Finally Sunday! / Vivement Dimanche! (1983)

April 21, 2009

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“so sweet and touching a love letter to Hitchcock

I’ve got such a list of films that I haven’t made notes on that I’m having to rattle through them at great speed.  I’m not even going to mention Jules et Jim, which I saw recently and again at the weekend.  I think I’ve got the balance right but I do find my notes useful, so it’s a shame.  I saw Jules et Jim because speciality French movie channel CineMoi had advertised a showing of Vivement Dimanche! but decided to show the 1962 classic instead.  I started watching and couldn’t stop but I couldn’t help being miffed as I’d missed the chance to see the one Truffaut that I haven’t seen and don’t own and then a little digging revealed that I do own it!  It was released in Australia as Confidentially Yours, though having seen the film I can’t see why, and was part of a box set I picked up some years back.  So, I got to see a Truffaut double-bill.  “Who’s the Daddy now?

This is smashing.  It is Truffaut working through his Alfred Hitchcock fixation (the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews make fantastic reading) by making a perfectly-executed homage.  This being a (pseudo) Hitchcock it revolves around a man who is accused of a crime that he may or may not have committed and his attempts to elude the authorities for long enough to clear his name.  It’s suspension-of-disbelief time of course, this is a film where the police have set up road-blocks and search the city for a man who is sat comfortably in his office which they’ve neglected to check.  But it doesn’t matter, the film is so sweet and touching a love letter to Hitchcock that you can let anything go.

Jean-Louis Trintignant plays the innocent victim of circumstances- by turns confused, afraid and indignant- with the glorious Fanny Ardant as the secretary who is secretly in love with him and does his investigating for him whilst he is ensconced in the office (a nice nod to Rear Window).  Both are excellent and their chemistry is lovely to watch.

But it’s the Hitchcock motifs that matter the most.  The film is immediately suspenseful from the shooting of Massoulier which opens and is undercut throughout with a tense string soundtrack which is tremendously reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s best.  There are images of telephones ringing in empty rooms, scenes shot from outside through windows, the first person the couple suspect is dramatically revealed to be a Priest, Fanny Ardant’s Barbara zips from city to city looking or clues, she witnesses a murder but can only see the murderer’s legs, the audience is manipulated to believe then disbelieve then rebelieve in Trintignant’s character…

I don’t believe that this focusing upon the Hitchcock angle is doing the film down at all, it is certainly a tense but enjoyable thriller in its own right and the reverence it shows for the Godfather of all modern thrillers is a strength.  There is also a brief reference to Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory– a film which was once banned in France- and, as this was to be Truffaut’s last film it is almost as if he is saying goodbye and expressing his thanks to great filmmakers from before.  Like when Bob Dylan played ‘Song For Woody’ at his 40th Anniversary tribute concert.

It’s far from flawless but I loved it.  Can’t wait to see it again. 7/10

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Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

March 31, 2009

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It’s mad this.  I love it, but I’m aware of how mad it is.  Veteran B-Movie actor Eddie Constantine reprises a regular role as private detective Lemmy Caution in a Jean-Luc Godard film set in the future.  Bonkers.  Brilliant.

As with any film Godard makes the emphasis is very much on realism.  And so you have a sci-fi film noir thriller set in a dystopian future (is there any kind of future in the movies?) which is filmed in mid-60s Paris featuring actors wearing contemporary clothing and driving contemporary cars.  In fact, if it weren’t for the dialogue you would have no idea that this was set in the future.  It could almost be a French version of What’s Up Tiger Lily?  And yet, it is very realistic because Godard chose the most futuristic parts of Paris and Coutard shot them in such a way that it works.  We’re not talking a Buck Rodgers future here but a terrifying vision of a very real, very near future.  The film begins by telling the viewer that it is “24.17 Oceanic Time” which will really, really strike a chord with anyone who has read Orwell’s contribution to the genre 1984.  Or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  And those source materials are a pretty important touchstone for the film referenced throughout- with the omniscient central government, dehumanised population and deliberate shrinking of the language.  It is telling for me that Godard’s sci-fi film is the antithesis of the gaudy, style-over-substance, effects and costume-heavy movies which dominate the genre.  Strip away the trappings, he is saying, and there must be more to the film than mere window-dressing.  He must have hated the Hollywood of the last three decades.

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The film opens with Lemmy Caution arriving in Alphaville under the assumed identity of a newspaper reporter from Figaro-Pravda (that is simply delicious by the way).  The wonderful Misraki B-movie soundtrack accompany Caution as he enters an Alphaville hotel, checks in, gets the lift to his floor, negotiates the winding corridoors and arrives at his room.  This is all achieved with one tracking shot including the lift sequence (the camera goes up in one glass elevator, Caution in another alongside it) it takes four minutes in full.  Amazing.  I can’t emphasise that enough.

Alphaville is a harsh, cold, loveless and remorseless place.  Five years on from À Bout de Souffle,which was in part a love letter to the city of Paris, Godard’s view appears to have completely changed.  Caution’s disdain for Alphaville simply gives voice to Godard’s for Paris: “Everything weird is ‘normal’ in this damn town” he says at one point.  What Paris is and what it is becoming informs much of the movie thematically.  This also makes Constantine’s uncomfortable performance work really well, he isn’t a natural or polished and his clunky accented delivery and hesitant body language is perfect for the role of discomfited outsider.  He is taking the whole thing super-seriously  as a spy thriller and seemingly ignoring the philosophical or futuristic bits that he doesn’t quite get.  It’s a great case of a Director using an actor brilliantly in spite of the actors limitations, I love Eddie Constantine in this (and, in the interests of balance, I should say that he also does a pretty good job in The Long Good Friday).  Godard makes the most of Constantine, his ‘interesting’ face and world-weary manner- he is in almost every shot, certainly every scene.

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And yet he isn’t the key figure in the film.  The film is, in many ways, a love letter to Anna Karina.  From the first moment that she appears- accompanied by a beautiful score for strings and lit with great sensitivity- she is objectified as being of almost preternatural beauty.  Her performance justifies this treatment too, she is sensational in this.  The moment at the climax of the film where she says for the first time and with a new understanding of the gravity of her words “I love you” is one of those heart-meltingly rare cinema moments that stay with you.  She speaks as if these are the first words she has ever said, the music swells, fin.  Truly beautiful. 

Love is one of the things which can save Alphaville.  During the execution scene- a man is executed for acting illogically- he wept when his wife died, his final words are: “Listen to me normal ones!  We see a truth that you no longer see.  A truth that says the essence of man is love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice.  Everything else is an obstacle put up by your blind progress and ignorance!”.  The execution itself is odd (the prisoners are shot by firing squad beside a swimming pool and retrieved by synchronised swimmers who are applauded wildly by spectators) and this bizarre method is in keeping with the bizarre reason for the execution.  Godard is mocking the concept (and indeed the conceit) of this future.  He goes further in the following scenes and reveals that in the face of dehumanisation, poetry is the answer.  When Alphaville’s super computer (and by the way Alphaville’s super computer has a voice like a frog vomiting) interrogates Lemmy Caution, it asks “do you know what turns darkness into light?” to which he responds poetry.  And reading a book of the poet Éluard’s poetry entitled ‘The Capital of Pain’ (presumably chosen for the title as much as the content) reawakens the humanity within Karina’s character.  Yet it is here that the film falters to a degree, as with all of Godard’s work, there is a heavy philosophical element and the longer-than-it-seems sequence on anti-linguistic theory (“unless words change their meanings and meanings change their words”- that kind of stuff) is a step that the film could really do without.  The film isn’t serious enough to do such conceits justice- that’s my feeling anyway.

Aside from that interlude (which I would probably have tolerated much better if I hadn’t been too tired to understand it all) this is typical Godard, he doesn’t piss about with unnecessary pauses, he just puts relevant scenes and events on screen in an innovative way subverting everything which has gone before.  He even depicts a fight in still photos to avoid unnecessary and untidy camerawork.  A film about the resurrection of tenderness and of love.  8/10

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The Class / Entre Les Murs (2008)

March 30, 2009

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Plenty to admire here. It’s a mockumentary which is utterly convincing- it must be largely improvised- and never dull or predictable. It takes the premise of a multicultural suburban Paris classroom as a representation of modern-day France and examines the issues of culture-clashes, respect, authority and autonomy, language and changing standards.

The comedy ‘mockumentary’ has been done brilliantly (Spinal Tap and The Office for example) but to use the format for a serious subject is a new one on me. Or, at least, I can’t think of any other good examples off the top of my head in recent years. It isn’t quite verité, it isn’t neo-realism; it is a ‘mockumentary’. In the culture of reality TV in which we find ourselves, the danger is that any great new ideas are swept aside amongst the deluge of mediocre ones and The Class, though not strictly TV oriented, suffers a little from that. How many people would turn away from this having been bombarded with similar ‘straight’ documentaries before? That said I don’t think whether it gets bums on seats is a fair way of judging the film, on its own terms it’s a success.

Taken purely at face value the film is good. A year in the life of a class of rowdy teenagers; sometimes shocking, sometimes touching, sometimes sad, sometimes uplifting. It isn’t a Hollywood-style tale of redemption, of bad kids coming good against all the odds because their teacher imbues in them a real sense of self-worth by teaching them about Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Chaucer. The kids aren’t bad, they’re real. Confused, pretentious, a bit muddled, a bit angry and a bit scared. They change, they grow up, they get confused about different things. And their teacher? François Bégaudeau (author of the source novel playing a version of himself), well he’s just as confused and frustrated as the kids are- a good man trying to do a difficult job in spite of the handicaps that simply being a human being bring. If the film ends on an up-note, and the classroom relations appear terminally soured after the expulsion of Soulemayne which François tried his hardest to prevent, it comes with the end-of-year pupils versus teachers kickabout. This isn’t redemption, this isn’t valedictory, this is the exuberant joy that the year is finally over and the holidays are upon them. There may well have been a touching scene where the teacher handed out spiral-bound copies of the pupils’ “self-portraits” (the only learning exercise that he was shown to be able to get Soulemayne involved in all year) to the class, but it was small beer compared to what had gone before. François, a good teacher and a good man, in his forlorn attempts to engage the pupils in learning French spoke to them as a teacher and as a peer. Each approach failed, the teacher couldn’t persuade them to care about the use of the correct words in the correct context and the peer was never forgiven for one slip where he used the wrong word in the wrong context. That was a wonderfully subtle parallel, I felt.

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Beyond the classroom (funnily enough the direct translation of the original title is “between the walls”) the film’s dialogue on the issues of integrating multiple communities whilst retaining French identity reflects a wider national debate. The issues are identified and examined without conclusions being drawn. The class may be predominantly white and French but a disproportionate amount of time is spent on the minorities and their issues with language, culture and identity. Soulemayne (of Malian heritage) is troublesome and disruptive, isolating himself from the others because of his scholastic difficulties and his feelings of inadequacy. He responds to feelings isolation by becoming further withdrawn, sullen and non-communicative, it is a vicious circle that is a not totally unrepresentative of the responses of minority communities as a whole. Carl (of Caribbean heritage) expresses confusion over his nationality- sometimes describing himself as French and at other times as Caribbean. He is more hostile towards other minorities than the French pupils when he sees them getting more attention. Rabah (Moroccan) feels excluded on the grounds of both his heritage and his Islamic faith. Wei (of Chinese parents) faces language difficulties which restrict his development and, we learn, his mother is threatened with deportation which will jeopardise his promising academic career. The mother of one French pupil complains that his development is being restricted by the ‘slower learners’ in the class. Everyone has issues, everyone feels entitled to point the finger at the pupils (communities) that are too blame and none will acknowledge their own faults.

Dramatic, well acted, phenomenally edited, profound, funny and entertaining. 9/10


Made in U.S.A. (1966)

March 9, 2009

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During this film the phrases “a Disney film with Humphrey Bogart” and “a Disney film with blood” are used.  And you can see what is meant by that.  This is super-stylish and, like all of Jean-Luc Godard’s finest films, mixes the personal and the political into a simple yet complex take on Film Noir.  The simple yet complex theme is evident in the dialogue as well as the construction of the film.

Godard’s work at this point seems far more overtly political than his earlier films and is almost an expression of his doubts and uncertainties with regard to left wing politics and how they can be reconciled with contemporary society.  There are overtly political visuals (the grafittied- there’s no right way to spell that is there?-  phrase Liberté gets machine-gunned) and dialogue (political tracts recounted by tape recorder as a clue in the case).  As an expression of what was happening in the world in general and France in particular (the Paris student riots were about two years away) Made in U.S.A. shows Godard to be both a product of and a leader of his times.

And it is, of course, an homage to the American B-movies that Godard references throughout.  If not made, this film was certainly conceived in the USA- if a country can also be a state of mind and I’m not getting all up my own pseudy arse with this!  The film features Anna Karina tracking down the murderer of her ex-lover.  The murder was the result of his involvement in or at least knowledge of a political assassination.  Karina, as was mentioned above, is a contemporary version of Bogart’s noir persona- uncompromising, hard-headed and thoughtful.  She is being tracked by a criminal and his callow, hapless accomplice (much like Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon).  As far as a linear plot goes, that’s your lot.  Non-linear plot elements are the constant pop-culture allusions, the tape-recorded monologues on the French political situation and a discussion on perspectives and how they shape our view of the world.

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Being a Godard film, of course, it looks marvellous- the constant juxtaposition of stark white internal scenes with bright primary colours, the beautifully lit exteriors which seem so fresh, the long fixed-lens close-ups, the reflections of Karina barely visible in a photograph frame behind the head of the subject, the twins in the gymnasium- his visual inventiveness is indefatigable.  And it sounds marvellous, with real-life intervening in the form of sirens, telephone rings and overhead planes.  The influence of all of this on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films is obvious (the basic storyline, Karina’s appearance, the name hidden by a sound effects etc) and is further testimony to the power of the film to extend beyond itself and take on an importance beyond merely being a piece of cinematic art.  There is a scene where Karina and László Szabó sit down and describe what happens in the next part of the film rather than acting it out- this constant deconstruction of the cinematic myth (the dialogue constantly talks about movie scenes, characters, events, the mise-en-scène– hell even the characters are named after actors or directors) serves to remind us that Godard is making statements that go beyond the simplistic storyline.  The story is not what the film says, it is merely a vehicle to express the director’s statement.  Has the auteur theory ever been supported in so stark and blatant a way?

This is a film that needs to be seen and re-seen for things to make sense.  At present it’s a 7/10 but that should improve as the references become clearer with further viewings.  Of course, the whole thing could be a vacant pop-culture act of pretension, but I don’t believe so.

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Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait / Zidane, un portrait du 21e siècle (2006)

February 26, 2009

I happen to think Zidane to be the most talented footballer of his generation, probably since Maradona (and since Maradona is the greatest footballer I have ever seen that’s no slight upon him) but he has been pretty ill-served by this film.  Zizou, though a big man, was so graceful and perfectly balanced that his movements were sublime- balletic almost.  It is such a shame, then, that during the game which forms almost entirety of this film he has very little of the ball.  And then gets sent off at the end.  In some ways that says more about the volatile nature of genius than about Zidane the footballer, though, which is a happy accident.

But for a brief half time interlude, this film follows Zidane via numerous camera angles, throughout a ninety minute game near the very end of his career.  It was by no means his best performance- though he does create a goal with one outstanding piece of skill- and he spends most of the film standing and waiting (curiously without a marker within yards of him) for passes that never arrive.  Football fans happening upon this film will be infuriated by footage of Zidane standing at the edge of a wall while a team-mate takes a free-kick or watching his side concede a penalty.  For a fan it’s like looking peeking through the keyhole at a girl you know is getting undressed but maddeningly can’t quite see.  And the action going on around him- which should be unimportant according to the theme of the film- isn’t always ignored.  The score is flashed up occasionally and key match moments in which Zizou doesn’t feature are played and replayed.  Come on guys, we want to see all or nothing- these half-measures are disappointing in the extreme.

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Purely as a piece of art, though, the film is more successful.  Not successful, just more successful.  Set to a great original soundtrack by Mogwai- with intermittent match noise and authentic commentary from Spain- and featuring sporadic subtitled quotes from Zidane himself about the nature of football as a spectacle and as a game, there are some great visual pieces and the utilisation of the footage is great.  Especially on the odd occasions that he is doing something.  But the task of making a sweaty guy standing around for an hour and a half at all invigorating is sadly too great.  It cannot and doesn’t hold the attention.  But it does look and sound great. 3/10


Jules et Jim (1962)

February 21, 2009

I think I can understand why Jules et Jim is revered by some and reviled by others.  It is a film which doesn’t make a great deal of sense rationally and, in many ways, I can imagine its modernist extra-contextual content could be construed as pretentious.  Truffaut’s film centres on three flawed characters and proceeds to examine the nature and shift of their relationships.  So, yes, I can also imagine people thinking that it is conceptually arid.  And some of the dialogue is barmy- “Your breasts are the only grenades I love” being a particularly fine example of that.  There is plenty here that critics can get their teeth into.  But they’re missing the beauty of the film.  It is high art, no doubt.  But it is also- and this is something I feel that the nouvelle vague usually got spot on- breezy and whimsical and entertaining and pacy and endearing.

If I was to examine the film as a purely intellectual piece, I would focus upon its exploration of conflicting love: when romantic and fraternal love come into conflict; when a person loves two people or two people love a single person; when a person loves another so much that he will endure any heartbreak not to lose her; when being in love becomes fraternal love, etc.  I would also look at the film in the context of the time it was made rather than the setting, to see Catherine’s matriarchal dominance as a reflection of the French feminist movement and read her impulsive free spiritedness as a signifier of liberation from male dominance in a wider context.  I would consider the way in which Truffaut objectifies Catherine as an ideal woman- and how that idealism includes the capacity for great cruelty and selfishness.  I might also consider what the film has to say about the affection between Jules (the German) and Jim (the Frenchman) which is their overriding concern during the war and whether this speaks of a deeper humanist disdain for national identity and patriotism- or is simply a commentary upon the fractious state of Europe during the preceding half a century.  I would also wonder about the significance of the breezy nostalgic mood which is interrupted by the harsh realities of a stupid and futile war.

On the other hand, if I was to consider the film technically I would be looking at Truffaut’s choice of camera angles and the fluid style he utilises- which would certainly have been innovative at the time.  I would consider the lighting and how this impacts upon the mood of the film- enhancing the breeziness I spoke of earlier.  I would be interested to understand more about the decision to move the films narrative (successfully, I may add) at such breathtaking pace and the exclusion of all details not pertaining to the main thrust of the story.  I would discuss the success of the narrator as a device to achieve these aims.  I would focus upon some of Truffaut’s little conceits- the intermittent freeze-frames which say to the viewer “I want you to remember this just as it is now” and especially the visual objectification of Jeanne Moreau.

But you know what, pretentious little twat though I may tend to be, I ignore all of these things and just focus on the beautiful whimsical representation of deep affectionate relationships centred around impulsiveness and the desire to be happy.  And I really enjoy Jules et Jim on that basis.  8/10

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I’ve Loved You So Long / Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (2008)

February 20, 2009

The absence of Kristin Scott Thomas (and Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky) from the Best Actress nominations at this year’s Oscars is a fucking farce.  If anyone thinks that Angelina Jolie did a better job in Changeling, for example, then they really need to watch this again.  And then if they still think it, then they’re irredeemably lost.  Kristin Scott Thomas, who I’ve never really admired before, is a revelation here.  Her delicate, nuanced, progressively revealing portrayal of Juliette is everything that Jolie’s unsubtle, tub-thumping, wailing banshee “look at me, I’m acting here dammit” approach is not.  At least in the Best Supporting Actress category Penélope Cruz can hold her head up alongside Elsa Zylberstein who plays Léa  here.  And she’s the only one who can because Marisa Tomei certainly fucking can’t.  This is a powerful, moving, sad- but not depressing- and engrossing film which acts as a vehicle for the lead actress.  There is a profound sorrow in her every unpunctuated silence which seems to project and unsettle the viewer.  I felt like I was watching the tortuous struggle within her as she thousand-yard-stared, fidgeted and groped for something positive to cling onto in almost every scene.  It is an extremely discomfiting experience.  The character arc she portrays is as gentle and gradual and utterly convincing as you could really hope for.

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The film as a whole, however, is not the trying experience that it would be reasonable to expect given the strength of Scott Thomas’s performance and the sombre material of the film.  Indeed it is, to use the most hackneyed phrase I can think of to describe it, life-affirming.  I had no clear idea about what I was going to see when I began watching this, I had read no reviews and seen no trailers- all that I really knew was that it was French (I am an unashamed Francophile, so that would be reason enough) and that it had been nominated for a couple of BAFTAs- though it won none and Elsa Zylberstein was again overlooked for fuck’s sake- but the storyline was clearly revealed in stages.  This isn’t to say that the ending would surprise anyone, you don’t need to be Columbo to deduce what it is that’s coming, but that the way the story moves to reach the outcome is a success.

It isn’t a perfect film by any means.  As is often the case where there is a towering lead performance, the film tends to be overbalanced and becomes less than the sum of its parts- There Will Be Blood is a great example of what I mean.  In a first time director, Philippe Claudel, this is pretty understandable.  The sub-plots which do not focus upon Kristin Scott Thomas but are instead peripheral to her (Luc coming to terms with Juliette, the storyline featuring Capitaine Fauré, Michel’s growing attraction toward her) feel a little underdeveloped- as if Claudel knew he was getting something really special from the lead and was terrified of focusing anywhere else.  With experience the confidence to know how and when to do that will come, I hope.

And so, a good film with a couple of great performances and a Director to keep an eye on for better things to come.  Smashing.  7/10