Monday, July 30, 2012

Une belle fille comme moi

François Truffaut's Une belle fille comme moi is a pitch-black comedy of sexual exploitation in which who's doing the exploiting and who's getting exploited is neatly reversed. Camille (Bernadette Lafont) is the subject of a "sociological thesis" on criminal women, being written by Stanislas Prévine (André Dussollier), a hapless professorial type who listens to Camille's jailhouse confessions with great interest. Camille has had a tough life, it seems, always being desired and exploited by the men she meets, who only want her for sex. Camille, of course, relentlessly turns this state of affairs to her advantage, letting these men take her to bed and have their way with her, while ruthlessly exploiting them in turn, taking their money and plotting various criminal acts surrounding her multiple affairs. Camille is in jail, it seems, for the one crime she actually didn't commit, but there's no lack of criminality in this femme fatale. While Stanislas analyzes her in terms of her unhappy childhood and her bad luck in relationships, suggesting various repressed psychological reasons for her bad behavior, Stanislas' good-girl secretary Hélène (Anne Kreis) asks him to consider the possibility that this girl is just a "tramp."

Truffaut's film is torn between feminist empowerment and the confirmation of old clichés about women who are dangerous, man-eating sluts. Camille could easily be seen as a victim, and this is how Stanislas sees her, influenced by her slightly twisted account of her own experiences. In her own version of her story, she's a victim of the attentions of men, who simply want her for her undeniable sexiness, her carnality. Clovis (Philippe Léotard) picks her up and hides her away in his garage, visiting her for sex whenever he can sneak away from his overbearing mother, until Camille, using an age-old form of sexual blackmail, tricks him into marriage by pretending to be pregnant. Later, Camille throws herself at the bar singer Sam Golden (Guy Marchand), who she believes will help her with her own singing career — a prospect that seems doomed by her tone-deaf, cat-screech voice — but instead he is, predictably, only interested in her talents in bed. Similarly, a lawyer (Claude Brasseur) claims he can help Camille get a large settlement in a lawsuit, but actually he too just takes her to bed while tricking her into signing blank forms and trying to eke out payments from her.

The film is full of these traditional examples of male exploitation, all these men using Camille for her sexuality while stringing her along in various ways. And yet Camille consistently turns the tables on the men, using them in turn. It's a portrait of mutual exploitation, in which sexuality is a tool, a weapon, a way of getting what one wants: for the men, sex is often an ends in itself, while for Camille it's simply the means by which she gets men under her control. Truffaut's film both embodies these archetypal situations and mocks them, making a farce out of these cynical power struggles between men and women, in which neither side is really interested in the other for anything but base, selfish reasons.

Driving the film is the powerful, irresistible performance of Bernadette Lafont in the central role. Lafont had made her screen debut in Truffaut's early short Les Mistons, and she'd gone on to be the bad girl muse of Truffaut's New Wave contemporary Claude Chabrol in some of Chabrol's earliest films. This film marked her first collaboration with Truffaut in 15 years, and she delivers a ferocious, comic, sexy performance that very much explains why so many men are drawn to her and allow themselves to be destroyed by her. Lafont is always a delightful screen presence, with a distinctive smile that's almost sweet and childlike, if not for the hint of irony that makes her look as dangerous as she is appealing. She's casually, irreverently sexy, well aware of the effect she has on men, even sprawling around in a prison jumpsuit that she leaves tantalizingly half-buttoned, the front hanging partially open to tempt Stanislas into a more-than-professional relationship with his interview subject.

Lafont provides most of the film's laughs, embodying an irrepressible id with every languidly sexy pose, every out-of-key tune, every smirking bit of double entendre. Without her, the film would fall apart, though Truffaut does craft some fun gags, like the fact that the conceited Sam Golden accompanies his sexual conquests with a soundtrack of recorded car race sounds. But it's Lafont who makes the film so much fun, making her shameless tramp of a character both delightfully funny and strangely sympathetic. Truffaut's depiction of the battle of the sexes is rather simplistic and cynical, recalling the sitcom-level clichés about marriage plaguing his Antoine Doinel film Bed & Board, but here at least, Lafont's Camille vivaciously resists such stereotypes at every turn, even as she simultaneously embodies them.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Circus

Charles Chaplin's fourth feature, The Circus is also one of his funniest and liveliest, a dazzling comic showcase for the tramp's antics at their best. Like Chaplin's previous film, The Gold Rush, this delivers one fast-paced, irresistibly funny gag after another, with barely a pause for breath. It's also one of Chaplin's most focused features, set almost entirely in a single location, generating its jokes — and its subtle but genuine pathos — from the tramp's interactions with a small circus troupe.

Chaplin arrives at the circus through one of the greatest set pieces in his oeuvre, a manic chase in which he's mistaken for a pickpocket and pursued by both a cop and the actual pickpocket, who wants to get back the wallet he planted on the tramp. This chase leads into a hall of mirrors and pretty much just stays there because Chaplin has so much fun playing with the prism-like reflections and multiple tramps running around the screen in different directions. It's brilliant, and brilliantly minimal, because Chaplin has managed to capture the feel of a chase sequence while mostly remaining in one very small confined space, conveying the impression of a complex labyrinth through the refracted doubles of himself packed within the frame. He's interacting with himself, bumping into his doubles and politely doffing his cap, and in one hilarious bit of pantomime, he drops his bowler hat and keeps trying to retrieve one of its reflections before finally hooking the real thing with his cane. When he throws in other characters to further complicate this fragmented composition, it just becomes even more delightfully mad.

He finally escapes the funhouse and races into the circus, where he becomes an accidental hit with the crowds by running around the ring, fleeing a donkey that hates him on sight and getting mixed up in a magician's disappearing act. There's a lot of spatial fun here, as Chaplin and the magician's assistant continually switch places under a sheet and in a large box, running back and forth through trap doors to take each other's place on one side of the stage or the other.

There is also a strong element of melancholy running through the film, as the tramp falls in love with the circus ringmaster's (Al Ernest Garcia) mistreated stepdaughter (Merna Kennedy). The tramp witnesses the ringmaster's brutality towards the girl, beating her and denying her dinner when she doesn't master the tricks for her acrobatic performance. Chaplin, sweet and empathetic as always, slips the girl some food — hilariously, in one scene, by throwing it up to her as she sits in the rings above the big top — and cares for her. But as is often the case with the romance in Chaplin's films, the tramp is not destined to get the girl; he's too much of an outsider, an eccentric comic figure rather than a romantic hero, and soon enough the girl's fallen in love, not with the tramp, but with a dashing tightrope walker (Harry Crocker).

Thus there's a touching, heart-rending sadness to the final act of the film, even as Chaplin's antics become more and more frenzied when he stands in for the tightrope walker during a high-wire performance. The film closes with the tramp gracefully stepping aside, foregoing his own romantic ambitions to take on more of a fatherly role, the kindly and compassionate father that the girl hasn't had. There's a beautiful, aching quality to the final images, as the tramp brings the couple together and restores them to their place in the circus before stepping aside. The circus pulls away without him, the caravans leaving one by one until the tramp is left behind in an empty field. It's a sublime image of loneliness and isolation, with the tramp choosing not to stay with the circus, not to remain in the company of others but to head off on his own again. The final image, an iconic shot of the tramp heading off alone towards the horizon as the black irises in around him, is both tragic and jaunty, because the tramp's independence, his selflessness and goodness, are also what keep him lonely and isolated, left behind in the dust as the circus leaves town.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Macbeth (1948)

Orson Welles' expressionist, visually stunning version of Macbeth was the director's first attempt at a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare. Shot quickly and cheaply, the film makes a virtue of its budget minimalism by setting the familiar play within a spartan, eerie wasteland of fog and bare rock. Welles surrounds this bleak, violent parable of power and ambition with swirling fog, twisted trees devoid of leaves, stark expanses of vague nothingness in which only the light-sculpted features of the play's protagonists stand out, as though they are declaiming into a void, spitting out their tormented speeches while already engulfed in the hell that awaits them for their vile deeds.

Welles is mostly faithful to the text of Shakespeare's play, shifting some words and characters around here and there, and somewhat emphasizing the religious subtext of the story, but mostly remaining true to the language and the story. Macbeth (Welles) is moved to murder the king by a prophecy given to him by three witches, further encouraged in the deed by his scheming, ambitious wife (Jeanette Nolan). His crime gets him the crown, but he's overcome by paranoia and madness, growing ever more bloodthirsty and reckless as he desperately defends his ill-gotten title. The story is a classical study of the corruption of power, and Welles revels in the blustery speeches and stormy psychological subtexts, all of it delivered with the familiar disembodied sound that often characterized Welles' approach to dialogue — he recorded all of the speech separately, so that the actors are simply mouthing their words, and the dubbed, echoing quality of the sound contributes to the film's strange, haunting feel.

It's visually that Welles really makes his mark on this material. The chintzy sets and shoddy theatrical props of this production were doubtless necessitated by budgetary limitations, but Welles uses his limited means with purpose. The castle through which Macbeth stalks looks more like a cave, the bare rock walls warped and full of holes in which all light disappears, the ceilings low and craggy overhead. The film's atmosphere would be well-suited to a horror movie, with fog draped around the dark, minimal set, reducing visibility to a small circle of empty space in which Macbeth paces like a trapped rat, his face often blown up in dramatic closeups that capture every bead of sweat dripping from his skin, every quiver of his lips and every wild, bulging expression in his eyes. The backgrounds are blurry and sketchy, a few warped trees sticking up out of a wasteland, crudely carved rock everywhere, while the faces of the actors are crisply delineated with bold, high-contrast lighting, their eyes often shining out of the darkness of their shadowed faces.

The frequent close framing of the actors places the larger-than-life emotions of Shakespeare's text front and center. Even the minimal scenery, so gloomy and gothic, seems to reflect the warped inner psychology of Macbeth and his wife, their paranoia and evil writ large upon their surroundings. Welles poses Lady Macbeth as a seductress, a femme fatale, urging her husband on to his murderous, treacherous deeds. In the crucial scenes where she convinces him to kill the king, Welles frames Macbeth in the foreground with his wife slyly positioned to his side, whispering in his ear, casting charged glances his way. She's Eve and the serpent all rolled into one form, her last-act attacks of conscience notwithstanding, and at one point her face glides into the frame at the fringes, behind a towering closeup of Macbeth, like a sinister sprite perched on his shoulder, whispering evil in his ear.

The minimalist aesthetic at times seems to mock the protagonist. When Macbeth is crowned king, a silly-looking square crown, at once flimsy and bulky, is placed upon his brow, with his glowering face beneath it. He marches out before his assembled troops and subjects for the first time as their king, and the music too mocks him, accompanying what should be his grand entrance with a jaunty tune more suited to a court jester than a king. Later, at the climax of the film, as Macbeth's foes amass beneath his ramparts to unseat him, the king runs back and forth across the bare stone of his courtyard in a crown designed to resemble the Statue of Liberty's spiked headband, thus ironically juxtaposing the vicious tyrant with the symbol of American democracy.

Macbeth's famous final act soliloquy — "full of sound and fury/ signifying nothing" — is delivered against an abstract image of smoke roiling and spinning in slow motion, a foggy void that's set to devour the murderous king, to end his time of strutting upon life's stage. Welles' visual interpretation of this material is often subtly clever like this, expanding the text with a truly cinematic sensibility. Welles cuts from Macbeth looking at a twisted tree branch and musing about crows to the image of the two murderers who Macbeth has sent after Banquo, crouched on a tree limb, their shadowy forms looking very bird-like as they wait for their victim to pass by so they might descend on him. The sound design is also exceptional, with Welles ascribing piercing, harrowing import to a few key sounds on the otherwise hollow, disembodied soundtrack: after the king's death, especially, the loud knocking of Macduff (Dan O'Herlihy) at the castle door reverberates impressively, a foreboding sound of doom, and there's a similar force to the screech of the owl that so frightens Lady Macbeth that she grasps at her chest as though she's been stabbed by the sound. Welles' Macbeth was not appreciated in its time, but in fact it's a stunning and visually inventive adaptation.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Two English Girls

François Truffaut's Two English Girls is a moving, haunting, subtly powerful film, a drama of alternating repression and release, sexuality and restraint, purity and excess. It is adapted from what seems to be a rather melodramatic novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, who had also written Jules and Jim, another novel about a love triangle that Truffaut had famously adapted. This second consideration of the theme reverses the situation. Where Jules and Jim was about a woman torn between two men, this film, like the novel it's based on, is about a man and the two women he loves. The film is full of melodramatic contrivances and over-the-top emotions: women faint dramatically while reading letters, lovers are torn apart by solemn pacts, there are hysterical pregnancies and illnesses that seem as much psychological and emotional as physiological.

Truffaut alternately revels in these intense emotions and keeps them at arm's length: like the characters, the film and its director seem torn between repression and release, unsure whether to give in fully to the madness and ecstasy and pain of these emotions or to hold back, to retreat into asceticism. The effect is enthralling and ambiguous, rendering these melodramatics affecting and overwhelming when seen, veiled, through the filter of Truffaut's uncertain distance, his hesitance to fully embrace the passions and excesses of this lurid, tragic romance. Claude (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a typically fickle and promiscuous young man when he meets Ann (Kika Markham), a young English girl visiting France. He's drawn to her, but their relationship remains chaste and friendly, even though Claude is undeniably attracted to her; he calls her his "sister" but thinks about grabbing her hand, about kissing her. She takes him to visit her home in Wales, where she introduces him to her sister Muriel (Stacey Tendeter), who she's clearly pushing towards Claude despite her own feelings for the young man.

Muriel is built up before her first appearance; at times it seems as though Ann can speak of nothing but her sister, who remains curiously out of view, her absence consistently emphasized in Truffaut's mise en scène. Her closed door, with Muriel sleeping inside, is lingered over. Her empty place setting at the dinner table becomes a point of fixation for Claude. When the girl finally appears, she's sitting stiffly at the table with bandages wrapped around her face, protecting the fragile eyes that she has strained reading. The glimpses that Claude gets of her eye as she lifts the bandage seem to provoke him and arouse his curiosity even more.

Throughout the film, this tension between Claude and the two sisters keeps erupting in different ways, their loves for one another warped and held back by both their own individual moralities and the societal conventions that keep feelings buttoned up. In many ways, the film is about the erosion of a hypocritical and artificial sexual morality that privileges virginity and "purity" in women while condoning the flighty affairs and indiscretions of men. Both of the sisters, in their different ways, strain against this hypocrisy, and it's the women in the film, not the inconstant and indecisive Claude, for whom Truffaut seems to have the most sympathy. Muriel throws herself into religion, finding an outlet for her feelings in devotion to God, denying sensuality and worldliness: at the peak of her devotion, she's moved to confess, in an astonishing journal that she sends to Claude, that she has a weakness for masturbation that was inculcated in her by a childhood lesbian fling with a friend. In spite of that, she is suspicious of the body, suspicious of physicality, and in that she's the opposite of her sister Ann, who initially seems as repressed and proper as Muriel, but soon reveals a more worldly side as she becomes a sculptor, a world traveler and, eventually, Claude's lover.

Their relationship mostly just exposes Claude's hypocrisy, as he introduces her to his ideas of "free love" but is then clearly heartbroken when she takes him at his word and begins seeing a second lover. Claude is a rather callow young man, and Truffaut is unsparing in his depiction of Claude's mistreatment of women. He has romantic ideas, but they mostly seem to be about himself, about the kind of romantic artist's life he wants to lead, rather than about the women whose love he takes for granted and whose passions he awakens and discards.

Truffaut deftly balances the extreme emotionalism of this story, with all its twists and turns and shifting loves, by alternating between bursts of emotional catharsis and stretches in which feelings remain as buttoned up as the exterior the characters present to the world, making it difficult to know what they're thinking or feeling. The effect is striking. Claude's initial time spent with the two sisters in their home is especially spartan and restrained, with Truffaut keeping his distance as Claude vacillates between the two sisters, while Ann is clearly pushing him towards Muriel. It's not clear at all what any of them are truly thinking or feeling, perhaps because they don't know for sure themselves.

This coolness and detachment is especially effective when it's followed by the occasional raw expressions of deeper feelings that punctuate the film. After Claude abruptly breaks off his engagement to Muriel, a decision that barely seems to affect him, Truffaut cuts Claude out of the picture to focus on the suffering of Muriel when she receives his cold-hearted letter. She writes a series of letters in response and never sends them, pouring out her heartbreak and pain on paper and in the film's voiceover, and then, after all this anguish has exploded messily across the film, Truffaut finally cuts back to Claude in Paris, receiving a cool, reserved, polite, understanding letter from Muriel in which she fails to mention any of the pain that he had caused her.

This is the heart of the film, this gap between the surface and the depths, between the polite face presented to the world and the secret turmoil and strong feelings and conflicted desires that lurk underneath. Truffaut deftly balances the two here, and in the process displays a far greater understanding of love, lust and loss than he ever did in Jules and Jim — that the earlier film is acclaimed while this probing, complex work is not is clearly an injustice. The tension is embodied also in the contrast between the film's literary source — the opening credits roll over images of Roché's novel, the pages dense with scrawled notations — and the cinematic, visual splendor of Nestor Almendros' images. The film is both dazzlingly cinematic in its sensuality and its visual beauty, and literary in its frequent reliance on voiceovers that alternately express forbidden feelings or lie to cover up those feelings. Sensual, emotionally rich, ambiguous and ultimately bittersweet, Two English Girls is one of this director's greatest statements on tragically denied love.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mon oncle d'Amerique

Alain Resnais' Mon oncle d'Amerique is a fascinating narrative experiment from the director who, more than any other, has always been concerned with the workings of the human mind. This film takes as its subject the biological processes by which the mind and personality are shaped, the ways in which one's persona is formed from the sum of one's experiences and the neurological foundations governing our reactions in various situations. The film is narrated, sporadically, by the French neurosurgeon Henri Laborit, who discusses the film's three interconnected stories in terms of behavioral biology ideas that explain the actions of the characters in these dramas. Laborit discusses fight-or-flight in a human society in which the "fight" component of that response has been rendered largely unacceptable. He analyzes careers and relationships in terms of systems of reward and punishment that are ingrained from very early in childhood. He observes the ways in which psychological stresses related to these biological underpinnings are expressed in anxiety and psychosomatic illness.

It's a potentially reductive and limiting rubric, pulling apart these dramatic stories and discussing the action in terms of biology and behavior. In fact, though, Resnais, working from a script by Jean Gruault, is after something far more complex. Gruault had also written the script for François Truffaut's The Wild Child, and at one point Laborit's voiceover mentions that when a human child grows up in isolation, without any human contact, he will be like "a little animal" with no language or other human behaviors. Resnais, much more powerfully and inventively than Truffaut, is exploring what it means to be human, exploring the essence of humanity as a sum of experiences, biology, and most crucially, one's interactions with other people. A core idea of the film is the concept that the individual human mind is actually formed from contacts with other people, from ideas learned from others, experiences, memories. An individual human, then, is actually comprised of the other people he or she has come into contact with, the experiences they've shared, the memories they've formed together. Resnais and Gruault, in collaboration with Laborit, have rendered science and biology as poetry, discovering that to analyze and dissect the nature of human behavior is not to render it cold and clinical, but to make the mystery all the more remarkable.

As Laborit says towards the end of the film, implicitly responding to such criticisms of science, "knowing the laws of gravity doesn't make us free from gravity." In the same way, the film's analysis of its stories in terms of behaviorist theories doesn't render the stories abstract or rob them of their power as human dramas. Indeed, what's quite remarkable about the film is that despite its constant breaking of the narrative illusion with explanatory voiceovers and comparisons to animals and laboratory experiments, the film remains consistently affecting on a human level. These are simple stories of disappointment, anxiety, and desire. René (Gérard Depardieu) is plagued by anxiety about his career; he's dedicated himself to his work but a series of mergers and shake-ups at his company put him in ever more precarious situations, ultimately forcing him to choose between his career and his family life. Jean (Roger Pierre) is a politician and aspiring writer who starts an affair with Janine (Nicole Garcia) just as his own career starts going through some trouble. And Janine has her own story, about her dreams of being an actress and her up-and-down romance with the married Jean.

It's not only biology that drives these stories. People learn from experiences, from the models provided by parents and other relatives — and also the models provided by the cinema. Throughout the film, Resnais cuts in excerpts of black-and-white films starring Jean Gabin, Jean Marais, and Danielle Darrieux, who provide templates for the actions of the three protagonists, cinematic role models whose behaviors are often echoed in this film's stories. The cinematic reference points parallel the biological ones, suggesting that just as biology contributes to the shape of a person's life and soul, the things that a person sees and experiences also add to the person they might become.

In the film's second half, Resnais shuffles the structure and begins interspersing the dramatic scenes more and more frequently with scenes of laboratory experiments featuring mice, scenes from the protagonists' childhoods that connect back to their later lives, and, hilariously, inserts in which men in rat masks enact scenes of love and competition. Those surreal interludes simultaneously buttress the theme of biology and behavior and undercut it, since they emphasize the gap between the biological foundations of behavior and the actual complexity and variety of human behavior. This is why, far from reducing humanity to a series of programmed responses, what Resnais, Gruault and Laborit are doing here is really all about the complexity and mystery of behavior, the intimacy between science and poetry in creating a full portrait of humanity.

In the film's powerful, mysterious final sequence, Resnais shows an urban building that has an image of a shady green forest covering one of its walls. Resnais cuts to successively closer and closer shots, and in each one the illusion of a tree growing from concrete is shattered more and more decisively. First the texture of bricks can be seen in the image, which is a mural painted on the wall. As Resnais cuts to even closer views, the overall sense of the image is compromised, and it stops looking like a tree at all — in the closest shot, the film's final shot, the image has become abstract smears of paint on bricks. At that intimate distance, it is impossible to tell that from afar the paint creates a rather convincing illusion of forest greenery; up close it's just paint, seemingly splattered on the bricks with little care, just a splotch that looks like nothing at all. It's a startling and ambiguous metaphor, suggesting that the closer we look at something — like human behavior — the more mysteries are introduced, even as looking closely increases understanding about how things are put together.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Inspector Lavardin

In 1985, Claude Chabrol's Cop au vin reinvigorated his career at a time when he'd been struggling and floundering. A darkly comic murder mystery set in a small town where everyone had secrets to hide, it was especially notable for the twinkly-eyed presence of the comic actor Jean Poiret, playing the cheerfully brutal and unethical Inspector Jean Lavardin, investigating a murder with wit and excessive methods. The film was such a success that Chabrol immediately followed it up with Inspector Lavardin, which as the title indicated shifted the inspector to the center of the story. There's some continuity with the first film, in that Lavardin's excessive brutality in dunking a suspect's head underwater had got him transferred even further into the country, but otherwise he seems none the worse for wear, every bit the same mischievous, wickedly clever bloodhound from the first film, digging up trouble and mystery that stretches well beyond the murder mystery that he's ostensibly solving.

Like the first Lavardin film, this one is all about ferreting out the weirdness and wickedness of the supposedly respectable, and in this it's a specifically Christian, Catholic form of hypocrisy that Lavardin's investigation is uncovering. The opening scenes, before Lavardin's arrival, introduce the respected Catholic writer and moralist Raoul Mons (Jacques Dacqmine), having a joyless lunch with his family. Mons hilariously tells his maid/cook that they're just "simple folk," that she can place the food on the table rather than serving them, which already marks him as one of Chabrol's typical comically clueless bourgeois figures. His family — wife Hélène (Bernadette Lafont), stepdaughter Véronique (Hermine Clair) and his wife's brother Claude (Jean-Claude Brialy) — doesn't seem to have any more respect for him than Chabrol does, and they take any opportunity to have some fun when he's out of the room. While Raoul's not around, Claude entertains the women with Chaplin's famous dance of the dinner rolls, and then Raoul heads off to lead a movement to ban a blasphemous play called Our Father Who Farts in Heaven.

Needless to say, this is a richly, darkly funny film, and once Lavardin arrives on the scene, his deceptively casual form of investigation only adds to the fun. He's not quite as charmingly fascistic as he was in Cop au vin, but he's still a little light on ethics, especially when it's revealed that Raoul's wife is Lavardin's former lover, and the detective promptly moves into the dead man's home. The more he investigates, the more he finds out about Raoul's hypocritical life. Chabrol really pours on the outrage: this supposed Christian is a drug dealer and user, a philanderer, and eventually it turns out, a blackmailer and rapist.

Lavardin, who's long been nursing some pain over Hélène leaving him long ago, seems less interested in the mystery, more interested in protecting Hélène and her daughter, who's named Véronique just as Lavardin had once wanted to name his own daughter, if he'd had one. He quickly becomes paternal and protecting towards the girl — who even shares the inspector's piercing blue eyes, though there's no indication she's actually his daughter — and there's a sense of yearning for family in the dogged inspector, who towards the end of the film suddenly claims that he has a family, then admits with a shrug that the photo in his wallet was not of his family but of a woman who'd killed her kids.

Chabrol brings a typically sharp visual style to this farcical murder mystery. There are numerous shots that highlight the theme of surveillance and witnessing running through the film: shots through binoculars, through the viewfinder of a camera, from a high vantage point where a hidden recording device sits, and through a magnifying glass that expands the inspector's eye to massive size, because of course he takes in everything. (That last shot is referenced in Chabrol's final film Inspector Bellamy, whose titular cop is a descendant of Lavardin.) Claude has a bizarre hobby that also relates to seeing, painting glass eyes that copy the eyes of famous people (Salvador Dali, complete with a set of eyebrows) and people he knows, like his sister. In Claude's room, surrounded with shelves on which pairs of eyeballs sit staring, raised on stalks or hidden behind masquerade masks, one can't help but feel that one is being constantly watched, but the same impression dogs the inspector and the other characters throughout the film. A pair of tabloid photographers prowl around everywhere, snapping pictures and mirroring the sneakiness of the inspector himself, who also watches from in hiding, seeing things he's not supposed to see. And in the film's final twist the mystery is solved through a surveillance video tape, a hidden eye looking down on the action and revealing the truth.

Not that Lavardin is especially interested in the truth, because as soon as he learns it, his efforts shift to covering it up, which makes the film's ending strangely hilarious and ironic. Chabrol is clearly having fun here, and though the film is concerned with the usual Chabrol theme of digging into the seedy underbelly of things, it's obviously in a much lighter context. Part of the fun is reuniting Brialy and Lafont, who'd appeared, together and separately, in some of Chabrol's earliest features, and here provide some continuity with the director's past. There's also continuity with the previous Lavardin film, especially in the inspector's obsessive breakfast habits, here indicated with his scolding of the cook for her overdone eggs. Chabrol's second outing with the clever, amoral inspector is as delightful, and as delightfully perverse, as the first.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Kid

Charlie Chaplin's first feature film, The Kid, opens with what might well be a statement of purpose for the master silent comic as he embarked on his feature career. The film's first title card — indeed, one of the very few titles, and maybe the wordiest, in a sparsely titled movie — introduces The Kid as, "a picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear." That combination of humor and pathos, already apparent in many of Chaplin's previous shorts, would become the driving force for his subsequent features, and is already fully in flower in this sweet, sentimental film about Chaplin's tramp discovering an abandoned child (Jack Coogan) and raising him as his own.

The child is abandoned by a woman (Edna Purviance) "whose sin was motherhood," a title card informs, and through a series of mishaps it's the poor tramp who finds the baby. Notably, Chaplin eases into the sentiment, as his tramp is at first anything but caring for the little tyke: he tries to dump the baby on several unsuspecting passers-by before getting stuck with it, sitting on the curb with the kid in his lap, and in a hilarious/unsettling bit of pantomime, he briefly considers dropping the baby down a sewer drain. It's easy to forget that Chaplin's tramp, so often considered the embodiment of comic sentimentality, started out as a rough-and-ready scrapper in his early Keystone shorts, and there are still traces of those more unsentimental beginnings here, in that moment with the sewer drain and the later scene where he fights with a burly fellow bum.

In any event, the tramp thinks better of discarding the kid, and Chaplin cuts to five years later, when the pair have become a de facto family. Coogan, who plays the kid as a five-year-old, is a great screen partner for Chaplin, a miniature version of the tramp, shrugging and shuffling in his oversized and raggy clothes, joining in with Chaplin's petty crimes. The pair create a ramshackle domesticity in the tramp's small flat, where the bedsheets are full of holes and they cheat the gas meter by reusing the same quarter over and over again. They go out together to "work" by having the kid break windows with rocks, whereupon Chaplin ambles up, not-so-coincidentally carrying a rack of glass panes ready to repair the damage for a fee. This sequence leads to some charming interplay with a beat cop who casually foils the pair's plans by simply strolling up and looking on suspiciously. Best of all is the scene where Chaplin, without realizing it, pulls his scam at the cop's own house, and is still there, flirting with the policeman's wife, when the cop returns and peers out the window above their heads, scowling down at them.

The second half of the film amps up the sentimentality of the relationship between the tramp and his adopted son, as Chaplin's custodianship of the kid is challenged and some officials try to take him away to an orphanage. This leads to a fantastic sequence in which Chaplin bounds across rooftops, escaping from a cop, to catch up with the truck taking the boy away. When he finally catches up, he leaps off the roof into the back of the truck — a stunt more reminiscent in its physicality of fellow silent star Buster Keaton than Chaplin's usual pantomime — and fights off the sinister, snooty orphanage representative to save the kid. It's great stuff, especially when Chaplin caps off the sequence with an emotionally exhilarating closeup of Chaplin and Coogan pressing their faces together.

The reunion is short-lived, though, once the boy's mother learns that the tramp's boy is actually her son, who she'd regretted abandoning, and offers a reward for his return. Throughout the film, Chaplin presents an idealized and romanticized image of the mother's suffering and her inherent goodness despite her troubled circumstances — he even explicitly compares her to Jesus and gives her a saint's halo in one shot. That heavyhanded idealization of the mother — which Chaplin himself mostly edited out for the 1971 re-release — is one of the film's few weaknesses, an example of Chaplin's sentimental streak run amok. In any event, it's inevitable that the boy will be returned to his mother by the end of the film, with Chaplin eventually joining them to create a new de facto family, the mother's role restored to the father-and-son dynamic.

Also interesting is the lengthy dream sequence that precedes this familial happy ending, with Chaplin's tramp dreaming that his rundown neighborhood has been remade as a heavenly, idyllic place where everyone's dressed as angels. A few devils sneak in and introduce the idea of sin, disrupting the peacefulness of the place by exciting the residents to adultery and jealousy and violence. It's a fun sequence, kinetic and energetic, with Chaplin in angel wings flying through the air — along with a similarly flying dog — and finally crashing to ground, his wings molting and feathers scattered around him, like Icarus after his fall. It's a strange sequence, rather disconnected from the rest of the film except in its religious imagery, simply providing an extended pause to delay the final scene's touching reunion. Chaplin would go on to make more sophisticated and substantial features after this, but The Kid already provides the template for the signature mix of comic mayhem and humanistic warmth that were always the defining attributes of the tramp at his best.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The General

The General is one of the purest delights that the cinema has to offer. Its construction, and its appeal, is utterly simple, and yet there's a visual poetry to it that goes far beyond its minimalist surface. Buster Keaton's most famous feature, co-directed with Clyde Bruckman, is quite possibly also his best, and certainly the most direct, undiluted example of his kinetic, visceral comedic action. The film has not a shred of fat on it, not a wasted moment. There's none of the sometimes meandering set-up that kicks off some of Keaton's lesser features, no need here for extended exposition or narrative. It's just one great scene, one great pantomime gag, after another.

Keaton plays Johnny Gray, a train engineer on a Southern rail line during the Civil War. When the war starts, he tries to enlist and is rejected because his civilian job is too important, but his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack) and her family just thinks he's a coward, so the serious young man — who, a title card informs us, loves only his train and his girl, probably in that order — is eager to prove his bravery and his masculinity. With that out of the way, the film then hurtles forward into the two extended railroad chase sequences that together comprise virtually the entirety of its running time. The film is neatly halved: in the first half, Keaton pursues a group of Union train thieves across Union lines, and in the second half he steals back his train and is chased by the Union army back across Confederate lines, in a race to warn the South before a sneak attack is sprung.

The scenario was based on a real incident from the war, and Keaton treats it with his characteristic serious comedy. In fact, it's easily his most straight-faced and least comic film, which isn't to say that it's not funny (it is!) but that its humor is subtle even for him, the gags organically incorporated into the structure of the action-packed sequences. In that respect, it resembles the thrilling action climax to Our Hospitality, and of course it also expands upon Keaton's train fascination from that film, spending virtually the entire film with one great train gag after another.

If The General isn't Keaton's funniest film, it's definitely his most astonishing, the densest of his works in terms of pure how-the-hell-did-he-do-that stunt bravado. Keaton leaps from one train car to another, throws giant beams of wood around, climbs across the front of the engine, bounces from the train to the tracks to clear obstructions, and rigs traps to trip up his pursuers. In one justly famous moment, he sits on the front of the train and throws a beam out in front of the train so that it lands on a second beam and sends them both catapulting off the tracks. It's done casually, as though there's nothing to it, as though these massive wooden blocks aren't careening around a few feet from Keaton's vulnerable figure. It's dazzling, almost more frightening than it is funny, and it displays Keaton's perfect grasp of physics-based gags, his sheer imagination, his courage, his ability to precisely map out movements and make each motion, each trajectory, both graceful and somehow funny.

A perfect example is the scene where Keaton lights a cannon to fire at the Union train, then comically dodges around when the cannon barrel lowers to point at Keaton's train instead. The punchline is typically all about trajectories: the trains turn a curve in such a way that the cannon, at the precise moment that it is fired, is once again pointing at the enemy train. The physical comedy, if it can even be called that, is inspired throughout. Keaton's a real action hero here, and his no-nonsense physicality only makes the moments when he indulges in a slapstick gag — like the scene where he throws firewood onto the train but keeps knocking the beams off — even funnier. There's also some deadpan wit in little details like the hilariously stoic portrait that Keaton gives to his girl (he's posed, of course, in front of his first love, his train). Although Keaton's the undoubted star, Mack proves a very capable foil for him, most notably in the scene where she throws tiny shreds and splinters of wood into the train's furnace, causing Keaton to, in quick succession, strangle her and kiss her.

One great sequence actually takes place in a rare break from the train action, when Keaton hides under a table listening to some Union officers plot their attack. There's a lot of wonderful tension here, both comic and genuinely suspenseful, especially when one of the soldiers burns a hole in the tablecloth with a cigarette and lifts it up. For a moment, Keaton can be seen, staring out at the camera in terror from under the table, while the officer simply extinguishes the embers around the burn hole and lets the tablecloth fall again. That poignant glimpse of the frightened Keaton, looking pleadingly at the camera, is unforgettable. Soon after, there's a pair of shots that cleverly use the hole in the tablecloth to frame Keaton's eye and Annabelle's face (she'd been taken prisoner by the Union). It's appropriate that Keaton here frames and emphasizes his own eye like this, because his eye, his utterly clear and direct vision, is at its absolute peak in this marvelous film.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Castle

The Castle was one of the novels Franz Kafka left unpublished upon his death, the unsettling story of a land surveyor who repeatedly and fruitlessly butts up against the unyielding absurdity of a labyrinthine bureaucracy in a snowy mountain village. Michael Haneke's 1997 adaptation of the novel is mostly faithful, both to the spirit of the work and often to its letter, liberally quoting from the novel in the narration that runs through the film. The novel is a masterpiece, one of Kafka's best and most richly layered works despite its lack of an ending; if Haneke's film is not quite as good, it's still an interesting adaptation with a lot to recommend it.

One of the characteristic features of Kafka's novel is its dense, repetitious prose, as the land surveyor K. (played by Ulrich Mühe in Haneke's film) tries to navigate a torturously complicated bureaucracy that denies ever having hired him for the post of land surveyor. The novel makes K.'s thought processes palpable, delving into his intense frustration, his stubborn determination to get past the seemingly insurmountable obstacles keeping him from satisfaction, his circuitous reasoning and obsessive rationalizations of his surreal dilemma. The novel is in the third person, but in its dense internality it often retains evidence of its origins as a first person narrative. Haneke removes much of this material, retaining only slices of the novel's narration and clipping out much of the connective tissue, with the result that the film is quite possibly even more disorienting than the Kafka source. The film's K. is far more unknowable than the novel's, his actions far more mysterious and strange, without all the explanations and rationalizations that weigh down every least action of the novel's central character.

At times, it's hard to know what someone unfamiliar with the novel would even make of this absurdist story, which so steadfastly refuses to flow smoothly from one moment to the next. Scenes begin and end abruptly, cutting to black as soon as a line of dialogue has been uttered. The film has a choppy, off-kilter rhythm that does a good job of capturing the strange qualities of Kafka's prose. K. plods through the snow, walking from nowhere to nowhere. K. meets with a succession of bureaucrats and people who he desperately hopes will have some connection to the Castle, even though his attempts never get him anywhere. He engages in an affair with a barmaid named Frieda (Susanne Lothar), because he believes that she too has some tenuous connection to the Castle. He suffers many indignities, and many confusions, and after a while he seems to forget what he even wants, why he's even trying so hard to get to the Castle.

Haneke presents this material with stripped-down faithfulness, alternating short, clipped excerpts with long monologues and dialogue, often shot with extended takes; this, too, contributes to the film's skewed pacing, with truncated snippets of scenes abutting lengthy, nearly verbatim exchanges from the source material. The visual aesthetic is rough and minimal, with the town that K. arrives in rendered as a somewhat shoddy rural village of an indeterminate time period, old-fashioned in atmosphere, with a horse-drawn carriage as the only transportation, but with modern appliances like the radio that's mysteriously switched on and off during the opening scenes. Outside, there's a snowy wasteland through which K. trudges in lengthy horizontal traveling shots that follow him through the snowbanks, the background often all but obscured by the wind, which kicks up miniature storms of fluffy powder. The Castle itself, tellingly, is never seen, even though it's virtually all anyone talks about.

Haneke, following Kafka, casts K.'s two assistants (Frank Giering and Felix Eitner) as darkly comic figures of mischief and grinning malice, much like the sinister villains of Funny Games, made the same year — Haneke even cast Giering in both films, as one half of the sinister pair, Tom and Jerry, Peter and Paul, Fatty and Skinny, and here Artur and Jeremias. More even than in Kafka, the assistants provide a bizarre strain of humor here, hanging around K. like a pair of slapstick buffoons, reading a letter to him in discordant unison, running around in circles in the snow and occasionally unleashing enthusiastic self-congratulatory cheers.

The film ends, like the novel, in mid-sentence — recalling the obsessive literary faithfulness of Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois, another adaptation of an unfinished work — as K. gets himself tangled up with yet another potential connection, another in a long line of people who could help him, but probably won't. One of the crucial points of both film and novel is the way in which inhuman bureaucracy reduces people to a limiting self-interest, unable to develop meaningful connections except those based on getting what one wants for one's self. Naturally, that's a theme that resonates with Haneke in a big way, and the film dovetails nicely with the director's more personal work, underlining his typical themes of alienation and the cruelty generated by governmental and societal systems. It's a fascinating film, mostly because it's drawing on a truly complex and powerful book, but also because it reflects Haneke's