France

387. La Jetée

I recently had the chance to revisit LA JETÉE, after watching Terry Gilliam’s adaptation 12 MONKEYS for the first time. And Chris Marker’s influential science fiction short film is even better than I remembered. (12 MONKEYS was pretty good, too.) The loose narrative tells the story of a man enslaved in an apocalyptic present, who is sent back to a woman in the past, in preparation for seeking help from the future. The sci-fi elements work all the better for remaining ambiguous, relying more on evocative visuals than clear explanations. And of course, the film is famous for relying (almost) entirely on still photographs, which lends it a disjointed, picture book quality. The photographs themselves are beautiful and stark, and do an amazing job of world building, even while showing very little. The sound design is similarly atmospheric. And it all comes together toward a moving conclusion, proving that constraints and creativity go hand in hand.

Happy New Year, everyone. Here’s to the future.

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593. Belle de jour

Right from the get-go in Luis Buñuel’s BELLE DE JOUR, the viewer is dropped into the nebulous space between reality, fantasy, love, and desire, and then kept there for the remainder of the film. The story stars Catherine Deneuve as Séverine, a well-off housewife with an active imagination, who can’t manage to reconcile her kinky fantasies with her happy but sexless marriage. At least, not until she decides to become an upscale sex worker while her husband is away. I’ll admit that I enjoyed this film far more than I was expecting. For something that came out in the 60s, Séverine is given a surprising amount of agency over her own sexual development. The narrative is interspersed with erotic dreams in surrealist fashion, until it’s unclear what is and isn’t real. And in this way, her unusual sexual interests are presented without judgment, as though the film were a considered meditation on BDSM only pretending to be an exploitation film with a moral. Deneuve’s subtle performance seals the deal with a glimpse into some, but not quite all, of her character’s psyche. She takes the film’s complexity, and turns it into a puzzle to be solved. Not only is this now my favorite Buñuel film—it’s also one of my new favorite portrayals of female sexuality. Who would’ve thought?

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141. Children of Paradise

Here’s my contribution for the Criterion Blogathon, hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Make sure to take a look at everything else being blogged this week in the Criterion-verse.

Although it’s considered one of the greatest French films ever made, I was still a little wary going into a 3+ hour epic featuring a mime. I shouldn’t have worried. Marcel Carné’s CHILDREN OF PARADISE is engaging and perfectly paced throughout its two parts, and the pantomime is delightful. Set in the early 1800s Parisian theater scene, the story revolves around the beautiful Garance and the men who fall for her, all based on historical figures: an actor, a crook, an aristocrat, and yes, a mime. The story woven between these characters is constantly shifting, highlighting new aspects of love, humanity, and the stage at every turn. It’s a dense, complex film that feels light and effortless. And while the performances are all outstanding, it’s Jean-Louis Barrault’s portrayal of the lovesick mime that’s the most difficult to look away from. I’m sorry I ever doubted it.

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48. Black Orpheus

BLACK ORPHEUS, as the title might imply, is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, set in Rio de Janeiro with an all-black cast during the vibrant festivities of Carnival. As a refresher (because I had to look it up myself), Orpheus is the musician who ventures into Hades to retrieve his dead love. Unfortunately, the more compelling parts of that story (the going-into-hell parts) get far less screen time than the introduction of Eurydice and the love triangle that results. But this isn’t a film about the uneven storyline or the undeveloped characters. It’s only about the colors, costumes, dancing, and of course the revolutionary bossa nova soundtrack, which apparently paved the way for João Gilberto to do his thing. It’s certainly a fun film to watch, especially once the celebrations get fully underway, and it has some neat surreal elements towards the end. The viewer should be aware that the film’s clear love of Brazilian culture is a little tainted by its outsider French, white director. But that won’t stop me from my love of drawing dancing people.

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695. Blue Is the Warmest Color

If you want to see my reaction as a comic, check out my cameo on Jordan Jeffries’ blog, where he’s chronicling everything he sees in theaters.

I was pretty excited when I went to see this French coming of age film, since there are few quality lesbian films in the world, and hardly any that I would consider Criterion caliber. Unfortunately, I found BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR to be a disappointment. The script seemed to confuse meaningful looks and beautiful close-ups with actual character development; I felt like I sat through the entire three-hour epic without learning anything substantial about either protagonist, other than the fact of their being in love. (This is through no fault of the wonderful actors.) The motifs I found interesting—self discovery, the minefield of high school opinion, the clash of differing backgrounds and professional goals, the insufferable side of the art world—were usually dropped without deeper exploration or even resolution. And what was left felt more like a romanticized fantasy than an actual comment on relationships. Despite my flippant drawing below, one thing I actually quite enjoyed was the controversial and very explicit portrayal of sex. Regardless of its accuracy, it was nice to see lesbian sex shown as rough and passionate, not just gentle and fluffy all the time.

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73. Cléo from 5 to 7

I first watched this some years ago and recently had the chance to watch it again, and Agnès Varda’s CLÉO FROM 5 TO 7 is just as good, if not better, as I remembered. As the title suggests, the film follows its protagonist in real-time, from the hours of 5 to 7 o’clock. She tries on hats, meets with a lover, sings some songs, drives around with a friend. But her activities are just distractions as she waits to hear possibly devastating news from a doctor. It’s this duality between her exterior and interior experiences that creates the conflict of the story. On the surface, Cléo is shallow and girlish, and to be fair she’s a bit shallow under the surface as well. But only the audience is privy to the very real fears that manifest as superstitions and upsets, and get dismissed by the other characters as mood swings. It’s a nuanced exploration of the kind of person—frivolous for one, female for another—who is rarely taken seriously, let alone laid bare in all her flaws and strengths and contradictions. Character study aside, the film is also steeped in French New Wave style, but the kind of playful camera rule-breaking that’s fun and surprising, and never tedious. With all of that being said, in case you can’t tell, I love this film. I feel pretty confident in calling it my favorite New Wave film, full stop.

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314. Pickpocket

Robert Bresson’s PICKPOCKET tells the story of a young petty thief who believes himself above the law. He tries to live outside of society and away from the law’s grasp, and doesn’t realize that what he actually seeks is redemption. If that premise sounds familiar to you, then perhaps you’ve also recently read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It happens that I finished the novel only months before seeing this film, and was not expecting the two to be related. But Bresson’s film unfolds like a loose adaptation, working with a very different setup but trading in the same themes of isolation, sin, and eventual grace. The style is sparse and unsentimental, almost as disconnected as the protagonist himself. But the shining moments are the actual scenes of pickpocketing, beautifully filmed and choreographed like a particularly suspenseful ballet.

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218. Le cercle rouge

LE CERCLE ROUGE is the second Melville film I’ve seen, and like LE SAMOURAÏ, it’s a stylish crime drama with ultra-cool antiheroes and very little dialog. It follows the paths of a recently released thief, an escaped criminal, and a tortured ex-cop who team up to execute a carefully crafted jewelry heist. At their heels is an equally adept and determined detective. The progression of chance events that bring the four characters together slowly unfold with a strong sense of fatalism. And the mood is set with dreary colors, simple and effective camerawork, and understated acting. It all culminates in an extended robbery scene, definitely the highlight of the film, carried out in dead silence and completely absorbing. Oh, and special mention goes to the star of the film, Alain Delon’s mustache.

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635. Weekend

Weekends are two days long. And so, here is part two of my special WEEKEND double feature!

I’m not even going to try saying anything too insightful about Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film WEEKEND, the film that declares itself to be “the end of cinema.” It’s a sprawling, violent, scathing, traffic-jam of a film, following a loathsome bourgeois couple as they cross the French countryside to claim a dying father’s inheritance. The world, as Godard envisions it, is an endless road to nowhere, littered with flaming car wrecks, corpses, and cultural debris. Mixed into this are long Marxist tirades and revolutionary manifestos, which may possibly be the most heartfelt segments of the film, but I wouldn’t know because they’re so tedious they’re nearly unwatchable. Other scenes are much more entertaining, and many of them are darkly hilarious, and it probably says something that the most enjoyable bits are also the most violent and satirical. But as I said, on this one, I’m leaving the analysis to others.

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112. Playtime

PLAYTIME, a playful indictment on modern living, is the third film to feature Jacques Tati’s comic character Monsieur Hulot (and the second one I’ve seen). But Hulot, and the American tourist he befriends, play such minor roles in the overall arc of the film. The narrative, played out in little encounters and vignettes, is more about the impersonal wasteland of modern Paris—Tati’s notoriously expensive set built from the ground up—and managing to find some joy in it. As a visual person, I love that it’s such a visual film: the humor is all sight gags and image-based puns, the dialog is mere ambient noise, and the story could be told in the use of color alone. There is so much visual information going on, and so many clever moments packed into each wide-angle shot, that I’m sure I would pick up on twice as much at the second viewing. And though it starts a bit slow, I think the turning point of the film is the opening of a posh new restaurant, barely slapped together before its first patrons arrive. As the restaurant starts to fall apart, the characters and the film itself start to come alive with a beauty and charm that’s difficult not to love.

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