Criterion Sunday 218: Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Connoisseurs of the heist film may be able to speak lyrically about the various differences between them all, but at some stage all these (often French) mid-century heist flicks blend together in my mind. There’s a long, silent sequence of them pulling it off, which harks back to Rififi (if I’m not mistaken), which had a similar wordless heist procedural section. This one also has Alain Delon in a trenchcoat — somewhat as he is in Melville’s other films — but it’s a taut, well-told story with plenty of suspense. Quite why everything is happening is a little vague, but the performances and the snappy filmmaking pull it through, and keep it entertaining.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, André Bourvil; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at the Castro, San Francisco, Monday 5 May 2003 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 June 2018).

Criterion Sunday 36: Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953)

You can understand, watching it, why The Wages of Fear is so well-regarded as a thriller, but it takes its time to get going. For about the first hour, the film is firmly engaged in scene setting, flitting amongst its close-knit group of down-on-their-luck European grifters stranded in a remote Mexican town where the only way in and out is an airfield. Their problem is that they don’t have enough money for an airfare and the only local source of jobs is a US-run oil corporation that shuts itself away from the rest of the squalid town and doesn’t want anything to do with the local population. A leader of sorts emerges with Frenchman Mario (Yves Montand), who is soon joined by the older Jo (Charles Vanel), hopping off a plane hoping for a break, but quickly finding himself stuck like the others he meets. Director Clouzot picked a remote French location to film, near the Spanish border (so the voices heard are as likely to be Spaniards as Mexicans), but he sets up his one-horse town well, with some scene-setting lifted almost wholesale by Sam Peckinpah for The Wild Bunch (kids taunting some bugs in the first shot, for example). The sense of mud and heat is pervasive and intense, so only when this has had a chance to really sink in does Clouzot and his fellow screenwriter (his brother, using a pseudonym) introduce the plot: some locals are needed by the American company to convey a dangerous shipment of nitroglycerine in trucks across the mountains to put out an oil fire. It’s a simple setup and the kind of thing that’s influenced generations of stripped-down action films: you’ve got the omnipresent danger (here, the nitroglycerine) hanging like Damocles’ sword, and you have an equally combustible mix of strong-willed personalities (or weak-willed ones, as Jo increasingly turns out to be). But in allowing some time to set his scene, the film ends up being something of an attack on the futility of capitalism — a society in which its inhabitants are trapped by a lack of money, and whose only salaried opportunity to escape is almost literally rigged to kill them. Whatever happens, no one wins: such are, after all, the wages of fear.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot; Writers Clouzot and Jean Clouzot [as “Jérôme Géronimi”] (based on the novel by Georges Arnaud); Cinematographer Armand Thirard; Starring Yves Montand, Charles Vanel; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 13 May 2015.

Tout va bien (1972)

After the apocalyptic ending of Week End, Godard’s filmmaking became more and more overtly political in content and confrontational in form. We’ve already seen in his collaboration with the Rolling Stones, One Plus One, a characteristic blend of documentary elements with characters reciting political theory in support of direct action, and this would be taken further in his other works of this period, often put out under the Dziga Vertov Group rubric. Vertov was a pioneer of documentary filmmaking in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, and it was his formal innovations combined with frank political underpinning that must have attracted these French filmmakers. I’ve not seen a great deal of Godard’s work of this period, but if Un film comme les autres (A Film Like the Others, 1968) is anything to go by, they could be quite challenging — it consists of long-shot takes of students filmed from quite some distance sitting around talking about politics, split into two halves using the same images but a different soundtrack in each (at least, this is my recollection of it).

For the majority of the 1970s Godard was engaged in pseudo-agitprop films and collagist television experiments, so Tout va bien (which translates as “everything’s going well”) is almost accessible by contrast, and links in mostly clearly with his late-1960s work in style. Again we see that blend of political discussion within a narrative framework which in this case admits of two significant international actors (Jane Fonda and Yves Montand), playing reporters investigating a strike at a meat processing factory. Of course Godard and his co-director Jean-Pierre Gorin, who is now a film professor, were hardly likely to allow these famous actors the usual trappings of celebrity so afford them few close-ups and minimise their prominence in scenes where they do appear. For example, there’s a conversation between them filmed from behind Montand’s head, which itself hides Fonda’s face — a method of withholding identification that can be seen as early as Vivre sa vie (1962) and is fairly common in Godard’s films.

Alongside the bigger stars is a greater transparency about the practices and more particularly the economics of commercial filmmaking. Two voices at the start explain that a scene of the two stars being in love is necessary (presumably to secure funding), and this sits alongside a shot of cheques to the key personnel being signed; the voices return at the end to talk over the top of a climactic scene, preventing Fonda and Montand’s story being resolved. There’s also a notable long lateral tracking shot recalling the pile-up in Week End, this one filmed along the tills in a supermarket where everything is being sold — even the French Communist Party has a stall, though that may be as much to do with Godard’s sectarian antipathy towards the Communists.

Making plain the mechanics of the film’s production goes along nicely with the way the film seeks to expose all levels of the consumer society. Prior to the supermarket scene, the bulk of the film depicts staff discontentment at a factory where sausages are made — a place of contact between the rural agrarian world, the suburban working classes, and the urban bourgeois owners. Montand’s character, meanwhile, works in advertising, which sells products (such as those produced in the factory) to the consumer. This strategy is accompanied by formal distantiation techniques: the factory is filmed as a vast self-contained set, the rooms like a set of stacked boxes across which the camera pans (there’s even a banner hanging from this set). Moreover, various characters speak directly to the camera about their contrasting expectations (the Italian boss and the union leader for example).

Godard’s film is upfront about systems of production and consumption, but it avoids being boring. Quite aside from its saturated colours and frontal framing with shallow depth of focus (familiar from Godard’s other features), there’s also some fairly easily-digestible criticism of inequalities that exist within these systems. For example, female workers are given a voice to express their discontent at the male hierarchy within the factory, and the way women’s voices are suppressed is suggested in voiceover as we are shown Jane Fonda listening. There’s also that favourite of the post-1968 period of filmmaking, the class war (“lutte de classe”) expressed in fighting between students and police.

Tout va bien, of course, ends up being a bitterly ironic title. The playfulness of the earlier 1960s films is still somewhat in evidence, but there’s little hope left when all’s done. At the end, the mordant caption “FRANCE 1972” accompanies another lateral tracking shot, as it takes in a bleak industrial landscape and long stretches of barren brick wall, set to a cheerful pop song claiming “it’s sunny in France”. The voiceover implicates everyone in this outcome and you get the sense here more than ever that Godard is ready to give up on France.

Next Up: Godard didn’t return to ‘proper’ feature filmmaking until 1980’s Sauve qui peut (la vie), and his early 80s films start to focus on a new interest in collage backed by strong soundtracks. The second of these 1980s works is Passion, reuniting him with actor Michel Piccoli and cinematographer Raoul Coutard, as well as returning him to self-critique within a filmmaking setting.

Tout va bien film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin; Cinematographer Armand Marco; Starring Jane Fonda, Yves Montand; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 May 2001 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 26 August 2013).