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)

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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

LGFF: Chant d’hiver (Winter Song, 2015)

London Georgian Film Festival logo
With the London Film Festival just getting underway, I present short reviews of the four films I saw at the London Georgian Film Festival last week.


Director Otar Iosseliani has had a long career, most of the latter part of it while based in Paris (he’s been rather an outspoken critic of the Russians), and by this point you get the sense that he has a dense personal style that reflects mostly his own work and interests. In many respects this latest film reminds me of the first film of his I saw, Adieu, plancher des vaches (1999, often given in English as “Farewell, Home Sweet Home”). It is broadly-speaking a comedy of a deeply deadpan nature, owing more (as he said in a short spoken introduction at my screening) to Buster Keaton than Charlie Chaplin, though I find it also rather reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s Play Time, or late French-period Luis Buñuel, particularly Le Fantôme de la liberté. But that’s enough cinephiliac name-dropping. What you get is a loosely-connected series of little vignettes, as a large and interwoven group of characters interact in the same area of Paris, walking into and out of each others’ stories, all vaguely brought together around the skull of an 18th century aristocrat, guillotined in the opening sequence. Iosseliani’s characters manage to be both aristocratic and plebeian, sometimes at the same time, moving effortlessly (and at times somewhat confusingly) from the rubbish heaps and gutters to the highest society ballrooms. The central characters are two elderly men (Rufus, and Amiran Amiranashvili), constantly bickering and crossing one another, often to comic effect, so perhaps Samuel Beckett is another influence. If you don’t go into Iosseliani’s films, least of all this latest one, looking for a ‘story’ then you’ll find plenty to delight, little moments of comedy — cute dogs crossing the road by themselves, characters losing their hats in random and arbitrary ways, people unfazed by living and working in the same spaces — interspersed with grimness, with little to separate the two at times.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Georgian Film Festival
Director/Writer Otar Iosseliani | Cinematographer Julie Grunebaum | Starring Rufus, Amiran Amiranashvili | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 6 October 2015

Criterion Sunday 25: Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

The title may reference a then-popular detective series starring American expatriate Eddie Constantine, but as per usual this is hardly a straightforward film from Jean-Luc Godard. It’s set in a retro-futurist Paris, though of course Godard didn’t have the budget to build any sets, but rather films amongst the modern 1960s architecture of the city, all glass lifts and big shiny lobbies, not to mention anonymous office corridors at the heart of the computer-controlled corporation that runs the city. It’s a film of alternately banal surfaces and fascinating faces (whether the pitted one of Constantine, or Godard’s muse of the time, the ravishing Anna Karina), matched to the raspy electronically-modulated voice of computer overlord Alpha 60. I can’t for a moment pretend to tell you what actually happens — there are elements of generic detective plot though Caution is fighting on behalf of individualism and free thought rather than anything more base, and Godard punctuates scenes with images of flashing lights and neon equations, presumably to symbolise Alpha 60’s reliance on logic. There’s a troubling relationship to women in Alphaville’s society — a theme that runs through a lot of Godard’s filmmaking — and it’s difficult to be sure whether that’s a function of the oppressive state or something more insidious. Needless to say, it’s a strange and fascinating movie whose images of a modern nighttime Paris have a dark romanticism to them, especially seen at a remove of what is now 50 years.

Criterion Extras: Certainly not all Criterion releases have extensive extras (though more recently they’ve tended to put the bare-bones stuff out on their Eclipse sub-label), but even by the thin standards of some others of this period, Alphaville is particularly negligible. There’s not even a trailer, so it comes down to the two slim pages written by Andrew Sarris on the inside of the booklet, and of course the quality of the transfer. A bit of context to this odd attempt at sci-fi futurism would have been nice, but at the very least the transfer is of excellent quality.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 23 July 2002 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998 and October 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 March 2015)

Elle l’adore (aka Number One Fan, 2014)

There’s something about this thriller that reminds me of the middle range of French films I used to see at film festivals back in the late-1990s, accomplished, well-crafted with a strong sense of style and excellent lead performances, but yet relatively restrained auteurist pretentions. Like Claude Chabrol’s films, then, perhaps, and his oeuvre has certainly come up in relation to this first film by filmmaker Jeanne Herry. The plot starts out with what is quite possibly my least favourite narrative trope — or at least what seems like it — the death of a woman to give emotional complexity to a male lead. I say it seems like this is the case because in fact this death leads pop star Vincent (Laurent Lafitte) into a series of increasingly foolish decisions, and it’s the character of his superfan Muriel (Sandrine Kiberlain) which comes to take centre stage. The extreme situation is a vehicle by which to break down the relationship between fan and celebrity (the title, incidentally, translates as “she adores him”), as Vincent’s emotional stability becomes more and more tied to the actions of Muriel — the opposite of what had been the relationship up until then. It also seems to allow Muriel to rein in some of her own delusional fantasising and oddly to regain a healthier balance in her own life. This, though, would all be for nothing were it not for Kiberlain’s fantastic and inscrutable central performance, which slowly draws the viewer in and holds their attention, giving what might be a tedious psychological thriller an edge of blackly comic charm. Somehow, then, the film navigates its emotional terrain to become something almost rather delightful, after what seemed such an unpromising start.


© StudioCanal

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jeanne Herry | Writers Jeanne Herry and Gaëlle Macé | Cinematographer Axel Cosnefroy | Starring Sandrine Kiberlain, Laurent Lafitte | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Thursday 19 March 2015

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


RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015


Les Films du Losange

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.

Continue reading “Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1962)”

Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray, aka Summer, 1986)


RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 3 January 2015


Les Films du Losange

I’ve by no means seen enough films by French New Wave director Éric Rohmer to judge where this 1986 film, one of his ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ series, fits into his œuvre, but I’m given to understand it heralds a move away from formalism towards something freer and a little bit spontaneous. Certainly, that fits with the later films of his I’ve seen (primarily the ‘Tales of the Four Seasons’), and there’s something almost artless about the filming and lighting here, done with a minimal crew on a 16mm camera that in (the relatively infrequent) indoor scenes is pushed towards an ugly graininess, and which at times suggests a vérité documentary quality (as when the kids look directly into the camera). But this, along with the film’s largely improvised dialogue (for which the lead actor Marie Rivière received an assistant screenwriting credit), is all part of a very conscious style that may not come across as much initially, but builds to a fascinating character study of a woman who seems to be dealing with depression, on the occasions when she reflects on her life and her failed relationships.

Continue reading “Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray, aka Summer, 1986)”

LFF: Bande de filles (Girlhood, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 18 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Pyramide Distribution

Like 1995’s La Haine, it’s not always clear how much this story of poverty-stricken banlieue (suburban) life can be called ‘authentic’, in so far as it represents a stylised filmic depiction of a group of fictional characters rather than a documentary exactly (and certainly that was the main objection of the friend with whom I went to see this film). But for me, such issues seem to be beside the point, for the key is the representation of a specifically female perspective on such an existence. Yet in putting this across, it also largely avoids cinematic cliché — there are threats from the men who lurk around the central character Marieme’s housing project, certainly, but Marieme’s main interaction is with her fellow girls, and the way that they both nurture and compete is central to her development (and is a key theme to the film). Newcomer Karidja Touré as Marieme sometimes struggles to fully convince in her character’s move from shy wallflower to queen bee of her clique under the assumed name of Vic (for “Victoire”) to eventual drug mule via a number of makeovers and some schoolyard scrapping, but the filmmaking has vigour and style. At times there are extended musical sequences (including a long one as the titular ‘band of girls’ sings along to Rihanna in a Paris hotel room, shot more as music video), but these serve to underline the importance of music to community identity. It’s a film ultimately about being part of a group and the dangers of trying to live outside of one, and at depicting that it does very well.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Céline Sciamma | Cinematographer Crystel Fournier | Starring Karidja Touré | Length 112 minutes

LFF: Eden (2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Friday 17 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Ad Vitam

Mia Hansen-Løve is a young French director whose work has been gaining some acclaim on the festival circuit, and this collaboration with her brother Sven apparently springs from his time as a DJ. It’s a sprawling film that charts around 20 years in the life of one central character, Paul (the winsomely smiling Félix de Givry), from 1991 through to 2013, though like most such undertakings he and those around him don’t seem to age markedly (aside from a little stubble and changes of hairstyle here and there). However, this doesn’t seem particularly troubling given the rut of perpetual adolescence he seems to be stuck in, thanks to his career spinning house records at French clubs. To be honest, this isn’t a musical scene of which I have any knowledge, and like most people it begins and ends at Daft Punk (whose twin creators Thomas and Guy-Man have a running gag in the film of being turned away from Paul’s club, due to their level of anonymity). The film does feature appearances from some key musical acts, and includes a brief visit to Chicago, but you hardly need to be au fait with the scene to enjoy the film, as it focuses mostly on Paul and his stunted development and relationships, as well as the rise-and-fall arc of his career. It’s just as well, too, that de Givry is such a likeable screen presence, because for most of the film his character has difficulty dealing with grown-up situations and feelings, and tends to push away those he most cares about. It’s a credit to the director too that such a character in such a setting can still compel, but it does, a beautifully-shot and losely-structured ode to music, and the difficulties inherent in trying to carve out a career within it.


CREDITS || Director Mia Hansen-Løve | Writers Mia Hansen-Løve and Sven Hansen-Løve | Cinematographer Denis Lenoir | Starring Félix de Givry, Pauline Etienne | Length 131 minutes