Monday, June 30, 2008

La rupture

The title of Claude Chabrol's La rupture is a wonderfully slippery phrase for a wonderfully slippery movie. It refers, or seems to refer, to an incident that occurs, with shocking, sudden violence, within the first minute of the film. The struggling writer Charles (Jean-Claude Drouot), son of a rich bourgeoisie family, wakes up one morning, walks into the kitchen, and without saying a single word, brutally assaults his wife Hélène (Stéphane Audran) and their son, until Hélène finally manages to subdue him with a frying pan. As is typical of Chabrol, this scene sets the tone of the film right from the start. The first few moments of the film are quiet and peaceful, with Hélène cheerfully preparing for her day and feeding her son. The attack itself, coming so suddenly with virtually no set-up, is thus doubly startling and disorienting, creating a stark rupture in the fabric of the placid domesticity that existed before Charles — shirtless, hulking, wild-eyed — emerged from his room. This incident of violence, so frightening and abrupt, is the film's first sign of fault lines.

This attack does indeed hang over the rest of the film, and yet it is not the only rupture that occurs in the course of the film. The title could just as easily refer to Chabrol's aesthetic approach to this narrative of domestic fracturing, which might be described as a system of tiny ruptures in the narrative continuity and the cinematic conventions. Chabrol's characteristic editing can only be described as abrupt, jarring, even disorienting at times. His choices in editing and camera movement never fail to call attention to themselves, but they do so in ways that also subvert the usual psychoanalytical readings of camera movement and film techniques. His choices in constructing his film rarely reveal the emotional tenor of the scene, nor are they meant to suggest anything about the interior states of his characters, which are usually only as apparent as the characters themselves wish to make them. Rather, his editing in particular often seems to be governed by a utilitarian philosophy that has little patience for the niceties of continuity and spatial laws. Chabrol cuts directly from an interior shot in which Hélène says, "We'll take the tram," to a point-of-view shot out the front window of said tram, directed downwards at the rails speeding by below. Likewise, no sooner does Hélène say she is going to see her injured son than, in the very next shot, she is standing beside his bed, already in mid-motion as she leans down towards him. Such direct, sudden cuts frequently move Chabrol's characters from place to place, so much so that on the very rare occasion when he uses a dissolve to indicate a passage of time or place, it seems inappropriate, a lapse into a much more conventional cinematic vocabulary.

The film's other crucial "rupture" is in terms of point of view, which remains puzzlingly ambiguous throughout the film. Hélène is undoubtedly the story's protagonist at the outset, reacting to this brutal assault and to the remarkably hostile reaction that she receives from those around her, who seem to blame her for the events and for hurting her husband, rather than the other way around. But at some point, Chabrol subtly, sneakily diverts the audience's attention from this besieged woman, shifting the film's point of view onto Paul (Jean-Pierre Cassel), the shady character who's hired by Charles' rich father Régnier (Michel Bouquet) to discredit Hélène. At this point, the film becomes something of a low-key thriller, as Paul attempts to gather evidence to paint the saintly Hélène as a whore, a drunk, a drug addict, a child molester: anything in order to make her appear unfit to take care of her son. Chabrol completes this shift in perspective so smoothly, so quietly, that one barely even realizes at first that Hélène has been shuffled into the background, while Paul has taken over the place of the protagonist.

The audience is thus placed in a strange relationship with respect to Paul. He's a detestable character in so many ways, and furthermore attempting to smear and ruin a thoroughly good and sympathetic woman. And yet Chabrol realizes the sway that a strong central protagonist can have over audiences, with a potential to redeem or at least complicate the reception of even the sleaziest anti-hero. He allows Paul's charming and warm outward manner to seduce the audience even as it earns him the trust of Hélène herself. Nor is Paul entirely unsympathetic. In fact, he is a dark mirror of Hélène in terms of the film's emphasis on economics and class divisions. He is, like her, struggling on the edges of poverty, doing whatever it takes to make ends meet. Just as she once worked, briefly, as a stripper and now serves as a barmaid — both careers that automatically lowered her in the eyes of Charles' class-conscious parents — Paul is irrevocably lower class. Furthermore, there's a strong suggestion that Paul was himself a victim of the ruthless business practices of Régnier; his promised reward for his dirty work will be a well-paid managerial job, a chance to return to the rich man's business empire. Paul is placed in the kind of position that would normally be reserved for the hero of a spy thriller. The focus is on him, not Hélène, as he attempts to weave the traps and complicated plans that will undo her. It seems inevitable that he will succeed, that his schemes will go off without a hitch, just as they always do for the master spy trying to outwit his nemesis.

At this point, with Paul seemingly in complete control and ready to spring his devious trap, the film switches, in its final act, back to a point of view more closely aligned with Hélène, the original and true protagonist. Chabrol's feat here is to construct a series of illusions that are designed to fall apart completely once the point of view returns to Hélène. There's one last wonderful sequence, after Hélène coolly rejects Paul's dim-witted attempts to rope her into his convoluted scheme, when the crestfallen henchman scurries around, desperately trying to straighten up after the mess he's made, literally cramming the evidence of his endeavors into his closet. It's a complete deconstruction of the film's secondary protagonist, this slimy man who briefly seemed to be deviously clever but is revealed as insufficient to the task in the face of Hélène's calm, reserved goodness. It's also a gleeful subversion of the conventional thriller plotline, in which the hero or heroine is inevitably forced to do absolutely illogical things in order to comply with the dictates of the screenwriter. This film's heroine, refreshingly, reacts with intelligence and rightful suspicion, thereby completely disintegrating Paul's laughably absurd plot, which might itself have been scripted by a Hollywood genre scribe.

Paul's plot fails, then, because he is relying on a Hollywood-stupid adversary, but also because his deceitful evil can ultimately not measure up to the good in the world, and in Hélène. This goodness radiates from her throughout the film, as Audran delivers a stunning, restrained performance. This woman represents one half of the film's dissection of that essential myth of femininity, the Madonna/whore complex. She is a saintly creature, unshaken by tragedy, always ready to face each challenge with her seemingly unlimited reserves of strength. As she says towards the end of the film, spitting it like a curse at the increasingly unraveling Paul, "I am tired, but I still have my strength." It's a fitting line for a woman who is the embodiment of perseverance and constancy, an eternal mother figure willing to do anything to protect her child. If Hélène is the film's Madonna, its whore is undoubtedly Paul's girlfriend Emilie (Marguerite Cassan), a creature of such pure, unfiltered sexuality that she is naked or nearly naked in virtually every scene in which she appears. She is continually throwing herself at the disinterested Paul, who more and more seems simply bored with her unfettered sensuality, and perversely attracted to the untainted Hélène. Emilie is woman stripped, quite literally, of everything but a raw sexual drive. At one point, when Paul asks her what she's thinking, she simply smiles lasciviously, prompting his reply: "That's all you ever think about."

These are, of course, the two poles of conventional media representation for women, and Chabrol navigates the film's proto-feminist sentiments in typically interesting ways, drawing out the complexity and strength of Hélène's vision of womanhood. In fact, far from being the simplified "Madonna" figure, she is a fully fleshed-out woman, capable of great strength, great independence, mothering instincts, and even remarkable passion, as we finally see towards the film's end as the depth of her feelings for Charles are revealed in a scene of pure melodrama. Society is all too willing to slap a much simpler label on Hélène, tagging her as a whore for her past as a stripper or for her pending divorce. Society would much rather she was as easy to identify and classify as Emilie, who in fact is a pure cartoon, a hollowed-out male fantasy projection. The film's opposition of these two "types" is thus, not only a Madonna/whore dichotomy, but a contrast between a "real" woman, with all her attendant complexity, and a purely fictional construction intended to elicit sexual urges and nothing more. It's no coincidence that Paul's apartment, in addition to housing the perpetually naked Emilie, is papered with photos clipped from porno magazines; Emilie originates from the same source.

If the film mostly focuses on these central conflicts, particularly the tense and antagonistic relationship between Paul and Hélène, there is also a lot going on in the margins as well. Chabrol has crammed the film with a weird, quirky supporting cast, ranging from a morally censorious landlady (Annie Cordy) to a hammy actor with a much more expansive, humanistic view of morality (Mario David) to the trio of gossipy old women who, like a Greek chorus, comment on the action and come to life as avenging harpies or guardian angels in the film's hallucinogenic final section. La rupture is an unsettling masterpiece for Chabrol, a film that's at times shocking, at times darkly funny — especially during a ludicrous but satisfying denouement that needs to be seen to be believed — and always piercing in its satirical insights about class, gender, economics, and relationships.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Noroît (une vengeance)

The films of Jacques Rivette have always placed plot in a somewhat secondary relationship to the other elements of the cinema, but never has this been more true or more obvious than in the hallucinatory, baffling Noroît (une vengeance). The film seems to exist almost entirely in terms of individual scenes, which stand apart from each other with a willful refusal to cohere into any overarching plot. Nevertheless, there is a narrative, of sorts, that carries through the film — Geraldine Chaplin as the avenging Morag, enacting her bloody revenge on the pirate gang who murdered her brother (or lover maybe) — but it's far less important than the way individual scenes play out within this broad context. And things play out, inevitably, in as strange and unsettling a manner as possible. Rivette sets up shop early on in a castle fortress, populated by his massive cast of mostly female pirates, with only a few token men on the fringes. It's a story of intrigue in which the players' motivations aren't necessarily clear. Everybody in the castle seems to have a story, and a scheme, but Rivette seldom focuses on the root causes of these double-crosses, games of treachery, and violent uprisings. It's enough, for him, that they happen, that they drive these characters into confrontations and altercations that give his weaving camera a chance to document the tensions and interplay between his actors.

With Duelle, Noroît was meant to form part of a four-film series, though the project collapsed before the other two films could materialize. And like Duelle, this film is built around these systems of interaction, expanding the previous film's rigorous rotation of duets into larger groupings. The relationships formed and dissolved here are also infinitely more mysterious, as Morag infiltrates the base of the pirate queen Giula (Bernadette Lafont), aided by the duplicitous Erika (Kika Markham). The castle is teeming with women, a huge and unwieldy cast with enigmatic purposes and affiliations, multiple murder plots and quests for treasure overlapping and intersecting one another at all times. Rivette gets almost uniformly excellent performances from these actresses, many of whom frequently seem to be improvising, vacillating between playfulness and dead-serious (if obscure) drama. Rivette's camera is constantly moving through this web of deceit and cross-purposes, but even he can't catch everything, and at times he seems to deliberately keep things obtuse or unexplained. What does Morag whisper to Elisabeth Lafont (Bernadette's daughter, here playing her niece and heiress) while running her hands through her hair? What's with the scene where Morag's supposedly dead brother returns to her and passionately kisses her? Why are there two Giulas in the film's final scenes? What is the meaning of the mysterious red stone with its tremendous magical power? There are few answers. This last element, at least, is seemingly carried over from the moon goddess plot of Duelle, but here with even less explanation of the story's mystical elements.

And while we're asking questions, what's with the improv trio hanging out in the corner of so many scenes and improvising the film's soundtrack? Who are these ragged 70s musicians acting as though they really belonged there on the outskirts of a swashbuckling adventure story? Indeed, with this project Rivette carried over the improvisatory spirit of his preferred acting methods into the soundtrack, bringing in the composer and multi-instrumentalist Jean Cohen-Solal along with his brother Robert and Daniel Ponsard. It was a tactic he also used in a more limited way for Duelle, with the sporadic appearances by pianist and composer Jean Wiener, but here the musicians are both more fully integrated into the film's visual strategies, and far more incongruous in their surroundings. Whereas Wiener fit relatively comfortably on a nightclub stage or tinkling away in the background of a room, these musicians are much more obviously out of place in an ancient castle, lounging against the stone walls or haphazardly hidden behind bales of straw. Moreover, Rivette goes to great pains not only to point out their presence, but to underline its absurdity. He frequently allows them to begin playing while offscreen, so that their music functions in a more familiar way as the film's soundtrack, while his roving camera, following the action of the actors in the scene as they walk around a room, eventually reveals the musicians tucked away in a corner, heads bent over their instruments, a gleeful anachronism in a film whose whole structure, basically, is an anachronism. It's a period film set in no particular period, with the actors dressed in a ragged pastiche of styles ranging from plausible-looking historical pirate garb to Lafont's audacious, forming-fitting pink leather pants.

To this end, the music of Cohen-Solal and his cohorts is perfectly suited to the film's modernist approach to period material. The group plays gritty, scrabbly free improv of the kind popular throughout European post-jazz circles in the 70s, all scrapes and rattles and occasional mournful tones from Jean's flute, his signature instrument but one he mostly leaves aside here in favor of various bowed instruments. The trio's music is mostly tense, edgy, even unpleasant, but they're also capable of hauntingly emotional melodies and, in one memorable scene, a bizarre but very danceable form of rhythmic pseudo-jazz, the uptempo beat assembled from a loose accumulation of clicking percussion. This provides the accompaniment to an astonishing scene in which Giula and her bodyguard Ludovico (Larrio Ekson) perform an energetic tango together, the latter sporadically breaking free of the dance in order to search the room for some trace of his mistress' treasure. It's a perfect example of the film's digressionary method, a scene with virtually no narrative purpose, but a ludicrously fun diversion all the same.

These diversions form the core of the film's method. It's a film in which, if you removed the diversions and offshoots, you'd be left with very little indeed. There are so many wonderful scenes, many of them with a relationship to the main plot that is puzzling and ambiguous at best. Similarly, Rivette punctuates the film with shots of the landscape around the castle, meditative glimpses of crashing waves and placid vistas populated only by a distant figure on horseback (who is that, anyway?). These inserts are occasionally jarring, too, as when he inserts a shot of the ocean as a reaction shot when Erika looks around a corner within the castle — what's the meaning of this sudden, unmotivated cut from interior to exterior? Rivette further adds to the confusion by wryly suggesting, in the way he structures the film, that there actually is a coherent narrative here somewhere, if only we could understand it. He periodically flashes up titles on screen that count off the acts and scenes within them. According to these titles, Noroît has a traditional five-act structure, though one would be hard-pressed to say so if Rivette hadn't provided such helpful chapter breaks. Even then, he does further muddy up the waters by adding multiple scenes to a single heading, so that one title might introduce the next section as Act II, scenes 1-3.

In a movie as willfully slippery as Noroît, such tactics can only be a typically playful Rivettian joke, suggesting coherence in a film whose form is akin to a string of non-sequiturs. These titles may also be a reference back to the film's purported source, the Jacobean revenge play The Revenger's Tragedy, once attributed to Cyril Tourneur but now thought to have been written by Thomas Middleton. This play, with its tale of a man seeking revenge for his lover's death, provides the basic impetus for the film's story, but more importantly Rivette uses dialogue quoted verbatim from the play, in the original English rather than the French otherwise used throughout the film. This dialogue, recited by Geraldine Chaplin and Kika Markham as the two avenging schemers of the film, takes the form of an incantation, repeated with ceremonial precision as a code for their ritual of revenge. In one remarkable scene, the two women pace in opposite directions around a circular room, reciting the same lines of dialogue from the play, overlapping one another as if in a round; Rivette further complicates the soundtrack with Cohen-Solal's flute, for once playing while the musician isn't actually in the room. The line they're reciting, which they eventually converge on in the center of the room, thus making it fully coherent for the first time, is: "I have not fashion'd this only for show and useless property; no, it shall bear a part, e'en in it own revenge."

This line, repeated at several key points in the film, seems to hold multiple resonances for Rivette, both on the level of the narrative and in meta terms, in the implications it has for Rivette's own film. Especially in the scene where Markham dramatically shouts the line to Chaplin, it begins to seem as though Rivette is himself addressing his audience, prompting them to look beyond the surfaces and think about what else is there. It's an invitation behind the curtain, a suggestion that there is more here than meets the eye, even if it's not as yet readily apparent. And it's also, as with so many things in Rivette's films, an elaborate joke of sorts. Because in addition to being a metaphor for Morag's vengeful quest, The Revenger's Tragedy also holds a more literal place within the world of Noroît. In continually reciting these English lines, the two women are not just expressing their plans for revenge, they're actually rehearsing for a play.

Indeed, one of the film's many marvelous scenes is the sequence where the two plotters stage the climax of The Revenger's Tragedy for the assembled audience of Giula and her pirates. As the two women perform, building towards a hilariously extended death scene for Geraldine Chaplin, playing the object of revenge in this staging, the line between theater and reality begins to blur and vanish. First, Chaplin veers into the audience to enact her death scene, stumbling and running between the assembled spectators, reeling wildly and overacting with melodramatic flair, launching into one of those endless "I'm dying but I still have time for a soliloquy" finales where even multiple poisonings, stabbings, and beatings can't quite do her in for good. But even as the play nears its close, the audience begins stirring and possibly breaking out into a for-real revolt against Giula. It's unclear exactly what happens next, though the seemingly earnest rebellion soon degenerates into some more play-acting, including more stabbings with a retractable knife; Rivette's soundtrack even emphasizes the distinctive click of the knife's blade receding into the handle when someone is "stabbed." Only when Giula finally, and bloodily, slits the throat of one seemingly innocent bystander, is the line between theater and reality definitively restored to clarity.

If this scene restores life and acting to their proper places, the film's finale decisively erases the lines separating performance, reality and fantasy, frustrating anyone who might've been hoping for the ramshackle narrative to somehow get tied together in the end. Instead, Rivette stages a macabre and sinister ballet, a set of black widow dances in which one partner ends by killing the other, slow motion murders that shift between graceful beauty and murderous anguish. Rivette purposefully fragments these scenes, shifting from ordinary photographic reality to yellow- or blue-filtered alternate universes, or high-contrast, grainy black and white footage with the sound abruptly cut off as though the action was taking place in a vacuum. Similar techniques were also used in the more overtly magical Duelle, to signify magical battles taking place on a higher plane, but its sudden intrusion here, without explanation or context, is far more destabilizing and disorienting. These final scenes have an unsettling beauty in spite of their violence, as each dance plays out as an improvised murder game between the two participants. It's a stunning, fittingly ambiguous ending to a film predicated on such ambiguity and submerged narratives.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

It's difficult to think of what can possibly be said now about F.W. Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Based on one of the most famous horror novels in the world, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Murnau's film was the first adaptation of the vampire legend to the cinema, and a model and inspiration not only for every vampire tale to follow it, but for much of the horror genre in film. Considering its age and the extent to which its images and ideas have penetrated the popular culture discourse, the film has held up remarkably well. Pop culture tends to devour art, and any image or icon that passes into the popular vernacular tends to lose its aura of mystery and uniqueness, especially after enough time has passed for the various reiterations of this image to attain some prominence themselves. This deterioration still has yet to take place for Murnau's blood-sucking Count Orlok, played with a ghastly stiffness and creepiness by Max Schreck. Schreck's mimed performance, so famously horrifying, owes as much to his unnaturally tall, bony form and gaunt face as it does to his plodding movements and wide-eyed stare. It's a very physical performance, with Orlok embodied in every inch of the actor's body and movements. He's a horrifying figure, wispy and almost even fey but with a sinister allure anyway.

Clearly, Orlok is a powerful cinematic icon, one who has continued to exercise a dramatic pull on the genre of the horror film, so it's a shame that Murnau keeps him off-screen for so long. The story of Dracula may be familiar now, but this first adaptation treats the tale's developmental early stages at great length, unfortunately including a great deal of exposition that in a modern context seems largely unnecessary. It takes half an hour for Orlok to appear at all, before which the story focuses on the young real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder). In E. Elias Merhige's Shadow of the Vampire, a parodic dark comedy based on the making of Nosferatu, von Wangenheim is mercilessly mocked for his melodramatic acting, and the representation of his acting style in that film isn't even exaggerated too much, if at all. He's the ultimate silent movie ham, reacting to good news like a schoolboy skipping off to school, and to bad with moping gestures and eye-rolling, playing to the back row at every moment. He's the kind of actor who, when he sees a table full of food, widens his eyes, licks his lips, and runs gleefully to dig in. As a result, the scenes between Hutter and his wife, before Hutter goes off to Transylvania to conduct a transaction with the mysterious Count Orlok, are almost unwatchably saccharine, even though Schröder is far better in her role. Her Ellen looks vampiric from the very beginning of the film, with the same gaunt face, black-rimmed eyes, and wild stare as Orlok. She thus signals her inevitable doom right from her very first appearance, solely with the intensity of her emotional reactions and her sensitivity. She mourns for the "death" of flowers that her husband picked for her, and later she seems to sense Orlok's presence in ways that nobody else does besides his crazed servant Knock (Alexander Granach).

In fact, Ellen is a key figure in the film's first truly striking scene (which unfortunately comes about 40 minutes in, a not insignificant amount of time to wait for something interesting), in which Orlok assaults Hutter at the former's castle lair. Murnau cuts back and forth between this attack (mostly suggested through the projection of Orlok's sinister shadow on the wall) and scenes of Ellen back home, seized by nightmares and an inexplicable terror. The parallel editing between these two discrete events, taking place quite some distance apart, is especially powerful for the way it links Ellen and Orlok, making inevitable their eventual meeting in the film's final scene. At the end of the scene, Orlok looks back over his shoulder, casting his eyes towards the right side of the screen, and Murnau cuts away to a shot of Ellen, reaching her arms out towards the left edge of the screen, as though gesturing towards the vampire. The juxtaposition of these two shots give the distinct impression that Orlok is actually looking at Ellen, staring at her across vast gulfs of space with an unimaginable bloodlust. It's one of the film's most mysterious and haunting moments.

Of course, Orlok's desire for Ellen was already established before this, in the scene where the vampire catches a glimpse of a photo of her that Hutter carries. Orlok grasps the amulet containing this picture, bringing it up close to his face with his clawed fingers, and admiringly looks back at Hutter, telling him what a pretty neck his wife has. This line, with its obvious sexual undercurrents, is indicative of the way that Murnau plays up the sexuality of the vampire myth. This version of the Dracula story is unique, especially, for the way in which it makes the hero's transaction with the vampire seem like he's selling out his own wife for the monster's use. Immediately after the scene where the vampire praises Ellen's photo, he reiterates the terms of their bargain: he will be buying the abandoned house immediately across the street from Hutter's own home. Hutter has already left his uneasy wife alone to worry while he traveled a great distance, motivated only by greed. But in this scene it is apparent that what's at stake is not just a house back in Hutter's hometown, but the neck — and blood — of Ellen herself.

The crisp parallel editing of the Orlok/Ellen scene, which culminates in that meaningful cross-continental gaze between vampire and victim, is soon carried over into the second half of the film as Orlok races to realize his rendezvous with Hutter's wife. The entire second half of the film is thus structured on parallel editing of this kind, cutting between Orlok's journey by ship, Ellen waiting wistfully at home for Hutter's return, Knock's anxious time in jail awaiting his master, and the weakened Hutter's mad race to get to Ellen before Orlok does. Murnau's sense of pacing and dramatic tension occasionally slackens in these scenes, and the material with Knock seems entirely extraneous, especially since his character of the bug-eating servant isn't nearly as interesting or fleshed-out as it is in other variations on this tale. But even when the narrative temporarily goes slack, Murnau's brisk crosscutting between the different simultaneous events always promises a continuation of the action and a slow build-up of tension that finally explodes in the long sequence on board Orlok's ship.

This segment contains one of the film's most justifiably famous shots, with the camera positioned in a cargo hold and angled upwards at the vampire as he stalks by, walking with a strange sideways motion like a crab, his claws extended and his eyes glinting. But as creepy as Schreck is here, a handful of isolated shots of the ship itself are equally eerie. Murnau shoots the sailing vessel floating aimlessly, looking completely abandoned even before it really is depopulated by Orlok's efforts. In several shots, Murnau simply allows the boat to drift through the frame, a black silhouette seen from a distance with no activity on its decks, like a ghost ship gliding through the water. Another shot angles the camera up from the deck to catch the sunlight filtering through the sails above, a quietly beautiful shot that serves to further emphasize the ship's lifelessness; it's a shock (not to mention an anticlimax) when Murnau finally gives in and shows a few scenes of activity with the boat's crew. The scenes of Orlok's arrival in Hutter's town are similarly anticlimactic. There's something almost comical about the way he slinks into town, skulking through the main square while lugging a giant coffin under his arm, looking ridiculously undignified. This is doubtless the streak of silliness in Murnau's vampire that Merhige picked up on for Shadow of the Vampire. There's a real and very weird sense of the quotidian about Orlok, as in the early scene where he greets Hutter personally and explains the lack of servants by the late hour, as though he needs to justify why such a great personage should be doing his own chores. This winds up being even more unsettling, giving Orlok a warped human quality to play off against his more otherworldly aspects. A similar vibe runs through the scenes of his arrival, and he only manages to maintain some lordly dignity in the haunting shot where he arrives at his new home standing on a raft, the coffin still under his arm. Murnau shoots this arrival from a distance, capturing the dilapidated grandeur of this collapsing manse with Orlok's spindly form gliding towards it.

As a whole, Murnau's Nosferatu is a somewhat uneven masterpiece, if that term makes any sense. It's largely held together by the strength of a handful of iconic shots and images, often with long dull or purposeless stretches in between. The treatment of text is especially problematic, although not necessarily atypical for the silent era. The dialogue intertitles are relatively sparse and sparingly used, but Murnau makes extensive use of a variety of textual materials, including letters, books on the supernatural, ship's logs, and various other documents. This is doubtless inspired by the nature of Stoker's original epistolary novel, formed entirely from back and forth correspondence. But it's distracting when the film so often diverts from its wonderful images into lengthy text passages explaining various pieces of vampire lore or other expository details. When Murnau fills up the screen with such pseudo-scientific explanations of vampires, it's at least understandable in the context of the genre, but when he takes the opportunity to display Hutter's innocuous letter to his wife, in full, not just once but twice, one begins to suspect that he's either just filling up time or doesn't realize how these interruptions kill the narrative's momentum. Despite these imperfections, Nosferatu remains a horror classic for very good reason. There has never been a more memorable screen vampire than Max Schreck's Count Orlok, and in comparison to his raw, sensual performance even Bela's Lugosi's smooth, urbane version of the monster can't compare. Orlok is the iconic film vampire, a pure force of evil and unfettered desire, growing so rapturous (and ravenous) at the mere sight of blood that he can't resist breaking with decorum and sucking the blood from his houseguest's injured thumb. If Lugosi's later Dracula is a vampire of the heart or the head, Schreck's Orlok is purely a vampire of the stomach.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Le gai savoir

Le gai savoir falls at an absolutely critical position in the oeuvre of Jean-Luc Godard, as the final film he made before embarking on his radical experiment in communal, revolutionary filmmaking with the Dziga Vertov Group. The film is Godard's attempt to "return to zero" at the end of the 60s, an attempt to both erase and rethink the 17 features he'd made during the previous decade. Godard said at several points in his career that he felt like he was making his "first film" over again, and it's clear that after the radical deconstruction of cinema down to its constituent elements in Le gai savoir, whatever he made after this would have to be a "first," starting from scratch after this minimalist manifesto clears the ground. The film consists entirely of a series of dialogues and conversations between Emile (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and Patricia (Juliet Berto), two young revolutionaries who meet on an empty soundstage every night in order to discuss the nature of sound, images, words, and the multiple relationships possible between them.

Godard's basic tactic in approaching these broad, weighty, and yet entirely basic questions is to experiment as freely as possible with as many different techniques and ideas as he can splatter across the screen. This is his messiest and most confounding pre-70s feature, deliberately grating and challenging in its overlapping sounds, with narrative and character stripped completely away in favor of a freewheeling investigation of the component parts of cinematic representation. Godard had, of course, been working steadily towards this investigation of sound/image relationships throughout the 60s, and not one of his films, even from his very first, had failed to undermine in one way or another the supposed "fundamentals" of cinematic language. But nowhere prior to this had the director so rigorously and intently broken down film, or approached it from so many angles. In one scene, the images cut rapidly between opposing closeup profiles of Emile and Patricia, suggesting the editing rhythms of a dialogue, two people facing each other and speaking to one another. Indeed, the soundtrack also contains a dialogue between the pair, but the images of the actors onscreen are not actually speaking or even moving, and moreover the images don't correspond at all to who's speaking at any particular moment. In subtle ways like this, Godard suggests the ways in which, even when image and sound appear to be working in concert towards representing the same thing, they may in fact be detached or distanced from one another.

In other places, image and sound are truly independent. There are images, the two radicals explain, for which no sound exists, and sounds for which there are no images. In both cases, government censorship and repression are usually responsible for the missing pieces, and the film represents these examples of incomplete reality by presenting silent still photos or black screens accompanied by tape recordings of protest rallies. In another memorable sequence, Godard turns the idea of the onscreen interview on its head with a set of bizarre games. In the first, Emile and Patricia provide words for a child to free associate off of, though it's by no means clear from the presentation whether the child is actually hearing them speak, being prompted by someone else, or simply speaking randomly. There's a profound disconnect in the cinematic spaces inhabited by the two sets of people, who are supposedly conversing with each other. The child sits in a brightly lit room against a colorful background, while the two interviewers are in the shadowy blackness of the empty studio, which provides an entirely featureless backdrop for most of the film. This disconnection in images calls into question the soundtrack, creating a scene that can be read multiple ways depending on how the individual viewer decides to interpret the communication or lack of communication flowing between these two entirely separate cinematic spaces. This effect becomes even more pronounced in a sequence where the duo interviews a grizzled old man. This time, not only do Emile and Patricia ask him questions and give him words to free associate on, but Godard himself joins in on the act, speaking in his whispery growl from a tape recorder which also plays a distracting soundtrack of synthesizer beeps and mechanical grinding. Godard's voice, never associated with any onscreen presence in the film (except, very briefly, in a still photo of the director), is even more distanced from the usual relationship of interviewer to interviewee. This distance grows even greater when, at one point, the tape is wound back, so that the old man hears both Godard's question repeated, and his own answer as well — he seems not to recognize his own voice, suggesting the inevitable disconnection from reality that occurs in the mechanical processes of capturing sound and images.

The difficulty of capturing the quality of a sound is emphasized in a scene where Emile and Patricia discuss an incident that happened among their friends, when one made a half-joking comment and the other responded with an enthusiastic, "Oh, yes!" They try, in vain, to recapture the specific quality of this exclamation, which obviously conveyed something to them in the moment that cannot be either explained or reproduced (least of all by mechanical means like a tape recorder, had they had one handy when it was first said). This gets at the way that the mere meaning of words, even mundane syllables, do not contain the full possibilities of communication. The nuances of expression, context, phrasing, the voice of the speaker, and a thousand other variables coincide to produce the unique qualities of every utterance. It is this multiplicity of language and communication that Godard is getting at in the very form of his film, which veers through every possible permutation of cinematic expression without ever settling into one for very long. There is realist cinema, in which the sound and image coincide in ways roughly corresponding to reality, at least to the extent that when someone is moving their mouth onscreen, words are coming out on the soundtrack. But several times even this seeming realism is undermined, as in the scene where Patricia mouths the words onscreen while Emile speaks them on the soundtrack. Is this realist?

More typically Godardian is the use of collage, both aural and visual. The soundtrack is a confusion of noise, music, and speech, piling up fragments of protest speeches, the voiceovers of Godard, Berto, and Léaud, and snippets of television broadcasts. Similarly, the visuals switch between the darkened minimalist studio set and a polyphony of still photos, candid street scenes, and collaged magazine images and cartoons, often with Godard's slogans and enigmatic fragments of phrases scrawled over the image in pen. In one of the film's funnier images, a magazine photo of a naked model is accompanied by two labels: "Freud" with an arrow pointing to her head, and "Marx" with an arrow pointing between her legs. While the former is concerned with understanding the mind, the latter is busy worrying about the body; the labels invert the popular understanding of Freudianism but make intuitive humorous sense anyway. The same can be said for the scene where Patricia, dressed in a ludicrous purple dress that looks like it came straight from a period film set, reads mangled nonsense language from a book of poetry against a white backdrop painted with images of comic book characters, while Emile reads over her with a more coherent text. This scene is collage in motion, in sound, and even in ideas, creating juxtapositions between time periods (historical versus modern), between forms of art (pop versus classical), and in language (meaning versus incoherence).

These kinds of dialectics are, as anyone familiar with Godard's work knows, his essential tactic of discussion. He loves to encompass both sides of a contradiction within the same framework. In this way, the image of the magazine nude, torn between mind and body, is indicative of a larger structural theme within Le gai savoir: the split between theory (represented by Berto) and action (Léaud). Early on, the duo agrees to divide their study of image/sound relationships into three phases, each lasting a year, and though the film is not quite as rigorous as you'd expect in following through on this separation, it does provide a framework for discussion throughout. The first phase is one of complete uncritical study, in which they will simply watch and listen, collecting sounds and images and examining them, both in isolation and in concert. Only in the second phase can they begin to critique their collected sounds and images, as well as conducting an auto-critique of their own ideas and responses to these stimuli. And the third phase, naturally enough, begins the action stage, in which they will, having been informed by theory, put their ideas into practice and produce their own images and sounds.

Of course, this is just the duo's theory, and it's one of Godard's most subtle jokes that he quickly reveals all this talk of separating theory and action as, itself, still just theoretical. Godard's own view of the relationship between the two is infinitely more complex, and this film represents both the elucidation of his theories and the proof of his action. For Godard, as he says in voiceover, correcting his actors' misconceptions, form and content, like theory and action, are not stages in a process but parts of a circle, continually informing and devouring one another in an eternal process. There is no film that demonstrates this better than Le gai savoir, in which the form and the content are nearly identical. After all, what would the film's discussions of image/sound relationships and the language of bourgeoisie versus radical cinema be without Godard's restless visual and aural imagination to illustrate them? In this way, the film's clarion call of "returning to zero" is misleading, despite the blank black backgrounds and minimalist characters that populate this void. Godard's idea of a "return to zero" is in actuality not empty, but densely populated, full of possibilities; full of all possibilities, in fact. In creating a new idea of cinema from scratch here, Godard is not so much erasing the cinema of the past as erasing the limitations of that cinema, restoring the openness of thought and imagination that can see a cinema without arbitrary boundaries on "acceptable" images and "acceptable" ways of using sound — or "acceptable" ways of combining them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bullets Over Broadway

The temptation, in writing about Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, is to simply start quoting lines of dialogue from it, and never stop. It's just that kind of film, though it's probably for the best that I resist the temptation here — writing about comedy is never even nearly as funny as actually seeing and hearing it done well. It's certainly done well in this film, too. As in its predecessor, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody is at the peak of his comedic gifts, writing with a crackling ease that makes the jokes detonate like depth charges. By the time you start laughing, the jokes are already past you, tucked smoothly into the flow of conversation. Woody hasn't been this purely, naturally funny, making pure unvarnished comedy, since Broadway Danny Rose, a film that not incidentally bears some similarities to this one both in its (overly?) broad Italian caricatures and its focus on a vulgar mobster's moll causing problems for a nebbishy intellectual. In this case, John Cusack is the intellectual in question, taking on the kind of role that Woody would usually inhabit himself, as the struggling playwright David Shayne. Cusack is a very different kind of nebbish, and he avoids the pitfalls of too many actors who think that being in a Woody Allen movie means you have to fully inhabit the Woody persona. Instead, Cusack brings his own earnest energy to the role, making David less a bundle of neuroses than a young man struggling to figure out his own place in the world. His nervous energy, his tics, his stammering, are not merely attempts to channel the film's director, but genuine outgrowths of the conflict in this character between ambition, guilt, and integrity.

In the film, set in Jazz Age 1920s New York, David is forced by economic necessity to get his wordy, darkly psychological play bankrolled by the gangster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), who stipulates that his girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly) should have an important role. This is the first of, it turns out, many concessions that David will be required to make in order to get his play seen, since for Woody this story is a perfect vehicle for the eternal debate about art and commerce. In that respect, Woody doesn't miss the chance to take quite a few potshots at his own work, and he places the words of some of his harshest critics into the mouth of the mob hitman Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), who's assigned to bodyguard Olive and consequently winds up observing the play's rehearsals. Cheech's main criticism is one that has too often been lobbed at Woody's own writing: "real people don't talk like that." Considering the parodic nature of the dialogue in David's play — tortured psychobabble in purposefully obscure language, peppered with strings of adjectives that sound like they're being read from a thesaurus — it's hard not to agree with Cheech, who at first is positioned as a plebeian enemy of art but soon becomes the perverse voice of reason in the film.

Also in the play's cast is Helen Sinclair (Woody favorite Dianne Wiest), channeling Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard in an absolutely hilarious and unforgettable performance. She calls to mind Norma right from her introduction, throwing a fit when she first reads David's play, outraged that she's being asked to play a frumpy housewife and not a glorious starlet, storming down a staircase done up in a 20s flapper outfit and looking glamorously enraged. She is Norma without the creepy, vampiric side — or perhaps only Norma before things have degenerated quite that far. She's the glamorous Norma, Norma the way she'd like to think she's seen by her public, the Norma who descends the stairs in a dreamy daze at the end of Sunset Boulevard, imagining the adoring throngs below. Helen is more than just a tribute to Billy Wilder's aging silent movie goddess, though. She's one of Woody's great creations, a larger than life figure who is compelled to transform every moment of her offstage life into a drama worthy of the hammiest theater. Her dialogue is as tortured and wordy as David's play, and she turns David's hesitant overtures towards her into high drama — and high comedy — by overacting her response to him in the most ridiculous fashion. "Don't speak!" she shouts, a standard melodramatic line that soon takes on new significance because Helen takes it quite literally, as an order, even an imperative. When David still struggles to express himself to her, she drowns him out with a chorus of, "Don't speak," and when that doesn't work resorts to physically restraining him and covering his mouth with her hands. In one hilarious scene, she's trying to gag him with her arms and shawl, and, in what seems like a bit of ad-libbed accidental humor, Wiest realizes that she still has her cigarette holder in her other hand, jams it into her mouth at a jaunty angle, and proceeds to cover Cusack's mouth with both hands.

Wiest also gets one of the film's best lines, when she's describing to David just how big of a success he could be. "The world will open to you like an oyster," she says, then pauses, as though realizing that she's being too subtle. "No, not like an oyster. The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina." It's brilliant, not only because it finally lays bare the sexual implications of that clichéd catchphrase, but because it fits her character so perfectly in its plain-spoken vulgarity. Wiest is able to make lines that would never come off for another actor seem absolutely right coming from her mouth. She nails the hammy, life-is-theater mentality of Helen right from the scene when she first arrives at the theater and delivers an epic, ridiculous speech about all the roles she's played in the past. The shot is framed so that Helen is the only character in the foreground, gesticulating wildly and throwing her head back with feigned emotion as, behind her, the other characters cluster to watch, the perspective making them all look blurred and tiny behind the impressive figure of Helen.

Helen's obsession with carrying art into life is mirrored, in a distorted way, by the struggles of David to find a balance in his own life between art and reality. For David initially, and certainly for his principled artist friend Sheldon (Rob Reiner), who proudly declares that his art is misunderstood and will never be seen in public, art is a privileged and sacred trust that imbues the artist with rights and responsibilities outside of normal society. For Sheldon, artists create their own "moral universe," a phrase of such casually stated moral relativism that its sinister implications only become clear over time. Sheldon applies this edict in his own life and suggests that David do the same, disregarding conventional ideas about morality to the extent that when they pose the question of being able to save either the works of Shakespeare or an "anonymous" person from a burning building, both of them choose the plays without hesitation. Woody viciously mocks the self-serving moral rationalizations of these self-declared artists, who deign to place themselves above the rest of humanity, as though to be a great artist one needn't trouble oneself with people at all. But it is precisely because David does not concern himself with how real people act that his play is so devoid of genuine feeling, and so awkward in its language. He does not seem to realize the difference between dialogue that is purposefully stylized for some artistic purpose (as it is here and in most of Woody's films) and dialogue that simply strains the credibility by putting the actors through unnecessary contortions of speech. The unstated implication is that, in distancing himself from society's moral standards, the artist also risks losing touch with the humanity that is essential to any work of art. David's morality is put to the test, in fact, by the mobster Cheech, who literally puts into practice the idea that Sheldon and David approved of in the abstract: that art is more valuable even than individual human lives.

Although, as usual, Woody is obviously exploring deeper themes through this material, Bullets Over Broadway is first and foremost another smart and substantial pure comedy for him, coming hot on the heels of Manhattan Murder Mystery and certainly matching the previous film for sheer laughs. And even if the film works best as pure verbal comedy, it's also a stylishly shot period parody with touches of noir, melodrama, and gangster pictures. Not to mention an inquiry into the artist's connections to society and morality, and on the difference between abstract ideas and the reality of the way the world works.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

To Die For

To Die For is most often written off as the first real product of director Gus Van Sant's brief flirtation with Hollywood filmmaking. Following up on a trio of personal, independent features (Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho) and the total flop of his ambitious but messy Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Van Sant embarked on what looked to be a promising career as a more commercial filmmaker, scoring hits with both To Die For and its follow-up Good Will Hunting. In retrospect, now that Van Sant has once again backed away from the mainstream with a quartet of atmospheric, Béla Tarr-influenced mood pieces, it's more tempting than ever to view his Hollywood films as a brief fallow period, even a lapse, in the middle of a career marked on both ends by more idiosyncratic and ambitious films. The problem with this tidy narrative of the director's career is that it doesn't quite work. True, Good Will Hunting is sappy and sentimental Oscar bait that has much more to do with its scriptwriters, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, than with Van Sant's sensibility, and Finding Forrester is probably better off forgotten. But Van Sant's widely panned remake of Psycho, while in some respects deserving of criticism, was also deeply personal in its own strange way, an experiment in cinematic language by a filmmaker clearly thinking about the formal problems of color, performance, and narrative in a way few of his mainstream peers were. The fact that this coolly academic experiment was sold as a typical modern update to "introduce a new generation" to Hitchcock's masterpiece probably didn't do the film any favors, of course. And then, there's To Die For itself, kind of an anomaly in Van Sant's career for quite a few reasons.

On a formal, aesthetic level, To Die For has only the most tenuous of connections to Van Sant's previous or current oeuvre. Its fractured editing style and the pastiche structure of its story is most reminiscent of My Own Private Idaho, which also utilized a multiplicity of narrative modes and seemed stitched together from disparate parts. But whereas in Idaho this narrative rupturing is unmotivated, simply a matter of stylistic idiosyncrasy in the film's construction, in To Die For the structure and style are intimately linked with the film's overarching theme: the media. It's the difference between the pure aesthetics of the earlier films and the more commercial nature of this project, based on a sensationalist novel and awash in trash culture. Van Sant's seeming move towards traditional storytelling places the film apart from both his rambling earlier films and his more recent nearly plotless and wordless meditations on character and place. And yet the film also stands apart even from Van Sant's other mainstream films, because in a way it's as personal a film as any other he's done — just a personal film in a vein he hasn't mined otherwise either before or since.

From the very start, To Die For is an intensely mediated film. The opening titles, themselves a minor masterpiece in design and editing, focus on newspaper cutouts and black and white photos of the TV anchorwoman Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman), who is being arrested in connection with a murder and sex scandal. The credits, accompanied by drastic shifts between sweeping cinematic music and bursts of thrash metal, pan over this material with a loving eye for both the language used (some variation on "sex" is present in virtually every text displayed) and the texture of the media itself. As the credit sequence progresses, the detail becomes finer and finer, culminating in a series of shots that seem to zoom into the newsprint itself, revealing the infinitesimal dots that make up each letter of each word, as well as creating the impression of photographic reality. This microscopic detailing is carried over into the first shot of the film proper, which zooms in and out on a photo of a human eye, first as created by the dotted ink of a newspaper, then as molded by the equally small and equally unseen lines of a TV monitor. As the camera pulls away from what seems to be a televised image of Nicole Kidman's eye, the telltale lines of the TV set disappear, creating a smoother image that seems to be reality. The message is clear: although the image may appear smooth and life-like, it is still mediated, still removed from reality by some distance.

This concern with the media, with the televised or mediated image, flows throughout the film, in both form and content. The film is comprised entirely of mediated presentations of Suzanne's story, which is fractured chronologically and related through the anecdotes, interviews, and testimonials of those who knew her in various ways. Suzanne herself opens the film with an extreme closeup on her face against a blank white background, speaking directly into the camera and telling parts of her story, quite literally a talking head, but this is only the most obvious of the film's nods to television aesthetics. Every character in the film speaks directly to the camera at one point or another, addressing an unseen interviewer or news camera. The cause of all this media attention is, as the credits hint, the murder of Suzanne's husband Larry (Matt Dillon) by her teenage lover James (Joaquin Phoenix). Thus, Larry's sister (Illeana Douglas) speaks disgustedly of how the couple first met and got married, while both Larry's and Suzanne's parents appear on what seems to be a talk show of some kind, telling stories about the couple and being periodically applauded by the studio audience.

Suzanne herself also spends a large portion of the film on a TV screen, delivering her cheerful weather reports for the local cable channel, which she sees as only a first step towards a very successful career in the spotlight. Kidman gives a brilliant performance, submerging herself in Suzanne and managing to deliver even her most riotous lines without a hint of irony or self-awareness. This obliviousness allows the image-conscious Suzanne to speak, with all seriousness, of the idea that Gorbachev would still be in charge in Russia if only he had removed that "ugly purple thing" from his head. Kidman gets a great deal of closeup time, particularly during the interview-format white-screen segments, and she invests Suzanne with a wealth of tics and facial expressions that perfectly convey her character. Even the way she moves her mouth, the tightly controlled motion of her lips as she carefully enunciates each word, gives the impression of someone who is at every second trying to imagine how she would look on a TV screen. Suzanne is a uniquely focused person, someone who truly believes, as she says at the very beginning of the film, that "you aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV," a prophecy that's all too resonant 13 years later, for obvious reasons.

In addition to the obvious pleasures of this film on its own merits — not only Kidman's stunning central performance, but the equally great turn by Phoenix as the awkward high school boy she seduces in order to kill her husband — To Die For is an interesting film to think of in light of Van Sant's other films. For one thing, it's perhaps the first hint of the fascination with Hitchcock that led to his later Psycho remake. The opening shots of the film, before the credits, are a series of establishing shots of small town buildings and settings, and they establish the reality of this town with a Hitchcockian eye for detail and atmosphere. They remind me of the placidly presented postcard-like establishing shots of The Trouble With Harry, with Hitch's autumnal New England reds and oranges replaced by wintry gray and white. This film is also the first trace of Van Sant's fascination with celebrity and the media treatment of violence, themes that flow, in more subdued ways, throughout his post-millennial "death trilogy." Think of To Die For as the documentary, chronicling the ways in which the media sensationalizes, sexualizes, and even celebrates violence, while the latter three films are the response to this status quo, draining the televised gloss from these tales of murder and self-destruction in order to focus on more prosaic realities. In this light, To Die For begins to seem like quite an important film to Van Sant's body of work, not at all a first foray into mainstream filmmaking but a first look at the cycles of violence and celebrity infecting our culture.

The film's ending provides perhaps the most trenchant and formally intriguing consideration of these themes on display here. Late in the film, with Suzanne out of the picture, the interviewers return to James and Lydia (Alison Folland), the young trailer park girl who assisted in the crime out of admiration for the strong-willed Suzanne. James has been interviewed periodically throughout the film in a visiting room in prison, where he is serving a life sentence. These interviews have been mostly conducted in close and medium shots, with a general tendency towards pulling back over the course of the film — the first is cut closely enough so as to obscure the fact that James is in prison. In the final scene with James, the camera pulls back quite a bit though, beyond even the boundaries of the room, in a rather artificial cutaway view that frames James sitting at a table in the center of the room, with black areas on either side of the room, leaving just a square of light in the center of the widescreen view. The impression is that the room itself has become a TV screen, broadcasting the image of James as the sad center of attention in this box, a celebrity in spite of himself. The final scene of the film, an interview with Lydia, is even more suggestive, as she comments on the irony that in the wake of these events, she is going to be appearing on talk shows and TV talking about Suzanne and James: "Now I'm the one that's gonna be famous. Suzanne would die if she knew." As Lydia speaks, the screen begins to divide into boxes, first presenting her in a split screen, then a Warholesque four cells, then more and more until there are dozens of tiny Lydias filling the screen. At this point, in each cell, a man walks forward and snaps a clapper board together signaling the end of the take and the end of the film, as the screen briefly flashes white.

This wonderfully metafictional ending is Van Sant's way of implicating his own work in the film's media satire, completing the cycle by calling into question the way all media images represent reality. Of course, all of this is not to forget that To Die For is also a very funny movie, often a startlingly funny one, especially in its unforgivingly brutal portrait of Suzanne. Van Sant has often incorporated subtle dark humor into his films, most notably of late in the mumbled dialogue and absurdist landscapes of Gerry and a few isolated scenes in Last Days, but nowhere else in his oeuvre has he indulged in such broad and pointed pitch-black comedy. This is a unique one-off for Van Sant, a commercial work that is nevertheless infused with his own obsessions, not at all the formulaic hack work that his Hollywood period is all too often dismissed as. It's a film very much deserving of reconsideration, both as a hilarious satire in its own right, and as a crucial part of Van Sant's body of work.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Girl Can't Help It

Considering its inauspicious origins, The Girl Can't Help It has absolutely no right to be as good or as wildly entertaining as it is. It's a blatant exploitation film on at least two fronts, an attempt to cash in on two separate but equally popular phenomena of the mid-1950s: the teen rock n' roll craze, and Marilyn Monroe. The latter is incarnated here by Jayne Mansfield, starring in her first film and outrageously made up as one of the best Marilyn impersonators of all time. She's got down the platinum blonde coifs, the wiggly walk, the breathy murmur of the voice, and even the deliriously silly repertoire of squeaks, giggles, and cries that so characterized Marilyn's ditsy public persona. And as if Mansfield's boffo impression wasn't enough, the film makes every effort to ape Billy Wilder's successful Monroe vehicle The Seven Year Itch, released the year before, bringing over Marilyn's costar Tom Ewell in a similar role as the ordinary schlub bowled over by the otherworldly beauty. Even Mansfield's apartment in the film, with its garishly decorated central staircase, seems inspired by the decor and layout of Ewell's apartment from Itch, where his character was casually seduced by Monroe.

In the hands of almost any other Hollywood director of the time, this situation would add up to little more than a quickie cash-grab, a plain-faced rip-off that attempted to create a new star from the exact same mold as the era's most famous star of all. With this plainly unoriginal material, director Frank Tashlin managed to create a film that not only completely outdid its obvious inspiration — even the best moments of The Seven Year Itch seem flaccid and snail-paced in contrast to this colorful, vibrant extravaganza — but which stands up on its own as a marvel of design, pacing, and visual comedy. Much has been made of Tashlin's pedigree in cartoons, pumping out animation for Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes line for years before making the transition into comedic screenwriting and directing. Indeed, a great deal of Tashlin's sense of humor and eye for visual absurdity is intimately connected to his cartoon work. This should be apparent right from the film's opening, in which Tom Ewell breaks the fourth wall by introducing himself as the actor who will be playing the agent Tom Miller in the upcoming movie. Ewell starts his introduction in a tiny gray square, growing annoyed as he realizes that the film really should be in Cinemascope color: he pushes out the sides of the screen to their correct ratio, then looks angrily upwards offscreen and makes pointed remarks until the color belatedly kicks in. This kind of metafictional goofing around was a common convention of the Looney Tunes cartoons, which often referred implicitly or explicitly to the offscreen animator, with characters looking upward in this way to get the attention of the artists — a device most famously used in Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck a few years earlier. Even the background of this opening, with its abstract landscape and musical instruments floating in space, is a nod to the surrealist imagery of the Warner Brothers cartoons.

More broadly, Tashlin gets a lot of ground out of taking a very cartoonish approach to the film's humor. He gets most of his mileage out of Mansfield early on, making every kind of gag he can think of about her gaga appearance and the effect she has on men, as though he's in a rush to get this obligatory sexual material out of the way so he can move on. So in pretty short order, Tashlin has Mansfield causing a delivery man's hands to melt through a giant block of ice, an old pervert's glasses to crack, and a milkman's bottle to bubble over with, um, white foamy milk (Freudians, ho!). Even more hilarious is a montage of nightclub scenes in which Ewell, as a luckless agent who's been hired to turn Mansfield into a star by her gangster boyfriend (Edmond O'Brien), brings the girl around to club after club to attract attention. Mansfield, of course, never fails to get attention, and her hip-swaying sashay does all the work, bopping and jiving around the room even for as simple a thing as walking to the ladies' room. Dolled up in a form-fitting red dress that's straight out of Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood, Mansfield's curves barely even look human; her body is as hilariously distorted as a Looney Tunes dame. And Tashlin plays up the wolfish reactions of the men around her. When one nightclub owner catches sight of her, it looks like his eyes are about to pop out of his head and steam pour from his ears, so wild is his expression.

This unhinged, cartoony expressionism extends throughout the film, and especially to O'Brien's character. Ewell is a grade-A ham too, and Tashlin uses him well by playing up both his most slack-jawed, anxious moments and his plodding everyman stoicism, but O'Brien is the film's only personality who can compete with Mansfield herself. He's like a sinister variation on Porky Pig, idiotic but perfectly capable of casual brutality. When he's leading Ewell on a tour of his Long Island mansion, pointing out the places where his gangland friends met their ends, he's absolutely hilarious, and he's even funnier singing his maudlin jailhouse rock tunes, which take the idea of "rock" a bit too seriously, dealing as they do with chopping at rockpiles. He's even privileged with the film's very last moment, a prototypical Porky closing when he steps through the enclosing frame of the final shot, walking forward through the black, now-empty space to directly address the audience, entreating them to listen to him sing. It's a very self-serving version of "t-t-t-that's all folks!"

If Tashlin quickly dispenses with the bulk of the film's sexual sight gags featuring Mansfield, getting them out of the way in the first half hour, he never quite grows tired of the film's other central conceit, which was its attempt to jump on the rock n' roll bandwagon that was then viewed primarily as a teenage fad. Though this idea was every bit as much of a cash-grab as Mansfield's creation of a would-be Marilyn II, the rock n' roll is incorporated organically into the film, with original rock artists doing live performances in rehearsal studios and nightclubs. The film boasts quite an impressive roster, too, with A-list acts like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and the Platters bolstered by lesser-known but then-popular artists like the Treniers, the awkward Elvis rip-off Eddie Cochran (who's held up as an example of how you don't need talent to be popular — ouch!), Eddie Fontaine, and many others. Many of these artists give stunning performances of their hits, and the film remains, among other things, a time capsule for mid-50s rock at its best. Little Richard and the now-forgotten Treniers in particular are positively electric, generating enough heat and energy with their raucous songs to drive the entire film. This music, by itself, is reason enough to watch the film, but it also helps that the director doesn't simply allow the songs to exist as documentary snippets separate from the film as a whole, but incorporates them fully into the milieu, creating a carefully drawn sense of time and place.

Though the film's producers doubtless viewed rock as a passing craze, Tashlin seems to have much more respect for the artists involved. He really gets this stuff, and he enhances the natural power of these performances by not only allowing them to run almost interrupted for their entire lengths, but by filming them dynamically and with visual panache. A soulful performance by the jazz singer Abbey Lincoln becomes an exercise in visual abstraction and color fields for Tashlin, as the curvaceous singer poses in a bright red dress, her hourglass shape forming a red cutout against the deep blue of the plush curtains behind her. When the number ends, Tashlin pans slowly downward, onto the black and reflective stage, where Lincoln's red shape is transformed into an abstracted series of circles, like the early stages of a cartoonist's character design, the body broken down into geometric figures and color areas. Elsewhere, he intercuts an idiosyncratic Fats Domino performance with periodic shots of the dancing feet of the teenage crowd, the bare feet and swishing dresses of the girls creating a riot of movement and bright color. This echoes the opening credits, which take place over a wild jitterbugging party that seems to have provided the visual inspiration for the opening sequence of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. And why not, since Tashlin has crafted perhaps the definitive cinematic representation of 50s rock culture. This carefully honed aesthetic and attention to color carries over into each of the performance numbers, which are perfectly designed, with seemingly endless attention lavished on the musicians' outfits and the brightly colored sets they're placed in. Even without Mansfield, the film would be a delightful tribute to 50s rock at its best, and Tashlin's lovingly staged musical numbers capture the era's energy and vitality like no other film.

The Girl Can't Help It is a rare treat that is so much more than the sum of its parts, even if on paper its parts might seem to clash quite a bit. It's a gangster movie parody, a thrilling musical celebration, a sexual farce, a love story. It doesn't all always work, and there are a handful of slack moments and missteps here and there — like a maudlin fantasy guest-starring Julie London, singing a song of heartbreak to Ewell from his memory — but for the most part this is a crackling comedy with some equally potent music at its core.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Big Sleep

Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep has, quite rightfully if you ask me, long been held up as the epitome of the Hollywood detective pictures of the 40s. It's not quite a noir — its ending is too optimistic and its hero totally lacking in the genre's requisite fatalism — but it's nevertheless rooted in a shadowy noir visual aesthetic, with much of the film set on rainy urban evenings and along dark country back roads as twisty as the famously serpentine plot. The film's mad confusion of murders, blackmail, gambling, and mysterious intrigues is all set off when the aging and decrepit millionaire General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) hires the private dick Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) to investigate the blackmailing of Sternwood's wild, girl-child daughter Carmen (a sultry, hilariously slutty Martha Vickers). The problem is, the investigation's humble parameters are stretched, in short order, to include a handful of unexplained murders, the complicated web of gangsters and blackmailers surrounding both Carmen and her more urbane sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall), and the years-old disappearance of Sternwood's protege Shawn, widely thought to have run off with the beautiful wife of the gambling impresario Eddie Mars (John Ridgely). These convoluted plots, and the ever-expanding cast of characters involved in all these devious doings, should give some indication of the tangled threads of narrative running through the film, adapted with relative faithfulness from Raymond Chandler's equally complex novel.

Hawks, following up his first Bogart/Bacall pairing with this second outing for the duo (still only Bacall's third movie), seems to have again realized what he captured so well in To Have and Have Not: the simmering screen chemistry between the pair. Bacall is at the top of her game here. In this huge cast of characters, which is constantly rotating as new players are introduced into the proceedings or killed off at every turn, she makes sure that she monopolizes her screen time and makes an impression. By this time, her acting is already refined from her debut, and she's not quite the raw sensual force she was when asking for a light or teaching Bogie how to whistle. She's replaced this seething intensity with a cool, controlled elegance and a verbal wit that's up to the task of tackling the sometimes too-wordy dialogue of the script. Bogart sometimes stumbles over the screenplay's most prodigious tongue-twisters ("I wouldn't be here now if you hadn't said I should come out here if I needed help"), but Bacall is always more than a match for the verbiage.

She's also perfected the vocabulary of eye movements and wry facial expressions that would define her screen presence in this kind of moody 40s thriller, where the mere gesture of her raised eyebrow could convey a whole world of meaning. The film's final shot is practically a master class in understated non-verbal acting, as Hawks maintains a close-up on Bogie and Bacall, facing each other as they talk through the new status quo for their relationship. For the bulk of the shot, both actors are in profile, though Bogart continually turns his face towards the camera and back again. But Bacall maintains her profile throughout the scene, indicating her emotions only with that distinctive raised eyebrow and the slightest hint of a smile. As the scene closes and Hawks tightens the close-up, preparing for the final fade to black, Bacall turns towards the camera at last, casting her eyes rightward first, her gaze essentially preceding her face as she glances towards the approaching police sirens. Her face turns in a perfect arc, looking off into the distance at the right edge of the screen, then flitting back towards Bogart as the screen goes dark. It's a perfect end to the film, a brilliant use of looks and expressions as the unspoken subtext to the conclusion.

Elsewhere, Hawks' hand is felt most clearly in the way he allows the chaos and diversionary strategies of the script free reign, and the way he develops the characters within this utterly lunatic scenario. Each scene becomes an excuse, not necessarily for plot development — whatever "development" happens plot-wise is inevitably forgotten with the next series of twists — but for exercises in verbal witticisms and sexual innuendo. The script is particularly clever on this latter point, and perhaps the film's best aspect is its occasional detour into undercover sexual gamesmanship. The film's metaphors for sex are many. Horse-riding, of course, as Bacall drawls that "it depends on who's in the saddle" to an appreciative Bogie. And liquor too: when Bogart contemplates either spending a stakeout out in the rain or sharing a drink with a sexy but bookish shop girl, he obviously opts for the latter, telling her he'd "rather get wet in here" as she lets down her hair and takes off her glasses. He even turns business into an excuse for witty repartee, as he flirts with a cab driver who helps him trail a car. She tells him to call her up sometime, and signals that it'll be for pleasure, not business, by telling him to make it at night; "I work days," she laughs.

The film's often tortuously overwritten dialogue, which was extensively rewritten on-set from the original script, is turned to more uses than just coded sexual references. The most enjoyable of these is the great scene where Bogart stops Bacall from calling the police by grabbing the phone from her and playing a game with the desk sergeant on the other end. Bacall quickly catches on and the two have some fun with the phone call, defusing a moment of suspense and real narrative interest by transforming it into an occasion for some quick-witted screwball farce. The scene's function within the plot, concerning Marlowe and Vivian's attempts to figure out what the other wants and how much they each know, is quickly dispensed with as Hawks and the actors exploit the comic possibilities of the scenario instead. Although the scene is ostensibly about Marlowe and Vivian, it's also about Bogart and Bacall, having fun with their patter and handing the phone receiver back and forth as they segue smoothly from a serious conversation about Marlowe's case into this hilarious prank call. It's as though, for the space of a few moments, they're slipping out of character to fool around a bit, forgetting that the camera is rolling; it has the loose, improvisatory feel of a modern outtakes reel, with the crucial difference that this bit was simply left in the film.

This looseness is what makes The Big Sleep such a classic of the detective genre, even as it periodically releases the film from the boundaries of its genre, disregarding the endlessly elaborate plot in favor of these small character moments and bursts of sheer verbal ingenuity. It's a typically Hawksian film that celebrates talking, often talking in circles, and even more often the kind of talking that deals in half-truths, distortions, and outright lies. For Hawks, even if conversation isn't necessarily the most direct route to the truth, it's certainly the most fun one, and the route with the most opportunities for very human detours along the way. As a result, there's hardly a moment when someone isn't talking, and hardly a moment when someone's words aren't being revealed as not quite the whole story. Even the film's final moments are spent with lies, as Marlowe and Vivian concoct the story they're going to tell the police, which Marlowe maintains will be "close enough" to the truth. Ultimately, that's as close as these characters can get to a truth that is continually eluding them, as one story after another seems to be sufficient to explain the film's happenings, only to inevitably turn out to be just a small part of the whole truth.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Elevator to the Gallows

There are two reasons to watch Louis Malle's stylish first feature, the languid noir Elevator to the Gallows, and unfortunately not much more than these two reasons: Jeanne Moreau and Miles Davis. The former appears, of course, in a starring role, though curiously she has little to say or do as the unhappy wife, Florence, of a successful businessman (Jean Wall), who is murdered by Florence's lover Julien (Maurice Ronet). Moreau's part mainly consists of walking the moody nighttime streets of Paris as she waits, in vain, for her lover to show up as planned after getting her husband out of the way. Malle films this aimless late night sojourn with an obvious love for the Hollywood noirs that inspired him, placing Moreau's perennially sad visage into a smoky, expressionist Paris of gleaming, reflective blacks and sudden downpours. Nobody did tristesse like the young Moreau, whose naturally down-turned mouth and soulful eyes could make her look either cruel or depressed, depending on the picture she was in and the character she was playing. Here it's a little bit of both, the harder edges showing in the way she casually sends her lover off to murder her husband without the least regret, while the rest of the film finds her in a more pensive, withdrawn mood as she wanders the rainy streets of Paris alone.

The second reason that this film is worth seeing is Miles Davis, who together with four other musicians improvised a masterful score that already shows signs of the development towards his soon-to-be-classic Kind of Blue. This propulsive score is driven along by the frenetic, sizzling drumming of Kenny Clarke, whose rhythms often imitate the hiss of the Paris rain; at one point, a crack of thunder on the soundtrack precipitates the introduction of the score, which rolls out of the aftermath of the thunder's roar as Moreau strolls the city. Davis' distinctive, warmly melancholy trumpet is the perfect complement to the film's more meditative moments. Despite the thriller premise, at moments like these the film often threatens to teeter into near-abstraction, in long dialogue-free stretches where Moreau walks around by herself, the jazz burbling away on the soundtrack, in the midst of a gorgeously shot Paris that has never looked better on film. The visuals alternate between sequences that locate the actress in this milieu, creating an almost documentary sense of place that is certainly to be expected from a director like Malle, who throughout his career has devoted his attention almost equally to fiction features and documentaries. But these naturalistic visions of Paris are also interrupted frequently by more expressionist closeups on Moreau's face, the Paris backdrop blurred into a stream of lights. In one remarkable shot, evocative of this approach, Moreau begins in the background of the scene, walking across a street roughly in the direction of the camera. She aimlessly comes forward, stops, then steps to the side and seems to, almost by chance, step into a closeup composition as the background begins to blur and her face comes into sharp focus. It's a beautifully executed moment, a masterful example of how Malle's careful planning and obvious technical proficiency sometimes conspire to create shots that almost seem accidental in their confluence of details and motions.

In these more abstract moments, it's easy to forget what's actually happening in the film, but elsewhere Malle is far too concerned with plodding, almost mechanically, through the thriller plot. Things of course go very wrong for Julien, which is why he never shows up for his rendezvous and leaves poor Florence out in the rain. Not only is he stuck in the film's eponymous elevator immediately following the murder, but he left behind a crucial bit of evidence at the scene. Moreover, his car is quickly stolen by a flower shop girl and her delinquent boyfriend, who go on a joyride into the country and wind up, somewhat improbably, committing two more murders in the guise of Julien. There are moments of poetic beauty even here, like the obvious joy that Malle takes in photographing the elevator's dark interior, lit only by the shaky flame of Julien's lighter, or the wonderful shots of a rain-slicked highway outside Paris as the two young car thieves race with a Mercedes, the headlights and street lights just hazy circles through a thick gray fog. Malle takes so much pleasure in such purely visual moments that it's very easy to forget just how rote and joyless the actual narrative is, saddled as it is with cheap ironies and an almost complete absence of convincing character delineation.

Indeed, most of the characters aren't developed very far beyond the noir archetypes they're based on, given little to do besides strike the requisite poses and look good in the high-contrast lighting. With that in mind, the young lovers on the lam are perhaps too much of a cliché to be taken too seriously, but they do seem like something of a blueprint for the sullen criminal lovers who would soon appear in Godard's first feature Breathless, there given sharper focus by the dialogue and Godard's willfully elliptical style. Here, the girl (Yori Bertin) with her cropped hair and cheerful demeanor is a harbinger of Jean Seberg, while the guy's (Georges Poujouly) faux-gangster attitude, complete with stolen trenchcoat and revolver, points the way forward to Belmondo. There's one beautiful, simple moment between this pair, when they're staying at a small motel and Malle sets up his camera behind the girl, her bare back to the screen as she sits up in bed, beckoning to her lover to join her. In the background, the boy walks by, shirtless and too skinny, and stands by the window as the rain streams down outside. It's a wonderfully evocative and private moment, the boy looking kind of straggly and no longer hip without the rain coat and leather jacket to bulk him up, and the girl suggesting her sensuality and sexiness with just the slender curve of her back to the camera. It's scenes like these that prove Malle's ability to get the most out of even the smallest moments, to wring out emotional nuances and resonances even from characters and situations that seem to have none.

On the whole, it's as though there were two separate films fighting against each other here: a by-the-numbers noir thriller and an abstracted mood piece on Paris by night. Neither film quite wins the battle, but it should be obvious which one I was rooting for, at least. Whenever Malle allows the film to shake the confines of its narrative and simply bathe in the Paris darkness, walk the streets with Moreau, or race into the suburbs in a stolen car, the film is luxuriant, stunning, strangely moving. These are moments one can stretch out in, get lost in, lapsing into deep thought like Moreau's character, who as she wanders the streets is constantly murmuring to herself, her lips moving with no sound coming out. Malle's fidelity to the noir genre is more unfortunate, though, especially since he seems to be stuck with a totally standard script and no idea how to spruce it up other than to divert attention from it as often as possible. The result is a film where the diversions are much more pleasurable than the main line, and where the simple experience of walking in the rain trumps all the drama of murders and police investigations.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Innocents With Dirty Hands

A wife's plot to kill her husband, inherit his money, and run off with her young lover goes wrong in incredibly complicated ways (and for very interesting reasons) in Claude Chabrol's Innocents With Dirty Hands. The story is appropriately convoluted, packed with twists, betrayals (and seeming betrayals), and enough reversals to fill up years of a daytime soap opera. In fact, towards the end, a few of these sudden reversals are so dramatically implausible that they seem to be ripped right from a soap plot themselves. What saves the film from being just another needlessly twisty thriller — indeed, what elevates it to the level of a truly great film — is Chabrol's wry, ironic, even bleakly comic eye, which sees in this morbid material the elements of a fantastic farce, as well as a dark commentary on issues of justice and gender.

This ironical slant should be evident from the very opening moments of the film, in which the young writer Jeff (Paolo Giusti) first encounters the lovely Julie (Romy Schneider, in a hypnotizing performance of equal parts iciness and passion). Julie is unhappily married to the much older Louis (Rod Steiger), who was once kind to her but since a heart attack a year earlier has been sinking ever deeper into alcoholism, depression, and unpredictable aggression. In the first few shots of the film, Chabrol shows a closeup of Julie's face, her icy green eyes covered by sunglasses, the sky mirrored in their reflective surfaces. The camera abruptly pulls back, disrupting this contemplative moment and revealing her naked body lounging in the sun, as an orange kite suddenly falls from the sky and lands on her exposed butt. "Do you want your kite back?" she asks Jeff when she sees him standing by, looking embarrassed, and Chabrol is clearly relishing the awkward humor of the situation. Once Jeff has gingerly retrieved his kite, Julie casually turns over, exposing her breasts as she murmers, "And is there anything else you'd like?" This playful seductiveness, coupled with the everyday absurdity of the situation — it's like something out of a teen boy's hyperbolic daydream — infuses the opening with a sultry energy that is soon channeled into much darker emotions as the story progresses.

Nevertheless, Chabrol never completely abandons this ironical tone, carrying his sense of humor and playfulness through the film even when the plot becomes much more serious. This is especially true of Chabrol's treatment of the pair of police inspectors (Pierre Santini and François Maistre) who investigate the mysterious disappearance of Louis. These detectives are introduced as they wait outside Julie's door for her to answer, and when one of them makes an offhand comment about the salt air making his underwear itch, it's hard to miss exactly how seriously Chabrol takes these officers of the law. Indeed, the law and the justice system are not favored with a great deal of respect in this film; Chabrol takes a very dim view of such institutions and their ability to fairly dispense justice. These two detectives, with their smirking inquiries, sexual insinuations, and tendency to latch onto pet theories with very little evidence, are constantly hectoring Julie, at times it seems more out of their own perverted curiosity than for any professional reasons. In one scene, Chabrol frames the two officers on either side of her blank countenance, smiling with barely controlled prurience as they question her about her husband's impotence and ask about the "sexual relations" she had with him.

These officers also have the distinction of lagging just behind the plot in figuring things out. As new revelations are made, the officers, in completely separate scenes from the main action, without actually knowing what's going on, somehow come to conclusions that gibe with what was just shown. Their logic is infallible, their evidence-gathering abilities somewhat less so, but this never stops them from seizing onto each new theory and running with it. The problem is, though the detectives appear to be correct each time they make these assumptions and deductions, the film is filled with so many twists that their theories are soon contradicted by new facts, unbeknownst to these perpetually clueless cops, but revealed to the audience. The film's process of advancing and then deflating such deductive theories mocks the conventional police procedural conventions in which the master detective simply thinks his way through the crime until he finds a solution. The solutions here are almost totally divorced from evidence or even observation, based as they are entirely on preconceptions and clichés. The cops see a pretty young wife, a missing husband, and an also-missing young neighbor, and they don't need to see any more; they're practically blinded from seeing any more by the amassed weight of stereotyping that connects the dots of the little narrative they imagine. Not that the other side of the justice system is depicted as being any better. Julie's lawyer similarly assumes her guilt and begins spewing out, unprompted, an outrageous series of lies that's he concocted for her "defense" without even consulting her.

There's also a real element of sexual politics in Chabrol's critique of the justice system. Perhaps the single thread running throughout the whole film is the rampant misogyny that is expressed, sometimes explicitly, by virtually every male character who encounters Julie. The detectives sneer to each other that Julie is a "slut," again without any evidence for the accusation, while she can hardly meet even one man, even in very official and serious capacities, who fails to remark on her great beauty. Her lawyer's first words to her are that she's a "superb woman," while her husband's financial adviser remarks, as a complete non-sequitur, that she's very pretty. Such comments carry with them all sorts of insinuations — not only of the unconsummated desire these men jealously feel for her, but of the certainty that she must have cheated on her husband and killed him. Her very beauty itself becomes an accusation, evidence of her guilt, and even the judge who hears her case can't help remarking on her looks as though they weighed against her.

It's also interesting that although Julie begins the movie as a plotter, a rather stereotypical manipulative, scheming wife, as the film progresses she becomes more and more the victim, betrayed and used even when she tries to atone for her crimes. Her greatest crime, being a woman, cannot be corrected, and some characters — like the financial adviser whose advances she spurned, and who tells her outright that he hates and distrusts women — can never forgive her for it. She started as a would-be murderess, but she winds up a prostitute for her own husband, humiliated and paid for sex. In a startling sequence of perverse sensuality, he forces her to reenact her love scenes with Jeff, taking the illicit lover's place himself, and later this dynamic is reversed yet again when, in a horrifying scene, Jeff rapes and attacks her for rejecting him. Although the film begins as a rather standard murder thriller, it soon becomes clear that Chabrol is just as interested in teasing out the dense psychological undercurrents of the characters and their relationships as he is in following the curvy road traversed by the narrative. Julie sets out to free herself from an increasingly miserable marriage, but instead she finds herself trapped anew at every turn. She is acted upon but never allowed to really act. And even when it seems that she might find some measure of contentment anyway, various masculine forces will not allow her to, claiming her femininity as their own privilege. This is a film about powerful men, outraged at the idea that this woman does not obey them or give in to their desire. It's no coincidence that a scene towards the end of the film closes with Julie, her clothes torn and her body partially exposed after a brutal rape, lies in a car surrounded by police, all of them gaping in at her, their faces seen above her, leering down. They are in the position of power, observing her defilement with detached irony.

To some extent, this critique of masculine privilege is aided, ironically, by Schneider's own beauty. Her stern, hard-edged classical beauty makes the desire of these men for her not only believable, but palpable. And Chabrol surely does not forget that his own film essentially opens with an invitation to leer at the actress' naked body, a moment of sexual exploitation that takes on new significance by the end of the film, as Chabrol systematically shows the devastating effects of such attempts at sexual control. At the end of the film, Schneider's body is again exposed, but this time the audience is placed at one remove, watching the police watch her instead of directly ogling her form. Innocents With Dirty Hands is a masterfully executed film from Chabrol, who dedicates equal effort to his thriller's complex plot mechanics and to the dense layers of satire embedded within the narrative. The result is a film that works on multiple levels, completely satisfying its generic obligations even as it interrogates the gender assumptions so often at the heart of the thriller genre.