Criterion Sunday 512: Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (aka My Life to Live, 1962)

I have of course seen this Godard film many times before (and written about it far more eloquently in the past than I can muster now) but it may be my favourite of Godard’s oeuvre. It limns the concerns of the contemporary 1960s world to something self-consciously archaic in cinema, using intertitles (the chapter headings for this most structural of films, composed as the subtitle says, in 12 tableaux), gorgeous black-and-white close-ups of Anna Karina’s face (not to mention the back of her head), and of course those images of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But beyond that, it’s a film that deals with his eternal theme of capitalism, using the figure of Karina’s Nana as a way into a morally murky world. Nobody really ends up in a good place — shades of Breathless at the end — but the story of Nana’s falling into prostitution as a line of work and then into love (not a line of work) is almost sidelined by an aesthetic interest in the image. Indeed it’s very easy to miss the film’s ostensible plot, but also very easy (and equally pleasurable) just to look at the film as a series of tableaux vivants.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (later on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 7 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 482: 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 1967)

I think the way you feel about this film probably has a lot to do with how you feel about Godard overall. His can be a very frustrating body of work to follow, and even at his most accessible, back in the 1960s, by the end of the decade he was starting to get abstruse and political in ways that weren’t always friendly to audiences watching. However, for my money this is the film where he balances those two opposing tensions best, being both pretentious in the way his whispered narration hints at various topics around capitalism, alienation of labour and the modern city, while also presenting an identifiable character whose life we can be pulled along by. It’s pretty abstract at times, but there’s beauty as well as b0llocks in that abstractness and if it seems like an impressionistic grab bag of ideas, it’s still for me pretty compelling, a film that doesn’t divulge all its mystery but holds back something for repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on an article by Catherine Vimenet); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Marina Vlady; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 27 November 2021 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, March 1999).

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 420: Le Bonheur (1965)

This is a bold film, not just because of its saturated colours (shades of Varda’s husband Demy), but because it’s open to interpretations. On a surface level it depicts a happy marriage between two beautiful young people (real-life couple Jean-Claude and Claire Drouot), but the husband feels attracted to another woman (Marie-France Boyer) and begins an affair with her, which itself is happy, and then he makes a grand speech about how this is all part of life and the love he has to give is infinite and it’s making everyone happy, and… well… that’s hardly all that’s going on, because it feels like a pretty angry film really, and one that is pointedly angry about this state of affairs. Yet it’s probably possible to miss this, and to read it any number of ways; I just choose to hear the rage.

Part of what’s challenging about Varda’s film, though, is what it doesn’t give you — it doesn’t give you heroes and villains; it doesn’t provide any real voice to its female characters; it doesn’t make clear what happens to the protagonist’s wife near the end — but I see that as part of what it’s doing in terms of satire. Because at a certain level, this is just presenting the events as you might get in any kind of romantic drama made by a man, in which a husband falls for a new woman and makes a new life with her. However, you could hardly mistake this for a film which is uncritical or unaware of the operation of patriarchy. For a start, the filming and montage work is so clear: the man’s first coffee with the woman he meets is in a cafe, where the camera cuts to a sign on the wall reading “temptation” and then frames her head with it very carefully in the background, with a similar sign for the man. All of their meetings, in fact, get a fragmented montage style, as they move through spaces like two figures in a cubist painting. What’s most challenging of all the formal techniques, though, I think, is the way the tone never veers from what the title suggests: bright saturated colours, classical music, idyllic pastoral scenes of happy family life and just constant smiles throughout as the husband emphasises his happiness, and the abundance of love he has to give. Except for a brief silent moment of fleeting pain, everything has the same bland sense of bonheur, as if this could be an ad for a travel company or some kind of lifestyle brand. But underneath it all is, clearly, rage.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Claude Beausoleil and Jean Rabier; Starring Jean-Claude Drouot, Marie-France Boyer, Claire Drouot; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 6 August 2018 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, Wellington, Friday 23 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 419: La Pointe-Courte (1955)

Varda’s debut is this strikingly prescient film suggesting a lot of threads of European art cinema throughout the middle of the 20th century, the alienation of the central couple, the almost documentary-like depiction of this poor fishing community, the constant counterpoint provided by the melancholy musical score, and plenty else besides. There is a sense in which, being her first feature, there’s a slightly mannered mise en scène, with shots of the couple rigorously symmetrical, or strikingly framed against the landscape in ways that suggest the eye of a photographer, which would make way to the more lyrical feeling of her masterpiece, Cléo from 5 to 7. Still, this is a gorgeous film for its low-budget origins, and gains hugely from the location footage of the locals, not to mention the plentiful roaming cats.

Rewatching this a few years after my first viewing reinforces what a striking film debut this is, and formally rather interesting even if it somehow feels a little bit stilted. Set against the documentary depiction of the fishing village there is a mannered and very French story of lovers (the only real actors in the film, Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) who speak in a poetic philosophical register as they grapple with their fading romance. The two strands are almost separate and seem set against each other, but there’s a beautiful sense of place to the film in its depiction of this village and the sturdy people who live there, who seem to find the lovers’ struggles almost absurd.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are two interviews with the director about the film, one in which she invites over Mathieu Amalric to talk about his debut film, although obviously the bulk of the discussion is about hers (she whips out some nice framed photos of her on set), while the other is direct to camera talking about the making of the film. She mentions The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner as a touchstone for the narrative style, in the sense of interleaving two unrelated storylines. She also mentions the copious help she received and the sheer luck that was required to make the film, her being so young and inexperienced, as well as the help given her by the editor, Alain Resnais.
  • Another extra is an eight-minute excerpt from a 1964 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps, in which a young and very serious Varda (quite different from the playful persona she would come to cultivate) talks about her work up to that point (just before Le Bonheur).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Paul Soulignac and Louis Stein; Starring Silvia Monfort, Philippe Noiret; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 13 August 2018 (and on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 25 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 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 73: Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962)

Film texts and websites are apt to call director Agnès Varda “one of the best female directors of her generation”, but let’s start right off by saying the “female” caveat is nonsense. Even amongst the creative wellspring of the French Nouvelle Vague — which arguably began with Varda’s own debut feature La Pointe courte in the mid-1950s — she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her more feted (male) compatriots Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Resnais, Demy, Rohmer and Marker (amongst others). And as a demonstration of her talents, Cléo is pretty much peerless. It tracks in real time (albeit from 5 to 6:30pm), 90 minutes out of the life of its heroine Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), as she awaits the results of a biopsy. Yet, despite this morbid premise, the film is utterly filled with the vibrancy of life, specifically that in the French capital, as Varda inserts semi-documentary interludes into Cléo’s travels around Paris, shooting street views through the windows of various cars and trams, crowded café scenes, or pavement attractions she passes by. There’s even an amusing silent film pastiche starring Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina. As in her husband Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a few years later, the Algerian conflict lurks in the background as another pull towards the precariousness of life within an existential framework. However, the chief interest of the film is in the construction of Cléo’s identity, as she catches sight of herself in mirrors and is constantly looked at (and, she presumes, judged) by others. She changes hats, clothes and even hair throughout the film as a means to confound this gaze, as the film becomes the chronicle of her discovering how to live life on her own terms, such that the impending death sentence she believes the doctor will give her at the film’s end seems to be commuted by the sheer force of will of the film and of her, its heroine. It’s a glorious example of the best of early-60s French cinema, in beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography and with a spirited lead performance.

Criterion Extras: There’s a clutch of high quality extras on this disc, no little thanks to Varda’s skill at the documentary. Her Remembrances (2005) reunites her with Marchand as well as a number of other actors in the film, and revisits some of the locations. She talks of the importance of the trees, as well as getting all the clocks seen in the film to be accurate. Better yet are some contemporary short films, including the luminous L’Opéra-mouffe (1958), a glorious piece blending a modernist score by Georges Delerue with documentary footage and avant-garde reflections on personal experiences like pregnancy and drunkenness; it’s the very soul of the nouvelle vague. Another aspect on this movement is Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald (1961), much of which is seen within the film, being a silent slapstick pastiche with Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina, and which warns of the dangers of wearing glasses (a sly dig at Godard’s self-mythologising by Varda). There’s also a short travelogue filmed from a scooter which traces Cléo’s path through Paris, with an overlaid map in the corner and occasional inserts of film stills to show where the scenes were set. Finally, there’s a short French TV clip of Madonna lauding Varda’s most famous film, as well as a gallery of paintings by Hans Baldung Grien which inspired Varda. Oh and a trailer, of course.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographers Jean Rabier and Alain Levent; Starring Corinne Marchand; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 January 2016.

Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1962)

I have this feeling that among the famous auteurs of the French New Wave, Éric Rohmer is the one most apt to be overlooked. Perhaps it’s that he lacks a really stand-out work (although 1969’s Ma nuit chez Maud gave him some of his initial success), or that his directorial style avoids much of the flashiness of his contemporaries. His film career, too, took a little longer to take hold, not least because he was heavily involved as editor of the influential Cahiers du cinéma film journal in the early part of the 1960s. Certainly, his debut feature film, produced in 1959, the same year as the other notable debuts of Truffaut and Godard, was delayed in its release for a number of years, and never really attained the same kind of either critical or commercial success. But this is all a bit unfair to the film, which has plenty to recommend it. Le Signe du lion is a beautiful evocation of Paris with a great sense of place (Rohmer always seemed to have the most knack for capturing the spirit of wherever he was filming), shot in luminous black-and-white in some iconic settings along the river and around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

If the film’s shooting locations are quite swanky locales, even by the standards of over 50 years ago, it only serves to emphasise the distance its protagonist Pierre (Jess Hahn) has to fall. He may not start off rich, but he cuts a louche, overfed figure, from a solidly middle-class American-Swiss family, and pursues a bohemian lifestyle (as a musician with distinctly modernist proclivities). When a promised inheritance windfall doesn’t materialise, the debts he’s accrued begin to take their toll, and with all his well-connected friends off for their summer holidays (the date intertitles are given prominence), he gets progressively more desperate as July wears on into August. Streets which were once packed with familiar faces start to become more alien to him, friends replaced by Europeans on holiday. This disconnect is made literal as a downwards class mobility by his ever more grubby clothes and dishevelled appearance.

Aside from this sense of place, what Rohmer captures so well, and so subtly, is the way that Pierre’s desperation takes hold. At first he lives on credit at various hotels, having run-ins with the staff, barely making ends meet. We see him walking the streets in his freshly laundered shirt and jacket, passing rough sleepers while frittering away spare francs on inessential items like stain remover for his trousers. But when finally kicked out of his accommodation, it doesn’t take long for this to seem ridiculous, as his shoes start to give way and he’s reduced to fishing out flotsam from the river in the hope it might be discarded food he can eat. But the film isn’t all grimness, and there are periodically sparks of hope, as when he falls into the company of a fellow homeless artist-of-sorts alongside the river.

Throughout all of this, there are continuities with Rohmer’s later filmmaking. Its setting over the summer holiday period is one that he would return to many times (not least in Le Rayon vert 25 years later, likewise marked out by title cards with the date, as well as 1996’s Conte d’été and others). Then we have those solo male protagonists, so often creatures of high-flown intellectual taste, which might suggest some form of autobiographical self-identification, but if so, it’s one riven by self-criticism. For his male protagonists, though they may be nice enough guys, are never really heroes, and are often marked by some weakness in their morals (which is partly the great subject of his six subsequent films, grouped together as the ‘Six Moral Tales’). In Le Signe du lion, there’s a compassion instead for the experience of homelessness, and the way the homeless are patronised and barely tolerated by polite society, but I’m not always convinced that this compassion extends to the protagonist. There’s a nagging sense in my mind that Rohmer is judging Pierre, whether for falling into this situation, or for his slight sense of aloofness even when he’s at his lowest ebb. This judgement would only become clearer in subsequent films (and I hope to convey this in future reviews, whenever I get round to them; they’ll show up in my Criterion Sunday series).

I don’t mean any of that to be a criticism of Rohmer – if anything I think it marks him out as being every bit the equal of his contemporaries as a director and screenwriter, with a great concern for his characters. Le Signe du lion is a first feature, but it should stand alongside those other more famous titles, as a great work in its own right.

The Sign of Leo film posterCREDITS
Director Éric Rohmer; Writers Rohmer and Paul Gégauff; Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer; Starring Jess Hahn; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015.

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).