Criterion Sunday 462: Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro, 1980)

There are two stories here and I’m not convinced they are always in sync with one another. There’s the story of occupied France in the early-1940s, under Nazi control with people just doing what they can to make ends meet and escape the controlling boot of the occupying forces. And then there’s the theatre story, which is very much at the centre. It has all the feeling of Les Enfants du paradis but with opulent colour and set design and a bravura performance from Catherine Deneuve as a woman whose Jewish theatre director husband (Heinz Bennent) she says has escaped Paris but is actually secretly hiding out in the cellar. So you’ve got this behind-the-scenes story of a theatre troupe rehearsing for a new production, a bit of three-way love action courtesy of a handsome leading actor (Gérard Depardieu), and then you have Nazis. I suppose that puts it somewhat in the camp of Cabaret except with less, er, camp. It’s gorgeously shot and mounted, with some tense set-pieces involving the Germans, but in keeping its focus on the theatrical setting over the horrors of the era, it feels far more like a throwback to a classic era of French filmmaking, and that’s not a bad thing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Jean Poiret, Heinz Bennent, Sabine Haudepin, Jean-Louis Richard; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 15 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 409: Days of Heaven (1978)

I’m hardly a Terrence Malick fanboy (at least, not based on his output over the last decade or so) but one or two of his films really get to me, and this is one. You can see a lot of the aspects of his style that he would develop further in his 21st century work — for example, a focus on nature and wind sweeping through grass, or a propensity for the camera to drift off and focus on some still life little image in microcosm rather than dwell on plot or melodrama, as well as a largely unspoken Christian underpinning to the broad sweep of the film and its themes. The Criterion Collection’s previous release was Breathless and, for all the enormous difference in setting and feel (Malick’s film is set in 1916 Texas), there are some genetic similarities to that, like the occasional handheld shots, location shooting with natural lighting, not to mention a plot in which the lead character’s murder of an authority figure is pushed far into the background, and quite often the plot doesn’t even feel that important. Days of Heaven is a film composed of feeling above all: the dappled colours of the ‘golden hour’ (the time of day after the sun has set, and still the most well-known thing about this film, even though there’s plenty that’s shot during the morning and night as well); the poetic voiceover by Linda Manz; and the meandering sense that this isn’t about what happens in the end but about the beauty we’ve witnessed along the way. Luckily this kind of visual cinema is what appeals to me.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from a commentary, the extras are four short piece split into two headings, “Actors” and “Camera”. For the actors section, there’s an audio interview with Richard Gere and a video one with Sam Shepard, both of whom recall Malick’s methods for eliciting a performance and his shy self-effacing way on set.
  • The “Camera” interviews are with the camera operator John Bailey as well as with Haskell Wexler, who took over from Almendros when the latter had to leave the project to go do a Truffaut film. Legend says that Wexler was miffed at not receiving a full credit, but he concedes in retrospect that he was just continuing the work set in place by Almendros. Either way, what a visual achievement.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 14 May 1998, and at BFI Southbank, London, Sunday 11 September 2011 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021).

Criterion Sunday 348: L’Amour l’après-midi (Love in the Afternoon, 1972)

At a certain level I think this may be one of my favourite of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Like a lot of them, it focuses on a male protagonist wrestling with his feelings towards other women, that exquisitely pitched level of emotional detachment from his own life allowing these fantasies of being another man doing the things that the other men do, intersecting with his own moral compass. Sometimes the men in Rohmer’s films just seem awful, sometimes they are vacuous, and then there’s Frédéric (Bernard Verley) here. He’s a natural enough actor, and not unattractive, but he has a very familiar quality, a rather pathetic demeanour, for while he loves his wife he fantasises about other women, and when Chloé (Zouzou) breezes into his office to pick up a friendship abandoned after university, he naturally starts to drift towards this idea of himself as a ladies’ man which the rest of his body seems to utterly resist. It creates a constant frisson of awkwardness that makes his interactions with Chloé hard to watch as a result, because he is so visibly struggling with himself; it’s what the film’s about but the very accuracy with which it nails Frédéric makes me uncomfortable. All of Rohmer’s films have this kind of balance to them, and as an oeuvre I think he has achieved something rather singular, even if at an individual level they just seem like so many stories about rather pathetic men.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The final film above has another rather early short film on the set as a supplement, Véronique et son cancre (Véronique and Her Dunce, 1958). Nicole Berger, who played another Véronique in an early Godard short film the next year (and who sadly died less than 10 years later), here plays a tutor to an annoying kid who wants nothing more than for his tutoring to be over so he can go play. Obviously what this short is capturing is a fairly common feeling amongst all of us during our education, and Véronique is hardly particularly invested in it either, so this becomes a tiny little microcosm of a battle of the wills between the two. The kid isn’t a dunce, but he is also isn’t really invested in things either.
  • There’s also an afterword by filmmaker Neil LaBute touching on all the moral tales, and the inspiration he takes from them in his own work. I think it’s a solid summation of the value of Rohmer’s films as a set, and some of the themes which he develops within the six films.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Bernard Verley, Zouzou, Françoise Verley; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 18 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 347: Le Genou de Claire (Claire’s Knee, 1970)

It’s hard not to watch this film without acknowledging the very creepy power dynamic at its heart, as our bearded late-30-something protagonist Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) arrives in Annecy on holiday before his wedding, where he bumps into an old friend Aurora (Cornu) and then proceeds to obsess over his friend’s landlady’s teenage daughters. To be fair Aurora encourages him in flirting with them, and he is a very strangely touchy-feely kind of guy, and it’s worth pointing out from the outset that nothing particularly untoward happens, it’s just that constant way he is always talking himself into action (or, as frequently, inaction) that puts one’s guard up. Then again, that’s really what you feel Rohmer is going for and if there’s one thing I’ve taken from this run of “Moral Tales”, it’s that Rohmer’s male protagonists are all pretty terrible, in their own ways. Jérôme’s particular problem is that he likes to analyse everything, and Aurora, who’s a novelist, likes to listen to him do this, and even encourage him a bit. Brialy is almost like a Woody Allen presence in a way, constantly commending himself on his own restraint while also talking up the potential outcomes, that could involve him romancing these teenage girls, Laura (Béatrice Romand) and then her sister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), who to her credit isn’t interested in Jérôme at all. It’s a film ultimately about the power of storytelling itself, which may explain some of its enduring appeal — though the luminous colour cinematography by Néstor Almendros helps too — but the power dynamic between its leads remains offputting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Linked to Claire’s Knee, the third disc features a short film called La Cambrure (The Curve, 1999) which was made under the auspices of Éric Rohmer and displays plenty of Rohmerian feeling. It has the lead actor — who is also the film’s director and writer, Edwige Shaki — put herself into the context of European art by almost literally modelling herself on various paintings pictured in her art historian boyfriend’s flat. It’s witty and concise in its way of taking on these artistic ideas of women that are promulgated by men, along with a sly demolition of the boyfriend’s own motivations for getting into the relationship at the end. It’s slight, but likeable.
  • Accompanying this film is a short interview segment from a French TV show in which Brialy, Monaghan and Romand all discuss working with the very private Rohmer (who did not of course appear). There’s a little bit about the making of the film, in the sense of Brialy telling of how far in advance Rohmer was doing his planning, but the rest is just descriptions of Rohmer and his working from his young actors.
  • As well as the short film and the interviews, there’s also a trailer for the original release, and of course it’s just snippets of talking. Makes one wonder how it lured people in, but I suppose the audience of the time were more understanding of Rohmer’s style.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand, Laurence de Monaghan; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 13 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 346: La Collectionneuse (1967)

At first blush this feels like a very typical leeringly sexist film, as our title character Haydée (Politoff) is introduced in a bikini walking in the surf, reduced to shots of her body, not speaking. It is instead the two men, the suave Adrien (Patrick Bauchau) and the bookish repressed Daniel (Pommereulle), who get to talk. The former is heard at great length as the narrator, presenting his opinions, flirting then arguing with Haydée, and reflecting on his own growth as a person — the film is set during a period he spends away from his girlfriend, at a friend’s mansion in the south of France. But the crux of the film seems in fact to be the way that Adrien has his own view of Haydée and lets it run riot in his mind; he acclaims himself for not falling for her, and constantly implies that she is trying to lure him, but all we actually see is him initiating contact, being obsessed, stroking her creepily. Her interior thoughts are never heard, but she has to be pliable and friendly because of guys like Adrien who expect women to put out, and who think the moral strength is all in their own (as it turns out, non-existent) resistance. So the film focuses on these typically wordy self-obsessed French cinema men and takes them apart, albeit slowly and subtly, because it allows them the rope to hang themselves with (or at least, so it seems to me). Perhaps Haydée isn’t fully developed as a character after all (it is still a French film of the 60s), but in part because she’s just a projection of Adrien’s desires, and that’s what the film is focusing on.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • On the second disc, as an extra to the film above, is Une étudiante d’aujourd’hui (A Modern Coed, 1966). This is an odd little film, a documentary which just watches a number of young women and marvels at their increased visibility within the academic system. It’s a little condescending, it feels at times, but seems to come from a place of interest.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Éric Rohmer; Writers Patrick Bauchau, Haydée Politoff, Daniel Pommereulle and Alain Jouffroy; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Patrick Bauchau, Haydée Politoff, Daniel Pommereulle, Alain Jouffroy; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 9 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 345: Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s, 1969)

There’s a reason people make austere black-and-white films about relationships, and it might just date back to this film. Well, maybe not (as themes go it’s a mainstay of the art cinema canon), but clearly this film forms a sizeable chunk of what people think about when they think about French cinema. Four people in the city of Clermont-Ferrand intersect with one another, but never at the same time, and slowly the ties that bind each of them become clearer — never explained exactly, but they become like a shadow across the other relationships, fracturing them in perhaps unexpected ways. It’s all very subtle and it follows the format of a series of dialogues, explicitly linking itself to Pascal’s Pensées in expounding on the moral questions that are at its heart (this is, after all, the third in Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” series). An attractive engineer played by Jean-Louis Trintignant has a reputation as a bit of a player, and falls for a woman at church (Marie-Christine Barrault), but then via a school friend gets to know another woman (the Maud of the title, played by Françoise Fabian), and must essentially choose between them, and this perhaps is his Pascalian wager. Maud is, secretly, the tie between all of them, and the way Rohmer unveils this all is exquisitely structured. I think perhaps it’s a film whose complexities only deepen upon rewatching, but clearly it is formally precise and beautifully shot. It’s also, presumably not insificantly (given that Rohmer made this third of his moral tales after the fourth because of his insistence at shooting at the right time of year), a Christmas film.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Rohmer’s short film Entretien sur Pascal (On Pascal, 1965) — an episode of a rather dry French TV series called En profil dans le texte — is attached to the film above on Criterion’s disc, and that makes sense because Blaise Pascal and his famous wager is discussed within that film, and indeed forms something of the backbone to the ‘moral tale’ it tells. Here we get a dialogue between a philosopher and a priest touching on this wager, and it’s fairly dry stuff, but not uninteresting.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Françoise Fabian, Marie-Christine Barrault, Antoine Vitez; Length 111 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 340: Koko, le gorille qui parle (Koko: A Talking Gorilla, 1978)

This documentary, about a young woman (Penny Patterson at Stanford University) teaching a gorilla to speak using some apparent version of American Sign Language, is interesting partly in the ways in which it has dated in the interim forty-something years. I suspect that ideas of animal rights (if not personhood) have advanced somewhat, though these questions are explicitly addressed by the film’s narrator towards the end of this film. And as I in the audience am not a behavioural scientist, I can hardly assess the techniques that Patterson uses (I don’t know quite how robust her scientific methodology is), but the fascination is in watching her and Koko interact and drawing one’s own conclusions. That said, there are occasional talking heads which pop up to elucidate some of the questions demanded by watching this footage. Still, I end up feeling a bit bad for Koko: the lives of animals in zoos are too often poor, especially compared to their natural habitats, and Koko feels rather forced into this arrangement. The film leaves us with the question of whether it’s even fair to assess a gorilla in relation to human society; there is a sense of the “civilising” work of missionaries at times to the single-mindedness of Patterson teaching her sign language, and who can know whether Koko’s life was improved as a result. Still, she lived a long life — she only died two years ago in 2018 — and the film remains an interesting reflection on something about that life.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The only major extra is a 12-minute interview with the director from when the Criterion DVD was released, in the mid-2000s, in which he discusses the filming and some of the key members of the crew.
  • Otherwise, there are both (subtitled) French and English versions of the narration available, though all the footage is in English and (thankfully) isn’t dubbed.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 July 2020.

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 188: L’Amour en fuite (Love on the Run, 1979)

There are elements here to the last Antoine Doinel film that feel a little cobbled together, not least the extensive use of flashback clips to the previous films. However, what is actually shot for this film — primarily scenes involving Antoine divorcing his wife Christine, and reconnecting with the lovely Marie-France Pisier as Colette (looking younger somehow than in the 1962 clips from Antoine et Colette) — all looks great, with some gloriously-lit frontally framed cinematography, and Truffaut has brought some new collaborators (including Pisier) on board as co-screenwriters. That aside, it does also try perhaps a little hard to wrap things up with Doinel’s new love interest, Sabine. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, in any case.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut, Marie-France Pisier, Jean Aurel and Suzanne Schiffman; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Marie-France Pisier, Dorothée; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017.

Criterion Sunday 187: Domicile conjugal (Bed and Board, 1970)

A couple of years after Stolen Kisses, Léaud’s Doinel character is (somewhat) settled down, married to Christine and expecting a child, but he retains the comic insouciance and desperate inability to hold down a job that marks the character in the previous film (the earlier ones were more about his adolescence). There’s a sadness to his character now, as his age advances and he still dallies around in affairs (including with a Japanese women, which at least has the saving grace that I don’t have to lean too heavily on the ‘it was a film of its era’ excuse that’s so often required for such subject matters), and Truffaut livens it up with little visual gags like having Tati’s Monsieur Hulot character get on a metro train at one point. Léaud certainly is starting to become the character that he’s so recognisable as from much of his 70s and 80s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut; Writers Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Hiroko Matsumoto 松本裕子 [as Hiroko Berghauer]; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017.