Criterion Sunday 243: French Cancan (1955)

I think I like Renoir’s late-period French films over his earlier, more celebrated ones (I feel the same, incidentally, about both Bresson and Buñuel), not least because I think the way he uses the colour and the staging is so precise and memorable. Of course there’s an artifice, as there always is with Renoir’s films, especially in this run of 50s films set in the theatrical demi-monde starting with The Golden Coach. However, it’s the artifice of cinema at its grandest and this is a film that celebrates the spectacle of putting on a show and the dramas that takes place behind the scenes with the greatest of them — whether Lola Montès or Showgirls, burlesque and cabaret seem often to be particularly fruitful locations for films about social mores, shifting attitudes, and for the expression of pure cinema artistry itself.

Of course it helps that Renoir was being reunited with Jean Gabin and indeed with France itself for the first time after a long (and apparently not particularly welcome) exile in the United States, so there’s a self-conscious embrace of Frenchness, ironic perhaps given the film’s English title (in late-19th century Paris, it is explained, there was rather a penchant for the exoticism of foreign words, hence Gabin’s impresario Danglard reinventing a traditional French cabaret dance by using an English-language name). There’s also a rather frank subtext of sexual libertinism — a conversation early on with her friend about having to prepare adequately for her audition leads her to sleeping with her boyfriend. Indeed, lead dancer Nini’s affairs with three different men seems to highlight her class aspirations, as she moves from humble washerwoman (in love with a baker) to the world of arts, via a dalliance with minor royalty. When Danglard rejects Nini’s advances at the end, by protesting that he cannot be caged in love, it feels like the most French moment in this very French film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Renoir and André-Paul Antoine | Cinematographer Michel Kelber | Starring Jean Gabin, Françoise Arnoul, Maria Félix | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019)

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Criterion Sunday 242: Le Carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952)

I think the tendency of post-war European cinema around this time, especially in Italy, was towards neo-realism, shooting on the streets, giving that documentary sense of gritty immediacy, and so Renoir shooting a very theatrical film on the soundstages of Cinecittà in Italy, with a very stylised use of saturated colour and glorious, ornate sets and costumes, with Italian and American actors speaking in English in a story set in Latin America (Peru, apparently) feels like a very studied riposte to all that. In fact, it feels like a more deeply-felt commentary on the nature of acting and performance to make this kind of film at this time, a film that dwells on spectacle as something which almost seems corrupting: the obscenity of the golden coach at the film’s centre makes the government lose their minds, and becomes a tool of bargaining between men and, ultimately, the church — in a penultimate speech by the Bishop which is interrupted by Renoir cutting between all the assembled faces, expressing wry delight or shocked disdain. There’s a subtle comment on the nature of imperialism, too, as this Latin American colony becomes enthralled to the Italian Anna Magnani and her troupe of actors, threatening to depose the viceroy and create a new life fighting for the rights and sovereignty of the native peoples (though this at least feels a little in passing). I think Renoir’s later films are some of his finest work, operating at a different register from much of contemporary cinema, and all the better for it.

[NB Criterion lists the year as 1953, although this film appears to have been released in Italy in December 1952.]


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir | Writers Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi and Ginette Doynel (based on the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée) | Cinematographer Claude Renoir | Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont | Length 103 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 March 2019

Criterion Sunday 241: “Stage and Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir”

Like the Bergman “trilogy” earlier in the collection, this trio of films by Jean Renoir isn’t formally constituted as a trilogy, but are three films he made upon his post-war return to filmmaking in Europe, which are united by a certain theatricality to their presentation. All of The Golden Coach (1952), French Cancan (1955) and Elena and Her Men (1956) have an almost camp style, with period settings, flamboyant staging and bright Technicolor cinematography. The key extra for the box set is Jean Renoir parle de son art (1961), an hour-long chat between Jacques Rivette and Jean Renoir in an outdoor cafe split across all three of the discs (as it was apparently made in three parts for television). It is pleasant enough, though it never really touches on Renoir’s own films precisely. It’s more of a chat about the philosophy and technicality of making films, as Renoir espouses some ideals that Rivette then teases out further. There’s also the second part of David Thompson’s 1993 BBC documentary on the filmmaker, which deals with his post-Hollywood output (the first part was on The Rules of the Game disc).

Criterion Sunday 239: Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936)/Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957)

I am perhaps missing something, but Renoir somehow contrives to make this story of the poorest in society seem like another of his genteel comedies of etiquette and civility, a twirl through upper-class society mores but with shabbier clothes and fewer prospects. It certainly doesn’t feel like something based on a Russian source, but then perhaps in 1936 that’s not the kind of story that was needed. The poor and the rich are just part of a continuum perhaps, all on the same level, and certainly the Baron character moves swiftly and easily between the two. Still, not much seems particularly convincing, though Gabin remains a watchable screen presence in the lead role as a likeable thief.

A few decades later and Kurosawa’s take on Gorky’s slum-set drama really gets the sense of grinding poverty that eluded Renoir, I think. That said, by this point, Mifune’s scowling renegade character seems a little weary, barking at all the other characters in the way that hardly ingratiates him as a charismatic centre. No, instead this film is really about all the other flophouse inhabitants, each of whom has their various intersecting thing going on (and reminds me a little of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana). To be honest, none of it ever really held me, but Kurosawa has a way with the camera and the staging that remains impressive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936) || Director Jean Renoir | Writers Yevgeni Zamyatin, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Fédote Bourgasoff | Starring Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Louis Jouvet | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 February 2019

Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957) || Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Hideo Oguni and Kurosawa (based on the play Na dne by Maxim Gorky) | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Isuzu Yamada | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, DVD, Thursday 14 February 2019

Criterion Sunday 238: Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961)

This very early film, Godard’s third feature I believe, gets wildly disparate reviews, and I sort of land somewhere in the middle. It’s a thin undertaking, like so much of JLG’s work, a few recycled ideas stolen from books and film, made feature-length, and largely predicated on the on-screen allure of his leading lady Anna Karina. Of course, there have been less substantial reasons for making a film, and if it’s going to be Karina mugging for the camera or doing little musical interludes (though this is not really a musical), then there are plenty of pleasures along the way. The fourth-wall breaking, the self-aware nods to cinema history, and the constant inventive staging and cutting mark out this period of Godard’s work, and just on a formal level it’s a pleasant undertaking. That said, Karina’s character feels like little more than a cipher for her (fairly bland) male co-stars’ sexual competition, as Brialy and Belmondo try to woo her, and so it ends up feeling overlong even at its shortish running length. Likeable, colourful, and playful, with an excellent Karina only hinting at her much greater work in Vivre sa vie (still my favourite of Godard’s films)… but little more than that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Paul Belmondo | Length 85 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 5 February 2019 (and originally on VHS in the university library, Wellington, October 1998)

Criterion Sunday 234: Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1979)

I do sort of understand what’s going on here in this strange, carnivalesque, alternately gleeful and bleak evocation of pre-war and wartime Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Its protagonist is a young child, Oskar (David Bennent), who has foreseen his future and decided he wants to remain in the body of a 3-year-old (well, an 11-year-old for the purposes of the actor anyway), using the drum of the title to beat out his own tune as he first reacts against the encroaching Nazification and then finds himself dragged in as well. There are all kinds of sprightly filmmaking touches, the hand-cranked sped-up film of the intro flashing back many decades, the absurdist plot and character details, and of course the ridiculous perversity of this teenager-in-a-child’s-body growing, learning, reading and falling in love. Yet I never can quite connect with him or care about his story: he’s a nasty character — and yes, of course he is, that entirely makes sense — and his story is one with parallels in the bleak hopelessness of the Nazi era, but his childish, imp-like quality is just incessant, and it becomes grating. I never much take to magic realism or carnivalesque absurdity, and there’s plenty of the latter on show here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff | Writers Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz (based on the novel by Günter Grass) | Cinematographer Igor Luther | Starring David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler | Length 163 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 1 January 2019

Criterion Sunday 227: Le Corbeau (1943)

One of those crime films with the deep shadows, the chiaroscuro and accompanying shades of moral greyness, that distinguishes film noir, in which all the inhabitants of a small town are brought into conflict by a mysterious letter writer, whose identity gets pinned to any number of people throughout the film, and whose accusations get steadily more unnerving. Clouzot is most interested, it seems, in the way that ‘decent’ people can have their judgement clouded, and become the enemies of other ‘decent’ people, ultimately suggesting perhaps that everyone has base motivations. Given that it was made under German occupation, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Clouzot — if not uncomplicatedly making an anti-Nazi film — is at least not willing to let anyone off the hook for what humanity is capable of.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot | Writers Louis Chavance and Clouzot | Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer | Starring Pierre Fresnay, Micheline Francey, Ginette Leclerc | Length 93 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 September 2018

Criterion Sunday 223: Maîtresse (1973)

I think there are some interesting things going on in this film, primarily in the way in which power dynamics are worked out, but behind it all there’s a very familiar, very masculine 1970s French way of looking at the world which reminds me a lot of Godard and his fellow travellers. Essentially, it’s about a semi-criminal young man (Gérard Depardieu) who finds himself drawn into the world of a professional dominatrix (Bulle Ogier). He has no money and comes to rely on her, while she makes her money by dominating submissive men, but he finds himself needing to express his own dominance in their power relationship. In some sense, he is enacting familiar patriarchal pattern of behaviour; I’m just not sure that the film is interested in exploring both their subjectivities, so much as wanting to find some compromise whereby she becomes more submissive to his will. That said, there’s a lot of interesting interplay between the two, and I at least don’t get the feeling that her sex work itself is being criticised. Ultimately, it feels very much like a period piece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder | Writers Schroeder and Paul Voujargol | Cinematographer Néstor Almendros | Starring Bulle Ogier, Gérard Depardieu | Length 112 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 20 August 2018

Criterion Sunday 222: Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951)

I remember first watching this when I was a university student and finding it quite tedious, then a few years a later completely reversed my opinion of it with a fine new celluloid print in a cinema, and as such I believe it is a film that ages well with its audience. After Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, it finds Bresson coming into his own in terms of the way he choreographs his actors, while still holding a little of that melodramatic form of his previous two features. It’s held together by a central performance by Claude Laydu recalling Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc a little — the intensity of suffering, held in the eyes. Indeed, Laydu generally moves across the whole gamut of emotions from merely apprehensive through melancholy, baleful, anguished, pained and tormented. One of these tormentors is a Mouchette-like young girl, and another is also a young woman, though perhaps it’s his own self-doubts that torment him the most. Even as the film moves towards an ending that reminds me of Ikiru (the film before it in the Criterion Collection), it’s the grace in which Laydu holds himself — and which Bresson’s filmmaking captures, in beautiful, ethereal and softly contrasted black-and-white — that most marks out our country priest, and which lend him and the film a touch of the divine.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson (based on the novel by Georges Bernanos) | Cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel | Starring Claude Laydu | Length 115 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Saturday 16 June 2001 (also earlier in August 1998 on VHS in the Victoria University library, Wellington, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home in London on Sunday 22 July 2018)

Criterion Sunday 218: Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Connoisseurs of the heist film may be able to speak lyrically about the various differences between them all, but at some stage all these (often French) mid-century heist flicks blend together in my mind. There’s a long, silent sequence of them pulling it off, which harks back to Rififi (if I’m not mistaken), which had a similar wordless heist procedural section. This one also has Alain Delon in a trenchcoat — somewhat as he is in Melville’s other films — but it’s a taut, well-told story with plenty of suspense. Quite why everything is happening is a little vague, but the performances and the snappy filmmaking pull it through, and keep it entertaining.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, André Bourvil | Length 140 minutes || Seen at Castro, San Francisco, Monday 5 May 2003 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 June 2018)