Criterion Sunday 593: Belle de Jour (1967)

This is likely a film that grows over repeated viewings, but on first viewing for me, it has a (presumably quite deliberate) quality of being very carefully controlled at a rather lugubrious pace. Nobody really emotes strongly, nobody moves quickly, there’s an unrushed quality that’s at odds with the lewdness of the setup, as if Buñuel, having drawn people into a sex film about bondage and control, wants to keep that as far away from the screen as possible. Instead, what we have are hints at the interior life of Sévérine (Catherine Deneuve), little flashes from growing up that hint at some trauma (without, crucially, making anything so plain as to give words to it), her fantasies of sexual domination, and then her move into working for a brothel during the days her husband is away at work (hence the name the brothel’s madam, played by Geneviève Page, gives her, also the film’s title). But the pacing allows the film’s hints to seep into her character, played by Deneuve as a sort of unemotional tabula rasa, and suggest, perhaps slyly, some idea possibly of liberation (or equally a chauvinist desire to see women subjugated; it’s never really clear whose point of view we’re truly seeing). However, it shares all the visual hallmarks of late Buñuel, an almost matter of fact depiction of surreal and subversive ideas by characters who seem rather dull and conformist.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (based on the novel by Joseph Kessel); Cinematographer Sacha Vierny; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page, Pierre Clémenti; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 26 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 590: Trois coleurs : Rouge (Three Colours: Red aka Three Colors: Red, 1994)

I think even at the time of its release, this was widely thought to be the best of the trilogy and it holds up. There’s still something about Kieślowski’s style that seems overly fussy, overly attentive to the right image, the right idea, expressed in the perfectly written way that nevertheless feels a bit over-rehearsed somehow? But it all comes together in this third part, focused on the idea of “fraternité” and suffused, truly suffused, with the colour red (not in the way of say Cries and Whispers, mind, but the colour is consistently a presence throughout the narrative). It’s about the way people come together — or almost do so, with missed connections throughout the film, only emphasised by the focus on telecommunication (those opening shots tracking telephone cables, and phonecalls — including the eavesdropping thereon — being a running motif throughout). Irène Jacob, of course, is every bit the model in the central role of Valentine, but she also ties things together with her slightly lost look — that look that’s on her poster, and repeated in that final image — like the lost dog she comes across that kickstarts the narrative, or the puppies it gives birth to, a lost look also imitated by Jean-Louis Trintignant’s ex-judge Joseph, or Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit) — the man you sense may be Jacob’s life partner, whose path never quite meets hers until, eventually, surprisingly, it does. And for all this seems engineered to be satisfying, it is also quite satisfying, a fitting conclusion both to this trilogy and to Kieślowski’s career.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Piotr Sobociński; Starring Irène Jacob, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jean-Pierre Lorit; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 18 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 589: Trois coleurs : Blanc (Three Colours: White aka Three Colors: White aka Trzy kolory. Biały, 1994)

Revisiting again the site of my early exposure to world cinema, I think I liked White more than Blue on first exposure, but partly that was me responding to the comedy inherent in the setup (a man is left by his wife and feels compelled to reinvent himself in order to win her back). However upon rewatching there’s a certain rather nasty edge to this humour (which is dealing with the “egalité” of the French flag and national motto), and Julie Delpy is placed in a rather thankless position by the story. This is, after all, her ex-husband’s story, and Zbigniew Zamachowski has a clownish sense to his despondency. The colour palette isn’t as suffused in the film as the other two episodes so perhaps that also means it doesn’t stand out visually, though it has its moments. Primarily, what I love is Preisner’s score, which has a jauntiness while also incorporated some of the more traditional Polish motifs of his work. It’s a solid film, but Blue has the edge, while Red is the one that endures I think.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Once again the disc includes two earlier, short works, both of these by Kieślowski. The first is Siedem kobiet w róznym wieku (Seven Women of Different Ages, 1979). The loose seven day structure allows Kieślowski to focus on different participants in a ballet class and performance, who as the title suggests are of different ages. We get the young girls and women doing their practice, then another performing on stage, an older ballerina hanging around looking disappointed at not getting much work, and then a ballet instructor teaching the young girls we saw on the first day. It really emphasises, through these little glimpses of them at work, just how much of an effort it is to be a ballet dancer, the constant rehearsal, the pointed comments from the teachers, and the physical exertion (one of the days is soundtracked almost entirely by the ballerina’s heavy and belaboured breathing).
  • The other short film is Gadające głowy (Talking Heads, 1980). There’s a fairly simple concept at work here, as Kieślowski interviews people about what they want from life, moving from younger to older respondents (with their birth year listed in the lower left hand corner). You can track a certain greater reflectiveness as the ages tick up of course, but there’s a core of hopefulness and wisdom that the film is tapping into, even if you could hardly call these brief snippets of interviews particularly enlightening on an individual level. This is about people across society, from all ages, reflecting on what they want from the world.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Edward Kłosiński; Starring Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 13 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 588: Trois coleurs : Bleu (Three Colours: Blue aka Three Colors: Blue, 1993)

I don’t think it would be overstating the case to say that this trilogy of films largely compromised my introduction to ‘world cinema’ back in the mid-1990s. I was too young (or rather not sufficiently precocious) to have seen them in the cinema, but a year or two later on VHS at home, and they do make for a good introduction. Even now, rewatching so many years later, this film is much as I remember it: very consciously constructed, with bold use of colour (in the camera filters, in the scenery and set design, in expressive lighting choices), striking symbolism and the kind of directorial vision that makes it very clear — even to a young cinema neophyte such as myself 25 years ago — that every camera movement, every detail and every choice within the frame is very much intentional. I found this a little overbearing at the time, and I still don’t believe this is my favourite of the trilogy, but there is such an assured style that I can’t help but be impressed by it, lugubrious and mournful as the subject matter can be (a woman dealing with the death of her husband and child, in a peculiar twist on the concept of “liberté”). Moreover, there’s Juliette Binoche in the lead role, who is an undeniable force and even in the depths of her character’s grief and sadness makes her compellingly watchable.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Two of the extra features are short films from the director’s film school days. His own is Tramwaj (Tramway, 1966), with the kind of throwaway premise that a lot of short movies have — in this case, a boy sees a girl on a tram and then realises he must chase after her. Still, there’s something to how it’s made despite the complete absence of sound, not that you’d have made the link between this and the director of Three Colours: Blue right away.
  • The other short film is Twarz (The Face, 1966), included not because he directed it (it was one of his fellow students, the otherwise unknown Piotr Studzinski) but because he stars in it. Indeed, it’s a fair bit more enjoyable than Kieślowski’s own student effort, with a cutting humour to its portrayal of the self-involved artist disgusted at his own face (which he has nevertheless used obsessively in his own art).
  • There’s a short featurette of interviews with various collaborators, including Binoche and the cinematographer Idziak, as well as some film writers (Geoff Andrew, Annette Insdorf), discussing the film and its creation, and how the director put it together, which is all fairly informative.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Véry, Emmanuelle Riva; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 13 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 587: “Three Colors”

It seems somehow inevitable that Criterion Collection should have a box set of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, if only because it was a formative entry point for me into non-English language cinema in my late-teens of the mid-90s. The three films of course use the colours of the French flag and the three words of the motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité” as a launching point for their exploration of contemporary Europe. They are not explictly political — in fact, if anything, they somewhat go out of their way not to be political. However, they cannot help say something about Europe, its ideals, hopes and aspirations and then in some of its more disappointing failures. However, mostly I’d say this trilogy is about hope. In Three Colours: Blue, Juliette Binoche is liberated from her family (by death) and has to reinvent her life; in Three Colours: White, Zbigniew Zamachowski finds himself trying to restore equality with Julie Delpy, the wife who has spurned him; and in Three Colours: Red, Irène Jacob explores fraternal bonds with an elderly judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant.

Criterion Sunday 582: Carlos (2010)

I’ve seen this before, as a feature-length film, and found it passably enjoyable, but the almost six-hour miniseries version (perhaps unsurprisingly) has a lot more depth to it, as it pulls out this character of ‘the jackal’, a terrorist in a very self-consciously revolutionary mould, whose idealism gives way to a sort of middle-age bloat (both literally and figuratively). The strength and clarity of his cause in the early part of the film, as this Venezuelan man of the world (a fantastic central performance from fellow countryman Édgar Ramírez) affects a Che-like posture in his belief in the liberation of the oppressed, is over the course of the film chipped away. The man is shown to be fallible, a little bit pathetic, never truly as ideologically pure as he believes, and prone to all kinds of peccadilloes. The violence of his cause isn’t glamorised or downplayed, and it’s pretty clear that he is — at the very least — a pawn of more powerful global actors, who pull him first this way and then that, as what seemed like hard and fast principles are won over by competing demands, new inflammatory rhetoric, and then money, luxury, younger girlfriends, an easy life. The film (and Ramírez) still allows him a certain dented nobility, but the miniseries length ensures no facet of his facade is left entirely intact, and Assayas is as ever adept at capturing his milieu and gives plenty of time to some of his most prominent missions.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Olivier Assayas; Writers Assayas, Dan Franck and Daniel Leconte; Cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Denis Lenoir; Starring Édgar Ramírez, Nora von Waldstätten, Christoph Bach, Alexander Scheer, Ahmad Kaabour أحمد قعبور; Length 339 minutes (in three parts).

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 22, Sunday 23 and Tuesday 25 October 2022 (and earlier in a shorter version at home, London, in the 2010s).

Criterion Sunday 581: Les Cousins (1959)

For his second feature film following 1958’s Le Beau Serge, Claude Chabrol takes the same leading actors and remixes them in a Parisian setting. Jean-Claude Brialy is still the affected intellectual, as Paul, this time sporting a goatee that clues us in right away that he probably listens to jazz and is pretentious, though in actuality what he listens to is Wagner, and he loves to party — plus his hobby is to collect antique guns — so he’s a whole lot more dangerous a character. And again it’s Gérard Blain who plays the provincial type, as Charles, who shows up to his cousin Paul’s swanky Parisian apartment and moves in to study law. He’s committed to the studying; Paul is, of course, not, and he tries to tempt Charles by bringing a number of women through his life; when Charles falls for Florence (Juliette Mayniel), things get competitive between them. This is a sort of twisted psychodrama in the end, a ménage à trois that none of them really seems to be aware of — or certainly not Charles — and Chabrol has a streak of nastiness running through his plotting that means none of them are going to get away with it in the end.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Chabrol; Writers Chabrol and Paul Gégauff; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Juliette Mayniel, Claude Cerval; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 580: Le Beau Serge (1958)

Claimed by some to be the first film in French nouvelle vague, I think there are enough caveats to make that debatable — Varda made her debut a few years earlier, albeit that it was barely screened at the time — and stylistically this is still only moving towards what Godard and Truffaut would do a year later with their debuts. However, in applying some of the feeling of Italian neorealism to a story of ordinary people filmed on location in a small village, there’s certainly something of that incipient film movement in Chabrol’s debut feature. It concerns François (Jean-Claude Brialy), who’s returned to the small village where he grew up after a few years of study in the metropolitan centre, to find that his titular former best friend (Gérard Blain) has become an alcoholic layabout. The film is filled with darkness in its exploration of relationships (especially with Bernadette Lafont’s teenage Marie) and homecoming, almost judgemental in the way it makes out French provincial life and with a heavy sort of cynicism in its key relationships, which can make it all a bit of a slog.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Claude Chabrol; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Michèle Méritz, Bernadette Lafont; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 18 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 572: Léon Morin, prêtre (Léon Morin, Priest, 1961)

I’m not exactly certain what makes a Jean-Pierre Melville film a Melville film, what his particular touch is, but I do know that I really like just about all of them that I’ve seen. In his way he’s as singular a director as his contemporary (albeit slightly older) Robert Bresson, who also had an interest in religious themes. Melville didn’t really explore them quite as much as he did here, and maybe that’s what sets it apart from his gangster films, but it has all the essential elements of great drama — two people, drawn to each other despite the fact that one is a priest, at a time and place of great trauma (Nazi-occupied France) — and is filmed in austere black-and-white. Belmondo is an actor I’ve never fully connected with, but he brings something compelling to his priest, and the film becomes one of clandestine glances shared between him and Emmanuelle Riva. That said, the film is never quite as melodramatic as I’ve made out, and moves like a chamber drama, while giving enough life to the characters around this central pair that it threatens throughout to move off on another tangent, before being pulled back into these two, and their tangled, messy lives, but it’s a sympathetic portrait of what a good and moral church man might be at a time when such figures seemed to be sorely lacking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel of the same name in French but usually translated as The Passionate Heart by Béatrix Beck); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Paul Belmondo; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 25 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 570: Zazie dans le Métro (1960)

I do know that I’ve read Raymond Queneau’s 1959 novel — the man who the following year would go on to found Oulipo, a collective known for their playful experimentation with narrative form — and surely what Malle has done with this film adaptation is to translate Queneau’s inventiveness and wit, and his particular glee in coining new words (certainly something that the subtitles are keen to capture). Whether it will be to your taste is another matter, and I found the non-stop “zaniness” of the whole enterprise was a little grating to me. That’s less to do with the young girl at the heart of the film (Catherine Demongeon, who’s not nearly as abrasive as the poster image would have you believe) and more the way that Malle has put it all together, with frequent recourse to sped-up sequences playing at a manic knockabout pace, quick cuts that violate time and space and create a certain level of magic (albeit not the same kind of magic that Rivette would dabble with the following decade in Céline and Julie Go Boating), and an exhaustingly inexhaustible energy from all its leads. There’s also a underlying weirdness about the way men respond to Zazie which seems somehow inappropriate but also difficult to pin down (I suppose one could write it off as ‘of its time’, except that Malle was often of another time when it comes to young women in his films). Still, I can’t fault the energy on display, and while it may not be for me, it has its definite charms.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Jean-Paul Rappeneau (based on the novel by Raymond Queneau); Cinematographer Henri Raichi; Starring Catherine Demongeot, Philippe Noiret, Hubert Deschamps; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 18 September 2022.