Criterion Sunday 186: Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968)

In some ways, this film may be my favourite of the Antoine Doinel series Truffaut and Léaud made over 20 years between 1959 and 1979 (though in others, it’s still his debut, The 400 Blows). It returns to the character as a young 20-something beginning his first adult relationship with Christine (with Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical tendencies apparently extending to the actor who played Christine, Claude Jade). That said, like the subsequent films in the series, it remains broadly comic, with Doinel’s character being easily distracted by women — most notably Delphine Seyrig as Fabienne, a shopkeeper’s wife — and unable to hold down a job — he meets Fabienne through a client at a private detective agency where he works, who wants to know why everyone hates him. It’s the film that probably most excoriates Doinel’s romantic tendency and fecklessness, and there’s a beautifully-judged extended scene in front of a mirror where he just says the central characters’ names repeatedly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon; Cinematographer Denys Clerval; Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017.

Criterion Sunday 102: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972)

As Criterion in this period increasingly starts to look back to the great directors of history, it’s no surprise to see some representation for Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. His style has never been as flashy as some of the more vulgarian of auteurs, forever delighting in camera effects, but rather it’s the sly sense of humour which comes through so well, especially in his late period French films, which I adore. Much has been written about this film — still one of the best, though maybe if I were being stubborn I might opine the only great film, to have won an Academy Award in the US (for best foreign film, obviously) — but it stands up over forty years on. Some of the set design and costume choices are a little dated, but at heart this remains a delightful anarchic satire on the self-regarding, classist, greedy bourgeois class, forever just looking for a catered meal but, here at least, forever thwarted by Buñuel’s satirical ire.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Edmond Richard; Starring Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Paul Frankeur, Julien Bertheau; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 August 2000 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, but most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016).

Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping, 1986)

As the apparently-forbidding auteur of such austere 1970s masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, the last thing you might expect Belgian director Chantal Akerman to do is a musical, but that’s exactly what she did in the mid-1980s, even prefacing it with a work-in-progress feature of the same scenario called Les Années 80 (The Eighties, 1983). Of course, it may be somewhat unsurprising that the resulting product hardly throws its arms round the generic clichés of the musical romance, but it certainly shows an awareness of them. If it has a line of descent, it would be Golden Era Hollywood filtered via French director Jacques Demy (of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg fame). There’s a quotidian drabness to these shopworkers, almost entirely confined to a subterranean shopping centre, where Jeanne Schwartz (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband run a fashion boutique opposite a well-staffed hair salon belonging to the flirtatious Lili (Fanny Cottençon), while between them is Sylvie (Myriam Boyer) and her small bar which in the opening number almost seems to entrap her. There’s also a similar eye for the brightly-coutured; where Demy’s most famous film’s credit sequence opens with a top-down shot of umbrellas passing, here we get a ground-level shot of women’s feet moving briskly across the imitation-marble floor of the mall.

The differences come mostly from the tone. Romantic entanglements are not all-consuming as they can be in Demy, but are here dealt with brusquely, as the various couplings are set up and then swiftly knocked down, until eventually no one seems to end up with the person they wanted most. Jeanne’s son Robert (Nicolas Tronc) is in love with Lili, though she is stringing along the mall’s owner Monsieur Jean, while hairdresser Mado pines for Robert. Meanwhile the married Jeanne runs into an old flame, Eli (John Berry), while Sylvie gets letters from her lover, now based in Canada, though she later despairs that he may be returning after all. All this whirl of displaced attention, as characters march decisively into and out of the film’s frame, is backed up by two choruses: one made up of the four men who linger around Sylvie’s bar, and another of the all-female staff at the salon (including a young Nathalie Richard as a shampoo girl), commenting on these various couplings taking place under their ever-observant eyes. Their songs are the most joyous and unrestrained of the film, particularly one featuring the women paying scant attention to their customers as they express shock at Robert sleeping with Lili. While much of the film features very frontal staging with high-key lighting, the musical numbers are mostly done directly into the camera’s lens, which lends particular humour to a sequence with Lili and a jealous M. Jean, as he periodically looks towards the camera quizzically, as if wondering to whom Lili is addressing her song.

While this mischievous rondeau of affections is going on, there’s an underlying banality to the setting, which mocks the emptiness of the era’s capitalistic grasping. The shops in this strip-lighted, poorly-ventilated underground space have bland anglophone names like Elegance and Ice Cream, while a cinema shows trashy English-language movies. People are seen trying on and shucking off the garrulous clothes, but few seem to buy anything. Jeanne’s husband mouths platitudes about how his business will always do well as no one wants to walk around naked, but there’s little evidence of any success here, to the extent that M. Jean’s trashing of the salon doesn’t seem to bother any of the staff unduly. They are most excited when there’s evidence that it’s raining, as being underground they don’t have much exposure to the elements.

Chantal Akerman’s musical has its occasional longueurs with a directness to its staging (no nimble dance routines here), but there’s a charming quality to the often very droll songs, all written by Akerman herself. If the 80s doesn’t exactly seem golden in this rendering, it at least displays some other nicely-saturated colour of its own.

Golden Eighties film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman, Leora Barish, Henry Bean, Jean Gruault and Pascal Bonitzer; Cinematographers Gilberto Azevedo and Luc Benhamou; Starring Delphine Seyrig, Fanny Cottençon, Nicolas Tronc, John Berry, Myriam Boyer; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 17 July 2014.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films.


Alongside the name and street address which forms the film’s title, anchoring it in a very specific place, Babette Mangolte’s camera provides the utter piercing clarity of this film, the stark images indelible in the celluloid. There’s very little camera movement, just frontal shots of the title character preparing her home in meticulous detail. When she leaves the frame, often the shot lingers on the environment she’s left, suggesting a permanency, an unchanging constant.

The film starts on Jeanne’s back as she works over the kitchen stove. There’s a doorbell, and she slowly and carefully folds away her apron before answering. The caller is a gentleman whom she ushers away into her room, and there is a cut to later, when it is darker, as he leaves the room and pays her by the doorway. This quickly creates a tension within the narrative, which is otherwise focused on a mother and homemaker. This initial rift soon gets wider, threatening the very stability of Jeanne’s life.

The minuscule focus allows the viewer to notice small details accrete, as tasks which are repeated over the three days diverge ever so slightly. That Jeanne eats the dinner she has prepared for her son with only one hand. The fumbles she makes with some of the dishes during her repeated actions on day two (the days are not consecutive, but they do follow closely upon one another). The lack of focus she shows towards some tasks. Within this dicourse, an act as otherwise mundane as peeling a potato becomes central to the viewer’s understanding of her character. The first potato is lazily done, with little energy; the second she attacks fiercely. The build-up of details seems to augur something, and when that happens on the third day, it’s not entirely unexpected.

Dielman is a progression of sorts from Akerman’s previous films. The black-and-white intensity of Je tu il elle (1974), the fixed camera positions of Hôtel Monterey (1972) observing hotel guests from afar, the monomaniacal and self-destructive short film Saute ma ville (her first film, 1968), along with a dextrous sinuous camera tracking the female protagonist that she’d develop further in Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Meetings with Anna, 1978). All of them are focused and brilliant in their own ways, but Jeanne Dielman seems to synthesise these disparate tactics and use them to elucidate one woman’s liberation.

There’s no doubt in me as to the greatness of this work; the surprise is just how watchable and compulsive it is. No doubt this is due in great part to the lead actress, Delphine Seyrig. But the camera of Mangolte and the unerring narrative sense of Akerman are marvellous co-conspirators.


© Janus Films

ARCHIVAL FILM REVIEW: French Film Week
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman | Cinematographer Babette Mangolte | Starring Delphine Seyrig | Length 201 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT), London, Wednesday 21 March 2007 | Originally posted on 22 March 2007 (with slight amendments)

My Rating 5 stars masterpiece