Criterion Sunday 434: Classe tous risques (aka The Big Risk, 1960)

If there’s one thing I can credit the Criterion Collection with introducing me to, it’s the whole gamut of French policiers and gangster films of the 1950s and 60s especially. Sure, I’d seen maybe a Melville, but now I feel like I’m starting to get through a lot of them, and this early feature by Claude Sautet, which has become somewhat overshadowed in film history by the contemporary work by the Nouvelle Vague, very much fits into the Melvillean tradition, if not being itself a source of influence for Melville as he went more abstractly noirish throughout the decade. It has the laconic soul of a western in the way this big guy gangster Abel (Lino Ventura) communicates through body language and scowls. He’s on the run for a heist that’s netted far less than expected, and the trail of cops leads to death, which is particularly difficult for Abel as he has two small kids to protect. There’s a whole world between these characters that we already have a sense of, even before they speak, and when a young kid helps Abel out (Belmondo, fresh from Breathless), there’s an extra frisson of concern because Abel doesn’t know him and worries he’s being set up. Of course there’s paranoia and fear, but mostly there’s just an easy sense of being amongst shifty guys all of whose futures are looking pretty bleak.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Sautet; Writers Sautet, Pascal Jardin and José Giovanni (based on Giovanni’s novel); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo, Marcel Dalio, Claude Cerval, Michel Ardan; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 28 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 430: Le Feu follet (The Fire Within, 1963)

I think you could probably construct a small cinematic canon of works that deal with characters who are profoundly depressed and suicidal, but I don’t think there are a huge number which confront it head on. And by ‘head on’ I do mean that this is a film entirely about a man adrift. The protagonist moves around Paris, from a clinic in Versailles where he’s trying to clean up his alcoholism, into town where he tries — disconsolately, lackadaisically — to meet up with former friends and acquaintances. He seems to be seeking something, some connection that will convince him not to kill himself, but he’s also pretty set on not finding it, and that makes for uncomfortable watching. Don’t get me wrong, as played by Maurice Ronet, Alain Leroy is charismatic and can be good company, but it becomes increasingly clear that he is adrift and that things aren’t going to work out for him. The filmmaking matches his mental disarray at times, and underpins his emotions with the similarly desolate piano work of Erik Satie (which is too often misused in films in my opinion, but works rather well here).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle (based on the novel [also translated as “Will O’ the Wisp”] by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Maurice Ronet; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 24 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 363: Mouchette (1967)

This is probably my favourite film of Bresson’s from the 1960s, and though all of them deal with suffering and pity to a certain extent, in Mouchette he seems to approach it with the most intensity of expression. Indeed, it functions almost as a silent film for much of its running time; certainly its titular teenage heroine (Nadine Nortier) barely speaks a word, and there are entire sequences that pass with just looks between the characters, as their judgement (mostly of the young Mouchette) becomes evident. For her fellow villagers, she seems to exude the sin of being particularly poor — she lives in a one-room home with her father, grown brother, baby brother and a dying mother (Marie Cardinal) in the bed needing her constant attention. What her poverty gets her is being bullied at school, talked down to by the older generation and abused by a local poacher (Jean-Claude Guilbert) who shelters her from a rainstorm at night when she gets lost in the forest.

There was, however, also a period after I’d watched this film a number of times in close succession where I identified a comedic streak in it, which in retrospect is probably trolling, but certainly there are moments of joy and even laughter studded throughout, which somehow only seems to heighten the general sense of immiseration. Mouchette laughs and has fun at a dodgem cars ride at a funfair, she happily hums and pours out coffees for her family on the side of the stove, she cheekily throws clods of dirt at her haughty classmates — all of these bring smiles. That all said, it moves inexorably towards tragedy as events pile up and the judgements become ever more severe. Bresson’s severe style ensures that everything — all extraneous images and sounds — is pared away except for these distilled moments, and it’s what lends the ending its effectiveness.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson (based on the novel Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette by Georges Bernanos); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Nadine Nortier, Jean-Claude Guilbert, Marie Cardinal; Length 78 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Wednesday 20 June 2001 (and before that on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998, then at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 11 October 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 6 September 2020).

Criterion Sunday 297: Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

I’m pretty sure you can throw around the word “masterpiece” about any of Bresson’s films, if you are someone who likes and appreciates his style (and it’s not for everyone). Important scenes are sometimes broken down synecdochally such that we only see an extreme close-up of someone’s hand or legs as a stand-in for them, and these brief snippets of action are used to convey some dramatic or uncomfortable event (a rape, say). It’s certainly effective if you are attuned to what Bresson is doing, and lends an almost spiritually ascetic quality to the proceedings. This isn’t my favourite of his films, and in some ways it’s a rather melodramatic story of a young woman and her donkey, as well as the many men who mistreat both of them. Their suffering is reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc, silent and with a sense of grace, part of which comes from the very specific acting method he encourages, which minimises any kind of externalisation of suffering in expressive movement or facial responses. Still, this film no less than Bresson’s others, is beautifully controlled and enunciated in a very specifically visual film language.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Tuesday 19 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray home, London, Saturday 15 February 2020).

Criterion Sunday 197: Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956)

It may only be half an hour but it puts across everything it needs to, about the scale and terror of some (very recent, contemporary) history, given it was made just 10 years after the end of the war. It deals a bit with the way that sites of abject misery so quickly return to verdant life: I remember visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau and they seemed like such peaceful places, as they do at times in this film, but then there’s the archival footage, and the vastness of it is difficult to comprehend. I’m not really sure this film manages to make it comprehensible because in so many ways it’s not, but it hints at these appalling events and it’s important for people to be reminded.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais; Writer Jean Cayrol; Cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny; Length 32 minutes.

Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, January 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 18 February 2018).

Criterion Sunday 129: Le Trou (1960)

I was thinking I’d already seen a film like this one in the Criterion Collection before I came to write it up here and realised I’d seen this film before, years ago. That said, the prison escape thriller is hardly an exotic genre, and some of the procedural matter-of-factness and the way it dwells on little repeated details is very reminiscent of thrillers of the era like Rififi, which likewise focus on elaborate carefully-orchestrated plans made in luminous black-and-white. It all passes very swiftly, as there are plenty of long sequences that are gripping because of all the things you imagine could go wrong. The fact it’s cast with mostly non-professional actors (including one of the chaps involved in the escape upon which the original novel was based) is all the more surprising given they all give the feeling of being seasoned pros — the guy in the poster is a ringer for Sterling Hayden, which is probably why I thought I must have seen him before in something. (The only real professional actor was in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola, so he is easy to spot, being quite photogenic.) No, this is fine filmmaking at a very granular level, building up character through the tiny accretion of details.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker, José Giovanni and Jean Aurel (based on the novel by Giovanni); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 11 October 2000 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 October 2016).

Nathalie Granger (1972)

Like a proto-Jeanne Dielman, nothing much happens in this film. Or everything maybe. It’s a quiet film, with long stretches barely even encumbered with sound effects let alone dialogue or music. Frequently figures have a spectral presence, as names on a tag, a closing door, voices off camera, a shadow on a wall. The set up is two women (sisters perhaps?) and the troubled daughter of the title. A lot of looking off frame, out of windows, and an amusing role for young Gérard Depardieu as a fumbling salesman while the women just shake their heads quietly at him, saying no. I think a lot more is going on here than is initially apparent (there’s a background radio story about young killers on the loose), but it asks the audience to fill in much of the blanks, a bold narrative strategy. I suspect if I watched it again there would even more mystery, something lacking in too many films.

Nathalie Granger film posterFILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Marguerite Duras; Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Lucia Bosé, Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Depardieu; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 1 October 2016.