Friday, September 26, 2008

La Fin du jour

1939, France, directed by Julien Duvivier

It's impossible not to place La Fin du jour in the framework of the end of an era: the film's elegiac quality, not to mention its title, make clear that we're witnessing the conclusion of something precious, something that, as it passes, will transform the world as we've known it. The film was released in France in March 1939, when war was already in the air, and the last hopes raised by the Popular Front government were disappearing into the wind; the film prominently features the song "Le Temps des cérises", emblematic of the French left since the days of the Paris Commune, in one scene that recalls the emotional rendition of the "Marseillaise" in Casablanca (there was even a film with the title Le Temps des cérises in 1937, directed by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, one of Jean Renoir's collaborators). Duvivier directed another of the key Popular Front films, La Belle équipe, a few years earlier - a film famous, or perhaps infamous, for its alternate endings; there's no similar ambiguity in the conclusion of La Fin du jour.

Duvivier was at the top of the directing game in the 1930s, as the cast lists from his films attest, and La Fin du jour is overflowing with on-camera talent, with a gallery of treasurable character actors crowned by the trio of Michel Simon, Louis Jouvet and Victor Francen (the only weakness is perhaps the young actor who plays Simon's unlikely boy scout pal). The three are brought together in a home for old actors - many of the supporting cast look as though they might have been residents of just such an establishment - where the jealousies, the triumphs and the despair of careers on or near the boards come back to haunt them.
That's not to say that there's anything mechanical about the film, however: these characters aren't simply types but complex personalities, striving to overcome grief or disappointment, or even edging close to insanity after a lifetime of betrayal and self-deception, with the main actors setting even the hint of vanity aside when they portray their characters' more unpleasant tendencies. Still, there's an almost overwhelming sense that they can still preserve something worth saving, something worth the setting aside of petty differences; it's not hard to read the home, threatened from all sides, as a metaphor for the country, and Simon's character, laced with self-delusion and schadenfreude as he is, as the salt-of-the-earth Frenchman willing to make the sacrifices needed to preserve that country.
It's remarkable that the English- and French-speaking cinemas produced, almost simultaneously, two actors as similar as Michel Simon and Charles Laughton, two larger-than-life men who became the unlikeliest of stars in a medium that valued rugged good looks, and both had the ability to play characters far beyond their years: here, Simon plays a man at the end of his life, and he looks the part, yet he was in his early 40s when the film was made, and he was more than capable of casting off the years again when required (he looks far younger in the same year's Fric-Frac). Simon has a magnificent speech, conveying much of what the film implies is worth fighting for, in the middle of the film: each word is perfectly timed, balanced just on the right side of sentimentality. Victor Francen matches him beat for beat at the end, delivering a wonderfully wry and unexpected elegy, a final twist in a battle of wills that somehow seems entirely appropriate.

(These comments follow from David Cairns's admirable attempt to bring La Fin du jour back into public view via his magnificent Duvivier giveaway; you can proceed here for further discussion. Thanks again for your initiative, David!).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Twelve to catch

I'm not as enamoured of lists as some on the movie-obsessed part of the Web - I find the voluminous year-end top ten exercise to be queasily repetitive after a while - but I've been enjoying entries in the recent meme that encourages bloggers to select twelve movies they would like to see from among the many titles that aren't easily available.

These lists are fascinating glimpses into the interests that drive many different lovers of the medium, completely free from any artificial twelve-month restriction, no matter how imaginatively interpreted that time period might be. I'm especially struck by how disciplined other people are in their interests: there are distinct themes - of time period, genre, national origin - running through many of the lists, whereas mine has the look of an accident involving a dozen darts, a couple of beers, and the Time Out film guide. And so, without further ado, I'll pull back the curtain.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1980, New Zealand, John Laing) I took a college course on Australian and New Zealand cinema - easily the highlight of my undergraduate education, and a course that strongly influences how I look at movies - and one of the big advantages of the latter country's cinema is that it's pretty easy to see most of the films produced since the modern industry took off in the late 1970s. One of the few exceptions - and, from what I read, a notable one - is this docudrama account of a 1970 double-murder and its infamous legal aftermath, featuring David Hemmings in a lead role. Director John Laing has been behind the camera on various American-financed TV productions filmed in New Zealand; this film, his first, looks to have been the artistic highlight of his career.

Stork (1971, Australia, Tim Burstall) Another film that's a leftover from that long-ago college course, one of the rambunctious and no doubt deeply disreputable 'ocker' comedies that emerged from Australia in the early 1970s and which, not incidentally, helped to pave the way for more artistically-minded film work once it became clear there was a market for locally-produced films (other examples include Alvin Purple, also directed by Burstall, and Bruce Beresford's London-set The Adventures of Barry McKenzie). Since Stork was first out of the traps, it seems only appropriate to start here; I can't help thinking it would be fun to screen this as a double bill with Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Eat the Peach (1986, Ireland, Peter Ormrod) Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s homegrown movies were few and far between, and when something with an Irish connection did appear it was invariably a hard-hitting drama, unlikely to appeal to the average 10-year-old (think Neil Jordan's Angel, Colin Gregg's Lamb, or Pat O'Connor's Cal). Eat the Peach was marketed as rip-roaring fun, the tale of the quixotic attempt to build a motorcycle Wall of Death in the middle of nowhere, but for some reason I never saw it in the theatre and missed every TV showing (usually around Christmas); I suspect that it's an artifact of a pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland that's now long gone and that, as much as anything, makes me curious to finally catch up with it.

Im Lauf der Zeit/Kings of the Road (1976, West Germany, Wim Wenders) Despite his status as a critics' darling through the 1980s (he has lost the plot over the last decade or so) it's awfully hard to see Wim Wenders' key early films - titles like this one, Alice in the Cities or The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty. This three-hour meditation on German manhood and society, complete with gorgeous-looking Robby Müller photography (to judge by the trailer) seems the biggest omission of all, and not just because of its running time.
Paris s'éveille (1991, France, Olivier Assayas) Despite pretty glittering critical reviews for his later work, it's tough to get hold of Olivier Assayas's first decade of film work. His debut film, Désordre, captured a certain 1980s anomie and atmosphere with great skill - the film emanates a terrible sadness - but that film and his next four features (including L'Eau froide, which has one of my favourite cinema scenes of all, an extended sequence at a teenage party) are difficult to trace. Paris s'éveille is high on my wish list for its intriguing cast - Godrèche, Léaud, Langmann, Lamotte - and because I love the Jacques Dutronc song with which it shares a title (I wonder if the song appears in the movie).

Is-slottet/Ice Palace (1987, Norway, Per Blom) I stumbled on this film, already half over, late one night when I was in college, and was immediately absorbed by the haunting setting and tone, but decided to stop watching in the hopes of being able to see it from the beginning. Sadly, I've never seen the film pop up again, and despite what seemed an impressive piece of work on this occasion, writer-director Blom appears never to have made another film.

Il Caso Mattei/The Mattei Affair (1972, Italy, Francesco Rosi) Two of Rosi's other semi-documentary features, Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Across the City, made it to DVD a couple of years ago - and deservedly so - but this one is languishing somewhere in a vault. Given the state of post-war Italian politics and business - Rosi's film sounds like a reflection on the 1970s as much as on Mattei's life - it seems like a particularly gaping hole in the director's filmography.

I used to love watching atmospheric old British movies - and their Hollywood backlot equivalents - on television when I was growing up, and while Thorold Dickinson is hardly unknown, I have only been able to find his 1940 version of Gaslight here in the US (as an extra to George Cukor's 1944 American version). I'd love to see The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, Java Head, or The Next of Kin, just to name three.

The Phenix City Story (1955, US, Phil Karlson) I recorded this when it played on TV perhaps ten years ago, but when I went to watch the film something had gone terribly wrong with the sound and it didn't seem right to watch it as a silent. However, for reasons I don't fully understand the film isn't commercially available [2011 update: the film is now available on DVD in the US]. It's set in an Alabama town with a sin city reputation, and was filmed on location, a relative rarity; Jonathan Rosenbaum, an Alabama native, rates the movie's unsparing take on local life very highly, and that's a sound recommendation for me.

Heimat 3 - Chronik einer Zeitenwende (2004, Germany, Edgar Reitz) It's cheating a little since this film is mainly seen as a TV mini-series, though it did get a theatrical premiere, and also because I could order the DVD without any trouble, but I wonder how I'd find the time to actually sit down and do it justice. I loved the first two installments -- from 1984 and 1993 respectively -- but these days I just don't seem to have the multiple evenings of free time that this film demands, and watching it haphazardly over the course of months would surely diminish the cumulative effect of this superior soap opera/chronicle/social commentary/historical sketch. I was transfixed by moments -- of human connection and disconnection, or unexpected plot twists -- in the earlier films, and can't help but feel that they were earned by virtue of plunging into Reitz's world for a week at a time.

Le Wazzou polygame (1971, Niger, Oumarou Ganda) It's not news that African films are hard to find on DVD, especially in the English-speaking market (there is a French company with a reasonably impressive roster of films: you'd think that it might be worth their while to add an English subtitle track to some of their releases). We can only see four features by a filmmaker of Ousmane Sembène's stature -- and not always, to my mind, his finest work -- but there are entire directorial careers lost to the watching public, small as it might be. Oumarou Ganda was an important 1970s filmmaker from Niger, whose career was cut short by his untimely death in 1981, and I'm immensely curious to know how his work fit together with other African films of this time. (The film is available at most French cultural institutes as part of an admirable box set released in 2005, featuring all of the winners of the FESPACO film festival, but I haven't been able to track down a copy).

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, US, Frank Capra) I'm on the fence about Capra -- as his career developed, he became a little too sentimentally overblown for my taste, whereas I love most of what he made in the early 1930s -- but it's extraordinary that this isn't available on DVD given the continued popularity of many of his films. I thought that the 2007 Barbara Stanwyck centenary might have provided an opportunity, but I think I need to call time on that idea.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, US, Leo McCarey) I've seen plenty of appreciations of Leo McCarey's directorial talents around the web in recent years, but this one's here for Charles Laughton, a performer of extraordinary physicality. As with France's Michel Simon, it seems amazing that someone with a physique like his ever became a star at all, but there seems to have been no shortage of outsize roles for him: in the same year he appeared as Javert in Les Misérables and as Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. Some enterprising soul uploaded the entire thing to Youtube, but a film like this surely deserves better (I'd love to be able to decide for myself).

(Top picture:
Im Lauf der Zeit/Kings of the Road; other pictures are linked to the film immediately below the picture.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Death at a Funeral

2007, US/UK, directed by Frank Oz

I often feel that the farce is more dependent than almost any other genre on the complicity of the audience: if you're not in the mood, or if the actors don't nail the timing to the millisecond, the entire exercise is pointless, but if things go smoothly then the cascading effect takes over and it's hard to resist once you give in to the first sheepish laugh. I saw a production of the 1960s farce Boeing Boeing last year in London, and for the first five minutes I was wondering what I had signed us up for, since my wife and parents had entrusted me with the choice of entertainment. But the actors quickly took over, got the thing humming, cranked up through the gears, and any second thoughts were quickly forgotten.

Death at a Funeral doesn't quite reach those heights - it needs a good deal longer to get the engine warm, for starters, and it occasionally feels a little too perfectly planned, without the ever-present sense of high-wire bravado that comes with live theatre - but it's still a fine example of the genre, with an additional tingle of morbidity given that almost the entire film takes place at a funeral where everything - and I mean everything - that could go wrong inevitably does. It's not always especially subtle - you can see some plot developments a mile off, while some of the cruder material simply comes off as crass - but the performances generally steer things back on the rails whenever things threaten to go too haywire: Kris Marshall, Alan Tudyk (perhaps best known as Wash in Firefly/Serenity) and Andy Nyman are especially funny, while Matthew Macfadyen is a fine straight man.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Tristan + Isolde

2006, UK/Germany/US/Czech Republic/Ireland, directed by Kevin Reynolds

This version of the Tristan and Isolde mythology plays fast and loose with the usual tale, adding in a new plotline to ensure that the titular star-crossed lovers fall into each other's arms sooner rather than later - but complaining about adherence to the veracity of a legend is beside the point when it comes to Hollywood scriptwriting. The filmmakers are unashamed about presenting the mythology as a stripped down version of Romeo and Juliet, with Celts instead of Capulets - and the marketing gurus went as far as purloining the "+" from the posters for Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film version of the Shakespeare play.

The film opens with scenes of surprising brutality, as if director Kevin Reynolds wishes to emphasize that he will go beyond the usual costume drama to capture something of the feel of post-Roman Britain (and Ireland, where the filmmakers use the west of Ireland as an unconvincing stand-in for the east), though Monty Python ultimately did a far better job of conveying the grime and the gore that were probably the lot of most of the population in the darker part of the medieval era. Still, the script does a halfway decent job of portraying some of the issues of loyalty and political expedience that characterised the medieval nobility's interpersonal relations, and Rufus Sewell is especially good as King Marke, a man who is aware of the confines of his station and yet remains in many ways powerless to do anything about it. James Franco is less interesting as Tristan, but the very appealing Sophia Myles is fresh and vibrant as Isolde, albeit an Isolde who owes much more to the twenty-first century than the eighth.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

S'en fout la mort

1990, France, directed by Claire Denis

The opening of Claire Denis's second film points up, in striking ways, the gap between reality and aspiration: a hand-held camera combines with a soundscape that captures every scrape and scratch of opening doors and moving cages as a shady transaction takes place, while a voiceover provides insight into the mind of one of the main characters, a mind that wanders far beyond the gritty night-time scene. It's a strategy also employed to good effect by Abderrahmane Sissako, particularly in the opening of his film La Vie sur terre, where the disparity between a Parisian supermarket and a letter home to his father in Mali, read in voiceover, seems an unbridgeable gulf.

Denis's use of sound is especially interesting: it's as though the volume has been turned right up to emphasize the mundane, to further stress the contrast between the voiceover and the world on the screen. As the film progresses, Denis manages to extract a kind of poetry from that soundtrack, just as, later, she finds something hypnotically beautiful in the repeated work that her characters do with the fighting cocks that are at the heart of the film's narrative; there's a real tenderness to those interactions, but also a non-judgmental fascination, on the director's part, with work done by human hands (the scenes are as absorbing as those which depict more conventional artisanal talents in Claude Sautet's Un Coeur en hiver).

Denis's film is set on the margins in every possible sense: it takes place on Paris's southern fringe, near Rungis, the town best-known for its gigantic food market (blood-smeared butchers feature among the customers at the cock-fighting ring, though the audience is by no means restricted to working class spectators); its main characters exist on the fringes of the law; and the central duo, Dah (Isaach de Bankolé) and Jocelyn (Alex Descas) are from Benin and the French Antilles respectively, and thus cut off from their roots. Within the world of the film, their marginalization is often expressed by their silence; while we see them converse with one another, forming an almost brotherly bond, and we hear Dah's commentary in voiceover, they only rarely intervene when there are white characters present, with their boss (played by Jean-Claude Brialy) doing much of the talking on their behalf.

Given the set-up, it's not difficult to discern the likely direction of the story, but Denis is less interested in the narrative outcome than in creating a richly detailed portrait of the physical and psychological realities of her two central characters, and perhaps in challenging perceptions of what we deem to be culturally acceptable. At times, it feels as though we're watching a documentary about the underworld (both criminal and literal, since the two central characters live far beneath the ground), notwithstanding the presence of recognizable actors (de Bankolé, Descas and Brialy are all excellent, the latter mining an unpleasant vein not normally seen in his work), an underworld that's otherwise too easily ignored.


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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.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States