Criterion Sunday 330: Au revoir les enfants (1987)

The title is taken from the final words of the priest, Father Jean, headmaster of the Catholic boarding school to which its protagonists are sent from Paris at the height of World War II, but it could as easily be bidding goodbye to them from where they live with their parents, or indeed to their innocence of course. The film builds up its picture of these wartime kids leaving the city, and shows the mysterious appearance of a few more kids to their classes early on, one of whom, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), sits next to our main protagonist, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who can be taken as something of a stand-in for the director, given this story is based on his own experiences. It soon enough becomes clear that these new kids are Jewish, and so the tension builds and remains through otherwise quotidian scenes of playing with the class, or eating food together. Characters who seem to be on their side are revealed to have secret collaborationist tendencies, and even refined upper-class spaces seethe with barely-hidden prejudice. However, it’s all handled in a way that allows us as audience to come to that realisation with Julien, without overburdening the narrative, and the acting is naturalistic. The film is shot by Renato Berta, who worked with Straub/Huillet, and brings a certain starkness to the imagery, avoiding sentimentality. This is a very fine film about a bleak period in history.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Extras which had been on a supplementary disc as part of the original box set are included on the Blu-ray reissue, most notably the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917), which is seen being screened to the kids within the film, with musical accompaniment from Irène Jacob in her first film role. I’m hardly a connoisseur of Chaplin’s films (I’ve only seen a small handful), but you can see a certain virtuosity in the staging of this, in which Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character is an immigrant on a ship bound for New York. We’re introduced to him leaning over the side while the ship rolls dramatically, suggesting he’s heaving his guts out, but the first gag reveals no, he’s just catching a fish. This continues with all kinds of physical comedy — there’s a particularly nice scene in the mess hall, where food slides between the immigrants — and a sweet bit where he anonymously helps out a young woman (Edna Purviance) who’s had her money stolen by a gambler whom he’s won it off. The ending with Purviance is rather abrupt, but it caps a film with a number of solid comedy setpieces.
  • Another extra is a five-minute visual essay about one of the more troublesome characters, an outcast named Joseph, trying to locate and understand what drives him, and the difficulties that drive him to his final decisive action in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Renato Berta; Starring Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Francine Racette; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 329: Lacombe Lucien (Lacombe, Lucien, 1974)

This World War II-era film about the young Frenchman of the title (non-professional actor Pierre Blaise) working on a rural farm who throws his lot in with the local Gestapo because he just wants to get a bit of respect from the locals still feels relevant, strangely enough. I’m pretty sure that the kind of impulses this film covers are still around today, albeit not so much directed towards collaborating with Nazis (except for those who are still drawn to that). But it covers well Lucien’s lack of imagination, combined with the lure of a bit of unearned power and a general contempt for everyone around him, as he moves first from asking about joining the Resistance to instead trying out the Nazi thugs, whose first step is to fit him up with a suit — from a local, only lightly tolerated, Jewish tailor, whose daughter (Aurore Clément) Lucien falls for. The moral quandaries that Lucien stumbles blank-faced through, never apparently altering his uncomprehending sneer and doughy teenage face, pile on as he navigates the complexities of wartime life, apparently oblivious to his own idiocy. It’s not just about French collaboration, which was a controversial topic at the time of course and continues to resonate (the idea that there were plenty of people perfectly happy to help the Nazis), but really it’s about teenage misdirection and the stupid decisions one can be led to make at that age, suggesting a lot of the hate that passes for discourse in the modern world too.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • All the extras are on a supplementary disc, which I shall comment on in the post for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Patrick Modiano; Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli; Starring Pierre Blaise, Aurore Clément, Holger Löwenadler; Length 138 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 26 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 328: Le Souffle au cœur (Murmur of the Heart, 1971)

I’m not quite sure how to take this film by Louis Malle. It seems like a provocation — if a rather gentle one — in many respects, especially with the mother-son relationship between our protagonist Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) and his mother Clara (Lea Massari). Indeed, the tone is rather gentle despite all the trouble Laurent gets up to, as if it were a soft-focus remake of The 400 Blows perhaps — it’s set in the 50s as well, though aside from mentions of the war in Indochina, that is largely about the set dressing and the style. He’s not ultimately very likeable though, and perhaps that’s just me missing the charm all the characters in the film seem to see in him, and perhaps the fact it’s a lightly fictionalised autobiography of the director blinded him to those qualities (or maybe it’s just honesty), but Laurent has the smug look of a future leader of society, like the jerks his brothers are or the young people he seems to hang around when in recuperation (thanks to the medical condition that gives the film its title). With all this incident, at times it just wants to be a slight sex comedy, at other times it’s far more interested in his mother and her struggle in her relationship with a boring doctor father. For me, it never quite resolves into anything, and as far as period 70s coming of age films, I prefer Peppermint Soda (1977).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • All the extras are on a supplementary disc, which I shall comment on in the post for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Benoît Ferreux, Lea Massari, Daniel Gélin, Michael Lonsdale; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 20 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 327: “3 Films by Louis Malle”

This box set unsurprisingly covers three films directed by Louis Malle, two coming close by one another in the 1970s — Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Lacombe, Lucien (1974) — and the third in the 1980s, Au revoir les enfants (1987). They are linked by being coming of age films, about growing up in France in various eras, whether the 1950s of the first, or the World War II setting of the other two.

There’s an additional disc of supplementary material, which as of writing I haven’t yet watched, but will update this post when I do.

Criterion Sunday 324: La Bête humaine (1938)

Billed as a proto-film noir, this is as gorgeously evocative as you might expect from a Renoir film of this period, which like Carné’s Port of Shadows (also with Gabin, and released the same year) has a way of conjuring a complex tangle of emotions out of the grey, smoke-filled skies of an industrial setting (Le Havre features in both films). Here, everyone is a creep though, not least Gabin’s protagonist, who confesses his familial madness is the desire to kill women, which is a pretty big flaw and makes him rather hard to sympathise with, but not exactly out of keeping with the genre. That said, the femme fatale (Simone Simon) is herself mixed up in a murder plot with her husband (Fernand Ledoux), who also has a tendency towards violent jealous rage, so really nobody comes off particularly well in this story, and one is left shaking one’s head at the futile pointlessness of everything by the end — which may well have been Renoir/Zola’s intention, but makes it difficult to love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir and Denise Leblond (based on the novel by Émile Zola); Cinematographer Curt Courant; Starring Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 21 May 2020.

Trop tôt/Trop tard (Too Early/Too Late, 1981)

I wrote about Straub/Huillet’s Antigone in last week’s ‘cinema of resistance’ theme, as a sort of abstract text touching on ideas of resisting authority, but in looking at history, their work also draws out plenty of important themes, largely with regards to class consciousness. Like the films by Ulrike Ottinger and Ruth Beckermann that I covered earlier today, also in the essay film/travelogue vein, Too Early/Too Late juxtaposes historical texts with present reality, drawing out both change and continuity over time.


I think I may like this film best of Straub/Huillet’s works that I’ve seen, though even on second viewing I can’t pretend it’s all gone into me, and an academic introduction to the screening did rather impress on me how little purchase I have on the language for describing this kind of cinema. The film’s topic (and its title) is about the way that revolution never comes at the right time, so I gather. The film itself is structured into two parts, one set in France, the other in Egypt, accompanied by the reading of texts about class consciousness from either country (the one for France is Friedrich Engels, read by Huillet herself in heavily-accented English, and the Egyptian text is by a pair of academics writing pseudonymously as Mahmoud Hussein). The texts don’t exactly match what we see, but seem to be discussing the places shown. For the French-set scenes, Engels runs down a list of various rural towns and the numbers of people within them who live in poverty. We don’t see many people here, but there are a huge number of cars, and these signs and sounds hint at changes to working conditions that the images, in the placidity of the rural scenes, also belie.

Formally, the strategy seems to be constant movement. The camera starts in a car circling a roundabout in Paris (I’m going to guess Place de la Bastille) until the audience is dizzy, and then subsequent images show the camera panning across small towns and then back again constantly. In the Egyptian scenes, we see more people, walking or on bicycles, so at times the camera just sits still and watches them move around and across the scene (such as one memorable scene mimicking the Lumière brothers’ “La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon” [Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory]). Another shot tracks along a dirt road for the same amount of time as the roundabout in Paris, but here the movement is linear towards the horizon rather than circular. The use of the camera thus seems to be creating formal parallels (as well as dissonances) between the two locations, all while the spoken texts emphasise an understanding of the operation of class consciousness.

However, even if I can’t fully grasp every element of the discourse, I do like a good piece of slow cinema, and for a change with these filmmakers (unlike in, say, Fortini/Cani), there is plenty of time to process the words, as the visuals have an almost hypnotic effect, beautifully framed and shot.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (adapting a letter to Karl Kautsky and the essay “Die Bauernfrage in Frankreich und Deutschland” [The Peasant Question in France and Germany] by Friedrich Engels, and the book La Lutte des classes en Égypte de 1945 à 1968 “The Class Struggle in Egypt from 1945 to 1968” by Adel Rifaat عادل رأفت and Bahgat El Nadi بهجت النادي [as “Mahmoud Hussein” محمود حسين]); Cinematographers Caroline Champetier, William Lubtchansky, Robert Alazraki and Marguerite Perlado; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 30 November 2003 (and most recently at the ICA, London, Tuesday 19 March 2019).

Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)

One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.

Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”

Criterion Sunday 322: “The Complete Mr. Arkadin”: Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report, 1955)

This Criterion release features three versions of the title film: the European release as Confidential Report which is the one I’ve reviewed below, the “Corinth” cut with some different footage, and a reconstructed cut especially for the Criterion release, which purports to be the fullest and truest to Welles’s original intentions. As I do not (yet) have the Criterion edition of the film, I have not been able to review this cut, but I shall revisit it at such time as I am able to, and add to the review below.


Like any Welles film, or at least like all too many of them, this exists in multiple versions. I watched the European edit which was released under the title Confidential Report and it is, as you might expect, splendidly bonkers, careening around its mystery thriller plot with wild abandon. Welles, of course, plays the larger-than-life title character (well, the title character in the original title of the film), a large bearded fellow with a past that he claims not to know, or is trying actively to cover up, in murderous ways… except that chisel-jawed Robert Arden (as small-time crook Guy van Stratten) is onto him. There’s no shortage of stylish shooting, with all kinds of Dutch angles and scattershot dialogue propelling the drama forward. Perhaps this isn’t the finest version of the film that exists, and I hope at least to watch some of the others eventually, but even a badly recut Welles film is still a fine experience; there’s only so much that an editor can do to his idiosyncratic use of space.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Orson Welles (based on radio scripts for The Lives of Harry Lime by Ernest Bornemann and Welles); Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin; Starring Robert Arden, Orson Welles, Paola Mori, Patricia Medina, Akim Tamiroff; Length 98 minutes [as Confidential Report].

Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 3 June 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, October 1999).

Three Short Films by Sarah Maldoror

I think if we’ve all learned anything from the last few decades of study and research about women in cinema is that there has been a paucity of women creating cinema since the silent era, i.e. from when cinema started to be seen as a viable industry and not just a hobby or a sideshow. This means a lot of women’s work in cinema has been in non-commercial spheres like the experimental avant garde, or else in oppositional contexts, and that is where we find the French/West Indian filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, who chose her surname and began to make films with her Angolan nationalist husband after having been an assistant on The Battle of Algiers. That first short I review below was also made in Algeria, but is specifically about the Angolan situation, before its independence. She made a feature film a few years later, Sambizanga (again filmed in absentia in the Republic of Congo/Brazzaville, but about Angola), which I will be covering shortly in my Global Cinema series when we get to Angola. Sadly, Maldoror died earlier this year, in April 2020, as a result of complications from COVID-19, at the age of 90. The three short films below were made available for a short time by Another Gaze journal, in support of a panel featuring her daughters, poetry recital, and a discussion amongst film critics, which was insightful and also, for me, rather unusual in centering the experiences of African and Caribbean women.

Continue reading “Three Short Films by Sarah Maldoror”

Soleil Ô (1967)

This week I’m theming my films around a rather intangible concept I’m calling the “Cinema of Resistance”, a title that’s been applied to a wide range of films in various film programmes over the years, but which I am defining as films either opposed to the forces of authoritarianism, fascism, white supremacy and colonialism, along with the other power structures used to oppress people and popular dissent, or films which elucidate those structures (and, generally, to understand the workings of systems of oppression is the first step towards dismantling them). Therefore a number of the films this week will deal with revolutionaries, or stories that derive from this position. These are themes that remain continually relevant, never more so than in 2020. I am hardly an authority on such things, so my recommendation (aside from the films I’m covering this week) is to educate yourself, read some books, and if you have money support those who are fighting for these causes.

Today’s film is by Mauretanian filmmaker Med Hondo, a number of whose works I’ve already covered, like the magisterial West Indies (1979) or the indigenous epic of resistance, Sarraounia (1986). However, Soleil Ô is probably his most recognised work, and one that continues to stay relevant over 50 years on. It is sadly not currently available to watch online, though hopefully it will get a proper release in time.


If you want to see what feels like the cinematic scream of an entire race of people against white European colonialist attitudes, then this is probably the film for you. That’s not to say it trades purely in anger, though. A lot of it is almost humorous, and it feels rather episodic in the way it builds up its narratives. Not unlike some of Med Hondo’s other work (e.g. Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins a few years later), it feels drawn to a variety of forms of expression, channelling something of the thrill of the New Wave in trying out not just formal innovations, but a variety of registers in conveying its clash between the liberal platitudes of post-revolutionary France and the reality of migration from their African colonies. A young African man (Robert Liensol) tries to find a job in a French city, only to run up against racism, abuse and (possibly even worse in some ways, certainly more humiliating) a thin veneer of acceptance from some white people. Some of the film’s methods can get a bit distracting, but Liensol is a fine screen presence and pulls the disparate film together, and it makes enough salient points about the contemptuousness and sheer suffocation provoked by colonialism that it is absolutely worth watching for anyone interested in the racism that is at the heart of ‘Western’ civilisation.

[NB I note that it’s listed as a 1967 production, but it looks from the film as if scenes were filmed later than that (I spotted a big calendar from 1969 in one background), so I wonder if the film wasn’t finished until a few years later? Certainly it feels like aspects of it draw from the events of May 68, and even if they don’t it certainly dovetails nicely into that period of revolutionary ferment.]

Soleil Ô film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Cinematographers François Catonne and Jean-Claude Rahanga; Starring Robert Liensol; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 3 December 2019.