30 March 2021

Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien (1974)

Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien, written by Malle and Patrick Modiano, was a great success, winning several prizes. However, due to the subject of the film – it was one of the first to deal with collaboration in France in World War II – it came in for some strong criticism, Malle left for the States and it was not until thirteen years later that he made another film in France, which was the one I recently mentioned here, Avoir les enfants (1987).

Lucien Lacombe (Pierre Blaise) is a seventeen-year-old peasant in mid-1944, when the Allies were gaining considerable ground in Normandy. Lacombe asks his teacher (Jean Bousquet), a member of the Resistance, if he'll let him join the maquis, but is told that he's too young. By chance, he's stopped by the police, denounces his teacher and becomes a member of the French Gestapo, meaning that he's working for the German police.

His problems start though when Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler), a German Jew and a tailor, makes a suit for him: he falls in love with Albert's daughter France (Aurore Clément), who's a French Jew. Matters are complicated not just by the fact that Lacombe is in theory anti-Jewish but that he is culturally the reverse of the Horns. Albert is captured by the Germans, and, faced with the dilemma of France and her grandmother Bella (Therese Giehse) being captured, Lacombe kills the arresting German and drives them towards Spain. But the car breaks down and a note across the scene ends the film by saying that Lacombe was captured by the Resistance and executed after trial.

Robert Bresson's Mouchette (1967)

Bresson adapted this film from Georges Bernanos's Nouvelle Histoire de Mouchette. Peasant girl Mouchette (Nadine Nortier) has an extremely hard time with her life as an adolescent: her mother (Marie Cardinal) is very ill in bed, her father (Paul Hébert) is an alcoholic, she also has a baby to look after, her teacher bullies her, and her school companions aren't companions at all and ignore her. It's hardly surprising that she hides away from them, although she doesn't help that she throws clods of earth at them from her hiding place. And she has no chance in the love stakes either: even when a young guy appears to be flirting with her on the dodgems her father reins her in.

Dialogue is kept to a minimum here, and anyway of course we have the Bressonian trademark of non-actors, and words and faces without expressions. This is filmed in Vaucluse, often in a café where the server automatically serves a wine or gin to a customer, the customer drinks, the glass is filled several times, payment is made, the customer leaves: frequently without a word by anyone. Her mother's last words are to stay away from drunkards: not an easy thing to do, as she's already discovered.

Lost in the forest when the drunken poacher Arsène (Jean-Claude Guilbert) finds her, he wrongly believes he's killed Mathieu and wants to use her as an alibi. She agrees and is initially very impressed with his friendliness, although he later rapes her. After her mother's death a shopkeeper calls her a slut, an elderly woman gives her a funeral dress and a shroud, but she uses these to roll down a slope three times, the third of which brings success when she finishes in the river. Again, Mouchette's torments have been interpreted as stations of the cross.

Robert Bresson's Au hazard Balthazar (1966)

On the face of it this is a film about the life and death of a donkey called Balthazar near the Pyrenees, from the time it's young and searching for its mother's teat to its death in a field surrounded by sheep. In between these two extremes we have other extremes: the young Marie loving it in idyllic scenes, and the older Marie (Anne Wiazemsky) meeting it on various occasions; its life as carrying bread for a baker and being ill-treated by the baker's delivery youth Gérard (François Lafarge), who is no more than a heartless thug; and Bathazar being used by a miller (Pierre Klossowski) with a whip to make the animal turn the stones faster.

But, of course, there's more here than that, as the name of one of the magi – Balthazar – should suggest. The mule is a spiritual, indeed Christ-like figure, as borne out by the many religious allusions: the young Marie baptising it, the stations of the cross, the seven deadly sins, its 'crucifixion', the flock looking over its death, and so on.

At about ninety minutes, a great deal is packed into this film: a murder, a doomed love affair with the leader of the gang (Gérard with Marie), a lost-suffering and finally unconsumated lover of Marie (Jacques (played by Walter Green)), Arnold (Jean-Claude Guilbert) the down-and-out alcoholic suspected of murder, Marie sort of prostituting herself and later being beaten up by the gang of thugs, and a number of other events.

All this is in Bresson's austere black and white style, with expressionless lines from non-actors, a lack of artifice, and a truly wonderful film all round.

29 March 2021

Louis Malle's Au revoir les enfants (1987)

Louis Malle had for a long time wanted to make this film, which is partly autobiographical, having remained in his memory since the time of the events. Originally the title was to be in English: My Little Madeleine', alluding to Proust's famous epiphany, although 'Au revoir les enfants' was chosen in the end. This relates on a general level to a goodbye to the Jewish children lost to the Nazis, although more specifically to the final words of Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud) as he's led out of the school with the three Jewish children by the Nazis. His next words, 'À bientôt', are obviously ironic because everyone present, including the most naive child in the school yard, knows that he won't see them soon, or ever again: Jean Kippelstein alias Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), Negus and Dupré will die in Auschwitz, Père Jean in Mauthausen.

Malle went to a religious school in Avon near Fontainebleu although the film is set in the Institution Sainte-Croix, Provins, Seine-et-Marne. Near the beginning we see the children coming from Mass singing the nursery rhyme 'À la claire fontaine', which is very significant: although the boys only appear to sing the first verse with its joy of bathing in the fountain, the chorus 'Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, jamais je ne t'oublierai' and following verses tell of sadness and loss: there are many versions of the song and it can be construed as depicting a loss of innocence or a revolutionary spirit, but a probable constant is regret. Although Malle to some extent is identifiable here as Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), he never befriended anyone Jewish at school, and the mention of 'Sherlock Holmes' in the film relates to the detective work that Malle did after the event.

What we have is an account of privileged schoolchildren during the war living with their fantasies, the amusements which they are allowed in such a fascist environment in which the head of the school 'illegally' harbours three Jewish children mixing freely with the Catholics under a false patronym. Certainly Jean and the other Jewish children live in constant fear, they have to bear such insults as words like 'youtres' ('yids') bandied around by the other children, they have to conceal their hatred of pork, and (most telling of all) they have to hide the fact that they don't have foreskins.

Julien's slow friendship with Jean is not an autobiographical mirror of Malle's friendship with a Jewish boy at the school, but an account not of false memory but fictional retrospection, a kind of idealised reconstruction. Not, though, that the film is in any way sentimental or polarising: the Germans are not always monsters and on one occasion return the lost Julian and (ironically) the lost Jean to the school. But on the other hand there are French people who collaborate with the fascists and the sacked kitchen helper Joseph (François Négret) informed on the Jews in the school.

In 1990, after the desecration of graves in Carpentras, Lionel Jospin recommended that teachers show this film to pupils, which is an indication of the power of this film, and of the cinema in general. Super stuff.

28 March 2021

Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour l'échafaud | Elevator to the Gallows | Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

There's a fascinating interview first published in the Cahiers des amis de Roger Nimier 6 (1989) in which Marc Dambre interviews Louis Malle, who talks about Ascenseur pour un échafaud. After working as Robert Bresson's assistant he wrote a script which producers weren't interested in. Then his friend Alain Cavalier introduced him to Noël Calef's book: the idea of a person accused of murder in his absence appealed to Malle, who then decided that he wanted to work on a script with Roger Nimier as he liked his novels. This was to be Malle's first film as a director.

The part of Jeanne Moreau as Florence Carala doesn't exist in the book. Then, she had been making a name for herself as a theatre actor and had played in film noirs with Jean Gabin, but it was with Ascenseur that she began to be really recognised. Malle originally saw the film as an 'exercise de style', but thirty years later he saw himself then as an ambitious person trying to come to terms with his love of both Bresson and Hitchcock. Nimier hated the novel, but they continued re-working it until they returned to Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) stuck in the lift of the Carala building after killing Simon Carala (Jean Wall), with the young Louis (Georges Poujouly) killing the German Benckers as his girlfriend Véronique (Yori Bertin) looks on, and Moreau being added to flesh out the story.

Malle would work on the script with Nimier in the evening until midnight and then they'd go and join Antoine Blondin, although he adds that he didn't like getting in a car with Nimier! He describes his former self and friends as 'Happy, pessimistic "dandies", mocking the Bourgeois-Stalinist intelligentsia of the period.' (The interview was translated by Hugo Frey.)

Another interesting fact is that, after watching the film twice, Miles Davis wrote the music – the mournful wailing trumpet – one night between ten in the evening and six in the morning. A number of people speak of how much the music enhances the film, although I'm not too sure: I think it's way too loud.

Christophe Honoré's Les Chansons d'amour | Love Songs (2007)

Christophe Honoré's Les Chansons d'amour is a homage to the Nouvelle Vague, and to Jacques Demy in particular. It's a musical like several of Demy's films, and its structure is in three parts, all with the same titles as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg: Le départ, L'absence and Le retour. The differences are that in Parapluies Guy has to leave Geneviève to join in the war in Algeria, whereas in the contemporary Chansons Julie Pommeraye (Ludivine Sagnier) leaves her lovers Ismaël Bénoliel (Louis Garrel) and Alice (Clotilde Hesme) by her death; and in the return (to a semblance of normality) in Parapluies the pregnant Geneviève is more less forced to marry another person, whereas begins a tentative relationship with a guy: the lycéen Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). 

And those aren't the only references to Demy's films: as Ismaël and Erwann are walking along the street two sailors are at the back of them, which is an allusion to the group of sailors in both Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and Lola; the three sisters in Chansons bear the surname Pommeraye, a reference to the Passage Pommeraye in Demy's Nantes, which features in Lola; Catherine Deneuve plays Geneviève in Parapluies, where they eat the galette des rois and Geneviève is crowned queen, whereas in Chansons it's Jeanne Pommeraye (Chiara Mastroianni), who is Deneuve's real daughter, who is crowned; etc.

Of course, Demy is not the only director associated with the Nouvelle Vague whom Honoré pays homage to: the ménage à trois of Ismaël, Julie and Alice refers, for instance, principally to Truffaut's Jules et Jim and (to a lesser extent) Les deux anglaises et le continent – both based on two autobiographical novels of the same name by Henri-Pierre Roché – but I'll come to literary references proper in the next paragraph;* on the telephone, Julie tells Ismaël: 'je pense à quelque chose tout à coup...tu m'emmerdes' ('I've suddenly thought of something...you piss me off'), which is exactly the same line Angela tells Émile in Godard's Une femme est une femme; etc.

As for literary references, they are all over the film: Ismaël, Julie and Alice read Alison Louise Kennedy, James Salter and Adam Thirlwell in (the same) bed (and inevitably this reminds us of Jean-Paul Léaud reading in bed in Truffaut); if Erwann's books by Edmund White, Hervé Guilbert and Dennis Cooper are indicative of a homosexual content, Ismaël's 'Salinger quand même' is a tacit note that not all Erwann's book collection has the same subject; etc.

This is an intelligent, humorous, delightful feast of a film.

*The famous ménage à trois in Jean Eustache's La Maman et la putain could of course also of note.

27 March 2021

Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void | Soudain le vide (2009)

Many things could be cited as influencing Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void, among them Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake, etc., but perhaps the biggest is psychedelic drugs: this movie is a little like a drug trip in itself, and Noé is to be highly commended for, as is usual with him, pushing the boundaries of what the cinematic experience actually is. If he succeeds in shocking his audience, then all the better as this is his intention. Noé had been wanting to make this film for fifteen years, although financing was the problem. But after his success with the controversial Irréversible the dream became a reality: it's a pity, though, that the film was a commercial failure, but then this, like all of Noé films, is no entertainment. In fact, some may regard it more as an endurance test.

The whole film is seen through the eyes of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), a guy who's living in Japan with his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) and who (in spite of his protests to the contrary) is a drug dealer and a drug addict. When he's tripping on DMT his friend Alex (Cyril Roy) comes to visit him and ask him about The Tibetan Book of the Dead he's lent him, which Oscar hasn't yet finished but is enjoying. But at the present time he has to meet Victor (Olly Alexander) to sell him some drugs, and he's waiting for Alex at a bar called The Void.

Alex walks towards the bar with Oscar, on the way telling him about his experience with datura. But he doesn't like the bar and waits outside while Oscar goes in. Inside, all Victor can say is he's sorry, and suddenly the police appear, Oscar dives into a toilet cubicle but it refuses to flush the drugs and the cops are hammering on the door. Still stoned, Oscar yells he has a gun and will use it, which causes the cops to shoot through the door and he collapses dead in a heap. And that's where Oscar's real trip begins.

What we have from then on is an out-of-body experience as Oscar sees what happens after his death, his spirit going over the past events of his life, and Oscar is even able to penetrate other people's minds, read their dreams.

Oscar's parents died in a car crash when he and his sister were young, and although they were sent to different children's homes they were very close and vowed never to separate. While living in Japan Oscar has managed, through selling drugs and through selling his body to Victor's mother, to pay for Linda's flight to join him, and she finds a job in a strip club.

After Oscar's death his dealer Bruno (Ed Spear), in fear of Japan's draconian drug laws, gets rid of his drugs and Alex takes to living on the streets. Linda is in a relationship with her boss Mario (Masato Tanno), gets pregnant and has an abortion. Oscar experiences his mother breast-feeding him, sees Linda and Alex going to a love hotel, sees inside his sister's vagina, sees sperm uniting with ovum, and via a process of false memory experiences his own birth.

Enter the Void isn't a difficult film to understand once the pieces of the jigsaw are put together, although it's quite a mind-blowing visual experience.

26 March 2021

Leos Carax's Holy Motors (2012)

The world's a stage. Leos Carax himself appears in Holy Motors in a more-than-Hitchcockian cameo as he enters a door in a wall made to look like trees and we find ourselves in a movie theatre: from the beginning the illusion of reality is broken, appearance is revealed as a sham, as it will again and again with the Chinese boxes of this film which on occasion refers to other films, as indeed it refers to itself as a film.

And at the beginning we also see a few moving shots by the inventor of chronophotography, Etienne-Jules Marey, from which we see the recreation of movement. Brought up to present day, this film – and film of course is playing with reality – shows Mr Oscar (Denis Levant) playing with reality by acting out ten other characters, changing into them in a huge stretch limo which has a changing room and is driven by his chauffeuse Céline (Édith Scob), who sometimes announces to him when it's time to play his next role, for which Mr Oscar appears to be commissioned. The back of the limo serves as his dressing room, where he changes costumes, changes makeup, changes his age and on the second occasion superficially changes his sex. The titles I give him are taken from the beginning of the credit list at the end of the film, and are in chronological order:

Le Banquier. Not needing to change clothes as he talks on the phone, Mr Oscar (another reference to films) talks about bank details as Céline drives him to his second 'rendez-vous'.

La Mendiante. This is where Mr Oscar begs on the Pont Alexandre III dressed as a Romani beggar woman with a shawl round him.

L'O.S. de la Motion Capture. O.S. is an abbreviation of 'ouvrier spécialisé', and here we see Mr Oscar cavort, is dance the right word?, and join with a female in a vaguely sexual way.

M. Merde. Monsieur Merde, the one-eyed anarchist – already met in Carax's contribution to Tokyo ! (2008) –  inhabits the sewer and comes out to eats flowers and pester people, such as when he causes havoc to a film shoot in Père Lachaise. Interest is shown in incorporating Merde into the shoot, but he kidnaps Kay (Eve Mendes) and takes her into the sewers with him, although she seems completely unconcerned, indicating that she knows this is just a film. And, contrary to expectations, Merde covers her up as a Muslim woman (even the face, apart from the eyes), strips naked with an improbable permanent erection but does nothing.

L'Accordéoniste. Mr Oscar leads as accordionist in a church, followed by a number of other players.

Le Pére. Mr Oscar is a father talking to his daughter Angéle (Jeanne Disson), who's just been to a party. Kylie Minogue is heard singing 'Can't Get You Out of My Head' in the background. Angéle says she's had a great evening at first, although she's lying (like films are lying, like, oh...) and has just spent the time in the bathroom, and Mr Oscar rebukes her lack of confidence and tells her she'll have to live with herself as punishment.

Le Tueur. For reasons unknown, Mr Oscar is called upon to kill Théo. He visits the warehouse where he is and cuts him in the jugualar with a knife and then proceeds to make Théo look like just like he looks. But while he's doing this Théo partly revives and stabs Mr Oscar in the same way, and then dies. Mr Oscar too is obviously dying and staggers towards the limo, but Céline drags him there and he recovers without a scratch to his dressing room: of course, because his knifing was an illusion that Céline wanted to prolong to the end.

Le Tué. From killer to killed (or not). After being visited by a heavily disguised Michel Piccoli (but we'll skip that one) Mr Oscar shoots  dead someone much the same as himself outside Le Fouquet's, then is himself killed by the person's bodyguards. Céline interrupts and takes him back to the limo where he recovers completely. 

Le Mourant. Mr Oscar is dressed as a rich, dying old man and is joined by his niece Léa (Élise Lhomeau), and in this story there's a talk of life and death similar to Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady, Oscar (as M Vogan) breathes his last breath, gets up, thanks Léa and goes back to the limo.

(Before his last rendez-vous/performance Mr Oscar meets a female actor (Kylie Minogue) with whom he's had a relationship, and they go up the deserted La Samaritaine, which was once a department store. Kylie – who looks perhaps a little like Patricia (Jean Seberg) in Godard's À bout de souffle – then breaks into song like Marianne (Anna Karina) in Godard's Pierrot le fou. She then, with her partner who's just joined her, jumps to her death. Mr Oscar squeals at the suicide act, rejoins the limo and moves to his final appointment. We know that the suicides were in Carax's film, but were they also intended as fantasies within the film?)

L'Homme au Foyer. Céline drops him off, gives him his money for the day, drives off and Mr Oscar rejoins his family home with his wife and two daughters. We only see him with two chimpanzees.

As an epilogue Céline takes the car back to the depot, 'Holy Motors', and puts on the same mask that she, Édith Scob (as Christiane) wore in 1960 in Georges Franju's Yeux sans visage: yes, that's not an error. And then the motors talk amongst themselves about their lot. Disneyfication?

A major film in the history of cinema.

25 March 2021

Bruno Dumont's Coincoin et les Z'Inhumains : Episode 4 : L'Apocalypse | Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (2018)

The final episode really gets into slapstick gear, with Van der Weyden claiming it's the apocalypse, the end of the world, and finally meeting his 'clown' (= clone, but pronounced 'cloon') and being far from happy with the fact. There appears to be body-snatching and Eve's sister Aurélie (Lisa Hartmann) re-appears as a zombie bearly able to make a sound.

The finale takes place in Coincoin's father's yard, with Van der Weyden facing his 'clown' (or is it the other way round, as all the 'clowns' of course look identical to the original?) and waving a gun. The immigrants enter and hold up their hands, there are a few moments of mock-tension, and it's really the immigrants who save the day by clapping. It's as if the whole village is in the yard, and everyone sings along to the tune of 'Cause I Knew', which Aurélie sang at the church funeral service towards the end of the first episode of P'tit Quinquin. An amazing film which is every bit as absurd as P'tit Quinquin.

Gaspar Noé's Love (2015)

For some reason, Gaspar Noé's Love caused something of a stir, with the word 'provocateur' being bandied around everywhere. Well, there's nothing new about Noé being labelled a provocateur, and there's nothing new about real sex in an 'arthouse' film. Come to that, telling a story backwards – as Noé did in Irréversible – is not new, although in Love we know the end in the beginning.

Murphy (Karl Glusman) is married to Omi (Klara Kristin) and has a son called, er, Gaspar. Murphy is also the name Noé's mother was born with: does this suggest some autobiographical element? Well, Murphy is a film student – there are posters of The Birth of a Nation, M and Salò on his wall – and he's interested in making a film about 'sentimental sexuality', containing the basic fluids of life: 'blood, sperm and tears': he missed out sweat, but that's in here too. Really, what we have here is kind of modernised version of an old-fashioned love story, only without a happy end.

Murphy is really worried about his ex-girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock), who has gone missing and he and her mother fear that she has killed herself. We never find out if she has, but the film is a two-hour trip through Murphy's mind, into the past which led up to the situation he now finds himself in.

It's important to say that Murphy isn't really a nice guy: an American in Paris, he's extremely self-centred, jealous, pretentious, violent, lying, and of course wants everything to go the way he plans. It's OK for him to have casual sex in a bathroom at a party, but he becomes drunk and wildly jealous that Electra is, he believes, having sex with an art gallery owner – Noé himself in a wig – and attacks him. When he's told he should calm down and be more French, meaning that both he and Electra should have sex with other people but still keep together, they visit a club échangiste but he – you guessed it – gets jealous.

The crunch comes after Omi, Murphy and Electra have a threesome, after they've exchanged fluids that is. Omi by chance lives in a neighbouring flat, which is how they got together, and one day when Electra is not there she has a word  with Murphy over the balcony, invites him in and the inevitable happens. It's not inevitable that Omi should get pregnant though, but that's what it comes to: Electra taken off (maybe dead) and Murphy crying in the bath while he hugs little Gaspar. Yep, in spite of the huge helpings of sex (including cum shots), love is definitely the subject.

24 March 2021

Bruno Dumont's Coincoin et les Z'Inhumains : Episode 3 : D'la glu, d'la glu, d'la glu !!! | Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (2018)

Van der Weyden and Carpentier visit the local headquarters of the far right party Le Bloc to get the affichage sauvage (flyposting) taken down, but are talked in circles by a guy and his clone (taken by the cops to be brothers). Then after Carpentier has turned the car upside down again with his two-wheel stunt they visit Jenny's uncle, who says he's been attacked by a seagull: Van der Weyden dismisses this as only happening in the cinema (an obvious reference to Hitchcock's The Birds) and says they have 'd'autres chats à fouetter' (other fish to fry: Coincoin is gloriously deliberately laden with clichés, verbal or otherwise).

Unfortunately, Coincoin himself is one of the fish, although when the weird cops (often dubbed as crazy or drunk by locals) return with a dead seagull they try to cop Coincoin for driving without a licence, although Jenny's in the passenger seat and tells them that Coincoin hasn't (quite yet, by a few centimetres) driven out of private property onto the road. So Coincoin and Jenny then walk, pausing on the way for something the viewer can't view, although there are a few cries (of pleasure, probably) from Jenny. (And later, Coincoin's ex-girlfriend Eve, or is it her clone (?) appears on the scene to snog Coincoin.)

Most of the rest of this episode is taken up by the cloning of Van der Weyden, who initially doesn't take too well to the experience. Hereafter, the film goes into slapstick mode, with both Van der Weydens trying to hide from each other, really baffling, for instance, Carpentier, who is as usual driving his boss but at the same time talking to him on a phone he can't see his boss carrying, so this must be a fake? Everyone is confused.

23 March 2021

Bruno Dumont's Coincoin et les Z'Inhumains : Episode 2 : Les Z'Inhumains | Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (2018)

Coincoin finds another girl, farmgirl Jenny (Alexia Depret), although he's still bitter about losing Eve, telling her that he loves her infinitely and he knows that she feels the same about him too: this seems a strange thing for a such a young person to be saying, especially from such a pugnacious looking character, but I suppose that shows just how prejudiced I am.

And speaking of prejudice, Coincoin is caught flyposting adverts for Le Bloc, a party resembling Marine Le Pen's extreme-wing party Rassemblement National, essentially a renaming of the dreaded Front National. Here Dumont is obviously taking a dig at the working-class Chtis now voting fascist whereas they'd formerly have voted for a socialist party: an indication of what's happening now to France and a number of other European countries. One irony here is that Van der Weyden, far from being a supporter of the immigrants in their bidonville, has previously shown his disdain for them. A second irony is that the immigrants seen much saner, and much more sympathetic, than most of the whites.

Van der Weyden also has to take a dig at the clergymen in a graveyard by mentioning paedophilia. He seems to get his just deserts when a dollop of black gunge falls on his head a few moments later.

And speaking of black gunge, the bizarre Dany Lebleu is the second person to have been cloned, and at the end of this episode Eve gives birth to herself and both of them walk towards Jenny on her harvesting machine.

Bruno Dumont's Coincoin et les Z'Inhumains : Episode 1 : Noir ch'est noir | Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (2018)

After Bruno Dumont's four-part TV series P'tit Quinquin (2014), set on the Côte d'Opale, comes another four-part one in the same area. Now, though, P'tit Quinquin (Alane Delahaye) has grown into adolescence and his former girlfriend Eve (Lucy Caron) has taken up with the tomboyish Corinne (Priscilla Benoist). He's now called Coincoin ('coin-coin' meaning 'quack' as in the duck sound). The series would obviously be missing a great deal if it weren't for the incompetent cops: le commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) is still twitching as much as ever, and his hopeless assistant, he of the wild driving (especially on two wheels) Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) add much comedy to an already crazy script: gone, at least for the moment, is the Bressonian Dumont of yore.

And as before, as this is Dumont near his own Chtis territory there is self-derision, a Chtis making fun of the stereotyped Chtis: idiocy, bad driving, weird language, homophobia, racism, etc.

The main difference is it's not murders that are happening but cow shit type lumps are falling from the sky, and scientific evidence discovers that they are not of human or animal origin, if fact they're not of this world. One guy, (Leleu (Christophe Verheeck)), dressed as an eighteenth-century soldier (don't ask why) is the first victim of a snake-like monster that produces a bright light that gets inside the soldier, causing his belly to swell and him to give birth to a clone of himself, dressed in the same clothes. The clone gets in Leueu's car and drives off. Noir ch'est noir, i n'y a plus d'echpoir.

22 March 2021

Olivier Asseyas's Demonlover (2002)

I can fully sympathise with critics of Olivier Asseyas's Demonlover saying they don't understand the film, it's trying to be hip but without substance, it's like some of his other films in that it merely depicts a world of wealth with its international (first class) travel, five star hotels, five star restaurants, etc. And if this is to be perceived as a criticism of capitalism-gone-mad, why can't we see that?

To me, Asseyas is largely in love with the world of the super wealthy he shows us, but at the same time wants people – rich or poor – to admire his work. He does classy, international films, he does difficult films (such as this one). Is he a great director, an auteur? I've only seen Irma Vep and Personal Shopper before, so I'm not one to judge by comparing this with several of his other movies, although 'great' is certainly not a word I'd use for any of the three films I've seen. Interesting, definitely.

Diane (Connie Nielson) is first seen spiking her sleeping boss Karen (Dominique Reyond)'s Evian water, in the first-class airplane toilet: she works for Volf but is also a spy for Mangatronics. The injection puts Karen out for a while so Diane is told by Hervé (Charles Berling) that she has to negotiate with a Japanese anime firm, which is introducing 3D hentai, although Elise (Chloë Sevigny) remains faithful to her former boss Karen and under her breath calls the ice-cold Karen a connasse ('cunt', but primly called 'bitch' in the sub-titles).

Then there's the deal with Demonlover, whose representative is the rather eccentric Elaine (Gina Gershon), who on arriving at the Paris airport is wearing a tacky tourist tee-shirt and asks Elise to score her some pot. Demonlover is really a front for the Hell Fire Club, which traffics in real masochism to its slaves on demand via sadists' credit cards through the dark web.

After a bungled robbery in which Diane tries to find Demonlover's files for Mangatronics, Elaine interrupts her, there's a fight to the death, Elaine dies but previously unconscious Diane wakes up where she wasn't. She manages to break through to the Hell Fire Club, but she knows too much already. She's lost the power game and it's up to others to dominate her now. Elise is also a double agent working for Demonlover, takes control of the power Karen once had and leads the Irma Vep/Emma Peel leather-clad lookalike into enslavement Hell Fire Club-style.

I don't think Asseyas quite got everything into place and there are certainly a few questions to be asked here, such as the timing of the flashbacks in this jigsaw, but then what film can ever be perfect? Although this is far from that.

21 March 2021

Dominique Cabrera's Corniche Kennedy (2016)

I don't really think there's a great deal to say about this film in terms of plot because a large amount of the film is taken up by visual shots of people jumping from increasing heights on the Corniche Kennedy slightly to the south of central Marseille: these are essentially young males and females from the cités to the north of Marseille, no hopers, educational losers who believe that not to have a 'proper' job is far better than having a bum job. Therefore, having no chance of obtaining academic qualifications, they spend their time smoking cannabis by the Mediterranean in this relatively small area.

Suzanne (Lola Créton) is a great exception, although she manages not to be: she lives in a comfortable family in a house overlooking the area of the Corniche where the gang hangs out, and is fascinated by their activities. By mistake, the gang suspect her of stealing from them, but she is only taking photos of them diving. Challenged to dive too, she is soon in with the leader Mehdi (Alain Demaria) and his friend Marco (Kamel Kadri), much to her mother's chagrin.

Marco is a drug runner surveyed by the police, and Awa (Aïssa Maïga) and Gianni (Moussa Maaskri) in particular, and as Medhi is involved to some extent she becomes involved too. It's not exactly a Jules et Jim situation, although Suzanne is deeply attached to both men.

Visually, quite a spectacular film, although this is not Robert Quédiguian.

Sólveig Anspach's Lulu femme nu | Lulu in the Nude (2013)

Only after the film had long finished did I begin to make analogies between Lulu femme nu and other stories, mainly in other films but notably in one novel: Kate Chopin's The Awakening. But this novel, although feminist like Lulu femme nu, belongs – much like Bo Widerberg's Elvira Madigan – to a very different time in history, a time when freedom, desertion of a spouse, was just not possible: suicide (by a bullet as in Elvira Madigan or just walking out to sea as in The Awakening) was the only possibility.

But in the twenty-first century Lulu (Karin Viard) runs out of the sea – which must have been very cold for the time of year – naked to her new lover Charles (Bouli Lanners), her nakedness symbolic (like her losing her wedding ring) of the freedom which is now beginning to dawn on her, like a release from the slavery which years of housework have imposed on her, deadening her life, making it impossible to express herself. She is beginning the relatively long process of becoming her own person: even the name of the place she's come to and miserably failed to find a job mainly due to lack of confidence, lack of knowledge of who she is – Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie – distinctly alludes to a cross, maybe a turning in life?.

Fêtes foraines, or fairs, are often used to different purposes in films. In contrast to the irony of the violence of funfair scenes in, for instance, Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train or  Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, we have one of the most famous kisses in French film history: between Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan in Marcel Carné's Quai des brumes – itself incidentally an adaptation of Mac Orlan's novel, which this film is of Étienne Davodeau's BD novel, also of the same name. In the fête foraine Lulu has a go on the auto-tamponneuses (dodgems) and by chance meets Charles again, before they've really got together, and he  returns her the mobile phone he originally casually tossed away (again symbolically).

This still doesn't bring them together though, and it's a little while before they kiss and go to bed. Of course, it can't last and the penniless Lulu, who's had her credit card gobbled up by an ATM, has to hitch home, although she's knows that she's already been spied on by her teenage daughter Morgane (Solène Rigot) and sister Cécile (Marie Payen). But she doesn't arrive home yet, she still has plenty to learn about reliving. Oddly enough, perhaps, the lessons come from Marthe (Claude Gensac in her penultimate film) after Lulu steals her handbag and then immedaitely returns it, telling Marthe it's the first time she's ever done such a thing. Marthe says she can see that, and Lulu stays at her house for a few days, looking after Marthe and hearing about her 'grosse connerie' of sleeping with her best friend Yvette Merle's husband. They get on really well.

Lulu takes to visiting a nearby café – where we get a brief view of Étienne Davodeau himself, and where Corinne Masiero may not have the same authority as Capitaine Marleau, but the character she plays owns the place and rules it with a rod of iron. Lulu is affected by the way she bosses the server Virginie (Nina Meurisse) around, and on learning that Virginie has been there four years tells her she's wasting her youth away: Lulu now knows what she's talking about. She leads Virginie back to Marthe's, asking her if she minds the girl coming in. Marthe just asks Virginie if she knows Simone de Beauvoir's first name, to which Virginie naturally replies 'Simone', which means she's supplied the password for admission! And soon the three of them go to the café, Marthe complains that their beers are too warm, the owner starts arguing with them, Marthe very loudly shouts her down, and Virginie howls along too, which is of course invigorating as she is also howling herself out of a job and into a real life.

To cut a long story short, as a mother of three children Lulu feels she has a duty to return home. She does so with Marthe and they wait for her husband to come. When he does he hits Lulu, which knocks her head on the door jamb and she falls to the floor unconscious. When Marthe sees this she has a heart attack from which she doesn't recover. But Lulu does recover and her brutal husband is given until the next day to get out of her life. Which of course allows Charles back in.

Maybe in my summing up paragraph I too have been brutal, as this makes the film sound a little farsical or contrived: it isn't, this is a very successful feminist statement, and also at times a really humorous work.

20 March 2021

Christophe Honoré's Les Malheurs de Sophie | Sophies's Misfortunes (2016)

Les Malheurs de Sophie is loosely based on the Comtesse de Ségur's first two books in a trilogy: the book in the title (1859) and Les petites filles modèles (1866). Three feature films and one television film had previously been made of it, it's something which many French people remember from childhood, although Honoré gives a more modern twist to it.

This isn't the same twist he made Madame de La Fayette's La Princesse de Clèves as La Belle Personne, which of course was in modern dress and intended as a reply to Sarkozy's crass remarks on the lack of relevance to the present day of the book though: it's set in the period when it was written, although it contains more of a modern outlook towards children, and the music is in tune with the times, particularly in the final song.

And far from being a children's film, this suits all ages. Eight-year-old Sophie lives with her parents in a castle in France with relatives from the Fleurville family, her mother being Madame de Réan (Golshifteh Farahani) although we don't see her father. Sophie (Caroline Grant), in spite of her elaborate clothing, is something of a tomboy, or at least someone who likes to experiment with things, play jokes and take things apart: for instance when her father sends her a doll she pushes its eyes into its skull, then melts off its feet in boiling water; she gives her cousins undrinkable water as tea with chalk as sugar; steals the goldfish and cuts them up to 'feed' to her doll; etc.

She tries to 'corrupt' her more straitlaced cousins into mischief with mixed results, such as catching a squirrel and bringing it back to the château: for practical purposes, another trick that brings animals into the present time is that this is in fact a cartoon squirrel, and later they'll be cartoon hedgehogs and a cartoon frog.

It's on a trip to America that her mother dies, her father hastily remarries in order not to have a motherless child, but then he too dies and she returns to England not to her original château but to the home of Madame Fichini (Muriel Robin), who is a sadistic tyrant who believes in whipping children who don't toe the line. Luckily her enlightened Fleurville relatives contrive to take Sophie in while the monster is in Italy, which is much to everyone's agreement, especially as this is where Sophie gets to stay.

18 March 2021

Gengoulph: Saint Gengoux in Saint-Gengoux-le-National, Saône-et-Loire (71)


I happened to be reading about the relationship between the minor poet Nathalie Blanchet and Alphonse de Lamartine: she came from Saint-Gengoux-le-National (71), corresponded with and met Lamartine, and I wanted to know more. So I discovered a venerable article in Hommes et mondes, Vol. 11, No. 45 (April 1950), pp. 540-555, written by Albéric Cahuet about this relationship. In his introduction to his account, Cahuet speaks about the name of the town Nathalie came from. He does say that this is a 'légende ou histoire', but goes into some detail to explain 'Saint Gengoux': he was born in 720 and was a rich and generous man, although his wife was having an affair and wanted to be a widow. So her lover killed Gengoux in 760, after which she was killed by being thrown into boiling water and Genoux was canonised. Cahuet notes that Saint Gengoux is the patron saint of cuckolds.

However, Martin Raether's article online puts the record straight: there have through the ages been many different versions of this story, and of the fate of Gengoux's wife and lover. No one was canonised until 993, and the existence of Gengoux (who has many variations of this name and is called Gengoulph by Raether) is a complete fiction.

14 March 2021

Claude Jutra's Wow (1969)


Wow is something of an oddity, and not a linear one at that: nine teenagers are given pseudonyms, questioned on subjects such as sex, the future and friendship, and note their dreams which are conveyed by film. Often they want to return to a past, and they are certainly unhappy with the present. What we have here is a French Canadian counterculture. But what that culture amounts to is difficult to fathom, apart from refusal to accept society's norms, lack of ambition, a love of sex, music and smoking cannabis. A violent future is forseen, and obviously these young people are living under the shadow of the bomb, but they seem powerless to do anything about it. Politics are absent because there is a general feeling of impotence: what can they do? Absent too are 'underground' magazines so prevalent in American and English (and, significantly, French) society: there seems to be no sense of group solidarity.

Evidently, even though he was almost thirty, Jutra (who never really considered himself to have grown up) seems to have to some extent identified with these people, although he saw Wow as a reversal of À tout prendre in that his first feature had strong autobiographical elements, whereas this doesn't. Or does it? Do these young people represent young French Canada in general, young Montréal, a countercultural cross section, or a vision of Jutra's? And in what way does that relate to the young people blowing up bourgeois homes in the beginning: a wish to begin again? And like the dream sequences, these explosions are in colour, but the rest of the film in black and white: the imaginary world and the documentary world, that of fantasy and that of a kind of reality.

13 March 2021

Claude Jutra's Félix Leclerc troubadour (1959)


Claude Jutra's second and final foray into NFB's Profils et paysages series, this time on the singer and writer Félix Leclerc. This takes us far further even than Jutra's earlier documentary on actor Fred Berry, and any attempt at spontaneity is broken almost immediately at the beginning when we follow the film crew arriving at Leclerc's house in Verneuil: Leclerc says the whole thing is artifical as this is the third time the car arriving at the house and him collecting mail from his box has been rehearsed.

The illusion of reality is broken, and we see the crew (snatches of Jutra himself) unloading their film equipment. Leclerc gives us a conventional tour of the barn with its exotic hens, and then to his study, where a large movie camera makes its way into the room. He has momentoes of his travels around him, including a large letter 'E' nailed to a wall, which he claims is from Jean de la Fontaine's tomb in Père-Lachaise.

Leclerc then sits down and sings two songs: 'Si tu crois' and 'Vieux Bozo'. His wife then shouts that souper is ready, and we go downstairs to see him with his wife and son in the kitchen. The film makers are invited to join in, as if again to break any illusion that this is a 'real', as opposed to rehearsed, situation: it's another lie.

Previously, Leclerc had pretended to phone singer Monique Leyrac to tell her that the crew had arrived. He wants her to act in a clip in one of his songs. Sure enough Monique arrives, but before they make the clip she sits down and tells him that she's read in a magazine that songs are of little value, and she has several questions to ask him, which he answers in song. In the end she says he wins, rips the magazine article up and tells him that the songs contain 'philosophy, fantasy and love'.

She then goes upstairs to appear in the clip, where she is seen in a flimsy nightdress at the window, the film is shot outside where we see birds flying and we are led down a meandering stream. Fittingly, the song is 'Ce Matin-Là', a tale of illusory love. Towards the end, Leclerc sings 'Bozo', a song filled with illusion and disillusionment.

This is some way removed from the average documentary on a personality.

Claude Jutra's Fred Berry comédien | Fred Berry actor (1959)


Fred Berry was a famous québécois theatre and film actor for several decades and Claude Jutra was commisssioned to make a documentary on him for NFB's television series Profils et paysages. If it starts in the wings with its subject coming in, if it shows photos and film clips from Fred Berry's life, it strongly digresses from conventional documentaries in another way.

Instead of bringing in friends and colleagues to talk about him or talk with him individually, all the people are invited join him together in the room to talk with him and reminisce in a quite chaotic way: Germaine Giroux, Henri Deyglun, Gratien Gélinas, Ernest and Fanny Tremblay. And there is no life story from beginning to near end, just (often literal) snapshots of his career. Interesting, and this would be a kind of introduction to Jutra's other documentary in the series: on Félix Leclerc.

12 March 2021

Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra's Il était une chaise | A Chairy Tale (1957)


This is a weird ten-minute short in which there is no dialogue, just Indian Music (mainly of Ravi Shankar) and Claude Jutra with a moving chair. I'd say there are essentially three parts to the story, the first of which is the chair eluding the man. Jutra enters reading and wants to sit on the chair, although every move he makes towards it the chair escapes from him. No matter how fast the man is the chair still escapes him, like a human inching or running away.

And then in the second section, shall we call it, the man is at grips with the chair, able to handle it, play with it, turn around with it, and yet still the chair doesn't allow him to sit on it. So the man decides to sit and read on the floor.

That is too much for the chair, which begins to move towards the man, circle him, but he initially avoids this object which appears to be courting him. Finally the man tentatively makes moves towards the chair, but it plays hard to get, until in the end the man can sit in peace. And they live happily ever after.

Claude Jutra's Rouli-Roulant | The Devil's Toy (1966)


The title of this fifteen-minute short relates to the urban surfboard: the skateboard. The bizarre voiceover is by Charles Denner, who at one point describes the skateboard and various methods of skateboarding with such obviousness that the listener feels that this is ludicrous; at other times, Denner's voice rises with such vociferation to denounce skateboarding that it becomes pure fanaticism.

We see youths in various skateboarding postures, see the police confiscating their boards as it's illegal, and telling the owners that they can collect them at the ice stadium where skating is legal. And, the skaters note, is also flat. Geneviève Bujold sings Pierre F. Brault's song as the titles roll at the end.

11 March 2021

Bruno Dumont's P'tit Quinquin : Episode 4 : Allah Akbar ! (2014)

Mohamed goes mad and shoots at everything that moves, while Van der Weyden tries to figure out how to get him. He's shot dead anyway, so the cop carries him out. More murders will follow, but that's hardly the point as we'll never know the reason for them, and in any case the crimes seem subsidiary to what this is really about.

But what is it really about? Certainly Dumont wanted to diversify into comedy, and he gives us slapstick, burlesque, even verging on the surreal. Van der Weyden is forever twitching nervously, Carpentier is a sans-dents with a bizarre way of starting the police car off, Danny can't walk straight and keeps falling down, the children seem to be the only ones with intelligence, but the racism expressed here isn't in any way funny, is it? Isn't this film, or series of films,  expressing the age-old sterotypes about the chtimis?

Well, no it's not at all: Dumont was born in Bailleul, so was born in the north-east he so often features in his films: far from revealing a prejudice against the chtimis, this is a caricature of a caricature of the Nord. The slovenliness, the lack of culture, the ludicrous dinner service thrown rather than placed out, the racism, the (inbred, is it suggested?) idiocy, all these things and more are satirical exaggerations of how outsiders view the Nord.

P'tit Quinquin is a delightful satire on what outsiders are said to see of the Nord, which is noticable right from the beginning when the titles roll to Alexandre Desrousseaux's nineteenth-century song of P'tit Quinquin, the Marseillaise of the Nord: the whole film is an insane love story to the Nord.

Bruno Dumont's P'tit Quinquin : Episode 3 : L'Diable in Perchonne (2014)


Most of this episode is taken up by a celebration session with the cops leading and Eve in uniform. Then racism rears its ugly head when Mohamed Bhiri (Baptiste Anchez) is insulted, but then we come to that in the final episode.

10 March 2021

Bruno Dumont's P'tit Quinquin : Episode 2 : Au cœur du mal (2014)

A second cow is found on the beach by the incompetent cops Van der Weyden and Carpentier, the assistant opens the cow's body, Van der Weyden looks sick, and yes there's a second cut up human body in the animal. P'tit Quinquin looks on from the cliff above. It's later discovered that the cow, like the first one, belonged to Monsieur Lebleu, whose wife's cut up body was in the first cow in the bunker. Also, mad cows can eat humans. Furthermore, the second body is of Mme Lebleu's black lover.

But P'tit Quinquin and friends (especially Ève) probably take up more footage than the murders, and there are scenes in which P'tit Quinquin fights with a couple of youths who have stolen his found World War II grenade, etc. There's also a scene of a concert in the village, where Aurélie (Lisa Hartmann) again delivers the song she sang at Mme Lebleu's funeral service, although this time with a band.

Bruno Dumont's P'tit Quinquin : Episode 1 : L'Bêt'humaine (2014)

Standing on the lip of a bunker near a Boulonnais beach, Carpentier (Philippe Jore), assistant to chief of police Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) standing next to him, thinks of Zola's La Bête humaine: a helicopter has salvaged a cow whose remains contain human flesh: a human has been cut into pieces and stuffed in the animal. No laughing matter, although Bruno Dumont turns this first episode of the four-part TV mini-series into a black comedy. Van de Weyden remarks that they haven't found the head as they drive off and the audience sees the head on a patch of grass nearby, and shortly after Le Courier du Nord annonces that Mr Lebleu is grieving after his wife's head has been found.

Most of the action takes place in a village nearby, where's there's a band of mischievous of kids from the farms, bored in the school holidays, and led by ten-year-old P'tit Quinquin (Alane Delahaye) joined by his girlfriend Eve Terrier (Lucy Caron), with Kevin (Julien Bodard) and Jordan (Corentin Carpentier).

Mme Lebleu's funeral ceremony is hilarious. P'tit Quinquin plays it serious, but the two priests joke with each other kneeing down behind the altar, and Aurélie Terrier (Lisa Hartmann) screechily sings in English: 'Cause I Knew'. I can understand why people have enjoyed this so much.

9 March 2021

Walerian Borowczyk's La Bête | The Beast (1974)


Loosely based on Prosper Mérimée's short story 'Lokis', this is far more coherent than Borowczyk's Contes immoraux, and arguably far more interesting. The American Philip Broadhurst bequeathes his estate to his daughter Lucy if she marries Mathurin (Pierre de l'Esperance's son), and is married by Cardinal Joseph do Balo. Mother and daughter make their way to the house.

We see Mathurin at the beginning of the film, watching a horse, in some detail, have sex with another. This sets the scene for the rest, and meanwhile Lucy is aroused by images of bestiality.

But although Pierre has tried to disguise the fact that Mathurin is an idiot, it becomes apparent from his table manners that something is seriously wrong. The wheelchair-bound Rammaendelo de Balo also lives in the house, and he's against the marriage as he depends on Mathurin to help him. As he attempts to dissuade the cardinal on the phone, Pierre slits his throat.

Lucy dreams of a rampant beast, wakes up and, suspicious, goes to Mathurin's room and finds him sleeping. She has another intense dream of the beast smearing his sperm over her and then dying. Lucy wakes up, goes to Mathurin's room again and finds him dead too. This is when it is discovered, on Mathurin's plaster cast on his arm breaking, that he has not a hand but a claw, that his body is thick with hair, and that he has a tail. Lucy and her mother escape.

I suppose you could call this a kind of softcore horror.

Walerian Borowczyk's Contes immoraux | Immoral Tales (1974)

In Contes immoraux Walerian Borowczyk looks at four aspects of sexuality, moving back in time. It begins with a quotation from La Rochefoucauld's Maximes: 'L'amour, tout agréable qu'il est, plaît encore plus par les manières dont il se montre que par lui-même.' 

The first section is called 'La Marée', is in the present time and is adapted from the screenwriter André Pieyre de Mandiargues's Mascarets: 'Julie, ma cousine, avait seize ans, j'en avais vingt, et cette petite différence d'âge la rendait docile à mes commandements.' After consulting the tides, André (Fabrice Luchini) cycles with Julie (Lise Danvers) to the coast, gets Julie to suck him and comes as the tide comes in: he claims it's to educate her.

The second section is 'Thérèse philosophe', set in July 1890. Following the loose theme of imprisonment in the film, Thérèse (Charlotte Alexandra) is locked in her room by her aunt after she is late from church. The title relates to a eighteenth-century book in the room (containing many plates illustrating various sex acts) about a young woman's sexual education, and Thérèse looks at it and has a wild, very noisy masturbatory fantasy in her room with a courgette. She later escapes and is raped by a tramp. The film announces that La Gazette du Dimanche published a piece stating that the people in the area asked for 'Thérèse H' to be beatified.

The third section was to be 'La véritable historie de la bête du Gévaudan', although Borowczyk changed his mind and decided to make that into a full-length feature. So Erzsebet Bathory is the third section. Báthory Erzsébet was a seventeenth-century Hungarian countess who has inspired many stories and legends. Here she (acted by Paloma Picasso) rounds up a number of sexually appealing young women from a peasant village,  they have a shower in her castle, and then there's a vague kind of orgy followed by her female 'page boy' Istvan (Pascale Christophe) killing them all and Bathory swimming in their blood to retain her youth. The police arrest her.

Finally, we have the notorious Lucrezia Borgia (Florence Bellamy) towards the end of the fifteenth century. She was the daughter of pope Alexander VI (Jacopo Berinizi) and the sister of Cesare (Cesar Berinizi). She has sex with both relatives, Savonarola rants and is carried off.

This is not one of Borowczyk's most acclaimed films, either by critics or the public.

8 March 2021

Luis Buñuel's Tristana (1970)

Buñuel's Tristana is based on Benito Pérez Galdós's eponymous novel (1892), although it's set in Toledo in the 1920s. It stars Catherine Deneuve as Tristana, the young woman whose parents have died and Fernando Rey as her aristocratic uncle and guardian: both of their voices are dubbed into Spanish.* Lope also thinks he owns her and he takes advantage of her innocence by having sex with her. (Of course, the anarchist Buñuel again takes pot shots at any 'respectable' institutions he can, and even Lope foils the police by misdirecting them from the scent of an 'unfortunate' thief.)

Aided by the servant Saturna (Lola Gaos), Tristana breaks her uncle's rules of virtual house arrest to explore the streets of Toledo. The inevitable happens and Tristana runs away from Toledo with her young lover Horiacio (Franco Nero). But there are more things in life than Horacio can dream of and in a few years the couple return to Toledo, Tristana having an extremely painful leg. This is amputated and the course of Tristana's life, in fact much of her psychology, changes and she returns to Lope to marry him.

However, she refuses to sleep with him. And his health declines so sharply that one night he is in agony, close to death. Tristana pretends to call the doctor, and seeing that he is unconscious she opens the window where it's snowing heavily and Lope dies.

*Deneuve surely sets something of a precedent for an original film as her voice is also entirely dubbed in (sung) French in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg: there is only dubbing when she bursts into song in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth | Canine (2009)

Yorgos Lanthimos refuses to explain his films, and although the influence of Buñuel seems apparent, there are obviously more influences at work here. Some kind of satire is going on here, but of what nature is open to question. This is another huis clos, and if humorous it is also highly sinister as this horror-tinged film takes its course.

The parents here are crazy, and have shielded their children (now adolescents) from reality so much that they only live in the family home, surrounded by a large fence, and know nothing of the outside world which their parents tell them is full of horrors. The parents have even invented a new vocabulary in which a sofa is the sea, a plane is a toy, and a zombie is a yellow flower. Cats are very dangerous creatures which eat people.

The son's sexual needs are supplied by a security employee from the husband's place of work, who is driven to their home blindfolded. But it is this woman's need for oral sex, which the son won't supply, that leads to the woman seeking it from the elder daughter, and this relationship will eventually lead to a breach in the closed world. Stranger than Buñuel.

7 March 2021

Claude Jutra's À tout prendre | All Things Considered | Take It All (1963)

À tout prendre was a daring film for its time, dealing as it does not only with adultery but also abortion and a mixed race relationship. It is also in part autobiographical in that Claude Jutra and Johanne Harelle both appear under their own names and they both had two relationships with each other: first in the late fifties and later during the making of the film; Harelle was not of exotic Haitian origin but she too was born in modest circumstances in Montréal; she was married but, unlike in the film, her pregnancy by Jutra was terminated not by an abortion but by a miscarriage; and Jutra did have homosexual (indeed paedophilic) leanings; Claude drowns himself in the Saint Lawrence River, etc.

The basic story itself is simple to relate: Claude meets Johanne at a party and they fall in love but they want to retain their freedom. In the absence of Johanne Claude has affairs with Monique (Monique Joly) and Barbara (Monique Mercure). Johanne asks Claude if he 'likes boys' and he begins to wonder. When Johanne gets pregnant Claude decides to marry her, then (mentally) brutally changes his mind, gets her an abortion and kills himself in the Saint Lawrence River (as Jutra had done shortly after discovering that he had what was then known as pre-senile dementia. As his soul (?) flies up a hunter shoots it down.

The film is clearly influenced by the French Nouvelle Vague, and on several occasions it's obvious that we're watching a kind of experimental film. But this is seen through Claude's eyes, and Jutra later stated that if he were to re-make it he would have included it through Johanne's eyes too. Throughout the film various continuations of scenes in the film appear as parts of Claude's consciousness: in the beginning, after preening himself in the mirror he fires a shot at it; when he and Johanne are walking down steps in the snow snipers shot them both; two thugs violently attack him at night in the street; and just when he announces that he has an important speeech to make at the bottom of exterior flat steps to just one couple who happen to be passing, he's shot dead.

There are brief apppearances of François Truffaut and Anne Claire Poirier.

6 March 2021

Claude Jutra's Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

 Claude Jutra's Mon oncle Antoine is set in the 1940s in Black Lake, Québec, near Thetford Mines, one of the main places in which the asbestos strikes began in 1949, which were later (when the film was in fact made) due to change the course of the history of the province in the 'Révolution tranquille'.

The bland title 'Mon oncle Antoine' is a little cutesy, but it's hiding behind the real nature of this important film in the history the cinema of Québec. Antoine (Jean Duceppe) is in his sixties and runs the magasin général in the village with his slightly younger wife Cécile (Olivette Thibault), and this shop is the focal meeting point of the village, of much more interest than the almost deserted church.

But virtually the whole film is seen from the eyes of the adolescent Benoît (Jacques Gagnon), who grows in intellectual and moral maturity within a very short space of time. He's an orphan taken in by his aunt Cécile (Olivette Thibault) and uncle Antoine (Jean Duceppe) who don't have any children of their own but also have another teenager living with them: Carmen (Lyne Champagne), whose money-grabbing absent father just returns to take her earnings from the shop and promptly goes away.

There are two funerals which sandwich the events: one of an old man when Benoît is in effect a child, and another a very short time after of a child Benoît's age, but by which time Benoît has rapidly aged. The second death is in an isolated area where the husband Jos Poulin (Lionel Villeneuve) represents the only element of true rebellion: he refuses to work in the asbestos mine with the exploitative English-speaking boss and sometimes chooses freedom by going off to be a logger.

The film, in two scenes (one towards the beginning and another at the end), shows two very different worlds in a similar perspective: the general store at Christmas reveals (through the shop window) figures clustered around the crib for the nativity scene at the birth of Christ, and then the finish shows Benoît looking into the poor home of the Poulin family, all looking at the dead son in the box coffin 'lost' by the drunken Antoine.

This is a very powerful film representing an important part of Québec's history, although Jutra's reputation since 2016 has been seriously tainted by the revelation in Yves Lever's book of Jutra's paedophilia, which shook many people and inevitably resulted in a re-evaluation of Québec's attitude towards him.

5 March 2021

Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962)

Chris Marker's La Jetée isn't frequently named as one of the best ever French films for nothing, in spite of the intial-sounding dullness: this is a black and white twenty-eight-minute 'photo-roman', a film almost entirely consisting of still photos with a voiceover describing events in the past and near future and an unnamed man.

This is an experimental science fiction film initially concerning a childhood experience when the narrator would go with his parents on Sundays to the jetty at Orly airport. One occasion will be indelibly imprinted on his memory: a man dies on the jetty and the woman's reactions are really dramatic.

World War III comes and the world is devastated. In Paris the survivors who have escaped from the radiation have gone underground, although most of them are controlled and imprisoned by the new rulers. The unnamed man is a prisoner in a concentration camp under the Palais de Chaillot and – because of his profound memory and his ability to remain sane – is made a guinea pig. The new society needs food, medecine and energy to survive, and the only way that this future can be envisiged is by creating a time corridor: by sending people into other time dimensions to make it possible for the past and the future to help the present.

It takes some experimenting, injecting the man with drugs and sending him back to the woman he remembers, seeing her at the natural history museum, the Jardins des Plantes, etc, to find the woman he remembers. He strikes up a relationship with her and comes to love her. Then he's sent into the future, where the people entrust him with an electricity generator to save the time he comes from.

He's well aware that he's only an expendable guinea pig, although the people from the future pay him a visit and ask him to join them. But he wants to return to the past to rejoin his woman from before the war. He's sent back to Orly on the day he remembers, rushes to join the woman but is killed by a member of the camp: the day and the man he remembered so well was the day of own death.

2 March 2021

Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002)

The late prominent film critic Roger Ebert called Gaspar Noé's Irréversible a 'movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable'. I can fully understand this, which is surely borne out by the number of hardened Cannes Festival viewers who walked out on it on the year of its release. This is certainly not 'entertainment', if what we mean by that is something which helps us to pass the time, something to enjoy, etc. No, this is gruelling, punishing cinema and the blurb on the back of my DVD says it will 'remain with [me] for all time'. I know this is true, and I am also convinced that this a great film, a very important one. What we see at the beginning – extreme (and apparently gratuitous) violence, indeed what we see in the middle, the infamous rape scene with its continuation by brutal battering of the supposedly same victim – is gradually unpicked by the past (in future revelations), and the viewer can see method in the madness.

The film is in fourteen sections, all in reverse cronological order: we start at the violent end and end at the peaceful beginning.  We begin with two men talking when we hear police sirens and we are then directed to Rectum, a gay S&M club where a stretcher carries out Marcus (Vincent Cassel), and the man we later know as his friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel), is arrested. Later, we discover that Marcus and Pierre had been looking for Le Tenia (Al Prestia), but they mistake him for Mick (Michel Gondoin) standing next to him. Marcus begins to attack him, Mick breaks his arm and attempts to rape him, and Pierre savagely beats Mick dead with a fire extinguisher. (There are over twenty blows, and the audience feels them all.)

We later (i.e. 'earlier') see Marcus and Pierre in a taxi looking for the Rectum club, and Marcus is in a vile violent mood. The taxi has been hi-jacked by them from its Chinese driver. Previously, Marcus had found a transsexual prostitute who knows Le Tenia, and, acting like a maniac, he threatens her with a piece of broken glass to get information from her.

Next we see Alex (Monica Bellucci) on a stretcher, Marcus and Pierre questioned by the cops, and Marcus and Pierre trying to find the man who raped and attacked her. Alex leaves a party, takes an underground pedestrian passage and is savagely anally raped and beaten into a coma by Le Tenia. Alex had left the party because of Marcus's use of drugs, alcohol and general obnoxiousness. Pierre was once in a relationship with Alex, although she left him for Marcus.

Alex had previously said that she might be pregnant by Marcus, who seems to like the possiblity: this is clearly a very loving relationship. Alex tests herself and is delighted to find out she's pregnant. We see Alex in a park reading J. W. Dunne's An Experiment with Time, the film blurs into subjectless strobe, and a sign saying 'Le Temps détruit tout' ('Time Destroys Everything') appears, which is a message that appears at the beginning of the film: one very favourable review of this film said time doesn't destroy the memory of this film, and I know it won't. This is a masterpiece, love it or hate it.

Jean Vigo's Zéro de conduite | Zero for Conduct (1933)

Watching Jean Vigo's Zéro de conduite, it's hardly surprising that the film was banned at the time for over twelve years. This movie influenced Truffaut (particularly in Les Quatre cents coups) and Lindsay Anderson in his revolutionary boarding school drama If... (1967). Vigo's father Eugène was an anarchist also known as Miguel Almereyda, whose surname is an anagram of 'Y a la merde'.

This is indeed a revolutionary film, and all figures of authority are seen as enemies by the boys (and of course Vigo). The staff mete out punishment arbitrarily, and the title refers to such punishment. To rebel against such tyrants, Caussat (Louis Lefebvre), Colin (Gilbert Pruchon), Bruel (Constantin Goldstein-Kehler) and the effeminate Tabard (Gérard de Bédarieux) in particular plan to overturn the establishment, and soon the other boys are joining them in creating havoc at the diner table, having a wild pillow fight in which feathers are all over the dormitory, and from the rooftops the main culprits throw objects down on a festival the staff have organised. The coup d’état is complete.

Interesting is the fact that Vigo throws some unusual shots into this for a film of its day: the sight of the sex organ of one of the boys, the chemistry teacher stroking Tabard, and the acceptance of homosexuality by the boys (but certainly not by the diminutive head (Delphin)). A real classic of French cinema.

1 March 2021

Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du paradis | Children of Paradise (1944)

This Carné/Prévert collaboration is set in the Parisian theatrical world, on 'Le Boulevard du crime', Le Boulevard du Temple, where so many theatres existed in the first half of the nineteenth century. This film lasts for over three hours and is in two parts: 'Le Boulevard du crime' and 'L'Homme blanc'. The story revolves around Garance (Arletty), and four men who are in different ways involved with her.

These men relate to four characters who existed in reality: Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault), an immensely talented mime artist; Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur), a very talented actor who is also full of self importance and a chaser of women; le Comte Édouard de Montray (Louis Salou), inspired by le Duc de Morny, who is in love with Garance and willing to protect her; and Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), who is a sinister criminal posing as a scrivener.

The first part is set in approximately 1828, the second several years later: in this later period, Baptiste is a well-known mime artist, Frédérick a well-known actor, and Garance has lived for several years abroad with Montray. On her return to Paris she secretly visits Le théâtre des Funambules to see Baptiste, with whom she's remained in love. It's the following events by the three men that are also of interest in the film.

Frédérick has always wanted to play Othello, and when he re-meets Garance he for the first time experiences jealousy, meaning that he can now play the play; the cuckolded Montray is killed by the nihilistic Lecanaire, who stoically awaits execution; and, following his night of love with Garance some years after marrying Nathalie (Maria Casarès), Frédérick seeks in vain for his lover. There's a lot here to be made of the relationship with Shakespeare's Othello.

NB. 'Paradis' refers to the highest and cheapest seats in a theatre, formerly called 'the gods' in English slang.