Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nouvelle vague

1990, France/Switzerland, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

I'm not at all familiar with post-1970 Godard, but Nouvelle vague was featured on the first issue of Les Cahiers du cinéma I ever purchased, when I was sixteen, and the images from that issue have remained with me since -- I wouldn't quite say that I'd constructed my own mental version of the film, but I certainly formed a clear sense of what I thought it would be like, and it was nothing like this.

I'd forgotten almost completely how beautiful, even painterly, Godard's films can be -- images composed with exquisite care, but also finding much of their beauty in movement, such as in the wonderful shot, near the end, of a couple emerging from the woods and wandering across a lawn, the camera fluidly tracking their progress over fifteen or twenty seconds. In the opening segment, though, the soundscape is often even more striking, with clinking glasses, a car, or even a snippet of music often used to distinctly unsettling effect.

As expected, there's the usual abundance of references -- within cinema alone contributing everything from Pagnol to echoes of Alain Delon's own filmography (Plein soleil, most obviously, and perhaps Notre histoire among others), but also music and books, whether they appear within the shot or are quoted in voiceover. At one point, Delon -- who has perfected, over several decades, the trick of looking utterly exhausted -- fixes the camera and asks, in response to (yet) another apparent non sequitur, "What's he talking about?" It's hard not to assume that Godard is winking in our direction, aware of his own obtuse and pretentious reputation and able, just a little, to bring himself down to size.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Le Caporal épinglé

1962, France, directed by Jean Renoir

Though it shares affinities with Renoir's own earlier La Grande illusion -- the survival of fellow-feeling in the midst of war, most obviously -- this late entry in the director's filmography feels more in the spirit of other popular hits of the period dealing with the wartime experience, most obviously Henri Verneuil's 1959 La Vache et le prisonnier, one of Fernandel's major successes, and even Gérard Oury's subsequent blockbuster La Grande vadrouille, with Louis de Funès and Bourvil. All three films move, with varying success, between comic and serious registers, as seems to befit the shared wartime setting, though Renoir, as one might expect, manages the transitions pretty seamlessly, particularly in a suspenseful section where prisoners listen for news of an escape. The terrific group of then-largely-unknown actors like Claude Rich, Claude Brasseur and Jean-Pierre Cassel combine to create a wonderful series of portraits of Frenchmen from across the spectrum thrown together by the circumstances of war. The comic Guy Bedos is also amusing in a small role, the opposite of his logorrheic stand-up persona, while Jean Carmet provides a little more experience in one of the most broadly comic roles, a farmer obsessed by the care of his cows, perhaps an explicit nod to Fernandel's character mentioned above.

Friday, February 22, 2013


2012, US, directed by Rian Johnson

Perhaps it's the influence of parenthood, but as the credits rolled the first thing that popped into my head was to wonder whether director Rian Johnson has a child with a propensity to apocalyptic tantrums; to say more might rather spoil things, though.

I watched Johnson's film as I was in the middle of Stephen King's weighty 11/22/63, a book that ran out of steam for me long before the actual end, though it did provide some nice counterpoint to the ways in which Looper handles the mechanics of time travel. Johnson is more interested than King in teasing out some of the very specific consequences of the phenomenon, many of which he addresses in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's narration, though that voice-over also gives us a critical window into the character's thinking since he's otherwise a fairly laconic presence. Where King is concerned to re-create and explain a very specific part of the world from 1958-1963, Johnson leaves many of his details intriguingly unexplained -- the paraphernalia extending from the fuel tanks of cars, for instance -- while nonetheless giving us a precise sense of the dystopian turn of the earth (or at least Kansas) circa 2044.

Johnson is a terrifically confident filmmaker, whether it's in his visual approach -- the camera that travels with Gordon-Levitt in the early going as his character becomes embroiled in a hellish routine of killings, nightclubs and drugs -- or his shifting of tone from the caffeinated initial phase to the more bucolic central section, having the faith in his own storytelling skills to tamp down the rhythm and send the narrative in a more reflective direction. He's also quite clearly having an awful lot of fun with the genre aspects of his film, and particularly with the casting; Bruce Willis's character comes across as a kind of distillation of Willis characters past, all action and few words, to the point that I wondered for a while if Johnson would grant the man any lines at all, while Jeff Daniels looks like he's having an absolute blast as a Svengali-esque dean of criminal enterprise, attempting to lull his charges with his rolling cadences.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

La Règle du jeu

1939, France, directed by Jean Renoir

I've little to add to the enormous amount written about Renoir's film, surely one of the most dissected in all of cinema, except to note, once again, the wonderfully loose feel -- it feels as spontaneous, despite its perfection, as the vaudeville-esque stage show that takes place during the second half of the film. What astonishes me time and again (though it has been too long since my last viewing) is the delicacy of touch, the way in which farce can share a stage with high drama, or melodrama, and violence, without the juxtapositions ever seeming awkward. As the film approaches its climax, one set of players cavorts through the sets in a manner reminiscent of the Keystone Cops, or perhaps the Keystone Gamekeepers, sharing space with others attempting to resolve romances that span the spectrum from fleeting to lifelong. It's hard to resists framing any reading of the film against the backdrop of 1939 -- as catastrophe looms, Renoir seems to suggest that many are oblivious, dancing and playing on as blithely as those aboard the Titanic as the iceberg loomed, except that while those on board ship had no way to predict what was ahead France's citizenry in 1939 had no such excuse.

I last saw the film on the big screen, and my abiding visual memory of that viewing was the depth of many of Renoir's compositions, characters strategically placed into the far distance, whereas this time, on the smaller screen, I was struck most by the two shots, particularly those involving the character of Octave, played by Renoir himself -- two faces almost completely fill the screen at times, abstracted from the overall setting. I'd never noticed before how Octave, spilling great torrents of verbiage, might be seen as a precursor to later, comic, characters in the French pantheon, particularly someone like Coluche: for all the latter performer's different social standing, there's a similarity in the ways which both Renoir and Coluche employ words as a kind of battering ram while also making canny use of their size for both comic and serious effect.

Friday, February 15, 2013

À bout portant

2010, France, directed by Fred Cavayé

After I watched Nuit blanche, Netflix thought I might fancy À bout portant too -- unsurprising given that they are both pretty relentless actioners, with kidnapping at the core of the action, though this film is rather more fanciful in some of its set-ups, and occasionally recalls some of the delirious construction of a late 1980s John Woo flick, where credibility takes a firm back seat to adrenaline. With the exception of the pregnant-woman-in-peril sequences, which add almost nothing except a vaguely TV vibe, the first hour is very strong, sketching out the consequences for an ordinary man (Gilles Lellouche) caught up in extraordinary crime as well as the unlikely partnership he forges, reasonably credibly, with a criminal (Roschdy Zem) with whom he has crossed paths. Cavayé can't quite keep it all in the air as the movie advances, though -- there are a few too many racing-against-the-clock sequences, while it's sometimes very hard to tell when people are truly in danger given that we have no sense of their proximity to each other (Nuit blanche was much stronger on this score, with shots more carefully structured to show us the relationships between the characters as they progressed through the film's main setting). The end result, disappointingly, is all too neat, much closer to Hollywood on the Seine than the grittier opening might imply.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Kickstart the Brattle

The Brattle Theatre is a venerable Cambridge cinematic institution, operating as a movie theatre since 1953, though it has a much longer history as a house of entertainment, and one of the few places in the Boston area where you can reliably see older and genuinely non-mainstream cinema.

A few years ago, during a major funding crisis, I decided I had to finally put my money where my mouth was: if I wasn't going regularly, I could hardly lament when the venue shut down due to lack of funding. The Brattle weathered that challenging period, thankfully, and shortly afterwards Sarah inaugurated an annual tradition -- a Brattle membership for my birthday. It's one of those gifts that never gets old: there's a new selection of pictures every time, and my only problem, as each year draws to a close, is that I've not been able to get to more of their screenings! With Sarah's essential parenting support I've still been able to go regularly since Shay arrived in 2011; we do miss making the trip together due to the hassles and expenses of babysitting, but we hope those days will return before too long, and I hope that Shay, in turn, will enjoy something of the magic I've always found in outings to the movies.

The Brattle has now launched a Kickstarter campaign to upgrade its HVAC and projection systems, to take it well into the 21st century. I'd urge you to pledge whatever you can to the cause: this is a great venue, with imaginative and unusual programming and a real desire to stay affordable and open to all. One of the things I love about their bi-monthly schedules is the sense that it is catering to many different publics -- local filmmakers, documentary obsessives, black and white fans, and oddball genre fiends (the genres are oddball, though the fiends may be, too).

As a small tribute, I've compiled a top ten of memorable Brattle outings, including double- and triple-bills -- going back through my notes and realizing I've had the chance to see these treasures on the big screen is a treat in itself. Well, perhaps The Goonies isn't a treasure, but it was hard to beat seeing it with a nostalgic Friday-night audience.

A Day at the Races / A Night at the Opera
Meet Me in St Louis
The Goonies
Red Riding
The Harder They Come
Week End
City Girl / Sunrise
Sherlock Jr.
Wake in Fright

Oh, and a special mention for the night we watched the finale of Lost at the Brattle -- the staff went all out and decorated every single piece of the venue in Dharma Initiative symbols, and threw in a whole range of entertaining and imaginative games to pass the time during commercial breaks. It's that kind of quirky gathering that makes this a place I want to see survive for another generation to enjoy.

Update (February 25): The Brattle made it to their very ambitious goal today, with an amazing array of people contributing over $140,000!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Marianne de ma jeunesse

1955, France/Germany, directed by Julien Duvivier

A wonderfully strange film that evokes Cocteau's La Belle et la bête at times, particularly in the sequences in a reputedly haunted house, with mirrors and walls not what they seem, and frames within frames to trick the eye. The whole film indeed, feels like a series of frames within frames, all of them centering on memory and its tricks -- Vincent (Pierre Vaneck), the character with the lion's share of screen time experiences that in a literal sense, but the narrator, Manfred (Gil Vidal), constructs his own version of the story in nostalgic flashback that can't be dissociated from his admiration for his friend.

Indeed, when the film opens I assumed that it was going to take a different tack, more focused on that Manfred's hero worship/love for Vincent; there's an intense and immediate bond between the pair but the film is rarely interested in exploring that, except, perhaps, through Manfred's elegiac and admiring commentary. The instant attachments and passions of youth underpin everything in the film -- Vincent's exotic background immediately makes him the star of the oddball boarding school where he has been sent, while he's quick to become both the object and subject of romantic fixations.

As captivating as Duvivier's atmospherics can be -- he's blessed, of course, with some magnificent set design for his exteriors -- there are a few weak points: his two central male actors are clearly far older than the characters are intended to be, which undermines the credibility of their youthful obsessions, while there's an awkward blending of studio "exteriors" with actual location work, a mishmash that's particularly odd since the location shooting is excellent, with Duvivier's camera alive to the energy of the story as it tracks characters racing through the forest or reveals the approaching dawn through an eerie mist. I'm curious to see the German version, shot simultaneously with different actors in several of the major roles.

Friday, February 01, 2013

House by the River

1950, US, directed by Fritz Lang

House by the River starts out in what seems like classic Lang/noir territory -- a man making one foolish decision that threatens to unravel his otherwise routine life, but we fairly quickly realize that there's something more sociopathic than fate-battered about this particular protagonist, and the film veers into territory that's altogether creepier than The Woman in the Window or even the far bleaker Scarlet Street. The setting is a bizarre southern-Victorian-suburban mishmash, and Lang apparently wished to render the film considerably more explosive by casting a black actress in a key role as a maid, but had to abandon the idea. Indeed, there's not a single black face anywhere in the film, in even the most thankless of roles, rendering the setting even more unsettlingly strange in cinematic terms. It's terrifically atmospheric stuff, though -- the night-time boat ride in search of a body is masterful, while Lang exploits angles and corridors within the main character's old, dark house to unsettling effect. He's adept at worming an idea into our heads, too: when his protagonist glances at a drain and imagines where the water is coming from -- the maid's bath -- we realize that we, too, have made the same connection, rendering us somehow complicit in the lascivious mental processes of this despicable man.


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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.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States