Saturday, October 31, 2009
Monday, October 26, 2009
Friday, October 23, 2009
Thursday, October 22, 2009
1968, France, directed by Maurice Pialat
Although it's a little rough around the narrative edges in the concluding segment - the protagonist's final transformation seems abrupt, signaling a more radical change in character for which we haven't been fully prepared - Pialat's L'Enfance nue is an extraordinary feature début, a film of deceptive simplicity that's both visually compelling and politically bracing (I suspect Pialat wouldn't have found much merit in criticisms of the narrative progression, in any case).
Pialat's pursuit of a clear sense of place and time is announced in the opening images, depicting a union march, presumably an actual event, before transitioning to the story of a young boy moving through the fostering system. In many respects, Pialat's primary fascination is with France's institutions and the way in which the country treats its citizens and, indeed, makes them into citizens in the first place. He provides a detailed depiction of the world of fostering and child services, making clear both the problems and benefits - to the foster parents - of the system (and using real childcare workers as actors). That portrait prefigures, among other things, the school scenes in his subsequent work, the First World War mini-series La Maison des bois, scenes that are again about the ways in which the state instills ideas of citizenship.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Edward Zwick's film explores some of the same mythologies referenced by Simon Schama's 1995 book Landscape and Memory, which mentions those Jews who fled for the forest and fought back against the German war and extermination machine, with little support from either local populations or Soviet partisans. The band at the centre of Defiance was led into the forests of western Belarussia by the Bielski brothers, adept in using the depths of the forest to conceal their less than legal activities.
While the film recounts the group's very difficult experiences deep in the woods, it's also very much about the brothers attempts to define their own identity, as well as the group's attempts to establish what Schama referred to a "primitive community of equals." The Jews who found themselves in the forest were almost all forced to adopt unaccustomed roles - the intellectual who is converted to manual labour, the young woman who goes on frightening food runs through the forest, the vaguely criminal brothers suddenly compelled to think of themselves, for the first time in years, as Jews rather than simply locals.
Although it's a film of action - set pieces and constant threats and movement - it's also thus very much about ideas of Jewishness, although sometimes in rather heavy-handed ways; Zwick is almost too eager to assure us of the Bielskis less-than-pristine methods, while the central conflict between the brothers and their own ideas of how to behave in wartime is pretty standard Hollywood psychology of opposites. Still, the film is a useful glimpse into the mythologies of northern Europe, cannily exploited by the guerrilla bands as they moved along the fringes of the broader conflict.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Quite a shift from his previous film, Poil de Carotte, this is one of the earliest appearances of George Simenon's Maigret character: Jean Renoir and Jean Tarride both filmed Maigret stories the previous year, and those were, as it happens, the only other Maigret films of the 1930s. The film isn't a whodunit - we know more or less from the beginning of the movie who is responsible, and Maigret (played by Harry Baur) quickly sees the lie of the land - but rather a how-can-I-prove-it, which allows for frissons aplenty as we follow the apparently remorseless killer.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
2007, US, directed by D.J. Caruso
Worth a look primarily for its first hour, a generally solid updating/relocation of Hitchcock's Rear Window: the filmmakers re-imagine confinement for the modern teen, as well as voyeurism in a California neighbourhood as opposed to a New York apartment building. That said, the constant shots of binoculars and cameras eventually become a little heavy-handed: we get it, they're spying on the neighbours. If anything, the film is a touch too specific in time and place; you can't help but think some of the references to popular websites will be terribly outdated within five years, never mind 55, but then perhaps no-one sees a long life for this kind of thing. It's a shame, too, that after setting the location up with considerable care, the filmmakers fall back on a very conventional, and completely over the top, dénouement, as if they don't trust themselves to carry off something a touch more subtle.
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
1932, France, directed by Julien Duvivier
It's not hard to imagine that life for many children in the early 1930s was a less than pleasant experience, with terrible poverty taking its toll, as documented in films like La Maternelle (or Wild Boys of the Road, which I haven't yet seen). There's something more going on here, however, with Duvivier exploring a profound disconnect between adults and children, and the terrible suffering that children endure as a consequence. The director previously filmed the same story in 1925, but clearly felt that the material had more to offer.
While the eponymous Poil de Carotte (Robert Lynen) initially embraces his return to the country after the school year, and runs free through the fields, there's a terrible hole in his life the moment he returns home: his siblings are actively conspiring against him, and his parents, whose marriage is a sham, alternatively abuse and utterly ignore him, with the latter fate especially bitter. Duvivier illustrates the physical distance between Poil de Carotte and those whose acknowledgment he craves, but focuses to an even greater degree on his protagonist's psychology. He dramatizes his inner life through clever use of double and triple exposure, showing conversations between Poil de Carotte's "good" and "bad" sides as the boy lies asleep, and conveying his growing sense of helplessness.
Although some adults sense the boy's troubles, and even endeavour to convey this to the parents - breaking class taboos in the process - they're apparently helpless to effect much change, and there's a distressing sense of inevitability, together with an almost brutal honesty about what a desperate child might consider (an echo again of La Maternelle). Those climatic scenes are almost unbearably tense, and Duvivier also introduces dramatic close-ups to underline the enormity of what may occur. As nuanced as the psychological portrait is, however, the scenes of family life seem less subtle: while Harry Baur is simply a gruff, uncommunicative father, Poil de Carotte's mother (Catherine Fonteney) is a harridan, taking out the failures of her own life on her youngest child, and lacking any sympathy even though her own story has many elements of tragedy. That said, there's something bracing in Duvivier's refusal to contemplate even mild sentimentality in the domestic portrait, with the household dissected without pity.
Friday, October 02, 2009
2007, France, directed by Claude Miller
There's something immensely pleasurable in coming across a well-made film, where the parts are carefully slotted together and there's a payoff for investing time and energy in the narrative. I suppose it's the old-fashioned idea of "craftsmanship," something that you find in, say, the works of Peter Weir. It's not all that cool, but it's also a remarkably difficult thing to do given all of the imponderables and unpredictabilities of a film shoot. Claude Miller's films are always characterised by this kind of artisanal care, even when they don't always quite succeed as involving stories. His L'Accompagnatrice, with a similar period setting, never came alive for me, and I've read various critiques that find this film to be similarly lifeless: I wonder if that's the point where taste begins to interact with technique, for I found Miller's film to be entirely compelling even when I had occasional questions about the directions in which the narrative was pointing me.
The film plays with time, interweaving episodes from the war years with events from the 1950s and, more briefly, a single day in the 1980s where many aspects of the story finally come together, although we receive much of our information out of order, so that we're constantly - and quite deliberately - questioning whether we've yet encountered the eponymous secret. There's a careful distinction of each period in visual terms, too, although the bright 1950s scenes are not quite what they first seem, and that shimmering veneer is slowly undermined as the film proceeds.
Although there's a story to be told, and a secret to be revealed, Miller is ultimately more interested in issues of identity. Underneath the polished sets and solid acting, there's something surprisingly bold going on, as the film tries to make the point that Jewish experiences of and in the war years were by no means monolithic; one of the main characters (played by Patrick Bruel, still best-known as a singer in France) chafes constantly both against authority (French, German, familial) and what he sees as the confines of his own upbringing. Part of the challenge for the character is reconciling his own instincts with a Jewish identity that is being forced on him by outsiders rather than because it has any importance for him, and yet inevitably his life experiences confront him with difficult questions about his own sense of self. It's one of those films you can imagine dissecting over a beer afterwards, since it tends to pose more questions that it's fully capable of answering.