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 447: Le Doulos (aka The Finger Man, 1962)

I do love a Jean-Pierre Melville gangster flick, but you get to see enough of them that sometimes they just don’t make much of an impact. Sure, there are the trenchcoats, the hats, the moody expressionist lighting picking out figures from the darkness, the sense of noirish desperation amongst these small-time gangsters, and then there’s Belmondo, still fairly fresh off Breathless, still just a little too pretty to be a tough guy (though he can be pretty nasty). Then again I think he grew into his minimalist gangster films, and this one still has one foot in that old world tradition, the one that informed Bob le flambeur, of guys in rooms and shady dealings and an interest in the relationships between them rather than just the brute fact of a gun, a girl, a double-cross, a murder: the elements that Godard stripped his first film down to. Already there’s this sense of these generic trappings, the guys in coats passing across the frame, and I think it’s something that Melville hones in on, and perhaps I’m just being unfair here, but it’s the kind of piece that I can’t genuinely remember if I’ve seen it before, but it feels like the kind of thing I might have watched once.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by Pierre Lesou); Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 6 July 2021.

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 421: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

I’ve always had this film pinned in my head — having seen it a couple of times 20 years ago — as one that’s fun, and rewatching it again, it is, mostly. I feel like I should mention right up-front that there’s a rather hideously racist interlude with Anna Karina in a painted yellow face making some mock-Vietnamese noises, and even if it’s intended to be part of an anti-American satirical rehashing of the conflict in Vietnam, it can’t help but disrupt the film’s tone. Which is otherwise, as mentioned above, pretty playful. It builds on the saturated sun-drenched coastal resort colours of Le Mépris, and sets up some of the apocalyptic imagery that was to come in Godard’s career (in Week End, most notably), as his two criminal-lovers on the run rehearse a sort of Bonnie & Clyde script with a metatextual commentary and little asides to camera, but Godard never repeats the same trick twice, making it feel even a little exhausting at times, as things head towards their colourfully bleak ending. The deeper socio-political dimensions are more evident in some of his other films, but Godard was always most playful about genre and film itself, creating his own playbook of self-referentiality, than about empathy for people’s lives in the world (which may explain the yellowface). Certainly these characters never quite feel like much more than an author’s conceits, but Anna Karina (and Belmondo too, in his way) has an ever-likeable charm that suggests more than the film sometimes does.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Friday 10 September 1999 (before that on VHS at the university, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Wednesday 28 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 408: À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)

I’m sure we’ve all seen Breathless a lot of times (I’ve already reviewed it at greater length on this blog). Sometimes it feels like — though it’s not — the first truly modern film, mainly because of its place at the head of the French New Wave, one that may not have even created that template (improvisational, street shooting, up-front love for American genre cinema), but certainly popularised it and had the most cool of those early works (works by Varda, Chabrol and Truffaut have better claims to being earlier). Watching it for the nth time (maybe the fifth, maybe the eighth, I’m not sure), it strikes me that I don’t remember a lot of the shots and the scenes because it’s very much not about plot. It’s about attitude and style, about the jump cuts, and the posing that Belmondo does at the shrine of Bogart and the other tough guys of cinema (also, er, Debbie Reynolds it seems, with those exaggerated facial gestures she does in Singin’ in the Rain), echoing this bravado with hollow quips about women’s fecklessness — even though he’s the one that can’t stay still or keep any money on him. So all these guys with European names who drift through, details about a crime (he’s on the run for killing a cop), just become background to a rehearsal of celebrity by Belmondo and Seberg, looking glamorous and catching the camera’s light as they try to out-run the plot’s machinations.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a series of five contemporary interviews from French TV, a couple with Godard, and one each with Belmondo, Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville. It’s striking how much more confrontational the one with Seberg is, as the interviewer constantly harps on at her career ups and downs, at a period in rehab, and just keeps on having a go at her, which seems unfair. Belmondo weirdly does his surrounded by sculptures, while Godard dons his customary sunglasses.
  • A more recent interview from 2007 with assistant director Pierre Rissient, and the DoP Raoul Coutard, as well as another with Donn Pennebaker, who talks about working with Godard himself later in the 60s, as well as the impact of Breathless. All add a little to an understanding of quite how Godard’s working processes were, and how they were so different from what was accepted as usual at the time.
  • Mark Rappaport contributes a 20-minute piece about Jean Seberg. He made his own feature-length biopic, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, so he has plenty of research to draw on. She had a fascinating life, truly, which accounts for the several films that exist about her, but it seems like her early experiences with Otto Preminger weren’t the most positive, and may have been a bad way to start out.
  • One of the many extras is a 10 minute visual essay written (but not spoken) by Jonathan Rosenbaum which picks up on just a few of the visual cues and links this work in with his earlier writing as a critic. For some reason the voiceover guy insists on saying “Irish shots” instead of “iris shots” or maybe I’m just mishearing him? Anyway, that’s what I took from it.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean-Luc Godard; Writers Godard and François Truffaut; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 19 March 2021 (and several times before, first on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997 and at university, Wellington, May 1998, and later on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 27 August 2013).

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).

À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)

Debuts banner

This post was written for the Debuts Blogathon jointly organised and hosted by Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and Mark at Three Rows Back (and can be read there with comments). Aside from presenting my thoughts on the film, in this case the debut of French director Jean-Luc Godard, it attempts to answer the questions they posed about “how your director of choice’s first feature has impacted on their work. How have their subsequent films fared against their debut? Have they improved or steadily declined over subsequent features?”


There were, in 1960, certain ways of making feature films wherever you were in the world, methods that had been built up over the preceding half-century of filmmaking and which continue to endure to this day in mainstream cinema. The key thing about this debut film from young French film critic Jean-Luc Godard is that few of these methods were followed, though such rule-breaking might have had less effect had the film not also been an enjoyable pulpy retrofitting of familiar American imagery. One of Godard’s famous aphorisms, which he attributes to D.W. Griffith, is that “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, and here indeed there’s a girl (Patricia, played by the American Jean Seberg) and a gun, generally wielded by gangster Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo). He’s on the run, she hooks up with him: that’s all you really need to know about the plot.

Referencing pulpy B-movies from the States was part of a deliberate strategy by a number of like-minded French critics making their first films all at the same time, loudly rebelling against the staid cinema of their fathers’ generation. This movement became acclaimed as the nouvelle vague (or ‘French New Wave’), and if François Truffaut gained a lot of early attention for his Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), it’s Godard who set out a lot of what made this New Wave memorable and which define its lasting legacy. In his films in particular you can see a youthful passion for cinema combined with formal innovations showing a blatant disregard for classical techniques, often informed by a self-consciously revolutionary politics. Even in this very first film of Godard’s can be seen a lot of what would later come to dominate his style.

First let’s talk politics. Not party politics (of which there’s plenty as Godard gets older), but la politique des auteurs. That phrase translates as “the policy of authors” in French, but the common translation of the term in the English language has been “the auteur theory”, thanks to Andrew Sarris’s writings from the 1960s onwards. It was a critical idea of Truffaut’s that helped to shape the way that the New Wave first developed, as a director-focused movement, but I think its value has been overstated. In many ways it’s a provocation like the Dogme 95 manifesto of Lars von Trier (and others), a way of focusing attention and signalling a change in methods from the mainstream. It has also helped to focus critical attention on the French New Wave, though similar changes in filmmaking practice were taking hold in various parts of the world at the same time, whether the Italy of Antonioni and Pasolini, or the American films of John Cassavetes.

The “auteur theory” is alluring for Godard’s films in particular, which often seem like such personal expressions, but even in this very first film he liked to expose the mechanics of filmmaking. It starts here with Michel addressing the camera directly as if the audience is a passenger in the car he’s driving. There’s also a sequence later on when Michel and Pauline are walking and talking down the Paris streets, and all the passers-by can be clearly seen turning and staring at them and the camera. (This scene also neatly illustrates both the simple energy of just capturing a spontaneous and improvised scene directly — an energy that suffuses the film as a whole — but also the technical changes in filmmaking that had in part opened up the way for the nouvelle vague, as smaller and more portable cameras became available.) Only a few years later, in Le Mépris (1963), Godard would kick off the film by showing the cameraman Raoul Coutard backed up by his crew dollying down a track filming the actors while Godard read out the credits, and this kind of breaking of the fourth wall would become a regular feature of his films.

Not unrelated is Godard’s habit for improvising dialogue. The script here is credited to Truffaut — and there was creative input too from Claude Chabrol (another critic and nascent filmmaker) — but that script was only apparently the outline of the film. The scenes as they play in the film were as often scribbled out by Godard himself, shortly before filming took place, and this would often be his method in future. Yet this personal inspiration (that of the auteur) is one that draws heavily on other texts and influences. There’s scarcely a scene that doesn’t quote the American cinema he so loved — whether it’s Michel standing in front of a poster of Humphrey Bogart (The Harder They Fall), tracing his fingers around his lips as he imagines Bogart to do, or mimicking Debbie Reynolds’ melodramatic mugging in Singin’ in the Rain as he sits around Patricia’s apartment. These are just two examples, though. There are many more allusions to Hollywood movies, and it’s a habit that Godard would only extend, taking influences and presenting decontextualised quotations from film and literature like a magpie, until eventually entire films of his (such as Histoire(s) du cinéma) become playful interrogations of sources. Godard, more than most directors, has always remained a critic.

This first film also exposes some common techniques and themes that Godard liked to use. There are those long-takes of characters talking that do away with the classical shot-reverse shot construction, so here you have Patricia questioning Michel in the car while you hear his replies from off-screen. There are the sequence shots of couples in cramped domestic spaces bickering about meaningless topics, trying to escape one another (and the film’s frame), but never succeeding. There’s the fecklessness of male desire, and its betrayal by women — it’s interesting in this regard that Patricia was explicitly noted by Godard as an extension of Seberg’s character Cécile in Bonjour Tristesse, another young woman isolated in a world of unconstrained chauvinist desire (and she’s great in both films). Yet if there’s often in Godard’s films a self-important male figure (like Jean-Pierre Melville’s author at a press conference near the end) espousing generalisations about women, it’s also often accompanied and set in juxtaposition to lacerating self-critique (Godard himself plays an informer in the film). And I haven’t even mentioned the famous jump cuts.

But in 1960 none of this would mean very much if it was just another young director showing off his Brechtian or cineaste credentials, as so many like to do. The point is that around this time there weren’t any mainstream filmmakers doing this stuff. Sure, there were occasional isolated examples of these techniques beforehand, but for Godard (as for like-minded young directors of the era such as Cassavetes) it was just the way he made films. It shows most of all in the looseness and jazzy rhythms of this debut, more akin to documentary than to feature films of the period. Godard would extend his interests as his career progressed, becoming ever more esoteric as his meaning became more opaque, but he was never more accessible than in this first, exciting despatch from the front lines of a new wave.

Next Up: Moving forward a couple of years, I will look at Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (1962), an ever more Brechtian assemblage of beautiful women (Anna Karina) and the exploitative crassness of capitalism.

CREDITS
Director Jean-Luc Godard; Writers Godard and François Truffaut; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 1997 (and several times since, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 27 August 2013).