Saturday, June 27, 2009

Summer Hours

2008, France, directed by Olivier Assayas (Original Title: L'Heure d'été)

Funded in part by the Musée d'Orsay, Olivier Assayas's film functions both as a drama of family life and as an allegory for French concerns about the preservation of the country's patrimony. The set-up is a little artificial, given that the two of the three siblings at the heart of the film live at opposite ends of the earth (Shanghai, New York): while this serves the film's dramatic purposes well it nonetheless creates the sense that the family, even by French middle-class standards, is hardly typical. That said, it also allows Assayas, resolutely international in outlook himself, to explore the idea that France's influence spreads in different ways in the modern world - not simply through art but through design and business sense to take two examples.

The film is bookended by two gatherings, the first a final extended get-together at the old summer homestead, with children running between tables while adults open wine, smoke cigarettes, and recall the history of the house, the second a teenage party to give the place one last whirl before it's sold - a sequence very obviously reminiscent of the epic party at the centre of Assayas's 1994 L'Eau Froide/Cold Water. Assayas films both gatherings with a remarkably mobile camera, sweeping through gardens and around corners inside the house, constantly following his characters, whether they're playing or taking a careful inventory of the place (the conversation between the matriarch Hélène (Edith Scob) and her eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling) prefigures a later visit by museum curators browsing for treasures).

I was struck by critic Adrian Martin's comment on a blog post at Girish Shambu's site that Assayas, among other directors, is "comfortable only with adults and older-teens-who-are-already-adults: the teen part of [Summer Hours] is its weakest, and the little kids are just anonymous bodies who tear around playing indistinctly." It's certainly true that the youngest children are entirely anonymous, but I would be interested to understand how he concludes that the teen sequence is the weakest element of the film: not only did it seem to me full of life, and an appropriate way to celebrate what the house represented, but it also felt like a successful update of the concerns of L'Eau froide, set among a very different generation of teens in the 1970s; these teens feel like our contemporaries, not like those of the earlier film. But it also seemed a somewhat misplaced criticism, for this film's concerns are those of adults, not teens: how to preserve youthful memories long after youth has passed, how to keep families, in the broadest sense, knit together, or how to negotiate the delicate terrain of family finances, concerns that the teenagers at the end of the film can barely conceive of in their lazy, hazy celebration.

The Bank Job

2008, UK, directed by Roger Donaldson

Although it's entertaining enough as a caper, and zips along so briskly that it's essentially impossible to deal with the plot holes as they occur, The Bank Job is disappointing as an evocation of the 1970s, particularly given that Roger Donaldson's previous film, The World's Fastest Indian, captured a certain atmosphere of devil-may-care innocence, specific to that story's setting, rather well.

The production team gets many of the details right (the clothes, the cars, the street signs, even if the blue truck in the image above looks to be the production vehicle for Arri cameras) but there's very little feeling for the specific moment in English life, at the tail end of "Swinging London" and the beginning of a rough 1970s, even though the film's complicated plot grapples with the country's power structure (political and royal) and London's seamier side. The characters are rarely able to transcend quick-drawn caricature, whether it's Jason Statham as an archetypal Cockney wide boy or Peter Bowles as a spy mandarin; indeed, it's mostly in the film's side story, concerning the real-life revolutionary/criminal (perspective is all) Michael X that you get a sense of the real political stakes.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Late Marriage

2001, Israel/France, directed by Dover Kashashvili

I'd only seen the Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz in one previous film, The Band's Visit, but there's no mistaking her voice: her first scene opens with her character, Judith, offscreen, talking to her daughter from down the hall, but she controls the screen even before she emerges. That voice is a crucial part of Judith's arsenal, and it's significant that a later scene renders her literally speechless when her home is invaded by the relatives of her lover Zaza, who want to separate the pair so that Zaza can embark on a respectable marriage.

That communal assault is typical of the film, with extended families demanding conformity to tradition: though the characters are able to contemplate the idea of a life outside the community and its rules, they would really rather avoid such an outcome. There's a barely concealed violence in many of these interactions that contrasts sharply with the tenderness and sincerity of the relationship between Zaza and Judith, whose easy, often humorous interactions are exemplified by an extended sex scene that's remarkable both for its frankness and its warmth.

The film is shot like a series of fixed tableaux, often beautifully composed, lending the film a limpid appearance that contrasts with the often stormy events narrated onscreen. The camera almost never moves, and Kashashvili often holds the shot for an extended period as the actors move around the frame, crowding the edges for the familial discussions.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Claude Chabrol and Inspector Lavardin

Jean Poiret gets ready for a day of detecting in Poulet au vinaigre (1985)

This piece is a contribution to Ten Days' Wonder: The Claude Chabrol Blogathon, hosted by Flickhead.

Although Claude Chabrol ended up making four films featuring the character of Inspector Lavardin, he had a hard time getting the first project off the ground. Coming out of a fallow cinematic period –he’d kept busy with various TV projects - Chabrol was unable to find a TV co-producer, and wasn’t even able to benefit from the “avance sur recettes” mechanism that’s employed by so many French filmmakers. The script eventually ended up on the desk of Marin Karmitz, who was just flowering into a producer of considerable power, and Karmitz proposed a budget of 6 million francs (about $700,000 at the time), about half the average cost of a French film in the mid-1980s.

Dominique Lavanant in Poulet au vinaigre (1985)

Chabrol, never one to turn down the opportunity to work, said yes, and Karmitz ultimately signed him up as a salaried employee, going on to produce most of the director’s films during the subsequent two decades. That kind of off-screen fidelity is reproduced in many of Chabrol’s casting choices in the Lavardin films. Poulet au vinaigre and L'Escargot noir both feature Stéphane Audran, who has appeared in more than twenty Chabrol films – and was, not incidentally, married to him for sixteen years - as well as Michel Bouquet, a stalwart of Chabrol’s work in the late 1960s/early 1970s, while Inspecteur Lavardin reunites Dominique Lavanant and Jean-Claude Brialy, who appeared together in two key early Chabrol films, Le Beau serge (the director’s debut) and Les Godelureaux.

By contrast, Lavardin himself is played by the comic actor and playwright Jean Poiret, who had never worked for Chabrol before; few of Poiret’s films are familiar to English-speaking audiences given that French comedies don’t tend to travel well. Chabrol and Poiret both appeared in a 1964 film (Les durs à cuire, directed by Jacques Pinoteau), and I believe they shared the screen in a climactic scene, but that was the extent of their prior collaboration. Poiret, like Chabrol, was coming out of cinematic mothballs in 1985. After making roughly three films a year from 1956 to 1970 he more or less disappeared from the screen and spent much of the 1970s on stage in La Cage aux folles, which he also wrote. He credited a role in Truffaut’s Le Dernier métro with giving him “the desire to make movies again,” and he remained active in films until his death in 1992 (his one film as director, the minor but rather enjoyable Le Zèbre, which features his wife, Caroline Cellier, was released three months after his death).

Lavardin turns on the charm in L'Escargot noir (1988)

It’s hard to avoid comparison between Hitchcock and Chabrol, and the casting of Poiret seems very much of a piece with Hitchcock’s use of an actor like Cary Grant - that is, a player known for lighter roles who reveals a darker side. Chabrol uses Poiret’s Janus-like ability throughout the four Lavardin films. It’s consistently unsettling to see the often jocular inspector suddenly turn on a suspect, unleashing verbal and occasionally physical violence, and the character himself is aware of the alarming impact of the transformation, carefully cultivating an unruffled demeanour the better to demolish it when necessary.

Jean Poiret and Michel Bouquet in Poulet au vinaigre (1985)

Still, despite Poiret’s lengthy experience as a performer, it’s not clear that Chabrol knew quite what he had on his hands when making the first film. Poiret doesn’t appear until 40 minutes have elapsed, and then proceeds to walk away with the movie. Chabrol doesn’t mess about on the second occasion, even though the script for that outing wasn’t originally conceived with Lavardin in mind, and Poiret appears as soon as the opening credits begin to roll. While Lavardin flew solo in the first film, in the sequel Chabrol pairs him with a Watson character, a local cop who helps to orient him. That pattern is repeated in the two telefilm outings, and in Inspecteur Lavardin, the inspector even refers to his sidekick as Watson.

Lavardin and his local Watson in Inspecteur Lavardin (1986)

Although made for a cinema audience, the structure of Poulet au vinaigre reminds me of a good British television mystery, and the late arrival of the detective is very much part of the pattern. Chabrol using the first section of the film to set up a complex web of local relationships in P.D. James or Ruth Rendell style (hardly surprising, then, that Chabrol turned to Rendell’s A Judgment in Stone as the source material for his 1995 La Cérémonie). Cinematically, the most obvious forebear is Henri-Georges Clouzot. If the resemblance to the acidly-drawn village of Le Corbeau, a place riven by poison-pen letters, wasn’t already obvious one of the key characters in Poulet au vinaigre is an employee of the postal service who, along with his mother (a very unglamorous Audran), steams open the correspondence of the local bigwigs. The film is not without references to Chabrol’s own earlier work, too: the film’s first victim is a butcher, in whose shop window appears the sign “Closed Because of Murder”!

The plot of that first film is the most twisted and the most satisfying of the quartet; Chabrol and Dominique Roulet wrote the script from Roulet’s novel, and it’s a tight interweaving of murder and small-town loyalties and betrayals, allowing Chabrol ample room to peel away the onion layers of relationships and class distinctions. It’s also the one film that transcends the Lavardin character rather than being dependent on him for much of its interest.

Jean-Claude Brialy in Inspecteur Lavardin (1986)

After the first film's success, the Lavardin character was injected into a pre-existing, and apparently rather poor, script after Chabrol’s plan to make a film about Camille Claudel fell through. Isabelle Adjani had contacted Claudel’s family and snapped up the reproduction rights to her artwork, but Chabrol had a measure of revenge, alarming Adjani's producers by initially retaining the title of his Claudel project for the second Lavardin film so that they thought he was pressing ahead. As Chabrol himself admits, the plot on the second occasion is “a banal whodunit, it’s plot 12b,” probably because there was a bit of a rush to get the project moving to capitalize on the first film's success.

Indeed, the main point of Inspecteur Lavardin is not to solve the mystery but rather to have Lavardin attempt to bring a measure of moral justice to the lives of old friends (credibility goes out the window, since he stays in the home of some obvious suspects, one of whom is an old flame). It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to apply Chabrol’s plot judgment to the two telefilms, L’Escargot noir and Maux croisés, although the first of the pair does at least have an appealingly twisted motivation, and Chabrol assembles a nice gallery of players from Chinon’s bourgeoisie.

There’s nothing rote about Chabrol’s visual approach, however. Even in films that many rate as fairly lightweight, he is careful to create a coherent visual style. On the DVD extras for his 1988 film Une Affaire de femmes, he speaks about the issue of finding an appropriate style during the first few days of shooting a new film (Une Affaire de femmes was released the same month that L’Escargot noir was broadcast, which provides an interesting illustration both of Chabrol’s work ethic and of his diverse interests), and on the Lavardin films he also sets himself playful technical challenges. Thus in Poulet au vinaigre he decided that “there would only be a single shot/reverse shot,” and in Inspecteur Lavardin that “there wouldn’t be a single shot at exact eye level” – an apt choice for a film so obsessed with looking and seeing that it features a character (played by a very fey Jean-Claude Brialy) who paints human eyes mounted on stands! The shot choices also serve as a constant prelude to the film’s stunning climactic shot, which shows a death from the perspective of an overhead camera that has been placed in a bedroom.

L'Escargot noir (1989)

Indeed, cameras – artificial eyes - and high-angle shots abound in the four films. The first three minutes of Poulet au vinaigre are shot through the lens of a camera, which takes pictures of the guests at a party in a provincial town (introducing to many of the key players in the process), while Maux croisés centers around a TV quiz show, giving ample opportunity for Chabrol to play with shots of television screens; Lavardin watches one key sequence on a television in a hotel room while the reality plays out down below. Similarly, L’Escargot noir has several important scenes that appear to be filmed from close to ceiling-level - a meeting between two potential suspects, a shot of Lavardin interviewing a chef – or from high above the scene, such as the shots from Lavardin’s hotel room down to a square where one of the suspects owns a pharmacy.

Maux croisés (1989)

Beyond these shots, I wasn’t able to discern a consistent technical challenge in the telefilms, except to note that Chabrol makes his camera exceptionally mobile, constantly tracking down streets and moving from one character or object to another. The dolly crew, crane operator and steadicam operator all earned their keep on the films. Even where the mobile camera is especially notable – following a woman down a street, or or panning to show us Lavardin's destination – there’s nothing gratuitous about such shots, which are almost always designed to add additional information through camera movement rather than through a cut. It’s a technique that Chabrol frequently favours in other films, even where the subject is much more sober – as in Une Affaire de femmes, for instance.

That said, the telefilms are a significant fall-off from their cinematic counterparts, and the final outing in particular commits some familiar bottom-of-the-barrel sins: bringing back a character from a previous film (André, the barman played by Albert Dray in Poulet au vinaigre) in absurdly coincidental fashion, and sending Lavardin to an exotic location, the Italian spa town of Montecatini, for no apparent reason other than the needs of co-production with Italian television. Lavardin’s outlandish behaviour towards suspects hardly marks him as the kind of cop who would have been entrusted with a sensitive cross-border mission (he’s transferred between the first two films, for dunking a suspect in a basin of water). Still, as Chabrol points out in an interview, Lavardin might be outrageous but he’s never stupid. He’s aware that almost everyone he speaks to has something to hide, and as a consequence as long as he doesn’t go too far over the line no-one is likely to complain. In the third film, he sits his various suspects down and when they aren’t as forthcoming as Lavardin would like he says “I feel like I’m going to make a blunder,” adeptly making reference to the widespread image of the French police at the time, while having no intention of actually doing something foolish. Claude Zidi’s films Inspecteur la Bavure (1980) and Les Ripoux (1984) capture, and perpetuate, that negative image, albeit in largely comic terms. Throughout the four films, put-upon suspects threaten Lavardin with lawyers or sputter sentiments like “You’re crazy, you’ll go to prison,” though both they and Lavardin know that nothing serious is likely to happen.

Don't trust those innocent faces - Poulet au vinaigre (1985)

As the cycle moves along, the greatest pleasures come from the ways in which Chabrol references earlier incidents and re-works them. For instance, Lavardin is properly introduced to us over his breakfast at a bar in Forges-les-Eaux (a small town in Normandy), and breakfasts form a key part of his routine. There’s an amusing scene where Mario David (the Watson character in Maux croisés) brings croissants for breakfast and proceeds to dunk his pastry in Lavardin’s coffee, a compliment that Lavardin returns when he breakfasts with his Italian Watson in the final film. More spectacular repasts are at the centre of the investigations in Inspecteur Lavardin and L’Escargot noir, which has numerous references to the culinary possibilities of a good snail, while most of the policework in Maux croisés appears to take place at a hotel dinner table.

Lavardin and his Italian Watson hard at work in Maux croisés (1989)

Poulet au vinaigre (1985, France, directed by Claude Chabrol, written by Chabrol and Dominique Roulet)
Inspecteur Lavardin (1986, France, directed by Claude Chabrol, written by Chabrol and Dominique Roulet)
L'Escargot noir (1988, France, directed by Claude Chabrol, written by Chabrol; for television)
Maux croisés (1989, France, directed by Claude Chabrol, written by Chabrol and Dominique Roulet; for television)


Chabrol's old friends at Les Cahiers du cinéma gave the two Lavardin cinema films fine coverage: the first film was on the cover of the April 1985 issue, while the second was the lead article in March 1986. The following articles were particularly helpful in writing this piece:

"Éloge de la fantaisie. Entretien avec Jean Poiret (Interview by Olivier Assayas and Marc Chevrie), Les Cahiers du cinéma, April 1985, pp. 38-43.

"Attention les yeux! Entretien avec Claude Chabrol" (Interview by Marc Chevrie and Serge Toubiana), Les Cahiers du cinéma, March 1986, pp. 9-14.

“Claude Chabrol de A a Z” (Interview by Thierry Jousse and Serge Toubiana), Les Cahiers du cinéma, Spécial Chabrol, October 1997, pp. 6-31.

“Masques et bergamasques: Entretien avec Marin Karmitz” (Interview by Thierry Jousse and Serge Toubiana), Les Cahiers du cinéma, Spécial Chabrol, October 1997, pp. 72-77.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

There Will Be Blood

2007, US, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

These days, one of the great pleasures of coming to a movie long after the theatrical hubbub has died down is being able to pick through the various online dissections in search of gems; I particularly enjoyed David Bordwell's blog entry on Paul Thomas Anderson's shot choices and compositions, which underlines both Anderson's technical skill and the trust he places in his actors.

The scene that Bordwell focuses on, a fairly early sequence that provides the impetus for the rest of the film, is a beautiful combination of careful positioning and movement, with the actors giving rhythm to both dialogue and gesture; although this film features a new set of actors for Anderson, it's not hard to see why he was able to assemble something of a repertory company for his previous films given the level of collaboration in front of and behind the camera.

For a film that subsequently comes to life with such richly textured dialogue, the opening fifteen minutes are wordless apart from the occasional grunt as Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) picks his way through a small western mine: it gives the film an appropriately elemental feel, so that the viewer cannot forget the sweat and danger associated with mineral wealth, but it also reinforces the extraordinary lengths to which Plainview is willing to go in service of his ambitions.

Later, Plainview's skewed moral universe is made absolutely clear with a shot that recalls Marlon Brando as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, features glowing in the darkness of Vietnam; Plainview has rescued his son but then turned back to what truly fuels his passions, as he watches an oil well burn into the night. Daniel Day-Lewis's acting style, which certainly stretches the boundaries on occasion, seems entirely appropriate to a story about forces of nature (in more than one sense), and it's fascinating to contrast his approach with that of Paul Dano, who plays both Eli and Paul Sunday: Dano is icily controlled most of the time, with Eli's occasional eruptions all the more unsettling as a consequence.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Une Affaire de femmes

1988, France, directed by Claude Chabrol

A relatively rare period outing for Chabrol - though coincidentally his first three films with Isabelle Huppert were all set in the past - Une Affaire de femmes confronts issues that were nonetheless very much alive in 1980s France. The country was still coming to terms with the Occupation period (as seen in a film as different as Papy fait de la résistance, which dissected attitudes to the Occupation in comic mode), while abortion, which is at the centre of Une Affaire de femmes, had been legalized only in 1975, less than a generation earlier.

The first hour of the film focuses on re-creating the Occupation as a lived experience. Broader political developments only intrude intermittently (the disappearance of a Jewish friend, a radio address by Pétain) as we get a sense of the realities of privation that dominated daily life. An early scene - according to Chabrol's voice-over analysis of the sequence, it was filmed on the first day of shooting - shows Huppert and her children digging for potatoes, an apparently fun outing for the children that is understood in starkly different terms by the adults. Food, as so often in Chabrol, provides a means of entering the world of the film: those potatoes form the centerpiece of a cramped, taciturn family meal, whereas later, when the family's fortunes take a turn for the better, there's a more expansive repast shot from a less confined perspective.

The food in these scenes stands in for the film's real binding force: almost every relationship, even between apparent friends, is conceived in economic terms. Huppert's character, Marie, is quick to see the financial possibilities in her circumscribed town but she's incapable of understanding anyone who does something without monetary motivation - her husband makes cut-out pictures for his own entertainment, an idea that mystifies her.

Chabrol implies that almost all of the female characters have the same pragmatic attitude to money, and are unshocked by what seem outrageous commercial proposals. Marie isn't just motivated by survival, though: she still nurtures a dream of a singing career, while her ambitions blind to her own family's non-monetary needs. That's precisely what makes her an interesting character: she's no one-dimensional martyr, so when the film turns about and re-casts as rather more of an innocent abroad - a pathetic request for a postcard of the Eiffel Tower to send to her children - the final scenes are somewhat undermined, although they also try to portray the way in which Marie is a pawn of the hypocritical occupied state (Huppert is almost able to carry the change off; she's adept at finding the extraordinary complexities in Marie's character). The film's final dedication, to the children of the condemned, also seems problematic, given Marie's own attitudes: her son is starved of affection long before his mother is taken away by the authorities for her activities as a clandestine abortionist, spending his days peeping in keyholes in the hopes of understanding what his mother is doing (in shots that recall not just Chabrol's earlier films but also the child's perspective in another wartime film, Rossellini's Rome, Open City).

Monday, June 01, 2009

A Room with a View

1985, UK, directed by James Ivory

Although much of the film is set in Italy, A Room with a View is very much about visions of England. When one character comments that the countryside near Florence reminds her of Shropshire it's an amusing line but also catches a certain essential truth in the film's view of England as a green and pleasant land, where mundane matters such as personal finance are barely on the horizon. While Forster's book and the film satirize Cecil Vyse for his conceited objections to professional careers, even those characters who allegedly hold down jobs are never shown at work, enjoying lives of great leisure. The film constantly emphasizes the idea of pastoral idyll, most notably in a scene where several of the male characters frolic in a woodland pond - classical tropes abound - with the peasantry, where it appears at all, cast at best as sun-dappled background.

Although it's at times very amusing, especially in the second half - paradoxically the film is far more alive in restrained Edwardian England than among the hot-blooded Latins - the film founders on its own inability to see that it's a participant in what it claims to satirize. It also, of course, launched another wave of English heritage filmmaking, with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant returning several times to Forster (their adaptation of Howard's End is a more rounded vision of England, although it's clumsy in dealing with working class characters).


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States