Below is Part II of my list of the 100 greatest films from France, Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland. (Please see the introduction to Part I, which is tagged at the end of Part II for easy access, for an explanation of certain exclusions and inclusions.) This part of the list covers 1961 to the present :
49. LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961). Resnais’s grand hotel in Last Year at Marienbad, in haunting black and white, is the Mansion of Europe housing France’s memory. The twentieth century’s traumatic events, beginning with the Great War, have emptied the mansion of inhabitants. Everyone now is a guest in what used to be a home. The place feels abandoned by history. No one quite knows anyone else because people do not quite know themselves anymore.
Resnais and scenarist Alain Robbe-Grillet share an irritation with conventional narrative, that is to say, plot, a lack of interest in character psychology, and a more flexible sense of time than chronology permits. Motivated to forget the century’s horrors, can we be selective and retain the memory of love which once helped bring a sense of continuity to our lives? Few films seem as hermetically sealed as this one, but its insistence that it exists apart from our chaotic shared world only underscores its connection to that world. Hotel guests retreat into a fantastic realm where order can be (however unsuccessfully) imposed.
Fluid, upwardly tilted tracking shots through hotel corridors eternize human preoccupation with time. An elegant pair “reunite” in what may be, actually, their first meeting. How can one remember love when memory exists in time and in time’s passing, but love exists, sublimely, outside time? At once this-worldly and otherworldly, Classical and Romantic, rigorous and at capricious liberty, Resnais’s masterpiece is a compulsive yet unfettered dream that fulfills while yet confounding desire. The film’s trackings are our eye’s journey, the film’s voiceovers the voice that the muteness of dream denies us. Like an epiphany, however mysterious, even unfathomable, Last Year at Marienbad is also crystal-clear—and cold, beautifully cold: the memory of love longing to be filled by the feeling of love.
Please visit also my long piece on Last Year at Marienbad:
50. JULES AND JIM (1961). A vibrant, volatile bohemian in the first half of the twentieth century, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau, astounding) seeks to re-create herself in François Truffaut’s Renoirian Jules et Jim. Dressed as a guy, she joins pals Jules and Jim for a spirited race through Parisian air—a lark to her playmates, but expressive of the recognition of her equality that she longs for. Truffaut doesn’t disparage the men; he implies, instead, that if any two men could embrace independent, unruly Catherine as their equal it would be Jules and Jim. But telling of the projective fantasy to which this progressive pair is susceptible is that they both first fell in love with Catherine because she reminded them of a favorite statue; and so, from the start, despite their sincere atmospherics of gender equality, Catherine is the adored creature of their desire—and this she cannot bear. She marries Jules and takes Jim as a lover. Finally, having instructed Jules to watch, she drives off a cliff, with passenger Jim, into the sea, hoping to drown herself, along with her husband’s behavioral mirror-image, Jim, in her husband’s consciousness. Catherine feels she must alert Jules that his liberated self-image blocks him from seeing how gender-insensitive he remains; she sees no other way of improving the lot of their little daughter, Sabine; nor can Catherine otherwise resolve her feeling she remains tied to a variation on the traditional domestic scheme. Truffaut, then, reflects on his own time, the 1960s, when he thus rues the failure of gender relations to match their rhetoric of equality. A half-dozen years hence, therefore, he added a coda: The Bride Wore Black—a plea for gender equality as antidote to the destructive acts and behavior that in its absence both men and women are driven to.
51. MINT TEA (1961). The setting is a Parisian café at lunch time in the midst of the Cold War and towards the end of the Algerian War that would trounce French colonial power. A civil defense siren sounds, and through the café’s expansive glass we see a flock of people hurriedly responding to the warning or drill. In English on the radio, a commentator speaks of U.S. homeowner shelters and the “possibility of shooting your neighbor if he tries to get in [your shelter].”
The film contains no other English. The cosmopolitan nature of Paris is certified by the range of languages we hear spoken in the packed café. A young man sits by himself at a small round table, but others are seated in sociable pairs and groups. A dedicated observer, the young man notes an elderly man who enters the café alone—himself, he may think, years hence. Soon, though, the old man is joined by a younger one who shows him books. Clearly this is an arranged meeting, not a chance encounter, and the old man is either a buyer or seller of books. Later, he leaves by himself, and the young loner remains absorbed by the projective self-image; but a stylistic rupture of the subjective camera—a very high shot of the old man outdoors—implies that he, unlike the younger one, has somewhere else to go, that is, a life outside the café.
Pierre Kafian’s Le thé a la menthe is full of surprises. An apparent bachelor eyeing the ladies is abruptly joined by his young daughter and her mother; a seemingly alone young woman, one of the anonymous crowd, leaves with Zbigniew Cybulski, possibly playing himself. Kafian’s brilliant short film looks ahead to Chantal Äkerman’s Toute une nuit (1982) and Jon Jost’s Oui non (2002).
52. THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC (1962). Basing his script on the fifteenth-century trial transcripts and, as is his wont, casting nonprofessionals, including in the central role, Robert Bresson’s spare, stunning Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc is modern, intellectual, existential. Cinema’s original minimalist stresses Joan’s solitude; defiant in court but really at a loss, Joan prays privately for the best answers to give her inquisators so that she may best represent God. Dreyer’s instinctual folk Joan acts according to her feelings, which are immense (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928), while Bresson’s Joan acts according to conscience, which at any point is precise but which fluctuates, given her uncertainties; overcompensating for these in public, she is, actually, reluctant to embrace martyrdom. Dreyer’s Joan is, along with the masses supporting her, us; in Bresson’s film, the spying eyes through a peep hole into Joan’s prison cell—jailers; priests—are us, as we attempt to observe a depth of spirit in one who seems so imperviously matter-of-fact. Bresson’s Joan, observed from the outside, evidences a solitary’s resolution of her crisis of ambivalence.
The film is full of visual echoes. Joan’s hands, for instance: cross-chained in closeup, she lays these on a bible to take her oath in court, and she is made to do this again in another trial session, yielding the same winged effect in closeup. At her execution, her hands, now tied behind her back, reappear in closeup. When doves appear, shot from below, we are reminded of Joan’s “winged” hands to haunting effect. An image of confinement has become one of ultimate liberation.
The film begins with two sounds: the ringing of church bells, followed by a drum roll. It ends only with a drum roll: Joan the individual’s silencing of the Church that has put her to death.
53. THE LOVERS OF TERUEL (1962). Graced by the most delicately mournful musical theme imaginable (by Mikos Theodorakis), which we first hear plucked on a guitar and then played on a harmonica, Raymond Rouleau’s beauteous Les amants de Teruel exists in a haunted space betwixt theatrical grand passions and a ballerina’s dreams of erotic reunion with Diego, her lost love. The gypsy dance troupe to which Isa belongs—Ludmilla Tcherina, strikingly beautiful and achingly bereft—features her in a ballet that translates her turbulent grief into dance. For now, art’s sublimation of her torment helps keep Isa alive as Manuel, the troupe’s leader, having bought her from her father, nags her to become his own.
One expects this of feet in a dance film, but, here, hands are equally eloquent. Isa privately caresses a photograph of her and her lover; in the same shot, Manuel snatches the keepsake, crumples and drops it as Isa’s hand, curbed by fate, takes a tiny step or two towards saving it. In a ghostly dream, Isa’s outstretched hands, seemingly belonging to a blind soul, seek out Diego. She finds him and kisses his face, which turns out to be a mask. Now they are making love, and on the bed beside the couple is the mask, upside down.
Diego’s return after three years ends in tragedy, thanks to Manuel’s jealousy; “reality” replays the dance about “the lovers of Tereul.” Rouleau’s Cocteau-kissed, experimental musical interweaves a number of avant-garde techniques while never letting go of the humanity at the film’s core, the piercing reality of feelings of love, hope, despair, bereavement.
Cruel, possessive Manuel is played by the film’s choreographer, Milko Sparemblek. Diego by his absence also has been “possessing” Isa—this, the male principle that the film decries.
Claude Renoir’s color cinematography is to die for.
54. L’IMMORTELLE (1963). In Istanbul, N is sexually involved with L, who disappears, for whom he searches, who reappears and is killed in an automobile accident in which he, her passenger, grabbed the wheel, consigning him to become—or continue to be—the prisoner of his labyrinthine mind, which the streets of Istanbul project.
Robbe-Grillet’s L’immortelle explores the relationship between interior and exterior, thought and experience, mind and matter. It has a reputation for being esoteric, even pretentious, but in reality (hm) it is burrowing, clear as clean mirror, and intriguingly and appropriately, not irritatingly, elusive. Misogynistic, as some claim? No; rather, it explores the extent to which the objectifying male mind makes over a woman’s reality into its own projections, with all the attendant neediness and ego. (The film is about what inattentive viewers mistake it for being.) Shot on location, author Robbe-Grillet’s stunning filmmaking debut is from Turkey, Italy and France.
Robbe-Grillet establishes the parameters of both the film’s method and concerns at the get-go. A roadway travelogue tracking shot, accompanied by a woman’s voice in foreign song (I immediately thought of Wordsworth’s poem “The Solitary Reaper”), yields to the sound of a crash—the automobile accident. A photograph of L, an exotic beauty, freezes life into death. N looks out a hotel window. The blinds open, revealing the photograph right outside behind them. This yields to dreamy shots of L alive but silently posing: on the beach, looking at the sea; inside N’s room, slowly turning to face him. Following the repeated shot of N at the window, the blinds close on L’s photograph. We are glimpsing, Robbe-Grillet’s train of images reveals, N’s haunted and tormented mind.
Fragmented time forms a mosaic—even a kaleidoscope—of the present that N’s mind contains.
Prix Louis Delluc.
55. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964). Jacques Demy’s experimental musical in which the dialogue (all written by him) is sung, Les parapluies de Cherbourg invests the bittersweet with great power. The action itself, covering more than a decade, falls entirely within France’s delusional stand in defense of her colonialism in the Algerian War. Its constant singing expresses the lock that conventionalism has on people’s lives.
In Cherbourg, Geneviève, the daughter of a widowed shopowner, and Guy, who works as a garage mechanic, are passionately in love. The army drafts Guy; Geneviève finds herself pregnant with his child. Pressured by her mother, Geneviève marries a rich suitor. Believing that Geneviève would wait for him, Guy is devastated upon returning home; his guardian-aunt’s legacy moves him to accept her caregiver’s solace and helps him to open his own garage. Visiting Cherbourg, Geneviève, accompanied by their child, pulls into Guy’s garage; married now, Guy also has a child.
Geneviève is caught between her heart and the bourgeoisism that her mother embodies, whose notes of aspiration, convenience, complacency and betrayal Demy links to France’s (then, ongoing) military engagement. Seriously wounded, Guy nearly lost his life; having made the choice she did, one of class to boot and the choice that her mother also had made in marrying Geneviève’s father, Geneviève has relegated both herself and Guy to an emotionally compromised existence.
It is her mother’s “practicality” that Geneviève invokes when, discounting her own feelings, she decides to marry Roland if he proves his love by still wanting to marry her after learning she has been “knocked up.”
“It is strange,” Guy writes Geneviève from Algeria, “how sun and death travel together,” with its echo of Camus’s The Stranger. But Cherbourg’s raininess is redolent with its own kind of death.
The glorious music is by Michel Legrand.
56. PIERROT LE FOU (1965). The most tender and most troubled of love stories, Godard’s musical-satirical-tragicomedy shimmers with the beauty of love’s and life’s volatility and transience.
At a party, Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo, wonderful) passes through a funny series of monochromatic tableaux, each one with a different group of guests whose “conversation” consists of lines from TV commercials. This commercial vampirism, wherein people’s personalities have been taken over by consumerism, motivates Ferdinand to run off with his children’s babysitter, Marianne (Anna Karina, perfect), abandoning wife, job, home—in sum, his bourgeois life. Ferdinand is also in love with Marianne. He sets out with her, then, to follow his heart.
On the run, the lovers sleep in the wilds in complementary fetal positions, as though possessing a single body and soul; yet they remain separate and distinct. “We never understand one another,” Marianne tells Ferdinand; “You talk to me with words, and I look at you with feelings.” Their romance, she prophesies, will be short and sweet.
They put on a show for a docked American sailor. Marianne, in Vietnamese makeup, protests fiercely; Ferdinand, wearing a naval officer’s hat, spouts Americanese (“Sure”; “Yeah”). Fire and a wooden stick, the latter a prop bomber, assist the pair’s makeshift portrayal of the Vietnam War. Explosions, gunfire fill the soundtrack. “That’s darn good,” the American sailor says about this evocation of American slaughter. The U.S. has moved on to other atrocities; but nothing else in cinema so brings back the horror of that moment in time when America sold whatever shred of soul it possessed in the name of fighting communism.
The final shot of Pierrot le fou casts the by-now dead lovers’ disembodied voices against an illimitable nighttime sky.
Throughout, Raoul Coutard contributes the most gorgeous color cinematography I have seen.
Please visit also my long piece on Pierrot le fou:
57. ALPHAVILLE (1965). Jean-Luc Godard looks ahead, from the past and from his own vantage; a futuristic application of themes from poet Paul Éluard’s 1926 La capitale de la douleur, Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, operating under budgetary restrictions, uses present-day Paris, without tricks or prefabricated designs, to suggest a city of the future, Alphaville. (We know it isn’t Aerograd by the number of cars.) It is run by computers, of course, and it is on some other planet. Assisted by Raoul Coutard’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, Godard creates a vast, mysterious nighttime vision of chill beauty, where individual freedom is verboten and dehumanization reigns—an expression of Godard’s concern for the Western world circa 1965. Alphaville is Godard’s 1984.
Alphaville is haunted by memory. It reeks of totalitarism, under whose weight of political oppression humans can no longer project themselves ahead but can find traces of freedom only by entering the illimitable space of memory and imagination. Dead-end Alphaville, encapsulated by a mechanized voice, accompanied by teeming lights in voluminous darkness, including flashing neon, signals the luminous rebirth of human emotion: romantic love. The film persuades by leaving no doubt that Godard would go to the end of the cosmos for his enchanting spouse, Anna Karina. Will she and the hero escape Alphaville and make it back to Earth? And is this possible to do in a Ford Galaxy?
Godard fuels his sci-fi marvel with images, not plot. His surrogate in what story there is is secret agent Lemmy Caution, who, having indeed strayed from the confinement of plot, the pages of pulp detective fiction, has entered Alphaville in order to assassinate the city’s fascist architect, Professor von Braun. Caution’s destiny’s also in the stars.
A companion-piece to Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), this immemorial film dazzles and delights.
58. AU HASARD, BALTHAZAR (1966). A very strange and moving film, Au hasard Balthazar is the pilgrim’s progress of a saintly, downtrodden donkey in rural France. Indeed, Robert Bresson’s austere black-and-white film shows our world, or some segment of it, from Balthazar’s perspective. This world, the scene of the animal’s serial suffering, is cold, spiteful, cruel and criminal. Most people do not behave in ways worth emulating. One only hopes that the note of grace that Balthazar interjects reveals a more hospitable eternity beyond our world’s borders.
The donkey, which is expressionless, has been described by critic J. Hoberman as “pure existence.” We follow the course of its life, from birth to death, as it passes from hand to hand, and sometimes back again, in what might be described as a portrait of perpetual orphanage. Briefly, Balthazar is featured in a circus, but the rest of its existence is an anonymous, hidden ordeal. The human characters, who also are inscrutable and expressionless, treat one another poorly, too, and may in some sense be kin to Balthazar.
Formally, the action is conveyed through a lightning series of elliptical scenes that suggest a depth of experience beyond our capacity to plumb—or do I mean, beyond Balthazar’s capacity to plumb? In any case, only Balthazar demonstrates the perfect humility of Jesus that Christianity calls upon its members to emulate.
The same year as Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson also made Mouchette, from Georges Bernanos, a wonderful film about a human Balthazar, an abused rural teenager, who, experiencing rare liberty, rolls off a hill into a river and drowns herself.
Both are exacting in their vision of human nature and among the most compassionate films ever made.
59. THE RISE OF LOUIS XIV (1966). Ingrid Bergman behind him, Roberto Rossellini made the documentary India (1958) and then Il general della Rovere (1959); the latter was named best film at Venice, and the Italian critics named him best director. But, according to daughter Isabella, all this created a moment of crisis for Rossellini. He knew his World War II drama lacked the urgency of his 1940s work; the passage of fifteen years had given it a stylish gloss. Would prizes and renewed commercial success seduce him into continuing in the same vein? For a few years, it did; but then Rossellini decided to resurrect himself as an artist and strike out on a new, unchartered path. French television provided the means. Rossellini’s film about France’s Louis XIV’s coming into his own, eighteen years into his 72-year reign, brought a present tense to events three hundred years earlier. It applied neorealismo to the distant past.
With the death of his godfather, Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661, Louis, who had ascended to the throne when he was four, took real power—governance of France and Navarre as well as ceremonial rule. Rossellini’s film portrays the royal court as “a maze of intrigue,” as Eisenstein did in Ivan the Terrible (1944-46), but it does so in an unemphatic, “be there, watch this” way so different from Eisenstein’s expressionism. Perhaps Rossellini also sought to flesh out the reality of a figure who, thanks to the Man in the Iron Mask romance of Dumas père, had entered the domain of myth.
In effect, his film answers this question: How did Louis-Dieudonné become the Sun King?
Rossellini’s film amazes because it demystifies royalty in order to clarify, not debunk it.
It would also clarify Chinese monarchy when Bernardo Bertolucci applied Rossellini’s method to The Last Emperor (1987).
60. MASCULIN-FEMININ (1966). The main characters slip into roles, engaging reality at the protective remove that social masks permit. Throughout 15 disjointed vignettes, shy, 21-year-old Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud, brilliant) and singer Madeleine try penetrating each other’s, and their own, image and defenses. Lacking “finish,” Jean-Luc Godard’s films do not numb us into passivity. Masculin-Féminin keeps us alert; we catch it as it catches us.
Paul has just returned to Paris after his stint in the army. Military service, interruptive, put his growing up on hold; now Paul’s priority is his Vietnam-era politics, a matter of deep conviction but also another way to delay getting on with his life. Self-uncertain, Paul plunges into political activism and documentary filmmaking.
My long essay on Masculin-Féminin (hyperlink below) addresses its complex relationship with two Maupassant stories, “La femme de Paul,” about Paul Baron, whose mistress forsakes him one night for a lesbian encounter, prompting his suicide, and “Le signe.” In the film, Paul’s offscreen death is ambiguous. The official story is that he fell off an apartment balcony. Could it have been a leap to pavement, suicide being the only means, Paul may have felt, for negotiating the perpetual distance between himself and Madeleine? Or did Madeleine—or someone else—give the boy a push? An offscreen police officer questions an evasive Madeleine; because his questioning recalls Paul’s documentary interviews, we may interpret him as Paul’s reconstitution.
Protests in the film against American involvement in Vietnam, far from facilely promoting French superiority over the U.S., bears Godard’s deeply troubled memory of France’s own quagmire in Indochina and, more recently, the Algerian War. Paul, then, embodies Godard’s—more widely, humanity’s—concerns over war. We hear Paul’s voiceover at a bookstore asking, “Do you know that a war is going on between the Iraqis and the Kurds?”
Please visit also my long piece on Masculin-Féminin:
61. PLAYTIME (1967). On the loose in Paris, Monsieur Hulot must stay the night to roam the streets because the official he is supposed to meet is too busy to see him. Hulot’s delayed entrance gives advance hint of his invisibility when he appears since he is a silent figure in a sound film—well, at least a film that’s full of sounds. Percussive music accompanies the opening credits, while mellifluous music ironically accompanies the opening shot of Paris. The irony is doubled by the silence inside the airport terminal—except for the exaggerated sounds of people walking, including two nuns; one man’s shuffle sounds like a soft gallop. These everyday noises fix the alienated state of people, including their alienation from a modern urban environment overloaded with “thingamajigs.”
Suggesting a satirical fusion of Chaplin, Federico Fellini and Heironymous Bosch, Jacques Tati’s tribal Playtime may be the most detailed, visually intricate comedy in existence—disclosed almost entirely in long-shots, a “modern times” of glass walls, metallic gadgetry, and people at business and leisure (including a flock of American tourists herded from plane to hotel by bus), all befuddling Tati’s signature Hulot, whose pantomime and unfailingly polite air prevail, even when he is, understandably, mistaken for a door. Hulot maintains the fiction that he can remain himself in a world where no one is anyone any longer. Hulot isn’t one to “adapt”!
In Playtime’s summary image an obstinate glass door, given a good shake by Hulot, disintegrates. On a posh nightclub dance floor each couple acquits itself in its own style as part of a canvas of human frenzy rendered with documentary calm, which elevates the filmmaker’s vision to a phenomenon that is hilarious and, cumulatively, very moving.
Both glass and open night air expose Hulot’s vulnerability and our own.
62. LE SAMOURAI (1967). Alain Delon claimed his most melancholy role, and a brutal one, as hitman Jef Costello in Jean-Pierre Melville’s electrifying Le samouraï. Jef doesn’t make mistakes; his careful arrangement of details, including alibis, makes him arrest-proof. But his murder of a nightclub owner generates unaccustomed eyewitnesses, one of whom, the club singer, got a good look. After the police take him in, and let him go because the woman insists he is not the killer, he becomes a target for both the police and the one who had hired him.
Jef has little life apart from work. He lives in a spare, small apartment with one companion: a caged bird. This pet possesses a joyless, one-note chirp, but he or she is the essence of loyalty. When Jef returns after his place has been bugged, the animal’s agitation alerts him that something is amiss. The bird, at first little more than his or her sound, initially seems a projection of Jef’s solitude and forlorn, vampire-like existence; as the film progresses we wonder whether this companion, along with Jef’s loyal girlfriend, is all that keeps Jef sane; and at the end, when Jef meets a heart-piercing end that reveals his capacity for loyalty, we worry about the bird, who has now lost his or her one friend.
Delon is superb; but equally brilliant is François Périer, who plays the police inspector determined to bring Jef down. Both fatalistic and sadistic, as remorseless as Jef, and fleetingly human, compassionate, this cop believes that the end justifies the means.
“What sort of man are you?” the singer asks Jef when he tells her that he killed the club owner, whom he didn’t know, for money.
”Why, Jef?” she asks when he turns his gun on her.
63. THE UNFAITHFUL WIFE (1968). Claude Chabrol’s rigorous La femme infidèle is about delusional bourgeoisie willing themselves into a facsimile of sexual love simply to complete the jigsaw puzzle of their self-image. Hélène and Charles Desvallées participate in a token union. Charles (Michel Bouquet, superb) walks in on Hélène on the telephone taking such time at sending a presumably wrong number packing that we instantly know Hélène is speaking with her lover. “Do you love me?” Charles uneasily asks Hélène at dinner one night. Hélène doesn’t know what to say; Charles presses, and Hélène answers “Yes,” but dismissively, not reassuringly. Angled and off to one side, the camera composes an image of the pair’s seeming closeness in bed, but a shift in camera position reveals that they are widely apart. Charles hires a private detective and confronts Victor Pégala, the man cuckolding him. Unhinging Charles, Hélène has gifted Victor with the cigarette lighter that he had given her for their anniversary. He bludgeons Victor to death to reclaim this item.
Chabrol’s film, co-written by Paul Gégauff, shifts from Charles’s to Hélène’s point of view. Hélène is disconsolate that Victor no longer phones to arrange a tryst. When she discovers in Charles’s jacket a photograph of Victor with contact information, she makes the necessary calculations and destroys the evidence. Accomplices in a murder, the couple is finally, but silently, united.
The police come walking down the path to their secluded home in the country; Charles goes to meet the police; Hélène watches. The camera withdraws, correlative to Charles’s being taken away, in tandem with a forward zoom, correlative to Charles’s aching desire to remain. We see all he is losing through a luxuriant growth of trees.
Both characters are thus removed from the image of marital contentment they have managed to recompose.
Please visit also my long piece on La femme infidèle:
64. ARMY OF THE SHADOWS (1969). Jean-Pierre Melville, born Grumbach, was a member of the Resistance during the Occupation of France. Three wonderful films of his address this period during the Second World War: The Silence of the Sea (1947), Leon Morin, Priest (1961) and L’armée des ombres—although his film noirs also refer, symbolically, to the Resistance. Joseph Kessel, the author of the novel on which the film is based, was also a member of the Resistance.
This is a nuts-and-bolts film, rigorously detailing Resistance activities, including planning sessions, brutal interrogations, and executions, in which endlessly lonely, solemn participants, almost sleepwalking in the oppressive atmosphere of the times (to which the film’s repressed tenor is correlative), often seem divided from their own humanity as well as their nation, which they are relentlessly trying to reclaim and restore—although at times they also seem to be all mission, without memory of motive. A dark, somber film much of which unfolds in hidden, confined spaces, it is as psychological as historical. Its soldiering civilians in constant fear of death might pass for villains in another film. This is an unvarnished look at the French Resistance, and one doesn’t doubt for a moment its authenticity.
The protagonist is one of the movement’s leaders, but the most unforgettable character is Mathilde, played beautifully by Simone Signoret. A loyal, committed member, she finds herself between a rock and a hard place courtesy of the Gestapo, which threatens her with her teenaged daughter’s consignment to a Polish brothel unless she betrays the cause. Like other traitors, she is dispatched—one of the most emotionally bleeding moments in cinema.
There’s no question as to what must be done with her. There is endless question, though, whether the world can ever be made right after it’s done.
65. MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S (1969). Jean-Louis Trintignant is terrific as Jean-Louis, an unmarried engineer in his mid-30s, who knows his ideal woman when he sees her. Writer-director Eric Rohmer’s brilliant Ma nuit chez Maud opens with him in contemplation over a balcony on a Sunday morning; a sporadically devout Roman Catholic, should he attend Mass when what is really drawing him to church is a beguiling blonde parishioner? He goes and takes his glimpse, which is how in retrospect we are able to figure out what he had been contemplating. We “feel” his eye on this stranger by her uncomfortable looks back at him.
Jean-Louis runs into schoolmate Vidal after fourteen years. Over dinner they discuss Pascal’s Wager, the probabilities game of getting oneself in line for Eternity, whether one is a believer, just in case God exists. Jean-Louis finds many grounds on which to dispute Pascal, including the philosopher’s eventual repudiation of mathematics, upon which Jean-Louis’s professional life is based, but Vidal, a Marxist, dazzlingly applies Pascal’s Wager to history. And then he proceeds with yet another application, replacing Eternity with temporal bliss, by introducing Jean-Louis to Maud (Françoise Fabian, fabulous), a fresh divorcée with a quick intellect to match Jean-Louis’s. Jean-Louis spends his night with Maud but marries Françoise, the blonde from church, whom he meets after departing from Maud, and who, unbeknownst to him, may have participated in the adultery that precipitated Maud’s divorce. Like Maud, the couple have a child, and in a five-years-later coda, for all his intelligence at math and science, Jean-Louis is distinctly lagging understanding of his own wife and their marriage, the conventionality of which he clings to as to a life preserver.
Rohmer, a devout Roman Catholic, witheringly ponders Jean-Louis, who naïvely asserts, “Religion adds to love.”
Captivating, devastating comedy.
66. QUE LA BETE MEURE (1969). Claude Chabrol’s heart-piercing Que la bête meure, in color, is based on the 1938 British novel The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake—the pseudonym that poet Cecil Day-Lewis used when writing popular mysteries. Charles Thenier, the protagonist, is also an author—of children’s stories. He lives with young son Michel, whom we see at the beginning at the shore toting two fishing nets, one of them empty. When Michel becomes the fatal victim of a hit-and-run road accident, Charles sets out to identify the killer and dispatch him. We see (presumably) the child’s mother, Charles’s arms wrapped around her, in black-and-white home movies that Charles, haunted, revisits.
A number of correspondencies identify Charles himself with Paul Decourt, Michel’s killer, including a piece by Brahms. In some sense, Charles’s is searching, like Œdipus, for himself. Both men live in Brittany. Hélène, Paul’s sister-in-law, was once Paul’s mistress and becomes Charles’s mistress. Michel and Philippe, Paul’s teenaged son, look alike. By film’s end, Paul has been murdered and Charles may be headed toward suicide.
Chabrol’s film embraces ambiguity; we cannot determine who murders Paul: Charles, in his son’s name, or Paul’s own son, Philippe. Each in turn confesses, either telling the truth or sacrificing himself for the other’s sake. Charles’s mission to punish his son’s killer appears to memorialize his parental dedication. But the home movies where we alone see father and son together are idealized, idyllic—not the realistic documents they purport to be. What about the all too plainly real grief we observe when Charles picks up his dead son off the street, holds him in his arms and carries him off? Could Charles’s grief be driven by guilt for the missed opportunity of being a good father with which Charles is now left?
Please visit also my long piece on Que la bête meure:
67. THE TRAIN ROLLS ON (1971). Perhaps Chris Marker’s masterpiece, Le train en marche has three distinct parts—an unwieldy structure for a half-hour film. The film opens and closes with a silent train in motion, but this Cocteauan sandwiching only underscores the film’s split quality. This “splitness,” however, serves Marker’s overarching theme.
The first part is the most identifiably Markerian, a tone poem haunted by hypnotic voiceover: “Soon after October [the 1917 Revolution] the trains begin to roll, and through the trains surges the blood of the Revolution. . . . Through the trains the voice of Lenin was heard across the Soviet Union as far as the republics of Asia, where young Communists were bringing literacy to women in shackles.”
Archival materials also dominate the second part, which refers to the 1930s. A different voice introduces Aleksandr Medvedkin’s CineTrain, by which “cinema was to become something created out of contact with the people.”
When the film flashes forward by forty years, Medvedkin speaks directly to us, recalling the CineTrain’s traveling film studio. The object was to “film our people, show these films to our people, and thereby help them construct a new world.” Faults at a steel works, for example, were shown so that workers themselves could devise a plan to correct these.
Medvedkin now is old. (Of the CineTrain’s 32-member crew, only eight are still alive in 1971.) Not a single shot from the films remains. The Soviet Union, tarnished by Stalinism at home, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the fifties and sixties, no longer encapsulates the world’s hope. Now, nothing does.
But, like the peasant in Medvedkin’s satirical Happiness (1934), one must persevere to come close to happiness. “The biggest mistake would be to believe,” Marker says, “that [the train of revolution, of history] had come to a halt.”
68. OUT 1 : SPECTRE (1972). Originally made as the 13-hour Out 1: Noli me tangere, Jacques Rivette’s subsequent 4¼-hour version (which is what I have seen), involving two theatrical troupes, is his most entrancing multilayered “created reality” to draw us into a self-referential dream of doubled and parallel existences. It duplicates its cast (including marvelous Jean-Pierre Léaud, who, when first introduced, plays a deaf-mute playing a harmonica in search of handouts and some sort of recognition from café patrons) while going back and forth between a mystery narrative of sorts and improvised lunacy, thus having contrivance and free form, Old Wave and New, transparency and nontransparency (although it isn’t always transparent which is which) imaginatively collide. Out 1: Spectre is cinema’s great haunted-house comedy.
It is infused with intellectual spirit, and Rivette’s bag of tricks riddles the certainty of action and conversations into ambiguity, magic, possibility. There are long takes, and those that are reflections in mirrors put us in the position of engrossed mirror-gazers searching out strange others in ourselves; brief blackouts may interrupt a scene, reviving the discontinuity of Godard’s jump-cuts in A bout de souffle (1959) and again suggesting a revealing mismatch-up of person and persona, being and constructed image or self-image; sounds intrude to mask and obscure dialogue; and so forth. Rivette likes to keep us on our eyes and ears.
The film’s self-divided, self-analytical nature creates a delicious air of expectancy. Some of the film hints an experiment in real time, but in fact, like it does much else, the film approaches real time, and it’s the approach from which we infer psychological reality, including our own, as we begin to sense the degree to which actions in our own lives fail to coincide with our consciousness of these actions, our minds normally up ahead,
69. THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1973). By the time a guy realizes he is in love, the woman has decided she doesn’t love him. — Alexandre, referring to Gilberte
Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud, tremendous) is enamored of three women: current partner Marie, former partner Gilberte, and Veronika, whom he picks up one day and tells Marie about it because, he says, “I can’t keep anything from you.” Actually, Marie loves Alexandre more than he loves her, and Alexandre desperately wants to believe he and Gilberte might come together again sometime in the future. He himself relates this wish to the loss of political hopefulness among the French Left following May 1968. Alexandre illustrates lines by nineteenth-century English poet Matthew Arnold: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born.”
Writer-director Jean Eustache’s script is brilliant, hilarious. For 220 minutes his La maman et la putain thoroughly engages with its loose-ended young lives. Alexandre, despite a disadvantaged background, is learned, intellectual; he explains, he stole books as a child because poverty shouldn’t limit anyone’s education. Alexandre doesn’t work. Veronika, a nurse, is proud of her salty language and forthright discussions of sex. She anticipates the end of a relationship.
In a great passage, Alexandre and Veronika are walking at night to the Seine—“the water,” Veronika, who is Polish, calls it. She tells him she could walk with him all night. Earlier, at a restaurant, Alexandre began their date by monologuing, pontificating; Veronika finally joined in, gently asserting herself; and then the two connected, interacted, shared. We get to see the nervous date become a shared, breathing, equal thing.
Eustache’s film is tragic, its primarily lighthearted tone making it all the more heartrending, and very raw in portraying its characters’ sex lives and feelings. Its style resembles cinéma-vérité.
70. THE MIDDLE OF THE WORLD (1973). Paul Chamoret, a French Swiss engineer running for political office, thinks he is in love with Adriana (Olimpia Carlisi, terrific), a northern Italian emigrant who works as a waitress at the railway station café not far from where Paul was born. Rumors pertaining to his extramarital affair cost Paul the election; relieved, he anticipates a new life with Adriana. But she leaves him.
Sensitively written by the director and John Berger, Alain Tanner’s brilliant, feminist Le milieu du monde portrays a park in winter, trimmed trees in the background, each the exact same height, with snow falling diagonally on the cold grass, providing the illusion that we can see each individual flake. The trees represent Paul and this self-made man’s “perfect” life; but the snow suggests Adriana, who later remarks to Paul in bed, “Everyone always is alone.”
A widow, Adriana comes by this conviction easily. When she is with Paul, which is often, it is especially easy for Adriana to feel alone. When she suggests that their relationship may change each of them, Paul counters, “Why should I change?” “You never listen,” she later tells him. “If you don’t listen, you never get to know people. . . . You don’t know me.” She is right; Paul knows only what he wants. One time they are about to make love, Adriana counters, “I’m cold,” after Paul stupidly remarks, “Whores undress only below the waist.” Cut; Paul and Adriana are fucking, both entirely naked.
Across their divide of differences (Swiss, Italian; male, female; bourgeois, working-class), this couple presumably illustrates “normalization,” post-ideological détente, a middle of the road at the middle of the world. Paul gifts Adriana with a movie camera. She explodes; but isn’t she perhaps filming right now the story of their unequal relationship?
71. JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975). A sometime (and brilliant) documentarian, Chantal Äkerman remains a documentarian of sorts even in her fictions, seamlessly blending the two modes, for example, in her first masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. In addition, the particularity of the title yields to a generalization on the modern human condition. Äkerman’s minimalism assists this process and the other, collapsing forms of expression at opposite poles into a common essence. Similarly, sound yields to nearly total silence.
In her greatest role, Delphine Seyrig plays Jeanne, a widow who belle-de-jours in her own home to support herself and her son. Here is a soul, it is implied, without better options, and her twin activities, domestic and remunerative, have much the same character. Äkerman, then, has collapsed the difference between these also, wittily/tragically reflecting on the cultural assignment of “woman’s work.” Both are driven by necessity, in one instance, psychic, for the sake of imposed order, and in the other, financial. At the same time, Luis Buñuel’s film (Belle de jour, 1967) reminds us, the motives for becoming a prostitute may be ambiguous and complex. For Jeanne, it is a routine that both extends and takes her out of her domestic routine and connects her with her son by elusively paralleling his school attendance.
This powerful film’s 3⅓ hours cover three days. They are three routine, repetitive days like countless others in Jeanne Dielman’s life. The routine and the repetition are in effect anchoring Jeanne, shielding her from the unchartable, indefinable void of modern existence; their rupture triggers calamity, exposing the lack of structure and cohesiveness for which the routine was compensation and cover-up. At the end, isn’t Jeanne’s apparent explosion really an implosion?
Äkerman’s feminism yields an across-gender social critique.
72. NUMERO DEUX/ESSAI TITRES (1975). Co-directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mièville, Numéro Deux/Essai Titres proceeds in sections, mostly domestic vignettes, essaying three generations of a family (un)settled under one roof. Grandpa, steeped in nostalgic socialism, touches on the horrors of The Factory’s workaday reality; in a chemical factory, he notes, women’s fingers are being eaten by acid. Industry considers workers replaceable tools, part of the machinery.
Pierre, home from The Factory, belittles wife Sandrine, who keeps house, raises the kids, envies Pierre that he gets out of the house, and wonders aloud why he always gets to decide when (and how) they have sex.
To brother Nicolas’s statement, “There was a landscape, but they put a factory in it,” Vanessa says, “There was a factory, and we put a landscape around it.” We do adjust ourselves to the unnatural, the inhuman; capitalism can come to seem natural—even inevitable. Grandpa recalls the camouflaging garden planted around a wartime weapons factory. We hide The Factory, where we toil for others, even from ourselves. Thus we make peace with the unnaturalness we have bought into.
Godard shows capitalism penetrating our lives, shaping behavior. Nicolas watches a TV sports event while Grandpa wants to see the Soviet film another station is broadcasting. Rude like his father vis-à-vis his mother, Nicolas tells Grandpa, “I don’t care if you’re happy.” Thus the way Papa gets treated at work has made its way down to how a child addresses his grandfather. Offscreen, Pierre further lights into Grandpa, defending his son’s selfishness as he would his own: “Get your own set.” Grandpa, defeated, responds: “Selling price. Buying price. I have no savings.” (Which is why he is there.) Family has thus been coarsened and reduced to the power coordinates of commerce. Home’s new “hearth” is The Factory.
Please visit also my long piece on Numéro Deux/Essai Titres:
73. GRIN WITHOUT A CAT (1977). A massive journalistic essay on the post-colonial failures of Leftist radicalism and revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, Le fond de l’air est rouge (literally, The Base of the Air Is Red), by Chris Marker, a Leftist, marshals a wide range of archival materials, including newsreel excerpts and interviews. The titles of its two parts, “Fragile Hands” and “Severed Hands,” chart the direction in which the thing moves. The launching perspective is the rupture of political tissue connecting socialism and communism in France.
The first part addresses the 1968 university student protests in Paris, in particular, unionism’s co-opting of these by assigning strikes to their tail. Unions perhaps perceived a relationship between these protests against societal oppression, citizen apathy, and the Vietnam War (the colonialist Indochina War that the U.S. had taken over from France) and their own interests, or simply an opportunity to impress these high-profile protests to their own ends. Thus Marker challenges the myth of Leftist coordination and solidarity, finding little political potential in the heady revolutionary atmospherics in which Paris had become immersed. Ranging the globe (the Congo, Bolivia, Chile, etc.), his film proceeds to deal with numerous events, such as right-wing assassinations and the confrontations between citizens and police throughout Europe.
Alas, I saw the U.S. version, which is reduced by an hour—and not by the editor, Marker himself. Rather than collating different examples of the failure of radicalism and revolution, this version sometimes lurches forward from one example to the next, with only a sentence of narration forging a connection between them, and no mention is made of a country’s revolution’s becoming mired in pre-revolutionary history, culture. Moreover, a wan British voice has replaced narrators Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, whose disllusionment with Sovietism after Prague ’68 was bone-deep.
74. HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978). Perhaps the two most dazzling and brilliant works of Victorian literature are Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1834) and Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868-9). One is a convoluted piece of autobiographical prose; the other, a long, complex modernist poem about a Roman murder trial two hundred years earlier. As springboard, each work incorporates a synopsis of its remarkably similar genesis: the coming into the author’s hands of a book or facsimile—in Carlyle’s case, an esoteric unpublished manuscript by a German professor, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh; in Browning’s case, an account of the trial that has come to be known as the Old Yellow Book. In the latter case, Browning did purchase such a book at a Florentine flea market in 1860; but in Carlyle’s case, the discovery was an elaborate ruse that allowed him to stretch and snap the traditional style of narrative autobiography and to address all manner of social, political and religious subjects at stormy and frequently hilarious liberty.
L’hypothèse du tableau volé, by Râúl Ruiz (in France, Raoul Ruiz), a political self-exile from Chile, is a film that approaches the level of wit and invention of Carlyle’s first masterpiece.
Written by Ruiz and Pierre Klossowski, it’s presented with a poker face as the studious tour of a cache of discovered paintings. Their purported discoverer lectures us; if we don’t grasp that (in subsequent parlance) we’re being punk’d, we may be inclined to bend to his expertise. The film’s bizarre “explanations” of tableaux vivants based on the bogus series of “discovered” paintings, in fact, throw into question all such self-involved, convolutedly rational, dictatorially arbitrary exegesis. Soft, dim, in rarefied black and white (the cinematographer is Sacha Vierny), its bewitching visual aspect suggests the self-reflective interiority of Edgar Allan Poe.
75. LES RENDEZ-VOUS D’ANNA (1978). Parisian Belgian-born Chantal Äkerman’s most emotionally exacting film, Anna’s Meetings, centers on Parisian Belgian-born filmmaker Anna Silver. Her arrival in Germany to show a film occasions the static, symmetrical, long-held opening shot of a vacant train station stairwell. A train finally pulls in at the opposite platform; eventually, before the train continues, out of the right-hand lower corner of the screen a swarm of humanity appears and descends the stairs. Patient, orderly, by contrast with the platform’s rigid design these people are a teeming mess! They disappear down below, eventually followed by the independent filmmaker, all alone in a foreign country. Äkerman’s stand-in speaks French slowly, Germans speak French haltingly to her, both to be understood.
Anna has come together with a soul for the lonely night: Heinrich Schneider (Helmut Griem, heart-piercing), a schoolteacher. In bed, Anna aborts their awkward foreplay (“We don’t love each other”) but visits Heinrich and his five-year-old daughter on her birthday in Bottrop, during which time Schneider reports his wife’s abandonment, a fellow schoolteacher’s denouncement and discharge for being “anti-social,” and laments Germany’s twentieth-century history: “What will become of [my country]?” We add our own perspective and answer : “Reunification.”
It grates that Heinrich doesn’t acknowledge the Holocaust. In Cologne, Anna next visits Ida, a Polish Jewish friend and war refugee, who remarks: “We have no family [in Germany anymore]. They’re either dead or all scattered.” Holocaust, diaspora. Äkerman herself is Jewish.
For all the solidity of subway station stairs, this film is about transients, transience: the bluish landscape fleeing outside the window on the train to Cologne.
In this episodic film denoting a fractured Europe, Anna cannot commit romantically as she tries coming to grips with her lesbianism. “In transit”—which much of the film is—translates into transience.
76. DOSSIER 51 (1978). Brilliantly written by Gilles Perrault and the director from Perrault’s novel, Michel Deville’s (by far) best film unfolds entirely from the viewpoint of a subjective camera, befitting the relentless surveillance of Dominique Auphal, a young French diplomat, by a foreign government’s secret service that is shadowing him (perhaps with French governmental assent), amassing a dossier of information about him, seeking the critical vulnerability of his that might be used to compromise him and thus undermine his organization’s aim of providing economic counsel and assistance to African nations. Gathered data, once analyzed, yields the conclusion, possibly accurate, possibly not (it hardly matters), that Auphal is homosexual. “Exposed,” he commits suicide.
This is not an obtuse, inflated melodrama, like Francis Ford Coppola’s similarly inclined The Conversation (1974), but, rather, a clinical, burrowing, harrowing achievement. The anonymous voiceover that accompanies the spying camera—in effect, the film itself is the visual equivalent of “dossier 51”—suggests the inhumanity of the spies’ activities; in addition, the loneliness of their surveillance comes to seem a mirror-image of the loneliness of Auphal’s life. Human connections have been lost in a chilling atmosphere where privacy is routinely and perniciously invaded by political forces too daunting and powerful for targets to withstand. The student protests in Paris in 1968 seemed to predict a progressive future through organized activism; less than a decade later, a progressive individual seems hopelessly alone, while reactionary forces are as organized as ever, and technologically advanced.
The film’s dry, distanced style, then, reflects the efficient detachment of the snooping agents, but there is also to it a margin of irony that subtly admits wit and compassion in order to put the dossier compilers, and their activities, in perspective. Moreover, the wonderfully wounded performance by Françoise Lugagne as Dominique’s grieving mother breaks the viewer’s heart.
77. PERCEVAL (Rohmer, 1978). Perceval le Gallois is not in the mold of writer-director Eric Rohmer’s contemporary romantic comedies. After all, it derives from a 12th-century work by Chrétien de Troyes! (Rohmer’s farewell film, however, returns to medievalism.) Highly stylized and studio-shot, with minimalist sets and gorgeous color (cinematographer, Nestor Almendros), the film purports to show the Middle Ages as it appeared to those living then—whatever that means. It’s a spare film of poignant innocence, the poignancy lying in the loss of innocence knowledge of which we bring to the film. Paradoxically (and brilliantly), Perceval le Gallois immerses us in its distancing, giving us a double sense of time correlative to innocence and the loss of which we are selfconscious. Some of us may even feel we have “fallen” into a better place.
Rohmer’s theme, the arrogance of entitlement or of the sense thereof, sounds a cautionary note for the Western world of Rohmer’s day. Perceval, the young Welshman with “noble bearing,” is an ugly little snot who takes what he wants. (The peasants working his mother’s land “shook with fear” at his presence.) When he crosses a tent occupied with an unattended damsel, he steals a kiss and her ring. He demands of poor King Arthur that he be made a knight—and not just any knight but the Red Knight, whose armor he covets, and whom he kills with a spear through the eye just to make that armor his own. Perceval’s (itself half-hearted) attachment to his mother underscores his incapacity to feel for anyone else.
The presentation is complex. Quartets of singers tell the story that we watch unfold, and Perceval’s own monologues assist the story’s onward course. One might say that Perceval’s tale of knightly accomplishment is overtold, reinforcing the stress of his sense of entitlement.
78. WE SPIN AROUND THE NIGHT AND ARE CONSUMED BY FIRE (1978). “Order reigns but does not govern.”
Perhaps inadvertently, but nonetheless a virtual companion-piece to Chris Marker’s Grin Without a Cat (1977), future suicide Guy Debord’s In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni is a documentary on the state of things in France, socioeconomically, culturally, politically. Debord provides caustic commentary throughout a series of stills and film clips, with photographic inserts of himself as he responds to reactionary reaction to himself and his work. The statement with which he begins is the credo of all genuine artists: “I will make no concessions to the public.”
Debord’s sober, massive documentary takes on “commodized society,” the “chemistry of adulteration.” The working class comprises marginal existences that society has trained into the habit of spending. The cinema to which they flock is “a deranged imitation of deranged life.” Its “existing images reinforce the existing [sociopolitical] lies.” To say the least, the film is far-ranging.
Like Marker’s film, Debord’s addresses a divided Left, referring, for example, to “. . . those flourishing political and labor-union functionaries [who are] always ready to prolong the grievances of the proletariat for another thousand years in order to preserve their own role as its defender.” More often, Debord addresses governmental corruption.
His is a dry, ascerbic attitude—humanistic though not necessarily humane, at times cynical, even misanthropic. For Debord, Marcel Carné’s immensely popular Children of Paradise (1945) has been appropriated by a reactionary culture, turning its egalitarian spirit from living principle to sentimental complacency. The people of France have been divested of the idea of the people.
It is not unusual for French documentaries to hew to a strictly analytical line. But this is a noble work, and Debord confesses, “The sensation of time’s passage has always been vivid for me.”
79. LA CHANSON DE ROLAND (1978). Frank Cassenti’s gorgeous Song of Roland is not exactly an adaptation of the French medieval epic. Rather than taking place in the tenth century, as the eleventh-century poem does, it takes place in the twelfth. Peasants on a pilgrimage to a holy site are accompanied by a band of travelling players who enact the exploits of Charlemagne’s soldiers. Their journey is upheaved by a peasant uprising, costing the lives of some members. However, Klaus, the actor playing Roland des Roncesvalles (Klaus Kinski, tremendous), becomes a hero himself by taking up the peasants’ cause.
Cassenti’s film is a meditation on life and art, but also one on time and history. Filled with song and in-the-momentness, the pilgrimage seemingly suspends time, with its religious motive granting it an eternal component. The performances, though, enact a French history of war and betrayal. But in the present it isn’t foreign invaders that are the concern, but injustices stirring up homegrown rebellion. All this looks ahead to France at the time of the film’s making, when it was enjoying a respite of peace following wars of the 1950s and 1960s, in Indochina and Algeria, and mindful as well of the upheavals at home in the late sixties. It is time for France to tend to its people rather than obsessing on dangers from without. By way of meta-text, alas, France would again find itself worrying about a form of Islamic “invaders”—immigrants—up ahead.
In the course of this enchanting film, both peace and violence are shown—but “peace” as a rarefied realm that exists apart, and aloof, from righteous agitation. It provides a glimpse of heaven, perhaps, but there is raw and necessary work to be done here on earth, to bring justice as well as poetry into people’s lives.
80. (ON) TOP OF THE WHALE (1982). By the late twentieth century, the United States and the U.S.S.R. have appropriated Europe—the Soviet Union, for instance, the Netherlands. This conceit imagines the transformation of familiar nations into states of exile. Chilean surrealist Râúl Ruiz’s own European exile was prompted by the military coup against Allende, whose cinema advisor he had been. Het Dak van de Walvis is one of his most delirious and ambitious hoax-like fictions.
A Dutch couple, anthropologists, visit the retreat of millionaire communist Narcisso, presumably in the wilds of Patagonia. There, the woman, Eva, digs up tribal artifacts on the grounds with her bare hands and her husband painstakingly interviews Adam and Eden, two surviving members of the Yachanes Indians, whose language (concocted by Ruiz) he attempts to decipher and record. Meanwhile, five other languages are also spoken: Dutch, Spanish, French, German and English.
Linked to one in Eva’s dream, Narcisso’s remote house admits realistic interiors, although sparked by the magic of shadow-plays and mirrors, while the exterior, in long-shot, exists in the landscape of a dream. While her husband clings to his identity of scientific outsider, appropriating discoveries as his neocolonialist own, Eva chooses to remain behind when he leaves. In the course of the film her child’s gender slides from boydom into girldom; even more so than her mother, Anita fits in in her new surroundings.
This wonderful film is ill-served by critical attempts to seize upon a remark here or there for the comfort of a reductive meaning. Ruiz illuminates the distances that the familiar, outside world creates when it deludes itself into believing that it is closing these distances. Some feel that the film is esoteric; rather, it is gravely mysterious, gorgeously distilling the sadness, longings and emotional disarray of political exile.
81. TOUTE UNE NUIT (1982). Compressed into the course of a single night in Brussels, various couples interact, some of them strangers, many of them grabbing at each other across a gulf of loneliness or fear—perhaps fear of loneliness. In All Night Long, Belgian minimalist Chantal Äkerman gives the impression of having cut into a series of dramas, each at its highest point, when someone is leaving with someone, someone is leaving someone, or someone is returning to or reuniting with someone. Each drama is unique, and yet each is structured by similar emotional imperatives that consign it to an identical pattern of behavior. We may not see our lives in the film’s vignettes, but we see our longings and concerns, feel them refreshed, and find them clarified by the intensity of their expression.
Instead of a safely potted narrative plant, Äkerman gives us a plethora of seemingly random narrative shoots. These bits of life reflect how we experience our own lives. Characters are let go of for a while and picked up again. While her husband soundly sleeps, a woman noisily packs her bag right on the bed and leaves him, goes to a hotel, but returns home at dawn defeated, gets back into bed just in time for the ringing alarm clock to presumably awaken her, as well as him. For years I took exception to this artificial aspect, this miniature story, but now I find that it underscores by contrast the different method of the rest of Äkerman’s formally rigorous yet open-ended film.
Äkerman’s characters aren’t an exclusive bunch. They represent a range of ages, live in houses and apartments, include same-sex couples (a volatile pair of gals, a tender pair of guys).
Encapsulating the passion of Toute une nuit is a recurring Italian pop tune, “L’amore perdonera.”
82. L’ARGENT (1983). We tend to think in boxes. Materialism is one thing; spirituality, quite another. Yet in the cinema of Robert Bresson, materialism yields a store of spirituality.
From a story by Leo Tolstoi, “The Forged Note,” Bresson’s final film is titled L’argent—that is, Money. A schoolboy uses a counterfeit 500-franc note at a shop whose owners just as knowingly pass it on to a young laborer who is servicing them with an oil delivery. It is he who, using the phony note at a restaurant, is tried criminally; the charges are dismissed, but this boy, too proud to reclaim his job, descends a chute into crime, including murder, for which he never seemed destined. He loses wife, toddler, home, himself—all the upshot of that note whose forgery he never guessed. One might say that the bill was passed from hand to hand, but Bresson shows the transactions otherwise. The bill instead passes from hand to hand while finding at last its home. Money has a life of its own here, controlling everyone and everything in society, contested only by the free will that the boy, in the grip of need, fails to summon. However, the film will end with his redemption, by which time Bresson will have dismantled the fragile barrier between providence and individual, between apparent universal direction and the messy groping and stumbles issuing from the mind and spirit of this accidental criminal.
Bresson typically isolates and amplifies sounds to emphasize materiality: footsteps; objects being set down on a table; ringing cash register; doors opening and closing; screeching mopeds. It is an impersonal world in which humans impassively disadvantage fellow humans—a world seemingly without mystery, out of which Bresson precisely sculpts the dusky, illimitable mystery of the course of a human soul.
83. VAGABOND (1985). Sandrine Bonnaire, excellent, is Mona Bergeron, a backpacking dropout and drifter who appears in farmland country. She comes from the city; or (although dry) she walked out of the sea, according to one legend. Legends, gossip, interviews; a wide glance at the girl is pieced together by police after her corpse one morning is found in a ditch.
Beautifully written and directed by Agnès Varda, Sans toit ni loi—literally, Without Roof or Rule—is constructed as a curve-around narrative, its flashbacks and testimonies proceeding from the ditch and ending there; but the circle is incomplete. Whereas the film begins with Mona’s death from exposure to the elements, it ends with her still alive. She has stumbled into the ditch for what she may think is a night’s sleep. She cannot muster strength to raise herself and in any case has no place else to go.
Abrasive, defiant, solitudinous even when pretending to be sociable, Mona has turned off with her attitude everyone with whom she has come into contact. She hasn’t revealed herself. But the construction of the narrative, which leaves Mona alive even as we know she has already died, lays responsibility for her fate, at least partly, on us.
We needed to make more of an effort to get to know this child. We should have done more to protect her. Kids are too busy being themselves, or who they think are themselves, to know when they need our help, and too stubborn and proud to ask for it even if they do know.
When they callously manipulate us, they are doing what they need to do in order to survive. If we respond defensively, moralistically, we are putting them into the ditch.
Varda’s indefatigably humane film won the top prize at Venice.
84. A TALE OF WINTER (1992). In Eric Rohmer’s Conte d’hiver, Félicié (Charlotte Véry, most felicitous) makes passionate love with Charles, a cook, with whom she falls out of touch, having given him a wrong address, before he leaves the country. Five years later, Félicié is raising their daughter, Elise. In Paris, she has two lovers: Loic and Maxence, for whom she works. By not choosing one of them over the other Félicié has preserved the memory of Charles’s romantic preeminence. But now Félicié must choose. Maxence has decided to leave Paris for his home town. Leaving Loic behind, Félicié goes with Maxence. After experiencing a “lucid” moment in church, however, Félicié returns to Paris. One night she and Loic, now just a friend, attend a performance of The Winter’s Tale, from which Félicié concludes that Hermione is brought back to life by faith. This in turn leads her to anticipate Charles’s miraculous reappearance. Then one day, sitting opposite her and Elise on a bus . . . .
Félicié, note, does not even “own” her choice of Maxence over Loic; her decision to accompany Maxence is forced by his decision to leave Paris. (Indeed, Maxence’s decision is partly motivated by his desire to force this decision.) This in turn makes easier Félicié’s opting out of her “choice” by returning to Paris. The first in a series of romantic dodges, self-deceptions and equivocations, Félicié’s “slip” of giving Charles a wrong address was also an unconscious way of giving herself a way out of a relationship in order to keep from becoming bound to an uncertain choice. Rohmer shows that Loic and Maxence are similarly rattled by responsibility in romance.
Like Shakespeare, Rohmer finds sexual love a grand—a necessary—subject. His Winter’s Tale is a blissful descent into its ambiguous depths.
Please visit also my long piece on A Tale of Winter:
85. OLIVIER, OLIVIER (1992). From France, Olivier, Olivier is Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s captivating, heartrending companion-piece to Europa Europa (1991). Both, fact-based, highlight an adolescent boy’s rough life—in Salomon’s case, because he is a German Jew impersonating a Nazi to elude imprisonment, death; in Olivier’s case, because, a runaway from his stepfather’s sexual abuse, he ekes out a perilous existence as a prostitute. Also leading a “double life,” Olivier expediently, and convincingly, slips into the role of Elizabeth and Serge Duval’s vanished son. Behavior of his suggests he must be Olivier six years hence, although the child’s remains are eventually discovered in a neighbor’s basement. We have, then, a mystery of time and identity. While Europa, Europa shows a boy with two identities, Olivier, Olivier shows two boys with one identity.
Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” echoes: when nine-year-old Olivier takes off from his rural home on a bicycle, he wears his red 49ers cap and is headed to his ailing grandmother’s house with a basket of food his mother prepared; en route, he is lured off the path by a “wolf”—Marcel, whose sexual overtures precipitate the child’s death down a flight of stairs. Meanwhile, the fifteen-year-old Olivier ends up appropriated by the Duvals, with whom he remains to console them and keep them on an even keel and to assuage his guilt for having pretended to be their son in the first place.
Holland analyzes why people, including Inspector Druot, accept the teenager as “Olivier”—although we believe him when he tells Druot: “I’m telling you the truth. No kidding: My name is Sébastien Blanche.”
“Why did you pretend?” Druot asks. Sébastien: “It’s what you wanted. It suited everyone. To make you happy.”
Grégoire Colin plays Sébastien with amazing sensitivity, a chiseled face and haunted eyes. Sébastien’s eyes.
Please visit also my long piece on Olivier, Olivier:
86. THE BIRTH OF LOVE (1993). “Do you love me?” This question involving friends Marcus and Paul encapsulates contemporary egotism and self-doubt. Marcus must ask this of his partner, who may have initiated their love affair but who is now exhausted by her lover’s need for reassurance, which losing his job has only deepened. On the other hand, Paul receives the question from the mother of his teenaged son and infant daughter. He loves family for whatever reassurance it provides against the uncertainties of life; but her in particular? He is more emotionally giving in succession to two mistresses. At one point, their son relays his mother’s question to his father, and we understand that the boy also wonders whether Papa loves him. Paul has returned home only to abandon his family again; “Papa! Papa!” the boy cries out into the street as Paul, suitcase in hand, once again leaves in the midst of his middle-age crisis.
Brilliantly written by the director and Marc Cholodenko, Philippe Garrel’s La Naissance de l’amour is a film about two men who are “wanderers” even when they stay relatively put. It is about life’s loose-endedness, its incapacity to provide fulfillment for its artistically gifted members who aren’t runaway successes. Paul acts; Marcus writes.
Assisted by Raoul Coutard’s peerless black-and-white cinematography, The Birth of Love is Godard’s Alphaville (1965) long since come back to Earth with heartbreak. It is domestic indoors, except in the bedroom, where it is achingly lonely and reaching-out; outdoors at night, as Paul and Marcus walk together, it is lyrical and endlessly dead-ended. Finally, the film takes to the road as Paul delivers Marcus to Rome.
Subtle use of hand-held camera becomes a part of our eye.
Lou Castel gives a lived-in, career-capping performance as Paul; Jean-Pierre Léaud is a wonderful Marcus.
87. LATE AUGUST, EARLY SEPTEMBER (1998). Life is fragile and fleeting, along with everything in it—and that includes male friendships as well as romantic relationships. Writer-director Olivier Assayas has created a complex masterpiece with his brilliantly scripted tragicomedy Fin août, début septembre, one whose especial focus consists of two relationships in which Gabriel participates. Gabriel is a young man who doesn’t quite know how to use his literary interest and expertise in terms of employment. He is at loose ends also in romance, leaving one partner, Jenny, for another, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen, marvelous), whom he is slow to realize he deeply loves and whose challenging forwardness covers her insecurities. Gabriel is friends with Adrien, a few-times published novelist whom he admires. They are scarcely in sync. Gabriel is selfconscious but not really self-aware, while Adrien is keenly self-aware but not selfconscious. Adrien also lacks self-confidence, while part of Gabriel’s self-confidence derives from his knowledge that Adrien lacks it. The high intelligence of either allows him to negotiate the gap between the qualities he possesses and the ones he lacks. Adrien falls deathly ill, coalescing his philosophical disposition while Gabriel, with so much in his life remaining unresolved, fails to respond adequately to this friend of his. Indeed, it is eventually revealed how competitive Gabriel is with Adrien. We see this, but it is doubtful that Gabriel does.
If one grasps their implications, the film’s final few moments overflow with stunning, heart-piercing revelation.
Assayas’s quick, light use of hand-held camera is correlative to the quick, light mortal breeze permeating the lives of his characters, except for Adrien’s secret 15-year-old mistress middle-aging men and women who are constantly taking the pulse of their lingering youth and promise.
Mathieu Amalric plays Gabriel. His tremendous performance is among the greatest in cinema.
88. THE CARRIERS ARE WAITING (1999). A brilliant, painfully funny tragicomedy about family in a Belgian suburb within sight of a grimy industrial landscape, former documentarian Benoît Mariage’s Les convoyeurs attendent beautifully mixes naturalism and surrealism.
The Clossets live on Impasse Jaunet. (Note both names: family; street.) A newspaper photojournalist, Roger runs to each newsworthy event that’s reported on his police band radio. His wife, Madeleine, is plainly patient, tolerant, long-suffering. Her stoicism is matched by the couple’s 8-year-old daughter, Luise, whose shyness is matched by her sensitivity to what goes on around her. Her teenaged brother, Michel, is sweet on Jocelyne. Félix, a reclusive neighbor (Philippe Grand’Henry, giving the best performance), works in a factory but lives for the competitive carrier pigeons he raises. Like Luise, who befriends this kindred spirit, he is shy, quiet, gentle, kind. A greedy local bully fancies Félix’s prize pigeon, Napoléon.
Roger yearns for a bit of status in his bleak life. To win a car to replace his demoralizing scooter, he orders Michel to beat the current Guinness record for door openings, walk-throughs and closings in a 24-hour period. The lone standing frame and door that he sets up outside, for Michel’s tortuous training, is out of Magritte; the contest itself unfolds in a boxing ring. Many superlative shots situate Roger in the foreground while in the background Michel practices—a projection of Roger’s desire to find a door to success that is getting him nowhere. Roger bullies his son to distraction, leading to a self-destructive (and car-destructive) act that leaves Michel comatose. It is in such a state that Michel and pregnant Jocelyne participate in the weirdest wedding ceremony since Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969).
Roger reminds me of my own father: insecure, cruel, erupting into violence, awash in crocodile tears.
89. HUMANITY (1999). In Bruno Dumont’s nonprofessionally cast L’humanité, an eleven-year-old girl, dropped off by her school bus and on her way home, is raped and killed; the force of the intrusion shreds her vagina. We see none of this. Very briefly we see the aftermath. Not the child’s face; everything else.
The small town police superintendent who investigates is deeply affected by the crime. Two years earlier he lost both girlfriend and baby in a road accident. Pharaon De Winter suffers lost children; he embraces humanity, feels complicit in the suffering of others. The film largely unfolds in Bailleul, the northern town in France where Dumont is from. De Winter could be Dumont.
Pharaon, unorthodox, sniffs a suspect, “inappropriately” hugs and kisses suspects and others. He isn’t above suspicion himself. He is sexually frustrated ; a grown man, he lives with his mother. He has a temper. He throws himself on the ground sobbing before an official report of the crime even reaches him.
Some reviewers suggest that Pharaon doesn’t solve the crime. Certainly he takes no credit. When at last he confronts the contrite confessed killer, he remarks, “Surely it isn’t you.” And, in a way, it isn’t. It could be any one of us, including Pharaon himself. But in his seemingly slow-witted way it is Pharaon who has moved the investigation along to the point when the killer must reveal himself. This is Pharaon’s humanity; however, it’s also his way of playing God. For Pharaon, since there is no possibility of glory in raping, murdering and mutilating a child, neither is there glory in solving such a heinous crime. This also is Pharaon’s humanity. He does his job in such a way as to allow others to take credit; but with all his heart he does his job.
Please visit also my long piece on Humanity:
90. LES GLANEURS ET LA GLANEUSE (2000). Armed with a digital camera, Agnès Varda has made what she calls “a wandering-road documentary.” Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, about those who pick up leftovers from fields following a harvest, finds Varda “gleaning” images. She draws sustenance from the men and women gleaners she watches and interviews and from the tradition of the female gleaner to which she herself belongs. It’s a delicious sense of gender communion—the essence of the feminist mindset.
We hear Varda’s voice: “In the beginning, only women were gleaners.” This implies that the activity, close to the earth, is somehow essentially, intrinsically, innately female; the gleaners we see in Jean-François Millet’s painting The Gleaners (1857) are metaphorically giving birth to what they glean, for they are giving the “new life” of utility to what would otherwise be left to rot. Moreover, in this case “utility” denotes the nurturing and sustenance of human life. Humans need food to live, and Millet’s painting captures a scene of dire poverty besides, where gleaning isn’t simply useful but necessary to avert starvation. Millet also imparts a glow to his image that suggests a spiritual as well as material activity—and this aura, ironically, reminds us how close to death, to burial, are these women and the families they represent.
Gleaning as snatching morsels of life from the hovering mortal shadow: to suggest the rush of time, Varda speeds up the motion of (mostly young) museum patrons viewing the Millet painting. Varda’s odd handless clock has symbolical hands: Varda’s own wrinkled ones, which she shows in closeup throughout the film.
Grapes left for ruin because Burgundy winegrowers prohibit gleaning; moreover, wine production is strategically limited to increase its financial value, ensuring more wasted grapes: capitalism.
For Varda, gleaning recycles, converting waste to use.
Please visit also my long piece on Les glaneurs et la glaneuse:
91. FRIDAY NIGHT (2002). The film opens ambiguously; is it a rose of dusk or dawn that blossoms in the sky? In the wide-angle shot of Paris only the distant Eiffel Tower seems to be dissolving into fog. Vacating her apartment, Laure is planning this Friday night on dinner with friends before moving into her lover’s place. But François is remote, indistinct, represented by a brief note Laure leaves behind and a message tape when she phones.
Paris is at a near standstill, its dense traffic generated by a public transport strike. A voice on the radio urges Parisians to be “charitable” by offering rides to others; people are stepping outside themselves to let strangers in. Jean knocks at Laure’s car window; these ordinary two will end up spending the night together—a “one-night stand,” the fleeting experience of a lifetime. At dawn, Laure will resume the course of her life as Jean sleeps, her leaps to her parked car, along with her wide smile, recorded in slow motion. It’s off to François, without a care—except, we recall, the glove Laure dropped onto the pavement amidst her first kiss with Jean en route to the hotel. It is the something of herself that she has forever left behind.
Written by Emmanuèle Bernheim, from her novel, and the director, Claire Denis, Vendredi soir is a film of tender, intimate feelings shared by two strangers in something of a dream. It is a quiet film of hugs and caresses, closeups of silently moving hands and bare feet, sparse dialogue, and a rapturous instance of lovemaking, with the camera’s eye in the folds of seemingly effortless flesh.
Stasis yields to transience, and in the hotel room, magically, a red lampshade has drifted onto a bulb.
Denis’s finest film stills our breath.
92. MONDAY MORNING (2002). Gently satirical, Georgian/Soviet-born Otar Iosseliani’s Lundi matin is a great French comedy.
Vincent, Iosseliani’s Everyman, is a welder at a chemical plant, where he endures voluminous industrial smoke daily. At home, he is a creature of habit; after home repairs, he paints landscapes. One day Vincent doesn’t pass through the gate into the factory. He pauses long enough to turn around and spend the day instead on a grassy hill in deep contemplation of things. He decides on a vacation, an adventure, leaving behind wife, kids, home, job. Others may negotiate a mid-life crisis by having an extramarital affair; he will simply take off for a bit. His gravely ill father donates his life’s savings to give his son the means. Venice, Cairo, Constantinople: the itinerary is set. Without word to anyone else, Vincent is gone.
Pickpocketed, Vincent gets no farther than Venice—although he creates the illusion of wider travels by sending various postcards home, all of which his miffed wife rips up without reading. (Her mother-in-law must break into her backyard-buried pot to get at her savings so that the family may continue during her son’s absence.) In Venice, Vincent escapes his routines; ironically, though, his excursion crosses the circle of other people’s routines.
This isn’t a film that connects narrative dots. We must therefore bring our Keatsian negative capability to it. The movie’s elliptical, elusive quality accumulates into a wondrous metaphor for the thread of his life that Vincent feels has slipped out of his grasp. Once back at work, Vincent cannot see what we see, but doubtless he feels its effect: a stunning long-shot of the fume-belching factory.
Iosseliani’s moving, roving camera is exactly correlative to the riches of life—and humanity’s appetite for these—with which his life-affirming masterpiece abounds.
Please visit also my long piece on Monday Morning: http://grunes.wordpress.com/2007/10/05/
93. OUI NON (2002). The visual countdown prior to the beginning of a movie: these numbers are distributed throughout American-in-Paris Jon Jost’s Oui non, with a flurry of seasonally titled vignettes towards the end that culminates in a surprising, tragic, funny resolution: the death of a young acrobat. It is the slapped-on commercial “happy ending”—only here, if taken literally, a most unhappy one. An “improvised love story,” Oui non attends to a boy and a girl, James and Hélène, the circus acrobat and a musically inclined aspiring actress, as the two actually fall in and out and possibly back in love in front of Jost’s indefatigable video camera, although the final phase, before the boy’s fall to his death while celebrating (in dance) his amorous joy, is riotously suspect. (In the fictional film-within-the-documentary film, James is called Jérôme.) How the girl howls and cries as the boy takes his off-screen tumble. Adding to the confusion—conflation?—of reality and cinema, James Thiérrée really did take a debilitating spill during the course of shooting, resulting in the loss of six months’ worth of work and pay. One assumes this isn’t being passed off as the character’s fatal fall; here and there, Jost’s film is as playful and mischievous as another Pirandellian work: Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).
The film opens in the Paris of another world: a montage of early twentieth-century black-and-white photographs: elegant, unadorned, humanistic glimpses of time. The outdoor photographs, by Eugene Atget, reflect the loss of this older Paris to time : here people once walked ; this, there, they once saw. We “create reality from fiction” in order to keep it from dissolving before our eyes.
Jost’s exquisite film segues from Paris Past to Paris Present. It distills Wordsworth’s “still, sad music of humanity.”
Please visit also my long piece on Oui non:
94. TRILOGY (2002). The narrative form of Lucas Belvaux’s Trilogy may be described as three overlapping circles of plot. The same event that’s central in one film may be peripheral in another; a character who is major here may be “supporting” there. (Think Balzac.)
The recycled cast of characters includes three schoolteachers: Cécile, who is married to hypochondriac Alain; Jeanne, who used to be the lover and sister radical of Bruno, the terrorist who has just escaped from prison after 15 years; Agnès, a morphine addict whose husband, Pascal, is a cop who, hunting down Bruno, must decide whether to kill him to keep a supply of morphine flowing from the crime boss who used to be Bruno’s ally. The first film, a comedy, is titled “Un couple épatant”; the second, “Cavale,” is a thriller; the last, “Après la vie,” a melodrama. Writer-director Belvaux has said that the three films, which don’t constitute a chronological series, can be viewed in any order.
Each film is about what their marriage means to its participants. Noticing that on a specific Saturday Alain’s behavior changes and thus suspecting infidelity, Cécile asks co-worker Agnès’s spouse to check things out. Jeanne’s settled life, including spouse and kids, is her barrier against political disillusionment that Bruno’s escape threatens to crash. Morphine is the glue of Pascal and Agnès’s relationship; when Pascal can no longer express his love for her by providing it, because of the crime boss’s interference, Agnès takes to the streets in search of a fix; there, Bruno becomes her protector, and she his.
Trilogy contests the stereotypical narrative tyranny that assigns certain characters greater importance and other characters lesser importance. Correlative to this, Belvaux argues for the equal importance of all our lives, each of which intersects the equally important lives of others.
95. THE FLOWER OF EVIL (2003). With its Baudelairean title, Claude Chabrol’s La fleur du mal is precise, catlike. It is about the impact of past on present for a family—and for a nation. The marriage of Anne and Gérard, both Vasseurs, came about after their spouses, lovers, died together in an automobile accident that Gérard may have engineered. Now their young offspring, stepsibling/cousins, the children of their first marriages, are also lovers. Michèline (Suzanne Flon, brilliant)—“Aunt Line”—took over Anne’s care after Anne’s parents died in a plane crash; Michèline had had sexual relations with her older brother, a Resistance fighter during the Second World War, whom her father, Pierre Charpin, a collaborationist, murdered on D-Day. Killing her father, Michèline exacted both familial and patriotic revenge.
Charpin, according to Chabrol (who along with Caroline Eliacheff and Louise L. Lambrichs wrote the superb script), suggests Maurice Papon, who, as an official in the Vichy government, in the years 1942-1944 directed the deportation of over 1500 French Jews from Bordeaux to Auschwitz. French anti-Semitism has been a recurrent theme in Chabrol’s films.
Memory haunts—as indicated by the first shot, among Chabrol’s greatest. It is night. The camera, as though floating in a dream, moves through leafy trees and approaches the Vasseur mansion in Bordeaux. Chabrol’s camera enters the darkened house and floats up a staircase and through a hallway, catching glimpses, in turn, of two different rooms : in one, a young woman is sitting on the floor, her head down; in the next room, a man lies face-up on the floor, dead. We instantly realize that one has murdered the other. We later learn that Gérard attempted to rape his stepdaughter.
Aunt Line : “I feel I’m doing things backwards. . . . Time doesn’t exist. Life is one perpetual present.”
Please visit also my long piece on The Flower of Evil:
96. REGULAR LOVERS (2005). A response to Bernardo Bertolucci’s crass, sentimental The Dreamers (2003), Philippe Garrel’s tremendous Les amants réguliers could be called After the Revolution—or, After the Hoped-for Revolution.
Louis Garrel plays François Dervieux, a 20-year-old poet who joins comrades (one of whom is a Léaud-lookalike), some of them Communists, others anarchists, in violent street activism in 1968 Paris. Factory strikes fold into “the movement,” which disintegrates, provoking François to muse (I do not know whom he is quoting), “Can we make the revolution for the working class despite the working class?” It appears that labor wants more money only.
In shimmering black and white (William Lubtchansky is his inspired cinematographer), Garrel takes to the nighttime streets not just for car burnings and confrontations with the police but also for walks shared by François and Lilie (Clotilde Hesme, wonderful), the essence of youthful romance. (Lilie is a sculptor; another character, a painter.) Garrel’s style could be described as consisting of snatches of real time. Long, fluid takes in the dark, outdoors or in, create a delicate dreaminess that Garrel punctuates with snippets of François’s actual dreams. Garrel loves to suspend time, to hold the hopefulness of the sixties in his mind, but he also cuts to shots of intricate activity to provide surprising outbursts of in-the-momentness.
The romance of François and Lilie—although lovers, they aren’t ever shown making love—reflects on François’s revolutionary idealism. It, too, dissolves—not for want of love on either soul’s part but for what Lilie regards as practical necessity. Left with neither a new France nor the love of his life, François dies dreaming in his sleep.
For some of us of the sixties, life at best has struggled in the shadow of the French Revolution that was not to be.
97. CŒURS (2006). One of Alain Resnais’s loveliest films, Cœurs, based on Alan Ayckbourn’s play Private Fears in Public Places, is an upclose meditation on six crisscrossing lives in Paris. Its leitmotif is sparse falling snow that appears outdoors and in, conflating the emotional distance between venues, and evoking the fragile nature of feeling and the transience of life. Snow falling outside is extended indoors by way of superimpositions, and when this expressionistic technique is erased we still see snow falling outdoors, through an open door, perhaps, converting expressionism to naturalism and leaving us a little haunted. Resnais is always humane; here, more intimately so.
The main characters: a real estate agent; his co-worker; Lionel, a bartender at a hotel whose father is in his son’s care and is dying; the father (Claude Rich, hilariously libidinous in an offscreen performance); Lionel’s most committed barfly, whose partner had been the agent’s client in search of a new apartment—a new life—for the both of them; the barfly’s new girlfriend, the agent’s sister. Charlotte, real estate agent Thierry’s devout Catholic co-worker, keeps giving shy Thierry tapes of a TV program, Songs That Changed My Life, but with an add-on: herself in strutting sexual get-up. Following her cue, one day at work he steals a kiss, only to be greeted by incensed virtue; impelled by worries of charges of sexual harassment, he proffers profuse apologies. In truth, if only he could see it, the one he ought to be pursuing is client Nicole (Laura Morante, wonderful), but Thierry doesn’t know that Nicole has parted ways with her barfly-boyfriend. But one is always inside and outside one’s own life, like the snow, and loneliness seems to be what one can settle on.
The TV show provides pseudo-documentary excerpts inside Resnais’s melancholy dream.
98. FOREVER (2006). Dutch documentarian Heddy Honigmann’s Forever wittily opens with the camera’s descent from heaven to view a patch of gravestones. The faded blue of a gravedigger’s jeans blends in with the predominant grays; but wait! An older couple, walking away from the camera, silently enters the frame. The woman is dressed in flaming red: “I am alive!” Later, there’s a black-and-white clip of Maria Callas, one of the luminaries eternally resting at Père-Lachaise, singing an aria. Perhaps we connect that enchanting voice, her (at that point) delicate, fragile face, and the red outfit of the anonymous woman whose face will forever be a mystery to us. This is a magical film.
One of the other luminaries buried in the Paris cemetery is Georges Méliès, cinema’s original magician, whose grave is marked by an imposing statue. Now he is alive, in an amazing clip from one of his black-and-white silent films. Méliès keeps taking off his reappearing head, setting it on either of the tables flanking him. At one point there are four smiling Méliès-heads in the frame, including one on his neck, all this tweaking the sturdy dignity of the sculpted face at Père-Lachaise.
Chopin is also buried there. Honigmann, who remains offscreen throughout the film, interviews a young Japanese pianist, Yoshino Kimura, who is rehearsing a Chopin piece for public performance. The film periodically returns to her, including, eventually, to part of the performance. Several people are interviewed throughout; these include mostly visitors to graves of both the famous and (but for the visitors) the anonymous, as well as people who work at Père-Lachaise. They clean stones, water flowers, pay respect—to a cherished father; Proust; Modigliani. Only one mourns: a woman who loved a boy with all her heart. He died from a bee-sting.
99. THE MAN FROM LONDON (2007). “[W]e don’t translate literature into film; rather, we translate literature back into life.” — Béla Tarr, discussing his film from Georges Simenon’s L’homme de Londres
A londoni férfi, in French and English, involves a wee-hours fight between two men on a dock that ends in a drowning death—and the loss of the case in which stolen money is stacked. Long-shots correspond to switchman Maloin’s view from his office in the railway station tower. Maloin retrieves the case from the water; the dreamily indefinite scene of docked ferry, dock, tracks and train in darkness yields to the specificity of the British notes, each of which Maloin dries once he is back inside.
Brilliantly directed by Hungary’s Béla Tarr, with editor and life-partner Ágnes Hranitzky credited as co-director, the black-and-white film opens with one of Tarr’s amazing shots; the camera very slowly scales the ferry, beginning at the hull, through the window that provides Maloin with his godlike view; intermittently, strips of black—lattice—interrupt this view. The camera’s ascent ironically correlates to a descent into the waters of Maloin’s corruptible soul.
Maloin, beautifully acted by Miroslav Krobot, is a complex, sympathetic figure—a proud man long shoehorned into an unhappy, humiliating life; he now grapples with his guilt. Atypically, inexplicably, he starts to rage against wife and daughter.
Initially, the camera perspective forges an identification between us and Maloin; as we watch his return with the case, from the vantage of his office, however, we separate from him. Those calling the film a film noir mistake style for genre; noirs explore an amoral or immoral world, but the one here is hardly that. Past the point of identifying with Maloin, we bring moral consideration to his world—Maloin’s own latent morality, which eventually surfaces.
100. LORNA’S SILENCE (2008). Le silence de Lorna is the best thing that Belgium’s writing-directing Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, have done (best screenplay, Cannes). Like other Dardenne films, it is about immigrants in Belgium. Lorna and lover Sokol are Albanians who hope to start up a snack bar. Fabio, an Italian taxi cab driver, connives to get Lorna permanent residential status by convincing Claudy, a drug addict, to marry her so that, once Claudy is eliminated (either by overdose or whatever other necessary means), Lorna can marry Andrei, a stinking rich Russian smuggler, who wants a European Union passport. Andrei will generously pay everyone. But a hitch comes into play: Claudy’s intense effort to clean up his act touches Lorna’s heart. She will pay dearly for her silence in not letting Claudy know about the current plan for him to be killed.
Actually, the “silence” of the title refers to several things; but the vision that the Dardennes fashion—and, unlike their other films, this one is visionary—is as much about talk as about silence: the schemes and dreams of immigrants in an undone, upside-down, shaken-loose Europe. A culminating metaphor for current European uncertainty is that Lorna may be pregnant by Claudy, who has “left the scene”: one doctor says she is pregnant, but another says she is not. Believing herself to be, ironically, steels Lorna’s determination to keep herself and the fetus alive when Fabio’s henchman, she believes, is trying to kill her for screwing up Fabio’s elaborate plot. She ends up alone in a dark fairy-tale forest cabin—alone, talking to Claudy’s possibly nonexistent son or daughter, whom she will not betray as she did the father.
Arta Dobroshi beautifully plays Lorna, whose moral sense belatedly kicks into high gear; Jérémie Renier is brilliant as Claudy.
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The remainder of the list, Part I, is tagged below for easy access. It includes entries 1-47.