BeverleyHills (1986) and Gérard Jugnot's Boudu (2005).

Starring in this suberb satire on the French middle class are Michel Simon as the ungrateful and rebellous tramp Boudu; Charles Granval as the kindly bookseller Édouard Lestingois who (out of the vision and earshot of his testy wife Emma (Marcelle Hainia)) gives two of Voltaire's books to an impecunious student whom he 'knows': his name is 'Youth'; and Anne-Marie (Séverine Lerczinska), the Lestinois' maid Lestingois has a sexual penchant for.

And then along comes Boudu, who has lost his dog and throws himself off the Pont des Arts into the Seine. Lestingois has seen this from an upper floor of Quai de Conti where his shop and home is, and dashes out to save Boudu and brings him back into his home, where he manages to revive him. Lestingois's home is now Boudu's, and the satire starts.

Lestingois wants to rehabilitate Boudu, change him into a respectable bourgeois individual like himself. Initially full of good middle-class intentions, his good will begins to fade as Boudu spits out the wine he's offered, in fact spits regularly, although the limit comes when Boudu (symbolically) spits in pages of Physiologie du mariage by Balzac. But Boudu has won Anne-Marie over, even won his saviour's wife over by an initial rape that turned into a success sex scene (unseen apart from in Emma's eyes, of course).

But all the same, the only thing to do with this wild creature who makes a mess of the kitchen and even polishes his shoes on his hosts' bedspread (especially after he's won on the lottery) is to marry him off to Anne-Marie. Which takes place, although Boudu overturns the canoe, the people swim to the shore, Boudu changes into a scarecrow's clothing and goes back to his former life, although presumed dead. And this of course gives the title (particularly in French) two meanings: Boudu's been saved from the waters: from drowning literally or figurately from being destroyed by marriage.

8 December 2020

Eva Ionesco's My Little Princess (2011)

Eva Ionesco (born 1965) directed this film based on the story of her early life with her mother, the photographer Irina Ionesco, whose photos became very famous in fashion and erotic magazines: Irina used her daughter to pose for her between the ages of four and twelve.

The film is played by Anamaria Vartolomei as the ten-year-old Violetta and her mother Hanah by Isabelle Huppert. Violetta has been staying with her grandmother when the dominant Hanah arrives like a whirlwind, lavishes expensive clothes on Violetta and begins taking many photographs of her.

At the beginning the photos are innocent but Hanah begins to make Violetta pose more suggestively, and the photos take on a much more erotic tone. Violetta rebels and disowns her mother, who is in effect robbing her child of her youth: Hanah insists that the photos are art.

In reality Irina was taking much more sexualised photos than what is shown on the screen and was severely traumatised by her mother. A court case in 2012 awarded her just 10,000 euros. An appeal court the following year barred Irina from using any photos, stating that they amounted to paedopornography.

Leos Carax's Boy Meets Girl (1984)

 

Along with Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beneix, Leos Carax has been labelled a creator of 'le cinéma du look', one of the significant features of which is spectacle: in the case of Carax we inevitably think of the fireworks seen from the reconstructed bridge in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. Other features of 'le cinéma du look' are marginals, young people without a job who are shown on the métro: this is certainly true of Boy Meets Girl, the title itself being ironic in suggesting happiness at the same time of course as it is a nod to the importance of American English.

Ageing is a central problem, and Alex (Denis Lavant), Carax's film alter ego,* feels that in his early twenties he's outlived himself; he collects a list of firsts which he adds to a sheet of paper on his bedroom wall. At a party full of strange people, a group mention their ages, Bouriana saying at 37 he's achieved nothing. Later, Mireille mumbles the words of a classic Barbara song about the deleterious effects of time, although she presumably omits the title – which is also the first line of the chorus, 'Quand reviendras-tu ?' – because she clearly doesn't want Bernard to return.

This is a world where nothing is, or rather nothing seems, real. David Bowie sings 'When I Live My Dream', a medieval fantasy world of living in a castle and slaying dragons. A couple of lovers kissing on the Pont-Neuf seems so artifical that Alex throws coins at their feet in a cynical way of saying he's enjoyed the performance. And then we remember the earlier scene of Maite (Maïté Nahyr) leaving Henri and driving her child to the mountains in a car which has skis and sticks protruding through the windscreen, etc.

And everyone is either breaking up or having relationship problems: one of the early shots with Jo Lemaire & Flouze playing Serge Gainsbourg's break-up song, 'Je suis venu(e) te dire que je m'en vais'; Florence is having a relationship with Thomas, now the former boyfriend of Alex; Mirielle (Mireille Perrier) has split up with Bernard; Alex has to bang on the wall to silence his neighbours' argument; in a voiceover, a couple talk about their problems with oral sex.

Chance or coincidences are important, as in Bernard dropping the card inviting he and Mireille to the party; turning the radio dial to find the Dead Kennedy's playing 'Holiday in Cambodia'; Alex finding Mireille's details on a card at the party; Bouriana being both at the party and the café.

The suicide of Mireille comes almost as an inevitability, the dark blackness of the blood seeping onto her white dress as Bernard unwittingly pushes Mireille onto the scissors she's opened in readiness.

There are echoes of Strangulation Blues: Alex trying to strangle Thomas as Paul half-heartedly (or in a dream?) tries to strangle Colette, Alex trying to write a film, and the evocative black and white photography by Jean-Yves Escoffier . After her haircut Mireille also looks a little like Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle, as Colette did in Strangulation Blues.

*As I mentioned in another post, Alex Dupont became Leos Carax, an anagram of 'Alex' and 'Oscar'.

7 December 2020

Chantal Akerman's News from Home (1977)

 

Chantal Akerman's News from Home is based on the 1971-73 period Akerman spent in New York, although the English-language Wikipedia at the time of writing claims that most of the photography to make this film was made in the summer of 1976: after Akerman had achieved success with Jeanne Dielman, and adds that the sound was added later. Furthermore, at the time of writing the French Wikipédia makes no mention of this, although it seems highly plausible that sounds were added later as they seem very much subdued to me, although – a different issue this one – some observers of the film have noted that the French voiceover is often inaudible due to background noise.

The vast majority of the film consists of long still shots, although – especially in the last third of the film – there are pans to the left and tracking shots following the streets of New York. Some shots are obviously taken from cars, trains (the sound of the motor being very evident), and finally from the Manhattan-Staten Island ferry (sound obviously severely subdued). To Akerman's enormous credit, we do not see any New York tourist attractions, not even the Statue of Liberty.

From a beginning of almost empty streets, the long shots tentatively move to characters in sparcely-populated neighbourhoods (or of course way out of rush hour), to busy streets with crowds, from still shots taken at the entrances to little-frequented subway lines to much-frequented lines, the subjects often glancing, less frequently staring, at the camera. The last take is a long shot of the Manhattan-Staten Island ferry, mercifully without the Statue of Liberty.

Chantal Akerman's voiceover is the reading of her mother's many letters from her Brussels's home to her daughter, telling of family events, trips, problems, informing her daughter of clothing and money that has been sent to her, hoping she'd received everything, wishing her well in learning English, repeatedly urging her to write more. Taken as a whole, the film reads as much as a love letter to Akerman's mother as a love letter to New York. And there are only impartial statements here.

6 December 2020

Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

 

Chantal Akerman's 221-minute feature Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles has many of the features I'd never seen before, many things that aren't normally seen, although the film is all the better for those features. We don't see life as it is lived because this is acting, but what we do see is usually not included in cinema because it would be considered extraneous, simply soul-destroyingly boring: for instance, eating really does take place. The paradox of Jeanne Dielman is that the normally boring bits are not only the most interesting parts, but that the normally most interesting parts hardly get a look-in.

This could be called experimental cinema, but that would demean this magnificent film, which is played by Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) with a lesser role by her son Syvain (Jan Decorte). Normally we might for instance see a cooking scene for a short time, unless included with a significant conversation, although there's hardly any conversation in this film anyway. What we see here are painfully drawn-out scenes of everyday matters, although they become the very fabric of the film itself: a slow scene of potatoes being peeled; water dripping through a coffee filter to a jug; washing and rinsing the dishes and cutlery after meals; slowly folding Sylvain's pyjamas and folding up his bed in the lounge; food actually being eaten in 'real time' along with drinks being served in real quantities, not a few centimetres as in most films; what little conversation there is taking time, etc. Jeanne has to keep doing things in order to make herself exist, or rather to give herself a semblance of existing.

Jeanne is meticulous in almost everything she does, and this is seen in the way she puts the cutlery away, dusts the ornaments in the glass-fronted cupboard, etc. In almost all respects, she appears to be a very presentable lower middle-class woman perhaps with minor bourgeois pretensions. Oh, and she places a towel on her bed to mop up sperm: Jeanne is a widow and has no wish to complicate her life with another man, but to make ends meet she has to prostitute herself during the afternoon when her son is at school.

Her relative has sent her a present from Canada, so Jeanne, on hearing the doorbell, hides it under the bed and puts the scissors she used to open it on the dressing table: now why should the viewer feel something coming? The john, to his misfortune, gives Jeanne an orgasm, probably for the first time ever in her life, and while he basks in post-coital bliss Jeanne uses the scissors on his neck. Well, she couldn't exactly admit to anyone, especially herself, that she'd enjoyed it could she? So what now, waiting for Sylvain to return from school to find a dead body on his mother's bed?

This is one of the best films ever made.

Chantal Akerman's Saute ma ville | Blow up the Town (1968)

This is Chantal Akerman's first film, a 13-minute short by a woman who had very little education in film but soon learned. She was born in 1950, began making films as a result of seeing Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou, and killed herself in 2015 after a spell in hospital due to depression.

Akerman is the only actor in her own film. Unnamed, she enters her flat with a bunch of flowers after collecting the mail. She makes a pasta meal, washes it down with a glass of wine, empties her cupboard of kitchen tools which she leaves on the floor and then half-heartedly cleans it, seals up the door with strong adhesive tape, throws the cat onto the balcony, burns a paper, turns on the gas and boom, boom, boom! Akerman's career began and ended with a suicide.

5 December 2020

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Un long dimanche de fiançailles | A Very Long Engagement (2004)

 

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Un long dimanche de fiançailles is full of intense visual images, although nothing like the flash images in Jeunet's previous Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain. With Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) searching for her man lost in World War I – Manech Langonnet (Gaspard Ulliel) – we are some distance from the cutseyness of the previous film.

Several times we find ourselves in the trenches of the Somme, where five soldiers were accused of self-mutilation in order to escape from the insanity. They were left to the no man's land of Bingo crépuscule separating the French and the Germans, and all were killed one way or another. No doubt.

Although Mathilde refuses to recognises this, as she knows that she would know if he were dead. So she uses archives, a private detective, information she can glean from survivors, any means possible to find out what happened to Manech. And, gloriously, she finds him, although he's lost his memory and seems to have lost a degree of his intelligence. Does it matter? We'll never know.

4 December 2020

Leos Carax's Merde (1980)

 

The 38-minute Merde is one of a trilogy of films which came out in 2008, creating a feature length one under the name Tokyo!, as all three are set in that city. Perhaps the main theme linking them is that they are all outsiders. The other contributors are Michel Gondry and Bong Joon-ho.

A wild-eyed man (possibly half-blind) emerges from a sewer via a man-hole cover in central Toyko, walks oddly, snatches a cigarette, a wallet (from which he takes a note, eats it and discards the rest, licks a young girl's arm, then disappears back down his cover and into the sewer, where he sleeps. Television is full of the story.

The following day he re-emerges from his cover, releases several salvos of an explosive device and kills a number of people at random. When the police find him naked in his sewer that night, they arrrest him and he risks capital punishment by hanging. Me (Maître) Voland (Jean-François Balmer) defends him, and he has a similar beard, a similar eye complaint, and also speaks the language of the man. And the man (Carax's acteur fétiche Denis Lavant) gives his name as Merde, so he becomes M. Merde. Merde hates the Japanese, hates everything in fact, but this nihilist serial killer oddly falls into two categories with the Japanese: those who want him to be executed, and those who are in his favour.

Merde is hanged, pronounced dead, although he appears to come back to life, escapes from his noose, and disappears.

Leos Carax's Strangulation blues (1980)

Leos Carax is the pseudonym of Alex Dupont, and an anagram of 'Alex' and 'Oscar'. Strangulation Blues (Carax tends to go in for English titles) is his first short and it won first prize for a short at the Hyères festival in 1981 and paved the way for his first feature, Boy Meets Girl, in 1984. Carax had originally begun filming a film to be called La Fille Rêvée, which failed to see the light of day because a projector exploded and led to a fire in the Chinese restaurant where a scene was being filmed.

The film is in black and white and in some respects resembles the days before the talkies, in others the Nouvelle Vague cinema. Paul (Erik Frey), a hopeful film writer, returns to Colette (Anne Petit-Lagrange), who looks a little like Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle when she's asleep. She has in way inspired Paul in his writing and the tension between the two is palpable.

Paul thinks he's strangled Colette while she's sleeping, or maybe he dreamed it, but he escapes in the car. Meanwhile Colette wakes up. Several critics have seen in this short a number of aspects of Carax's future cinema.