Criterion Sunday 429: Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958)

This was something of a cause célèbre of its time — ridiculously, it went as far as the Supreme Court to rule on whether it was, in fact, “obscene”, not something that anyone watching today (or surely, to those responding in good faith, then) would label it. In any case, it has Jeanne Moreau as a bored upper-middle-class bourgeois wife who finds herself tempted by the charms of a number of men who pass through her charmed life of villas and polo matches. Even a man who gives her a lift when her car breaks down (Jean-Marc Bory) turns out to be related to the bored rich people, and part of what makes him interesting to her is the way he turns his back on those people. Ultimately, though, it feels a bit mean, being about a woman with little internal life who finds herself unfulfilled by affairs, and by the end isn’t even committed to her affair because you get the sense that nothing in her life would make her happy. And wonderful as Jeanne Moreau is to watch, and as well shot as the film is generally, it’s difficult to really care about her or about any of these characters in a film that lacks the lightness of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers who were getting started around the same time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writer Louise de Vilmorin (based on the novel Point de lendemain by Dominique Vivant); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Marc Bory, Alain Cuny, José Luis de Villalonga; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 17 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 398: Les Enfants terribles (1950)

Watching this film having become familiar with director Jean-Pierre Melville’s later works — stripped-back, laconic Parisian films for the most part, often genre flicks about gangsters — makes this early film of his come as quite a surprise. However, given its basis in a Jean Cocteau novel, and the latter’s collaboration on this script and involvement as the film’s narrator, it does feel a lot more like a Cocteau film than what would be Melville’s signature, which is helped along by some of the poetic effects (some backwards looped film at one point reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, and hints of sexual ambiguity suggestive of Orpheus, which Cocteau directed the same year). Certainly there’s a melodramatic tension to the central couple, a brother and sister, whose toxic relationship is a danger to all around them; they are very much terrible children (even if the actors are in their 20s), both to their deceased parents and to the audience. The tropes are familiar from any number of modern teen movies, and their antics would be unbearable except for the stylishness of the filming and the musical score. There are hints here of some of the archness of the Nouvelle Vague, which makes sense given their positive reception of this film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean-Pierre Melville; Writers Melville and Jean Cocteau (based on the novel by Cocteau); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Nicole Stéphane, Édouard Dermit, Jacques Bernard, Renée Cosima, Jean Cocteau; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 11 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 335: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows, aka Lift to the Scaffold, 1958)

Perhaps this is just a stylish crime film with a sort of lovers-on-the-run theme (even if one pair of lovers are very much stuck), but it seems to be a pure expression of its historical moment. It’s channelling the cool of bebop jazz via its Miles Davis score, looking forward to the nouvelle vague with its location shooting and expressive camerawork, and it is just so indelibly French — there’s something about that extreme close-up of Jeanne Moreau saying “Je t’aime, je t’aime” over the phone that is almost camp in its essential Frenchness, the core of how that entire culture would be refracted through anglophone media for decades to come. It may not excavate any deeper psychological truths, but it expertly captures the nerves of people trying to pull off a plot and getting a bit waylaid, along with the fatalistic comedy that seems to unfold as our protagonist, in his perfectionist desire to ensure that one murder is untraceable, unwittingly gets on the hook for another he’s not responsible for. In the end, it relies on our shared (genre-rooted perhaps) understanding about the efficacy of the police, something I don’t think can be relied upon in the years since, but it looks and sounds amazing even after so many years.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writers Malle and Roger Nimier (based on the novel by Noël Calef); Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronel, Georges Poujouly, Yori Bertin, Lino Ventura; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 17 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 306: Le Samouraï (1967)

That this film is now a world cinema classic is of course indisputable and I shan’t pretend to post a deep analysis of it. However, living in the times that we do, there’s something strangely comforting in the laconic rituals of this far-off culture — though to be fair, three weeks ago feels like an impossibly distant past right now. The film sets itself up with a fake Bushido quote, and Jarmusch would do likewise with his own pseudo-samurai film (Ghost Dog) many decades later, though unlike some recent Criterion films it’s set in 1960s Paris rather than feudal Japan. Our antihero Jef (Alain Delon, never more expressively inexpressive) moves through the motions of his job, from its start (or very near to it, as he lies on his bed contemplating things to come) to its rather final end. Every frame is a masterclass, every composition a blank slate waiting to be filled in with the ever-present threat of violence (albeit rarely actually witnessed). Melville understands space and time better than most filmmakers, and in the sequence of gangster films he made (many with Delon) he really finds something special in all those otherwise unpreposessing 60s Parisian interiors and street scenes. There’s something about the lighting, the performance, the frame and the movement that all come together perfectly, with a little Gallic shrug as everything softly trails off. What makes it a classic is the balance Melville attains, something that is very suggestive of its Japanese roots perhaps, something almost Zen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 March 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

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 the Castro, San Francisco, Monday 5 May 2003 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 June 2018).

Criterion Sunday 150: Bob le flambeur (1956)

There’s style here undoubtedly: its tale of a down-on-his-luck gambler looking for one last big score by staging a heist has been cribbed for so many subsequent films that it can’t help but feeling like cliché. The plot’s not all that later filmmakers (not least early Godard and all his fanboy imitators) would take — the use of music, the laid-back style, the pop culture references (all those film posters; Breathless really did owe a lot to Melville). The problem is — and I concede this may just be because I’ve seen all its imitators first — I wasn’t grabbed by it. It looks great but these guys all feel like empty archetypes, and the young woman’s ​characterisation appears to be undressing in various men’s apartments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 March 2017.

Criterion Sunday 5: Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)

In the eyes of many people — not least those defiant eyes in the freeze-frame at the end — this film was what kicked off the French New Wave. Certainly its star Jean-Pierre Léaud came to be a poster boy for the movement, reappearing not only as the same character (Antoine Doinel) in subsequent Truffaut films, but as a leading man for a number of other directors who would get their start at the same time (notably Godard in some of his more experimental dissections of film form, for example 1967’s Week End). It tracks the aforementioned Antoine, a troubled youth who rebels against unfeeling teachers and a lumpen proletarian home life. Like many Nouvelle Vague films, there’s little in the plot that’s groundbreaking — it follows familiar coming-of-age paths (though not to the same extent that Godard’s break-out work À bout de souffle cleaved to well-worn generic conventions) — but what remains fresh is the vigour of its vision and its feeling towards its protagonist. It sides with Antoine against establishment forces just as the Nouvelle Vague took on the cinéma de papa of their conservative forebears. I personally prefer Godard’s bold formal provocations, but Truffaut has a warmth of feeling that is of a piece with the other early Criterion selections, many of which exhibit an unflashy generosity and kindness of spirit towards powerless protagonists set apart somewhat from their society. If Renoir is an earlier master of such feeling, then Truffaut is his spiritual heir.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Marcel Moussy; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, January 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 26 October 2014).