Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Major and the Minor

1942, US, directed by Billy Wilder

I wonder what 1942 audiences made of Billy Wilder's first American film, in which Ginger Rogers plays a woman dressed as a (very) young girl in order to save money on train fare, with inevitable complications ensuing, particularly when Ray Milland takes an apparently avuncular interest in the young woman's welfare. Wilder and fellow writer Charles Brackett mine the potential for discomfort for all its worth, although it's a discomfort projected onto the audience, with virtually all of the characters, Rogers excepted, apparently blithely unaware of any suggestion of impropriety.

Of course, this makes the notion of a romantic union at the end either completely implausible or truly uncomfortable, but let's not get in the way of happy endings just yet. The opening scene is a gem, with Rogers expressing her rapid-fire disgust, once and for all, with the men of New York, and I occasionally missed that sass later in the film; the character is forced to tamp down her natural spark to avoid drawing attention to herself, so it's welcome when Wilder and Brackett find an outlet in which she can be her natural self, in the company of the one character who sees through her act (or, perhaps more to the point, the one character who's prepared to call her out on it).

Image from: Spellbound Cinema

Contagion

2011, US/UAE, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Not, in retrospect, the best choice of film to watch on a plane, particularly given that the contagion in question first makes its onscreen appearance--at least in so far as any microscopic item makes an appearance--at an airport bar. The illness fans out from there like cracks on a windowpane, collapsing everything in its path. That initial sequence is a useful primer on Soderbergh's technique for the rest of the film, as he uses quick, informative shots to describe the sequence of infection and the (panicked) reaction thereto, thus compressing large amounts of detail into a brisk running time.

There's little time for back story with such an approach: each time we see an infected person, he or she looks exponentially worse, so we can rapidly grasp the seriousness of the situation, and if Gywneth Paltrow's much-ballyhooed cameo appearance as Victim Number One seems brief, her character has vastly more screen time than the other initial victims, who are collectively dispatched within a couple of minutes of screen time. Soderbergh subsequently uses other tools--television news, scientific teleconferences, screen graphics--to keep up the momentum, while also cutting between a half-dozen major characters, though the narrative drive is so strong that his leads tend to have Meaningful Moments rather than fleshed-out biographies. Only Matt Damon's character gets a little more space to develop an individual personality, partly a function of his role as a bewildered audience surrogate.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Kings

2007, Ireland/UK, directed by Tom Collins


Although the script is frustratingly stagy at times--several lines repeated as catchphrases fall flat onscreen though they may have had power on the stage--Kings is generally an effective examination of Irishmen in London, their best years long behind them and their dreams either reduced in scope or soused in drink. The notion of Irish characters revealing home truths over a bottle of whiskey is hardly the most original of starting points, but I've met men like this, or on their way to being like this, and the film captures their bullshit and bluster in ways that are recognizably close to the bone.

The film, shot largely in Irish, builds up to a lengthy sequence in the back of a bar which is most obviously drawn from the original play, and yet the careful lighting and smoky haze paradoxically lend the extended sequence a soddenly realistic air, with the men downing one drink after another while flaying each other in somewhat predictable fashion. While their flaws are given full rein in that sequence, the characterizations are sufficiently nuanced that it's possible to understand what bound the men together originally, and there's an unsentimentality to both the characters and the outcome that's refreshing. Indeed, it's one more example of the clear-eyed take of Irish filmmakers on Ireland's economic woes--the Celtic Tiger is an insistent background presence here, held up as a beacon of misplaced hope--that creates a fascinating counter-narrative to the political and social fantasy that overcame the country for a decade or more.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Week End

1967, France, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Godard's film famously (infamously?) ends with a title card that proclaims, briefly, "Fin du cinéma." After the preceding 90 minutes, the sentiment seems apt, so far does the film stray from conventional expectations, although it still manages to retain something resembling a beginning, middle and end--even in that order. That said, progress is constantly, deliberately interrupted by title cards, abrupt shifts in time, the intervention of historical and fictional characters, and jarring eruptions of sanguinous violence. There's nothing careless about this: it's not simply a matter of throwing everything at the screen and seeing what sticks, but rather setting out to consistently undermine the viewer's expectations for what a film might deliver, even while Godard simultaneously crafts extraordinarily virtuosic scenes of cinema--the logistically jaw-dropping travelling shot along miles of crowded roadway, mesmerizing in its effect, or the gorgeous shot that pans around a farmyard where a man plays piano, or simply those sequences filled with eye-popping colour (as in the Lichtenstein-esque shot above).

Screen capture from dvdbeaver.com

Good Morning, Night


2003, Italy, directed by Marco Bellocchio (original title: Buongiorno, notte)

Bellocchio's film re-imagines the Aldo Moro kidnapping as a virtual chamberpiece, with very occasional sorties into the outside world, taking us into the Rome apartment where the Red Brigades held Moro for nearly two months in 1978. The film focuses on Chiara (Maya Sensa), the only woman in the apartment, who has no direct contact with Moro but who ultimately finds that the old man is invading her dreams. Bellocchio uses Chiara to explore the tensions that strain relations between the four kidnappers - part of a larger, unseen network - as the episode drags on and they are unable to open negotiations with those in power.


The film never really explores Chiara's reasons for choosing a life with the Red Brigades, though Bellocchio draws connections between religious and political fervour - both the terrorists and the priests utter repeated incantations at one point or another, and indeed the terrorists aren't immune to the usual rituals of Italian life, as in the striking moment where they bless themselves before breaking bread on the film's final evening. The singing that pierces the soundtrack at moments of great tension also seems as much religious as secular. Still, Sensa's performance captures in minute detail the growing cracks in her political faith, in the ethos that asks her to value an ideology more than the man sequestered in a cell behind the bookcase.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Alphaville

1965, France, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Like most of Godard's films of the 1960s, Alphaville manages to combine high seriousness, in the form here of an interrogation of the crushing anomie of modern urban life, with self-deflating comic riffs. He inserts a series of running jokes - Eddie Constantine batting away hands proffered in hopes of a tip, the constant rote answering of a greeting never delivered, a series of lines that are the titles of books or films - against luminous black and white images of soulless, even soul-destroying, offices and monolithic buildings. At times, the two collide completely, as in a shot of a block of low-cost apartments accompanied by a voiceover that puns on the meaning of the French acronym HLM, the letters used to designate such buildings.

As with other Godard's films, I'm sure that one could compile a detailed glossary of allusions both literary, historical and visual, but I was most struck by the occasional correspondences with Melville, presumably on the strength of viewing several of the latter's films in quick recent succession. There's a terrific scene in Alphaville with a swinging lightbulb, often presumed to refer to Welles's Mr Arkadin, though I wonder if it might not equally allude to Melville's Le Doulos, in which two characters even comment on the strange effect of the light. Of course, these things are hard to trace to any one source, given that just yesterday I came across a discussion of the exact same effect in films from 1932 and 1947... For a Melville-Godard connection in the other direction, though, there's always the blink-and-you'll miss it fight scene between Constantine and an uncredited Leon Minisini, who crops up in a minor role in Melville's final outing.

Picture lifted from the blog Cinemania, though I'm not sure if it's original to that site.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Manon

1949, France, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

After watching the entirely atypical Miquette et sa mère, made the following year, it was nice to be back on familiar territory, Clouzot-wise. This is perhaps his most lacerating vision of humanity, with a suitably bleak outcome. At least some of the film's grim feel is present in Abbé Prévost's original novel, Manon Lescaut, but Clouzot's decision to update the material, setting it at the end of the Occupation while discarding the more aristocratic milieu of the original, gives the filmed version a grim immediacy that must have been bracing, to say the least, for an audience still dealing with  the Occupation and its aftermath - an audience for whom images of épuration sauvage,  as in the scenes where women have their heads shaved for genuine or imagined acts of collaboration, must have been very real.

There's barely a sympathetic character on the screen - even the one man who has something of a kindly streak is, seen in another light, a human trafficker cashing in on the misfortune of others - which makes it awfully difficult to identify with the protagonists, played by Michel Auclair and a very young Cécile Aubry, as they embark on their odyssey of amour fou. Indeed, the main point in the lovers' favour seems to be the fact that many of the other characters are even more unsavory. That's particularly true of Manon's spectacularly unpleasant brother Leon, a character lifted almost exactly from the novel; he's played by Serge Reggiani, who delivers a brutal, and clearly real, slap to a minor female character that outdoes even Jimmy Cagney's notorious grapefruit-to-the-face sequence from The Public Enemy.

Much of the film takes place in cramped rooms, underlining at various times both the characters' lack of means and their limited horizons, focused as they are only on immediate gain; there is a constant tension to the film, too, though born mostly of a sense that things could go spectacularly awry at any moment. It's not so much a question of whether things will turn out badly as when - and how badly.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Miquette et sa mère


1950, France, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

Clouzot's body of work seems so consistently devoted to the excavation of the darker motivations of humanity that it's hard to know quite what to do with Miquette et sa mère, at least in trying to interpret it as a "film by Clouzot." David Cairns suggests that Clouzot took on the directing job, which was the third filming of this material, in something of a panic after the failure of Manon, but that film was actually in the French top ten for the year, with a very respectable 3.4 million tickets sold.

I do agree, though, that Miquette is so odd within Clouzot's overall oeuvre that it seems to demand some form of explanation, whether it's panic, a contractual obligation, or a desire to work with a particular actor (Louis Jouvet, perhaps, after the success of Quai des Orfèvres in 1947). Ironically, Miquette was itself a commercial failure, even though other, similar films did quite well at the French box office around the same time.

While there are some pleasures to be mined from the precise choreography of the camera in several of the set pieces, particularly one in which actors on stage interact, mid-play, with others in the wings, the film's strengths lie less with the director than with the actors. They deliver their dialogue, much of which remains quite amusing in a very silly way, in great bursts, zipping through the lines in true boulevard style. Jouvet, in particular, seems to relish the opportunity to overplay as a self-important man of the theatre; his pomposity, though, is entirely self-aware, as he reveals in one of the film's quieter sequences, a scene that recalls the melancholic retired actors of La Fin du jour. Meanwhile, Bourvil does some early polishing of his good-hearted naif persona even though he's playing a member of the nobility on this occasion, something of a rarity in his filmography.

Picture from the Toronto International Film Festival site.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Le Doulos

1962, France, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

It's hard not to notice the connections between Melville's films when you watch them in quick succession - the constant reworking of themes and individual scenes that's characteristic of virtually all his work comes vividly to the fore. Thus Le Doulos's credit sequence, during which a man walks along a street interrupted by the credits, is repurposed a decade later in Un Flic, where the man is replaced by a slow-moving car, while the setting of a fence's house in a desolate, broken-down neighborhood is seen again in Le Cercle rouge.

Le Doulos, though, is more brutal than either of its successors, with internecine criminal killings in which women, in particular, are callously discarded (of course, they barely appear at all in those later films, so they can hardly be mistreated). There's an especially grim sequence that reveals the true extent of the Jean-Paul Belmondo character's cynicism and self-interest, although the scene, during which Belmondo beats and restrains the girlfriend of a criminal confrère, is also characteristically Melvillian, carefully documenting the character's deeply unpleasant handiwork with something approaching fascination. Rather more enjoyable is the subsequent interrogation scene, filmed in a single 9-minute shot, in which the viewer has the pleasure of enjoying Melville's own skill set, the director and his crew solving dozens of small technical problems as the camera moves throughout a cramped office, rotating from one side to another, the characters entering and departing the frame with precise choreography.

While I wrote about Le Cercle rouge and Un Flic as late-career entries, this is a film of beginnings, albeit not for Melville: the credits are a goldmine, with Volker Schlöndorff still some years away from his debut feature, Bertrand Tavernier employed as a (very young) publicist, and Philippe Nahon in his brief first role. Nahon surely can't have imagined that his career would coast along rather quietly for some 30 years, until his fateful encounter with Gaspar Noé, after which nothing was quiet.

Picture lifted from the blog Pictures and Noise; I'm not sure if the picture is original to the site, but it's from one of my favourite segments of the film.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Un Flic

1972, France, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

This is an entry in the second Late Films Blogathon, hosted by David Cairns at Shadowplay.

There's late Melville and there's last Melville: Un Flic was the director's thirteenth and final feature, released a year before his death. It's not quite at the level of his previous few films--that sets the bar perhaps unreasonably high--but he returns again to the world of criminality from which he rarely strayed in his later years, re-working obsessively themes and individual scenes. Melville delivered a gift-wrapped 1970 interview, in a book edited by Rui Nogueira, for the future Late Films blogger, suggesting rather morbidly after Le Cercle rouge that he should speak of his career assuming that there would be no more films, that the end could be nigh - or at the very least that this most driven of men might simply lose interest in directing films. He sounded drained and disillusioned after his penultimate film, so it's no great surprise that his final outing is equally wintry - Alain Delon's face looks pinched, cold and bone-tired in almost every scene.

Melville claimed, without elaborating, that he had identified nineteen "variations on my favourite cops-and-robbers situation," all of which were used in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle. Melville himself had needed five films to cover all of the bases. The heist sequence is obviously one of his favourite among the nineteen, and he allows himself the luxury of a pair here, very different in nature. While we have to wait a good hour to enjoy the superb jewelry heist scene in Le Cercle rouge, Melville opens this film with a bank robbery, silent, methodical, and finally bloodier than intended. The setting is St-Jean-de-Monts on the Atlantic coast, deep in the off-season and utterly bereft of people and energy. Perfectly Melvillian, in other words: why talk if there's no-one to speak to?

The second heist is a rather different beast: it's more like something out of a spy film, with a helicopter lowering a man onto a night train. Indeed, the spy connection is underlined by the presence onboard of a muscular criminal specialist by the name of Mathieu La Valise (Matthew the Suitcase), whose dyed blond hair looks like that of Robert Shaw's thuggish character in From Russia With Love, with its own celebrated train sequence. Unfortunately, the special effects for the heist are terribly chintzy: I've rarely seen such obvious model work, suggesting that Melville couldn't secure the budget he might have liked. At other moments in the film, though, the obviously fake effects may be deliberate: there's a trompe l'oeil background employed for a outdoor scene at one point that finds a parallel inside the Louvre moments later.

Once we're inside the train, Melville's sure touch returns. There's an extraordinary scene where Richard Crenna, a nightclub owner and daredevil criminal, scrubs his face and divests himself of a boiler suit in order to pass as one of train's paying customers for long enough to complete his theft. The scene goes on for several minutes, during which we see Crenna carefully adjust his coiffure not once but twice, along with numerous other details of his appearance, and yet the meticulous preparations are mesmerizing; as always in Melville there's a tremendous degree of admiration for well-prepared action, just as the director carefully documents, and then explains, Yves Montand's methods of bullet-making in Le Cercle rouge.

In that same book of interviews, Melville claims that he's no documentarist, and while that may be true of his cops and robbers, who are more distilled essences than rounded characters, the unintended documentary effect of Melville's camera on location is a constant source of fascination to me: the advertisements in a bank with the extraordinary interest levels of the 1970s, a train of the period with a very specific lock on the door that becomes a key challenge within the extended heist sequence, a radio telephone in a car, posters for entertainments in the Paris night. All of it ephemeral, now long gone, and yet memorialized, however inadvertently, for the viewer 40 years on.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Illusionist


2010, UK/France, directed by Sylvain Chomet

Every now and then I watch a good movie at a bad time, and it's hard to be fully objective about the film's virtues afterwards. This was a fine example: Saturday night, baby in bed at a reasonable hour, glass of wine to hand, curled up on the couch with a reasonably short film from a director whose previous outing, The Triplets of Belleville, we'd both enjoyed. In the context, though, I was completely unprepared for the film's languid rhythm and insistently melancholic air, very different to Chomet's eye-popping previous work.


Of course, his inventiveness is on display here as before, with exceptional identical to details such as the blinking of a neon light outside a window or the constant, amusing passage of cars through the streets of Edinburgh. Chomet's ability to convey nuances of emotion with few or no words is also deeply impressive, perhaps never more so in the finale, making use of objects to reflect back on the film's characters. There are dozens of individual shots to treasure, too, whether it's the sweeping overhead shot of Edinburgh, the striking mirror image of a train crossing a bridge, or the references to other films and books - the in-joke featuring a brief sequence of the animated Jacques Tati watching his real self onscreen, or the wink at the cover of Hergé's The Black Island. Indeed, Hergé's style seems ever-present here, in the attention to details of setting but also on occasion in the subtleties of the character drawings themselves. One to revisit, I think.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Le Cercle rouge

1970, France, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

This is an entry in the second Late Films Blogathon, conjured out of thin air by David Cairns at Shadowplay.

Though he wasn't an old man when he died, there was nothing unexpected about Bourvil's death at the age of 53. He had been diagnosed with cancer in the late 1960s, and had known that the disease was incurable at least since 1968, when filming his role in L'Arbre de Noël - a film, oddly enough, about a young character with a terminal illness. Each of Bourvil's films from that point on was made in the knowledge that it could be the cap to his twenty-five-year screen career.

Still, few of those films seem burdened by a sense of legacy. For the most part they hark back to familiar themes and personnel, both in front of and behind the camera, whether it's Le Cerveau, in which he was once again directed by Gérard Oury, or his final role, filmed days after he completed Le Cercle rouge, in Le Mur de l'Atlantique, whose wartime setting not only recalls his biggest hit, La Grande Vadrouille, but also features one of his co-stars from that film, Terry-Thomas. Despite his crowded plate in those final few years, Bourvil was actually a rather more cautious man than several of his fellow comic stars, at least by the credit-happy standards of French cinema. While he made over 60 films, his key early influence, Fernandel, amassed over 100 credits in the same time period, and both were left in the shade by Louis de Funès, who had racked up 150 screen credits by the quarter-century mark.

Le Cercle rouge sticks out from the pack not only in that Bourvil is cast in an entirely atypical role, but also because he is credited as André Bourvil - not his real name, which was André Raimbourg, but the only time he was credited with more than a single name. While there are dramatic parts scattered through his filmography, notably a pair of roles in 1958 when he appeared as both the villainous Thenardier in Le Chanois's expansive version of Les Misérables and as Michèle Morgan's petty husband in Le Miroir à deux faces, his turn as Commissaire Mattei was something different again, a tightly controlled, often taciturn performance from an actor better known for expansive gestures and loquacious characters. That's entirely in keeping with Melville's style of course, not least in this film, which features a terrific, virtually silent heist sequence, and in which men (there are essentially no women in the film) communicate most frequently with few or no words.

When Meville approached Bourvil for the part, he took him out to dinner and afterwards to the movies: the director wanted his actor to see Richard Brooks's In Cold Blood, for he envisaged the character of Mattei in the same mould as that film's Alvin Dewey, played by John Forsythe. Bourvil's reaction was apparently to exclaim of Forsythe, "But he's handsome," and Melville had to convince the actor that he, too, was handsome, even that his character was seductive to a degree. While Mattei is certainly a compelling character, it's a little harder to see the evidence of his seductiveness given the lack of female characters. His only interaction with a woman is a brief scene, filmed from through a glass door, of apparently pleasant conversation with a barmaid. The woman turns out to be an informant, and our only glimpse of Mattei's private life shows him feeding his cats, of whom more later. Still, it's hard to imagine Melville's original choice for the part, Lino Ventura, in such a quiet moment of domesticity: Bourvil's casting gives the part a greater depth, akin, perhaps, to Hitchcock's casting of Cary Grant or James Stewart.

Bourvil is introduced in the opening scene, in a car careening toward a railway station - the same motif re-appears in Melville's next film, Un Flic - where Mattei and a prisoner board a night train to Paris. The prisoner, Vogel, is played by Gian Maria Volonte, who played a character called Mattei himself a year or two later. Melville apparently found Volonte a real handful to deal with, and complained at length about the Italian actor's "unprofessional" attitude on his set, though their differing politics hardly helped. Actually, Meville has few words of praise for anyone, in front of or behind the camera, on the film: Bourvil is one of the very rare people for whom the director appears to have unreserved respect, and after the actor's death, a few weeks before Le Cercle rouge premiered, he eulogized his star in moving terms.

Vogel sets one of the film's plotlines in motion by escaping - a strange turn of events, in many ways, because you'd expect it to undermine the viewer's confidence in Mattei and yet it proves to be the springboard for a demonstration of his competence. He's no Javert, whose success seems to lie as much in his sheer doggedness as anything else, but is an intelligent and surprising flexible man who nonetheless sets strict limits on his actions. Still, he's clearly troubled by his own willingness to pressure his witnesses and informants. One of the film's key sequences is a short scene with Santi, a mafioso played by François Périer, who suggests that people are unable to change their true nature. Santi cites that as a point of pride, suggesting that he'll never squeal, but the same might be equally true of Mattei's ethics; Santi is confident that the policeman won't transgress certain limits. The scene features a telephone on an extendable frame, and given Melville's encyclopaedic knowledge of film it wouldn't surprise me to discover that the prop is a conscious reference to Edward G. Robinson's moral struggles in Five Star Final, in which a similar telephone becomes almost a character in its own right.

But back to that train, now minus Vogel, which stops near Mersault L'Hôpital, a small town whose cinematic significance lies primarily with Bourvil: a key sequence in La Grande vadrouille was filmed there a few years earlier, and the town's website still features a picture of Bourvil and co-star Louis de Funès, which may not say a whole lot about the excitement of the intervening decades. It's not the only time a location in Le Cercle rouge recalls the actor's earlier career. The film's final scenes are filmed on the ample property of Jean-Claude Brialy, with whom Bourvil made the 1959 film Le Chemin des écoliers, along with a very youthful fellow by the name of Alain Delon. On that occasion Bourvil played Delon's father; by the time of Le Cercle rouge Delon was all grown up, and the two men share only a few minutes of screen time given the film's separate plotlines. Bourvil has even less time to play off one of the film's other stars, Yves Montand, with whom he has the very briefest, and most terminal, of exchanges; ironically, given the nature of their exchange, it was Montand who took over Bourvil's part in La Folie des grandeurs the following year, the film that was to mark his triumphant reunion with Louis de Funès, though the character was substantially re-written in light of the casting change.

 Ah, the cats. Our host Mr. Cairns comments that the three cats that Bourvil feeds on a couple of occasions - in near identical scenes, with only the animals varying the routines - are Melville's own pets, going by the wonderful names of Ofrène, Grifollet and Firello. Melville mentions his cats a number of times in interviews, suggesting that in his home life he has no interest in surrounding himself with more than four fellow creatures - his wife and the trio of cats (in that order). While Mattei doesn't seem quite such an anti-social fellow, it's hard not to read a certain amount of Melville into his driven, highly professional character. What's most impressive, ultimately, about Bourvil's performance is that his work makes you forget almost everything that's come before: as Melville said, Adieu le pitre, farewell to the buffoon. Farewell, indeed.

Jacques Lorcey's 1981 book Bourvil was something of a treasure trove of information, along with Rui Noguiera's 1972 book of interviews with Melville, Melville on Melville.

Index

List of all movies

Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States