Criterion Sunday 223: Maîtresse (1973)

I think there are some interesting things going on in this film, primarily in the way in which power dynamics are worked out, but behind it all there’s a very familiar, very masculine 1970s French way of looking at the world which reminds me a lot of Godard and his fellow travellers. Essentially, it’s about a semi-criminal young man (Gérard Depardieu) who finds himself drawn into the world of a professional dominatrix (Bulle Ogier). He has no money and comes to rely on her, while she makes her money by dominating submissive men, but he finds himself needing to express his own dominance in their power relationship. In some sense, he is enacting familiar patriarchal pattern of behaviour; I’m just not sure that the film is interested in exploring both their subjectivities, so much as wanting to find some compromise whereby she becomes more submissive to his will. That said, there’s a lot of interesting interplay between the two, and I at least don’t get the feeling that her sex work itself is being criticised. Ultimately, it feels very much like a period piece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Writers Schroeder and Paul Voujargol; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Bulle Ogier, Gérard Depardieu; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 20 August 2018.

Criterion Sunday 153: Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, 1974)

An odd documentary, with a double focus. On the one hand this is the Ugandan dictator’s film, as he gives directions to the camera and stages scenes, rambles on about his political philosophy and shows all the strings to his bow — political speechmaker, military commander (in a particularly underwhelming run-through of a prospective attack on Israel), tour guide to the African wildlife, and even accordion player. The other side of the film is Barbet Schroeder’s inserts, a pre-credits sequence of mass killings, a mention during a particular grumpy meeting that Amin holds with the foreign ministry that the minister was found dead a few weeks later, questions about his views on Hitler after producing a letter sent to the IOC following Munich. It’s chilling in its way, this genial fool and the damage and death he caused, but always relevant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Barbet Schroeder; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 April 2017.

Argerich (aka Bloody Daughter, 2012)

The family documentary film is a popular genre, and if you have an interesting story to tell, a rewarding one — after all, being related to the subject gives you somewhat privileged access. In this case, photographer Stéphanie Argerich focuses her camera on her famous mother, the concert pianist Martha Argerich, who was born in Argentina but since relocated to Europe. Given the point of view, there’s plenty of detail about Argerich’s relationships and children (Stéphanie’s sisters, the first of whom was raised more or less as an orphan, and only re-entered their lives later on). Through it, one gets the sense of Martha’s single-minded focus on her art — something of an occupational hazard at this level of musical achievement — and her prickliness when she’s the centre of attention. Both as a public figure and as a mother she comes across as uncompromising, but not aloof. To be honest, not being a classical music fan, I didn’t know Argerich’s name, but the archival footage of her is quite astounding, and it seems from what we see that her playing has only become quicker and more forceful with age. However unforced and verité it appears from the handheld camerawork, it’s clearly a carefully structured film, and presents an interesting story from a well-connected viewpoint, incidentally imparting a sense of the peripatetic lifestyle of the concert pianist.

Argerich film posterCREDITS
Director Stéphanie Argerich; Cinematographers Argerich and Luc Peter; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 July 2015.

Sils Maria (Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014)

Aside from the pre-scheduled Criterion posts, there’s been slim pickings on this blog in recent weeks as I’ve been on holiday in the States and Canada, which means I’ve largely not been seeing films. However, I did catch up with one while over there. UPDATE: It has since been added to the Criterion Collection, so you see just how far I’ve strayed.


I’ve always had the sense from the infiltration of celebrity gossip into news coverage that Kristen Stewart has been underrated as an actor, apparently on the basis of, I don’t know, her lack of a sunny Californian disposition? It’s obviously a shallow criticism, as even if you’d only been aware of her since her turn in Twilight (2008), she’s already proved her acting mettle many times (my favourite being the 2010 musical biopic The Runaways). Clearly French director Olivier Assayas has been attentive, as he’s cast her alongside acting heavyweight Juliette Binoche, and Stewart very much holds her own (though perhaps it helps that Binoche is called upon to deliver much of her performance in English). It’s a classic self-reflexive European narrative about actors and acting, about ageing and egos and a sort of psychic transference between the older (Binoche) and younger generations (Stewart, as well as Chloë Grace Moretz in a small role). Stewart plays Valentine, the harried but largely unflappable PA to Binoche’s Maria, a well-known theatrical actor who is travelling to Zürich to deliver a tribute to the (now-deceased) director who discovered her when she was a teenager. There’s something about the way it all unfolds with its narrative ellipses, its teasing character linkages and its self-reflexivity about the craft of acting and cinema, not to mention the mountainous Swiss setting (the film’s title is taken from a notable cloud formation), which reminds me of the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner and a 1960s/70s tradition of this kind of story. Clouds of Sils Maria hints at the boundaries between the real and the fictive in a playful, literary and engaged way, but leaves us on a questioning note, unsure of exactly how much has changed for its title character and those women around her.

Clouds of Sils Maria film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineplex Forum, Montréal, Wednesday 15 April 2015.

Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014)

In writing about the most recent film I’d seen of director Jean-Luc Godard’s (Film socialisme, 2010), I tried to convey a sense that assigning a star-rating to it was largely futile. Godard’s practice by this point is increasingly experimental and beyond the bounds of conventional film narrative, moreso even than in his 60s heyday. So those who’ve seen anything he’s done in the last ten years won’t be surprised by Adieu au langage, just as it’s likely that those who only know him from his 60s pop-cultural pomp will recoil in horror. There’s still some of the same playfulness at work, such as when the film’s title pops up periodically as “AH DIEUX / OH LANGAGE”, or the repeated footage of a cheerful dog (Roxy, the real star of the film), or the title card with the word “2D” in the background and “3D” looming out front. For indeed, this film is in 3D, but pushed to its limits as grainy handheld video footage butts up against recycled film clips and more studied compositions. What narrative there is features a couple who fight and bicker, both of them often in a state of partial undress, but it’s very much just telegraphed hints towards Godard’s themes at this point. There’s a two-part structure, “nature” and “metaphor”, and the mood (as the most recent Godard films have been) is strongly elegiac — a goodbye not just to words but to a filmic language too, perhaps. You may love it, you may hate it, but you will probably still feel provoked and more than a little confused.

Goodbye to Language film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Fabrice Aragno; Starring Héloise Godet; Length 70 minutes.
Seen at BFI Imax [3D], London, Monday 13 October 2014.

Notre musique (Our Music, 2004)

What with some family commitments and the London Film Festival taking place in October, what I had originally intended to be a ‘Godard Month’ has rather stretched on, and I still have a few films left to review, therefore I may yet be posting Godard Month entries in November…


By the time of Godard’s previous feature, Éloge de l’amour (2001), he was starting to place things in a rather more elegiac emotional register. That film grappled with his ageing, while this one focuses on similarly weighty existential issues — war, death, heaven and hell. Like most of his feature films, it remains concise in its running time while also seeming expansive thanks to his knack of densely layering image, text, music and voices. If at times it feels perplexing, then that’s all part and parcel of Godard’s way of presenting his films, especially in this late period.

I’ve mentioned the dense layering effects Godard likes, but though these are definitely present here, there’s a more uncluttered narrative than has often been the case in the past. The structure of the film is a fairly straightforward tripartite one, split into the “Kingdoms” of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The first section consists of 10 minutes of archival footage and film clips spliced together with some sombre music, which suggests a certain mediated view of the horrors of war and conflict. The last section of Heaven is similarly brief, a pastoral scene (albeit one policed by military guards), featuring a character who has just been reported as having died. But for the most part (Purgatory), the film is set in Sarajevo, at an academic conference where Godard himself is a participant, delivering a lecture about shot/reverse-shot construction, transposing images in front of students just as he’s been doing on film for the previous 15 years or more.

Within this narrative are a couple of female Jewish characters, Judith (Sarah Adler) and Olga (Nade Dieu), each pursuing through their respective means (journalist and documentary filmmaker) an understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. None of this is particularly straightforward and the points that Godard is trying to make are opaque as ever. However, the film is not about suggesting answers as about opening up arenas of discussion, such as the sites of wartime damage in Sarajevo, or the classroom where Godard lectures the students. At the close of this sequence, a question regarding the future of cinema is posed — about whether digital cameras will sustain cinema — and Godard, a shadowy presence in the half light, remains quite silent.

Like all of Godard’s films, especially the later ones, Notre musique remains a film of textures and ideas far more than of plot and characters, and the viewer has to keep that in mind. Still, it’s a film that poses questions about geopolitical security and humanity/cinema’s future, so it was never likely to have a clear conclusion, and the film struggles to outdo its brief but affecting opening sequence of Hell.

Next Up: I’m finishing the chronological journey with his most recent film, Film socialisme. The only other two films I wanted to deal with in my Godard director focus are Nouvelle vague (1990) and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), which I shall try to do shortly, as this project is stretching on rather longer than I’d anticipated!


Our Music film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographers Jean-Christophe Beauvallet and Julien Hirsch; Starring Sarah Adler, Nade Dieu, Jean-Luc Godard; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 October 2013.

Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001)

With a bit of a break for Hélas pour moi (1993) and For Ever Mozart (1996), for the majority of the 1990s, Godard was engaged on his densely-textured multi-part video work Histoire(s) du cinéma. Given his devotion to that project (which I shall be reviewing later), it’s no surprise to find in this return to the narrative feature format, something of both that and his celluloid roots, both in terms of the textures as well as some of the themes. Éloge de l’amour is every bit as interesting and complex a work as his other late-period films and probably demands (certainly deserves) more attention than I was able to give it on my one sole viewing (so far), but it feels to me like a great film.

Those allusive textures I mentioned are most obviously in the last half-hour, shot on video and pushed towards an extreme colour balance, all thickly saturated blocky colours threatening to overwhelm the fragile human figures. But the first half too reminds us of Godard’s past, utilising starkly monochrome photography of Paris by night. If the style is not quite the same as back in those 1960s films with Raoul Coutard behind the camera — here it’s more contrasty, with deep inky blacks pressing in everywhere — it still feels redolent of that era. Filming in the street recalls his debut feature, while a scene by the river brings to mind a similar one in Bande à part. It’s a modern Paris but the filming renders it once more timeless.

That said, Godard the filmmaker is concerned above all with time, and as in many of his films, channels whatever are his current autobiographical obsessions. With Éloge, it’s his advancing age that is part of the backdrop. In fact, in many ways this film is more elegy than eulogy, its blend of textures and repeated classical music motifs drawing us back in time, with reminiscences of the French wartime resistance becoming part of the story (one commodified by Hollywood filmmaking — the ‘resistance’ here is as much Godard’s towards those methods of telling a story, as it is the wartime French). Love, which from the film’s title is ostensibly more important, is just one aspect of history and one that can so easily disappear into the shadows. Intertitles which flash up during the first part of the film are unclear as to what’s being eulogised: “DE L’AMOUR” or “DE QUELQUE CHOSE” (“of something” else). By the final video-shot part of the film, the intertitles are more interested in the passage of time — this section is set two years in the past, the “ARCHIVES”, “a long time ago”… “so long ago” — and the fact that the past utilises grainy colour video footage is even more a provocation.

The story itself is as opaque as ever in late-period Godard. There’s some sense that a writer (played by Bruno Putzulu) is trying to recall a love he shared, and is auditioning women to play parts in his story, but it’s all very obliquely presented. The ravishing black-and-white images show face-and-shoulders shots of the women speaking to camera with the writer’s voiceover questioning them, the writer in various settings of wealth and aspiration talking about the project, and night-time Paris with its tourist monuments in the background and its night-time workforce of cleaners and caretakers passing through. All these shots come in a flow of associative ideas, broken up by black leader suggesting images snatched from memory or from time itself.

I suspect audiences either go with Godard’s dense filmic poetry or actively resist his generalising and pretensions. He doesn’t make it particularly easy — for the American audiences, there are some challenging positions with regards to US hegemony and Hollywoodisation of history, which certainly come through as sore points when flicking through the critical commentary online — but his way with sound and images remains undimmed after all these years. He’s certainly grown crankier as a filmmaker, but the end result is a beautiful film that I believe stands up to repeat viewings and gives something of a sense of how it is to grow old within a medium that fetishises beauty and youth. It is something of a swansong.

Next Up: The most recent film of Godard’s I’ll be looking at is Notre musique (2004), which deals with violence and colonialism.

In Praise of Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographers Julien Hirsch and Christophe Pollock; Starring Bruno Putzulu; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 25 September 2013.

Passion (1982)

After the full stop that was Week End (1967) and the partial return of Tout va bien (1972), Godard sort of disappeared into a wilderness of televisual and video-based filmmaking. Upon his return to the cinema screen in 1980 with Sauve qui peut (la vie), he may have been once again using recognisable star actors, but the narrative structures were certainly far from mainstream. This second film of his return is within a filmmaking framework familiar from Le Mépris (1963), which film incidentally also starred Michel Piccoli and was shot by Raoul Coutard. However, the Godard of 20 years later has a quite different method of putting together narrative, making Passion a rather more challenging viewing experience.

This is, however, the experience of this later period of Godard’s filmmaking, as the links between scenes — not to mention between image track and soundtrack — become increasingly tenuous. You could view this as a breathtakingly brazen disregard for conventional narrative structures (the beginning, middle and end “but not necessarily in that order” approach of one of Godard’s famous dictums), or as an increasingly cranky and self-indulgent way of befuddling the audience, but I choose to take it as both. I cannot deny that actually watching the film is perplexing, but this isn’t the emperor’s new clothes: there is a method here that definitely yields some interesting results.

As with Le Mépris, once again there’s a fairly self-critical portrait of the artist, who here is the bespectacled Polish filmmaker Jerzy (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz). Like Godard (living and working in Switzerland by this time), Jerzy is in some sort of self-imposed exile, stranded outside his country as the first political convulsions are taking place that by the end of the decade would lead to the overthrow of Communism. He is making a film called Passion which seems anything but passionate from what we see — beautifully-shot and lit tableaux of unmoving figures which seem to restage Renaissance paintings and give plenty of opportunity for the baring of female flesh, which Jerzy rather imperiously co-ordinates when he’s bothering to work on the film at all. Unsurprisingly there are problems with the budget, and it’s never quite clear what the plot is (indeed, the question is put to him directly at one point, to which he amusingly reacts with disgust, rather suggesting that plot is beside the point for Godard/Jerzy).

The rest of the cast are largely enacting a scenario involving factory owner Michel (Piccoli) and his wife Hanna (Schygulla), as well as Isabelle (Huppert) as a factory worker who comes into conflict with Michel. The ideas Godard seems to be playing with involve the demands of a working life (shades of Tout va bien) and those of the heart. There are communication issues too, particularly between the non-Francophone characters (Jerzy and Hanna). It’s difficult, though, to draw out more expressive ideas on just one viewing — Godard’s films get increasingly elliptical and densely-layered and require more time to unpick. His soundtrack work still likes to fade in and out repeated snatches of music (here it’s most prominently Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem), but there’s also images with different sounds matched to it (voices that don’t emanate from the characters we’re viewing, for example). And then there’s some typically playful Godardian self-referentiality, as when Isabelle tries to clear out her father from a room only to be told by another character that the elderly actor playing her father wants to get more attention when he delivers his single line (for which Godard immediately cuts away).

It’s far from a terrible film (whatever the limitations of my star-rating system), and in fact Passion may be, as I’ve implied (I hope), one of the most suggestive and rich of his 1980s output. It’s definitely films such as this one that demand repeat viewings to fully absorb some of the textures and ideas. It’s too easy to write this off as just an incoherent jumble, but for the first-time viewer that’s quite likely what it will come across as. However, that viewer can at least be thankful that like most of Godard’s films it hovers under the 90 minute length, and perhaps the mystery will incline that imagined viewer (who may or may not be myself) to return to it someday.

Next Up: Godard did a few other films during the 1980s including a typically ornery adaptation of King Lear (1987). At the end of the decade, he made Nouvelle vague (1990) which in its name suggests a look back on his founding legacy. I do intend to watch and review this, but in the meantime I have his short German travelogue Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991).

Passion film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Hanna Schygulla, Michel Piccoli; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at university library, Wellington, March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 30 September 2013).