Monday, February 08, 2016

Archimède le clochard


1959, France, directed by Gilles Grangier

Gabin was a remarkably busy actor in the 1950s, turning out an average of three films a year, not all of the first rank. Truffaut had a point when characterizing Gabin's level of influence over films as being "dangerous," especially when he is paired with a director of no particular strength, as is the case for Gilles Grangier, who made a dozen films with the star. Gabin plays the titular tramp, a "character" who objects to being imprisoned on a short sentence since he'd much rather spend the cold months in lockup. There's nothing subtle about Gabin's characterization, which is "big" in every sense, with drunken hijinks, rapid-fire patter, and even a little soft-shoe. The film's main interest comes from the support, even if it isn't always used to best effect -- Julien Carette as a fellow tramp, and Bernard Blier as a bar owner, in particular. There's a dispiriting cheapness to proceedings most notably in the pretty inept integration of location and studio footage in a sequence purportedly on the fringes of a big Parisian parade. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Spectre


2015, UK/US, directed by Sam Mendes

The first time in a long while that I didn't see a Bond on the big screen, due to middling reviews, which turned out to be on point. It's a mediocre entry in the franchise, with perfunctory humanizing touches and a failure to use the chief villain to any great purpose. Indeed, Christoph Waltz's character seems to be conceived purely to speak lines in a Christoph Waltz manner, which has a relatively limited charm. The highlights: an excellent opening shot (or several, stitched together digitally), with a great deal of movement and self-conscious humour; and two or three atmospheric night-time sequences, wonderfully lit with chiaroscuro shadings. 

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Madame Bovary


1934, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Unfortunately, I did not save the best for last when it came to my mini-Renoir festival. Obviously, even a longer film, never mind one reputedly butchered by its producers, cannot hope to include every nuance of a substantial novel, and that's not really my issue, more the fact that the visualization here tends to underline Emma Bovary's most unpleasant characteristics -- assuming that you accept that the book posits Emma as a kind of feminist heroine avant la lettre, this film seems to subvert those qualities, making her come across as merely obnoxious even considering the social strictures of 19th century bourgeois life. There are, of course, some pleasures -- specific scenes that are exceptionally well-constructed with respect to the use of space, fine set pieces, and the occasional moment of real emotional force. That said, I think one's mileage could be a good deal greater depending on how you react to the actors, especially Valentine Tessier in the lead role -- if you embrace Emma's onscreen theatricality as a reflection of her inner self, for instance, you might find the film more rewarding. Robert Le Vigan has yet another oily turn as the creditor who brings about Emma's downfall, and his delivery of the line "we're not Jews" in justification of his financial practices carries an inevitable charge given our knowledge of the actor's subsequent offscreen career. 

Monday, February 01, 2016

Chotard et compagnie


1933, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Despite the substantial corpus of writing devoted to Renoir, there are few words on this particular film, a surprise as I found it generally charming and technically quite compelling. It occasionally reminded me of Die Koffer des Herrn O.F., especially in the second half, as an entire town buys into a particular obsession (complete with dream sequences). It was really the opening that grabbed me, though, with the first shot part of a long lineage of bravura openers, and the film is mostly made on a set that permits a great deal of easy movement, the camera peering behind corners, through windows, and generally keeping an eye on characters as they move around the space. 

Chotard himself is played by Fernand Charpin, such a key presence in Pagnol's Marseilles trilogy, and he's a delight here, too. The plot is driven by the marriage of Chotard's daughter to an unpromising fellow, a writer played by Georges Pomiès, a name wholly unfamiliar to me, but from his movement it wasn't hard to figure out that he was trained as a dancer, and indeed that this was his primary vocation. He's not a great choice for the part but his background certainly adds an interesting energy to the character, granting him an unexpected and graceful physical presence. As a casting selection, it reminded me a little of the offbeat energy of Jean-Louis Barrault in Drôle de drame, though that's a more successful marriage. Which in turn reminds that I took a reflexive dislike to Pomiès when I discovered that he had won Louis Jouvet's lover Lisa Duncan away from the great actor (though of course she may have been the one who effected the change). 

While the whole thing is based on a pre-existing play, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a reference to Simenon -- with whom Renoir remained friendly after the director adapted one of the Maigret novels -- when the characters discuss an industrial-scale production of literature, of a kind that Simenon himself would have had no trouble keeping up with given his book-a-month rhythm. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

On purge bébé


1931, France, directed by Jean Renoir

A film that Renoir by all accounts made to show his ability to film with sound on a budget, in order to impress potential producers. Obviously, though, he was already an experienced filmmaker and despite the film's pretty straightforward nature he clearly spent at least some time working on direct sound, use of diegetic music, and, from time to time, on the framing of actors' faces, although some of the film is shot in a theatrical format that underlines the picture's stage origins. The most interesting points, for me, were on the casting level -- an exceptionally early, blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance from Fernandel, and, far more substantial, an amusing turn from Michel Simon, already cast in roles far beyond his years.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Toni


1935, France, directed by Jean Renoir

A very interesting on-location picture, clearly made under the influence of Pagnol in terms of the southern realism on display (Pagnol's company was involved with the film, but as distributor rather than producer). There's little optimism here in this deliberately circular tale -- the contrast between the larkish beginning and the pessimism of the conclusion is very stark, and in many ways the film has a modernity that Renoir may not have intended, at least with respect to the pointed commentary on immigration, something that's hard to push out of the mind in early 2016. If Pagnol himself had made this I'd expect it to be leavened with a little more comic relief, or even perhaps the more gentle acceptance of the vagaries of humanity that you find in much of Renoir's best work. I'm not all that familiar with Charles Blavette, who plays Toni, though he did appear in Pagnol's La Femme du boulanger among others; more recognizable to me was Andrex, whose apparently permanent cheeriness is used to good subversive effect in the conclusion.

Monday, January 25, 2016

La Nuit du carrefour


1932, France, directed by Jean Renoir

One of the very first Maigret adaptations -- there was another the same year, of which I've found no trace, and just one more during the 1930s -- and one of the strangest, with an almost abstract air at times, as well as a curious tendency to linger carefully over objects as much as on people. Although Maigret is as physically imposing a presence as on the page I still had the sense that he's operating here in a kind of existential haze, although this also captures the detective's ability to peer deep into the soul rather well. The film was made largely on location, in the kind of grim suburban setting so beloved of Simenon (that suburban setting was virtually a character in the novel of Monsieur Hire, for instance), and for the most part things are mud- and rain-soaked (foreshadowing, perhaps, the even muddier Une si jolie petite plage). 

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States