soft-core cinematic art

belle captive banner

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.

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rite(s) of passage

U.S. Go Home (France, 1993), an hour long contribution to the fabled French television series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, was one of the great coups of the Pacific Film Archive’s Claire Denis retrospective, as it has become practically impossible to see (legally), particularly on this side of the Atlantic.  And it really is a shame that it is so completely unavailable–there’s a sweetness and charm to it that doesn’t really appear elsewhere in her work (the possible exception being Vendredi Soir, though that’s of a much more of an adult fantasy).  A wisp of a narrative co-written by Denis and Anne Wiazemsky and featuring Alice Houri and Grégoire Colin as siblings several years before they would do the same in Nénette et Boni, one the surface the film is a rather overfamiliar sexual coming-of-age story set in the 1960’s, but it is elevated by the tenderness of its observation.  There’s a wonderful, extended sequence early on involving Colin, where, alone his bedroom, a despondent feeling of restlessness slowly gives way to a spontaneous, ebullient catharsis as he tentatively begins to dance to a record of The Animals’s rollicking “Hey Gyp.”  Mumbling along with a few English phrases, epileptically keeping time to the beat, it’s the type of private moment usually experienced alone behind locked doors, which makes it all the more remarkable to witness on a screen (also, one can’t help but feel the enigmatic conclusion to Beau Travail starting to germinate here).

The bulk of the film, however, takes place during a boozy, dimly lit house party and the drama takes place in fleeting facial expressions and awkward gestures on an impromptu dance floor in a darkened living room which begins to take on larger mental and emotional dimensions as it becomes a site of initiation into adulthood for Houri in particular.  And while I’m not exactly sure what the exact circumstances are that have has made this film so completely unavailable, it wouldn’t surprise me if the soundtrack, which is chock full of English language music from the period (not just The Animals, but Nico, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Prince Buster, among others), poses substantial rights issues.  Which is unfortunate, because it really is itself an important rite of passage exercise in Denis’s overall filmmaking trajectory; admirable on its own, but even more impressive when considered within the context of her ever-expanding body of work.

out and about in 1960’s paris

In light of Marie-France Pisier’s tragic, unexpected passing last year, we pulled out Antoine et Colette (François Truffaut, 1962), which I had not seen.  It’s a lovely, wryly observed little film, though clearly the emphasis is on Antoine at the expense of the kohl-eyed Colette, who remains an enigma to both Antoine and the viewer.  This is Léaud at his most beautiful but also Antoine at his most unformed, and it was enlightening to see the awkward transition phase the character undergoes between Les quatres cent coup and Baisers vóles.  But if it’s primarily remembered as an essential moment in the Antoine Doinel mythology, it’s also an exquisitely rendered portrait of certain time and place–Paris, early 1960’s–and the spaces both public (theater lobbies), private (the shabby hotel rooms Antoine holes up in) and those suspended somewhere in between (the supremely funny moments around the family dinner table at Colette’s house) that the pre-political, pre-68′ Parisian youth culture inhabited and came of age in.  A wonderful little transitional moment in Truffaut’s career–I’m not sure if any other films exhibit such a low-key, spontaneous charm.

great illusionary delusions

There’s precious little I can say about La grande illusion (Renoir, France, 1936) that hasn’t been said before and likely many times over, so I won’t even try. Like the other Renoir masterpiece Le règle de jeu from a few years later, Illusion is a one of those films perennially at play at the “best ever made” cinephile games; both are films I ended up liking/appreciating more upon reviewings but have yet to genuinely warm up to (this is more or less the case with Renoir in general, unfortunately).

Not that I wasn’t immune to the magisterial depiction of the slow crack-up of the European class system(s) under the weight of the First World War–the film remains the benchmark of how to elegantly delineate the intricate intersections of class status, language, patriotism, illusions (and the inevitable, accompanying disillusions), sacrifice, friendship, and fraternité in a manner that is lucid but never lacks in complexity.  The wary pas de deux between Maréchal and Boleidieu, together lamenting the passing of a centuries-old way of life and their privileged place within it, remain the highlight of the film, so much so that it’s rather impressive Renoir avoided the impulse in making the entire film into some kind of poignant, nostalgic elegy.

But at the same time Renoir also resists turning Jean Gabin (& co.) into idealistic symbols of emerging European populism–even as they trek across shimmering expanses of untrodden snow that seem to beckon a bright new future, it is disquieting how the tensions that occasionally emerge between Gabin (of the French/European working class) and Marcel Dalio (of the prosperous Jewish merchant class) seem to prophetically hint at dark chapters of history soon to unfold.

And while it might be an early depiction of such a situation, from a contemporary standpoint the appearance of haloed Dita Parlo as the shy but sympathetic German hausfrau can’t help but feel a bit like a musty cliché (such was my boyfriend’s criticism), but for me it did end up taking the film to a different dimension of emotional engagement it never quite manages to reach otherwise. Also of note: Rialto’s 75th anniversary restoration is gorgeous–it’s traveling across the country all summer; prioritize it if it’s going to being crossing your path.

[Seen at the Castro Theatre, 06/01/12]

exploring the in-between spaces

I have no idea where such expectations came from, but I’m rather ashamed to admit now that I went into Chocolat (Claire Denis, France/Cameroon, 1988) thinking it was going to be a rather conventional film, a solid if comparatively unexceptional starting point for one of the most interesting directors working today.  And while it admittedly doesn’t quite reach the highest points of her career so far, Chocolat is a debut film of remarkable assurance, and establishes Denis as one of those rare directors whose unmistakable aesthetic appears to have emerged fully formed right from the start.

What is truly remarkable, and what confirms a rather formidable confidence for a first-time director, is how relentlessly distanced the film keeps the viewer from the unfolding narrative–at first this simply seems to be indicative of the limited perspective of childhood, but as the film continues it becomes clear that something more rigorous and exacting is being undertaken: the articulation of a very particular (and extremely nuanced) type of post-colonial perspective where the member of the colonizing class subversively identifies with the colonized subject.

This is exactly what happens to young France (the name serving as a a rather uncharacteristically heavy-handed bit of symbolism), the white French girl whose attachment to her family’s dignified servant (Isaach De Bankolé) ends up superseding any feelings of identification with her parents and the comforts of the bureaucratic class that they so clearly enjoy.  This inevitably creates a precarious situation, as France is never able to fully own her privilege as a member of the colonizing class nor is able to assimilate into the colonized position, and instead becomes suspended in a ghost-like state between these two clashing worlds.

As it turns out, of course, the entirety of Denis’s subsequent oeuvre has operated within this type of “in-between” space, and while the specific locales change, the thoughtful dedication in exploring the instability, vulnerability and (occasional) pleasures and insights these places afford–both of a physical and psychic type–do not.  It is also interesting to note that throughout her career Denis has cinematically returned to Africa with almost an perfect symmetry–Chocolat in 1988, Beau Travail in 1999 and White Material in 2009, itself a fascinating repetition that itself deserves a thoughtful analysis.  I hate to admit that my students almost universally disliked it–“it just didn’t go anywhere” became the common refrain–but nearly all grudgingly had to admit there were moments and sequences of remarkable power and resonance.  And for me, it was a hypnotic film experience.

cries of the heart

A great—and previously unknown to me—achievement of the silent era is Jean Epstein’s La Coeur fidèle (France, 1923), also known as Faithful Heart.  Having recently received a simply awe-inspiring Blu-ray release from Masters of Cinema, the impeccable technical quality of this release spectacularly showcases one of the most visually ravishing and stunningly beautiful silent films I’ve ever encountered.

And for my money, Gina Manès legitimately gives Falconetti a run for her money as the great face of silent cinema, giving a performance that is built and sustained solely through the emotions conveyed through her remarkably expressive eyes.  Otherwise she’s languid to the point of woodeness, though that’s also the case with all of the performances in the film.  Only the performance by Epstein’s sister, who I was shocked to find out is none other than the great unheralded director Marie Epstein, achieves its resonance through any kind of physical action; otherwise this is a film involving turbulent emotions swirling beneath stoic faces and (with the notable exception of the magnificently rendered seascapes) statically rendered, claustrophobic interior spaces.

But if the melodramatic plot is a bit silly and the performances of the type that involve sad-eyed offscreen gazing that sometimes feels endless, La Coeur fidèle is otherwise a directoral tour-de-force, with the intense emotions conjured up through Epstein’s montage editing, juxtaposing beautiful images of churning water, evocatively desolate seaside quays, etc. to slowly build to a shattering and haunting conclusion.  I’m sure this all has to do with Epstein’s own theories of cinema (he was a writer and film theorist before he took up actual filmmaking), of which I hate to admit I’m completely ignorant of at this time.  But I have Fall of the House of Usher (1928) in my possession for viewing, and I’ve been inspired to explore Epstein’s work more fully in the immediate future.

Memories of a Movie:

boarding school erotics: “olivia” and “mädchen in uniform”

This post is a contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, hosted by Garbo Laughs.

During the last few months I have had the opportunity to see two films rather striking in their many similarities.  Both Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan, Germany, 1931) and Olivia (The Pit of Loneliness) (Jacqueline Audry, France, 1951) are films set in the all-female world of exclusive boarding schools and feature emotionally charged teacher/student pairings with unmistakable erotic dimensions.  Also notable is that both are directed by female directors, a rarity in both Germany and France at the time.  And, unfortunately, they have also suffered similar fates: both have been difficult to find on home viewing formats in the United States, as those who have held the American rights to both films have resisted the lesbian element of the films and for many years refused to allow them to be shown in the context of female and/or queer film festivals. Aside from making what are interesting and important films difficult to see, the historical repression of both of these films have the lamentable effect of making the cinematic representation of lesbianism and lesbian desire in the past appear even more marginal than it already does.

 

Of the two films, Mädchen is the more recognizable, remaining a generally well-known film despite being relatively little-seen—no history of queer film is complete without establishing the influence of Sagan’s ground-breaking film.  Helping matters is that it is a cinematic masterpiece and has generally been considered from the very beginning (the film is included, for example, in Lotte Eisner’s seminal The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema).  As such, I will primarily focus the rest of this post on Audry’s Olivia, and use Mädchen as a more well-known point of reference and comparison (for those interested in reading more on the film, I recommend two other posts on the film that have been included in this Blogathon—see them here and here).

I got the opportunity to see Olivia, released in America under the inexplicable title The Pit of Loneliness recently as part of a series hosted by San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the longest running and largest LGBT film festival in the world (it concluded its 35th festival yesterday).  Sponsored by the library system, it featured free screenings of several films from the organization’s archives.  It was, unfortunately, a less-than-ideal circumstance: though Frameline owns a supposedly gorgeous 35mm print of the film that was acquired when it was given a retrospective screening at the festival a number of years ago, what we saw was a DVD dupe made from a VHS dupe of the film, and it did the sumptuous black and white cinematography no favors.  And between the sparse white-on-white subtitles, less-than-ideal audio quality and my elementary grasp on conversational French I’m sure that I missed a number of nuances and subtleties (especially as it’s one of those French chamber pieces where everyone talks and talks and talks…).

That said, a rare screening of a rare film is always something to treasure, and I’ll just hope I get to see the film again someday under more ideal circumstances.  Because what I did see and was able to catch was fascinating, not only in its similarities to Mädchen, which it very much resembles in a very general sense, but in the many differences between the two films.  In some ways the two films could be considered the flipside of the same coin, each serving as a counterpoint of sorts for the other.  It is this dynamic I’d like to tease out in the rest of this post.

As previously mentioned, director Jacqueline Audry is probably the most well-known of the several female directors who made films in France after the heady avant-garde years of the 1920’s and Agnès Varda appeared on the film scene in the late 50’s.  She is most remembered for the three Colette adaptations she directed in the 1940’s and 50’s, particularly the non-musical first version of Gigi (1949).  Though it is commonly assumed that Olivia is also Colette adaptation, as pointed out by queer film historian and Frameline’s curator Jenni Olson, the film is actually an adaptation of a novel by Audry’s sister Colette Audry, a well-known writer in her own right, and the enterprising American distributor simply lopped off the author’s last name to try and capitalize on the director’s previous association with the eminent French Modernist writer (ingenious from a marketing standpoint, but confusing!).  The story, which is believed to have some autobiographical resonances, revolves around the titular character arriving at a French all-girls finishing school run by two elegant headmistresses, Mlle. Julie (played by celebrated French stage actress Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Clara (Simone Simon, famous for films made on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly Cat People).  As Olivia is almost immediately informed by one of her classmates, the student body is divided into two camps: those devoted to Mlle. Julie  and those to Mlle. Clara.

Olivia at first becomes enamored with the former after aiding in a number of nighttime rituals including combing her hair, fanning her tenderly, etc (“keep making a fuss of me, I love it!” she purrs to the clearly adoring young girls).

The seductive if playful undertone to Mlle. Clara’s voice is the first indication of what exactly the affection of the student body might entail.  But after being moved by one of the nightly recitations of a Racine play, Olivia catches her instructor’s eye and she quickly establishes herself as Mlle. Julie’s favorite pupil.  The admiration quickly begins to take on a more amorous dimension, which becomes obvious after Laura, Julie’s past favorite, reappears at the school.  Despite befriending Laura, Olivia can’t help but feel competitive for their teacher’s attention, and Olivia even attempts to ask Laura to help her define her feelings for Mlle. Julie.  “Do you love her?” she asks Laura, who doesn’t seem to catch the true nature of the question, and responds that she owes everything to the headmistress.  Olivia tries again: “doesn’t your heart beat when she’s with you, or stand still when she touches your hand?”  Laura, seeming now to comprehend, definitively says no, stating “I just love her.  There is nothing else,” and promptly leaves the room.

The plot thickens as it becomes clear that beneath the antagonism of the two headmistresses is a once-intimate relationship of an unspecified nature between the two that at some point soured.  It all comes to a head during the annual Christmas party—complete with Mädchen-style male drag by the students—that Mlle. Julie promises to stop by her room later that night(!).  At this point it is made explicit that this is not merely some one-sided schoolgirl infatuation of Olivia’s but that there are some kind of mutual feelings involved, which is emphasized by Mlle. Julie’s unexpected decision to leave the school, as it is the “best thing to do.”

This underscores one of the major differences between Olivia and Mädchen: though there are many parallels to draw between the relationship that springs up between student and teacher, there’s a very profound difference in the fact that it is not just one of the teachers, but the headmistress—that is, the person in charge—that is experiencing these feelings.  Instead of the antagonistic dynamic of Mädchen which creates a “they just don’t understand the nature of our love!,” us-versus-them storyline, Olivia becomes more about the walls of the boarding school potentially functioning as a haven-like space for lesbian feelings and desires apart from the world, something Mlle. Julie sternly warns Olivia of in the climatic sequence.  Mlle. Julie seems aware that there might be potential for sustaining a lesbian relationships in this cloistered, isolated setting—as it might have indeed done for Mlles. Julie and Clara at one point—but the reality is that the world outside brutally refuses such things (“and what if you are defeated, Olivia?” Mlle. Julie evocatively but elusively muses at the end of the film, not specifying as to what exactly she is speaking of).

The entire mise-en-scène of the film seems to underline this crucial different between Olivia and Mädchen—where the boarding school of the latter is composed of harsh, hard angles to visually emphasize the militaristic, almost tyrannical nature of the school, the boarding school of the former is soft, embracing and marked by graceful curves echoed by the languid camera pans.  This is seen most prominently in the staircases that feature prominently in both films: where Mädchen‘s central staircase is composed of sharp right angles and tightly tiered like the nightmarish staircase straight out of Vertigo, the central staircase in Olivia serves not only as a central meeting place for the school, but the showcase for its elegant headmistress, who is introduced in the film as ascending from upstairs into a twittering nest of fawning students.

Clearly, both Olivia and Mädchen in Uniform are incredibly important films that deserve to be more widely released and seen, and taken together, function as two complimentary but in many ways different takes on the possibility of love and desire between women in pre-Stonewall cinema.

This post is in contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, June 2011.

illicit love: part two

As I mentioned in last week’s thread, Jdidaco’s thoughts on Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (Claire Denis, France, 2002) made me want to go home after work and cuddle up with the film—and that’s exactly what I did, staying up half of the night to do so.  It’s a particular favorite of mine—always floating somewhere just outside of my top ten—but it had been several years since I’d last seen it.  It’s always a bit unnerving revisiting a favorite as there’s the risk that the previous magic has disappeared, but I’m happy to report I still think it is just as wonderful as ever, and even threw me a few surprises along the way (the story is told in a linear, relatively straightforward manner, but the way Denis often moves to the next sequence can be rather bewildering—one feels unmoored, dislodged from linear time for a few moments until we are given a few visual clues and things settles down again).

What’s so special about the film is in the way the central midnight encounter feels so spontaneous and yet so inevitable, and Claire Denis is a magician of sorts in the way she captures each moment as it unfolds—it’s at once both vibrantly real and as intangible as a hallucination.  Once while discussing this film Ali invoked Queen Christina’s room and I had that in the back of my head throughout the entire film, but it struck me that idea doesn’t just apply literally to the shadowy, probably shabby hotel room itself; rather, the entire night is Christina’s room, with the gaze Denis and Agnés Godard’s camera lingering on images in the way that mimics the way the human mind processes information, i.e. a bit longer than what is necessary to establish ones placement in space, but not long enough where one is actively observing—it’s just that extra split second where the mind takes a mental snapshot and a memory begins to form.  Combine all this with Denis and Godard’s virtually unparalleled ability in capturing a kind of radiance in even the most mundane of objects—human skin, a red blanket, a dusty dashboard, hell, even a condom dispenser—and you have one of the most alive films I’ve ever encountered.  And as a bonus, it’s all so soft, almost amorphous that each time I return it feels like I’m witnessing it for the first time all over again…  For my money, one of THE great achievements of modern cinema.

illicit love: part one

I was taken completely by surprise in the way that I responded to Les amants (The Lovers) (Louis Malle, France, 1958), simply because I can’t remember the last time it happened: I had a genuine moral response to the actions of Jeanne Moreau’s character (who, rather confusingly, is also named Jeanne). As she kissed and gently rearranged the sheets over her sleeping daughter before being led to bed by her latest boytoy, I was shocked to find myself outraged that the film was asking the audience to so blithely support Jeanne’s decision to walk away from her parental responsibilities.

Only in retrospect did my opinion take on more nuance: finally it dawned on me how I occupy a very different historical moment, the child of the ideology behind a film like Claire Denis’s Vendredi Soir, where of course a night of blissful sexual satisfaction can be had and savored and guiltlessly walked away from, aware it will serve as a particularly vibrant memory to help get through the more mundane patches of the everyday life that must necessarily be returned to.  It was only then that the ramifications of Jeanne’s actions come painfully into focus, namely the truly great sacrifice and risk involved in her sexual decisions, all the more acute given her (and the film’s) obvious awareness that the new life she embarks on could very well turn out to be as dull and stifling as the one she is so desperately fleeing from.

This reality serves to rupture the glassy, impeccable sheen of Malle’s shimmery black and white visuals, which for the first half of the film I was afraid was going to turn out as aesthetically impressive but emotionally cold as L’Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows).  With one overwhelming exception: the several minutes spent on the carnival ride—has emotional and sexual euphoria ever been so economically but buoyantly depicted? It seems so obvious, but watching it it’s one of those stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks sequences stumbled upon only once in a great while. Ultimately, I walked away impressed and more than a bit piqued—multiple viewings seem in order to dissect the onion-like layers lurking beneath this seemingly simplistic story…

Memories of a movie…

parisian escapades

Dans Paris (France, 2006), Christophe Honoré’s loose, Nouvelle Vague-inspired riff on J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey was my most anticipated film of 2007—and the powers that be sure made me wait long enough to finally see it (an almost nonexistent theatrical release, then a delayed DVD release, etc, etc).  Happily, it didn’t disappoint despite my ceaselessly growing anticipation; indeed, far from it: in many ways it’s much more than I dared let myself hope for.

Split into two very distinct but intertwined storylines embodied by two brothers, we have Roman Duris as a transformed “Franny,” heart-sick and pitifully bundled up in his private, somewhat silly miseries, and Louis Garrel as “Zooey,” irresistibly, almost obnoxiously gregarious, prone to spouting ill-timed but well-meaning insight and advice.  Like in Salinger’s story, intricate family dynamics drive the film, as does the interplay within the cramped familial apartment, a much lived-in space perpetually echoing with memories and the ghosts of the past that hover in forgotten corners.  Perhaps it was because I was just starting Bachelard’s seminal The Poetics of Space when I watched this film that I was particularly attuned to the matter, but I can’t think of another film that comes near to Honoré’s precise depiction of how people act and interact within their most intimate spaces—particularly their homes—unashamedly lounging about in various states of undress, blissfully unaware of how any “objective analysis” would quickly reveal the ridiculousness of the little soap operas that unfold behind closed doors and drawn curtains.  It’s rather miraculous to behold, in a low-key way.

But Honoré never allows the proceedings to get too insular—something which could be considered both the strength and the weakness of Salinger’s novella—using Garrel’s youthful antics (cue Demy) out and about in Paris (cue Band of Outsiders) to counterbalance the dark pathos of Duris’s emotional breakdown.  A lovely film which seems so slight and ephemeral at first glance but which I have a haunch might be an impressive, perhaps even  a legitimately important achievement.