Thursday, June 18, 2015

Tomboy



2011, France, directed by Céline Sciamma

This one had me from the opening shot, beautiful on both the visual and the emotional levels. Céline Sciamma got a good deal of attention this year with the US release of Bande de filles, and I hoped to see her back catalog from the beginning but couldn't find her début, La Naissance des pieuvres. This film focuses on a youngster dealing with gender identity issues, and Sciamma's method of treating the subject matter, focusing almost entirely on the child and with very little dialogue, is exceptionally effective and often strikingly funny/emotionally rich. 


I was also fascinated by her depiction of the relationship between the film's siblings, perhaps because I'm so affected by the growing evidence of a complicity between my children. Although the children have a good deal of latitude in this tale of summer, parents are nonetheless present and often very warm and involved, but this isn't a story from their perspective -- and nor is it, strictly speaking, a coming of age film with a neat developmental arc but rather an ongoing puzzling through, a snapshot in a longer process of self-discovery. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Summer With Monika


1953, Sweden, directed by Ingmar Bergman

Quite a surprise, mainly because I had misread the film schedule and thought I was sitting down to watch a film set in nineteenth-century Patagonia rather than one of Bergman's first major successes, although ultimately a pleasure to finally see one of them on the big screen. It's a (deliberately) straightforward film in many ways, but also one of striking insights -- the commentary on the relationship tensions created by parenthood is especially strong without being heavy-handed (it's not a theme that cinema has dealt with in great detail beyond the cliché) and the picture of Stockholm life in the 1950s across social classes is very finely observed (there are also several beguiling shots in the early going). 

The Man Who Never Was


1956, US, directed by Ronald Neame

More evidence that suggests Ronald Neame hasn't quite been given his due as a director, without by the same token attempting to elevate him to the pantheon. The film is a reasonably straightforward account of the Second World War Operation Mincemeat, which was designed to deceive Germany about Allied intentions in the Mediterranean. Although made with the blessing/collaboration of some of those involved a decade or so earlier, this isn't wholly faithful to reality, with some elements significantly altered or invented for dramatic purposes as well as out of a desire to preserve some of the secrets at the core of the story. Nonetheless, I found it quite engaging despite the distraction of Clifton Webb's accent -- he doesn't really make much of an attempt to sound like anything other than Clifton Webb, against the usual jolly-good-show backdrop (Gloria Grahame's accent, by contrast, can be explained away by plot mechanics). Neame shows considerable delicacy of touch at times, choosing to allow the camera to linger for extended periods during key scenes either to give us an idea of the methodical work involved in implementing a project of this sensitive nature or to allow particular moments of drama to play out without interruption; the technique gives the film a good deal of additional emotional heft. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Tip Top


2013, France/Belgium, directed by Serge Bozon

As was the case in his previous feature, Serge Bozon brings together unexpected elements, marrying a criminal investigation with a loopy screwball vibe and a vein of political commentary. On this occasion I'm more guarded on his success, although these elements are not all actually in opposition to one another: since the balance is always off-kilter, he's not veering wildly from one tone to another though I'm still not sure the particular and quite consistent tone is wholly suited to the material. There's a vein of quite stringent political commentary -- on Franco-Algerian relations and interactions -- that gets a lost from view at times even though I think Bozon places a good deal of value on this, simply because the comic mode distracts although in the end his point may be more about the overarching context of politico-social absurdity (in the manner of, say, Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder). The plot involves Isabelle Huppert and Sandrine Kiberlain investigating the investigation ("la police des police") into the death of a police informer in Lille, though Bozon is at least as interested in the behaviour of his leads, each of whom has a distinctive sexual peccadillo, which is also a matter of narrative interest. Bozon certainly has Huppert and Kiberlain go through the wringer in the service of his film -- if I hadn't seen the earlier film, I might think he had a somewhat unhealthy desire to showcase his female stars in rather humiliating scenarios -- though Huppert is more than game for what she has to do, while Kiberlain's character is quite exquisitely uncomfortable at times. The offbeat tone of the film is often underline by Bozon's visual choices: he likes to play with the setup angles so that the eyeline match is off, a very disconcerting visual trick in one early interrogation scene that helps to destabilize the entire enterprise. He does the same in La France to equally good effect -- there emphasizing the untrustworthiness of a particular character. In both films, too, he does a fair amount of tableau framing -- especially for some of the musical sequences in the earlier film -- and he also has fun in the second film with scenes filmed in cars, where the backdrop doesn't quite match the action. It's certainly quite carefully thought through on the visual level even if the ideas are a bit muddled.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

La France


2007, France, directed by Serge Bozon

Serge Bozon appeared poised to break out, at least on the critical front, with this film but he hasn't been all that active in the interim despite the strengths on display in this  tale of a young woman who goes in search of her husband after she receives a cryptic letter from the front in 1917, disguising herself as a man in order to begin her odyssey and quickly linking up with a small group of soldiers who have been separated from their regiment. The war, obviously, is a constant presence whether it's through the men's accounts of their experiences, their fear of running across spies or enemy soldiers and, from time to time, the rumble of heavy artillery in the distance, but we never see the front lines -- this is a different kind of war story, and one where Bozon quite consciously wants to evoke our imagination of the trenches without depicting them. 


To my mind, the strongest French-language analogy is with Maurice Pialat's La Maison des bois, particularly the episode in which a battalion of troops passes through town -- a visible sign of the war but without any direct depiction of the fight. Bozon, like Pialat, is also strong on the bone-weariness of these men, but unlike Pialat he doesn't hew to a strictly realist template, interspersing the film with unusual and anachronistic musical interludes that nonetheless do an effective job of channeling and enhancing the humanity of the men we gradually get to know. I was very impressed by the film, and by the performances -- Testud is excellent as the coltish "boy" while many of the actors playing the soldiers have striking moments in the sun, gifted some fine lines by Bozon.



Thursday, June 04, 2015

Marie-Octobre


1959, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

A quite wonderful cast here: Darrieux, Blier, Ventura, Meurisse, Reggiani and more, and they're all very much up to par even when typecast (Ventura, for example, although the script attempts to add a degree of nuance). The storyline involves a former Resistance network reuniting to deal with accusations that, 15 years before, there was a traitor in their midst: as David Cairns has remarked, casting Darrieux as a Resistance hero was rather daring in itself given her own less-glorious wartime record. That casting choice is one of the aspects that provides a fascinating glimpse into how France was dealing with wartime memory in the late 1950s -- the résistants here are no caricature heroes but in most cases people who had to compromise at one level or another.


The staging, by Duvivier, brings things to another level: the entire film takes place on a single evening in a single location and it's a technical challenge to have the large cast move around as the action reaches its various peaks. Clusters of people move from one place to another, sometimes very theatrically, but Duvivier effectively creates a sense of claustrophobia and also elects to film many of the shots from below, which creates a real sense of disorientation. I was especially intrigued by one unusual device the director employs: the only glimpse of the outside world is a televised wrestling match that parallels the verbal jousts (indeed most of the characters insist on turning the television sound down -- a point of petty contention throughout), and which provides its own kind of absurdist commentary on the film's action.  



Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Passionate Friends


1949, UK, directed by David Lean

I haven't seen any of David Lean's 1940s films for a long time, partly because I took such exception to Brief Encounter the last time I saw it. Indeed, my reaction was so strongly negative that I wonder whether I shouldn't take another look. In any case, although this film, which ploughs some of the same emotional territory, enjoys nothing like the same reputation I found it to be very engaging. It's certainly not perfect -- the flashbacks within flashbacks were a little awkward without adding much -- but there's a degree of emotional subtlety and sincerity that's very affecting. While Claude Rains is very much the supporting player here as you might expect he makes hay with what he has, particularly in a wonderful scene where he is ostensibly reciting the rather dry details of a recent business meeting but in reality is giving expression to his inner turmoil. The mise en scène is often very interesting, too -- at times quite consciously theatrical in some of the sequences set in Rains' home, or in the pairing of two adjoining rooms which you could easily imagine on the stage, but it works very effectively.


Monday, June 01, 2015

Slow West


2015, UK/New Zealand, directed by John Maclean

An absorbing take on the Western, filmed (gorgeously) in New Zealand. John Maclean has clearly absorbed the genre thoroughly and does a good deal of deconstruction/reconstruction while hewing close to a simple quest template. Not all of his decisions work -- some of the absurd interludes are simply that, but other anecdotes help to build the lightly-sketched characters and the set-piece finale is very well handled, expertly constructed and edited. There are also a few moments of humour that almost all hit the mark squarely.

The Clairvoyant


1935, UK, directed by Maurice Elvey


A Gainsborough picture, made back in Britain just after Claude Rains's breakthrough success in The Invisible Man. I'm not at all familiar with Maurice Elvey, an apparently prolific director, though there a few atmospheric sequences and quite interesting use of location and/or stock footage (scenes set at Ascot or in a tunnel under the Humber). As you might expect, Rains is by far the most interesting onscreen performer, although there's not a whole lot he can do with what is at heart a relationship melodrama with unexplained supernatural add-ons (the film doesn't even make a half-hearted attempt to provide some rationale, although I suppose that could be construed as spooky in its own way).

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States