Sunday, November 18, 2018
1963, France, directed by Gilles Grangier
This is a contribution to the Late Films Blogathon hosted, as ever, by David Cairns at Shadowplay (I think this is the eighth year I've managed to put something together, despite the increasing competition of work and children...)
As is rather common with late films, Arletty's final cinematic performance was not among her most glorious, with a pretty thin supporting role in a routine Fernandel vehicle. It was one of four films The Great White Teeth of French cinema released that year -- and only one, La Cuisine au beurre, proved memorable. Indeed, Fernandel himself was on the wane, relatively speaking, soon to be eclipsed in the popularity stakes by late-bloomer Louis de Funès and His Rubber Face, along with longtime, less-rubbery, Bourvil -- and the contrast between the modest, black and white Voyage à Biarritz and films like Le Gendarme de St Tropez or Le Corniaud, with their impressive colour production values, seems to underline the changing of the guard.
By the time of filming on Le Voyage à Biarritz, Arletty could barely see -- her vision had been in decline for some time, and she had suffered an eyecare accident of some kind earlier in the year, switching eyedrops intended for the left eye into the right and vice versa, which sounds vaguely comical if the outcome hadn't been so terrible. Given her limitations, many of her scenes have her sitting or standing in one place, or being gently escorted by her fellow cast members. Indeed, there's some suggestion that she was essentially hired as a kind of favour by old friends; she and Fernandel appeared together on stage and screen in Fric-Frac in the 1930s, while Gilles Grangier, another child of the Parisian streets, had directed her in the 1952 vehicle L'Amour Madame, in which she plays a version of herself. She relied on such gestures of kindness for most of her postwar life, dying in the most modest of circumstances in 1992.
When the actress first appears here, you could be forgiven for not even realizing it was Arletty, so little does her character have to do. It's all a far cry from her indelible early performances, stealing scenes, indeed entire films, from more established performers in the late 1930s. It's hard to believe now, but Hôtel du Nord, Arletty's real arrival on the scene, was designed around Annabella, a popular star of the time. Arletty waltzes in, wipes the floor with precious Annabella and, not incidentally, creates an entirely new type of female lead in French film (Louis Jouvet isn't too shabby either -- you ache for them to have worked together again).
It was in that film that Arletty uttered what is probably the single most famous word in French cinema, atmosphère. A little of that quality wouldn't go amiss in her final screen appearance: the location shooting in Fréjus and Toulon can't hold a candle to the magic Marcel Carné whipped up on his sets. Grangier wasn't in the same league as Carné, of course, and while he's able to construct a fairly solid narrative, even by his standards this is a pretty thin affair. Grangier's collaborations with Jean Gabin are often much stronger; while it's often been suggested that Gabin dominated his directors as his career advanced, he may also have extracted better films from them on occasion.
But what of Arletty's final work, then? Fernandel stars as the master of a small train station in southern France, with a son who's an engineer in London. Arletty plays Fernande, the owner/operator of the local café, and with her mischievous tone and mildly exotic background, the locals are quick to believe Fernande and Fernandel might be having an affair, perhaps centered on their shared syllables. Grangier does a nice job of conveying the lightning-speed spread of gossip among the townsfolk, and there's a definite glint in the Arlettian eye when she gets a sniff of the townsfolk's silliness, the one moment when you see the youthful zest emerge from under the accretion of the years. Even the old voice, that most beguiling of instruments, gets a dusting off, as she rolls a couple of Michel Audiard pearls around on the tongue.
Sadly, once that segment of the plot is resolved, Arletty barely gets a look in -- the film whizzes off to London for a few quick shots of Fernandel in front of the tourist sights, and some awkward assaults on the English language. The cross-Channel comedy is supposed to stem from the fact that Fernandel, who has won an all-expenses-paid trip as part of a promotion, wants to see his son but can't give his publicity-minded handlers the slip. It's an awkward joke spun out far too long, and the film is more assured, and more funny, on French soil. The resolution -- spurred by a kind of train ex machina -- seems to have come in from an entirely different film, though, suddenly pouring a dose of cold water on the earlier hijinks, even if Fernandel's horselike features are put to good use in several long-faced scenes that precede the inevitable all's-well finale.
There's no fanfare to play Arletty out, with Fernandel and his much-used smile taking us through the final frames. The actress did a little voiceover work in the following decades, but largely retreated from the world before blazing through the public consciousness once again in the aftermath of her death. I happened to be in France when she died, and all of the newspapers and magazines rushed tributes into press, sometimes dedicating entire issues to Arletty's place in French cinematic and social history. In death, at least, her postwar rehabilitation in the eyes of the public was complete, and many people assembled at the real Hôtel du Nord, a place that Carné had never sullied with his camera or his star, who was perhaps the one true, glorious discovery of his career.
Incidentally, one person's late film is almost inevitably someone else's early-career gig: Anna Massey appears here in her first big-screen appearance after Peeping Tom, about as extreme a contrast as could be imagined, while Michel Galabru, about to hit the big time as a de Funès sidekick, has one of his early roles of substance after a decade of bit-part graft.
Thursday, November 01, 2018
1998, Australia, directed by Rowan Woods
An exceptional piece of work that stands up well after twenty years, and numerous gritty Aussie crime pics/TV series in the interim, clearly owing a considerable debt to this picture. The Boys seemed like a start of great promise for Rowan Woods, so his subsequent career trajectory has to be rated a relative disappointment by that standard (it's hard to see what's specifically distinctive in his episodes of the TV series Rake, for instance); perhaps, in the end, the distinctive aspects were mostly there in the original play, even if the visuals certainly seem to add a considerable depth to the portrait of this particular, unpleasant milieu.
Sunday, October 28, 2018
Friday, October 19, 2018
Tuesday, October 16, 2018
1986, Australia, directed by Nadia Tass
Very light, and interesting mostly as a time capsule these days, including of Melbourne's trams of the era, though the performances are generally quite pleasing (even if Colin Friels's character would likely be handled differently in 2018), and the set pieces mostly well-paced.
Saturday, October 13, 2018
1938, France, directed by Marcel Carné (aka Port of Shadows)
A film I hadn't seen since college, and it blew me away to see it again now -- the intensity of feeling, the gorgeous photography, the use of sets with a judicious addition of location shooting, Gabin at his pre-war peak, the quite extraordinary support from Simon, Morgan, Brasseur, Le Vigan, and perhaps most of all the willingness to allow scenes to build and build (several of the sequences are exceptionally extended, quite rare in modern cinema except in something like Tarantino's deliberately affected approach).
1968, France, directed by François Truffaut (aka Stolen Kisses)
I blow hot and cold on Truffaut, but this, the third of the Antoine Doinel films, is generally very charming, and has a genuine feel for the time and place -- offscreen, it's clear that something is going on socially despite the occasional preciousness of the characters and their interactions, which is of course no accident given that it was filmed in the early months of 1968 and released after the events of May.
Friday, October 12, 2018
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
1974, Australia, directed by Esben Storm
The story of an alcoholic detained under mental health provisions, this is a genuinely gritty affair, with Robert McDarra in the lead; he died the following year, which is perhaps why he looks authentically ill here, while Bill Hunter plays the primary orderly (needless to say, he's not a pleasant fellow). Several sequences are very hard to take -- there's an authenticity to the physical altercations that's quite unsettling and also an occasional Titticut Follies vibe. The whole thing looks quasi-documentary, too, as though the print was blown up from 16mm.
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
2009, Australia, directed by Glendyn Ivin
Hugo Weaving as a criminal on the run, trying to bond with his son. Though the film makes liberal use of well-worn tropes, the bond between Weaving and the young boy (Tom Russell) has a sincerity and a realism that's quite affecting at times -- it's not hard to believe in the idea of them as father and son, however dysfunctional -- while the photography/use of the Australian landscape is excellent, without descending too far into clichés about the outback as a malevolent character in its own right. Indeed, right at the moment I assumed the film was going to proceed in that direction it creates a little victory for the characters and restores the focus on father/son.
Saturday, September 22, 2018
2017, UK, directed by Armando Iannucci
The consistency of tone is impressive, and among the large and distinguished cast, Steve Buscemi in particular is exceptional -- it feels like the first time in a while that he's really gotten into his groove (on film at least). You feel a little guilty laughing given the subject material, but that is, I'm sure, quite conscious on Iannucci's part.
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
2013, New Zealand, directed by Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland
A very decent coming-of-age story: although this is well-trodden narrative ground, the juvenile performances are really excellent, and the storyline is careful to steer clear of sentimentality, with virtually all of the characters possessed of more than a few rough edges. There's also a very strong sense of the reality of lives in a particular place at a particular time -- the details of work and of familial relationships and dysfunctions are highly convincing, and set the stage for some moments of real emotional heft.
Monday, September 10, 2018
Friday, August 31, 2018
Friday, August 17, 2018
1981, Australia, directed by John Duigan
A mixed bag of a film, with the central drama perhaps less interesting today than the Sydney backdrop, with Bryan Brown trying to retrace the life of an old flame in the aftermath of her suicide, and connecting with a mutual friend, played by Judy Davis. Brown's character is frustrating in his emotional closure (some critiques appear to fault the actor for this, and perhaps he and Davis didn't hit it off, but his character's affect is clearly motivated by the plot), a contrast to his usual garrulous charm of the period, whereas Davis is much more engaging even if her character lacks nuance. The sense of characters reliving and re-evaluating their youthful enthusiasms is at times quite sharp, as is the sketch of Sydney politics/development of the time, however much in the background.
Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Sunday, August 05, 2018
1994, France, directed by Olivier Assayas
A formative film for me, one I saw originally on the big screen in November 1994, and it was as impressive as I recalled, the large screen really enhancing the immersive experience, particularly in the lengthy, and quite extraordinary, party sequence. It's interesting, though, how the memory plays tricks -- that sequence looms so large in my mind that I had forgotten just how much of the film precedes it, and how much additional detail we get on the lives of the protagonists. I had forgotten entire sections, too, such as the extended scene in the police station where Virginie Ledoyen speaks with Jean-Pierre Darroussin (indeed, I had no recollection that the actor was in the film). The film is incredibly rich in detail, feeling very much of that post-1968 moment in which it is set -- the challenge to parental and social authorities (schools, doctors), the integration of various immigrant populations, the hints at the desirability of a return to the land, the apparent hopelessness of youth in the Pompidou years, etc. There are details of performance and filming structure, too, that make a big impression -- the repetition of the motif of handing something from one hand to another (records, money, a hash pipe), the way that Jackie Berroyer fretfully holds his hands together, even the contrast between how young and old dress and interact, as well as the bone-deep chill of the weather (people putting on coats even inside, never mind in the frigid final sequences).
Friday, August 03, 2018
2017, France, directed by Robin Campillo
A fascinating fictionalized counterpart to the American documentary How to Survive a Plague; both films look at the early years of their respective countries' Act Up movements, combating official indifference or indeed active malfeasance in relation to those with HIV/AIDS. The film doesn't hew strictly to the historical record, but is deeply invested in depicting Act Up's unique, tension-filled internal debate process, never sugarcoating the robust discussions. It also gives an exceptionally strong sense of how the realities of the time period impacted gay identity (gay men are the most prominent activists, though part of the French debate was to ensure adequate representation of all affected constituencies), with the suggestion that this is very different for subsequent generations.
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
1953, France/Italy, directed by Max Ophuls (aka The Earrings of Madame de...)
There's not much for me to add to the thousands of words already written on this wonderful film, featuring perhaps the most significant object in cinema, around which Ophuls constructs an exceptional human drama.
Saturday, June 09, 2018
1955, US, directed by Robert Aldrich
A deeply cynical, and ultimately exceptionally bleak, film -- though of a piece with much pulp writing of the 1940s and 1950, this must have felt like a real cinematic slap in the face in 1955, with its generally anti-heroic characters, easy betrayals and casual violence, and the pall of broader threat. The location work is also striking -- some fascinating shots of mid-century LA.
Wednesday, June 06, 2018
Thursday, May 10, 2018
2009, France, directed by Claire Denis
Isabelle Huppert in is top form here, while Claire Denis's work is typically strong, and less elliptical than in some of her 2000s work -- which is perhaps the more effective for this particular film. The sense of societal collapse is cogently and succinctly sketched in, and if I still have some vague sense of discomfort about the depiction of the African continent, Denis is trying to tease out something very challenging, including in her critique of the role of white settlers, about both her own relationship with Africa and cinematic depictions thereof.
Friday, May 04, 2018
1955, France, directed by Robert Bresson
My first viewing of the Criterion Collection restoration of this remarkable film -- and as much as the visuals are striking, it was the soundscape that came across even more strongly on this occasion (particularly in the tension of the titular escape). I still find Bresson to be tough going at times, primarily for his unique and uncompromising approach to performance, but this is one of the key texts. Bresson's star, François Leterrier, went on to a career as a director in his own right, though in a very different register, helming several scattershot popular comedies in the 1980s.
Tuesday, May 01, 2018
1949, US, directed by Byron Haskin
Lizabeth Scott is in very fine form as a very fatale femme -- stay well back. Like Woman on the Run, this is a modest film in its ambitions but the whipsaws of the plot and the performances are generally pleasurable (and Dan Duryea plays an entirely atypical Dan Duryea part -- when he's not the least sympathetic person in the movie you know you're in uncharted waters).
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
2016, France, directed by Bertrand Tavernier
For anyone with even a passing interest in classic French cinema, this is a treasure -- Tavernier is an exceptional guide to the (French) films that marked him, while also setting them in their broader cinematic history. In addition to clips from pictures ranging from the iconic to the obscure (such as Jacques Becker's early film Dernier atout), there is some wonderful interview footage -- including a memorable sequence when director Henri Decoin performs a note-perfect impression of Jean Gabin, with whom he worked on two impressive films.
Tuesday, April 17, 2018
Monday, April 02, 2018
1947, US, directed by Douglas Sirk (aka Personal Column)
A film I last saw nearly thirty years ago, though Lucille Ball's performance lingered long in the memory, and her work captivated me anew here. By contrast, I had completely forgotten that a personal favourite, George Sanders, was also present, but then again Ball wipes the floor with pretty much everyone on this occasion. I didn't quite buy the picture, though, as an example of Sirk-as-auteur -- it comes across as an exceptionally competent 1940s film that has relatively little in common with the director's distinctive 1950s work.
Sunday, April 01, 2018
1964, US, directed by Robert Stevenson
I hadn't seen this since childhood, and watched it with my kids on a very rainy school holiday afternoon. They absolutely loved it, and I took great pleasure in hearing them ask, in this age of digital wizardry, how did they do that?! There's an unexpected, and perhaps underestimated, power in a little straightforward visual trickery. Personally, I also enjoyed the choreography, in particular for the marvelous chimney sweep sequence. I'm hardly the first to comment on it, but what on earth was going on with Dick Van Dyke's "accent"? Didn't they have dialect coaches in 1964?!
Thursday, March 29, 2018
1950, US, directed by Norman Foster
A modest but distinctive San Francisco-set noir; as with so many films in the genre there's plenty to chew on, in particular the location work (which occasionally evokes the feel of Charles Willeford's novel Pick-Up), as well as Ann Sheridan in strong form. The ending sequences struck me as a possible influence on the dockside section of Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker -- in both films, an atmospheric location available at a low price for the budget-minded filmmaker.
Monday, March 12, 2018
1985, Hong Kong, directed by Jackie Chan
A film I hadn't seen since a UK TV outing 25 or more years ago, with an intro designed to educate the viewer as to the wonders of Hong Kong action cinema. The set-pieces are as jaw-dropping as ever, but the connective tissue is harder work, especially since Hong Kong humour is very much an acquired and/or locally-specific taste. Still, the chutzpah and Keaton-esque physical grace linger long in the mind.
Monday, March 05, 2018
1959, France, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Melville at his loosest, and despite the cynicism and world-weariness on display, the picture is really rather fun by the director's astringent standards, with wonderful historical in the on-the-fly location work (though the incongruity between the actual New York exteriors and the obviously French studio scenes is amusing at times). Melville's own amusingly lugubrious presence in one of the starring roles recalls, at times, Renoir's highly effective self-casting in La Règle du jeu.
Friday, February 16, 2018
1932, US, directed by Roy Del Ruth
Terrific pre-Code fun, with motormouth Lee Tracy as that most unscrupulous of columnists; it's not quite as strong or, ultimately, as committed in its cynicism as Five Star Final, but it's still a pretty heady early 1930s brew, delivered at an absolute breakneck pace. Glenn Kenny's 2011 capsule review is well worth revisiting, too.
Sunday, February 11, 2018
Saturday, February 10, 2018
2016, France, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve (aka Things to Come)
Another fine, and attractive, recent French film, this time from Mia Hansen-Løve, and on the strength of this she's a very mature and assured filmmaker from the perch of her mid-30s, working with Isabelle Huppert in reliably strong form. Huppert plays a middle-aged professor dealing with a variety of familial upheavals, and Hansen-Løve astutely avoids the various pitfalls (though she does also set the viewer up to some degree); as with La Belle saison, the political backdrop is strong and there's an interesting, latter-day, riff on the city/country interplay that feels very much of the recent moment while also nodding to the 1960s/1970s back-to-the-land movement. The final shot is quite wonderful.
Thursday, February 08, 2018
Thursday, February 01, 2018
2015, France, directed by Catherine Corsini (aka Summertime)
A fine film from Catherine Corsini about the romance between two women, one a Parisian sophisticate, the other a newly-arrived country girl. The backdrop, very well-evoked, is the social upheaval of the early 1970s, and the tension between the two modes of life; the depiction of debate and discussion by those engaged in social activism is especially fascinating. The obvious recent point of comparison is Blue is the Warmest Colour, including with respect to the directorial depiction of the physical relationship between the characters, though each film ultimately has quite different concerns (and each has its own strengths). The leads are both excellent, with Izïa Higelin especially convincing as the rural half of the central pair, while the evocation of the French countryside is utterly seductive in its own way.
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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.
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.