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 François Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon | Cinematographer Nestor Almendros | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Hiroko Berghauer | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

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Criterion Sunday 186: Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses, 1968)

In some ways, this film may be my favourite of the Antoine Doinel series Truffaut and Léaud made over 20 years between 1959 and 1979 (though in others, it’s still his debut, The 400 Blows). It returns to the character as a young 20-something beginning his first adult relationship with Christine (with Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical tendencies apparently extending to the actor who played Christine, Claude Jade). That said, like the subsequent films in the series, it remains broadly comic, with Doinel’s character being easily distracted by women — most notably Delphine Seyrig as Fabienne, a shopkeeper’s wife — and unable to hold down a job — he meets Fabienne through a client at a private detective agency where he works, who wants to know why everyone hates him. It’s the film that probably most excoriates Doinel’s romantic tendency and fecklessness, and there’s a beautifully-judged extended scene in front of a mirror where he just says the central characters’ names repeatedly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director François Truffaut | Writers François Truffaut, Claude de Givray and Bernard Revon | Cinematographer Denys Clerval | Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claude Jade, Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 December 2017

Criterion Sunday 183: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

I don’t consider this typical Bresson, as it uses professional actors and it has a sort of Hollywood melodrama feel to it, although it has a dark edge of course. It’s about a woman who manipulates those around her to engineer their (social) destruction, and Maria Casarès is exactly the right person to have casted in such a role, given her admirable talents at looking mischievous. It all moves forward with admirable aplomb, and it has its lovely moments and some great high-contrast monochrome photography, admirable shadows falling across conniving faces, all that kind of thing. Its only real failing is that it’s not as great as Bresson later proved he could be as a director.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Bresson | Writers Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau (based on the novel Jacques le fataliste by Denis Diderot) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Maria Casarès, Élina Labourdette, Paul Bernard | Length 84 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Saturday 16 June 2001 (also earlier in June 1999 on VHS in the Victoria University library, Wellington, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home in London on Sunday 3 December 2017)

Peur de rien (Parisienne, 2016)

I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).

At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: French Film Festival
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid | Cinematographer Hélène Louvart | Starring Manal Issa, Vincent Lacoste | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016

La Belle saison (Summertime, 2015)

Who amongst us isn’t a sucker for likeable sun-dappled French lesbian romances set against the background of feminist struggles in the early-1970s? This film focuses on a romance between two unlikely women — a young farmer’s daughter, Delphine (Izïa Higelin, apparently better known as a singer), and Carole, a Parisian feminist activist (Cécile de France, who despite her name is actually Belgian). Delphine struggles to hide her feelings from her rural family and friends, so moves to Paris, where she quickly falls in with the ostensibly straight Carole at a feminist meeting. This setting is familiar from earlier works like Agnès Varda’s L’Une chante, l’autre pas (1977), but it’s captured well here, with the fierce political polemics and passionate leafletting in support of a shared cause. The two women fall for one another of course, though not all the plot contortions are believable. Nor can I hardly speak to the emotional truth of what it is to be a woman in love with another woman, but I’m also willing to believe that the writers and director of this probably know more than the guy behind, say, Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Still, the performances by the two leads are vibrant and really nicely done, so I liked this film.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Catherine Corsini | Writers Catherine Corsini and Laurette Polmanss | Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie | Starring Cécile de France, Izïa Higelin, Noémie Lvovsky | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016

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

Criterion Sunday 72: Le Million (1931)

A delightful French farce with musical numbers, this has a comic brio to it that belies its creation in the early sound era (when the limitations of camera technology meant these were largely immobile). The plot itself is almost paper thin (thin as a lottery ticket, that is) as our hero Michel (René Lefèvre) realises he’s won the lottery but — for elaborate reasons — the jacket with the ticket has been taken by the shady Grandpa Tulip (Paul Ollivier). Cue a film-length long series of comic setpieces wherein our hero and his friend/rival for the money, Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert), must track down the jacket and then the ticket, with the help of Michel’s ballerina sweetheart Beatrice (Annabella). It’s the kind of plot that successive decades of rehashing would wear down, but this early form is still light-hearted and nimble, and doesn’t outstay its welcome with an almost-too-sudden resolution to the quest, which the framing story essentially spoilers as otherwise the series of comic mishaps would probably be just too frustrating to bear.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer René Clair (based on a play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemand) | Cinematographers Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet | Starring René Lefèvre, Annabella, Paul Ollivier, Jean-Louis Allibert | Length 81 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 68: Orphée (Orpheus, 1950)

Orpheus is surely French artist Jean Cocteau’s most famous film; it is justly acclaimed, and it might even be his best (though I have enormous fondness for Testament of Orpheus, his last). I’ve seen it many times now, on the cinema screen and at home, though its sense of forbidding poetic mystery is still strong enough that the idea of putting my feelings into words delayed me writing up this review. Maybe, then, it’s best if I just leave it at some disjointed scraps of feeling and that Criterion cover art. Cocteau’s long-term partner and muse, Jean Marais, plays the poet (Orpheus of course) and though he is married to Eurydice, who figures in the story, it feels far more like a film about Orpheus and his relationship to Death, the ravishing and mysterious Princess who shows up at the film’s start flanked by another poet, and who is played by her usual intensity by María Casares. It’s a film of images, like the eerie motorcycle riders dressed fetishistically in black leather, or the ruined city of the underworld, of reverse photography (a real throughline in all Cocteau’s filmmaking) rendering the ordinary strange, and of mirrors as shimmering, watery portals to other realms. I’ll no doubt watch the film again, and, like the avant garde poetry which recurs on the soundtrack, only dimly perceive what’s going on, but it’s the feeling the film inspires which endures.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau | Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer | Starring Jean Marais, María Casares, François Périer | Length 95 minutes || Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 28 March 2004 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 December 2015)

Une femme mariée (aka A Married Woman, 1964)

A year or two back I spent a number of reviews focusing on the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and I think I did pretty well covering his career, but inevitably with such a prolific talent there were going to be gaps. Now the BFI has come along with a full retrospective so I’ve been trying to fill in some of those gaps, and from his most famous period of work (in the early- to mid-1960s), Une femme mariée was the most high profile film I’d not seen. That said, it’s still largely overlooked in favour of his films with Anna Karina, which is a pity because it exhibits a great amount of formal beauty, as well as giving a clear sense of Godard’s (rather less attractive) relationship to France and to women. In terms of the formal characteristics, we have the usual flattened frontal perspectives, starting with extreme close-ups on fragments of star Macha Méril’s unclothed body, as she is caressed from outside the frame by the hands of her lover, all rather startlingly and gorgeously composed by Raoul Coutard’s camera, as an extension perhaps of the anatomisation that began Le Mépris the year before. This technique is returned to throughout the film, as Méril’s character Charlotte bounces between the two men in her life, Robert and husband Pierre — though they sort of merge, at least in my mind, into something approaching an archetype of French manhood (just as Charlotte is, as originally conceived, The Married Woman of the title, albeit later changed to the indefinite article at the behest of the French censors). Even more persistent than the men is the influence of women’s magazines and advertising in her life, as she absurdly measures herself against their strictures, and it’s perhaps this body fascism which she is most wedded to, and which accounts for the formal strategies Godard adopts. It’s undoubtedly a fine work of modernist filmmaking, but it feels to me very much still like the work of a man looking at a woman (the problem I suppose I have with most of Godard’s output, especially during this era), but making this so central to the conception of the film as a whole is surely an achievement nonetheless. In any case, it certainly deserves a more prominent place in his filmography than is popularly accorded to it.

Une femme mariée (aka A Married Woman, 1964)
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Macha Méril | Length 94 minutes


La Paresse (Sloth, 1962)

The short film La Paresse (1962), included as an episode of one of the many fashionable short film anthologies that were popular in the 1960s, is a droll take on the deadly sin of sloth. Niftily edited with Godard’s usual stylish flair, it has Eddie Constantine picking up a young starlet (Nicole Mirel) in his car and taking her back to his place. Constantine at that point was a man known from various popular action and adventure flicks, but here his character can barely even be bothered to tie his shoelaces, and opts out of sleeping with Mirel as he can’t be bothered to get dressed again after.

La Paresse (Sloth) [from Les Sept péchés capitaux (The Seven Deadly Sins, 1962)]
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Eddie Constantine, Nicole Mirel | Length 11 minutes


© Columbia Films

RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Thursday 7 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 57: Charade (1963)

This is, unquestionably, a bit of late-Golden Era Hollywood silliness, as Audrey Hepburn plays a wealthy widow to a man found dead under mysterious circumstances. Returning to their home in Paris, now stripped of all its furnishings, she finds herself being stalked by a trio of dangerous American felons (led by James Coburn), and helped — perhaps — by Cary Grant, whose name constantly changes throughout the film. All of these men believe she has access to some enormous wealth that her husband left behind ($250,000!). Things progress from there in a largely comedic (if not screwball) way, and if the film never seems particularly concerned with any profound depths of emotion (even the Criterion Collection likes to lighten things up occasionally), it’s also never particularly boring, thanks to the on-screen charisma of Hepburn and Grant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Donen | Writer Peter Stone (based on his short story “The Unsuspecting Wife”) | Cinematographer Charles Lang | Starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn | Length 113 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 October 2015