Monday, June 29, 2009

Poulet au vinaigre

[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For the last ten days, Flickhead has been dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I've been following along with many reviews of my own.]

Poulet au vinaigre is a quirky black comedy in which Claude Chabrol, always eager to skewer the bourgeois and expose their foibles, focuses on the shady business dealings, love affairs and murderous impulses of a group of small-town businessmen. This mess is all stirred up and brought out into the light, appropriately enough, by the investigation into the one crime these thieving, conniving monsters didn't commit — the accidental death of one of their number, the butcher and strongarm man Filiol (Jean-Claude Bouillaud), in a car accident after someone puts sugar in his gas tank. This incident brings the dogged inspector Jean Lavardin (Jean Poiret) to town, and he is not satisfied with simply investigating this car accident. Instead, Lavardin begins digging into the town's affairs, turning up all sorts of ancillary crimes and juicy rumors, most of which he seems much more interested in than in Filiol's death. One of the film's subtle running gags is how, whenever Lavardin appears, he is referred to as the detective investigating the Filiol case, usually right before he begins asking about something else entirely, probing into everything but the case he's really supposed to be solving. His methods are fierce, too, and probably not entirely legal: he beats suspects and dunks their heads in a sink full of water, breaks into apartments without warrants, and generally has little concern for paperwork or procedure. When someone tells him he can't get away with this, he replies, with a twinkle in his eye, "Ah, the police can do anything!"

This cheerfully brutal, fascistic personage is nevertheless Chabrol's stand-in within the film, and it must surely have been satisfying for Chabrol to turn the bourgeois' most dependable ally, the police, against them. Lavardin is a vicious bloodhound, a thug with little moral compunctions or respect for the law, and yet his doggedness, when turned against this town's most respected residents, manages to unearth their previously well-hidden crimes. It is appropriate, also, that the trigger for Lavardin's investigation is actually one of the town's less fortunate residents, the young postman Louis Cuno (Lucas Belvaux, who looks and acts like a French Michael Cena, all hangdog reserve and stumbling shyness). Louis lives in a dilapidated old house along with his crippled, half-crazed mother (Stéphane Audran), who still mourns the loss of her husband, who ran away twelve years ago. She jealously protects her home, guarding it against the real estate schemes of a trio of local businessmen: Filiol, the solicitor Hubert Lavoisier (Michel Bouquet) and the doctor Philippe Morasseau (Jean Topart). These unscrupulous crooks want to buy up the Cunos' land and move them to another house, for unspecified reasons; it's clear only that it would doubtless be a bad deal for the Cunos, and that something shady is up.

As a result, Louis' mother spends most of her time plotting and spying on their enemies; Louis, on his postal delivery routes, brings home any mail intended for the three businessmen so his mother can steam it open in the basement and read it before passing it along for delivery. But there's more than just shady land deals going on: Morasseau's wife Dominique (Josephine Chaplin, glimpsed only briefly during the opening credits) has disappeared, which makes her friend Anna (Caroline Cellier) suspicious. Chabrol deliberately muddies the water, creating complex webs of relationships and passing along much of the information about what's going on second-hand, through gossip and intercepted letters and photos that get passed around from person to person. Everyone's sleeping with everyone, everyone has secrets, and the nights in this town are a time for secret meetings, everyone skulking back and forth through the dark streets towards mysterious ends. It's both a parody of murder mystery conventions and a joyous fulfillment of the genre's requirements, even if in the end everything that's going on is exactly what one expected.

More than these mystery movie shenanigans, though, Chabrol is interested in the subtexts, both psychological and social, that are opened up by all these complicated plots and counterplots. Not least of these is the predicament of poor Louis, whose possessive, disturbed mother lives in fear of him leaving one day, like his father did, and thus discourages all girls as sluts trying to take her son away from her. This places Louis in an uncomfortable position between his mother, who he cares for with grudging love, and Henriette (Pauline Lafont), the voluptuous, perky girl he works with, who teasingly seduces him any chance she gets. There's an unspoken war between these two women, who never meet, over the young man who gets tugged back and forth between them, dealing with their ultimatums and their possessive demands, trying to keep both happy but knowing he can't. Poor Louis just gets kicked around by everyone — by Lavardin, by the town's businessmen, by his unpredictable mother — and that's probably why he's quietly seething inside, ready to explode with violence. When he gets some wine into him on a date with Henriette, he becomes someone else, confident and angry and defiant.

So on one level the film's about growing up, breaking free of the nest, escaping from the trap of the home to live one's own life: Louis faces this choice more explicitly than most at the film's finale, when he is framed in the center between his mother and his lover, having to choose which he'll go to. More than this, however, Chabrol is interested in what's going on around this teenage psychodrama. Louis, his mother and Henriette are important figures in the larger story, but they're also outsiders to it because they are of a lower class (though the Cuno home is big enough that, had Louis' father stuck around, it's obvious their situation would have been quite different; then they'd be a part of the bourgeois rather than its victims). They're part of the town's lower layer, providing basic services and doing all the real work that gets done in this film. Chabrol creates a fully functioning small town here, populating the fringes of the narrative with some of his regular troupe of actors, including the always hilarious Dominique Zardi as an obsessively punctual post office manager, Marcel Guy as a talkative barkeep, and Henri Attal as a morgue employee who's easily bribed with a stick of gum. All these characters drift around the outer edges of the film, adding to its complexity, creating the impression of a real town with all its cross-currents and linkages and intrigues.

Ultimately, Poulet au vinaigre takes some of Chabrol's characteristic themes and deals with them in a lighter context than usual, using this convoluted story of murder and deceit as a loose framework for the film's satirical and comedic digressions. It's all treated with an irreverent tone, a slightly askew sensibility that displays Chabrol's wry perspective on these characters.

Pleasure Party

[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

If Claude Chabrol's Nada could be thought of as a kind of sequel to Godard's La Chinoise, Chabrol's next film, Pleasure Party, might be an examination of another older film by another of Chabrol's French New Wave contemporaries. Pleasure Party opens with an idyllic image of familial happiness, as the cheerful Philippe carries his daughter Elise on his shoulders through a field of sunflowers, then kisses his lover Esther as the happy trio lounges on the beach, fishing and playing and enjoying a relaxing day together. Philippe is played by the writer Paul Gégauff, a frequent Chabrol collaborator, and his wife and child are played by his real-life ex-wife Danièle and real daughter Clemence. It is probably no accident then that this opening, with its cheery family outing, fields of sunflowers and classical music, evokes the opening minutes of Agnès Varda's similarly themed Le Bonheur, which also featured a real-life couple and their real children (the actor Jean-Claude Drouot and his family).

As in Varda's film, Chabrol is interested in examining the tensions that can develop within this happy family cliché, the ugliness that can result from pushing too far, shaking up the comfortable status quo. As in Varda's film, the central character is an egotist, and it is his selfishness and obliviousness that brings tragedy upon him and his family. In fact, Philippe is probably one of the most unpleasant characters in all of cinema, a despicable creep who relentlessly controls his lover. He takes pride in his superiority to her, and views himself as her teacher, imparting lessons to her. When she displays her weakness, meekly acquiescing to his desires, he loves her, swelling with happiness. During their fishing expedition, she is squeamish to bait her hooks or to remove the fish from the line after catching it, and Philippe responds with condescending affection. It's obvious he appreciates that she needs him; it feeds his hungry ego to know that she is weak, that she cannot do things without his help. He is teaching her, he says at one point, "how to live."

This smarmy self-satisfaction is nigh-unbearable, and soon even the cringing, servile Esther begins to grow tired of this attitude. When Philippe casually tells her one morning that he has cheated on her several times, and intimates that he wouldn't mind if she did the same, she takes him at his word, sleeping with their acquaintance Habib (Giancarlo Sisti) after a dinner party. Philippe, of course, is not as open-minded as he had thought. While he expected his own infidelities to be received with understanding — and for the most part the ever-accommodating Esther made no fuss — he cannot be so tranquil about her straying. He begins to berate her and mock her, growing even crueler than ever, while on the surface maintaining that he doesn't care what she does. He mocks her friends, particularly the philosophy of Habib, and pretends that his objection to her new lover is intellectual. It's probably at least partly true: Philippe is an upper-class snob and believes that the spiritualist ideas of Habib and his circle are beneath him. Philippe makes much of the fact that Esther is of a lower class, and says that he tried to raise her up to his level, and that by hanging around with Habib she is lowering herself. It's also probably true that race plays some role in Philippe's anger, along with class; he believes that his own class, his own race, is the pinnacle, and looks down on anyone else, his own lover included.

More than anything, though, it's simply a matter of ego. Philippe liked having a woman who he could shape and mold to his own liking, who he could fill up with his own ideas, who could serve him and love him and him alone. He sees that he is starting to lose this — Esther is becoming independent, going out on her own, making new friends of her own, listening to their ideas. This is what he objects to more even than her making love to another man. He cannot bear the thought of his woman thinking for herself. After Esther finally leaves him, sick of the humiliations and brutality he subjects her to, Philippe marries a woman he barely knows, the pretty young triple-divorcée Sylvia (Paula Moore). But he finds that she is much too independent for him, much too content with her own ways, her own life. She is wealthy without his help, and has had many lovers already (including even Habib, her second husband!). When they go on a fishing trip, mirroring the opening scenes, Sylvia can bait her own hooks, catch her own fish and take them off afterwards, without Philippe's help or instruction — when he sees this, he actually breaks down and cries, missing the helpless woman who had to turn to him for everything. It is the pathetic breakdown of a man whose fragile ego requires him to prey on those weaker than him.

In short, Philippe is a thoroughly monstrous creation, a self-centered and abusive man who cannot live without inflicting pain and suffering on someone else. He is a parasite, and Chabrol does not flinch from a precise limning of this monster's personality and behavior. One of the film's most horrifying scenes comes just before Esther finally deserts Philippe for good. After an evening in which he has forced her to apologize for everything, to express her desire to return everything to the way it was, Philippe is still not satisfied; he suddenly grows enraged, slapping Esther around and forcing her to lick his feet. Chabrol captures this humiliating moment in closeup, then slowly pulls back to frame the kneeling Esther, her tongue against Philippe's foot, in a door, a small rectangle of light surrounded on either side by darkness. As a portrait of the unhealthy, parasitic relationship between abuser and abused, this image is the film's most potent and horrible.

But this is the low point: Chabrol cuts from this immediately, without fanfare, to some time later, after Esther has already left Philippe. Her abasement is captured onscreen, but once she frees herself she nearly disappears. This is because the film never wavers from Philippe's point of view, as though sucked in by his outsized ego. This is a film about the monster, not his victim. It's also in many ways a film about class warfare, Chabrol's perennial subject. There is an implicit class difference between the lovers, which makes their relationship something like servant and master rather than a bond between equals. This is the way Philippe wants it, anyway. Like the self-satisfied upper class he represents, he is unhappy when confronted with an equal; he wants only a slave.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

Claude Chabrol's Nada is a wry, blackly comic epilogue to the May 1968 period of leftist student uprisings in France. One imagines it as a kind of sequel to Jean-Luc Godard's May '68 cine-tract La Chinoise: Godard's photogenic, slogan-spouting student revolutionaries a few years older, more cynical and worn-out, their political ambitions increasingly remote. They've watched a few more years worth of American gangster pictures and absorbed their lessons from that, picking up the lingo and the affectations, the machine guns and trenchcoats and secret plotting in smoke-filled rooms. They're in love with this image of themselves as romantic revolutionaries, a secretive sect making dramatic political statements through violence, and so naturally they plot to kidnap the American ambassador to France. Chabrol's wit is at its sharpest here, satirically savaging both the inept revolutionaries — whose plot makes no statement or impact of any kind — and the corrupt, smug, casually violent government officials investigating the kidnapping. The ghost of La Chinoise, and of May '68, lingers throughout the film, especially in Chabrol's sly habit of filling a corner of the frame with various bright red lampshades, the Maoist color of so many of the lampshades in Godard's earlier film, and also the color of the painted slogans on the walls, and also the color of blood when it's spilled in these films. Chabrol is making a parody of a leftist film, mocking these supposed revolutionaries who are simply falling into the trap of those they hate so much.

The film is deadpan and as coolly distant as any of Chabrol's works, but it's nevertheless one of his funniest films, as he cuts back and forth between the terrorists executing their plan and the police and government working behind the scenes to foil them. The letists are led by the anarchist Buenaventura Diaz (Fabio Testi), along with his old friend André Épaulard (Maurice Garrel), who has lost his fervor for leftist politics but nevertheless agrees to lend his expertise to the plot. In fact, the politics of this scheme are dubious to begin with, as the statement that the group issues after the successful kidnapping (a hilarious document that describes the scene of the crime as a brothel "where his Excellency was getting laid") admits that they are temporarily compromising their politics, just this once, in order to get a "nest egg" from the ransom. Even before the kidnapping, one of Diaz's friends, the schoolteacher Treuffais (Michel Duchaussoy), drops out, decrying terrorist methods of revolution. The remainder of the group consists of the perpetually drunken D'Arey (Lou Castel), the sarcastic, self-aware Veronique (Mariangela Melato), and Meyer (Didier Kaminka), who is only thinking about getting some money so he can take his wife on vacation.

It's obvious that the revolutionary zeal of 1968 has died down, though the old ideas and the old methods are still around; the eager young revolutionaries of Godard's late 60s films have aged but not matured. They still scrawl red-paint slogans on the walls, still spout the same jargon about capitalism and "the State," still romanticize and fetishize the idea of violent revolt. But if they are mostly just clueless and naïve, their opponents are vicious and uncompromising. They view this kidnapping as little more than an opportunity to strike a blow at their eternal enemies the leftists, to further suppress dissent and discredit their political adversaries. But first, there is infighting within the government itself, and Chabrol documents this with deadpan humor, as the minister of the interior (André Falcon), who always seems to be half-asleep, is confused by his underling's report of various intrigues and counterspying going on within the government. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping, the government agencies seem more intent on spying on one another than catching the leftists — when one policeman gives a report, his boss hurries him through the account of the actual investigation, telling him to get to the part where he jailed and interrogated two members of a rival government agency.

Soon enough, though, this intergovernmental squabbling gives way to a concentrated effort to uproot the leftist kidnappers. This effort is led by the detestable Goemond (Michel Aumont), a weaselly henchman who beats up anyone he gets his hands on and doesn't hesitate to use any shady methods. One of the film's most chilling scenes is a conversation between Goemond and his superior in which much goes unsaid. Having found the hideout of the terrorists, they're talking about what happens next, whether the leftists will simply surrender or if they'll try to fight their way through, whether they could be captured alive or if they'll all be killed. They'll probably be killed, is the consensus. And what a shame it would be, they both agree, if the leftists should shoot their hostage, the American ambassador. Why, that would really turn public sentiment against leftist ideas. Nothing is said directly, and both men maintain a crisp, businesslike tone throughout this horrifying exchange, but it's obvious that implicit orders are being given, and just as obvious that they'll be denied later.

Chabrol's point becomes especially clear in the aftermath of the inevitable bloodbath, when the sole survivor of the leftists sits down with a tape recorder and admits that he was wrong, that his methods only fed into exactly what the government wanted, that he was hurting, not helping, his cause. Beneath its satirical surface, the film is a bracing condemnation of political violence, a portrait of the foolishness and uselessness of taking up arms in this haphazard manner, as though kidnapping some poor idiot from a brothel is a profound political statement of any kind.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Les noces rouges

[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

To watch the films of Claude Chabrol is to become aware of the boredom and triviality of everyday life — and not just aware, but acutely sensitive, attuned to the daily, all too ordinary frustrations of strangled communication and deadened sensual impulses. His characters often seem to be sleepwalking, going through the motions, stoically living out clichés and genre conventions rather than thinking for themselves, acting for themselves, crafting a genuinely new and satisfying existence for themselves outside of the norm. Such is certainly the case with the central characters of Chabrol's Les noces rouges, who live out a generic tragedy and then, when it's all over, when everything has come to its predictable and devastating end, they admit that they never considered the alternatives, that it never even occurred to them that they could do anything else. Of course not; they are characters in a film that is, at least superficially, a thriller, and their actions are constrained by convention. Like puppets, they act out their predictable drama, murdering and deceiving in order to get what they think they want. This is all they can do. Chabrol's genius is to constrain his audience as well; it never occurs to us, watching the film, that there are any other possibilities, that there is anything outside the world we see onscreen. Thus the film's final lines are stunning in their anticlimactic brilliance, a shock to the system: you mean this didn't have to happen this way? Chabrol, for his part, delights in tricking us this way, but also despairs at the blindness and shortsightedness of those unwilling or unable to think for themselves.

The film's central couple is the small-town deputy mayor Pierre Maury (Michel Piccoli) and Lucienne Delamare (Stéphane Audran), the wife of his boss, the mayor Paul (Claude Piéplu). Pierre and Lucienne are desperately in love, or at least that's what they think. Actually, they hardly say a word to one another that isn't about sex or waiting for sex or planning to have sex. When they meet for a rendezvous, they rush at one another, violently pawing at each other's bodies, mashing their lips together, biting each other. They are passionate, nearly nymphomaniacal in their desires, and their love sessions are almost comical in the extremity of their lust. It's like watching a fierce bumper car battle between Piccoli's slightly bulky, barrel-like torso and Audran's slender, shapely frame. But for the sake of movie conventions, they're in love, and this is what love looks like, ungainly and unrestrained as it is.

Despite this passionate affair, Lucienne is held back by Paul, who is often out of town and interested only in his ambitions but nevertheless gets in the way of her complete happiness, while Pierre is held back by his sickly wife Clotilde (Clotilde Joano), a depressed and depressing woman who seems to be slowly fading away from the world by will. It's obvious what's in store, at least in the broadest sense. After all, what always happens in movies to those unlucky enough to be married to straying spouses? But Chabrol does not focus on the expected plotting and double-crossing and foul play. He's more interested in the substance of daily life. So he observes, in patient silence, the numbing dullness of Pierre and Clotilde's dinner table, as they sit quietly, slurping soup, not talking to one another. He observes too the nighttime activity at the Delamare home, where Lucienne and her daughter Hélène (Eliana de Santis) watch TV, the bluish light flickering over their stony faces and blankly staring eyes. Chabrol understands boredom, understands routine and disinterest and unthinking time-wasting. These moments of emptiness are an especially vivid contrast against the messy, emotional, awkward passion of Lucienne and Pierre's many trysts.

Chabrol, that old romantic at heart, seems to enjoy the goofy, childish pleasure that these two middle-aged burnouts take in one another; they'd both seemingly given up on life, gotten used to their own personal hells and settled in to simply exist, to survive from day to day. But when they're together they wake up, they have fun like teenagers. In the evenings, they sneak into a local chateau, a tourist destination during the day, and make love in the antique beds scattered about the premises, popping champagne bottles so that a shower of foamy bubbles sprays across the face of a priceless old painting. Later, when Pierre is at work as a member of the local government, he listens with an exaggeratedly innocent look on his face as several citizens complain about the "kids" who deface the chateau and use it as a meeting place for sexual trysts. Pierre and Lucienne are like kids together, enjoying themselves and each other, hiding naked in the bushes after one close call, giggling and cuddling together even as they recover from almost getting caught by a passing boat.

Of course, this idyll cannot last, and it is disturbed most thoroughly by Lucienne's husband Paul, a bizarre caricature of a pompous politician. Chabrol loves dealing with caricatures, with exaggerated types, with the ultimate example of a form he despises. Paul is every bit an overblown type rather than a full character, much like Jean Yanne's equally despicable Paul in Que la bête meure. He serves the same role as that earlier Paul, a convenient target for the main characters' hatred, a man drained of every ounce of decency. With his cackling, high-pitched voice and cheerful amorality, this Paul is strangely sinister, all the more frightening because he never lets his courteous, strenuously polite façade drop. He smiles and shakes hands and speaks about friendship and happiness, even as the subtext of his words carries a more subtle threat, a subdued and implied indication of the consequences for crossing him.

One interesting element of Chabrol's work is the way the same names recur again and again from film to film. The names Charles, Paul and Hélène weave all through his work of the late 60s and 70s, the names rotated and shuffled around into various configurations of husbands, wives, lovers, killers, victims. Les noces rouges introduces an interesting wrinkle into this conceit in that Stéphane Audran for once does not play the role of Hélène, the name she was almost always given in her films of this period for her then-husband Chabrol. Instead, the name passes on to the daughter of Audran's character, with whom Lucienne shares a strange, conspiratorial chemistry. When they're together around Paul, they smile slyly, as though sharing some secret together, privately making fun of Lucienne's husband (who isn't Hélène's father but her stepfather). There's also a stunning scene towards the denouement of the film in which mother and daughter mournfully place their heads together, accentuating the striking similarities between the two actresses, who really do look like they could be related. One senses that Hélène will grow up to be like her mother, discontented and unimaginative, still staring blankly at the TV. This generational continuity gives meaning to the shifting of names, Chabrol's eternal Hélène reincarnated in a younger form, the cycles of boredom and infidelity and violence and betrayal all starting anew. This impression is omnipresent in Chabrol's work: the paradox that while the cycles of bourgeois stupidity and violence are endless, escape would be simple if only one of these hopeless, dead-eyed people would make a different choice, would break the cycle, would stop thinking in such circumscribed terms.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Juste avant la nuit

[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

Claude Chabrol's Juste avant la nuit is a suffocating psychological study of a man who is overwhelmed by guilt, and who, more than that, is devastated by the discovery that what he had thought to be a stable system of justice and morality was actually a paper-thin veneer, easily destroyed. In the opening scenes of the film, the respectable businessman and family man Charles Masson (Michel Bouquet) accidentally kills his lover during a sadomasochistic game of playacting that goes too far; he strangles her and leaves her corpse behind. It is a horrible crime, but what eats away at Charles is not necessarily the guilt he feels, but the realization that he is going to be able to get away with it. The murdered woman, Laura (Anna Douking) is the wife of his best friend François (François Périer), who he meets at a nearby bar not long after the murder. But his friend does not suspect a thing; the thought never even crosses his mind, even after learning of what happened. He never imagines that his wife's mysterious and murderous lover could be his own best friend, who he met in the same neighborhood so soon after the crime had taken place. Charles is trusted completely. He is loved and respected by everyone in his life. His wife Hélène (Stéphane Audran) also has total faith in him, total loyalty and quiet love, and together they have two obedient and good-spirited children.

Charles, however, is devastated by what he has done. He soon understands that he will never be caught, that the police have no clues, and his best friend refuses to say anything to the police even after a witness tells him that she saw Charles and the murdered woman together, that Charles was her lover. François simply cannot believe it, and protects his friend without ever saying a word. So it is not a question of being afraid of the police, of fearing punishment. Charles actually begins to fear the lack of punishment, because he comes to understand that his ideas about the foundations of society were perhaps mistaken. If a man can commit murder and get away with it, never even coming under any serious suspicion, then something must be broken in the system: he cannot understand why justice is not served to him, why he is not punished for his crime. This begins to weigh on him to the point that he must confess, must tell somebody the truth.

So Charles begins to drop hints, almost as though hoping to excite suspicion, hoping for justice to be set into motion. He first tells his wife that he was having an affair with Laura, but that it ended before she died. It is almost as though he is hoping for Hélène to accuse him, to get angry, to grow suspicious of the man she loves so unconditionally. Instead, after barely a moment's shock and sadness, she forgives him, able even to laugh about it, to tell him that it doesn't hurt at all — and she takes at face value his insistence that the affair ended before Laura showed up dead. This confession satisfies Charles only for a short time, and soon he wants to tell more. So he tells his wife everything, and again she forgives him, eager to make excuses for him, insisting that it must have been an accident, that he shouldn't feel guilty, that he should try to forget. Frustrated, Charles decides that he must now tell François, but his friend's expression doesn't even waver when he confesses to the murder; it is as though he has known all along, or else he simply doesn't care. Not only does François tell Charles not to turn himself in, that he doesn't feel any desire for revenge, but he insists that they should remain friends, that they should try to forget this and not let it come between them — what's the murder of a wife between friends, after all?

Charles, though, is only driven mad by all this forgiveness and understanding. He wants justice, indeed needs it, in order to feel like the world is in order. His worldview is so thoroughly bourgeois, so "civilized," that he cannot cope with the revelation that sometimes life is unfair, that the guilty can walk around free, that crimes can go unpunished and unsolved without the social order disintegrating. He has killed someone, and nothing happened: the police ignore him, his wife and children still adore him, his friend embraces him, his confessions elicit only sympathy and compassion. He is a murderer, but no one seems to care, and this is intolerable. Chabrol examines Charles' slow unraveling with his characteristic clinical eye. This film is quiet and distant even by Chabrol's standards, with much of its substance happening beneath the surface, implied in Bouquet's increasingly pale, worn visage and the puppet-like interactions of this family man with the comfortable, stereotypical trappings of his life.

As usual, Chabrol's style is observational and indirect; he hints at the internal pressures pressing outwards from within Charles, but the surface of the film remains placid, rarely disturbed by anything resembling anger or true emotion. If anything, this only makes Juste avant la nuit all the more disturbing. It suggests, ultimately, that there is no justice, there are no moral absolutes: we only fool ourselves into thinking there are. Instead, our morality is an illusion, as easily overcome as the few seconds it takes Charles, only half-realizing what he's doing, to strangle his lover to death. If this boundary line is so fragile, so easily crossed, and these crimes so easily forgiven, then what really is holding this bourgeois society together? If the rules of society have such large exceptions and blind spots, then what good are the rules in the first place? These ideas, questioning the most basic assumptions of modern civilization, are what really disturb Charles, who is ill-equipped to cope with the loss of everything he had thought to be true, everything he had thought he'd known about good and evil, right and wrong, innocence and guilt. This is a tragedy, really, not of murder and confession, but of the loss of one's moral bearings, the realization that morality is as fragile as a woman's neck.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Le Boucher

[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

Claude Chabrol spends nearly two-thirds of Le Boucher establishing an idyllic country setting, a small rural town, peaceful and quiet, where the lonely, middle-aged schoolteacher Hélène (Stéphane Audran) develops a friendship with the butcher Popaul (Jean Yanne), a veteran haunted by the things he saw in the army. The sun shines brightly, the people are cheerful and friendly, and all seems good in this tranquil little town. The film opens with a wedding, where Hélène and Popaul first meet, sat together by chance and enjoying each other's company amidst the fun, vibrant atmosphere of the wedding. Chabrol maintains his characteristic distance here, observing from a vantage point above the assembled throng of revelers as they drink and dance and laugh and give speeches or sing songs. His camera seems to hover in the rafters of the hall, watching like an ambivalent god as his creations scurry about below; despite the festivities, one always senses Chabrol's removed perspective, and hesitates to take the cheerful surfaces presented here at face value. Indeed, before the film's hour mark, one of these revelers will be dead, and Chabrol will film the funeral from the same distanced vantage point, as many of the same people appear in different circumstances — it's just another ceremony, just another ritual, very much like a wedding.

This darkness is always lurking beneath the surface of Chabrol's work, a subterranean hint of evil and violence buried underneath a thin veneer of civility and social niceties. The relationship between Hélène and Popaul develops hesitantly, with the butcher slowly overcoming the standoffish reserve of the schoolteacher, who was hurt by a passionate love affair many years before, and had been reluctant to love again ever since. Her rapport with Popaul is instant, however, despite his roughness and the occasional hints of darkness that shade his normally cheerful personality whenever his thoughts turn to his wartime experiences. But even as this romance develops in the foreground, innocently and patiently, in the background blood is flowing through this small town. A body is found in the woods, a young girl murdered, sliced up with a knife and dumped among the trees. The police come to investigate, their little black vans racing up and down the village's quaint cobbled streets, their mere presence a reminder of the ugliness that lingers at the fringes of this paradise.

This violent intrusion does not disturb the village's life very much immediately. The police first appear in the background only, walking through the rear of a shot as Hélène's pupils play and laugh in the foreground; no one is aware of the police's presence, and no one knows why they've come. Only the audience sees them and understands that something sinister is brewing, an impression underscored by the dissonant music of Pierre Jansen, who crafts an unsettling score of isolated piano tones and string plucks. This violence exists, initially, offscreen, in the background, and is thus easily ignored by the townspeople, who gossip idly about the murder and speculate about the police investigation. They are offended, but only in the abstract; Chabrol takes the opportunity to expose the hypocrisy of bourgeois morals. Popaul is unfazed by the idea of a single murder like this. He compares it to his experiences in war and describes in grisly detail the scenes of corpses strewn everywhere, devoured by maggots, bodies torn apart by bullets and bombs. "We counted corpses by the truckload," he says, but for one of his customers, such horror in war is expected, while the idea of violence infiltrating a little suburb like theirs is unacceptable. "Yes, war is horrible, that's a fact," this man says, prissy and shocked, "but a murder like this, it's barbaric!"

Chabrol's wry humor skewers this perspective, which places no intrinsic value on human life but is merely offended by the loss of the illusion of society and civilization in this one little town. Thousands of faceless corpses in some far-off country are acceptable, as long as no blood flows through the gutters of one's own hometown. Chabrol will not allow these illusions to go unchallenged; he will not allow his characters or his audience to forget the blood that flows everywhere, everyday, in order to maintain the foundations of society. Even the food we eat is born of violence, and Popaul's profession is continually tying together the horrors of violence with the methodical motions of butchery. As Popaul speaks of the slaughtered bodies he saw in the army, he carefully slices up a hunk of raw meat. He speaks of animals often, and when he looks at a live lamb he's already envisioning it chopped up as meat. So when he jokingly calls an old teacher a "cow," it takes on a sinister undercurrent of meaning — does this man think of all live flesh as just a step or two removed from cold dead meat?

Of course, what this is all leading towards is the destabilizing tension of the film's final half-hour, in which Hélène begins to suspect, after a second woman turns up murdered, that Popaul is in fact the killer. This culminates in a harrowing, Hitchcockian suspense sequence where Hélène locks herself in her apartment above the schoolhouse at night, fearing Popaul's return. This masterfully executed sequence has Hélène — and the audience — jumping at shadows, unnerved by such innocent sounds as the creaking of the building and the high-pitched meow of a kitten somewhere in the darkness outside. Popaul's calls, unanswered, are repetitive and frightening, but even worse is the eerie silence that falls when he stops calling and disappears from his place in the courtyard outside. Chabrol proves himself disarmingly efficient at ratcheting up the tension, moving his camera in ways that call attention to the vast amount of space that cannot be seen at any given moment. What's offscreen becomes a black wasteland in which a murderer could be lurking, shrouded in shadows, just outside the enclosure of the frame. Thus every camera move suggests something about to happen: the killer, we suspect, is right where we cannot see him, right in the spot that Chabrol is conspicuously preventing us from seeing.

After all this tension, drawn out until it's nearly unbearable, the actual confrontation between Hélène and Popaul is a deliberate anticlimax, both a fulfillment of audience expectations and a clever subversion of them. This resolution does not answer any questions; indeed, it only opens up deeper, more troubling ones. What is the nature of evil? Is it the man who feels compelled to kill? Or is it the societal structures that created this man, that deadened his moral impulses, that stifled and suppressed the horrified, faint reaction he had as a child when he first saw blood? By toughening him up, making him accept death, did war and a brutal father create a killer drained of morality? If we cease to be horrified by violence, if we cease to be moved morally by the loss of life, can we even feel anything anymore? What does it mean to love in this context? How can we feel any connection to other human beings when life means so little? There are no answers in Chabrol's unsettling finale, only the dead, narcoleptic stare of Hélène, her anesthetized response to the complete destruction of her illusions and dreams.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Que la bête meure

[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

In Que la bête meure, Claude Chabrol, interested as always in the mechanics of genre, engages with the form of the revenge thriller. Of course, Chabrol does not simply reiterate the staples of the genre, but digs into them, examines them, questions the basic assumptions underpinning these types of films. His plot is in many ways typical. A man loses a family member, who is killed by the carelessness of another. He is enraged, and when the police prove unable to do anything, unable even to find the smallest clue, he dedicates himself to discovering the man who did this to him. He vows to track down and kill this man even if it takes the rest of his life. It's a very stereotypical plot, the skeleton of countless revenge thrillers, a form that is perhaps even more circumscribed than other genres. But Chabrol's interest is in the details, in the moral ambiguities and problems stirred up by this clichéd story.

Charles Thenier (Michel Duchaussoy) has lost his son in an auto accident; the boy was mowed down crossing the street, and the driver simply kept going without pausing. No one steps forward to identify the car or its driver, no one knows of a car with its front bumper dented in. It is a mystery and the police are unable to get any further. So Charles, a children's book author, dedicates himself to tracking down the man who did this. Instead, by sheer chance he finds Hélène (Caroline Cellier), an actress who he believes was in the car that killed his son. Through her, finally, he discovers the identity of the man he has sought: the brutish, thoroughly horrible Paul Decourt (Jean Yanne), a garage owner and an utter monster of a man. As Charles describes him after their first encounter, Paul is "a caricature of the wholly bad man, such as one never imagines meeting in reality."

It's clear, then, that Chabrol is very aware of the manipulation of this genre, the way it stacks the deck, the way its details are carefully arranged to allow the audience to sympathize with murder. Charles is a basically decent man, unhinged by the death of a son he apparently loved greatly — in the opening scenes of the film, shortly after the accident, he tearfully watches home videos of the boy as he aged through the years. The man he is stalking, on the other hand, is a monstrosity, a man with no redeeming values, a man so despised by everyone he encounters that his own house grows hushed, dreadfully expecting his imminent arrival. Chabrol is quite aware of the artificiality of it all, the fact that this genre relies on the existence of a "wholly bad man," a man with no scruples, no morals, no trace of decency or likability or even humanity. He is hated by his son Phillippe (Marc di Napoli) and almost equally hated and feared by his cowed wife Jeanne (Anouk Ferjac). During a painful dinner scene at the Decourt family home, he embarrasses his wife by reading her poetry aloud in a mocking tone, much to the delight of his witchy, cackling mother (Raymone), the only human being who can stand her son's presence. When his son accidentally knocks over a wine glass, this oaf picks up food and throws it at the boy, ignoring his guests' horror. And he openly caresses his maid's legs and then castigates her for laziness, telling her, loudly enough for his wife and all their guests to hear, that just because he's sleeping with her doesn't mean she can loaf off.

He is every bit the "caricature" that Charles deems him, a man so thoroughly despicable that he could only exist in a movie, and even then most likely only as the villain of a story like this. It's all calculated so that Charles' inevitable murder of this man can be not only understand but cheered on, actively encouraged. Chabrol is too clever to simply buy into such conventions, though, and he's continually undermining the easy solution, adding complications that prevent the kind of clear-cut moral absolutism and justification for murder that such films typically offer up. Foremost among these complications is Hélène, who is overcome with guilt for her silence after Paul ran over Charles' son. She's basically a good woman, but self-conscious and delicate, easily thrown off balance, easily preyed upon. There's a certain tenderness between her and Charles, affection developing into quiet love.

Her presence distracts Charles from his goal and also awakens in him feelings more shaded and multi-layered than the all-encompassing hatred and desire for revenge that he feels for Paul. Charles begins the film as an emotional blank spot, desperately trying to suppress his emotions, to take control; in order to kill, he wants to be deadened, cool and calm. But his humanity reasserts itself in his relationship with Hélène. He allows himself to again feel something other than eviscerating rage and hatred; he cares for her. Soon enough, he comes to care as well for Paul's family, for the wounded son Phillippe, nursing his own bitter rage, and for the cringing wife Jeanne, who flits from one empty pursuit to the next in the hopes of finding some escape, no matter how shallow and momentary, from her domestic hell. His caring for these people does not dull his hatred for Paul — arguably, they only sharpen his resolve — but he does become a true man again rather than an empty shell, a hollowed-out action star whose only purpose is to enact brutality against an audience-sanctioned despicable target.

In pursuing this deconstruction of the thriller form, Chabrol's aesthetic is as precise and tightly controlled as ever. His camera traces careful arcs around the characters, turning neat 180-degree rotations that can bring characters together and sweep them apart just as easily. He favors both extreme closeups and distancing long shots, the latter generally used to accentuate the emotional chilliness of the bourgeois lifestyle he's chronicling. In one particularly devastating scene, Charles and Hélène arrive at a dinner party where no one can think of anything to say. Chabrol's camera frames them all in a long row, as formal as the Last Supper, while they chatter emptily, their talk littered with uncomfortable pauses; to find something, anything to say, they finally resort to enumerating the seasons and describing their beauty. But Chabrol's style can also be strangely intimate, as in a wonderful scene in which Charles and Hélène wake up in the middle of the night, their bodies tangled together in such a way that their faces, halved, seem to form a full face together, with one of his eyes and one of hers. It's a haunting image of two people coming imperfectly — but touchingly — together. Indeed, eyes are particularly important to Chabrol in this film. They are the focal point as well of the scene where Paul embarrasses Jeanne by reading her poetry. Chabrol pans around the table, capturing the distressed expressions on the faces of the guests, and finally finding the distraught Jeanne herself, her green eyes churning with anguish and hatred as her hands cover her mouth.

Chabrol is methodically dissecting the conventions of the revenge thriller here, and even his ending is deconstructive, hinting that the hero is going to walk off into the sunset, unpunished and vindicated, before pulling away from this cliché. Instead, the ending is a complex acknowledgment of the moral toll of murder, even "justified" murder, and of the necessity for culpability whenever a human life is taken. The film begins and ends with the waves of the ocean, transformed by context: at the beginning, they are markers of innocent childhood play, while by the end they are cleansing waters, washing away the guilt and sin of a man driven by revenge.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Les Biches

[This is a contribution to the Claude Chabrol Blog-a-Thon currently running at Flickhead from June 21 to June 30. For ten days, Flickhead will be dedicated to the works of the French New Wave master, and I'll be following along with many reviews of my own.]

Few directors have as acute an eye as Claude Chabrol for patiently observing and tracing the petty cruelties and shifts of power that run through intimate relationships. His best films seethe with the undercurrents of frustration, jealousy, revenge and betrayal that flow between those who know each other best. In Les biches, he methodically examines the complicated situation that develops when the rich, icy, controlling lesbian Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) takes in a younger protégé, the struggling young street artist whose only name is the enigmatic moniker Why (Jacqueline Sassard). Frédérique takes the younger woman to live at her palatial home on the water in St. Tropez, where she entertains the girl with lavish parties and engages her in a strange, ambiguous relationship: sometimes they're lovers, even husband and wife, while at other times a chilly master/servant dynamic develops between them. Frédérique takes the masculine role, unquestionably, dominating her young lover. At parties, she shows her off like a trophy, draping an arm around her and condescendingly patting her head. In bed, Frédérique dons glasses and reads the paper while Why sits off to the side, folded up into herself, docile and waiting.

Chabrol calls attention to the power dynamics inherent in relationships by eliminating gender from the equation, if only temporarily. This situation puts the emphasis on the markers of power within relationships: money, intellectual dominance, social status, experience. Frédérique initiates her inexperienced young lover into a new world and takes nearly complete control of her as a result. The situation changes with the introduction of the arrogant architect Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who initially takes to Why and seduces her away from her master for an evening. Frédérique is both jealous and amused. Determined to toy with this new development for her own amusement, she instead finds herself falling in love with Paul, and as a result fluidly, almost naturally, entering the submissive role. It's a fascinating study in the shifting balance of power, as Paul worms his way into this home, disrupting its stasis, exerting some control for a change: he has Frédérique read books on architecture, his chosen field, making her the pupil and him the teacher, a 180-degree flip from her relationship with the malleable Why.

Chabrol's examination of this increasingly complex triangle is precise and analytical, as each point of the triangle pushes and pulls, trying to retain some control, some dominance. Such triangles are perhaps the perfect subject for Chabrol, whose filmmaking is nearly mathematical in its precision. His camera is constantly moving, but seldom with the languid grace of other filmmakers' tracking shots. His editing is abrupt and oblique, while his camerawork is angular rather than fluid, composed of many slow zooms into or out of a scene, slowly burrowing into a claustrophobic closeup or pulling back to an antiseptic distance, a vantage point from which to observe his characters writhe like specimens on a slide. This juxtaposition of discomforting intimacy with clinical objectivity is consistent with the mingling of hot and cold in the film's emotional palette. Chabrol accentuates the blank, non-committal faces of his two actresses especially, allowing them to betray few emotions behind their pretty, vacant expressions, their doll-like makeup and refusal to say what they really mean. Speech and feeling are totally disconnected here, as the two women profess to happiness and contentment while suffering from the very opposite. When Frédérique tells Why about her love for Paul, and the younger girl unfeelingly expresses her happiness for her friend, Frédérique says that she is relieved: "I was afraid you'd feel resentment." Of course, despite Why's words her tone is cold, deadly, dripping with resentment.

In this house where no one really means what they say, words mean little; it's looks and unspoken emotions that tell the real story. This idea is embodied most fully in Frédérique's two goofy henchmen/servants/hangers-on, Robèque (Henri Attal) and Riais (Dominique Zardi). These two clownish fools live in Frédérique's house, adding to the unstable atmosphere with their pranks and games and non-sequiturs. Alternately sinister and laughable, these two create a weird surrealist frisson around the fringes of the narrative, allowing Chabrol the leeway to smuggle in elements of slapstick farce, avant-garde performance art and referential word games into his sexual psychodrama. When Frédérique and Why first arrive at the villa, these two goofballs are reading revolutionary slogans from a Marxist book, gradually increasing the fervor of their proclamations, then throwing the book casually aside and running like eager schoolboys to meet their wealthy benefactress Frédérique, apparently without grasping the contradiction. Later, their dissonant music, played on a bizarre assemblage of drums, bells, whistles and glasses, fills the house with an absurd racket — "no wrong notes," one solemnly warns the other, before they resume pounding away with their defiantly un-rhythmic clamor. Spying on Why one night, Robèque and Riais become Clousseau-like buffoons, ostentatiously tip-toeing around through the darkness, ducking down behind bushes, and running around their car to switch seats when one of them proves utterly incapable of driving.

This nonsense enlivens and enriches the film, injecting a spirit of playful uncertainty into the proceedings. The central narrative is predictable in its progression, especially for those familiar with Chabrol and his idol Hitchcock — with the improbable introduction of a poisoned dagger early on in the film, it's obvious that it's going to wind up in someone's back sooner or later. With the narrative arc more or less constrained by the genre conceits, Chabrol bends and twists the film around this hard center, adding baroque touches and diversions around the central narrative.

He also delves deep into the subtleties of gesture that define the film's relationships, like the way Frédérique feigns drunkenness to nudge Paul into taking advantage of her, or the way Frédérique and Why, so similar they could practically be the same woman, semi-consciously fall into the same rhythms as they walk, their legs pistoning in tandem and their exhausted yawns escaping in sequence. Chabrol is a supple visual storyteller with a keen sense of symbolism, always skirting the obvious to suggest his story's darker undercurrents through elegant visual metaphors. The first kiss between Paul and Why is a prime example: she's on the right, he's on the left, both of them in profile, her face limned by light and his shaded in darkness. When he moves in, ever so slightly, to kiss her, her lips seem to be swallowed up by the darkness of his face, as though she were being devoured by a shadow.

Les biches is a taut, unforgettable psychodrama from one of the masters of the form. Its mysterious surfaces defy facile interpretation, offering up only glittering enigmas, like the shine of the button on Why's jeans as Frédérique undoes her pants for the first time, later mirrored in the glistening of the tears on the younger girl's face following her mentor's betrayal. Chabrol's art is chilly and abstract, designed to keep both viewer and characters at arm's length, and yet there are always dangerous emotions bubbling away beneath the surface, ready to boil over at any moment. This delicate balance of comfort and destruction within bourgeois life — and the ease with which it can be disrupted — is the essential subject of Chabrol's work.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Kurt Kren: Action Films

[This is part of a series of posts in which I explore the work of the Austrian DVD label Index DVD. This company has released a great deal of valuable European experimental cinema onto DVD, naturally focusing on the Austrian underground but occasionally branching out as well. Index's DVDs are distributed in the US by Erstwhile Records, so anyone intrigued by Index's catalog should take a look and support the fine work both these companies are doing for obscure and avant-garde cinema. The review below focuses on a selection of the films included on one of Index's three Kurt Kren DVDs, this one compiling his work with the Vienna Aktionists.]
During the mid-1960s, Austrian experimental filmmaker Kurt Kren became momentarily associated with the confrontational performance art of the Vienna Aktionists, primarily Otto Mühl (who would later contribute to Dušan Makavejev's great Sweet Movie) and Günter Brus. Mühl and Brus specialized in bizarre "materialaktions" in which they would act upon the human body with paint and food products, creating messy, perverse spectacles in which sexuality, bodily functions and physicality were foregrounded and explored. In 1964, Kren began filming some of these aktions, though he was not interested in being a documentarian. Instead, he took the raw materials of Mühl and Brus' aktions and acted upon them himself, creating new works through the formal exploration of the images he gathered at these events. The results often infuriated the two provocateurs, who had desired a more straightforward documentary record of their work — Mühl would eventually begin filming his performances himself instead — but Kren's raw, ragged films nevertheless capture the intense spirit and unfettered physicality of this scene, while crafting these images into entirely new works of his own.

His first film in this vein was Mama und Papa, based on an aktion by Mühl. This first film sets the tone for Kren's work with the Aktionists, and especially for the color films he made with Mühl. The editing is hyper-fast and fragmentary, and carefully cycles through the same shots in a rhythmic pattern, returning again and again to the same images. This pulsating repetition shatters the cause-and-effect chains of Mühl's aktion, but preserves its subversive power. This aktion, as with most of Mühl's performances, consists primarily of nude models being coated with paint or food, their bodies carefully arranged and posed as though molding inanimate objects. Mühl methodically lays out his arrangements of flesh and viscous materials, focusing on the interactions of colors and forms, as though he were a painter working with the human body as his canvas. Kren's film limns the visceral qualities of Mühl's work; the sense of disgust is palpable, as is a feeling of profound discomfort. One can't help but see these films and imagine the sensations: the stickiness and sliminess of the liquids, dripping off the participants' bodies, puddling on the floor around them.

And yet Kren's films also demonstrate that Mühl's work goes beyond such confrontation, beyond the sensations of disgust. There's a kind of childishness to these performances as well, an innocence that seems rooted in childhood games, in mud pies and sand boxes. This spirit of play is perhaps most apparent in O Tannenbaum, also derived from a Mühl aktion, a ludicrous Christmastime farce in which Mühl arranges his actors with Christmas trees protruding from their asses. Working like a flower arranger or a gourmet chef, he carefully lays out assortments of eggs and sausages around a man's penis, then tops it with a flower — or places a pair of toy glasses over the penis as though it were a nose. There's a goofiness to much of this work, a loose spirit of improvisation that works against the notes of menace and exploitation and deviant sexuality also running through Mühl's work. These two threads tangle together in his films, much as his performances tangle together human bodies into indiscriminate masses of limbs and torsos, dehumanized canvases to be acted upon.

Kren takes this ethos further by acting upon the footage, abstracting it from its origins and the ideas of his collaborators. By chopping up Mühl's aktions into blurred, frantically edited montages, he reduces them to their visceral essence. In O Tannenbaum, what remains is a brilliant sense of color, the bright reds and greens of the Christmas season being sprayed onto bodies in violent slashes of color. Of Kren's Mühl films, only his last, Cosinus Alpha, slows the action down enough to make it more coherent, rather than treating it as material for montage. At 9 minutes long, it is also the longest of the Aktionist films, and its pace seems positively languid in comparison to the others. What comes across here is a sense of the erotic and the sexual in Mühl's work, a dimension of his performances largely missing in Kren's other films, despite the copious nudity. Here, the camera's relative steadiness, and the slow, deliberate movements, emphasize the sensual contact of flesh on flesh, the rubbing and caressing as bodies rub against one another, covered in thick soupy muck, kneading the liquids into one another's skin.

This sensuous film emphasizes the pleasurable aspects of Mühl's performances, especially since it's apparent that his models are not simply passive in this instance, but are actively engaging with one another, and with the mess that covers them, seemingly taking pleasure in wallowing in each other so messily.

The other major thread in Kren's Aktionist films was his interaction with Mühl's colleague Günter Brus. Brus' work is quite different from that of his contemporary, and as a result Kren's films are different as well. Whereas all of his Mühl films were in bright color, glorying in the eye-catching palette of these aktions, the Brus films are all in black and white and decidedly more abstract, distanced from the concrete reality of the event being captured. If Mühl's aktions are messy and sexualized and all more or less the same, Brus seems to be more conceptual, more varied, and probably more interesting in his own right — his works captured here seldom seem to be simple exercises in sloppy play, but are instead rigid engagements with conceptual re-imaginations of the human body.

Kren's films sometimes make Brus' work hard to grasp, however, because even more so than with the Mühl films, these films atomize and break down the continuity of the event itself. Ana was the first film Kren made with Brus, and it's seldom even clear what's actually going on here. There are flashes of movement and occasional moments of clear activity, but for the most part the action is an indistinct blur, rapidly flitting across the frame. For much of the film, Kren's choppy cutting approaches the impressionistic pixelization of Stan Brakhage's painted films: black forms dancing across a plain white field, shifting and vibrating from frame to frame, seldom resolving into anything representational. This approach is as viscerally stunning as Kren's treatment of Mühl's work, but seems to have wandered even further afield from the content of the work itself. In Silber, Kren's abstractions progress even further, to the point where virtually the entire film takes place in a vague, under-exposed darkness. It is perhaps the weakest film in this set, the one film where Kren's refusal to provide a faithful documentary account results in a loss of any context or even content; all that remains is the form, the pace of the editing.

Fortunately, the strongest film in this set is another of Kren's collaborations with Brus, the harrowing Self-Mutilation. For this aktion, Brus coated himself with a viscous paste, rolled around on the floor, and subjected himself to simulated (and probably some amount of genuine) mauling with scissors, razors, pins, clips, corkscrews and knives. It is an expression of anguish in its purest form. Brus' face and body, covered with a thick porridge-like substance, are reduced in their entirety to his mouth, perpetually open in a scream or a cry, and his eyes, staring fearfully out of the muck accumulated on his face.

Kren responds to this performance by concentrating on Brus' face, on the expressions of terror, pain and despair that are communicated solely through the eyes and mouth, with everything else reduced to a lumpy gray landscape. The pace is much slower than in Kren's other films, the shots longer, so the emphasis remains on the performance itself as it does in few of his other Aktionist works. This is perhaps the Aktionists' ultimate statement, the simplification of human emotion to a primal scream, eyes pleading and a mouth opened in a silent howl, unable to communicate, unable to forge deeper connections, unable to get beyond one's own body and the pain it feels. This is a startling, terrifying portrait of imprisonment within the cage of the body: a man trapped by his own sensations, self-imposed and yet unavoidable. The film takes place almost entirely in closeups of Brus' face, essentially trapping the audience along with this sufferer. Kren's camera frequently goes out of focus, capturing the wild-eyed Brus as he flails about, his face contorted, his hands scraping at the coating on his skin. The filmmaking is simple and direct, a perfect accompaniment to this performance's terrifying straightforwardness.

After Kren ended his association with Mühl and Brus, he returned to the formalist experiments he'd been making prior to this brief Aktionist period; this was the filmmaking mode that would define the remainder of his career. Before he fully ended his collaborations with the Aktionists, however, he made one last film in this vein. 20. September, unlike the other Aktionist films, is not a document of an aktion, but is instead a true collaborative work in which Brus is more or less an "actor" for Kren. The film has been charmingly nicknamed the "Eating, Drinking, Pissing and Shitting film," and that title pretty much announces what one is in for here. This disturbing, difficult-to-watch film takes the Aktionists' exploration of the body to its extreme resolution, simplifying the "plot" of a film to the four simple bodily processes that form the basic bedrock of human existence. Along with breathing and sleeping, these are the necessities of life, the things that humans must do in order to live, to survive and thrive. Kren films each of these processes in intimate closeups: images of Brus' mouth as he drinks a beer or shovels food into his mouth, intercut with straight-on images of a penis emitting a steady stream of urine and an anus opening up to allow the feces to crawl slowly out.

There is no possible reaction to a film like this but visceral disgust and discomfort, and that seems to be the primary intent. Its point is a simple one, and it achieves it by juxtaposing both ends of the processes by which we sustain our lives: drinking ends in pissing, and eating ends in shitting. Unlike the films crafted from actual Aktionist performances, this film seems to work on one level only, and once its essential point is understood — which happens pretty quickly — all it has to offer is the repetition of its message of disgust. However disturbing and gross the other Aktionist films are, however much they wallow in filth and disgusting images, they are always more multi-faceted than this, always more complicated in the juxtapositions of sexual feelings, disgust, playfulness and subversion of the norm.

Kren's collaborations with Mühl and Brus yielded a body of work that, while perhaps peripheral to Kren's later work as a formalist and structuralist innovator, is still interesting in its own right. It's the rare piece of provocation and controversy that retains its power over 40 years after it originally appeared, but that certainly applies to these unsettling films.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

TOERIFC: Someone To Love

[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's selection is courtesy of Ray from Flickhead. Visit his site to see his thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]

Towards the end of Henry Jaglom's Someone To Love, Orson Welles, playing an unnamed father figure who arrives mysteriously on the scene to dispense wisdom and prophecies of doom, asks the film's main character Danny (played by Jaglom himself), "why have you imposed this peculiar misery on your friends in a noble institution like the theater?" It's tempting to extend Welles' question, to expand upon it, to ask Jaglom, why have you imposed this misery on your audience? Because Jaglom's film is undoubtedly among the most painful cinematic experiences imaginable, an extended two-hour prediction of the most self-obsessed sitcoms that would arise in subsequent decades to take over the airwaves. Like a particularly unfunny and maudlin episode of its spiritual successor Friends, Jaglom's film spends virtually its entire running time wallowing in the miseries, insecurities and whiny banter of a group of aging show business types, all of them gathered in a dilapidated theater on Valentine's Day by Danny, who wants to create some kind of film/performance art/psychology hybrid by experimenting on his friends and acquaintances. His conceit — and by extension, Jaglom's — is that there is something about his generation, these aging boomers who grew up in the 60s, that makes them particularly susceptible to the condition of loneliness and an inability to make lasting romantic connections. So he gathers together everyone he knows who is going to be alone on Valentine's Day and invites them to a party, which in fact turns out to be some kind of group therapy session where he asks them all about why they're alone, how they feel about being alone, what they think causes them to be alone, and so on.

Yes, it's exactly as aggravating as it sounds, and exactly as solipsistic. Jaglom's work isn't funny enough to be a comedy, and it isn't exciting enough to be a drama, and its characters aren't developed fully enough for it to really work as the kind of Cassavetes-style fly-on-the-wall realism to which it so desperately aspires (Jaglom even namechecks Cassavetes at one point). The result is that nothing really cuts too deep, or makes one laugh, or creates any interesting tension. There are occasional ideas and lines of dialogue that have some heft, a frisson of intellectual vigor and insight into the lives of these people. At one point, Danny delivers a great speech about how the biological origin of loneliness must be intended to drive us towards each other, just as the feeling of hunger drives us to eat. At times like this, Jaglom cuts to the core of the issues he's dealing with, really engaging with his themes at a primal level. The same can be said of Welles' entire cameo appearance, both because Welles is such a powerful actor that his mere presence elevates any film, and because Jaglom gives this father figure some of the film's best material: an edgy, probing investigation of the effects of feminism and the sexual revolution on the nature of modern romantic relationships.

So it's not like the film is intellectually or emotionally bankrupt. There's undoubtedly substance to Jaglom's inquiry into romance, and one senses his sincerity. But he tends to bury his insights in a morass of chatter and nonsense, in a neverending torrent of regurgitated clichés. This might be bearable if the silliness and banality of the dialogue emerged in some way from the characters, if it felt organic to them, but the characters are mostly such flat, cardboard constructions that it's hard to get any sense of them as people at all. Moreover, most of the acting is at such a stagey, mannered, contrived level that it's constantly breaking the fourth wall, even when Jaglom isn't intentionally breaking it by hauling up all kinds of camera equipment onto the stage and having his actors speak to the camera as part of the film within the film. All this artifice is just another hurdle to leap in trying to get closer to Jaglom's ideas and characters (a futile effort, I'm afraid). Even Danny and his afraid-to-commit girlfriend Helen (Andrea Marcovicci), ostensibly the main characters, don't really develop beyond a very surface level: their whole dramatic arc throughout the film can be summarized as Helen being afraid to give up her independence by letting Danny spend the night in her apartment, and by the end making a slight concession that she may change her mind someday. Jaglom is after profound themes and big ideas, but he approaches them through the most mundane route, through the kinds of utter trivialities that could only be of interest to the most committed of solipsists.

Jules Feiffer, a dabbler in film and a masterful cartoonist and playwright, has pretty much perfected the kind of inquiry that Jaglom is after here. In his script for Mike Nichols' bracing Carnal Knowledge, and in countless cartoons for his now-ended weekly newspaper strip, Feiffer has traced the antagonisms and insecurities and self-erected barriers that plague the relationships between men and women in the modern age. Jaglom's dialogue constantly recalls Feiffer, and it's not a favorable comparison. These characters, who speak in self-aware psycho-babble and jittery self-analysis, are the kind of people who Feiffer would satirize and deflate, with merciless wit, in his best cartoons about the gender wars. Jaglom, on the other hand, doesn't want to poke holes in his characters, maybe because he's one of them, so he spends the bulk of his film indulging their whims, listening to their whining, allowing them to spill their utterly prosaic souls. And then, in order to have it both ways, he ushers in Orson Welles to take the piss for a while, to call them out for being whiny and annoying and self-obsessed. It's a welcome change of pace, and Welles basically says everything that any impatient viewer was probably shouting at the screen well before the hour mark, but it doesn't quite take the edge off the film's overall indulgence of such solipsism.

Ultimately, though, what hurts the film the most is not that one is forced to spend so much time with people who only want to look in mirrors, but that Jaglom lacks the cinematic panache — or the inclination — to do something interesting with this cast of bland characters. He's a poor man's Woody Allen, a poor man's Eric Rohmer, a poor man's Jules Feiffer. He's got all of Allen's neuroticism and insecurity, without the humor and visual craftsmanship. He's got Rohmer's inclination towards endless talk, without the French master's wit, emotional subtlety and pictorial sense. He's got Feiffer's archetypal themes and subjects without the insight and satirical bite. Worse, his filmmaking itself is amateurish and uneven. His cutting is inept, displaying all the distracting attributes of a theater director working in film: especially, the awkward reaction shots in which people, supposedly watching something happening nearby, seem to be in an entirely different room or maybe a different building. Sometimes Jaglom's looser moments, mostly involving the camera crew within the film, evoke Cassavetes with the informality and spontaneity of the aesthetic. More often, though, Jaglom's visual sense is stagebound and unimaginative, a perfect complement to his banal writing. It's impossible to watch this film without thinking of all the better films in this general style that one could watch instead. These comparisons are perhaps unfair to Jaglom, but mostly they're a function of boredom: if he'd given his audience something interesting to watch or to think about, they wouldn't have to think about other, better films instead.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Films I Love #35: Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

Michael Haneke's Caché boasts a thriller premise worthy of Hitchcock (or David Lynch, whose Lost Highway may have inspired the conceit). A French bourgeois couple, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche), begin receiving mysterious videotapes at their home, tapes that mostly just show the exterior of their house in long, static views. The film's famous opening is a lengthy, silent view of a street scene, with eventually voices talking over it, expressing impatience that nothing is happening, a metafictional nod to ADD-afflicted modern cinema audiences. Only when the view is literally rewound is it revealed that this is a videotape, and that the voices are those of Georges and Anne as they try to figure out who sent this tape to them and why. This mystery drives the film, but it soon becomes clear that Haneke is not interested in providing a solution or treating this story like a conventional thriller. He's much more interested in the way this situation opens up windows into Georges' past, specifically calling up long-suppressed memories of an incident that occurred during his childhood. Through these videotapes, Georges reunites with Majid (Maurice Bénichou), an Algerian who as a boy lived for a time with Georges and his parents. Due to childish jealousy and insecurity, the young Georges told a lie that got Majid ejected from their family, essentially ruining the boy's chances for a better life beyond his immigrant status. This incident, nearly forgotten by Georges in his adult life, has never faded away from Majid's mind; he has nursed these wounds ever since. Haneke is probing at the intricacies of immigration and the failure of French political and social life to engage with the country's imperialist past, and especially the Algerian War.

As the videotapes keep appearing at Georges' door, his struggles become an allegory for the difficulties of dealing with issues of race, immigration and social status. For Georges, the past has been repressed. He has allowed his own actions to become remote from himself, to be dismissed from his mind, with little thought for the concrete effect that his childish lie has had on another man's life and opportunities. As a ward of an affluent white, native French family, Majid's life would doubtless have been much different than it turned out to be, and this is the central fact of the film, a fact that Georges is reluctant to address. But the videotapes increasingly make it difficult for him to avoid these uncomfortable truths. Haneke, always interested in media and documentation, sees video as an aid to memory, a way of confronting long-suppressed ideas. This is why his characteristic objective stance, embodied in his long takes and observational distance from his characters, is not cold or off-putting but paradoxically a way of getting closer to the truth, of not flinching away from even images that are difficult to watch and deal with. The film's notorious ending, in which the questions raised by the narrative are not resolved but left dangling in the most startling fashion, is not a dodge for Haneke. He wants to raise more questions than he answers here, to get people thinking about their own complicity in the routine injustices of the world. But he also wants to provide a measure of hope, as he does in the film's oblique final shot, which presents, hidden within its cluttered frame, a possibility of conversation and reconciliation, a suggestion that the crimes of previous generations can be addressed by the current generation.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Pauline Kael Week at The Cooler

Jason Bellamy, friend of this blog and my correspondant for The Conversations, is running an exciting event all week long over at The Cooler. From June 15 to June 19 (and possibly longer if the interest is there) Jason will be presiding over a series of discussions of the work of the influential and controversial film critic Pauline Kael. Basically, every day he'll be posting an excerpt or selected quotes from Kael's writing, and inviting discussion and commentary in the comments sections of his posts. He's also welcoming outside posts: if you have something to say about Kael at your own blog, simply send the link along to Jason and he'll post it as part of Kael Week. You can keep track of the entire event by visiting Jason's central post, which he'll be updating with both his own contributions and any links sent to him by other bloggers.

Jason has already posted the first contribution to the blog-a-thon, a discussion of violence in cinema centering around Kael's review of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Keep checking back at The Cooler all week long for much more. This promises to be an enlightening and stimulating event, so please take a look and contribute!