One of the primary ways in which I tend to use YouTube is as a resource for watching short films, which are often ill-served by other platforms (whether online streaming services or physical media, not to mention film festivals and cinematic screenings, or even TV). Whether that’s catching up on the work on the LA Rebellion’s women filmmakers, random recommendations like Possibly in Michigan, the short films that feature on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favourite 1000 films list (one of which, Adynata, I review below), some short films littering the lower depths of Kristen Stewart’s filmography (I can’t bring myself to review them here though I pondered doing a post), or of course music videos, amongst other ephemera. There’s a lot there to enjoy, and I expect if I do future posts about short films, YouTube will be a key resource.
I’d already reviewed this film before embarking on this Criterion-watching journey, so my comments there still stand, though on second watch I’m prepared to be a bit more generous towards what it achieves. After all, as a classic of a certain genre (‘poetic realism’) and an antecedent for so much else (film noir, hard-boiled romantic leads, beautiful nihilism), this should really be more famous than it is. Jean Gabin is on fine form as the existentially ennui-laden yet dashing crim of the title, who falls for an upper-class woman slumming it in the Casbah of Algiers, and lets that lead him to lose his edge. The poetry comes through in the odd framing, an expressive use of the camera with a bit of soft focus and some nice little bits of montage (most notably when he first meets Mireille Balin’s femme).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Julien Duvivier; Writers Henri La Barthe (as “Détective Ashelbé”), Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe); Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger; Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 19 July 2013 (and most recently at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 August 2017).
I am, it must be said, a huge fan of director Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), with its bittersweet take on French provincial life at a time of colonial unrest. That film shared some of its fictional framework with Demy’s earlier film Lola (1961), which lacked the songs but still had a rich orchestral score by Michel Legrand and an assured performance by Anouk Aimée as a cabaret dancer. Her character returns in this intriguing Stateside film for Demy, every bit as enigmatic as that earlier outing.
Demy was hardly the first European auteur to do a film in the States, and the chief point of comparison for me here is Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), which casts a similar wry eye over the smog and ersatz glamour of Los Angeles, not to mention focusing on the student dropouts and hippies colourfully inhabiting the city’s fringes. Model Shop has all these elements, but seems to offer a more self-reflexive take on the artistic soul adrift in an increasingly consumerised world. However, despite the presence of a French character, here the author figure is an American architect, George (Gary Lockwood), who is professionally unhappy and drawn to the mysterious glamour of Europe (which is to say, Aimée’s Lola), only to find the truth is not what it seems.
It’s the film’s title that hints at the locus of these shattered truths — the eponymous shop is a sleazy dive where men photograph women in various states of undress, and it transpires that Lola works there. George is fixated on Lola, stalking her rather creepily (which she acknowledges), and declares love for her impetuously at one point, but it seems more as if he’s desperate for something that’s only illusory — love is packaged and sold, after all, like anything else in this town. The dislocation is caught nicely by the film’s settings — the long, wide traffic-clogged streets with their power lines and advertising signage, or Lockwood’s home at the edge of the airport and next to an oil derrick which makes noise night and day. There’s only one brief mysterious scene where he finds himself outside, up in the Hills at a glamorous mansion, looking out over the whole city; for the most part, this is a film buried in the sleazy depths.
For all its fascinations, there’s still a deeply chauvinist 60s sensibility to its Los Angeles. Lockwood has a bland charm, and the women he meets and lives with seem vapid and blonde, presented in various stylish period outfits (some skimpier than others). The society he frequents is of long-haired (male) artists like the band Spirit (who soundtrack and appear in the film), who may wear the vestments of the counter-cultural but seem to have achieved some commercial cachet. Only Aimée really stands out (though that’s clearly by design) in her elegant white dress and matching car, though we never really get a strong sense of her character beyond the fact that she wants desperately to return to France.
But this isn’t a film made by an outsider wanting to criticise a country and a culture he barely knows. Demy’s alter ego George is filled with love for Los Angeles that he isn’t shy in confessing, and the film’s beautiful cinematography seems to glow under the neon and street signage of the city, traffic-clogged and smog-filled though it is. It may not be perfect, but it’s still an interesting film that seems to get at some idea of what it is to be an outsider, a film made by a master filmmaker about being an exile in a land of movies.
Director Jacques Demy; Writers Demy and Carole Eastman; Cinematographer Michel Hugo; Starring Gary Lockwood, Anouk Aimée; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 14 October 2013.
I have since subsequently reviewed this film again for my Criterion Sunday series.
I’ve written already about the way films can introduce us as viewers to strange and foreign worlds and experiences, and there’s definitely a self-conscious sense of this here, with its exotic Algerian locales. And yet, if this is a film taking as its setting the colonialist fringes of French power, it’s also very much one in which these expansions are questioned. Ultimately it expresses the homesickness of the audience surrogate, Jean Gabin’s title character; it seems to express something of the melancholy of imperialism.
Pépé is a jewel thief, a very good one, and very much sought after by the authorities. He has taken refuge in the dark and winding streets of Algier’s Casbah district, where he’s safe from the law, and yet here there is no honour among thieves; he lives in constant danger of being ratted out. His strength as a character is in his charm and the way he exerts authority over people, and he rarely admits to weakness. Yet when he meets a young Parisian woman Gaby (Mireille Balin), attracted initially to her sparkling diamonds, and falls in love with her, his strength fails him. Perhaps what he’s in love with is in part her freedom to return home — the freedom he both lacks and most desires — but as the film shows, it’s impossible to go home.
If at one level, Pépé’s fate is the usual one reserved for those who have transgressed against society’s laws, it’s also more pointed than that. For in many ways, he’s the template for the complicated yet brooding charismatic anti-hero of so many subsequent films. He is not just a criminal, he’s more the expeditionary soul of France, and with World War II looming, his story is a pessimistic look to the future.
It’s all very much Gabin’s show. Not many others get much of a look in — certainly not the forgettable female lead — and there’s little for the locals either, except perhaps for the shady police detective Slimane, though there are enough low-life racist caricatures in the background. Yet with Gabin’s performance, allied to the deft monochrome camerawork among the tight alleyways of the Casbah set, this stylistically looks forward to film noir while retaining some of the fast-paced snappy dialogue that defined so many films of this period. For these and for the fine central performance, Pépé le Moko remains fascinating.
Director Julien Duvivier; Writers Henri La Barthe [as “Détective Ashelbé”], Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe); Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger; Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 19 July 2013.
This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.
FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 3 || Director/Writer Chantal Akerman | Cinematographers Babette Mangolte and Jim Asbell | Length 85 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Tuesday 21 May 2013 || My Rating excellent
It’s difficult to put into words what’s ultimately affecting about this rather experimental film of the late-1970s, which I can only imagine would be even more affecting to a New Yorker or one who knows the city better. But to me, it’s like an updated city symphony film — those distinctly utopian 1920s visions of the city’s enthralling power — except that, being the 1970s, the city is rather more crumbling. Akerman both captures the spirit of this city, but also subtly imbues it with the darker traces of the intervening decades of the 20th century (and, with its final shot taking in the World Trade Center, also unwittingly wraps in the close of that century). To my mind, it is one of the great films about New York.