30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 30: LA JALOUSIE (2013)

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 Day 30: LA JALOUSIE (JEALOUSY) (Philippe Garrel, France, 2013)

There’s a density to the images of a Philippe Garrel film that I’m increasingly convinced are exceptional to the medium; rarely fussy or even overtly composed, typically it’s just actors talking and interacting in a series of underfurnished interior rooms connected by transitory public spaces like streets and parks. And yet, somehow, each moment seems imbued with a kind of mythic aura I tend to associate more with Greek tragedy than the cinema. La jalousie replays a story of triangulated romantic complications of the type Garrel explores in many of his films, with the autobiographical overtones taking on additional layers of meaning with the casting of his son, Louis, as his stand-in (his daughter, Esther, has a major role as Louis’s character’s brother—so many layers of familial implication braided into this film!).

The magnificent Anna Mouglalis, who I think has definitely confirmed her place as my favorite contemporary French actress (sorry Isabelle and Juliette), is the world-weary actress Louis leaves his wife for in the film’s opening sequence, and just as one assumes they know what kind of “jealously” the title refers to yet another subtle variation surfaces, and by the end it’s clear a whole typography of jealous impulses—romantic, familial, professional, etc—have been delicately excavated and examined. And none of this conveys that immense beauty of the images themselves, the work of Willy Kurant (who lensed for Varda, Godard, Robbe-Grillet, Marker, Gainsbourg and others in the sixties and seventies). The oversaturated black and white suspends 2010’s Paris in a space beyond the trappings of any specific year (it feels like 1963 just as much as 2013). In the most condensed of running times—this one clocks in at a characteristically succinct 77 minutes—Garrel is able to articulate and convey more than most films twice as long.

[Watch La jalousie on Fandor here.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 23: LA CAPTIVE (2000)

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Day 23: LA CAPTIVE (Chantal Akerman, France/Belgium, 2000)

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of Chantal Akerman’s untimely passing; it only seemed appropriate to salute the memory of the great filmmaker by watching one of her films. La Captive often comes up in discussion of great literary adaptations—it’s based on Proust’s La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time—but sadly I can’t speak personally to that aspect of the film; no matter, as there are so many other embedded layers worthy of analysis. This is one of the great films on the act of watching, with much of the running time devoted to observing one man’s obsessive surveillance of a striking young woman; the exact nature of their relationship is one of the film’s central enigmas that is never quite resolved nor fully explained. Simon (Stanislas Merhar) stalks through art galleries, into hotels, and follows in his car to silently pursue Ariane (Sylvie Testud) as Rachmaninov’s brooding—and referentially resonant—symphonic poem “Isle of the Dead” throbs Herrmann-like on the soundtrack, revealing Vertigo to be just as significant a point of reference as Proust. The second half of La Captive abandons a sense of Hitchcockian mystery, however, opting instead to dramatize Simon’s increasingly frantic quest to understand the very nature of desire—and specifically the complex desires concealed by Ariane’s impassive face and vague but unfailingly acquiescent answers to his distressed questions.

The pieces finally beginning to fall into place for both Simon and the viewer after he witnesses Ariane engaging a female neighbor in an impromptu rendition of a duet from Mozart’s Così fan tutte from their opposite courtyard balconies, and it feels just as incriminating as if he had stumbled across the objection of his affection in flagrante delicto (Melissa Anderson has characterized it as the most erotic scene of the film, and I unhesitatingly agree). Increasingly desperate, he pays a night visit to a young female couple played by Bérénice Bejo and Anna Mouglalis—how lovely to suddenly have two of my favorite French actresses suddenly, unexpectedly materialize together in the middle of a film!—who try to answer his questions on female sexuality, lesbian relationships, and emotional connection, but like two sibyls they can ultimately offer only further riddles. Not quite as austere as the towering Jeanne Dielman and some of her other films, La Captive displays the characteristic visual and technical rigor of Akerman’s signature minimalist, objective style—immaculately arranged mise-en-scène, an exquisite perception of space and to the passage of time, an incredibly precise attunement to the aural possibilities of cinema, an awareness of life’s unabashed weirdness—balanced by the gorgeous, quietly sumptuous cinematography of the great Sabine Lancelin (this is the second film lensed by her I’ve seen this last week—and both are two of the most visually magnificent films I’ve seen for this project). I’ve really only scratched the surface of Akerman’s oeuvre at this point; this undoubtedly is a situation that needs to change immediately.

[Watch La Captive on Fandor here.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 22: JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (1988)

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Day 22: JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. (Agnès Varda, France, 1988)

“When you show it all you reveal very little.” So pronounces Jane Birkin as she sits perched on the steps of the Palais de Chaillot, the Eiffel Tower just behind her, the contents of an iconic Birkin bag strewn around her. And much like the jumble of paper, photos, and other ephemera strewn about Birkin’s feet, Varda’s image creates a striking moment of converging symbols—involving stardom, identity, nationality, race, social status, cultural currency, and material privilege—that she mingles together, briefly allowing us to savor their evocative juxtaposition in a single frame. For definite meaning, as is usually the case with Varda, proves elusive, left open for expansive consideration and interpretation. Birkin herself is a fascinating phenomenon—a model whose distinctive image epitomized her generation before transforming herself in a singer, actress, muse, mother, and political activist—and Varda is clearly intrigued by all of these various personas and public perceptions; in that way “Jane B” unexpectedly resonates with Cléo de 5 à 7, continuing and expanding the earlier film’s interest in the performance of identity and the slippery divisions between public and private selves. In many ways “Jane B” is an even more conceptually intricate than the now-classic Nouvelle vague film, with the title’s “par [by] Agnès V” foregrounding not only the filmmaker’s literal presence within the film, but with the acknowledgement that Varda herself is generating yet another “Jane Birkin” (or two or more) to Jane Birkin’s already-expansive collection of selves. But it becomes clear Varda is less interested in locating a “true” or “real” Birkin and is instead eager to enter into a more ambiguous—and potentially fraught—space of active collaboration. “I’m filming your self-portrait” Varda intones near the beginning of the film, “but you won’t be alone.” “I might appear in the mirror in the background” she continues, and then in a beautifully coordinated pan she does exactly that and materializes in the mirror behind Birkin, immediately complicating the stable-seeming concept of “self-portrait” (to say nothing of authorship, subjecthood, the gaze, etc).

Getting so wrapped up in the theoretical intricacies of the film only accounts for one aspect of it, however, and perhaps does a disservice to other, even more immediate pleasures. This is absolutely one of Varda’s most visually gorgeous films—something showcased by its recent restoration—both in regards to her elaborate tableaux vivant as well as location work and the fictional/fantasy sequences. The film also serves as a lovely showcase for Birkin herself, who Varda clearly admires as a unique presence—she’s required to do a lot of acting, and like her singing it can’t exactly be called “good” in a technical sense, yet it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi that makes her just electrifying to watch and listen to. Varda recognizes that Birkin is at her very best whenever she presents simply as herself, talking about her family or her past or her ideas or even her insecurities of undertaking a project such as this. In a way she’s ideally suited for Varda’s cinematic sensibility which is inclined toward the tangential and whimsical and unexpected. I’ve yet to see the women’s other collaboration Kung Fu Master, also long unavailable and recently restored, but I’m more eager than ever to watch it now (it’s also on Fandor!).

[Watch Jane B. par Agnès V. on Fandor here.]

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30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 15: ZOU ZOU (1934)

(Waylaid by a few days of feeling under the weather, but on we go:)

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Day 15 – ZOU ZOU (Marc Allégret, France, 1934)

The iconic Josephine Baker’s first sound film is a star vehicle that appears to shoehorn every known cliché into an already-ragged “a star is born” storyline, but is saved by a certain weirdness underlying the hackneyed plot points—and Baker herself, of course. The Josephine Baker we generally remember today—the “banana dress,” exposed breasts, frenzied dancing, stylized posing—are generally absent here, as by the 1930’s the American-born dancer had transitioned into a chic European superstar, more cosmopolitan grand dame than zany expatriate flapper. The story stars Baker and Jean Gabin playing characters who were raised as twins(!) and whose sibling affection morphs into something more romantic in adulthood(!!) that entangles them in a love triangle with Baker’s coworker and best friend(!!!).

Along the way is the transparent buildup to Baker’s eventual discovery by a local theater revue. Ultimately the pleasure is not in the nonsensical plot, but the individual elements encountered along the way. The casual nudity, as well as the frank discussion of sexual exchange—there is no pretense involved in discussing a number of “kept” individuals of both genders, and a lot of banter about what certain characters are like in bed—is quite startling, and there are interesting glimpses into contemporary working class life. Indeed, I found myself more entranced by the elaborate social and labor rituals displayed by the use of cast irons at the local launderette than I ever was by the gargantuan musical numbers (though those were charming too in their implausible scale and obvious desperation to equivocate Hollywood). This film caught Gabin right before he became a major star himself, which pretty much hands the film over to Baker, whose charmingly goofball performance rather took me by surprise; she seems far more eager to play the clown than the diva or even sex goddess.

But perhaps what’s most interesting, when viewed from today, is Baker’s seemingly uncomplicated status as a sex symbol within the film: tropes of exoticism are certainly at play, but it’s interesting to witness how she traipses through all of these lily-white spaces as a black woman (and obviously so) and no one ever bats an eye… certainly this film should not be taken as a realistic reflection of racial relations in interwar Europe, but it is nonetheless interesting to consider it must have been assumed an audience would accept on some level the possibility of cross-racial romance (the film was a success in Europe, but, tellingly, didn’t make a mark in America). Perhaps one might wish for such a historically important film to add up to a bit more in the end, but it’s all worth it to glimpse a legend in the flesh.

[Watch Zou Zou on Fandor here.]

30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 8: HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO (2009)

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Day 8: L’ENFER D’HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT
(Serge Bromberg & Ruxandra Medrea, France, 2009)

A documentary resurrecting an abandoned film project by Henri-Georges Clouzot, originally envisioned as a stylistic tour-de-force to catapult the “French Hitchcock” back to the forefront of 1960’s French cinema which was then in the throes of all things Nouvelle vague. During his frequent bouts of insomnia Clouzot formulated a story that charts a man’s descent into hallucinatory paranoia over his beautiful wife’s perceived infidelity; the sad irony is that the process of undertaking such an ambitious film ultimately led the director down a similar path, and, already prone to depression, he collapsed on set and filming never resumed. Bromberg and Medrea’s film thus navigates two linked trajectories, reconstructing the unfinished film through surviving footage and script reenactments while simultaneously piecing together the filmmaking process through interviews with original participants as well as the numerous visual experiments that took place before shooting began. To my mind, the footage that Clouzot actually managed to capture is mesmerizing: an extended scene involving Romy Schneider crisscrossing a lake on water skis while in the distance her husband (Serge Reggiani) madly sprints the walled circumference of the lake is a thrilling orchestration of physical space and oppositional movement, but admittedly the real showstoppers are the endless “screen tests” that were undertaken, encompassing everything from costume and makeup evaluations (that blue lipstick!), color checks, lingering closeups of faces and body parts, and an impressive amount of psychedelic optical experiments. But as tantalizing as all this visual material is, the inevitable question must be asked: are all of these image fragments and individual sequences more impressive on their own than they ever could have been when contextualized into an overall narrative structure? The answer, in the end, seems to be an implicit yes, the surviving artifacts evoking a magnificence that reality could not possibly have managed to ever live up to.

[Watch Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno on Fandor here.]

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I waited a long time to see one of the difficult-to-find films directed by French author-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, so I was excited to finally watch La belle captive, the 1983 film adaptation of his own novel by the same name.  A fusion of Robbe-Grillet’s groundbreaking nouveau roman narrative techniques and René Magritte’s paintings (the original novel is illustrated with some 77 paintings by the surrealist master), Robbe-Grillet the director is obviously attempting a visual tone drawn directly from the famed Belgian surrealist―enigmatic, haunting, and vaguely, indefinably disturbing―but unfortunately ends up with a rather silly concoction of metaphysical pronouncements and rather insubstantially airy concoction of archetypal images and figures.  One can sense a desire to tap into a mythic quality in the film’s vampiric ghosts, fetish figures, detective film overtones, erotic interludes, and invocations of sadism, but it all plays like an outlandishly “arty” (and now amusingly dated) Emmanuelle film, almost evoking a soft-core porn parody of Last Year at Marienbad, whose Oscar-nominated screenplay remains Robbe-Grillet’s most enduring and well known cinematic achievement.

That’s not to say that La belle captive is completely without merit.  Considering the character she plays–some kind of mysterious combination of angel, ghost and vampire–the lovely Gabrielle Lazure makes the most of a figure that functions as little more than a male erotic fantasy; leather-clad, motorcycle-riding Cyrielle Clair cuts a striking figure, but is given even less to do than Lazure, and becomes little more than an object of fetishization. belle-captiveThe film’s closed off, artificial atmosphere does manage to conjure up a sense of languid, erotically overheated hypnosis and is the film’s primarily source of merit, though the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream structure eventually become oppressive.  When it comes down to it, I found a lot of words and color and images but very little of the poetry I expected.  A disappointment, though I remain intrigued by Robbe-Grillet’s overall aesthetic project, and remain eager to further explore this iconoclastic figure’s work.