Monday, March 2, 2015

New Home

My writing – about music, not film, at the moment – can currently be found at my new blog: reddy brown objects.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Inspector Bellamy

Claude Chabrol's final film, Inspector Bellamy, begins with a dedication and ends with a quote, and in between is one of the French master's most confounding, beguiling and deeply personal films, a morally engaged and somehow almost spiritual study of guilt, blame, and what it means to be "a decent guy." The film's opening dedication is to the "memory of the two Georges," meaning the mystery writer Georges Simenon, whose novels Chabrol has adapted before and whose famous Commissaire Maigret is one obvious inspiration for this film's title character, and Georges Brassens, the singer/songwriter whose music and gravesite haunt this film. The quote at the end is even more telling, a terse sign-off provided by W.H. Auden — "there is always another story, there is more than meets the eye" — that serves as a goodbye and a final statement of purpose from Chabrol himself.

The film is an ambling, lazily paced, darkly comic anti-thriller in which the vacationing famous detective Paul Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu), in the country with his wife Françoise (Marie Bunel), stumbles into a strange mystery. A former insurance agent, Leullet (Jacques Gamblin), contacts Bellamy, eager to confess that he killed a man — actually, that he wanted to kill a man, but it turned out that the man (a bum also played by Gamblin) wanted to die, so he simply allowed the bum to commit suicide. Now it's a high profile case, all over the news, but while the police (including a bumbling inspector who's much discussed but never seen) are busily hunting down Leullet, Bellamy quietly, casually investigates on his own, in his free time, between dinners with his wife and their gay friends and arguments with his resentful, no-good drunkard of a half-brother, Jacques (Clovis Cornillac).

The Leullet case is full of twists and turns and red herrings, and there's a mostly unspoken suggestion, buttressed by that Auden quote, that there's one more devilishly clever twist hidden within the film, eluding even the dogged Inspector Bellamy. Despite this, the film is not really a mystery or a thriller but a character study, using the Leullet case and Bellamy's deceptively casual pursuit of the facts to probe the character of this seemingly likable bear of a man. Depardieu, always something of a big lug, has aged into a veritable mountain, lumbering across the screen, out of breath after ascending a flight of stairs — at times he seems to be collaborating in Chabrol's gentle mockery of the actor's bulk, though he also has a sense of dignity and self-assurance that prevents the film from ever seeming mean-spirited at his expense.

Bellamy, the character, is also dignified and self-assured, or at least he seems to be, though there are periodic cracks in his friendly surface façade. He's haunted by something, some mystery hidden behind his broad, amiable face and his charmingly dogged investigative methods. There are intimations that he has at times been a drunk like his brother, and Jacques' presence causes him to reach for the bottle more frequently again. He's constantly battling with Jacques, although moments later the two very different men — bulky, aging Paul and squat, muscular young Jacques — will laugh, with only traces of bitterness, over some shared and unspoken inside joke. There's also tremendous tension with Françoise, who's sending very mixed signals: she's openly contemptuous of Jacques while urging her husband to be nicer to his brother, and in private moments there's a taut sexual chemistry between Jacques and Françoise that may or may not be a sign of an actual affair. Certainly, the lithe, maturely sexy Françoise is an awkward match for her husband, and his constant affectionate pawing of her body is deliberately silly-looking, though she mostly doesn't seem to mind.

Much as Bellamy hides darker emotions behind a benign exterior, Chabrol's film is about anything but what it seems to be about on its surface. The inspector's involvement in the Leullet case stirs up something in Bellamy regarding his fractious relationship with his self-destructive brother. It's no mistake that the film's first shot and its last shot are mirror images of one another, linking Bellamy's policework with his private, personal traumas. The film is packed with doubles and mirrors, and Bellamy begins seeing himself in his suspect. At one point, the inspector wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, yelling out, "I'm a bastard." Moments later, Chabrol cuts to the inspector (initially blurry, until the image snaps into focus) listening to Leullet say the same thing, but it doesn't seem to be a flashback — the possible murderer is echoing the cop, rather than the other way around, suggesting that Bellamy's not just haunted by his case, but has some guilt of his own weighing on him. Later, that formulation is reversed when Leullet's insistence that he wants to be "a decent guy" prompts Bellamy to ask his wife if he's a decent guy, his uncertainty very obvious. Of course, he's looking in a mirror as he asks the question.

Bellamy is a sharp detective, but not necessarily in his private life. In one great scene, right as he says, "because I happen to face reality from time to time," he stumbles unseeingly towards an open manhole cover and nearly falls in, a strikingly obvious authorial intrusion that contradicts Bellamy's self-assurance, his conviction in his own decency. He's not facing reality; he doesn't even see what's right in front of him, and only his wife stops him from falling into the hole. The symbolism is crushingly obvious, and would seem heavy-handed if not for the dark humor with which Chabrol skewers this big lug's obliviousness.

Implicit in the film is the weight of guilt, and the difficulty of facing death, whether one's own or a loved one's. Death threads through the film right from the opening credits sequence, which weaves through a graveyard — with someone whistling a Brassens tune, off-camera, another clue to unraveling the Laullet mystery — before nudging off a nearby cliffside to take in a car wreck and the grisly, burnt body next to it. The film's final shot mirrors this one with another car wreck before panning up and away to gaze wistfully at the horizon instead, a simple final shot that takes on special significance as the last image of Chabrol's career.

All of this adds up to a typically dense and complex film that might just be the best film of the director's final decade. Witty, twisty, and deceptively casual in its plotting, beneath its surface, Inspector Bellamy is emotionally bracing and morally inquisitive, as surprisingly layered at its protagonist. "There is more than meets the eye," indeed.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Golem (1920)

The Golem is one of the classics of German expressionist horror. Released the same year as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it's neither as famous nor as great as that genre-defining landmark, but it's still an interesting film with a striking visual style. Directed by Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, and shot by the always fantastic Karl Freund, The Golem has a moody gothic style and some rudimentary but nonetheless creepy special effects. The film's sets aren't as stylized or twisted as the famously angular designs for Caligari, but this tale of a Jewish rabbi creating a monstrous servant made of clay takes place in a Polish ghetto the design of which is balanced neatly between realism and expressionism. The sets seem more solid and historically grounded than in Caligari, but there are still unmotivated, spiky shadows stretched across the walls and angular design flourishes everywhere. In one of the most compelling flourishes, the centerpiece of the rabbi's home is a twisting spiral staircase that looks oddly like the fleshy folds of a human ear.

The story, derived from Jewish mysticism, is familiar: a venerable rabbi (Albert Steinrück) conjures a Golem (Wegener), a man shaped out of clay who comes to life to serve as a stoical servant and protector of the ghetto. Obviously, any pre-World War II German film dealing with Jewish religion and ethnicity is going to be automatically interesting for reasons having little to do with the film, and this one is especially fascinating in its contradictions. It is ostensibly a story that portrays the mistreatment of Jews sympathetically, though the film's message is ultimately more tangled than that. Towards the beginning of the film, the Jews in the ghetto receive a chilling edict from the emperor that orders them to evacuate, that they are being kicked out of their homes, a reflection of the pogroms and abuses endured by the Jewish people in Europe even before the Nazis came to power. This is a reflection of the historical roots of Nazism in deeply engrained anti-Semitism, and yet the film itself doesn't avoid these stereotypes and prejudices, either.

Notably, the emperor's edict lists among the Jews' crimes participating in "the black arts," and indeed the film itself passes that stereotype along rather than denying it. True, the story of the Golem is rooted in Jewish mysticism, but the film presents the Jewish elders as a cross between wizards and mad scientists, participating in the dark arts and summoning demons to do their bidding. In one of the creepiest scenes, the rabbi performs a ritual — later echoed by F.W. Murnau in Faust — to summon a demon, who appears as a disembodied head floating in the darkness, smoke pouring from his gaping maw. The Jewish temple is rendered as a place of mysticism where the worshippers ritually bow and sway while the rabbi, dramatically posed in front of a row of gleaming candles, exhorts them from above. The film's presentation of Judaism is unavoidably tangled in myth, empathizing with the ghettoization and punishment of Jews while also revelling in familiar stereotypes and libels about demon worship and dark magic.

That contradictory subtext aside, the film is mostly compelling but tonally imbalanced. The true creepy horror moments are few, and for most of the film the Golem is less a threatening monster than a curiously practical servant who's used to fetch groceries and fetch wood, scenes that are played for deadpan humor as much as anything. There's also a wan subplot with the rabbi's daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) being wooed by the non-Jewish knight Florian (Lothar Müthel), a romance that's surprising in its sexual frankness — Florian places his hand on Miriam's breast and at one point wakes up by her bedside, both of them half-dressed — but otherwise serves simply to set up an expected tragic conclusion.

Not surprisingly, the most memorable scenes are those in which the film's expressionist horror gets free rein. Wegener's lumbering Golem was an obvious visual reference point for James Whale's Frankenstein, with his bulky, awkward form and the sentimental emotionality lurking beneath the monster's horrific visage. For a man made of clay, Wegener's Golem is very expressive, even hammy, always glancing around with an ironically arched eyebrow, gritting his teeth and widening his eyes to convey anger, his mouth horribly twisted into a hybrid of a grimace and a grin. He's undone, ultimately, by his sentimentality: like Frankenstein's monster after him, he's capable of love and warm feelings, and when he's moved by the sight of a little girl, she's able to innocently, playfully remove the amulet that gives him life.

The Golem, with its plodding pace and contradictory ideas about its Jewish subject, hasn't dated as well as some of its more famous contemporaries from the German silent era. But it's still a fascinating, visually striking film that, like Caligari, was a major influence on the horror films that would follow it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Night of the Hunted

Jean Rollin's The Night of the Hunted is a typically moody, abstractly haunting film from the idiosyncratic horror auteur. More even than most of his work, this film dispenses with any actual concrete horror in favor of a vague sense of disquiet that's almost entirely psychological and mental. This is a haunting study of the nature of memory and its linkage to identity and human consciousness, and the fear here arises almost entirely from the loss of memory, from the feeling of one's sense of self slipping away with one's memory. It's about fear of the loss of self, making this an entirely existential horror film.

The film opens in the fashion of Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly: a young woman (Brigitte Lahaie), dressed only in a filmy nightie, runs out of the dark forest one night and into the path of a car driven by Robert (Alain Duclos). She tells him that her name is Elisabeth, and she's running in terror of something, but she doesn't remember what — moments later, she doesn't even remember that her name is Elisabeth. Her memories keep slipping away from her; it's not just amnesia, but the slippage of even short-term memory, so that if Robert were to be out of her sight for just a few minutes she'd forget him too. Naturally, she clings to him desperately, and he takes this confused, frightened girl back to his apartment, where he comforts her and they soon have sex, in a scene of cheesy, gratuitous softcore of the kind that Rollin almost always slotted into his films, and yet here the sex is tinged with desperation and a genuine thirst for connection. Elisabeth lives only in the present moment, she says, and she clings to each moment like a precious raft in a sea of nothingness, because each present moment is all she has to hang onto. She urges him on, demanding that he stay with her, that he not let her forget; her intense desire for a memory to cling to makes what could otherwise have been a rote, porny sex scene surprisingly poignant, both passionate and deeply sad.

Apparently, though, this whole situation doesn't leave enough of an impression on Robert, who, hapless as most male Rollin heroes, soon goes off to work, leaving Elisabeth alone to forget him, and herself, all over again. She's quickly found by the doctors she'd apparently been fleeing at the beginning of the film, and they take her to an apartment building that houses other patients, like her, whose memories are continually erased. Most of Rollin's previous work was set in the majestically ruined countryside, in crumbling ancient castles and disused graveyards, but The Night of the Hunted is an urban film, with a very different aesthetic. Rollin's haunted rural castles and fields had always been both creepy and beautiful, mingling fear and foreboding with the strange allure of death and the supernatural. In this film, though, the sinisterly blank apartment towers and concrete wastelands of the city are merely creepy, the building's surfaces and interiors as blank as the minds of the inhabitants. The building, obviously an abandoned office tower, is nearly undecorated, its walls stark white or black, and the patients, with their missing memories, wander aimlessly through these blank, sterile spaces, the austerity of their surroundings reflecting the emptiness of their lives.

It's a haunting, disturbingly poetic film, especially in its first half, before a series of pointless sex scenes and pseudo-scientific exposition dumps disrupt the poetic vibe. At the apartment, Elisabeth meets two other women who are afflicted as she is: Catherine (Cathy Stewart), whose memory is so bad that she can't even remember how to eat, and Véronique (Dominique Journet), who Elisabeth seems to vaguely remember from her previous life. The scenes between these women are evocative and poignant, as they struggle from moment to moment to remember something, to hold onto some memory, some experience, some person who means something to them. They invent stories and memories for each other. Catherine and Elisabeth pretend that they were childhood friends, though like everything else that game too soon slips away from them. Later, they encounter a woman who's constantly searching for her lost child: she remembers, or thinks she remembers, that she once had a child, but not the child's name or even its gender.

Rollin is delving into the nature of memory and what it means to the construction of one's identity: without memory these people are nothing, no one, barely even alive, their very selves erased along with their pasts. These scenes are deeply emotional, infused with tenderness and sadness, the film's opening already forgotten because these mysteriously afflicted people truly live exclusively in the present tense. In her previous collaborations with Rollin, The Grapes of Death and Fascination, Lehaie, who started her career as a porn actress, projected a fierce carnality, a feral, sexualized violence that made her the ultimate femme fatale. She seems like almost a different actress here, her intensity transmuted into vulnerability, melancholy, a sense of loss that seems to infuse her every gesture, her every fragile, innocent expression.

The film falls apart a bit at around the halfway point, replacing this moody exploration of loss and mental anguish with a number of gratuitous scenes of violence-tinged eroticism, which seem to have come from an entirely different film. Robert also returns towards the end, and the plot is needlessly explained in multiple exposition-laden speeches delivered by the sinister doctor. But the film's final image, which compares the memory-less Elisabeth to the shambling walking dead of a zombie film, provides an effective, eerily romantic finale for a strange, and strangely affecting, film. The Night of the Hunted is ultimately uneven and flawed, only sporadically delivering on its promise and its evocative study of memory and identity. At its best, though, the film achieves the haunting quality of Rollin's other films without any of the supernatural or horror elements that generally characterized his other work.