soft-core cinematic art

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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.

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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.

emotional spaces via physical places

At first glance Agnès Varda’s La pointe courte (France, 1954) seems much more an Italian film than a French one, for if the acute observations of the villagers of the small, traditional Mediterranean fishing town seems deeply indebted to Italian neo-realism, then the alternating story and scenes with the conflicted married couple seems to anticipate with uncanny accuracy the films Antonioni would begin making in the succeeding several years (Il Grido in particular springs to mind). But it’s not an Italian film and furthermore Varda, merely (gulp) 25 at the time, claims to have not seen more than that number of films at that point in her life. Without that bit of information La pointe courte is a rather remarkable film; taking its backstory into account, it’s simply phenomenal.

Probably more than anything La pointe courte a film about spaces and place, and not just in the obvious picturesque sense of setting, but analyzing spaces on a number of levels, whether they be public or private, female-dominated (the home, the laundry lines) or male-dominated (the fishing boats traversing the wide expanses of water), or even in the way the rigid narrative structure sharply demarcates the scenes of village life and the couple’s solitary wanderings. But Varda isn’t content with simply letting these perimeters well enough alone; if anything, the bleeding together of disparate spheres of activity provide the impetus for the film as boundaries as subtly criss-crossed. A good example, and probably my favorite sequence in the film, takes place at the shared laundry lines where Varda’s camera lingers on the crisp, white sheets and shirts that billow sensuously in the wind as two local women cheerfully wrestle their washing from the lines—a brief, beautiful snapshot of friendship and female camaraderie that is interrupted by a solitary man walking through and disappearing (as such, it serves as introduction to the couple’s story in the film).  This is mirrored and inverted later when the same woman (who strongly resembles my Portuguese great grandmother) interrupts the “boys club” post-joute dinner party to kick off the community-wide dance.

The alternating sequences revolving around the couple, played by Silvia Monforet and Phillippe Noiret (who I didn’t even recognize—he’s the old man in Cinema Paradiso), deal with similar issues, but goes about doing it in a more abstract way. Actually, it’s mostly delineated via Varda’s camera where she displays a preoccupation with the distances that separate her two subjects. When not carefully divided by the mise-en-scene

the faces and the profiles of the couple are often shot merged

making the physical and very visual separations between them all the more potent, even painful, a visual rendering of the emotional spaces being explored.

If I started out by saying that La Pointe Court seems like an Italian film, well, it was her fellow French who took the film to mind and heart (in the Criterion interview Varda recounts how only one small theater in Montparnasse would bother showing the film, and all the Paris intelligentsia—from the young New Wavers to the literary elite—flocked to and rallied around it). Surprisingly or unsurprisingly Alain Resnais served as the editor of the film, and a lot of the elements Varda introduces—ranging from the monotone intensity of the couple’s conversations to the preoccupation with memory and place—later shows up in his mature work, most particularly Hiroshima mon amour (Varda also specifically names Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima’s screenwriter, as one face to be seen among the Montparnasse audiences). If Varda had never made another film (or had chosen to stick to photography, her original love) La pointe courte would be enough to seal her reputation as an important cinematic artist, happily, it was just the beginning of a remarkable, still underappreciated career that stretches to this very day.

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.

it’s strictly a family affair

I have not a thing to say about the longstanding what’s Cocteau?/what’s Melville? debate that continues to haunt Les Enfants Terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville, France,1950) a half a century after the fact, other than venture that the push/pull between these two unique artistic visions can be blamed for the somewhat uneven quality of the film and the deep sense of unease that seems to churn beneath its highly polished surface.

The first act is the most compelling as it introduces the enclosed universe of Elisabeth and Paul and explores the rules of their private little games; once the film stumbles outside the tight confines of their room the film seems to constantly threaten to lapse into prim qualité française dullness.  But the magnetic draw of intimate—perhaps even quasi-erotic—spaces prove too strong, and once the siblings (plus two more) reintroduce themselves into a facsimile of their old room the film’s lurid, potent poetry blossoms once again, and tragedy quickly, inevitably follows.  There are a number of missteps, such as the duel casting of Renée Cosima in the role of both male and female love interest never functions in any kind of interesting way.  But in the end Nicole Stéphane’s tour-de-force performance contains a propulsive force all its own, pushing and pulling everything in her wake according to her violently capricious whims, and ultimately nothing—not even the film itself—dares stand in her way.

What to make of Savage Grace (Tom Kalin, USA, 2008)?  A haunting, prickly film, though not necessarily because of (or perhaps in spite of) its controversial subject matter.  The film is being sold as a biopic of the infamous Barbara Daly Baekeland, murdered by her only son, the sole heir to the immense Bakelite plastics fortune; as the alternately fragile and monstrous central character, Julianne Moore received almost uniformly rave reviews.  To be sure, she gives a ferocious performance, and takes her place alongside the Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest mode (but then, a mother offering herself as a “cure” for her son’s homosexuality is a far, far cry from wire hangers, however much they sting).

Days later I’m still struggling to discover a way to grasp onto the sheer oddity of the film, if only because it seems so relentlessly off-centered—ultimately it’s not Moore’s film, but an unexpectedly poignant portrait of the son she both nurtured and/or destroyed, played with impressive subtlety by the up-and-coming Eddie Redmayne.  Further emphasizing the off-kilter aura is the giant fragments of narrative left completely untouched as the film flits from decade to decade, location to location; eventually the narrative logic seems to begin entering the realm of mirages and dreamscapes instead of “objective facts,” festering and decaying in its luscious, late-Visconti-like interiors and sunny, potentially hazardous beachside escapes.  Finally a point is reached that feels like we have to deduce for ourselves what the hell happened in this exceedingly disturbing set of life stories, but then, that could very well be the point—without the presence of Oedipus’s gods cruelly ordaining everything from afar, can such circumstances be explained?

screen poetry, poetic criticism

Not my own words but it’s something at long last. In my rush of IMDb nostalgia I mentioned this review, and celinejulie subsequently asked for it… and here it is.

India Song, Marguerite Duras, 1975

Revision. Luminous, meditative, melancholy, and deeply uneasy. Duras’ prose is pure poetry, recited over images which gracefully and doubtfully evoke glimpses of the long-past events recounted, lost in a haze of heat and melancholy and existential boredom which detach these characters from themselves even in the present, and their image-ghosts from that uncertain present experience, and Venice from Calcutta and the beggar woman’s incomprehensible cry from the beggar-woman’s past. I wrote down some of what was said, following the pauses, and the lines I write it in look like its natural element. The film merges with its reverberations in one’s mind, I think – and it cries (or I did), but not necessarily only for itself. Only Duras ever made films like Duras – it is hypnotic, it is personal, it is also exotic and consicious of the fact (Savanakhet, Savanakhet), but India and Indochina, which Duras really knew, are still a country of the mind, with their sonorous names, their oppressive slow-moving heat, their corrosive plagues. YES oh YES.

-Alison Smith

“she’s a sapphist!”

Opening sidenote: The above quote is probably one of the funniest lines in a film I’ve come across in a long, long while. The delivery is priceless.

Funny that it took so long for me to get around to 8 Femmes (8 Women) (François Ozon, France, 2002) as it’s a film so obviously up my alley… and while I wasn’t exactly disappointed I wasn’t entirely satisfied either. It’s truly a bizarre little confection, really—featuring an exemplary cast showcasing a number of the most recognizable female names in contemporary French cinema (Deneuve, Huppert, Ardent, Beart, Sagniere, Ledoyen, to say nothing of the legendary Danielle Darrieux, still spry in her mid 80’s) but all shoehorned somewhat inelegantly into a hodgepodge of distinctly British manor house murder mystery tropes and equally distinct American classic Hollywood melodrama conventions. Most of the fun—and don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to be had—is derived from the sense of fun via the obvious fun these actresses are having, as well as Ozon’s awareness that the real pleasure in this particular type of mystery is less in the final revelation than in twisty paths required to get there.

Curiously, it was the musical numbers that fell most flat for me—interesting because if I ever made a film I’d do a similar thing (make musical numbers out of 60’s French pop songs and integrate them into a seemingly incongruous storyline) but each number felt uncomfortable clunky here, too forced and too calculated. Even more odd is that the musical sequences provide the film with some of its most striking moments—particularly Huppert’s emotional, showstopping cover of the  Françoise Hardy classic “Message Personnel”—but on the other hand each time a character breaks out in song it brings the film to a grinding halt, which is exactly what a musical number shouldn’t do. As I seem to say at the end of every review of a Ozon film I’ve written, it’s really a failed experiment and yet has so many points of compensation that despite myself I just really don’t care.

ADDENDUM: Every time I come across this review, I’m surprised at how harsh my initial reaction was, considering how fond my memories of it are.  I’ll have to write a full re-evaluation one of these days.

a chilly final act

Unfortunately, Robert Bresson’s chilly, fatalistic L’argent (France, 1983) brought to mind everything I dislike so intensely in Kubrick’s films. But even if the film so relentlessly bleak that I found it nearly unpalatable, I fully admit that within the confines of his very narrow worldview Bresson crafts an interesting portrait of how capitalistic society swallows up and spits out the individual, and does so without a single trace of mercy.  Considering that it’s his last film, it’s also worth noting that the film seems to lack even the slightest trace of sentimentality, the common downfall (but understandable impulse) of nearly every artist in the final stretches of a lengthy career.

Indeed, L’Argent is also a decisive demonstration that Bresson ended his career as a master of the form. Throughout the film there are little stylistic flourishes that shock in their brilliantly calculated effect, particularly during the moments where emotion and violence threaten to penetrate the film’s icy exterior and Bresson quickly, subtly cuts away to a single object—a hand, a dog—which somehow renders the unseen action all the more powerful and/or horrific. Much too cold for my taste, but I can’t help but (rather grudgingly) admire it.