Friday, September 28, 2012

Retour à la vie

1949, France, directed by André Cayatte, Georges Lampin, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Dréville

Though all of the episodes in this omnibus film came from the pen of Charles Spaak, the tone varies a good deal in the hands of four different directors (Jean Dréville directed the final two segments). The stories all deal with the return of imprisoned French men and women after the war, and while the initial narration suggests that we're about to see only the negative experiences that accompanied repatriation, that's not entirely true -- one of the segments is very light in tone, and two others end very much on an upbeat note.

The film was not a box office success, and while the list of hit portmanteau films is not exactly lengthy to start with, one suspects that this film a little too close to recent experience for many viewers. Even in some of the lighter sequences, Spaak inserts numerous small, even throwaway, observations about the nature of life in France just after the war. There are the fake ration coupons, the people keen to burnish their image as members of the resistance (it's of note when a character does not immediately mention his service, as though such self-effacement was uncommon, and perhaps a sign of more genuine participation), the almost absurd efforts of petty officialdom to recuperate the released prisoners for the nation's self-image, and the constant reflection on who did or did not collaborate and to what degree, with Spaak casting aspersions on the near-ubiquitous comités d'épuration of the immediate post-war period.

Clouzot's segment, the third, is by some way the film's strongest sequence, pushing both characters and audience to reflect on the nature, and perhaps the banality, of evil, and posing the question of how one might behave in extreme circumstances. Set in a hotel that accommodates those not yet able to return to their actual homes, the film, featuring Louis Jouvet, gives a vivid sense of the way in which many returnees felt caught between worlds, no longer in their original homes and yet desperate to start new lives if not quite to resume old ones. Spaak treats that theme with a good deal more humour in the fourth segment, in which a returnee finds his apartment has been requisitioned for the benefit of a puffed-up minor resistant. The only sequence that rivals Clouzot's in intensity is the first, a true chamber piece centered on a woman forced to deal with the property shenanigans her relatives have indulged in during her enforced absence. It's a brutally cynical segment, excoriating the idea of the noble France left behind.

In the end, the primary unifying thread is that of performance -- each segment has a very strong lead actor. Bernard Blier anchors the opener, with barely anything to act against in the film's most powerful scene since he's talking to a mute, virtually immobile invalid; it's among the strongest work I've seen from the actor. Louis Jouvet is predictably magnetic, and multi-layered, as the embittered interrogator forced to confront his own contradictions in Clouzot's lacerating section, and Serge Reggiani, playing a rather more pleasant character than is often the case, is also fine in the final segment even if the piece itself is far too neat. François Périer and the popular (and to me unfamiliar) actor Noël Noël feature in the lighter segments, and they convey rather well the way in which entirely ordinary, good-humoured men are confronted by the strangest of circumstances both during their imprisonment and on their return home.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed

2012, US, directed by Colin Trevorrow

Who'd have thought that the indie time travel-romance genre had room for more than one entry? The tone is decidedly more comic on this occasion, with a pretty conventional subplot about the deflowering of a nervous young man (the film gets a good deal of fine comic mileage out of studiously ignoring this plotline as soon as it apparently plays out), and a screenplay that's rather schematic -- the main story about dealing with one's past is paired with a rather obvious repetition of that same theme within another character's story.

What we're left with then, is mostly a set of genial, occasionally piercing, character observations -- moments in which disparate people connect with one another, or fail to understand the nature of their connections. Trevorrow doesn't really grapple with some of the bigger character questions he raises, though -- while the non-resolution of the above subplot is rather enjoyable, elsewhere he simply ignores problems that he can't resolve, simply moving on from the sticking point as though it didn't exist. That's especially problematic in the main story, where unfortunately it undermines the credibility of the nascent connection between Aubrey Plaza, who is genuinely charming, and Mark Duplass, who plays a potentially irritating kook commendably straight, which is key to finding a note of sympathy in the man.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Entre onze heures et minuit

1949, France, directed by Henri Decoin

Henri Decoin's second film in quick succession with Louis Jouvet opens with an extended sequence apparently designed to convince the audience that a plot centered on doppelgänger resemblances is not inherently implausible. That such effort is expended before the film proper even begins isn't a good sign, although there are certain meta-cinematic pleasures to be had given that the sequence uses Jouvet's own appearance in the earlier Copie conforme to aid in the argument. One of the points of that film, of course, was that a certain amount of work is needed for the resemblance to truly hold up to scrutiny, whereas here Jouvet's character -- a policeman with an uncanny resemblance to a criminal -- takes advantage of his appearance with barely a whit of preparation, and no idea whether, for instance, he sounds like the other man.

Sure enough, someone realizes pretty soon that the cop is not who he seems, though the film makes this even more implausible because no-one else in the man's inner circle draws the same conclusion (though henchman Robert Arnoux, who delivers a very droll performance, observes at one stage that he has the strange sensation of watching a dubbed film while in the presence of his "boss"-- an amusing overlap with the dialogue in the prior Decoin-Jouvet film, where the latter's character observes that a dubbed film is a film that has lost half its sense). Unlike in Copie conforme, Jouvet isn't really called upon to play two roles here, barely modulating his regular attitudes, which in turn seem copied rather blatantly in some respects from the cop he played in Clouzot's far richer Quai des Orfèvres. There are occasional moments when the film soars, however -- Decoin handles an early murder sequence with great flair, taking advantage of the unusual tunnel location near the Porte des Ternes as a man blithely walks to his death.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Les Amoureux sont seuls au monde

France, 1948, directed by Henri Decoin

Although certainly not as bitter as other post-war films, this is a rather downbeat drama -- at least in the version that appears to have survived, for I've read suggestions that director Henri Decoin shot two endings, one rather more optimistic in tone to the one on view here. As Farran Smith Nehme wrote recently, love stories that begin mid-marriage are rare cinematic animals, and this film opens with a lovely sequence in which Louis Jouvet and Renée Devillers, married for many years, re-enact their first meeting in a country banquet hall.

The script, by Henri Jeanson, has the couple playfully spar with one another, underlining their vast reserves of affection, while Jeanson also enjoys himself by assigning Jouvet a terrific monologue about going to the movies and suspecting that certain outcomes are possible or impossible simply because of the presence of the stars. The idea of game playing between couples crops up again throughout the film, though not always with the same benign and pleasurable results; the central narrative deals with suspicions of infidelity even in such an apparently grounded marriage.

Henri Decoin was a prolific director, though I've only seen two or three of his films; his work here is solid, and occasionally, as in the handling of the film's various monologues, something more (the montage in which Jouvet and Devillers narrate the history of their relationship in voiceover is especially good). There's an uncertainty in the tone, though, that's disconcerting at times -- the film slips from a kind of pastoral poetry in two forest sequences to an unexpected breath of realism in a scene where Dany Robin (as Monelle, the young woman who appears to distract Jouvet from his marriage) steps off a bus clearly filmed in the streets of Paris -- nouvelle vague shooting avant la lettre, and not sustained, for in the next shot Robin is clearly back on the studio sound stage.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Quai des Orfèvres

1947, France, directed by Henri-George Clouzot

Almost certainly Louis Jouvet's best-remembered film -- the only near competition comes, I think, from Marcel Carné's Hôtel du Nord, which isn't even on DVD in the US -- Quai des Orfèvres also features one of his very finest performances, as a dogged cop whose lack of respect for his superiors has limited his career prospects. As I noted previously, Jouvet didn't often play characters from this neck of the socio-economic woods, and yet this feels like one of the most thoroughly inhabited of his characters, a remarkably subtle, even fragile creation, with unlikely elements that somehow hang together. I suspect that to some degree that's because it's among the more underplayed of Jouvet's roles, in particular when it comes to the character's gruff expressions of affection for an adopted son, moments that provide brief, telling insights into the man's heart without being excessively mined for sentiment.

Indeed, that's typical of the film as a whole: as Luc Sante comments in the notes to the Criterion DVD edition, the film teems with Balzacian life, depicting in piquant details the worlds of both the music hall, the police station, and the crime journalist fraternity, as well as a complex crime, all without an indulgent running time. The very specific world of the music hall dominates the opening section of the film -- I had forgotten that Jouvet doesn't even appear until 40 minutes in, which underlines, yet again, how he tends to dominate one's memory of even the strongest films. As with Clouzot's later, and altogether more lightweight, film Miquette et sa mère, you get the sense that the director retained a persistent skepticism about those who chose to make their careers on the stage, or perhaps it was just that he couldn't turn off his sociologist's eye for the details of human behaviour even when turned on a milieu in which he himself spent so much time.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Copie Conforme

1947, France, directed by Jean Dréville

So often confined to small, if often indelible, roles, Louis Jouvet gets to dominate the screen here, playing two different characters -- and, into the bargain, three further incarnations essayed by one of those two characters, who is a con artist, a thief, and perhaps worse. Copie conforme wasn't the first occasion on which Jouvet played different roles, although previously it was the same character temporarily taking on a new persona, whereas here he plays two entirely different men.

The confrontation between the two men provides a fascinating opportunity to observe Jouvet's own development as a screen actor -- as much as he preserved many of his theatrical instincts, he learned ways to modulate them for the screen, and he draws careful distinction between the two characters without ever lapsing into obviousness. The requirements of the plot dictate that the two main characters gradually converge, which makes the onscreen action enjoyably confusing near the end -- both the other characters and the audience are constantly uncertain of who they are dealing with.

Jouvet's three smaller roles, little vignettes of criminal enterprise, are also very enjoyable, especially his turn as a jovial moving man wonderfully adept at dissipating all air of suspicion; it's a rare working class character for an actor more often associated with middle-class professions (or middle-class thievery). While Jouvet certainly does the heavy lifting throughout, there are a handful of notable supporting turns, too -- a very youthful Jean Carmet (above) has one of his first credited roles as  one of the criminal cohort, while Suzy Delair provides the love interest in the first of her two films with Jouvet that year.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Crimson Tide

1995, US, directed by Tony Scott

This was our small tribute to the late Tony Scott, one of the contemporary Hollywood directors whose work I most enjoyed -- without a trace of guilt. Visually, at least, Crimson Tide isn't representative of Scott's more recent work -- it's much more classical in its framing and construction, and the Scott's experimentation with the image is for the most part, confined to lens filters or cascading showers of sparks and water. The camera, though, is a good deal more mobile, even in the tight confines of a submarine, where the vast majority of the film takes place, and as such it's quite different to the more static style of films like Top Gun -- in motion in their overall action, but less so within the individual shot. Here, though, Scott's camera tracks up through the submarine and along the individual floors, sometimes moving back and forth to underline the central confrontation between sub captain Gene Hackman, playing a kind of distillation of the gruff Gene Hackman type, and younger buck Denzel Washington. In comparison with many of Scott's later films, the opening is relatively languid -- it takes some time, and a good deal of scene setting, to get us on board the sub, whereas later films often begin with us already within the action, or get us there awfully quickly. In this case, though, the set up works well, giving us reasons to invest in Washington's character in particular, which is critical to Scott's creation of tension later -- the people need to matter for us to buy into their confrontation, just as, a few years later, the back story is essential to our being caught up by Will Smith's sudden flight in Enemy of the State.


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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