Talking Pictures

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘French film’ Category

La Bête Humaine., France 1938

Posted by keith1942 on December 12, 2017

 

The novel is part of Émile Zola’s great fictional series, Les Rougon-Macquart. This chain of novels takes its title from the two families who are the subject of the stories. The Rougons are bourgeois in the French sense, what in the UK is colloquially refereed to as upper middle class. The Macquarts are rural poor and become urban working class. The stories are set in the second Empire; that fairly reactionary regime lorded over by Louis-Napoleon. Zola’s approach belongs to the new naturalism of the later nineteenth century, very detailed and realistic portrayals, which the author equated with the work of experimental scientists.  Zola’s political stance tended towards socialism, but he was also strongly influenced by recent environmental and hereditary studies.

These conflicting factors can be seen at work in La Bête Humaine. The novel has very detailed and convincing passages on the industry and its workers. One fine chapter, which has not made it into any of the film adaptations that I have seen, recounts a hazardous and arduous train journey through snow and blizzards. Many of the motivations of the characters arise from the social relations in which they are trapped. Yet the central character, Jacques Lantier, [the offspring of the two main protagonists in L’Assommoir], is in the grip of a violent obsession, which the author attributes to genetic factors, ‘and bad blood’.

Film Adaptations.

As might be expected Zola has been a popular source for film versions. L’Assommoir appears to have provided the basis for a 1902 short film. And there were other early adaptations by filmmaker as prominent as D. W. Griffith [A Drunkard’s Reformation 1909] and Victor Sjöström [Germinal, 1913]. The 1913 French adaptation of the same novel by Albert Capellani runs for 147 minutes. It is distinguished by its use of actual locations and a strong identification with the striking miners. It struck me as more political than the Zola original.

In 1918 there was a silent version of La Bête Humaine. And in the 1920s another Germinal, and versions of Nana, Therese Raquin and L’Argent. With the arrival of sound further film versions of some of these novels were produced. And from the 1930s until the present day Zola remains a popular source, with a new Germinal in the 1990s and Nana in 2002. The most recent versions of La Bête Humaine appear to have been in the 1950s.

1930s.

Despite the International dominance of Hollywood French film was relatively successful in this period, [more so than British film]. In the late 1930s there were a series of films that were successful at the domestic box office and garnered high praise from critics. A key cycle of films was known as Poetic Realism. This cycle shared some characteristics with the later Hollywood film noir.  The settings were associated with criminality, and the use of light and shadow created a world of darkness and danger. Two key filmmakers in this cycle were the scriptwriter Jacques Prévert and the director Marcel Carné. One of their finest collaborations is Quai des Brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938). An army deserter arrives in Le Havre. He is adopted by a stray dog, falls in love with an orphan girl, and crosses the leader of a local criminal gang. The tragic ending is clearly foreshadowed in the settings, all shadows and mist. The star is Jean Gabin. He provides a strong sense of romantic fatalism, which characterised this and the other poetic realist films. The endings are uniformly tragic, unlike the Hollywood film noir, where the films sometimes lead to death [e.g. Double Indemnity, 1944] but just as often the hero wins through [On Dangerous Ground, 1951].  In the Quai des Brumes the hero is led on by a fatal romance, but the heroine is romantic. In French noir there tends to be less emphasis on the heroine as duplicitous and dangerous, again different from the femme fatale in film noir.

‘Quai des brumes’

Jean Renoir

Renoir is one of the most renowned film directors in French Cinema, indeed across World Cinema. His father was the famous Impressionist painter. The young Jean entered French filmmaking in the 1920s, still the era of silent films. One of his early films was an adaptation of Zola’s novel Nana [1926]. A slum girl rises to become a demimondaine [a woman outside respectable society]. I feel that the film fails because Catherine Hessling [who plays Nana] does not bring the character alive or make her believable.

In the sound era Renoir directed a film version of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It is far closer to the book than the Hollywood version, both in plot and in its view of Emma Bovary. However, it suffered because the producers did not allow Renoir to make the full versions that he desired. One important film of his in this period is Toni [1935]. A story set among Italian migrants, the film was an early example of location filming and the use of non-professionals. It was an important influence on the later Italian neo-realist movement.

Like many artists and intellectuals Renoir was extremely sympathetic to the Popular Front, which won the French elections in 1936. He directed La Marseillaise, a film about the original revolutionary volunteers from Marseilles in 1789. It was partly funded by trade unions and subscriptions. Prior to this he had also made Le Crime de Monsieur Lange [1935), partly a thriller, it is set in a workers print co-operative. This is one of his finest films and has a powerful sense of community and co-operation.

The overt class-conscious themes in these films weaken in the late 1930s. La Bête Humaine, whilst it has a strong sense of industry and the world of work has little evidence of co-operation. In fact it shares the pessimism that seemed so central to the poetic realist cycle. It is a pessimism that is one powerful strand in his later masterpiece, La Regle du Jeu (1939). That film so angered audiences that the prints were cut, then withdrawn and finally banned. The film was later restored in the 1950s and gained a reputation as one of the all-time great films. It is worth noting that both La Bête Humaine  and La Regle du Jeu were both banned under the German occupation.

La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast). France 1938.

Director Jean Renoir Scenario Jean Renoir based on the novel by Zola Photography Curt Courant Art Direction Eugène Lourié Music Joseph Kosma Editor Marguer­ite Renoir. Cast Jean Gabin, Julien Car­ette, Fernand Ledoux, Jean Renoir, Si­mone Simon, Jenny Hélia, Blanchette Brunoy. Production Paris Films. 99 minutes. Black and white.

“Lantier (Gabin), a railway mechanic and hereditary alcoholic, is pushed into crime. He becomes the lover of Séverine (Simon), who wants him to kill her hus­band, Roubaud (Ledoux), himself a criminal, but he ends by strangling her.

Renoir, after the unmerited failure of La Maseillaise (1937), agreed to make this film because Gabin very much wanted to play a railway worker. He had less than vague memories of the novel, which is far from being one of Zola’s best, and is one in which the three pro­tagonists are modern Atridae [classical Greek reference], whose heredity condemned them to worse crimes. With some hesitation he rejected an adaptation by Roger Martin Du Gard that concluded with the declaration of war in August 1914, and finally himself wrote a scenario that mainly retained “a love story of the railroads” from the ori­ginal novel.

The opening sequence showing, in a doc­umentary style, the Paris-Le Havre run seen from a train, is a masterpiece of editing and perfect simplicity. It is comparable to another sequence, less impressionistic but still very beautiful, showing the life of the migrant railway workers. In this way, Renoir depicted Lantier’s social milieu by showing him at work. His impulse to murder is power­fully but quietly expressed in the brief scene showing his desire to kill a woman (Brunoy) who had given herself to him while a train was passing. Later, the drama becomes more involved and three sequences are equally admirable: the killing committed by Roubaud in an ex­press; the attempt to kill him in the noc­turnal setting of the railway tracks; the final strangling of Séverine, intercut with a railway workers’ fair, while a voice on the soundtrack sings a turn-of-the-­century ballad.

“I try to discover the unity of action before considering the unity of place and time,” wrote Renoir. La Bête Humaine is far superior to La Grande Illusion and was far from being a commercial failure. [It apparently did well internationally including in the USA. There it was one important influence on the film noir cycle]. However, some critical attacks hampered its success. M. Vinel (Rebatet), though he did not deny the qualities of the film, set the pattern in L’Action Fran­çaise: “In politics, Renoir is out of the same Jewish-Democratic lineage as Zola. We hope we will not see him again in the miry rut of the class cinema.”

The acting is of exceptional quality. It is one of Gabin’s great roles and Carette responds intelligently to his performance. Simone Simon is a Séverine of tragic proportions, while Ledoux, as the callous Roubaud, is remarkable.” (Georges Sadoul in his Dictionary of Films, 1965, translated by Peter Morris).

Renoir on La Bête Humaine

“Those first-hand railway shots were in any case highly dangerous. The State Railways had lent us ten kilometres of track on which we could run and stop the train as we pleased. We hitched a platform truck, carrying the lighting generator, to the locomotive, and behind this an ordinary coach which served as a make-up and rest-room for the actors between scenes. When I decided to shoot with these hindrances I encountered lively opposition. It was pointed out to me that mock-ups had been perfected to the point where it was impossible to tell them from first-hand shooting. But I was unshakable in my belief in the influence of the setting on the actors, and fortunately I won the day. Gabin and Carette could never have played so realistically in front of an artificial background, if only because the very noise forced them to communicate by means of ges­tures.

The cameramen were Curt Courant and my nephew, Claude Renoir. Curt Courant was a skinny little man, a real featherweight. He was always in danger of being carried off by the wind which blew like the devil through that rushing studio and more than once I had to grab hold of him to prevent him being swept away. Claude had attached a small platform to the side of the locomotive which he occupied with his camera. The camera stuck out a little too far and was knocked off at the entrance to a tunnel; but Claude hung on and came through unscathed.

La Bête Humaine strengthened my longing to achieve poetic realism. The steel mass of the locomotive became in my imagination the flying carpet of oriental fable. Zola, from the depths of the grave, gave me powerful assistance. His novels are filled with wonderful passages of popular poetry. For example, Séverine and Jacques Lentier [Lantier] have arranged to meet in the Square des Batignolles. It is their first meeting. Jacques Lentier is so moved that he cannot utter a word. Séverine says with a faint smile, `Don’t look it me like that, you’ll wear your eyes out.’ A trifle, but it had to be thought of. The setting of locomotives, railroad sidings and puffs of steam had furnished me with that poetry or rather had supplied it to the actors and enabled them to get into the skin of their parts better than any amount.”  (My Life and My Films by Jean Renoir, translated by Norman Denny. Da Capo, 1974).

There is a Hollywood version of the Zola novel, Human Desire [1954}. The film was produced at the Columbia Studio, and directed by German émigré Fritz Lang. The stars are Glen Ford, Gloria Grahame and Broderick Crawford. Given this was the 1940s and the period of the Hays Code, it is unsurprising that the adaptation diverges in important ways from the novel.

Notes for a course on European literature on Film.

Advertisements

Posted in French film, Literature on Film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Divine, France 1935.

Posted by keith1942 on July 19, 2017

Screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2017 as part of a programme constructed around the work of the French writer Collette. The Festival Catalogue introduced the film:

“According to the opening credits, Divine, directed by Max Ophūls, is the “first screenplay written specifically for the cinema with dialogue by … Colette  [of the sound era],” The film is based  on one of her literary works. ‘L’Envers du music-hall’ (1913), a moving choral fresco about the music hall comprised of sequences detailing numerous individual stories provides the frame. The novella ‘Divine’ supplied the film with its protagonist who has the body of both a Goddess and a peasant and who is played by Simone Barriau [as Ludivine ‘Divine’ Jaris] (who also acted as producer and who made her country estate available for the exteriors).” (Paolo Palme).

The film opens in the country [on this estate] where young Ludivine is persuaded to move to Paris and work in the music hall by her friend Roberte (Yvette Lebon). Once working at the Paris music-hall in the chorus Ludivine is soon christened ‘Divine’. She starts to ascent the stairway to stardom: an early lead role involves her being draped with a live snake in a exotic and orientalist number.

‘Divine’ is the centre of the narrative. We see her pursued and fending off the various offensives by male admirers. She also acquires a non- music hall boyfriend, the local milkman, Antonin (Georges Rigaud).. With him she shares the love of the rural world from which she comes. Other stories are also followed, including the use of drugs by the performers. Much of the film displays with great detail and a sense of the authentic, the world of the backstage, with which both Colette and Ophüls were familiar.

Whilst the theatrical world and the characters are very much Colette the presentation is very much Ophüls. As a filmmaker he was noted for the mobility of the camerawork and the smooth but complex style of editing. By this stage of his career Ophüls had already directed Liebelei (1933 in Germany)  and La Signora Di Tutti (1934 in Italy). Both display the skills that grace his cinema, they also reflect the peripatetic nature of his filmmaking life. In this French film he is ably served by the craftsmen: set design by Jacques Gotko and Robert Gys, cinematography by Roger Hubert, editing by Léonide Moguy.

The distinctive and effective style of the film is demonstrated in the opening sequence where Roberte comes to visit her childhood friend in her expensive motor car. Ludivine is helping her mother (Catherine Fonteney) plough a field on their farm. The trio of women return to the farmhouse where, over the evening, Roberte explains to Ludivine the attractions of music hall stardom.

[The following is from my notes at the screening so I may have not noted all the shots].

Opening on a close up of a plough, a mid-shot shows the two women with the plough and the farm horse. A dissolve leads to close ups of  the plough, a wheel, a mirror and then a mid-shot of the motor car to which they belong. A track follows a young blonde woman (Roberte) as she runs to greet mother and daughter. A further reverse track shows the three women, with the horse, returning to the farmhouse.

A dissolve shows us the interior and soup on the stove. A reverse track fills out the room and the family dog. A skilful pan shows Roberte with Ludivine as they remove their wet stockings. There is a cut to a long shot of the room and the women framed through the old fashioned fire place. Another dissolve takes us to Ludivine’s bedroom where the girls change in shadows. A dolly follows as both girls sit together on the bed. A pan follows Roberte as she demonstrates a theatrical walk moving from the bed to the window. A further pan moves us back to Ludivine as he then copies Roberte’s walk. [A tolling bell sounds in the distance]. The camera tilts up the wall to a picture of Angels. A cut moves from Roberte [to the accompaniment of music including drums on the soundtrack) to the exterior of Folie Bergeres. A further cuts takes us backs stage to where a dance troupe is preparing for an act. A combined track and crane shot travels around backstage as we see various theatrical individuals and then climb up towards the back stage dressing rooms. Thus Ludivine arrives in the world of the music hall.

There are several equally stylish sequences in the film, mainly set in the back state of the theatre as we see the working lives of the thespians. At one point a complete 360% camera movement presents the whole of the set of one of the revue numbers. And there are a number of beautifully executed track and crane shots. The style embellishes the film beyond its often conventional narrative.

The characters are familiar from other dramas set in music halls and back stage. Barriau as ‘Divine’ is impressive and provides a strong centre to the film. The plotting exhibits the qualities often associated with the writings of Collette. Much time is spent in the dressing rooms of the chorus where there are frequently scantily clad females. There are explicit suggestions of the sexual merry-go-round back stage. And there is a central theme about drug taking in the theatre. In contrast the film’s closure is marked by the wedding of ‘Ludivine and Antonin, however, as is noted in the Catalogue;

Divine concludes with an extremely ambiguous happy-ending that highlights the understanding that existed between screenwriter and director. Collette and Ophūls both conceive of the union of man and woman as a loss. Neither see marriage as a real solution. The director underlines this visually by placing the final nuptials behind a grate, …”

All together it makes for a memorable 74 minutes. The original release ran at 82 minutes, but whatever is missing did not seem noticeable. The 35mm print was reasonably good: the film was restored from the original nitrate in 1997.  The soundtrack, from the mid-1930s,  was tinny at times but pretty good for the period. .

Posted in auteurs, French film, Literature on Film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Florence Foster Jenkins 1868 to 1944

Posted by keith1942 on May 19, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

This New York character has been presented in several theatrical plays. Currently she is the subject of two films: one, Marguerite, using her story in a different period and setting and the other, Florence Foster Jenkins, translating the later recorded years of her life to the screen with a few embellishments. I saw the French film first, which gave it an advantage. But having now seen both I think it is the better film, if the less accurate biopic.

Given the advance publicity and trailers for the two films it is not a plot give-away to note that Jenkin’s fame or notoriety stemmed from her being an amateur performer who was often labelled the ‘worse singer in the world’. In a detailed biography Wikipedia notes that she

“was an American socialite and amateur operatic soprano who was known and ridiculed for her lack of rhythm, pitch, and tone, her aberrant pronunciation, and her generally poor singing ability.”

As is apparent in the films she became an object of fun for many people who heard her performances, usually private, but in her final year public, at the noted New York Carnegie Hall. The films fill out these in rather different ways and there will be plot spoilers below.

Catherine Frot

Catherine Frot

Marguerite is set in 1920s France and stars Catherine Frot in the title role, a performance that won her a César as Best Actress. This was deserved award. Frot imbues the role with plausibility but also achieves a deluded sincerity that is likely to win audience sympathy, despite her musical histrionics. André Marcon is also excellent as the loving but embarrassed husband. In a neat French twist, whilst he sincerely cares for Marguerite he also has a regular mistress. One of the qualities of the film is the way that it fills out French upper-class society in which Marguerite and her husband move. The accompanying aspect is the way that we also enter the world of professional music and musical criticism. Here we have three very good performances by Sylvain Dieuaide as Lucian Beaumont, a journalist: Aubert Fenoy as Kyrill Von Priest, who has touches of the Dada movement about him: and Christa Théret as Hazel Klein, a professional singer who develops a romantic relationship with Lucien. This trio help fill out the context of period and place but also qualify the responses to Marguerite’s performances.

The film also has a villain in the person of her butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga). He keeps a photographic record of Marguerite, which we  realise late in the film is his passport to financial rewards. The fact that he is the only notable black character in the film left me ambivalent.

The film was written and directed by Xavier Giannoli. I saw his earlier film The Singer / Quand j’étais chanteur (2006) . There is a thematic connection here but I think Marguerite is the better realised project. It is ably served by the cinematography by Glynn Speeckaert  and production design by Martin Kurel.

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Florence Foster Jenkins is set in 1940s New York and presents the final year or so of the title character. She is played here by Meryl Streep with Hugh Grant playing her ‘common law husband’ St Clair Bayfield. The pair are very good and play the characters fairly sympathetically but I did not feel that they generated that much sympathy for either character. I think this partly down to casting. Meryl Streep is a fine actor but she is also rather technical. I can admire her performance but I am also conscious that it is a performance. Whilst Hugh Grant is associated with fairly light characters and Bayfield appears of this order. The French actors tended to let you forget they were performing much of the time. I never quite felt this in this version. And there is the effect of star casting. The most poorly judged instance of this was Hugh Grant being given a brief party spot where he performs the jitterbug. This seemed to have little to do with the plot. And whilst there is also a mistress in this film it is all rather seemly and even a little coy.

But I think the main factor is the script, which, of course, positions and limits the actors. This was written by Nicholas Martin. His writing career started with travel pieces. He studied at the UK’s National Film and Television School. He then wrote for Television, the only series he has contributed to that I have seen is Midsummer Murders. This is his first feature film script to be produced. I always thought Midsummer Murders was rather light compared with my favourite Inspector Morse. And I feel the same about this film. It seems to aim for a ‘feel-good’ air. The French film is definitely melodrama.

The script does include the information that Jenkins suffered from syphilis, caught from her first husband. But this serious note is not really developed and its function in the plot seemed mainly to explain [again with good taste] that Bayfield and Jenkins relationship is not sexual. I also thought the dialogue presents them as formally married, not as a common law relationship. There is no real villain. We do meet Agnes (Nina Arlanda) who laughs louder than anyone at a Jenkins performance. But then, at Carnegie Hall, it is Agnes who silences the laughter and enables Florence to feel she is a success. The music critics are cyphers, either suborned by Bayfield or in one solitary case reacting critically.

The director of this latter film is Stephen Frears. He is what is described as a metteur en scène: I use the term descriptively not evaluatively. His films are very much constructed in co-cooperation with the production team, especially the writer. At its best we get a landmark film like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). But here I felt that Frears presented rather than transformed the material. In fact, the best bits for me were the scenes where we watch exciting visual compositions, notably the final Carnegie Hall concert. Presumably Frears making good use of  the cinematography by  Danny Cohen  the and Production Design by  Alan MacDonald. The film creates New York from UK locations and there is some good CGI work, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Both projects appear to have started off in 2014. Presumably at some point each production became aware of the other, especially as there is French funding in both productions. The French film was released in September 2015 whereas the British film only came out in April 2016. The French film was presented at several festivals, starting in Venice. The British film only had one Festival appearance, in Belfast. In Britain there has been different certification. Florence Foster Jenkins has a PG, despite the reference to syphilis. Marguerite has a 15 Certificate, all those French innuendos. Outside of France Florence Foster Jenkins is doing better box office. In the UK it has already taken well over twenty times the amount achieved by Marguerite. Of course, the contemporary market here [and in many other territories] is skewed against the foreign language film.

The films are fairly different in all sorts of ways. However, both use imagery from the life of the actual Jenkins. The notable example being a costume with angels’ wings that she used for her public performance. Both use original scoring and operatic extracts, though Marguerite uses them more extensively. The character of Hazel enables some fine [as opposed to less fine] singing. The public performance is the climax in each film. And both essay to achieve a moment of catharsis. In Marguerite this is a moment of seeming magic, which just about convinces. In Florence Foster Jenkins it is the efforts of Agnes, which also works, partly due to the performance. And both films end with the impact of reality: tragic in Marguerite but more feel-good in Florence Foster Jenkins.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) UK/France.

Marguerite (2015) France / Czech Republic / Belgium.

Posted in British film stars, British films, French film, UK filmmakers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Commune La Commune, France 1999.

Posted by keith1942 on December 9, 2014

Commune

 

 

 

 

 

Black and white, 345 minutes: directed and scripted by Peter Watkins.

Sight & Sound ’s annual ‘top twenty for the year’ is not exactly a compelling recommendation – how did The Wolf of Wall Street make it in. As is often the case, individual listings are more interesting. Kim Newman included this film in his recommendations, noting that it came out in 2000 but that he had only just seen it.

Watkins is probably best known for the BBC’s vérité-style historical reconstructions, Culloden (1964), and the famously banned The War Game (1964). Since falling foul of the establishment for both the style and content of his films, Watkins has worked mainly abroad. The Commune, his ninth and possibly last film, was shot in Paris. It recreates that overlooked but seminal event, the uprising of the Parisian proletarians in 1871. This was the first truly revolutionary outburst of the new Socialist movement that included both Marx and the Anarchists Proudhon and Blanqui. Watkins recruited a cast from the areas of Paris where the Commune occurred and from migrant Communities such as Africans. Such an approach mirrors the internationalism of the original Commune. The film was shot on 16mm in a  hot-house production process lasting only 13 days. This has contributed to the dynamic and passionate immediacy of the performances. The film includes TV-style reportage, documentary and vérité techniques and docu-drama reconstructions. These are structured by use of reflexive and analytical inserts, e.g. the Commune is presented in the film by two journalists who both talk on-camera and interview participants. This device replays the techniques Watkins developed in his first film Culloden. The final film is committed, compelling and [I believe] likely to become a seminal work in the field. But it will be difficult to see. Watkins struggled to find media support and resources for the project. It has had a single screening in Paris and a single outing on a French Television channel. A London Film Festival screening was on video as they had not been able to strike a celluloid distribution print. It is a sad reflection on the censorship of the market that it is going to be so difficult actually to see this masterpiece. For London viewers there was a screening planned at the French Institute early in 2001. It has not appeared on television as far as I know but is now available on DVD. I would suggest that, like other great but demanding documentaries, Shoah, The Sorrow and the Pity, …, it is essential viewing. Watkins’ final film, like the best of his earlier work, demonstrates how the innovations of Vérité, when sited within an analytical and committed standpoint, can offer a distinctive and enthralling take on our world, past and present.

 

 

 

 

Posted in French film, Movies with messages, Political film, UK filmmakers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Jean Cocteau and Surrealism.

Posted by keith1942 on October 24, 2014

Cinelists- Orphee- Jean Cocteau (32)

Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée offers number characteristics, which reflect his interest in the artistic work of the Surrealists. The film is variation on the classical myth of Orphée who follows his dead wife into Hades. He is able to return with her to the world above, but with the strict instruction that he should not look back at his wife as she follows. He breaks the commandment and both are lost. In Cocteau’s version we have a successful post-war poet who apparently loves his wife but also develops a passion for a mysterious woman – who turns out to be the messenger of death.

The film opens in a Café des Poets, which is presented as a venue of existential youth. A fracas develops and Orphée is taken away by the mysterious woman, along with an injured younger poet. She takes the young poet across a threshold [a mirror] into the world of death. Orphée is literally haunted by an aide of the woman. His wife’s death is in an accident and she is also taken into the underworld. As in the myth Orphée follows and returns with his wife. The prohibition about looking at his wife carries over into the world above. Its breach returns Orphée to the underworld. Here, in a change from the myth, the mysterious woman wills her own destruction and Orphée returns to the upper world and his wife. But he carries with him the mark of death, seen by Cocteau as a compulsion necessary to his poetic work.

The only poems in the film are a series of mysterious messages over the radio, which Orphée copies. It transpires that the dead younger poet has written these. It has been suggested that these are a sort of veiled reference the cryptic messages heard over the radio in wartime France directed to the French resistance. This seems to tie into the events in the café. An informer calls the police who break-up a fracas. But the leather and black suited motorcycle riders turn up as well. It does conjure up the atmosphere of wartime occupied France, with the indigenous police but the all –powerful German Gestapo.

The most powerful sequences in the film are the visits to the underworld. Here Cocteau uses slow motion and an almost apocalyptic landscape to suggest this threatening underworld. The judges of Hades seem excessively bureaucratic and there is a ghostly sense again of wartime France and of Vichy.

In addition to those on our list there are some important characteristics associated with Surrealism, which are also found in Jean Cocteau’s films.

Mirrors offer reflections. As a mirror reverses the character or object reflected they are not necessarily reliable. Mirrors frequently turn up in film noir and can suggest the deceitfulness of the femme fatale: especially when she is seen in more than one. Orson Welles features a bravura sequence in a hall of mirrors at the end of The Lady from Shanghai (1947), emphasising both deception and the way characters misread events.

In psychoanalysis the mirror is associated with identity. One Freudian theorist [Jacques Lacan] identifies a ‘mirror stage’ in the young child when s/he comes to understand what is meant when the mother says ‘that’s you’. Magritte’s painting The False Mirror emphasises the surrealist view that the ‘closed’ or ‘inner ‘ eye was a truer guide to life and feeling.

And in traditional stories mirrors are often portals to another world. A favoured literary work of the surrealists was Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, including Alice Through the Looking Glass. All these three meanings can be discerned in Orphée, but especially the latter two.

Amour fou – mad love. Surrealists privileged love that broke beyond the boundaries of conventional behaviour, overcoming restrictions, even death. Thus another favourite novel for them was Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights [Filmed by Buñuel as Abismos de Pasión, 1953], which powerfully dramatises the love of Cathy and Heathcliff beyond the grave. Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or is also focused on the ‘mad love’ of the two protagonists. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is a classical expression of a similar passion. The desire to overcome death, both in terms of love and in terms of artistic fulfilment, is a central theme in Cocteau’s work.

Transference is a term used in psychoanalysis. ‘the redirection of attitudes and emotions towards a substitute’. This offers possible explanation of some of the plotting in Un Chien Andalu. And it also offers a possible interpretation for the ending that Cocteau adds in his version of the Orpheus legend.

Where Cocteau’s film differs markedly from the official surrealist films is their response to authority or the establishment. Dali proclaimed in 1929 ‘Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.’ The surrealist placed great emphasis on the ‘act’. So Buñuel at various time wondered if he should destroy his early films, they having achieved their effect. Cocteau clearly places more importance on preserving his work and its impact of later audiences. And he clearly was an establishment person who enjoyed critical success.

In post-war France the official Surrealist movement was far less influential, though there are individual surrealist artists, both in France and abroad. Surreal becomes an adjective applied to works that possess characteristics now associated with the earlier movement. In particular the word if often applied to art works that have a ‘dreamlike quality’, A famous example would be the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (USA 1945). The film does involve psychoanalysis in the plot, but the dream sequence is as much about solving the murder of the film as it is about an analysis of  the hero, played by Gregory Peck.

NB The English language version of Orphée is seventeen minutes shorter than the French original: but I have not been able to find out what is missing.

This piece was written for a session at the National Media Museum on the film.

 

Posted in French film | Leave a Comment »

Foxfire (France, Canada, Spain 2012).

Posted by keith1942 on November 18, 2013

foxfire

This is the new film by Laurent Cantet {who directed The Class, 2008). He obviously is interested in youth films and is very effective with young and less experienced casts. The film is set in upstate New York in the 1950s. Foxfire is the name chosen by an all-female ‘gang’. This is an adaptation of the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, foxfire confessions of a girl gang (1993). I was so interested by the film that I read the book, the first time I had come across the author. She is apparently a popular writer in the USA and has a high reputation. The film follows the book fairly closely.

The tale is told by Madeleine (Maddy) Wirtz (Katie Cosent) years after the actual events. In both the book and the film Maddy warns the reader / viewer that the telling is based on her record at the time, but may also include mis-rememberings and downright lies. Maddy’s record is a history of the gang, but also a study of the characters in the gang and, most particularly, a treasure of memories of the leader, Margaret Ann Sadovsky (‘Legs’ – Raven Adamson).

The film opens with a rape sequence, which is important in terms of the motivations of this group of teenage girls. Then, after credits, we see another girl climb up and knock on the window – Maddy’s window. At least one review suggested that Legs has entered town and her arrival sparks the girl’s gang. Actually, Legs is already established: she had been sent away to her grandmother and has now returned.

The genesis of the gang is a reaction against a bullying teacher at the school that all the five founder members attend: Legs, Maddy, Goldie (Claire Mazerolle), Lana (Paige Moyles) and Rita (Madeleine Bisson). They are given their own distinctive personalities. Legs is the charismatic leader, Maddy the gang scribe, Goldie is a tomboy, Lana voluptuous, and Rita the girl who is picked on. There is also a German Shepherd, Toby, another victim of male violence. From an initial prank to punish the teacher, Foxfire’s actions develop to punish those who oppress – especially men.

There is not what might be called a gang ideology. But Legs is strongly influenced by an ex-priest and socialist (Father Theriault – Gary Reineke), now down and out, whom she meets and talks to in a local park. From him she develops a rather incoherent amalgam of proletarian and religious rhetoric.

There is a car sequence that occurs [rather differently] twice in the film. In the first instance we witness a joy ride that ends badly but not tragically by an old covered bridge. This leads to institutional justice and Legs’ incarceration in a reformatory. Following a long spell in prison Legs returns, apparently reformed but more driven than ever. The now larger gang rent an old and dilapidated building out of town and set up what attempt to be a commune. Their actions become more direct and targeted: and targeted at men who increasingly seem to represent the enemy.

Their situation and the campaign against sexual oppression develop to a serious criminal act with tragic consequences. At this point the second car sequence occurs, ending by the old bridge but badly. Foxfire comes to an end, Legs dies or disappears and Maddy keeps the notebook until years later when she inscribes their story.

The development of the girl group and their crude campaign is fascinating. And Cantet’s direction and the cast’s performances are excellent. Whilst certain part of the plot are unlikely the film remains convincing.

Intriguingly there are two important sequences in the book, which do not appear in the film. One is a house of serial gangbangs observed by Legs. This chapter reads disturbingly and I can understand it is not being in the film. It would certainly be disturbing and would have certainly raised the certificate from 15 to 18. However, it is important in motivating Leg’s more extreme behaviour in the second part of the story. Presumably the move of the rape to act as an opening sequence is a substitute.

The absence of other sequence is more puzzling. This is when Legs climbs a large water tower: a site where young men have tested their virility and physical powers but failed to reach the top. Legs, of course, is successful. This struck me as potentially an extremely cinematic sequence. It also highlights a side of Legs’ character and her hold over the rest of the gang.

The film does not end with the final part of Maddy’s record. Some years after the demise of the gang she sees a photograph – a woman who could be Legs alongside Fidel Castro in Cuba. At least one viewer found this finale implausible. However, it is in the original novel. It struck me as poetic. Cuban liberation [like the defeat in Vietnam] is something that the US establishment cannot accept. This casts a retrospective light on Legs. The British equivalent would be a British character who decamps to the side of the Argentineans in the Malvinas. The Sight & Sound review struck me as rather moralistic about the later exploits of Foxfire in the film and characterised the post-penal Legs as a bully. It added “there is something depressing about the inevitability of the downhill slide from idealism to criminality..”. The review also characterises Legs as ‘imbibing communist ideas’, a serious misnomer. This is not my sense of the book or the film, though the elisions in the film do weaken aspect of the tale. Legs’ rebellion is unformed and tends to incoherence. Moreover there are quite disparate values within the group, highlighted when Legs fails to persuade the group to accept an Afro-American member. But she and her comrades are fighting actual exploitative and oppressive treatment, and these are directly depicted in the film. This would seem to explain why Cantet and his fellow screenwriter Robin Campillo open the film in the way that they do. And, of course, the retention in the film of the Cuban/Castro photograph suggests a radical strand which outlasts the life of Foxfire itself.

I would recommend both the book and the film to potential readers and viewers.

Posted in French film, Literature on Film, Movies with messages, Political film | Leave a Comment »

La Maladie Blanche / The White Illness [or disease]

Posted by keith1942 on May 5, 2012

France 2011, Christelle Lhereux, 43 minutes, black and white and colour.

Shown in the New Features at Bradford International Film Festival.

This is an intriguing and visually splendid film. It was screened from HDCam. I did not spot what format the film was actually shot on: and have not found a source yet with that information. It is visually very distinctive: it reminded me of some of the odd formats that Michael Almereyda used in the New York ‘Indie’ scene.

The film is a variation or –re-interpretation of Beauty and the Beast: at one point we se a father reading the book at bedtime to his daughter. This is Myrtle, a little girl who wakes to discover a wandering wild boar, which she follows into the woods and to a cave. The cave also features primitive wall drawings of wild life, including a wild boar. The father, discovering his daughter’s absence, follows, with his gun loaded and ready.

Clearly the film’s narrative is full of symbolism, mainly I would guess to what is generally referred to as ‘patriarchy’. The Festival Catalogue mentions both Jean Cocteau and Apichatpong Weerasethakul as influences. And the director has developed a reputation in the field of video installations. One can discern all three stands in this half-length feature.

Apart from the ambiguous resonance in the plot the film offers an observational pleasure. The village in which father and daughter live is hosting a festivity. And in the early part of the film we constantly return to observe the children, the passing back and forth in the street and a bar, and an outdoor disco where the teenagers mix and socialise.

The Catalogue describes the film as a ’magical, monochrome, moonlit reverie’, an apt description. It is somewhat delicate but very graceful. It is also offers a substantial fairy tale.

Posted in Festivals, French film | Leave a Comment »

Le Passage

Posted by keith1942 on May 1, 2012

 

France 2011 1.66:1 in colour and Panavision.

Director Fabien Montagner.

This is a ghost story, beautifully filmed. It is set on October 29th 1989, [I rather suspect the date is significant]. An elderly man sets the table in an old-fashioned dining room. He calls upstairs where young woman reclines reading and listening to her MP3 player. It is only the barking of the family collie that makes her aware of mealtime.

The first course is soup. The grandfather remembers that it was a favourite of the girl’s grandmother, and remarks that she is very like her. It becomes clear that there is an absent father and that the young woman resents the situation.

Abruptly she volunteers to take the dog, Max, for a walk. He soon runs off and she chases him in to a disused rail siding. An old man [possibly Jewish] appears and points to a disused carriage where Max is presumably chasing rabbits. The carriage is full of cobwebs and detritus. The girl emerges on the far side in a parallel to the way that opens Lewes Carroll’s classic Alice. She enters a wood where the past and the present intertwine. The past is set during the war time occupation and one other character that she meets in the past is [inevitably] her grandmother.

After this ghostly adventure the girl returns home with Max to find an open photo album and a photograph of the dead grandmother. The film ends with an embrace between grandfather and granddaughter.

The closure of the film is not really a surprise but the evocation of the past is beautifully done. The wood changes from dappled sunshine to a more threatening misty and damp territory. The wide screen camera catches the changing hues and colours in the contrasting settings. The music varies from low cellos and vibraphone too much higher violin and a piano. And the bird songs change from chirppy twitters to more threatening squawks. The whole 18 minutes is absorbing and remarkably effective. The cast, including Totem as Max, performs very well.

One totally separate pleasure was the opening credits of the production Datasat, which is a brief but delightful pastiche of Spielberg’s Close Encounters.

Posted in Festivals, French film, Short films | 1 Comment »

Free Men / Les hommes libres

Posted by keith1942 on April 30, 2012

 

Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit with German visitor at the Mosque

 

France 2011. In colour, 2.35:1. 99 minutes.

Director: Ismaël Ferroukhi. Written by Alain-Michel Blanc and Ferroukhi.

 

The film was screened in the European Features Competition at the Bradford International Film Festival. It immediately offers all sort of associations. This is only the director’s second feature: his first in 2004 was the fine Le grand voyage. That film recounted the developing relationship between a Moroccan-French father and son making the Hadj or pilgrimage to Mecca. One of its pleasures was how the film handled the complexities of the contradictions between modern life in urban Europe and the older values of Islam and North African societies. This film also deals with the experiences of North African migrants to France, though it is a period story with a far more complex narrative.

The film is set during World War II. It is 1942, the years of the German occupation and the historic collaboration of Vichy: and the story is based on actual people and events. Here the film crosses over with those of Rachid Bouchareb [Days of Glory / Indigènes 2007 and Outside the Law / Hors-la-loi, 2010]. However, Ferroukhi appears less concerned with the political aspects and devotes more attention to the cultural. The use of North African music is one of the really effective aspects of this film. The protagonist Younes is fictional, and here played by Tahar Rahim. He also brings strong associations from his role in the equally fine A Prophet [Jacques Audiard, Un prophète 2010].

The basic plot is that Younes lives by dealing in black market produce. Caught by the police he is forced to turn informer and spy on the local mosque. Here the leader Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale) appears to enjoy cordial relations with the occupying German authorities. They use him as a conduit for their attempts to influence governments in the Middle East. Meanwhile the police suspect that the Imam at the Mosque is assisting Jewish people with fake identities.

Younes’ position becomes more and more contradictory. He discovers his cousin Ali (Farbid Larbi) is involved in the French Resistance. He strikes up a friendship with a singer Salim ((Mahmud Shalaby), who is possibly both Jewish and homosexual. And he develops an interest in woman living [like many] at the Mosque, Leila (Lubna Azabal).

 

Younes and Salim

 

In the plotting Free Men has further similarities to Outside the Law in the way that it uses generic setting and sequences to develop and heighten the excitement of the story. However, whilst Bouchareb’s film opens up the political world of the period, Ferroukhi focuses on the cultural. There are splendid sequences in an Adalusian Club where Salim, an exceptional singer, performs. However, this is not merely entertainment: in one scene he improvises as he sings about the Operation Torch: the allied landings that will drive the Axis from North Africa.

This is another parallel between the two filmmakers as both shed light upon areas and events that has suffered from a historical silence in France. Like Bouchareb, Ferroukhi’s film reminds us that the North Africans fought alongside France with expectations of post-war Freedom. An expectation cruelly denied by an invigorated French neo-colonialism. The film also addresses another set of silences, the collaboration with the Holocaust in France: again, an area which has finally been addressed on film in recent years.

The production values of the film are very good and rather different from Ferroukhi’s earlier Le grand voyage. This is a larger and more expensive production. However, the style is also markedly different, the voyage to the Hadj was presented in a low-key, very personalised manner. Free Men is both larger and grander. I wondered how much of this was due to the collaborators on the film. The cinematography was by Jérôme Alméraz. He is an experienced lighting cameraman, though I have only seen a couple of his films. One was I’ve Loved You so Long (II y a longtemps que je t’aime, 2008) where the filming and use of colour beautifully enchanced the drama of two sisters freeing themselves from the past. There are great visual sequences in this film: apart from the scenes in the clubs there is a memorable travelling shot as Ali and Younes light their way along an underground tunnel. And there are atmospheric sequences on the banks of the Seine.

The editing by Annette Dulertre is also accomplished. At times overlapping sound pulls the characters and the viewer forward into the developing drama. At other times straight cuts change the tempo and raise the dramatic presentation. The music includes a number of traditional North African songs and also a fine score by Amar Amand. If you have developed a taste for North African poetry and music, this is one of the delights of the film, with some exceptionally fine singing. Not all the songs are translated in the subtitles, unfortunately a not uncommon presentation for foreign language films.

As in Le grand voyage, Ferroukhi makes good use of the protagonist’s relationship to the settings. And he fills out the narrative with minor characters whose presence resonates in the story. One is the beggar seen outside the Mosque and reciting passages from the Koran. The whole narrative and presentation makes for a fine, absorbing and dramatic film.

Posted in Festivals, French film | Leave a Comment »

Playtime

Posted by keith1942 on September 24, 2010

France 1968. Filmed in Eastmancolor and 70 mm.

This was a feature that grew out of all proportion. The filming alone took two years. Tati had a special site constructed for the film [nicknamed Tativille]. The finances had to be re-arranged during the production. And when finally released the original running time of 155 minutes was cut to two hours, and even shorter in some versions.

In terms of plot the film opens where Mon Oncle left off, in an airport. It takes a little time for Hulot to appear, and part of the focus of the film is a tour of US women tourists, seeing Paris. Hulot path crosses with the women from time to time and then finally all are engaged in a long sequence in a new restaurant, the Royal Garden.

Before this Tati presents a series of modernist venues alike in their regimentation and soullessness. In most of these Hulot is less a disruptive presence than an onlooker non-plussed by the operation of the establishments. In fact, it is the design of the buildings themselves that appears to invite misadventure. Characters are lost in the space of the Airport: boxed in the cubicles at the office building: and bemused by the commercial stalls and their products in the shopping mall.

This is gentle satire, but satire nevertheless: most starkly in sequence where Hulot visits an old friend who lives in one of a number of identical modern flats. The inhabitants are presented as if in goldfish bowls, and appear to follow uniform behaviour patterns. The sense of unthinking conformism that is conjured up is actually a scathing comment on the modern setting and the people who live there.

There is a parallel feel in the sequence in which the Royal Garden Restaurant descends into chaos. Hulot creates a small island community in the centre of this debacle. Yet the majority of the customers continue on the dance floor and at their tables. Indeed they are joined by new customers entering the restaurant, all seemingly blithely indifferent to this little world falling apart.

The film lacks the contrast between this sterile world and any alternative found in the earlier films. The film is set in a Paris that seems uniformly modern and dominated by technology. The closest the characters [and the viewers] come to a more traditional city in is the reflection of key monuments in windows or glass doors: in this way we glimpse the Eiffel Tower, Sacré-Cœur and Arc de Triomphe. This would seem to indicate a far more pessimistic view of the times than that found in the 1950s Hulot comedies.

Stylistically the film develops Tati established preferences to an even greater degree. The emphasis is on the long shot and the mid-shot, rarely do we get up close to characters. The film is also dominated by the long take, and this observational feel is accentuated by the combined use of deep focus and deep staging. In fact, if watching the 70mm print one finds it quite difficult to keep track of the varied characters and movements that are taking place on the screen.

Tati approach clearly fits with Andre Bazin’s stated preference for allowing the viewer to scan the image and select points of interest. It also makes the film feel distinctly modernist in the distance it creates between onscreen and the audience. The latter aspect is made stronger by the lack of a clear plot direction. We find ourselves studying a series of defined places over a defined time space. But it feels more like we have dropped into observe rather than to enjoy a dramatic development and resolution. To this is added Tati’s distinctive use of sound, with dialogue frequently relatively unimportant and the surrounding sound-scape contributing more to the scene we watch. During the sequence in the flats we are denied the dialogue that is taking place inside and listen instead to the street and traffic sound outside the apartments.

Playtime would seem to be the fullest development of a pessimistic side to Tati’s satire. The fashionable modern, the over-reliance on technological gimmicks, and the restrictions on individualist behaviour: these appear to have won out over the traditional, the eccentric and the communal. Of course, both sides of this opposition are presented in partial representations, but satire is never even-handed.

A 70mm restoration was made in 2002, running for 150 minutes. I was screened at the Cinema Ritrovato in 2004.

Posted in auteurs, Comedy, French film | Leave a Comment »