Criterion Sunday 345: Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969)

There’s a reason people make austere black-and-white films about relationships, and it might just date back to this film. Well, maybe not (as themes go it’s a mainstay of the art cinema canon), but clearly this film forms a sizeable chunk of what people think about when they think about French cinema. Four people in the city of Clermont-Ferrand intersect with one another, but never at the same time, and slowly the ties that bind each of them become clearer — never explained exactly, but they become like a shadow across the other relationships, fracturing them in perhaps unexpected ways. It’s all very subtle and it follows the format of a series of dialogues, explicitly linking itself to Pascal’s Pensées in expounding on the moral questions that are at its heart (this is, after all, the third in Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” series). An attractive engineer played by Jean-Louis Trintignant has a reputation as a bit of a player, and falls for a woman at church (Marie-Christine Barrault), but then via a school friend gets to know another woman (the Maud of the title, played by Françoise Fabian), and must essentially choose between them, and this perhaps is his Pascalian wager. Maud is, secretly, the tie between all of them, and the way Rohmer unveils this all is exquisitely structured. I think perhaps it’s a film whose complexities only deepen upon rewatching, but clearly it is formally precise and beautifully shot. It’s also, presumably not insificantly (given that Rohmer made this third of his moral tales after the fourth because of his insistence at shooting at the right time of year), a Christmas film.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Rohmer’s short film Entretien sur Pascal (On Pascal, 1965) — an episode of a rather dry French TV series called En profil dans le texte — is attached to the film above on Criterion’s disc, and that makes sense because Blaise Pascal and his famous wager is discussed within that film, and indeed forms something of the backbone to the ‘moral tale’ it tells. Here we get a dialogue between a philosopher and a priest touching on this wager, and it’s fairly dry stuff, but not uninteresting.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault, Antoine Vitez; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 293: Francesco, giullare di Dio (The Flowers of St Francis, 1950)

Watching a film about a 12th century religious figure makes you realise how thin the line is between devout religious belief and the kind of behaviour that would get you locked away nowadays, or at least given a hard stare on the bus (certainly development with regards to mental health doesn’t always demonstrate a clear line of improvement over the centuries). In any case, there are plenty of lessons we can all take from the simple and unaffected titular saint in this film (though as with Pasolini’s film about Matthew, he isn’t sainted in the original language title; indeed he is described as “God’s jester”). That Italian language title gives you a better flavour, though, of the vignettes, which largely revolve around a very cheerful if ascetic approach to the tribulations of life, many of which revolve around Brother Ginepro (Juniper), who more than once returns to Francesco/Francis’s order half-naked without his tunic after giving it away, and engages in acts of simple naive faith that shake even a local warlord, Nicolaio (Aldo Fabrizi, clad in a suit of armour that puts Bresson’s clanking knights to shame, and only emphasises this film’s latent comedy, reminding me as such of The Seventh Seal). Ginepro (Severino Pisacane) and the equally simple peasant Giovanni (Esposito Bonaventura) come across as the film’s unlikely heroes, although Francis himself (Nazario Gerardi) gets plenty of opportunity to teach his message of tolerance, such that what initially seems a little camp becomes by the end even something approaching spiritual — a feeling not hampered by some truly stunning black-and-white cinematography.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Rossellini and Federico Fellini; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Nazario Gerardi, Severino Pisacane, Esposito Bonaventura, Aldo Fabrizi; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 70: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

It caused quite a commotion on its original release, but this adaptation of a 1955 novel by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, is relatively restrained, all things considered. It asks us to imagine if Jesus Christ had lived a regular life instead of being crucified (had, in other words, given in to the temptation to avoid his fate), and uses that as a way to get inside the duality of Christ as man and as divine figure of grace and redemption. Then again, obviously there are a lot of people with a lot of knowledge on the subject, and a lot of opinions either way, so I can’t really say much beyond that it’s a compellingly made film with some excellent performances (not least Willem Dafoe in the title role), and beautiful cinematography from veteran lenser Michael Ballhaus. Harvey Keitel’s shock-headed Judas is a surprise, and not always a welcome one, and in general Jesus’s band of disciples seem more Brooklyn than Judaea, which can be troublesome when they’re set alongside the cast of local extras (it was filmed in Morocco), but the racial issues are left unexamined here. Instead, it’s a morality play with a very human leading performance, which is at least a change from most depictions of Jesus on film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Paul Schrader (based on the novel Ο Τελευταίος Πειρασμός O Teleutaios Peirasmos by Nikos Kazantzakis Νίκος Καζαντζάκης); Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; Starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton; Length 162 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 December 2015.

Criterion Sunday 62: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

I don’t know there’s much more to add about this most famous of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, a masterpiece of the late silent cinema and one of the greatest in all of film history. It may not even be my favourite Dreyer film (he had some fantastic later works in his native land), but it seems working in France with a bold and expansively modernist set, and some fine theatre actors, was no great obstacle to his vision. Amongst these actors are Antonin Artaud as one of the more sympathetic of Joan’s accusers, though of course — whatever Dreyer’s important contributions may have been to this film and to cinema as an art — it is Renée Falconetti in the title role who remains the film’s iconic and lasting presence (she was never to act in cinema again, preferring the stage). The film takes the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial for heresy, and dramatises it, largely in a series of close-ups on the faces of these stern, judgemental men in their austere courtroom as Joan meets their gaze and responds with patience and unwavering belief in God, undiminshed by their taunts or by the mistreatment from her English captors. It’s a film which seems scarcely to have aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Joseph Delteil and Dreyer; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Renée Falconetti; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 27 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999, and on several subsequent occasions at home, most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, Sunday 15 November 2015).

Criterion Sunday 61: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

I think it’s reasonable to hold the things you love when you’re a teenager to a different set of critical standards. People who got into Star Wars back when that was first out can sometimes be unreasonably dogged in defending it, even though, well, it’s not really all that good (the first one has a sort of camp enjoyability to it, I’ll admit). Life of Brian comes from that same era, and even features a short sequence that nods towards the recent popularity of that aforementioned space-set blockbuster, and needless to say it was a common fixture on the television during my formative years, at which time I found it to be pretty great — though I always liked Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) more myself. I haven’t seen any of the Python output in decades, though, so it was interesting to revisit this foundational text as part of my Criterion-watching project, and for all that I want to say it’s still a shining beacon of 1970s British comedy (and maybe it is; I don’t know much of the era’s competition), it has sadly not aged all that well for me. Sure it’s always worthwhile to take aim at misplaced religious zealotry — something that I’m sure we’re all aware continues to be relevant today — and Brian takes some good shots at this kind of small-minded thinking by having its not-very-Messianic figure hounded to his death. However, it’s still ultimately a group of middle-class Oxbridge graduates being sophomorically silly about the Bible; I don’t believe that’s a case for any kind of censorship, it’s just not always as funny as it thinks it is (and these lads, particuarly Terry Jones, playing women continues to grate). Still, there remain some classic comedy sequences, the best of them skewering po-faced 1970s socialist groups, as in the ‘what have they ever done for us?’ debate chaired by John Cleese’s Reg (of the People’s Front of Judaea, not to be confused with their mortal enemies the Judaean People’s Front), or an ‘action’ committee he chairs near the end. I suppose one’s reaction to this is dependent on the level of nostalgia you cling to around the Pythons, but I do honestly wonder how the kids of today find this stuff. Ultimately, it feels very much of its era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Jones; Writers Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones and Michael Palin; Cinematographer Peter Biziou; Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 November 2015 (and many times at home on VHS, Wellington, in my youth).