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.

Police (Night Shift, 2020)

Like any town with more than a handful of cinemas (though barely more than a handful), there are a range of smaller film festivals being organised to show films that otherwise wouldn’t make it to a big screen, and such is the way in Wellington, where recently there was a French Film Festival. It showed a handful of classics (like Breathless) but most of the programme was dedicated to recent films, and I saw a few so that’s what I’ll be focusing on this week. I’ll start with the latest film de Anne Fontaine, the Luxembourger who’s not my favourite filmmaker but who does solid work.


This film is called Police in the original, but the title is shown reflected from right to left, and that very much cues you up to what to expect: it’s about the police, sure, but… are they the good guys? The title is a bold move, though, given there’s a Pialat film of the same name, and, look, I’ve been guilty in the past of seeing that Anne Fontaine directorial credit and being a bit dismissive, but I’ve never really hated any of her films I’ve seen (even Adore aka Perfect Mothers), and I appreciate her spin on fairly well-worn tropes, even if ultimately it all ends up feeling just a little… off somehow. Still, she’s assembled a fine cast of big names. Efira! Sy! Another couple of guys, who feel pretty honest to their characters, and she’s telling a story of morality intersecting with one’s work. It goes where it goes, and it doesn’t explain everything for the viewer; certain outcomes are hinted at, but there’s no expectation of change and I’m not sure Fontaine is even trying to redeem these guys, just give some perspective. I’m not suddenly, as a result, going to start loving cops as film subjects, but this feels like solid character work.

Police (Night Shift, 2020)CREDITS
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Claire Barré and Fontaine (based on the novel by Hugo Boris); Cinematographer Yves Angelo; Starring Virginie Efira, Omar Sy, Gregory Gadebois; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Wednesday 16 June 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 430: Le Feu follet (The Fire Within, 1963)

I think you could probably construct a small cinematic canon of works that deal with characters who are profoundly depressed and suicidal, but I don’t think there are a huge number which confront it head on. And by ‘head on’ I do mean that this is a film entirely about a man adrift. The protagonist moves around Paris, from a clinic in Versailles where he’s trying to clean up his alcoholism, into town where he tries — disconsolately, lackadaisically — to meet up with former friends and acquaintances. He seems to be seeking something, some connection that will convince him not to kill himself, but he’s also pretty set on not finding it, and that makes for uncomfortable watching. Don’t get me wrong, as played by Maurice Ronet, Alain Leroy is charismatic and can be good company, but it becomes increasingly clear that he is adrift and that things aren’t going to work out for him. The filmmaking matches his mental disarray at times, and underpins his emotions with the similarly desolate piano work of Erik Satie (which is too often misused in films in my opinion, but works rather well here).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle (based on the novel [also translated as “Will O’ the Wisp”] by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Maurice Ronet; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 24 May 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 401: Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch wasn’t unfamiliar with making portmanteau movies (this one or Coffee and Cigarettes), and elsewhere at the very least has divided his films into distinct chapters, as he did in Stranger Than Paradise (one of which was initially released as a short film before he had funding for the rest of the feature). So it’s not unusual for him that here he covers people driving taxis in five different cities, two in the US (LA and NYC) as well as Paris, Rome and Helsinki.

It’s interesting to see people online responding quite differently to each of these five segments. The Roman section is probably the most divisive, but then again it largely depends how you feel about Roberto Benigni as a screen presence. He riffs away on various themes, mostly of the illicitly sexual variety, while driving a priest across Rome, and so the humour is largely broad and upfront. It’s not what Jarmusch is perhaps best known for, and it’s certainly not my favourite kind of humour, so it largely passes me by. NYC is also pretty broad in its humour, but it’s fun to see Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez play off each other, so soon after Do the Right Thing, and they attack it with plenty of energy. Paris, meanwhile, uses one of Jarmusch’s favourite actors, Isaach de Bankolé, and I do always love just watching his face and the way he channels emotions — of course the taxi setup means that watching faces becomes much easier for us as an audience as everyone is facing forward and largely unmoving. That said, the blindness metaphor into which Béatrice Dalle is cast is a little heavy handed.

This leaves the first and last segments, probably my own favourites, because of the way they use the limited space (there is very little that takes place outside the taxi journeys), as well as the iconic actors in each: Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder in the former; Matti Pellonpää in the latter. He has a face I could watch for ages, and so it’s a great way to wrap the film up, melancholy and doleful though he is.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is an almost hour-long audio recording of Jarmusch answering questions from fans which have been sent into and filtered by the Criterion office. He is generous with his answers and gives plenty of context to what he was doing with this film, as well as shedding light on his own artistic practice, so it’s well worth listening.
  • Another feature is a 5-minute piece from Belgian TV to mark the release of the film back in 1992, in which they bundle Jarmusch into the back of a Paris taxi and have him talk about the film. He actually hits a few of the same points as he did 15 years later in the Q&A featurette above, but it’s still a good interview.
  • The booklet has five writers linked to each of the cities in the film speak to their section of the film, with evident warmth from many, though they don’t always love their own city’s section the most within the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Matti Pellonpää; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 21 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

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 388: Le Vieil homme et l’enfant (The Two of Us, 1967)

Given that the director’s birth name is Claude Langmann and he was born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1934, and this film, set in 1944, is about a 10-year-old called Claude Langmann who is sent to stay in the countryside by his Jewish parents, I think it’s fair to assume this is at least semi-autobiographical. In the opening scenes, we see the besieged spirit of Paris in the months leading up to the D-Day invasions (chronicled in 1975’s Overlord, just added to the Criterion Collection shortly before this film) and the liberation of Paris in August that year (covered in Melville’s Army of Shadows, also recently introduced to the collection). Claude’s parents worry about the fate of their kid under the Nazis and so they send him off to the (non-Jewish) family of a friend out in the countryside, where he is exhorted to use the surname Longuet and avoid anything that might give away his ethnic and religious identity, and that’s really where the film gets going. He’s introduced to his new grandfather figure (played by Michel Simon) and when he learns of grandpa’s antisemitic beliefs and Pétainiste solidarity, hilarity ensues. I’m only slightly joking though: ultimately the film isn’t about the terror of being Jewish under a Nazi puppet government (we never learn the fate of his parents back in Paris, for example, and there are no scenes of threat or violence against the boy, mercifully) but instead there are a lot of gently comedic scenes which hint at his situations, like his desperate attempts to avoid anyone looking at his penis, or the exchanges with his grandpa where Claude subtly mocks his antisemitism by using his own prejudices against him. The film largely progresses this way, and while it’s not perhaps fair to say it’s soft-pedalling the war, it definitely has a sentimental view of the past, and this much is acknowledged by the opening text: it’s a child’s-eye view of the war, spent in relative bliss in a rural setting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Berri; Writers Berri, Gérard Brach and Michel Rivelin; Cinematographer Jean Penzer; Starring Alain Cohen, Michel Simon; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).

Criterion Sunday 381: La Haine (aka Hate, 1995)

At a certain level you get the feel that this film was aiming to light a fuse under the complacent French middle classes about the angst and turmoil — generational, class-based and racially motivated — existing under their own noses, in the vast banlieux (the French equivalent of council estates, or projects) just on the edges of their largest cities. And I suppose it did have that effect, but watching it again 25 years on, it feels very polished and Hollywood, but then it’s taking something of a cue from Spike Lee and his seminal Do the Right Thing six years earlier. That much is evident in the structure of the story and in some of the technical effects (zoom shots and dollies, such as the one into Saïd Taghmaoui’s face at the start and end of the film), though obviously not in the colour palette which unlike Lee’s forcefully saturated colours is rather starkly monochrome. There’s humour too in a lot of the film, but what feels a little lacking is menace, but then again it makes sense that the film isn’t trying to make its protagonists feel like dangerous characters to spend time with — sure, Vincent Cassel’s Vinz is on edge, but like the other two he is just fronting aggression to hide a deeper malaise — and in fact, it is, as it should be, the police who are the characters you (and the protagonists) can’t feel comfortable around. I don’t know if I was looking for something with more edge, but it has aged if anything rather gracefully, and even some of the period cultural references — like confronting skinheads with a rousing ‘fvck Le Pen’ — haven’t actually changed at all (even if the specific Le Pen is different).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mathieu Kassovitz; Cinematographer Pierre Aim; Starring Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 18 December 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997).