Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.
As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Roger Fellous | Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016
A year or two back I spent a number of reviews focusing on the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and I think I did pretty well covering his career, but inevitably with such a prolific talent there were going to be gaps. Now the BFI has come along with a full retrospective so I’ve been trying to fill in some of those gaps, and from his most famous period of work (in the early- to mid-1960s), Une femme mariée was the most high profile film I’d not seen. That said, it’s still largely overlooked in favour of his films with Anna Karina, which is a pity because it exhibits a great amount of formal beauty, as well as giving a clear sense of Godard’s (rather less attractive) relationship to France and to women. In terms of the formal characteristics, we have the usual flattened frontal perspectives, starting with extreme close-ups on fragments of star Macha Méril’s unclothed body, as she is caressed from outside the frame by the hands of her lover, all rather startlingly and gorgeously composed by Raoul Coutard’s camera, as an extension perhaps of the anatomisation that began Le Mépris the year before. This technique is returned to throughout the film, as Méril’s character Charlotte bounces between the two men in her life, Robert and husband Pierre — though they sort of merge, at least in my mind, into something approaching an archetype of French manhood (just as Charlotte is, as originally conceived, The Married Woman of the title, albeit later changed to the indefinite article at the behest of the French censors). Even more persistent than the men is the influence of women’s magazines and advertising in her life, as she absurdly measures herself against their strictures, and it’s perhaps this body fascism which she is most wedded to, and which accounts for the formal strategies Godard adopts. It’s undoubtedly a fine work of modernist filmmaking, but it feels to me very much still like the work of a man looking at a woman (the problem I suppose I have with most of Godard’s output, especially during this era), but making this so central to the conception of the film as a whole is surely an achievement nonetheless. In any case, it certainly deserves a more prominent place in his filmography than is popularly accorded to it.
The short film La Paresse (1962), included as an episode of one of the many fashionable short film anthologies that were popular in the 1960s, is a droll take on the deadly sin of sloth. Niftily edited with Godard’s usual stylish flair, it has Eddie Constantine picking up a young starlet (Nicole Mirel) in his car and taking her back to his place. Constantine at that point was a man known from various popular action and adventure flicks, but here his character can barely even be bothered to tie his shoelaces, and opts out of sleeping with Mirel as he can’t be bothered to get dressed again after.
Samuel Fuller has a bold range of punchy features and this particular entry from 1964 seems to fall at the tail end of the film noir movement. Stylistically, it feels of a piece with those spare stories of embattled dames and grizzled guys, in highly contrasted black-and-white (excellent camerwork from Stanley Cortez here). The dame is Kelly, played by the imposing Constance Towers, who’s trying to chuck in a life of prostitution to go straight as a nurse at a hospital for disabled children. Her antagonist is local police chief Captain Griff (Anthony Eisley), who was her last client and as a result thinks he has some special understanding of her motivations, and that he can see through what he thinks of as her act. However, the wonder of the film is that it’s on side with Kelly, who may have had a tough life but is genuinely trying to change and has to continually deal with judgemental crap from the men in town, which she largely takes in stride with a unswerving commitment to her own lack of shame in her past. The treatment of the disabled kids is warmly empathetic and inclusive, even if some of the hospital conditions seem rather of their era. It’s the details of the police investigations in the film’s last third which are rather more difficult to believe (whereby the jailed person gets to question their own accusers in the course of an investigation, leading to a memorable scene of Kelly shaking a young girl to elicit some information she wants). There’s also a plot involving a local magnate and a young girl which could have been ripped from recent headlines over here in the UK (even if the depiction of it is understandably oblique). The Naked Kiss is a film with a lot to recommend it, but it’s the performance from Towers which makes the film so compulsively watchable.
Criterion Extras: There’s a recent interview with Towers, who talks with fondness about her role in the film, but far more compelling is the footage of the director from 1967 and 1987 French documentaries and a 1983 episode of British TV series The South Bank Show, permanently munching on a cigar, and sounding off about his approach to filmmaking. He actually has plenty of interest to say about his process and his interests, and a bit where he mocks the gentility of most filmmaking and contrasts it with what he prefers to see on screen, is particularly memorable. Also, there’s the striking cover art by Daniel Clowes.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Samuel Fuller | Cinematographer Stanley Cortez | Starring Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, September 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 8 February 2015)
Following the glorious widescreen colour films of Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961) and particularly Le Mépris (1963), Godard returned to the American B-movie inflected black-and-white of his debut with Bande à part. There’s a freewheeling energy to this film which is delightful, though there’s still plenty of recognisable Godard themes and obsessions.
If À bout de souffle was one of the first films of the nouvelle vague, then I am inclined to believe that this film marks one of the last. It makes a connection in its style to that first film, but also has traces of the changes that had already taken place in French cinema. There are references to other films from nouvelle vague filmmakers which had already taken their place in the mainstream, most prominently Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), whose title theme is heard twice. Then there’s the brief scene where our protagonists walk past a shop called Nouvelle Vague, the name now co-opted to commerce. Clearly within only five years, the New Wave was no longer particularly new.
The plot itself, like the monochromatic look, also harks back to Godard’s debut. It’s another crime-based story, lifted this time quite literally from an American pulp novel, featuring the kind of slightly incompetent would-be gangsters that are a mainstay of the genre. Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) are young and bored, living at the edges of Paris. They meet Odile (Anna Karina) at school and hatch a plan to steal money from her wealthy family. There’s a hint that the plan has been hijacked by Arthur’s own criminal family, but as ever Godard isn’t really interested in the specifics.
Bande à part is primarily about suburban kids and their experience of the big city. Aside from an all-too-brief scene in the Louvre, one of the few unambiguously happy moments in their lives, this is not tourist Paris. It’s a film of the outer limits, the unremarkable streets clogged with traffic and pollution, the down-at-heel cafes and the semi-rural backwaters on their doorstep. They sit in the woods by a river reading the papers, which promise a world of crime and murder that they aren’t a part of. US pop culture, as peddled by its movies, promises something different, so Odile will only accept Arthur’s Lucky Strike cigarettes over Franz’s local ones, before asking for a Coca-Cola. They play-act scenes from movies, too, like Arthur’s comically melodramatic turn pretending to be Billy the Kid, shot in the street, which is reprised later on, if less comedically.
Then there’s the dance sequence — ostensibly of another American import, the Madison — which they perform together in a cafe. It’s become one of the iconic scenes of the 1960s New Wave and is one of the most famous in Godard’s filmography, and for good reason. It’s a bracing, seemingly spontaneous expression of youthful joie de vivre, and yet encodes everything the film wants to express about individuality. The three protagonists dance it side-by-side, not looking at one another, each in their own space. Every so often the music cuts out and in voiceover Godard speaks of each one’s feelings, emphasising their outsider status, to one another as much as to the (fictional, movie-inflected) society they want so desperately to be part of.
If Karina’s presence recalls her earlier role in Vivre sa vie, she’s here playing a quite different character. The camera still loves her, but she’s not the wearily glamorous Nana but the cheerfully naïve Odile, not confident about either how to wear her hair or how to react to the bad ideas of those around her. By the time she turns to the camera on the Métro to deliver some existential doubts, it’s no longer clear that she wants to be part of this band that Arthur and Franz have created with her. It’s Brasseur who impresses most as Arthur, and its his charm that carries the plot forward.
The film’s set-up feels like a hundred more recent American indie movies, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the film’s title was purloined by Quentin Tarantino for his production company. Yet Bande à part still retains a real vivacity and a charm that makes it one of Godard’s most accessible works. From here onwards, the films he made became progressively more opaque and difficult, with frank political messages and an ornery idiosyncrasy to their construction. In some ways that’s why this film feels like the close of a chapter, and a winding down of a certain mythology.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 2002 (and since then on DVD, most recently at home, London, Saturday 14 September 2013)
My Rating excellent
Next Up: The final shot of Bande à part promises a Technicolor widescreen extravaganza set in the new world. Though Alphaville (1965), with its monochrome sci-fi modernism, didn’t exactly deliver that, yet Pierrot le Fou (1965) seems to possess some of that quality. I won’t be discussing either (primarily because I don’t own them, though they’re both fantastic in different ways, and well worth watching), so shall be moving on to Week End (1967), which seems to mark the apocalyptic denouement of an entire era and is maybe where the protagonists of Bande à part really ended up.
I only started this blog just over a month ago, but one of the sites I followed early on was Movie Lottery. The author on that site is using, well, a lottery in order to decide which films to watch, as a response to her having a large collection of unwatched movies. I too have many DVDs and boxsets I’ve bought over the years currently gathering dust, some of them I bought because I’d seen them and loved them, some are films I’ve not yet even seen. Therefore, I’m trying out her lottery method of getting through them: I’ve written the titles on slips of paper, put them in a hat, and on Saturday evening, I pulled one out at random. The difference is just that my DVDs include a lot more European arthouse films (purchased in those enthusiastic years when I was fresh out of a film studies major), as you may have guessed already from some of the bias in my reviews.
PS I’m always willing to try other ideas for getting more of a range of films reviewed on this site that aren’t new releases, so if you’ve got a good idea (or just some recommendations for films you’d like me to watch and, inevitably, review), let me know!
FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 1 || Director Miklós Jancsó | Writers Gyula Hernádi and Imre Vadász | Cinematographer Tamás Somló | Starring András Kozák, Sergey Nikonenko | Length 109 minutes | Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Monday 18 August 2003 (and at home on DVD, Saturday 27 April 2013) || My Rating good
The Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó came to prominence for English-speaking viewers in the 1960s with films like this one, though more famously its follow-up Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, 1965), and even now, pushing into his 90s, is still active in his native land. However, those 60s and early-70s films are quite different from the few of his more recent films I’ve seen, and it may be their peculiar thematic focus on the way that punishment and oppression are doled out almost arbitrarily by those in power that endeared them to those febrile politically-engaged times. But cinematic fashions fade over time, and like Michelangelo Antonioni who inspired him, Jancsó has lost much of his mid-60s cachet, though his style has in turn more recently inspired his compatriot Béla Tarr. There’s no reason, though, why Jancsó’s way with steely-eyed widescreen power plays shouldn’t at least be of as much interest to the politically conscious as they are to those of a cinephiliac bent.
To those latter viewers (which I hope includes some of my present readership), what’s most striking about this imperial phase of Jancsó’s art — which My Way Home to some extent kicks off — is his way with the sinuous long-take tracking shot. It’s not just empty stylistics as it might be with many directors, but in his best works is used as a way of capturing character dynamics, and specifically the power relationships amongst them. There are some signs of this engagement even in this early work, as the unnamed central character (played by András Kozák), a 17-year-old Hungarian schoolboy, flees the Nazi-controlled front towards the end of World War II. Jancsó’s long-take long shot picks him out against the vastness of the landscape, moving in as he weaves around the trees, only for a new set of antagonists (Russians) to literally encroach from the sides of the frame to take him captive. This motif is repeated later in this film (and more prominently in subsequent films), and is only built upon, for it encapsulates the heart of his thematic dynamic: the arbitrariness of power.
Prominent too is the undulating Hungarian landscape, particularly its extensive plains, not least due to Jancsó’s use of the long shot, with human figures often reduced to specks framed by the vastness of nature. One particularly favoured technique is the helicopter shot, framing (often running) figures against the ground, flattening them and making them seem minuscule and helpless, another way of encoding power dynamics within the cinematic screen.
If this all seems like it could come across to the viewer as a little arid, especially when combined with the stark black-and-white imagery, then to a certain extent it is. Yet viewer identification with the protagonists isn’t eschewed to the extent it is in Jancsó’s later films, where there are often no readily identifiable individuals and where much of the meaning is telegraphed via frequently opaque symbolism. No, in My Way Home, there is at the heart a story of two young men from either side of conflict (the Hungarian youth I’ve already mentioned, and his Russian captor tasked in this bleak agrarian outpost with looking after a herd of cows). They do not speak the other’s language, yet come to trust and care for one another, in what is identifiably a human story. It ends up being a nice little film, at the edges of which brew the caustic criticisms of power that Jancsó would later come to focus on.