Monday, December 31, 2012

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


2012, UK, directed by Lasse Hallström

I know the romantic comedy template calls for an eleventh-hour impediment to true happiness for one and all, but they really go overboard here with the destruction and resurrection, piling on not one but two major developments in quick succession when something rather simpler would surely have done the trick. Silly stuff, but the central performances are generally charming, and I fear the satiric portrayal of the UK civil service is rather closer to the truth than they'd like.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bernie


2011, US, directed by Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater takes a bizarre true crime tale and infuses it with much of the easygoing, conversational spirit of his earlier features, most obviously Slacker and Dazed and Confused, to genuinely unsettling effect, not least by shooting his film in many of the actual locations and employing some of the townsfolk who knew the principals. While their participation is clearly shaped by the filmmaker, there's no getting around the fact that, fifteen years on, the locals remain far more kindly disposed toward Bernie, a convicted murderer, than his elderly victim. That's part of the point, though: Linklater wants the viewer to feel complicit with these people, who have their own unusual take on the morality of the situation. The film does tend to stack the deck somewhat to achieve this effect, soft-peddling what might seem the more obvious ways for Bernie to deal with his increasingly unpleasant situation, though it does appear as though the real-life events are well beyond what any writer of fiction might dare to get away with. Linklater directed one of Jack Black's most enjoyable prior screen appearances, in The School of Rock, and clearly saw greater potential in the actor: he has Black dial his usual act right back while finding the occasional outlet for his more exuberant tendencies and it's an entirely convincing performance, with Black carefully sketching in Bernie's moral agonies without denying his self-regard.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


2012, US/New Zealand, directed by Peter Jackson

I loved the three Lord of the Rings films, but was at times a little underwhelmed by the first in this new trilogy. I haven't read the books for decades, though Kristin Thompson's detailed analysis suggests that the filmmakers do a pretty fine job of integrating material from across the Tolkien universe in extending what was a relatively thin set of starting materials, at least as compared with the later trilogy of books. Still, while Thompson has me convinced about the wisdom of many of the adaptation decisions, I couldn't avoid the nagging sense that stretching things to three lengthy films was indeed a step too far.

It's not so much the idea of three films that seems unjustified -- as much as anything else, it's a clever way to build audience anticipation -- but rather three films that are closing in on three hours in length apiece. The need to fill out the running time seemed especially apparent in the sequences with Azog, who unbalances the film without great cause, and in the very extended opening scenes with the dwarves -- one or two shots of laden-down platters or plates being thrown across rooms would have made the point, but the sequences seemed to go on for an age without any useful information being transmitted (I was still completely confused by the various dwarves by the end, with the exceptions of those actors whom I happened to recognize from other films). All that said, there were many other pleasures: the opening with Ian Holm is lovely, and Martin Freeman has a beguiling sparrow-like quality that gradually morphs into something rather more serious by the time of his encounter with Gollum (that segment was, for me, the film's highlight, and the CGI work combining Andy Serkis's performance with Gollum's features is terrific), while the final scene is a wonderfully clever note on which to finish.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom


2012, US, directed by Wes Anderson

Along with Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr., Wes Anderson's film made me laugh more than anything else this year, perhaps unsurprisingly given the obviously Keaton-esque aspects of Moonrise Kingdom, though of course Anderson also extracts much humour from his dialogue, an outlet less available to Keaton in his glory years. Anderson has always reveled in the artificiality of his set-ups and his scripts, and yet here, at least, it's no barrier to the creation of situations that seem grounded in genuinely human flaws and strengths -- it's as though he's somehow pushed the artificiality to a point where it serves as the underpinning to a new level of emotional richness. For all the irony of his dialogue, and the often delicious line-readings served up by his actors, Anderson treats his central characters with absolute seriousness and respect, in ways that reminded me of John Duigan's Flirting, another film that takes adolescent or teen love at face value.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Cluny Brown


1946, US, directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Sought out after reading David Cairns's comments on the film, Cluny Brown does rather seem the poor cousin in the Lubitsch filmography, at least -- though not exactly unloved by those who've seen it, the thing is that not nearly as many people have, these days anyway. As David points out, it's a little hard to understand just why this might be -- the leads are absolutely terrific (Charles Boyer shades it for me -- he underplays exquisitely at times, whereas Jennifer Jones hardly knows the meaning of the word, at least here), the dialogue sparkling, and the insight into the British class system is razor sharp, never more so than the by turns amusing and devastating scene when the toffs realize they've taken tea with the new maid. Plus, there's C. Aubrey Smith, old codger extraordinaire.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

L'Aventure c'est l'aventure


1972, France, directed by Claude Lelouch

Though every film is, obviously enough, a product of its particular historical moment, it's hard to imagine Lelouch's film taking place in any time other than the immediate post-1968 period in France: if someone decided to make the film today, it surely would have to be as a 1970s period piece.  The picture opens with an extended sequence in which Lino Ventura, as an old-school criminal, comes to the realization that the world has changed when the prostitutes from whom he profits begin to unionize, bandying about words like autogestion a good year before they were back on everyone's Lips in reality. Later, there's an extremely amusing sequence in which Ventura and his cohorts undergo political education in order to understand the ideologies currently in the political air, the men struggling to come to any understanding of dialectics, never mind any of the many -isms presented to them.


It's perhaps that exquisite sense of the zeitgeist that made the film a strikingly big hit, despite the fact that the titular adventure is less than enthralling at times, the expected thrills and spills for the most part displaced by extended dialogue scenes: it must be the wordiest caper film on record, melding kidnappings and robberies in exotic locations with the kinds of extended debate that you might expect to find in something like La Maman et la putain. Still, for all its up-to-the-minute content, there's no sense that the film itself is especially progressive -- Lelouch is far more interested in having us spend time with his motley crew of criminals, dedicated exclusively to the ideology of personal enrichment, than in any thorough-going exploration of his own changing country. Like Ventura's character, Lelouch is mostly amused, and perhaps a touch disgruntled, at the idea that those prostitutes are organizing, though he doesn't tarry long over their fate. Whatever the politics, there's an enjoyably loose, improvised feel to the film, which is in no particular hurry to set its plot in motion -- you get the sense that the actors are constantly trying to avoid bursting into laughter at some of the more absurd sequences, whether it's the hilariously bizarre kidnapping of Johnny Hallyday, the men's attempts to impress women on the beach, or Jacques Brel in character as the world's most Belgian plane passenger.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Rango


2011, US, directed by Gore Verbinski

As over-stuffed as they are, I very much enjoyed the three Verbinski-Depp entries in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, a trio of quite consciously fun films that, I think, treated fans with some degree of seriousness, expecting them to keep up with the multiple plotlines that sprawled outwards over the course of the films. This is a rather more personal project -- though water is again a central component, albeit for its scarcity rather than its abundance -- which gives a kind of retrospective glimpse into the ways in which Verbinski managed to preserve some of the same free-wheeling spirit in the confines of a $200 million blockbuster, with unexpected references colliding, and outsize characters quickly etched with a few key visual tropes. Without any context to anchor it, the ah-now-I-get-it opening is a little rocky -- Pirates waited until the middle of the third installment to throw in something truly wacky in the form of the multiple Jack Sparrows -- but once Rango is liberated to experience his story, Verbinski really his his rhythm, zipping along without becoming antic, and slowing down to savour a reference or a particular character, such as Ned Beatty's slippery mayor.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The Downfall of Osen


1935, Japan, directed by Mizoguchi Kenji

Mizoguchi's final silent movie is actually something of a hybrid, at least if accounts of the production are reliable, as a fairly bare-bones narration was included at the last minute though the actors themselves don't speak -- almost as though the filmmakers are throwing in a benshi narration of their own, though the voiceover has none of the texture of a standard benshi performance, and half the time seems restricted to reading the titles, with minimal expansion. It's far more enjoyable to watch the film with an actual benshi narration, helpfully included in the version of the film released by the Japanese company Digital Meme in their Talking Silents series; their version is by Midori Sawato, by some way the most prominent benshi of the period after 1970.

Although Mizoguchi's direction is expressive enough in its own right -- the atmospherics of a Tokyo train station crowded with people waiting for a delayed train, the canted angles of a shrine where one of the film's key events takes place, the vaguely nightmarish aspect of a mental institution, double exposures to take us into the mind of madness -- Sawato's benshi performance is an extraordinary addition, so much so that after a short while it's easy to forget that there's just a single voice, modulated constantly, on the soundtrack, whether Sawato is providing the voice of a portly Buddhist monk, a sharp crook, or a tragically fallen woman (one of many in the Mizoguchi cannon).


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Argo


2012, US, directed by Ben Affleck

My first career was in the Irish diplomatic service, and my first overseas assignment was to Bonn, in 1999. That was the year that Bonn relinquished its title as capital of Germany, the status transferring back to Berlin. I spent my first couple of months cleaning things up in anticipation of that cross-country move, delving into the deepest recesses of the archives. In one of the dustier corners of the safe, there was an envelope containing a letter advising us of what to do in case of a true emergency -- the outbreak of war, a violent uprising, and so forth. I imagine that a similar envelope was ripped open in Berlin at some point in the 1930s, as diplomats wondered what the future might bring.

Despite Ireland's rather unthreatening reputation, and the likely lack of too many black diplomatic secrets in Bonn, the instructions went into surprising detail about things we should destroy -- break, burn, shred and so forth. As the American Embassy in Tehran was invaded in the early stages of Argo, the memory of that carefully folded letter came flooding back, only here the diplomats were acting on  their instructions. Notwithstanding the film's apparently careful prologue, providing some insight, however historically haphazard, into the background of American-Iranian relations, that moment ultimately encapsulates the central focus of the film: a group of embassy staffers focused only on their own immediate safety, with virtually no sense of the outside world.

That's exactly the criticism that some have directed at the film, that it fails to address the realities of Iran at the time, but it seems to me that this misses two key points, first that the central group of housebound Americans is by definition oblivious to much of the truth of the Iranian experience of the time, and second, that diplomats, more broadly, are probably some of the more poorly placed individuals to give you a textured sense of life in any particular location, particularly if you're looking for a picture of things across the socio-economic spectrum.

Of course, the problem with any form of filmed history, no matter how many caveats the filmmakers place at the beginning of the film, is the danger that people will make the mistake of reading the mythology as fact, but I'm not sure where the filmmakers's responsibility ultimately lies here: there's no conceivable way that they can provide the "true truth" of even the experiences of the Americans at the heart of the film, never mind the "true truth" of the Iranian revolution. Certainly many, if not most, of the Iranians encountered by the viewer are less than pleasant, though again that's hardly an unlikely reflection of the actual experiences of a group of nervous diplomats trying to effect an escape from a regime which is complicit in the hostage-taking of many of their brethren, and comes back to the fact that whatever the broader bookends of the film it is ultimately telling a very narrow story, a caper that's beautifully paced and cleverly constructed, and as fictional as it gets in Hollywood history. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Campaign


2012, US, directed by Jay Roach

As a post-Thanksgiving diversion, this was amusing fare, the usual over-the-top Will Ferrell antics balanced out considerably by Zach Galifianikis' much calmer approach (though it's hard now not to notice the possible influence of Jack Black's work in Bernie, which was on the festival circuit before The Campaign began shooting: the characters are similar, but the performances even more so). The film never attempts to be anything more than the ne plus absurdum of state political races, except for the treacly concluding sequences, which seem to completely undermine the lower, dirtier, meaner tone of everything that came before -- sitcom redemption once the penis jokes have run out.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skyfall


2012, UK/US, directed by Sam Mendes

Given the number of variations over the years both in personnel and style, I find myself increasingly confused by the complaints accompanying each Bond release that the movie in question doesn't adhere adequately to some cherished formula. While certainly an entry like Quantum of Solace seems to veer far away from what the series does most effectively, for the most part surely part of the pleasure comes from the ways in which novelty is grafted to a familiar template. In that regard, Sam Mendes's entry is one of the best Bonds in quite some time, referencing and celebrating some of the most cherished moments from the past -- a wonderful thrill passed through the audience when the Aston Martin makes an appearance, and the rejuvenated Q got some of the bigger laughs -- while deepening and humanizing Bond as a character without making him an especially gentle or even necessarily likeable individual (he is, after all, a tool of his masters, and generally a very willing one at that). The film does find some nobility in the character, though: there's a lovely, almost painterly shot near the conclusion where Bond, seen from behind, looks briefly like a medieval knight kneeling before an altar, and the reference is entirely apt -- a fighter in service to his paymasters, loyal to the end.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Big Miracle


2012, US, directed by Ken Kwapis

Big Miracle unspooled immediately after Liberal Arts on the same long plane flight, so I was primed to see it, too, as a celebration of ostensibly simpler times, particularly when it comes to the communication arts, though that's literally the case here since the film focuses on an episode in late 1988 when there were just three major television networks in the US, whose anchors still commanded much of our attention. The film is surprisingly good at times in its commentary on the cynicism of all the players in the unlikely coalition that formed to free three trapped whales -- Ted Danson is cartoonish as an oil-company villain (probably because Danson is far too benign a presence to really convince in the role), but Greenpeace hardly emerges with a saintly reputation either as the film notes, accurately enough, how environmental crises can be highly useful to the institutional needs of NGOs, too. The film also makes intelligent use of the actual news footage, while commenting on the strange priorities of the news media -- though of course the filmmakers then eat their cake by making this film rather than something more genuinely challenging.

Liberal Arts


2012, US, directed by Josh Radnor

I'd never heard of Liberal Arts before it popped up on an airplane screen, but it proved a more than palatable diversion -- it's a film that's insistently non-zeitgeisty, particularly given its college-campus setting, with no mention of the Internet and barely a cellphone, the characters connecting instead through hand-written letters, books, and burned CDs. The conceit is a little overdone, even in a film that makes no real pretense to realism, and yet the insistence on the idea of communication that requires an attention span has its own attractions. I'm only familiar with Josh Radnor from the occasional episode of How I Met Your Mother: he's a competent director, very generous with his actors, which leads to some enjoyable supporting performances although not every role feels fully conceived, as though there was an idea for a diverting scene or two rather than an actual character. Still, there are a couple of lovely moments scattered through the film, none more so than the sly glance Elizabeth Olsen shoots Radnor's way when she's assessing the impact of her initial romantic forays.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Ne Nous Quitte Pas -- Jacques Brel in L'Emmerdeur


1973, France, directed by Edouard Molinaro

This is a contribution to the Late Films Blogathon, hosted by David Cairns, the wizard behind the curtain at Shadowplay.

We get our first glimpse of Jacques Brel as he pilots a small car along a road on the way to Montpellier, where he's about to become the titular pain in the rear (particularly the rear belonging to Lino Ventura). There's a gormless look on the face of his character, François Pignon, who has a vaguely Mr. Bean air about him, although Pignon is less of an out-and-out caricature than Rowan Atkinson's creation.

The filmmakers lay things on a little thick for the viewer's benefit, with insert shots of the silly objects that festoon the car and a soundtrack that emphasizes that the man's head is in the clouds. But Brel makes this unnecessary: his expression tells us all we need to know, even before Pignon opens his mouth. He's trouble, and yet entirely oblivious to his effect on everyone around him -- he's unable to understand why, for instance, his wife might have left him (she is sane, we might speculate).


There's nothing especially likeable or admirable about Pignon, who fastens like a limpet on anyone who shows him an ounce of kindness, but the comedy in L'Emmerdeur comes from a different place, that of the ways in which a man like Pignon can create absolute chaos in the well-laid plans of others, in this case a carefully-prepared hitman who only interacts with Pignon in an attempt to ensure that police stay well away from both men, who are assigned to adjoining hotel rooms.

The film marked the end of Jacques Brel's brief, rather unlikely film, unless we count a subsequent appearance as himself, and was one of his biggest hits, surpassed only by Claude Lelouch's L'Aventure c'est l'aventure -- released the previous year, and also starring Lino Ventura. That's a film truly of its post-1968 moment, with a surreal sequence wherein a band of gangsters undergoes an ideological education, but it's ultimately a much less memorable affair, mostly because it lacks the lean rhythm that makes L'Emmerdeur so effective (it has an interminable prologue that last nearly 45 minutes, nothing like the quick set-up here). Brel has far less to do, too -- he's somewhat lost in the large cast, which includes another star of the French musical scene, M. Johnny Hallyday.

Brel acted in just ten films, over an intense six-year span, withdrawing from the screen in his mid-40s after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. His decision might have been prompted by an ultimately fatal illness, but the singer was always one to do things on his own terms: he had already more or less ceased live performance in 1966, weary of the constant road routine, though he did continue to record albums almost until his death.


While Brel hardly carved out a screen career to equal his singing work, he made the same intelligent use of his rather unconventional gifts: you'd hardly claim that his voice is the most beautiful you'd ever heard, but it's perfectly married to his material, and similarly Brel makes fine use of his less-than-conventionally-handsome physiognomy. Here he exploits his appearance, particularly those horsey front teeth, in service of his dim-witted character, though elsewhere he convinced as a dramatic lead. That his character's wife leaves him on this occasion for a man who can provide her with a horse of her own is perhaps an unintended amusement, though.

Though L'Emmerdeur is certainly a comedy, the film's setup is unexpectedly grim. Before we've discovered anything about Ventura's character, there's a car bombing gone wrong, which is swiftly followed by an execution. We're in no doubt, then, about Ventura's bona fides: he's something of a Melvillian character, remorseless and taciturn, the overlap surely no accident given that the actor had appeared in two of Melville's films a few years earlier. One of the many oddities in the 2008 remake of the film, directed by Francis Veber, author of the original script here, is the decision to craft an entirely different prologue that undermines any threat posed by the hitman, played by Richard Berry. Like his castmate Patrick Timsit, Berry can't hope to compare with his predecessor -- the comparison isn't even fair. Even more outlandish is the goofy Hindi remake, Bumboo, which totally misses the point that L'Emmerdeur succeeds in good measure because it's played completely straight. (Billy Wilder also remade L'Emmerdeur, as Buddy Buddy -- the director's final film, and perhaps a Late Films entry of the future).


Here though, we really believe that Ventura is a remorseless killer, who has the professional and personal misfortune to cross paths with a bumbling fool unable to accept the disintegration of his marriage, and obsessed by the shirts from which he makes his living. It's not just the actors and the tight script who sell the tale, though: Molinaro chose Raoul Coutard to shoot the picture, and they use a handheld style that gives a real sense of the cramped interiors and the proximity between the two characters. The shooting style, which frequently follows the actors from one space to the other, gives us an excellent sense of the geography, too -- another flaw in Veber's remake, where it's sometimes hard to tell whether an event is taking place in one hotel room or its neighbour.

Our last sight of Brel suggests that Ventura's travails, already numerous, are only just beginning. Veber scripted, and directed, numerous variations on the oddball pairing theme later in his career, but he was rarely blessed with a tandem that worked quite so well together, perhaps because his own skills as a filmmaker are much more limited than his writing talents. You wonder what Brel might have made of roles essayed by Pierre Richard in particular -- Richard is amusing enough in a kind of puppet-ish way, but Brel has an edge that Veber only rarely re-captured in later films, though that certainly didn't hamper his commercial success.

In semi-fairytale style, Brel lived out his final few years in peripatetic fashion, sailing the world on his yacht, with periodic health-related trips back to France, and while he stepped back behind the microphone a few times, he held firm on his retirement as a film actor.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Please Murder Me


1956, US, directed by Peter Godfrey

A rather nice meeting for two actors probably best remembered these days for small-screen roles -- a hulking Raymond Burr in his pre-Perry Mason days, and Angela Lansbury straying very far indeed from Jessica Fletcher territory, as the fatalest of femmes. On this occasion, at least, Lansbury's not entirely convincing in the role -- as depicted onscreen, she seems far too passive to really make us believe in her character's cynicism, with the spotlight remaining more firmly on Burr (as the shot above might suggest). The set-up is rather a stretch, albeit very much in the noir mould, with Burr narrating events that lead him to make a plea something along the lines of the give-it-all-away title, but the night-time atmospherics and unusual casting make the twists well worth persisting with.

This is an entry in my Watching Movies in Africa project: the film was screened in the late 1950s in Ghana, though I have not been able to gather whether it was a popular offering. I would suspect that the relative lack of action and the sustained dialogue scenes meant it was only screened a handful of times, though as an independent American production it probably didn't cost much to rent.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Son of Dracula


1943, US, directed by Robert Siodmak

As in Siodmak's later Cobra Woman, the absurdity of the script and much of the dialogue is at times quite successfully counterbalanced by the atmospheric staging: whatever the flaws in the raw material, you can't fault the director for a lack of commitment to the end product, probably why something like Cobra Woman ends up as such an intense fever dream despite its patent silliness. Here, there's no Technicolor craziness, but scenes in a prison, where a man seems to be talking to himself, or in the cabin of a gypsy woman on a Southern plantation (there's a mashup for the ages) are wonderfully creepy, deploying shadows and set design to great effect. The count himself is far less interesting, and indeed until the latter stages Lon Chaney Jr has very little screen time -- though his various entrances and exits are cleverly handled with some fine effects work. By contrast, flying bat technology had not appreciably improved since 1931. Among the supporting players, J. Edward Bromberg is most entertaining as Professor Lazlo, a vampire authority conveniently based in nearby Memphis; Bromberg was a future blacklistee, and an authentic Transylvanian, born in Timisoara.

I'm including this in my Watching Movies in Africa project but it's another cheat -- like And Then There Were None before it, Son of Dracula was banned by the Gold Coast Board of Control in 1946, part of a broader discomfort with horror films. Indeed, the censor was so reluctant to pass anything that had received the British "H"certificate in the 1930s and 1940s that exhibitors rarely imported such fare, and when they did, as in this case, a ban usually resulted. It's not clear whether local audiences were all that interested in horror films, since they had so few opportunities to see them, though later audiences loved films like The Exorcist, one of the first films to have an extended run in a single theatre in what was, by then, Ghana. That was not the local exhibition norm, with nightly changes of programme more common. The censors that banned Son of Dracula did not go into much detail about their rationale, observing simply that it was "A 'horror' film to which the Board took strong objection."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

And Then There Were None


1945, US, directed by René Clair

Audiences at the tail-end of the war certainly seem to have had a taste for the blacker shadings in life, whether the overall tone was comic or tragic -- the tongue is firmly in cheek here, as English conventions are gleefully skewered by colonials, expatriates and Johnny Foreigner alike. Though I've not read Agatha Christie's original novel for years, nor seen her stage derivation, the almost frantic efforts to maintain the behavioural norms of the British class system surely was influenced by the disintegrating world that formed the real-life backdrop to the fictional material.

Clair keeps the tone bone-dry as the upper-class characters are forced to deal with an island without servants, among other inconveniences (you know, the occasional murder, and so forth), while also creating several finely atmospheric sequences, especially the early scene during which the characters find out just why their odd group has been brought together. It's hard to avoid thinking of Hitchcock throughout the film -- the opening sequence on a boat surely references the master's work in the previous year's Lifeboat, but Hitch may have returned the favour some years later, with Dial M for Murder, which makes the same precise use of set geography such that the storm-tossed house here, and the London apartment there, become characters in their own right.

While I've added this to my Watching Movies in Africa project, it's a bit of a cheat. The film is here on the basis that I know it was banned in what was then the Gold Coast in 1946, and I haven't yet found evidence that it was shown elsewhere. Film censorship on the Gold Coast was fairly relaxed for the most part, at least until the late 1950s: films were already certified in the UK, where censorship was fairly strict at the time, and very few films seem to have been subsequently banned in the Gold Coast. Based on the evidence to date, even fewer were snipped by the local censor. Still, in 1946 there was a rash of outright prohibitions, and the main film distributor at the time, West African Pictures Co., a Lebanese-run company which eventually ended up in state hands in 1956, complained loudly about the sudden strictness. The censor gave written reasons for the various bans, with And Then There Were None prohibited on the basis that it "showed a series of carefully planned murders," earning it unanimous rejection. One wonders whether the board also objected, if in unspoken ways, to the manner in which the film depicts British society -- colonial censorship boards, even when they included local representatives, tended not to like films that took the mother country down a peg or two.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Detour


1945, US, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

One of those films I'd meant to see for years, but it wasn't until I heard Martin Scorsese mention it again in his introduction to Lawrence of Arabia that I was prodded into action. It seemed the most unlikely connection given the scale on which the two films are conceived, with Detour clocking in at just over an hour and made on the tightest of Poverty Row budgets. Scorsese's point, as I recollect it, was that both films show men apparently caught in the grip of a pre-ordained fate, which hangs over them throughout their lives. That's hardly an idea that's to Lawrence's credit when you see Detour, although I think that Lawrence's conception of his fate can be taken to a much greater degree at face value, whereas Tom Neal, playing the sad-sack protagonist here, is all about self-justification as his life spirals out of his control (surely an influence on Scorses's own Taxi Driver, with its own insistent voice-over narration). Though there's the occasional whip of terrific dialogue, particularly from the mouth of Ann Savage, this is noir in its truest distillation, a tale that focuses on the dregs rather than the finely-turned line; the dénouement is shockingly brutal, perhaps accidental but entirely in keeping with the pitilessness of a truly self-centered man.

Taken 2


2012, France, directed by Olivier Megaton

I haven't see the first of these films, so I can't judge it on continuity grounds, but Liam Neeson is surely the Carlton Palmer of action heroes -- two gangly men who look like extremely unlikely candidates for their assigned professions. Indeed, Neeson is so tall compared to most of his assailants that the fights look completely ridiculous whenever they're in long shot; Megaton's main solution to this problem is to render the combat sequences so completely incoherent that it no longer really matters. I like Neeson in many of his other roles, but what he needs here is the absolute seriousness of a Bruce Willis, capable of selling you something patently ridiculous by the sheer force of his commitment to the lines, however absurd. Even so, the whole enterprise is so perfectly machine-tooled that it's lacking almost completely in tension, with the outcome so obviously  fore-ordained; I'm not sure any actor can do a whole lot about that.

On the basis that I watched it at a cinema in Accra, I'll count as an entry in my Watching Movies in Africa project. I ended up seeing this particular film because I waited to see which of the late-afternoon screenings at the 5-screen Silverbird theatre at Accra Mall was most popular before plunking down my 16 cedis (US$8). The price alone, never mind the location of the Mall, well outside the centre of the city, makes this the kind of place that's off-limits for most residents of Accra. All of the films on offer had been playing for weeks -- there hadn't been a new film for nearly a month -- and so there were few people around that Sunday. The very small audience at Taken 2 was mostly made up of the (surprisingly attentive) teenage children of well-off Accra families; in the end, it felt like there wasn't anything much different about seeing this in Accra as opposed to Akron.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Where No Vultures Fly


1951, UK, directed by Harry Watt

Damn you, British audiences of 1951 and 1952 for plunking down your coppers to see this film! It's your fault that the world was given West of Zanzibar a few years later! Admittedly, those audiences showed at least some discrimination: this first Ealing-in-Africa foray is considerably better than the sequel, which was virtually ignored at the box office (other people showed good sense, too: Dinah Sheridan didn't show up for the sequel, necessitating the casting of Sheila Sim in the same role). Where No Vultures Fly was shot was almost exclusively filmed in East Africa, so there's none of the absurd stitching together of location and studio footage that's so distracting in the sequel, though on occasion the obvious realism of, say, Anthony Steel clambering up a dead elephant is rather discomfiting in comparison to the fakery of the studio hippo of West of Zanzibar.


Of course, better filmmaking doesn't mean more enlightened views on the colonies, with the white man very firmly in charge despite his propensity for continually getting himself in trouble. Indeed, the entire film is structured as a series of problems and solutions rather than as a conventional story arc. Each new challenge--poachers, leopards, snakes, marital strife, labour unrest-- comes hard on the heels of the last, and the characters mull over each situation before, inevitably, someone (white) exclaims, "I've got it!" The world of the film is comically small at times, too, perhaps in the spirit of a studio that made Passport to Pimlico : while we're constantly told that Anthony Steel is overseeing 1,000 square miles, people keep showing up on his doorstep as though they've wandered down the street for a chat and a cup of tea, while the transportation challenges of rural Africa are invoked exclusively when the plot requires an unanticipated delay.

This film is part of my Watching Movies in Africa project. While archival evidence suggests the film was screened in East Africa, I've yet to find newspaper or other information with actual screening dates.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dialogue avec mon jardinier


2007, France, directed by Jean Becker

Jean Becker's films are considerably less tough-minded than those of his father. Of late, in particular, they yearn for a France that no longer exists, if indeed it ever was, while this film pays ultimately dismissive lip-service to France's social problems, as though a few gentle words can solve the most intractable tensions. At times, the film beguiles -- Becker captures the gorgeous light of late summer and the peaceable rhythms of the garden -- but his ending seems to betray his attempts to mine some deeper rural wisdom by turning the countryside into just another commodity.


If the film were from the US, you'd half expect the gardener to be black -- he's the kind of magical wise man from the other side of the tracks (literally in this case) that's such an irritating trope in American cinema. That said, it's nice to see Jean-Pierre Darroussin play gentle rather than irascible; he walks a fine line with a character who, as written, is a touch on the simple side, but the actor invests him with considerable dignity, and a touch of prickly self-consciousness. Daniel Auteuil, for his part, feels like he picked up right where he left off in Mon Meilleur ami -- he can do this kind of thing in his sleep, and at times it shows, the actor's natural charm notwithstanding.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Donkeys


2010, UK, directed by Morag McKinnon

Though its mordant humour is in a category of its own, Donkeys recalled to mind a couple of Irish films, Adam and Paul and Kings: the central pair here, a hopeless twosome played by James Cosmo and Brian Pettifer (one of the great faces of the modern British cinema), reminded me of a slightly more functional version of the co-dependents at the heart of those films. In all cases, these are men whose lives have gone off the tracks, filled with disappointments, ruined relationships, and self-loathing, but McKinnon grants her characters a certain self-aware dignity, and treats their stories with an often wicked humour, as well as a sharp visual style (the shot above, which she holds until after Cosmo's departure, is one of my favourites).


She manages remarkable transitions so adeptly that a laugh and a gasp of horror can co-exist almost in the same breath -- indeed, they're often appropriately paired reactions, so inept are the efforts of Cosmo, in particular, to restore order to a messy life. Although there's a ray of redemption in the air over the Barra markets as the film comes to a close, there's never a hint of sentimentality in McKinnon's portraits, and that lends these characters striking verisimilitude, with Cosmo's utterly unself-conscious performance -- fat stomach and unshaven jowls -- only enhancing the sense of people plucked from the Glasgow streets, filled with piss, vinegar and a way with a finely-wrought line.


For all the film's apparently low-key vibe, McKinnon also achieves something of the pace of farce in certain sequences -- I'd initially popped the disc in intending just to verify it was working, and before I knew it the film was over. It hooks you with story, and keeps you with characters, their stories carefully rhythmed to align in a sequence of squirming inglory before the film splinters in an entirely new direction that gives new meaning to the term gallows humour.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Louis Jouvet Filmography


My 2012 viewing project was to see every available film featuring the great French actor Louis Jouvet (1887-1951).

Jouvet made 32 films, a figure dwarfed by many of his acting contemporaries: his first love was always the theatre and he ploughed much of what he earned back into his own theatre company. Quite a few of his roles in the 1930s were of a supporting nature -- there's not much to his performance in something like La Maison du maltais though he's one of the highlights in Un Carnet de bal despite his brief time onscreen. It's largely in the postwar period that we really see him flex his onscreen acting muscles, and Un Revenant and Quai des orfèvres are, for me, the highlights of that period.

Many of his films are quite hard to come by these days, and it took me several years to track down some of the less-celebrated entries in the filmography. Even those who have written biographies of Jouvet don't appear to have been able to see either Ramuntcho or Sérénade (the former seems to be completely lost today while I could only find a very poor copy of the latter film), and I've only come across brief scenes from the 1933 version of Knock.

Topaze (1933)
Knock, ou la triomphe de la médecine (1933)
La Kermesse héroïque (1935)
Les Bas-fonds (1936)
Mister Flow (1936)
Un Carnet de bal (1937)
Drôle de drame (1937)
Forfaiture (1937)
L'Alibi (1937)
Mademoiselle Docteur (1937) [aka Salonique, nid d'espions]
La Marseillaise (1938)
Ramuntcho (1938)
La Maison du maltais (1938) [aka Sirocco]
Entrée des artistes (1938)
Éducation de prince (1938)
Le Drame de Shanghaï (1938)
Hôtel du Nord (1938)
La Fin du jour (1939)
La Charrette fantôme (1939)
Sérénade (1940)
Volpone (1941)
Untel père et fils (1943) [shot in 1940]
Un Revenant (1946)
Copie conforme (1947)
Quai des orfèvres (1947)
Les Amoureux sont seuls au monde (1948)
Entre onze heures et minuit (1949)
Retour à la vie (1949)
Miquette et sa mère (1950)
Lady Paname (1950)
Knock (1951)
Une Histoire d'amour (1951)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wake in Fright


1971, Australia, directed by Ted Kotcheff

Restored after many years on the missing list, I could understand if many an Australian would be happy to have Wake in Fright remain under wraps more permanently: although there's a fascinating ambiguity at the heart of the film, which casts a skeptical eye on both the rugged mateship rituals of the outback and the city slicker who gets his comeuppance, there's nary a positive role model to be seen, with even the local police chief far more unsettling than reassuring. Said police chief is played by Chips Rafferty, in his final role. It's a fitting epitaph for the man who was Australia's one real home-grown movie star of the postwar years, for Ted Kotcheff's film was clearly one of the harbingers of the very different film industry that would emerge in the 1970s.


There can't be too many films that begin with a 360-degree pan, used in this instance to underline the utter emptiness of the landscape around the tiny, fictional settlement of Tiboonda, located deep in the New South Wales outback. Scale is the outback's main downside in the film's account, and that marks it out as rather different from much of what followed: while vast, the land isn't especially terrifying, and in a later sequence a city boy is able to feed himself easily enough during a lengthy foot trek. It's a far cry from a film like Picnic at Hanging Rock, or, much later, Japanese Story, where the land itself, rather than the people within it, is the primary threat. There's no doubting who we need to be cautious of here -- wild boy Jack Thompson, making his film debut, and alcoholic Donald Pleasance, seen most alarmingly in a shot where he stands on his head. The sight of a bearded, upside-down Pleasance is not a vision easily shaken.

This, then, is a headlong plunge into the excesses of white male outback Australia, and it has an anthropological feel at times, no doubt enhanced by the use of numerous non-professional extras, notably in the lengthy game of "two-up" where the schoolteacher's plans begin to go awry (Kotcheff integrates that material, shot back in Sydney, seamlessly with the exteriors filmed around Broken Hill; I had assumed, until I read an interview with the director, that they were sweaty real-life locales). There's a fascinating accumulation of detail as we encounter this alien culture -- the aggressive hospitality, the signage that reminds us the days of the "six o'clock swill" were barely in the rear-view mirror, the recognition of war dead (neatly bringing in another fine figure of Australian mythology, the digger). A genuine re-discovered treasure that is now very clearly a keystone in the development of the new Australian cinema.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Une Histoire d'amour


1951, France, directed by Guy Lefranc

Louis Jouvet's final film is, sadly, a relatively pedestrian affair for the actor, who died suddenly some months before the film was released; I wonder what other projects he had on the burner? Although the filmmakers attempt to extract some suspense from the flashback structure, this is a pretty straightforward police procedural, the kind of thing handled these days in a 45-minute television episode, and the sequences that recall Clouzot's great Quai des Orfèvres (the shots of the grimy corridors of the police station, Jouvet's interactions with a disapproving boss, indeed the very fact that Jouvet plays a rebellious police inspector) only serve to underline the weaknesses here.


Although the credits bill him top, Jouvet isn't even onscreen for much of the film, which focuses on the relationship between the wealthy Dany Robin and working stiff Daniel Gélin, who is employed by Robin's father (Dany Robin was herself the object of temptation for Louis Jouvet a few years earlier in Les Amoureux sont seuls au monde, a title that might easily have been re-used on this occasion). There's a Romeo-and-Juliet aspect to the youthful lovers, although across class lines rather than those of familial loyalty, and Jouvet's contempt for the haute bourgeoisie is rather enjoyable, particularly when the objects of his contempt seem oblivious to his ironic commentary (he doesn't have much more time for Gélin's ne'er-do-well father, a man allergic to work though not to its potential financial rewards).


I read online that Jean Grémillon, for whom director Guy Lefranc once worked, was originally supposed to take the helm. While Lefranc isn't lacking in competence, it's hard not to wonder what a less prosaic director might have done with the material: there are arresting flashes here and there, whether in the humour of the shot atop this entry, or in the intensity of the close-ups between the two lovers, late in the film, but they're a little lost in the routine of the procedural. One point of note, to my mind at least: in both this and Lefranc's previous collaboration with Jouvet, Knock, there is some striking location work, particularly the opening of this film in a junkyard, that gives both films an extra layer of richness, situating them in recognizably real places that anchor the melodrama and comedy. While obviously location shooting didn't begin with the nouvelle vague later in the 1950s, such well-judged intrusions of the "real world" aren't common in the earlier French films I've seen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Knock


1951, France, directed by Guy Lefranc

Louis Jouvet's penultimate film is a return to the source as Dr. Knock, a new doctor arriving to take over a practice in an apparently misbegotten corner of France -- a part that Jouvet originated on the stage in 1923, and which he played in a prior film incarnation in 1933. Sadly, that earlier screen version seems to have all but disappeared, with the exception of a couple of scratchy clips online featuring both Jouvet and Robert Le Vigan, although those extracts give some brief insight into the ways in which the actor re-worked the character and his own screen technique over the decades.

Louis de Funès delivers his solitary line, and exits.
After so many years of mostly minor parts, Jouvet was front and centre most of the time in his postwar work, and rarely more so than here. That's not to say that he blows everyone off the screen, nor that he's even present in every scene, but rather that his character is so distinctive in his manias that he's very much on the viewer's mind even when he's offscreen; whether he is present or not, all of the other characters are reacting to him. By contrast, Jouvet the performer is very generous with his fellow actors, including familiar faces like Pierre Renoir and a young Jean Carmet, who was already well on the way to honing what would become his familiar comic persona. The strength of the support is central to the tic-tac of both dialogue and physical interaction -- for instance in the delightful bit between Jouvet and Renoir, playing the local pharmacist, where the two men hurriedly agree that they are entirely above base monetary motivations. Equally amusing, in a slapstick register, are the reactions of André Dalibert as Jouvet manipulates him in ways that would befit a fairly vigorous veterinarian. Much briefer, and of more historical note than anything else, is the one-line appearance of Louis de Funès, some years before stardom hit.


Guy Lefranc handles things nicely for his first turn at the helm (he had worked as an assistant on films by a rather distinguished array of directors -- Jean Grémillon, Raymond Bernard, Robert Bresson). There's a clever scene centering on one of the doctor's early diagnoses, for instance, where we get a point of view shot that circles the patient as the latter looks upward in search of reassurance from Knock. Elsewhere, the framing of the actors ensures that the focus remains on their performances, already well served by some very fine dialogue. That's key in the scenes when we see Jouvet's eyes wander away to the middle distance during a consultation, a clue to his state of mind that we're aware of even if his patients can't see the problem; cuts from one face to another would have made this rather less obvious. It's also a film of considerable zip -- not only do several months pass by in the blink of an eye, but the rhythm of the key scenes is imbued with a sense of momentum that underlines Knock's rapid takeover of local life.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia


1962, US/UK, directed by David Lean

It's been a long time coming, though I had to be a good more patient than I would have liked: I was saving David Lean's film for the big screen, but it's increasingly rare for pictures like this to get the outings they deserve. In the end, I had to compromise on format, a point likely of interest only to people like my good self: I could have waited another age in the hopes of a local 70mm screening or settled for the new digital restoration on a somewhat smaller scale. While I'm sure that the 70mm experience would have been tremendously impressive, this was still quite the experience -- the sheer intrepidness of the filmmaking is quite astonishing, particularly when the actors, and presumably the numerous support personnel, are out in the desert for long stretches of the film.

The justly famous scene in which Omar Sharif first appears, almost as a trick of the light in the heat haze, gives a sense of the scale and the stakes, and that thrill is repeated, and perhaps even amplified by the momentum of the camera, in the subsequent sequence where we see Peter O'Toole materialise in the far distance after embarking on what seems a suicidal rescue mission. While I anticipated to some degree the scale of the picture, what was unexpected was the degree to which Lean's goals were those of intimacy and psychological insight: the thrills of the gorgeous landscapes, the swelling score, and the many points of physical and emotional drama are there not simply as moments of big-screen spectacle, but rather in the service of understanding just what drove this unusual, perhaps troubled man (in his screen incarnation, at least, given that the relationship to the actual Lawrence and his experiences seems frequently to be rather tenuous).

As articulated by Lean, it's a portrait of colossal egotism, where the fates of Arabian peoples are subsumed to Lawrence's own ambitions and efforts at self-understanding, though it's by no means the schematic psychology so familiar in latter-day Hollywood, which would probably set up Lawrence's anxieties over his parentage (his father held a minor title, and was not married to his mother, matters which are mentioned onscreen) as the precursor to a simplistic resolution. It's striking to see how Lean's concerns with psychological portraiture track from the much smaller scale of many of his 1940s films to his later epic phase.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Lady Paname


1950, France, directed by Henri Jeanson

A pleasant surprise, for somehow I was dreading this entry on the path to Louis Jouvet completeness; the idea of a comedy set in the world of the 1920s music halls had no particular appeal, despite the presence of the wonderful dialogist Henri Jeanson behind the camera for the one and only time in his career. My misgivings seemed to be confirmed when Louis Jouvet first appeared, for he seemed to be in high theatrical mode, with a silly beard to underline the point (the kind of thing he could do in his sleep, I thought).

How wrong I was. The film is absolutely charming, and Jeanson's dialogue often sparkles -- Jouvet and Suzy Delair, reunited for a third and final film after Copie conforme and Quai des Orfèvres, both make hay with their lines, and while Delair is sometimes an uneven actress she manages her character's transitions rather well here, pivoting from concerned sister to music hall star in convincing fashion, and clearly enjoying the spotlight (as befits her character). The scenes with Delair on stage aren't really to my taste, but the sequences are probably representative enough of the music hall setting -- although the film is set decades in the past, the filmmakers seem to have had no trouble rounding up the various acrobats and trick cyclists required for background colour.


The action, which is occasionally rather serpentine, zips right along -- Jeanson crams a terrific amount of background detail in to the film, evoking names and incidents of the music halls of yore, with a healthy dose of affection (it's a bit like the filmed equivalent of Charles Trenet's song Moi, j'aime le music hall in that regard). He's also generous in granting fine lines to the gallery of supporting players -- Monique Mélinand, Jouvet's companion, has a delicious sequence wherein she declaims that she only sleeps with men to either get rid of them or to become friends with them, since she can't stand them as bosses. Jouvet, of course, enters the room the moment she utters her line; as he begins his own speech, it's hard to avoid the impression that a grinning Mélinand is laughing at Jouvet (rather than at his character).

Friday, September 28, 2012

Retour à la vie


1949, France, directed by André Cayatte, Georges Lampin, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Dréville

Though all of the episodes in this omnibus film came from the pen of Charles Spaak, the tone varies a good deal in the hands of four different directors (Jean Dréville directed the final two segments). The stories all deal with the return of imprisoned French men and women after the war, and while the initial narration suggests that we're about to see only the negative experiences that accompanied repatriation, that's not entirely true -- one of the segments is very light in tone, and two others end very much on an upbeat note.


The film was not a box office success, and while the list of hit portmanteau films is not exactly lengthy to start with, one suspects that this film a little too close to recent experience for many viewers. Even in some of the lighter sequences, Spaak inserts numerous small, even throwaway, observations about the nature of life in France just after the war. There are the fake ration coupons, the people keen to burnish their image as members of the resistance (it's of note when a character does not immediately mention his service, as though such self-effacement was uncommon, and perhaps a sign of more genuine participation), the almost absurd efforts of petty officialdom to recuperate the released prisoners for the nation's self-image, and the constant reflection on who did or did not collaborate and to what degree, with Spaak casting aspersions on the near-ubiquitous comités d'épuration of the immediate post-war period.

Clouzot's segment, the third, is by some way the film's strongest sequence, pushing both characters and audience to reflect on the nature, and perhaps the banality, of evil, and posing the question of how one might behave in extreme circumstances. Set in a hotel that accommodates those not yet able to return to their actual homes, the film featuring Louis Jouvet, gives a vivid sense of the way in which many returnees felt caught between worlds, no longer of their original homes and yet desperate to start new lives if not quite to resume old ones. Spaak treats that theme with a good deal more humour in the fourth segment, in which a returnee finds his apartment has been requisitioned for the benefit of a puffed-up minor resistant. The only sequence that rivals Clouzot's in intensity is the first, a true chamber piece centered on a woman forced to deal with the property shenanigans her relatives have indulged in during her enforced absence. It's a brutally cynical segment, excoriating the idea of the noble France left behind.

In the end, the primary unifying thread is that of performance -- each segment has a very strong lead actor. Bernard Blier anchors the opener, with barely anything to act against in the film's most powerful scene since he's talking to a mute, virtually immobile invalid; it's among the strongest work I've seen from the actor. Louis Jouvet is predictably magnetic, and multi-layered, as the embittered interrogator forced to confront his own contradictions in Clouzot's lacerating section, and Serge Reggiani, playing a rather more pleasant character than is often the case, is also fine in the final segment even if the piece itself is far too neat. François Périer and the popular (and to me unfamiliar) actor Noël Noël anchor the lighter segments, and they convey rather well the way in which entirely ordinary, good-humoured men are confronted by the strangest of circumstances both during their imprisonment and on their return home.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed


2012, US, directed by Colin Trevorrow

Who'd have thought that the indie time travel-romance genre had room for more than one entry? The tone is decidedly more comic on this occasion, with a pretty conventional subplot about the deflowering of a nervous young man (the film gets a good deal of fine comic mileage out of studiously ignoring this plotline as soon as it apparently plays out), and a screenplay that's rather schematic -- the main story about dealing with one's past is paired with a rather obvious repetition of that same theme within another character's story.

What we're left with then, is mostly a set of genial, occasionally piercing, character observations -- moments in which disparate people connect with one another, or fail to understand the nature of their connections. Trevorrow doesn't really grapple with some of the bigger character questions he raises, though -- while the non-resolution of the above subplot is rather enjoyable, elsewhere he simply ignores problems that he can't resolve, simply moving on from the sticking point as though it didn't exist. That's especially problematic in the main story, where unfortunately it undermines the credibility of the nascent connection between Aubrey Plaza, who is genuinely charming, and Mark Duplass, who plays a potentially irritating kook commendably straight, which is key to finding a note of sympathy in the man.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Entre onze heures et minuit


1949, France, directed by Henri Decoin

Henri Decoin's second film in quick succession with Louis Jouvet opens with an extended sequence apparently designed to convince the audience that a plot centered on doppelgänger resemblances is not inherently implausible. That such effort is expended before the film proper even begins isn't a good sign, although there are certain meta-cinematic pleasures to be had given that the sequence uses Jouvet's own appearance in the earlier Copie conforme to aid in the argument. One of the points of that film, of course, was that a certain amount of work is needed for the resemblance to truly hold up to scrutiny, whereas here Jouvet's character -- a policeman with an uncanny resemblance to a criminal -- takes advantage of his appearance with barely a whit of preparation, and no idea whether, for instance, he sounds like the other man.


Sure enough, someone realizes pretty soon that the cop is not who he seems, though the film makes this even more implausible because no-one else in the man's inner circle draws the same conclusion (though henchman Robert Arnoux, who delivers a very droll performance, observes at one stage that he has the strange sensation of watching a dubbed film while in the presence of his "boss"-- an amusing overlap with the dialogue in the prior Decoin-Jouvet film, where the latter's character observes that a dubbed film is a film that has lost half its sense). Unlike in Copie conforme, Jouvet isn't really called upon to play two roles here, barely modulating his regular attitudes, which in turn seem copied rather blatantly in some respects from the cop he played in Clouzot's far richer Quai des Orfèvres. There are occasional moments when the film soars, however -- Decoin handles an early murder sequence with great flair, taking advantage of the unusual tunnel location near the Porte des Ternes as a man blithely walks to his death.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Les Amoureux sont seuls au monde


France, 1948, directed by Henri Decoin

Although certainly not as bitter as other post-war films, this is a rather downbeat drama -- at least in the version that appears to have survived, for I've read suggestions that director Henri Decoin shot two endings, one rather more optimistic in tone to the one on view here. As Farran Smith Nehme wrote recently, love stories that begin mid-marriage are rare cinematic animals, and this film opens with a lovely sequence in which Louis Jouvet and Renée Devillers, married for many years, re-enact their first meeting in a country banquet hall.

The script, by Henri Jeanson, has the couple playfully spar with one another, underlining their vast reserves of affection, while Jeanson also enjoys himself by assigning Jouvet a terrific monologue about going to the movies and suspecting that certain outcomes are possible or impossible simply because of the presence of the stars. The idea of game playing between couples crops up again throughout the film, though not always with the same benign and pleasurable results; the central narrative deals with suspicions of infidelity even in such an apparently grounded marriage.


Henri Decoin was a prolific director, though I've only seen two or three of his films; his work here is solid, and occasionally, as in the handling of the film's various monologues, something more (the montage in which Jouvet and Devillers narrate the history of their relationship in voiceover is especially good). There's an uncertainty in the tone, though, that's disconcerting at times -- the film slips from a kind of pastoral poetry in two forest sequences to an unexpected breath of realism in a scene where Dany Robin (as Monelle, the young woman who appears to distract Jouvet from his marriage) steps off a bus clearly filmed in the streets of Paris -- nouvelle vague shooting avant la lettre, and not sustained, for in the next shot Robin is clearly back on the studio sound stage.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Quai des Orfèvres


1947, France, directed by Henri-George Clouzot

Almost certainly Louis Jouvet's best-remembered film -- the only near competition comes, I think, from Marcel Carné's Hôtel du Nord, which isn't even on DVD in the US -- Quai des Orfèvres also features one of his very finest performances, as a dogged cop whose lack of respect for his superiors has limited his career prospects. As I noted previously, Jouvet didn't often play characters from this neck of the socio-economic woods, and yet this feels like one of the most thoroughly inhabited of his characters, a remarkably subtle, even fragile creation, with unlikely elements that somehow hang together. I suspect that to some degree that's because it's among the more underplayed of Jouvet's roles, in particular when it comes to the character's gruff expressions of affection for an adopted son, moments that provide brief, telling insights into the man's heart without being excessively mined for sentiment.

Indeed, that's typical of the film as a whole: as Luc Sante comments in the notes to the Criterion DVD edition, the film teems with Balzacian life, depicting in piquant details the worlds of both the music hall, the police station, and the crime journalist fraternity, as well as a complex crime, all without an indulgent running time. The very specific world of the music hall dominates the opening section of the film -- I had forgotten that Jouvet doesn't even appear until 40 minutes in, which underlines, yet again, how he tends to dominate one's memory of even the strongest films. As with Clouzot's later, and altogether more lightweight, film Miquette et sa mère, you get the sense that the director retained a persistent skepticism about those who chose to make their careers on the stage, or perhaps it was just that he couldn't turn off his sociologist's eye for the details of human behaviour even when turned on a milieu in which he himself spent so much time.

Index

List of all movies

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States