In Jean-Pierre Melville’s LE SAMOURAÏ, a crime film with little dialogue and a lot of style, Jef Costello has been hired to kill a man we don’t know for reasons we also don’t know. Although he is meticulous in the planning, with the focus and isolation of the titular samurai, he is soon being hunted down by the police and those who originally hired him. Jef is played by Alain Delon , whose intense, stoic performance mirrors the ultra cool tone of the film. He’s fascinating to watch and easy to root for, even though the viewer knows virtually nothing about his character. The events that slowly unfold are suffused with noir-inspired atmosphere and suspense. But I’ll admit, I was a little distracted throughout by the French police’s utterly appalling and systematic lack of ethics. I can only hope it wasn’t really like that in the 60s. I mean, don’t they need warrants for things over there?
In THE 400 BLOWS, François Truffaut’s first feature film and a milestone of the French New Wave, a young, stoic troublemaker named Antoine Doinel is pitted against the world. Even when he tries to do the right thing it tends to go wrong, and he is failed repeatedly by his uncaring teacher, his frustrated parents, and a misguided juvenile justice system. It sounds dark, but THE 400 BLOWS is sincere without being melodramatic. And the serious themes are punctuated by touching montages of friendship and boys-being-boys. What makes it all the more meaningful is knowing that Truffaut’s depiction of a difficult childhood is largely autobiographical. I look forward to seeing more of his alter ego Antoine, who appears in a number of his later films.
SUMMER HOURS is one of those films that, after watching it, I couldn’t stop talking about. And this little blog paragraph won’t be enough to share all my thoughts. The premise is simple: a family’s mother dies, and her three children must decide what to do with her valuable art collection. Do they keep the house and its objects as a legacy for their own kids, or sell it off? The questions, however, go deeper than that. The film examines the value of our possessions, monetary and otherwise. And that serves as a metaphor for the importance of history, or more specifically, family history, and how much of the past we’re able to carry with us in our daily lives. Instead of providing answers, the director, Olivier Assayas, uses these questions as the basis for a beautifully crafted story that I found thoughtful and moving.
Criterion recently announced they would be releasing Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy, so it seems like perfect timing to review the director’s other Criterion title, THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VÉRONIQUE. The film begins with two scenes of two little girls speaking two different languages. And that’s how we’re introduced to Weronika and Véronique, complete strangers who are leading oddly connected lives. As adults, both roles are played by Irène Jacob, in a subtle and completely arresting performance. The wandering narrative unfolds like a fairytale, bright and dark and mysterious, and seems to be more interested in themes of love and loneliness than telling any one story. But the cinematography is so beautiful and each moment so carefully painted that the film never loses its focus. It also features one of the most moving scores that I can remember; in fact, it may have inspired me to take up singing again.
Happy July 4th! The blog has been on hiatus, but now I’m back with a film that has absolutely nothing to do with American independence. I’ve also had a few requests that I plan to fill in the near future, so stay tuned. (I’m always taking requests, in case there’s anything you’d like to see.)
The lush film THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE…, directed by Max Ophuls, opens on the unnamed heroine, beautifully portrayed by Danielle Darrieux, choosing jewelry that she can pawn to pay off her debts. She settles on a pair of earrings that were a gift from her husband, and thereby sets off a chain of events that ultimately upsets her comfortable life and changes her. Right from the start, the careful camerawork and rich setting set the tone for the film. They mirror the frivolous role in high society that Madame de… occupies, which is threatened when she meets an Italian baron who returns her earrings. As the conflict rises, the characters gradually reveal the depths that are hidden under their aristocratic facades. And that’s how I would describe the film as a whole: lavish and elegant on the surface, but unexpectedly profound by the end.
A fairy tale can receive no better film treatment than Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. The well-known story is made rich with dream-like effects, gorgeous sets and costumes, and superb acting. Some of the imagery—Belle emerging through a wall; disembodied arms holding chandeliers which burst into flame—is the stuff that stays with you forever. And Josette Day’s stately portrayal of Belle is a perfect complement to Jean Marais, who plays both the Beast and Belle’s suitor, with all the subtleties between monster and man. This is a fantasy through and through, which means it’s more interested in archetypes and mood than character development or convincing illusions. That’s why I enjoyed the film much more when I stopped trying to analyze it, and instead let it seep into the subconscious like a good fairy tale should.
Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent masterpiece is beautiful to watch. It tells the story of the trial of Joan of Arc, but it’s not about the events of that trial so much as the emotional impact. Renée Falconetti gives a haunting and powerful performance as Joan; it’s almost difficult as a viewer to be sure if she’s divinely inspired or possessed by the devil. Most of the shots favor closeups of the characters’ faces, with chiaroscuro lighting and odd angles, and the result doesn’t resemble any film I’ve ever seen before. It’s the stark beauty in addition to Falconetti’s talent that makes this classic piece of cinema so affecting, even without sound. (Netflix watch instantly doesn’t have the soundtrack option available on the DVD.)
Mysterious letters begin arriving to the citizens of a small town, all signed by Le Corbeau (The Raven). Each letter contains outlandish slander, which nonetheless sends the town into a frenzy of accusation. Henri-Georges Clouzot made this film during the Nazi occupation of France, which makes its themes of paranoia and invasion of privacy all the more poignant. The performances are excellent, but what kept my attention was the plot, and the slow revelation of the characters’ inner lives. Not to mention I thought I knew the identity of The Raven throughout the film, only to be proven entirely wrong at the end.
What I knew going into this film was that it had beautiful DVD art, a memorable title, and an intriguing summary. What I didn’t know is that EYES WITHOUT A FACE is considered a classic in horror cinema. So it came as a shock when events went from creepy to, well, horrifying, and I loved every minute of it. Even the minutes that I had to watch through splayed fingers (something I rarely do). In the film, a plastic surgeon is obsessed with restoring his daughter’s once beautiful face, now disfigured from a car accident that he caused. He’ll go to any lengths to make things right, no matter how monstrous. In the meantime, his childish daughter floats about the isolated house in a white mask, one of the film’s many arresting images that make it just as beautiful as it is disturbing. It all leads to a satisfying ending and a new concept of what a horror film can look like.
I fell in love with this movie from the first five minutes, charmed by a band of dogs stirring up trouble around town, and I continued to be charmed for the rest of the film. The director, Jacques Tati, reprises his role as the quirky, absentminded M. Hulot. He’s the titular uncle of the film, and a hero to his nephew who’s trapped in his parents’ horrifying modernist museum of a home. Anything that can make modern furniture look ugly to me is perfect satire. And the scene where Hulot battles an automated kitchen is priceless. Although most of the humor is slapstick, a lot of it is so subtle it’s easy to miss, and there are often layers of it in one scene. I basically enjoyed every aspect of this film, and when I thought it couldn’t get better, the charm, comedy, and satire were wrapped up with a sentimentally sweet ending.