Friday, September 28, 2012

Don't Look Back (2009)

Marina de Van's In My Skin was a brilliant, unsettling, utterly unique psychological horror film, a study of a woman's disassociation from her body, her life, and the people around her. De Van's belated follow-up, Don't Look Back, explores similar themes, albeit in a less extreme form. Where the earlier film explored the grisly, bloody consequences of its subject's mysterious psychological break, Don't Look Back is a far more conventional film, a taut and intriguing puzzle-box movie that ultimately reveals its secrets in a way that the ambiguous, genuinely provocative In My Skin never did. This means that this follow-up lacks the head-rattling intensity and discomfitting ambiguity of In My Skin, but though it's a far more traditional film, it's still a very compelling one.

Based on these two films, De Van's key theme seems to be the fragility of the individual's conception of reality. Jeanne (Sophie Marceau) is a writer, married to Teo (Andrea di Stefano), with two children. She's successful and seemingly happy, but she has one curious gap in her life: she was in an accident at the age of 8 and can't remember anything about her childhood before that point. In order to probe that absence, she's writing a book about childhood, using photographs and information provided by her mother. This investigation into her past seems to trigger something in her mind, and her world begins slipping away from around her. At first, she starts noticing tiny changes, things being moved around in her apartment, little details shifting in her surroundings and in the people she loves. The changes quickly become more dramatic, until she no longer even recognizes her husband and her children as the same family she's lived with before this point. Her husband morphs into a different man (played now by Thierry Neuvic) and soon she's noticing the same changes in herself as well.

These changes enter her life through media at first, through photos and movies. She goes to see a movie with Teo and afterwards, describing the plot to friends, they seem to have seen different films, with her description of a mind-bending psychological thriller mirroring her own destabilizing experiences. She watches a home movie of her family and sees all of them, including herself, as different people. Marceau's Jeanne is slowly replaced by a second iteration of the character, played by Monica Bellucci, using disturbing digital effects that mash the two women's faces together, creating a hybrid Jeanne who's seemingly being torn apart from inside, losing her sense of reality. Her whole world changes around her, and no one else seems to notice a thing; they all insist that things have always been this way.

The parallels to In My Skin are obvious, right down to the scar on Jeanne's leg from her mysterious childhood accident, mirroring the leg wound that triggered the protagonist's derangement in the earlier film. For De Van, the fragility of the body is akin to the fragility of the mind, and physicality is intimately linked with perceptual cues that exist only in the mind. Photos, movies, even mirrors, can lie and distort as easily as they can tell the truth, and De Van packs the film with mirrors, which cast reflections that are by no means reliable. Jeanne is always checking herself in mirrors; during the opening credits, she goes through her morning rituals in a bathroom where there are countless tiny mirrors in which random body parts and details are visible, but seemingly no larger mirrors in which the whole person, the whole body, can be seen at once. At the film's climax, when Jeanne (now embodied almost entirely by Bellucci) goes to Italy to investigate her childhood and the source of her slipping identity, she stands in front of a curiously distorted mirror that seems to be pulling at her face from the edges, as though trying to split her off into two, creating this warped second person growing out of her like a tumor.

There's a definite Cronenbergian bodily transformation subcurrent to the film, though it's mostly toned-down in comparison to the far more gruesome In My Skin. De Van employs skewed horror movie angles and creepy music to dramatize what is essentially an entirely mental drama. At its climax, though, the film's mental trauma explodes to the surface, with Jeanne's body twisted and distorted until she's stumbling frantically towards a confrontation with her past, her body betraying her, her flesh warping into unfamiliar forms. At the root of this psychological breakdown is childhood, which for Jeanne has always been a blank spot, a fracture in her identity that's only now being felt — an element that links this film in interesting ways to the films of Jean Rollin, particularly his Lips of Blood, another film about childhood amnesia and fragmented identity.

Don't Look Back ultimately resolves its mystery with some scenes of exposition that neatly, perhaps too neatly, make sense of the film's plot. The puzzle is solved, the instability of reality is explained away, and things are restored to normality, though not without a perverse final note of lingering ambiguity about identity in the sunny final scenes. The film resolves into a rather traditional psychological thriller with a mystery that, once solved, isn't especially interesting on its own merits. What's fascinating about this film, like De Van's earlier film, is the sense of just how easy it is for reality to simply shift, for the world to suddenly and without warning fall away, revealing something very different from the familiar reality one had known previously.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Jean Renoir's second silent feature, Nana, is a tragic, melodramatic satire based on an Emile Zola novel about a failed actress who becomes an obsession of multiple upper-class men, corrupting the noble class with her crass, vulgar ways. For the role of this remarkable young woman, Renoir cast his then-wife Catherine Hessling, the star of several of his earliest films and an actress who was, to say the least, something of an acquired taste. Bold, brash, and extremely limited in her range, Hessling was nevertheless something of an inspired choice to play the corrupting influence Nana, who leads men to their doom with her pouting and mugging, her shameless flirting and her manipulative use of her own sexuality.

It's very interesting that Renoir would cast his wife in a role like this, and the film creates some bizarre subtexts surrounding this woman. Renoir is casting his wife as a terrible actress who's stereotyped as a tramp and a seductress, not fit for serious or "elegant" roles; when she tries out for the part of an elegant duchess, her fellow performers laugh her out of the room. When she gets the part anyway through the influence of her wealthy suitor, Count Muffat (Werner Krauss), she's booed off the stage, though Renoir at least spares her that indignity with an ellipsis, showing her running offstage in tears afterwards. Nana is brash and vulgar, defiantly lower-class, but somehow she manages to attract all these stuffy upper-class men who are seduced by her sour-puss scowl and her hip-shaking insinuations of sexual abandon. When Nana gets up on stage and dances lustily, she earns raucous cheers, and Renoir highlights the class divide in the audience by showing the lower rows recklessly getting involved in Nana's bold performance, while when some of the gentlemen in the more sophisticated regions of the theater get caught up in the act, those around them display their disdain for such unfettered shows of appreciation.

In many ways, Hessling's limited range actually makes her a perfect fit for Nana. She can be a frustrating actress, displaying the same sour expression and widened eyes for virtually every emotion from sadness to ecstasy, but Nana's not exactly supposed to be a subtle or likeable character herself. She's a force of nature, an embodiment of the lower-class invasion of the nobility, a theme that Renoir would go on to explore far more subtly and powerfully in later films, but is already at the center of this sophomore film. Nana revels in her humiliation of these wealthy men with their titles and their fortunes: in one of the film's most potent sequences, she actually makes Muffat beg like a "fat little puppy" for a piece of chocolate, placing his hands under his chin like a dog begging for a treat. She debases these men, driving them to crime and fetishism. One of her suitors, the effeminate, ineffectual young Georges (Raymond Guérin-Catelain), hides in her closet so he can smell her dresses, from which vantage point he witnesses Muffat's debasement, which seems to teach him something ugly about himself as well.

Though Nana quits the stage towards the beginning of the film, in many ways she remains an actress in her new "career" as a courtesan, performing for men, acting out a glamorous lifestyle that elevates her above her previous station into the company of sophisticated men with fancy titles. Renoir repeatedly films her luxurious room in wide shots that make it look like a stage, complete with proscenium arch. Nana leaves the theater but makes her whole life a kind of performance instead, another way in which Hessling's theatrical performance style fits this character so well.

Renoir, working under the strong influence of Erich von Stroheim, adopts a lush, sophisticated, self-assured style here, very different from the blend of naturalism and surreal visual effects in his debut La fille de l'eau. The film's style is big and lavish, capturing the trappings of wealth and privilege that Nana so incongruously wraps around herself. But Renoir also movingly depicts the emptiness and melancholy lurking at the center of this lifestyle: all this money, the manipulations and seductions, leaves this gaping emotional hole that's filled with suicides and psychologically motivated illnesses and the other usual melodramatic tragedies, but also with a general atmosphere of gloom that's communicated in Renoir's elegant visual style. There are numerous shots here that capture that melancholy undercurrent: Nana reclining on her couch, her face framed by flickering candles; Muffat strolling through a dark night that closes in around him, lit up only by a lamp post high above, barely piercing the inky blackness that smothers him.

Nana is an early indication of Renoir's satirical sensibility being directed at the bourgeois and the nobility, with Hessling's Nana serving the same casually destructive role that Michel Simon would later take on in more refined, fully developed films like Boudu Saved From Drowning. Renoir was still finding his voice here, but Nana is still both a fine film in its own right and an early glimpse of the director's developing style and concerns.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Abel Gance's Napoléon is an epic biography of the famed military leader and Emperor of France, a film as grand and ambitious as its subject, as indicated by the fact that this five-hour masterpiece was only the first of a projected six films that would have chronicled the entirety of Napoléon's life. Gance never made the subsequent films, but this overwhelming, technically stunning and passionate work — encompassing Napoléon's boyhood, his experiences during the French Revolution, and his invasion of Italy — is more than enough, an unforgettable monument of the cinema.

It is certainly one of the most innovative films of the silent era, with Gance restlessly inventing and combining multiple techniques, pouring everything into the film. Even before the famous climactic final reel, for which Gance created a widescreen three-camera shooting technique he called Polyvision, the film is a virtual catalog of everything that was possible in the silent cinema, and probably at least a few things that weren't possible before Gance. The camera shakes and sways, freed from static framings, and the film's approach to montage, controlling pacing by periodically building up to bursts of frenzied cutting and layered multiple exposures, is practically modern.

Gance opens the film with an extraordinary 10-minute-plus sequence that introduces the boy Napoléon's (Vladimir Roudenko) battlefield leadership in microcosm in the midst of a schoolboy snowball fight. It's a technically exhilarating sequence that, in addition to profiling the hero's character at an early stage of his development, introduces the sheer bravura virtuosity of Gance's filmmaking, with an increasingly frenetic barrage of shaky handheld shots, graceful traveling shots, and frantic montage that builds into a nearly abstract, hyper-modern assault on the senses. At the height of the battle's intensity, Gance even divides the screen into multiple smaller images, finally arriving at a nine-panel grid with the multiple images conveying the confusion of the battle scene, presaging the three-panel widescreen of the finale.

Gance seems to be consistently aiming for techniques that allow him to convey more information than the senses can take in at once, to use visceral fast cutting and superimpositions to create images that are felt as much as seen. The aesthetics of the snowball fight — the jittery handheld camera and speed-blurred shots that last only a second or two before being replaced by another disorienting snippet of action — prefigure modern action cinema and must have been positively jaw-dropping when the film was new. Gance later applies a similar style to the actual battles of Napoléon's military career, as the young officer (played by Albert Dieudonné as an adult) steadily climbs up the ranks and proves his prowess with his brilliant strategy and bold daring. The battles are all smoke and cannon-fire and messy scrabbling in the mud with swords and bayonets. While Napoléon and the other officers plan everything out in advance via geometric shapes laid out on maps, representing opposing armies, the actual fighting is frenetic, often with Napoléon himself standing stoically in the midst of the chaos, presenting a strong profile to the camera.

Gance spends a substantial portion of the film on the French Revolution, with his hero on the fringes, watching and waiting for his moment of glory. The "three gods" of the Jacobins — Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Marat (Antonin Artaud), and a creepy, sunglass-wearing Robespierre (Edmond van Daële) — are shown stirring up crowds with their revolutionary rhetoric, perhaps inspiring the younger Napoléon. The peak of this segment is the sequence where Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle leads the National Convention in a stirring rendition of his song, "La Marseillaise," soon to become the French national anthem. The sequence builds to a stirring patriotic fervor, culminating with a rapid-fire barrage of shots lasting barely a second, each flickering shot a closeup of a face in the crowd, their mouths open in song, shouting and singing their pride in their country and their revolutionary zeal. One can practically hear the song, and would even if it weren't frequently referenced and quoted in Carl Davis' score, so visceral is Gance's staging of this moment, daring to make an emotional musical moment so important to the film.

What's crucial here is that Gance's technical mastery never amounts to mere showing-off. The film is dazzling in the array of techniques and formal devices it employs, but its inventions are always intimately married to the story, to the emotions and ideas that Gance wishes to communicate. As Napoléon makes his perilous ship journey back from Corsica, Gance cuts back and forth from the stormy seas, tossing the ship on the waves, to the debates in the National Convention in Paris. As the storm worsens, Gance further parallels the two sequences by making the Parisian scenes rock and sway with the same tempo as the waves, the camera swooping and soaring. It seems as if the whole building is rocking, buffetted by the storm of history, bringing Napoléon back to his destiny even as the violence and paranoia of the French Revolution increasingly shakes up the new government, making it as unstable as the stormy seas that the future Emperor is braving to return to the center of power.

The film's second half documents Napoléon's imprisonment, his sidelining, and then his sudden ascension to a position of great power, leading an army to conquer Italy. Gance's Napoléon, for much of the film, is a surprisingly shabby and ordinary man, living in poverty, puttering around in his cold and ramshackle apartment, struggling to cook on an uncooperative stove and papering over his broken windows with a map of Italy to keep the rain out. These scenes of the future great man's prosaic struggles serve as a contrast to the film's epic mythologization of this famed figure. The same goes for the scenes establishing Napoléon's romance with Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès). There's not much room for romanticism, sensuality or sexuality in Gance's sweeping chronicle of historical forces in motion, but those softer emotional currents are embodied in both Joséphine and Violine (Annabella), who admires Napoléon from afar and even builds a shrine to him in her room.

The film's sensual streak reaches its apex in a grand ball celebrating the end of the Jacobins' Reign of Terror, at which Napoléon and Joséphine, who'd crossed paths briefly several times throughout the film, meet once again. When Napoléon sees her, Gance edits in a sensuous, associative montage of the woman's previous appearances, reinforcing the way she weaves through the film and through the hero's thoughts. This party, after the violence and horror of the years under Robespierre and Saint-Just (who's played with glowering intensity by Gance himself), is a release of long-suppressed sensual feeling, and Gance lets that sexual energy flow in the shaky, visceral images of women dancing in various states of undress, images of startling eroticism in a film that is otherwise concerned largely with far more abstract and less personal ideas and feelings.

This detour into romance and personal drama provides a brief intermission in the film's second half, before the film ends with Napoléon's triumphant charge into Italy at the head of his new army. At this point, Gance expands the frame using his innovative three-camera Polyvision system, giving the final fifteen minutes of the film a stunning grandeur that truly conveys the scope of the director's vision. Gance uses this revolutionary technique for both panoramic vistas — albeit imperfect ones with visible seams — and triptychs of images, often framing central images of Napoléon with columns of marching soldiers or stormy, dramatic skies on either side of him. Several times, Gance even uses the triple images for sensory-overload collages that juxtapose the conquering general with images of his bride back at home, his soldiers, maps of his military plans, and other layered images, suggesting Napoléon's divided thoughts as well as the frenzy of battle.

Gance's epic is one of the greatest masterpieces of the silent era, an indisputable technical achievement that summed up everything the young medium was capable of at the time, and which remains bracing, thrilling, visceral, and modern-feeling even over 80 years later. It's a work of potent hagiography that expresses its sense of historical scale in the quality and vigor of its images, using the full breadth of the cinema's expressive potential in order to get at the towering stature and importance of this complicated figure.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Finances of the Grand Duke

Though The Finances of the Grand Duke was F.W. Murnau's second straight literary adaptation in collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, it is a very different film from its moody, poetically melancholy predecessor, Phantom. It's a peculiar film for Murnau, a rapidly paced comic adventure that packs an epic serial's worth of action, disguises and revelations into a short, breezy comic thriller. The plot is chaotic and confused, obviously greatly condensed from Frank Heller's source novel, and most of its chapters begin with a lengthy title card introducing the new characters being added to a large and ever-growing cast of conspirators, counter-conspirators, dukes and princesses in disguise, financial speculators, revolutionaries and tricksters.

The plot concerns the impoverished and debt-plagued kingdom of Abacco and its cavalier Grand Duke (Harry Liedtke), who goes on the run with his financial minister Don Paqueno (Adolphe Engers) in order to avoid his debtors and possibly arrange a marriage to the far richer Princess Olga of Russia (Mady Christians). These royal plots are surrounded by a baffling array of shenanigans with various players trying to get control of Abacco or make money off the confusion that reigns in the struggling kingdom. The action is frantic, the film's humor arising mostly from the sheer overwhelming profusion of interlocking plots and strange occurrences, like one conspirator who's distracted at a key moment by a pair of animal impersonators. They're not the only characters in the film who engage in masquerade and disguise, as Olga is on the run from her notoriously cruel brother, falling in with the name-shifting Philipp Collins (Alfred Abel), a smirking spy, forger and con man who comically disguises her with drawn-on facial hair and sunglasses.

The film's madcap pace and slightly goofy pile-up of intrigues makes it very entertaining, but it's also a typically stylish film from Murnau, with his usual meticulous mise en scène. Murnau, together with cinematographer Karl Freund, shot much of the film in natural locations, with occasional expressionist two-dimensional sets mixed in, and the gorgeous seascapes, rocky vistas and Mediterranean locales add to the film's sense of globe-trotting adventure. There are numerous striking shots: images of sailing ships isolated in endless expanses of water, rocky coastlines with picturesque old ruins crumbling into the cliffs, underground grottoes where unscrupulous schemers discover mineral lodes and plan to exploit them.

There are also some very compelling, shadowy urban images that create a mood of late-night scheming and diplomatic espionage. When Collins meets Olga for the first time, rescuing the mysterious woman from her pursuers, Murnau cuts away several times to atmospheric images of the foggy, shadowy city. Fog rolls across the frame, obscuring the streetlights that cut through the darkness, as pedestrians stroll through the smoke across a bridge. The naturalistic cityscapes and sunny shorelines are contrasted against scattered moments of expressionist stylization, like a scene where Olga and Collins conspire against a backdrop of jagged, painted houses silhouetted on the set behind their car. In other scenes, cars cut through the night, speeding through the crowded city in a frantic chase, and a train sits waiting to depart, unleashing rolling clouds of steam before chugging slowly forward out of the station, nearly filling the frame with its black bulk.

At times, Murnau's imagery is playfully striking, as when a story about a "saucy little woman" is followed by a jaunty closeup of the woman in question, turning her head to smile at the camera, before her face fades into an image of the circus big top where she works. The film is fast and frenzied, packed with this kind of visual panache, making it a very pleasurable experience, uncharacteristic of Murnau in its story and tone but not in its style.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Jean Rollin walks a very fine line in his trashy B-movie exploitation flicks. So much is "bad" and amateurish in his movies, from the wooden acting to the flimsy props to the ridiculous scripts, that it's sometimes difficult to determine just why the resulting films aren't bad, but in fact create a kind of budget poetry and eerie beauty from these minimal building blocks. Demoniacs perhaps proves just how easy it is for a Rollin film to tip over from that atmospheric minimalism into more typical sub-B-movie horror tripe. Demoniacs feels very much like a Rollin film in most ways; he's taking a brief detour from his obsession with lesbian vampires, but otherwise the film provides plenty of eerie beaches, ruined castles, sinister clowns, and languid softcore sex scenes. The usual shoddy production values and amateur acting are very much in place here. All the elements are there, but for whatever reason the ineffable magic that allowed Rollin's earlier films to transcend their trashy premises is missing here.

The story concerns a band of pirates who wreck ships by guiding them into the rocks with false light signals. After one of these shipwrecks, while the pirates are gathering their loot, two sisters (Lieva Lone and Patricia Hermenier) stumble to shore, the sole survivors of the wreck. The pirates attack and rape the girls — in a sequence staged so incompetently that it's laughable and discomfiting rather than harrowing — and leave them for dead on the shore. The girls aren't dead, though, and they eventually make their way to a ruined castle where the devil (Miletic Zivomir) is trapped along with two strange retainers, a clown (Mireille Dargent, donning clown makeup again after Requiem for a Vampire) and a bearded man who looks like Rasputin (Ben Zimet). The devil gives the girls his power through a sexual ritual, sending them off to get their revenge against the pirates.

It's a compelling enough story in its broad strokes, but Rollin, typically, isn't that interested in telling it. Instead, there are endless scenes of the pirates loitering around a bar where a psychic barmaid (Louise Dhour) stares into space and issues dire pronouncements about spirits, demons and violence. The pirate captain (John Rico) is occasionally plagued by a guilty conscience, which provides opportunities for some striking visions, as he sees the two girls from the shipwreck, dripping with blood, posing with skeletons and a creepy black stone angel with glowing red jewels for eyes. Mostly, though, the film feels slack and empty; it's just over an hour and a half long but feels much longer, its slowness not hypnotic as in Rollin's best films but draggy and numbing.

The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the presence of Joëlle Coeur's vicious nymphomaniac pirate Tina. Coeur isn't really any better an actress than the average Rollin star, but she does project a savage form of sexual menace that makes her an especially magnetic, memorable screen presence. Tina's a deadly femme fatale who's turned on by evil: in the opening scenes, she watches with a wicked smirk as her fellow pirates attack and rape the two survivors of the shipwreck, and all the violence moves her to strip down and seduce the pirate captain into her arms. Rollin treats her to multiple closeups in which she smiles that sinister, lusty smile, sensually shaking her long hair away from her face, throwing her head back, overcome with arousal at the prospect of violence and pillaging. Her performance is totally unmodulated, violently sexy, awkward and erotic in equal measures, and she brings a level of energy and enthusiasm to the film that's otherwise totally missing. Her constant posing — putting her hands on her hips and thrusting to and fro in a sexually charged celebration of death and destruction — is blatantly theatrical, making her a caricature of erotic evil, a nasty cartoon character come to fleshy life.

If only Rollin had built a worthier movie around this devilishly unrepressed villainess. The credits sequence introduces this as "un film expressioniste de Jean Rollin," but that description is far more apt for the director's earlier movies, which truly did create expressionist beauty from low-grade horror schlock. This film just meanders aimlessly without ever taking advantage of its most promising elements; even the revenge quest of the two girls is disappointing. With all the power of the devil at their fingertips, the best the sisters can do for vengeance is to make some statues fall from pillars while Tina runs around screaming, in what must be the silliest and least convincing sequence in a movie with some very stiff competition for that title. A few compelling moments aside, Demoniacs is one of Rollin's weaker efforts, where the unique alchemy of his approach fails to come together, leaving only the multiple failings of performance and plotting that are usually glossed over by the director's idiosyncratic aesthetic.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Iron Horse

John Ford's epic silent Western The Iron Horse was the director's first major statement in the genre that, more than any other, would become synonymous with his career. He'd made many Westerns before, churning out low-budget B-movie oaters throughout the silent era, but this was his first large-scale statement in the genre. His ambition seems obvious in the title cards that introduce the film, paying tribute to Ford's hero Abraham Lincoln and announcing that the film's chronicle of the construction of America's "first transcontinental railroad" would be "accurate and faithful in every particular of fact and atmosphere." This isn't just a film, he seems to be announcing, it's history.

That's bunk, of course, and as history the film is utterly suspect from virtually the moment it begins. Typically of the Hollywood Western, this is a mythological, romanticized depiction of the westward expansion, one in which the white heroes must struggle against the odds, fending off Indian attacks and the cruel assaults of the elements in order to fulfill their destiny of pushing into the unpopulated wilds of the west. The film's tone towards the Native Americans who are actually in those lands is obvious in the way the title cards keep announcing how "inevitable" it is that the white man should take over the entire country. The Native Americans who resist this expansion, the film suggests, are merely standing in the way of destiny, which means they're destined to be crushed. How dare they oppose "the inevitable"? How dare they oppose progress?

The film's ahistorical steamrolling of the non-white is obvious throughout. The title cards casually announce at one point that "there is no white labor" for the building of the railroad, so "it is necessary to bring in Chinese for the task." There's no mention, of course, of the fact that the Chinese laborers were paid less than white counterparts, and despite the acknowledgment that most of the laborers were Chinese, most of the onscreen work actually shown within the film is performed by white Irish and Italians. The discriminatory laws that applied to the Chinese are made into a joke in a courtroom scene where Ford makes light of the fact that shooting a Chinaman is a lesser offense than shooting a white man. The mass killing of buffalo to feed the railway employees — one major source of Native American anger at the rail's invasion of their lands — is also glossed over.

Ahistorical and ideologically suspect as it is, The Iron Horse is also often a grand piece of entertainment. Its scope is truly epic, and Ford's images have a real grandeur to them, a feel for landscape and crowded scenes. The hard work of the railroad workers is viscerally felt, and there's a sense of realism in Ford's recreations of their struggles. Horses trudge through deep snows, pulling locomotives. Men hammer rhythmically at large spikes. One sequence documents the process by which the movable railroad towns settle in one place for a while before leaving it behind as a ghost town, always moving with the forward advance of the tracks. As the town moves, Ford shoots a wagon train running side-by-side with an actual train, the soon-to-be obsolete form of cross-country travel helping to build its own replacement.

The film is dominated by sequences like this, which focus on the big picture at the expense of individual characters. There is an individual story here, built around Davy Brandon (George O'Brien), a Pony Express rider whose father had dreamed of building a transcontinental railroad before being killed by Cheyenne, led by the sinister white outlaw Deroux (Fred Kohler). After a prologue in which Davy appears as a boy before his father's death, the character doesn't return as an adult until almost an hour into the film, confirming the dominance of large-scale historical storytelling over character-based drama. Davy's presence provides at least a hint of the usual Hollywood hero-centric drama, but the film is about historical processes and feats accomplished by groups and societies rather than individuals. Even Davy's romance with Miriam (Madge Bellamy), the childhood sweetheart he was separated from, is eventually paralleled with the building of the railroad. Only when the tracks are completed can their love be consummated, the two lovers coming together from opposite ends of the country at precisely the moment the tracks are joined.

At its best, the film's epic storytelling is very satisfying. There's a sense of scale here that's truly exhilarating, particularly in the inventively staged battle scenes — one Indian attack is staged with the shadows of the attackers projected onto the side of a train, while the climactic battle is all dust clouds and sweeping overhead shots that take in the whole battlefield. Ford similarly pulls back for a grand cattle cattle drive sequence, whereas the countless images of men at work on the rails are invariably captured in densely packed frames that emphasize the sweaty, choreographed simultaneity of their labors. Indeed, the film is at its best when it's abstract like this, since the usual Fordian diversions into ethnic comic relief are especially grating here, and the characters, mostly treated as cogs in a massive machine, aren't well-developed enough for the sporadic shifts to dramatic narrative.

What the film is really celebrating is the moment that the United States became truly united, when it began to take on something like its modern form — pushing further and further into the so-called "wild" lands populated by non-whites, slowly absorbing the entire expanse from east coast to west, linking it all via technology. It's no coincidence that Ford makes sure to note that, when the rails are finally connected in the middle of the country at the end of the film, the news is rapidly spread around the country via telegraph, instantaneously alerting people way back on the east coast to the news. The modern America is forming here. Within the course of the film, which spans years, the Pony Express and the wagon train are made largely obsolete by the telegraph and the locomotive. In the last shot, Ford has people posing for a photograph by the side of a train, a precursor of the cinema, which would be another of those world-shaking, transformative technological leaps forward. This is, after all, a film about technology more than anything else, about the way in which a country was built through a unique combination of rapid technological advances, hard work, and, buried in the film's subtext but rarely acknowledged, exploitation and genocide.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Four Agnès Varda shorts, 1957-1968

In Ô Saisons, Ô Châteaux, Agnès Varda sets out to document and discourse upon the architecture of various Renaissance-era castles, but her playful sensibility and constant digressions make this anything but a conventional documentary. This is apparent right from the opening credits, which whimsically sync up the movements of a trio of gardeners with the jazzy score by André Hodeir, pairing sweeping rakes with brushed cymbals. The voiceover mostly recounts facts about the reigns of various French kings and the castles they built, the renovations that were added to them over the generations by subsequent rulers. Often, though, this narration is interrupted by excerpts from poems, since the narrator is easily distracted from the succession of kings and castles by the stories of the poets who wrote within these walls or served these kings, and Varda's camera frequently wanders off the beaten track into the surrounding woods and gardens to admire the cool orange light of an autumnal glade or the geometric maze of an elaborately laid out garden, still immaculately maintained by the gardeners who seem to excite much of Varda's visual interest. It's as though the film keeps subverting its royalist history with anecdotes about artists and laborers, taking the focus off the upper-class, the big names of history, to focus on ordinary people and obscure poets.

The images are idyllic and pretty, capturing the charm of rural France surrounding all the photogenic ruins of the past. The film was commissioned by the French Tourist Bureau, and those origins are apparent in the scenic imagery of the countryside and the informative narration, but Varda can't play it straight. The narration relates the facts but has a flippant tone that suggests it's all read with a sly, skeptical smile, and the constant digressions suggest that Varda's wide-ranging interests can't be contained by her ostensible subject.

She finds an old man painting the castles and for a while focuses on his charming, rough canvases more than the actual scenes he's painting. At the site where Joan of Arc gave her famous prophecy to the Dauphin, Varda's camera dramatically pans upward at a key moment in the voiceover, a visual punctuation to the narrative. Gardeners occasionally stroll through the frame, making gnomic comments about trees or architecture. Fashion models in glamorous gowns, carrying shopping bags full of expensive clothes, wander through the ancient grounds, evoking the fashionable, idle women who once inhabited these lavish palaces. It's sensual and eclectic more than factual, anything but a dry tourist guide to the region.

Du côté de la côte is a satirical, mocking documentary about tourist season on the French Riviera. Agnès Varda's examination of the coast, packed with tourists from all over, emphasizes the absurdity of it all, poking gentle fun at the trendiness and crowdedness of the region, the superficial qualities of tourism. A bright, colorful, lively short, it provides a vibrant overview of the charms of the Riviera, both its genuine beauty and its kitschy tourist trap nonsense, the real historical foundations sitting side by side with imported, readymade exoticism, buildings made up to look like Asian temples or Russian palaces, all coexisting along the same sun-swept coastline.

Varda finds plenty of delightful, silly, striking images in her tour along the coast. The narrator opens the film by saying that they're not going to focus on the natives — "we'll leave them to the ass and the ox," he says, as some old peasants stroll by with farm animals — but rather on the tourists, and the camera immediately begins panning across a line of sunbathers in tiny bathing suits, before pulling back to show a whole beach crowded full of reclining bodies, with hardly an inch left to move or walk around. Varda finds some photogenic sunburns, peeling skin, demarcation lines with lobster-red flesh above and pale white below. At one point, she holds a deadpan funny shot of a little boy staring intently at his middle-aged mother's butt crack as she lays on her stomach to sun-bathe.

Spliced-in images of Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot suggest that all these tourists are searching for glamour, trying to fulfill movie dreams of high-class luxury that are otherwise unattainable, acting like movie stars relaxing at the shore. Varda also subtly undercuts the touristic impulse and its superficial approach to the real, rich history of the region, which has hosted great names of art and culture throughout the centuries. Even museums are ripe for mockery: the narrator says that "Cro-Magnon man received homage," and Varda accompanies the words with an image of a dog rooting in a museum display of a skeleton, pushing the skull around with its nose. Ultimately, Varda finds the real essence of the Riviera in a deserted rocky island, an Eden, devoid of people except for a pair of naked sunbathers, quiet and truly blissful in comparison to the manufactured, commercialized bliss peddled all along the more populated areas of the tourist coast. The camera's sensuous gliding in this final section says it all, evoking the peace and tranquility of this natural beauty without all the people around to screw it up.

Elsa la rose is Agnès Varda's affectionate chronicle of the love between the writers Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet. The couple had met in 1928 and married in 1939, and they were old and contented when Varda filmed them together in 1965 — five years, as it turned out, before Elsa's death. It's a very sweet film, a tribute to a love that had lasted a long time and been immortalized in many of Aragon's poems. In striking black-and-white cinematography, Varda captures the couple at their home, talking about their lives together and their shared memories. Varda weaves in Aragon's poetry as well, narrated by Michel Piccoli, to bring together these images of enduring love with the art that had so often arisen from that lifelong partnership.

Varda's loving portrait of these two aging writers includes an interesting examination of the relationship between life and art. Elsa discusses how she feels about being the subject of so many poems, what she thinks about so many people reading her husband's descriptions of her youth and beauty, so that in many readers' minds she is forever frozen at the age of 20, young and pretty. Varda keeps cutting back and forth from images of the writers the way they look now and images of them from old, faded photographs, their pasts and their youths jutting up against the present as they tell their stories.

In 1968, Agnès Varda traveled to California to make a documentary about the Black Panther Party, focusing especially on a rally to free Huey P. Newton, who'd been arrested for killing a policeman. In the resulting film, called simply Black Panthers, Varda and her crew interview the Panthers and their supporters at the rally and surrounding events, trying to present a portrait of the group's ideas and politics. Most eloquent and interesting is Eldridge Cleaver's wife, Kathleen, a high-ranking communications officer in the party, who speaks to Varda's crew about the importance of embracing black ideals of beauty rather than trying to straighten one's hair or lighten one's skin in deference to white ideals of beauty. Varda seems especially fascinated by the seeming gender equality within the party, the opportunity for women to take on important roles in this political struggle, though a jailhouse interview with Newton himself reveals some strange remnants of old attitudes, as he says that women have "duties" within the party and then hastens to add that he doesn't mean sexual duties.

Interestingly, though Varda is obviously sympathetic to the Black Panther cause and the radical politics of the movement in general, the film maintains some skepticism regarding the way in which the drive to free Newton seems to skirt around the issue of whether or not he actually did what he's accused of. The film crew asks many of the rally attendees some pointed questions about Newton's guilt or innocence, about what kind of defense is being mounted to prove his innocence, and the narration points out that no one seems to care, that whether or not he actually killed someone or not seems to be immaterial. His prosecution is considered solely in political terms, with no attention paid to the facts of the case, and it's to Varda's credit that she doesn't just accept this at face value but continually questions it within the film.

The film's coda recounts the verdict that Newton was found guilty of manslaughter, but given a lighter sentence than expected as a compromise between those who wanted him freed and those who wanted him to get the death penalty — a compromise that satisfies no one, the voiceover points out. Varda then describes how two angry policemen responded to the verdict by shooting out the windows of a Black Panther headquarters, shooting the photographs of the party's leaders in the windows of the office. This is an expression, the voiceover says, of "the magical act of killing the image, usually attributed to so-called primitive and non-white people," a strange irony in which these enraged white policemen enact a superstitious, almost voodoo-like ritual as a symbolic revenge, a symbol of their hate and anger. That's a fascinating analysis, one that, typically of Varda, gravitates towards the symbolic power of images and the importance of the image in defining politics. Thus her images of the shattered glass windows and the photos riddled with bullets are crucially important as reminders of the systemic violence and atmosphere of hate which surrounded the Panthers and created the necessity for their struggle in the first place.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


"Love between men and women is not possible." So says Marie (Caroline Ducey) towards the end of Catherine Breillat's ironically titled Romance, and the film goes about methodically proving this thesis by examining Marie's feelings about sex and her relationships with various men. Marie is in a long-term relationship, a conventionally "romantic" relationship, with Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), a handsome but passionless model who no longer has sex with her, who doesn't even want her to touch him. His apartment, where they sleep together sexlessly every night, is pure white, and they both dress all in white, virginal, unstained, totally clean and tranquil. The walls are white, the bedsheets are white, the lights are bright fluorescent white, the furniture is white. Everything is clean, clinical, untouched, and it's no wonder that there's no sex within these spotless walls, no hint of passion or tenderness. Paul is reluctant to even take his (clean, white) shirt off in bed, and Marie says she feels like she's sleeping next to a ball of cotton.

This spartan cleanliness is contrasted against the dirtiness and messiness of the sex that the increasingly dissatisfied Marie seeks out with other men, first with the muscular, sexually voracious Paolo (Rocco Siffredi), his name so similar to Paul's that Marie starts forming an almost romantic attachment to him too, and then with her boss at her teaching job, Robert (François Berléand), with whom she engages in sadomasochistic games of bondage and restraint that wind up getting her more excited than actual intercourse. Notably, Robert's apartment is decorated in red, and when he first ties her up, his red shirt against her white dress seems like a stain, as though he's going to leave bloody smears all over her from the bright red of his home, with red curtains framing her like she's on stage as she's being bound and gagged. The second time she goes to see him, she's wearing a bright red dress with black underwear, the first time she's ever worn anything but shades of white and gray, and the effect is shocking — even more so when she returns in this red dress to Paul's white apartment, her presence there suddenly standing out from the surroundings rather than fading amiably into the walls.

Breillat is dealing with sex and desire, control and submission, but it's all so schematic, so deathly dull in its rote plodding towards foregone conclusions. Towards the end of the film, Marie imagines sex as a mechanistic whorehouse where her upper and lower body are separated from one another by a wall with a hole. On one side of the wall, Paul sits beside her, holding her hand and smiling lovingly at her, while on the other side of the wall "ape-like" naked men approach her spread legs with simian lust, waiting in line and taking turns to fuck her. The symbolism is so crushingly obvious as to barely qualify as symbolism: lust and love are separated from one another, the ideal of the monogamous romantic relationship clashing against the animalistic desires of men. It's a treatise delivered with all the finesse of the porn movies whose passionless imagery of sex Breillat is drawing on here. Men are either fey automatons like Paul — whose woman-chasing seems to emerge only from a sense of duty, a sense of what he's supposed to do as a man, and who's actually implied to be gay — or big dumb studs like Paolo or remorseless ladykillers like Robert, who boasts about having had 10,000 women, including Grace Kelly.

Breillat is depicting Marie as someone who's seeking pleasure for herself, trying to break free of the idea that women don't desire sex, that women don't have the same strong lusts as men — but at the same time so much of Marie's behavior dovetails with male desires, with male fantasies of female submission and degradation. Marie is trapped, but it's not always clear by what; in any event, she's always staring at the world through the prison bars of the few stray strands of hair that break free of her pulled back hair to lay across her face. Notably, in the scene where she goes to see Robert for a bondage session, dressed in red, she lets her hair down for the first time, but is she really free, being manipulated into position by this lothario who has such naked contempt for women?

Part of the problem is that Breillat depicts all the sex as equally unappetizing and passionless, whether Marie is supposedly getting off on it or not. Towards the end of the film, she goes for a gynecological exam and is felt up by a succession of medical students, each waiting a turn like the men in her pornish whorehouse fantasy, and this clinical examination is filmed with exactly the same slightly bored detachment as the scenes in which Marie is supposed to be enjoying herself. Maybe that too is part of Breillat's thesis, that all sex is unavoidably compromised and fucked up by these weird societal ideas about men, women, relationships, desire, and love. At one point, in a rare flash of humor from this mostly humorless film, Breillat cuts from a splash of semen spurting onto Marie's stomach to a shot of a doctor spreading gel on her stomach for an ultrasound examination. That about sums it up: all sex is clinical and emotionless, and one might as well visit a doctor as get into bondage.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Boldly ambitious, staggeringly epic, and, for its time, remarkably experimental in its approach to narrative and themes, D.W. Griffith's Intolerance is justifiably a landmark of the silent cinema, perhaps even more so than its more famous (and infamous) predecessor in his oeuvre, The Birth of a Nation. This three-hour epic tells four stories set in four different eras, weaving the thematically related tales together throughout the film, cutting between eras to draw connections between them. In the most prominent story, set in the modern day, the lives of a young couple are torn apart by capitalist exploitation, self-righteous social reformers, and injustice. This intensely melodramatic romance is buttressed by three historical tales: the crucifixion of Jesus, the violence between Catholics and Huguenot Protestants in 1500s France, and the ancient war between Babylon and Persia, also rooted in religious strife. Of those three historical segments, only the Babylonian epic is really developed into its own story, nearly the equal of the modern story in terms of detail and screen time; the other two stories simply provide short sequences that serve as illustrations or parallels to the action in the modern and Babylonian stories.

The film's sweeping scope and ambition are as dazzling as they are exhausting. Griffith hammers home his simple themes relentlessly, and everything is broad and lurid, the emotions rendered with big, sloppy outbursts of feeling. The emotions range from innocent love to craven jealousy or pettiness, and there's no middle ground, only these extremes of intense emotionality, delivered with grand gestures and shameless mugging. The acting is locked into this heightened register, especially the cutesy, girlish overemoting of both Constance Talmadge as the Mountain Girl of the Babylonian story and Mae Marsh as the cloyingly named Dear One in the modern romance. (Although Talmadge does provide one of the film's most endearing little moments, in a throwaway sequence in which, playing with a goat, she bites the animal's ear.)

The Babylonian story fares best here, because it's naturally suited to the grandness and exaggeration that infuses the aesthetic and performative style dominating the movie. Everything about the Babylonian story is big and excessive, from its famous massive sets to its swarms of extras to its lavish feasts and battle scenes. The Babylonian story is an expression of pure sensual excess, filmed mostly in wide shots in which the frame seems to be packed with hordes of people, scurrying around the city like ants, dwarfed by the massive statues of rival gods and the towering walls of Babylon itself. The Mountain Girl's story exists at the fringes of the historical drama: her life is briefly touched by the Babylonian king Belshazzar (Alfred Paget), and she dedicates herself to him thereafter, doting on him from afar while he romances his beautiful Princess Beloved (Seena Owen) and wars with the advancing Persian armies. Whereas the modern story is a melodrama of individual romance and separation, the Babylonian part of the film is more abstract, its action occurring at a level where individuals are often mere specks in the corner of the frame. It's exhilarating and mad and frenzied, and packed with unforgettable images: most memorably, a tiny chariot pulled by white doves, carrying a flower between lovers, a concept that's poignant and hilarious at once.

Intolerance is kind of like that Alanis Morissette song about irony in which most of the verses aren't actually ironic; although Griffith keeps hammering home that his film is about the opposition between intolerance and love, most of the film's situations don't really chronicle intolerance as it's usually understood, so much as hypocrisy and injustice. At the core of the film is an opposition between carnality, physicality and freedom on the one hand, and repression, meddling and asceticism on the other. There's no question which side is favored by Griffith, who makes the film's celebrations of excess and bombast truly overwhelming — especially in the ecstatically sensual Babylonian thread, with its half-naked dancing girls and massive citywide parties — while viciously mocking the hypocritical champions of "reform" and restraint. Even Griffith's Jesus gets in on the act; it's no coincidence that Griffith makes sure to highlight, in his otherwise very abbreviated account of the New Testament, the miracle of turning water into wine, showing Jesus proudly presiding over a raucous party that can resume its boisterous course once the wine supply has been replenished.

Griffith makes the Pharisees' primary complaint about Jesus that he's "a winebibber" and a friend to lower-class rabble and sinners, thus paralleling the crusade against Jesus to the modern-day advocates of Prohibition, who ironically work in Jesus' name to prohibit fun and partying and pleasure. These no-fun old biddies are the real villains of the film, social reformers who are "intolerant" of anyone having fun. They're meddling hypocrites who use money taken from their connections with exploitative industrialist kingpins to restrict the activities of the very working class employees who are exploited by the reformers' capitalist supporters. There's also an obvious sexist undercurrent to Griffith's depiction of these crusaders, whose actions are explained in terms of their age and homeliness in a particularly egregious title card: "when women cease to attract men they often turn to Reform."

Beyond that nasty thread of sexism, there's an even more telling subtext to these denunciations of meddling reformers who couch their interference in terms of moral outrage. Griffith's previous feature, The Birth of a Nation, had been the subject of much protest and criticism for its infamously despicable depiction of black predation on white women and its lionization of the Ku Klux Klan. It's tempting to think that Griffith built his next film around the concept of "intolerance" by way of atonement, but the film itself is not an apology but an indignant rebuttal directed at the "intolerance" of his critics for the views expressed in his earlier film. Racial intolerance is not part of the brief here; rather, he's condemning the intolerance of those who try to reform society, imposing their ideas on others, and thus drawing parallels between social reformers decrying the treatment of blacks and those calling for the Prohibition of alcohol and other so-called social ills. At the heart of the film's concept of "tolerance" is the espousal of a live-and-let-live philosophy that's actually really objectionable when one realizes that Griffith seems to have in mind "tolerance" for bigots. Ironically, in Griffith's formulation, those protesting and pointing out intolerance are themselves the ones who are intolerant, presumably because they don't respect the ideas of bigots.

The film is curiously twisted in its themes and its subtexts, and when it's not offering backhanded stabs at the director's "intolerant" critics, it's delivering simplistic pleas to end all war and replace fighting with love. The film ends with a dazzlingly saccharine vision of a future without war, complete with heavenly hosts floating above a battlefield and a prison being replaced with a field of flowers. But if the film is ideologically suspect, historically inaccurate, and melodramatically overwrought, it's also undeniably exciting and finely crafted in terms of its aesthetics and the mechanical precision of Griffith's cross-cutting, here ratcheting up suspense and creating connections not just within the same story but between stories.

The apex of this approach is the thrilling climax, in which the Dear One's husband (Robert Harron), wrongly convicted of a crime, is set to be hanged. Griffith builds the suspense over the course of a solid half-hour, as the girl struggles to get the evidence to clear her man's name, then races to catch the governor, then races to the jail for a last-second rescue attempt. Griffith employs the signature cross-cutting that by this time he'd developed into a well-honed art, cutting between the condemned man's last rites and his long walk to the gallows, and the frantic activities of his wife as she pursues a train and speeds through the streets towards the jail. Griffith also elongates the suspenseful moment by cutting away to the other stories, in which there is no such suspense, but the predictably tragic climaxes of those tales — Babylon is sacked, Jesus is crucified, and the Catholics slaughter the Huguenots — provide a grim parallel to the likely outcome of the modern-day romance.

Griffith's command of cinematic language is what's most impressive today, looking beyond the film's many problems. The director's ability to use form to heighten the effect of narrative was unparalleled in the early cinema, particularly in his feel for grand action set pieces and endlessly building suspense. The Babylonian sequences also confirm the director's penchant for spectacle, with his camera sometimes even breaking free of the mostly static set-ups to drift gracefully closer to the action, tracking in from the epic wide shots to focus on some details within the sprawling chaos. It's no wonder that Erich von Stroheim, working as an assistant on the Babylonian parts of the film, was inspired by Griffith's dazzling spectacles. Intolerance as a whole is an uneven and contradictory experience, but the wild ambition and inventiveness of its director always show through, and partially redeem, even its worst failings.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Small Change

With Small Change, François Truffaut returns again to the topic of childhood, one of the recurring thematic focuses of his films ever since his famous debut feature The 400 Blows. It's a loose, anecdotal film, charming and sweet if perhaps also a little lightweight. There's little structure here, simply a series of vignettes involving various children living in a small town, as well as their teachers, particularly Richet (Jean-François Stévenin), whose wife is expecting a child of their own.

The film meanders along at an easy pace, bouncing lightly from one gently comic anecdote to another. One continuing subtext throughout the film is Truffaut's focus on the dawning of sexuality, the first stirrings of feelings about the opposite sex. The boys are always spying on girls, catching glimpses of one woman's skirt riding up as she bends over or another girl bathing herself, naked, in her window. These flashes of nudity and sensuality have the illicit erotic charge of something not fully understood but powerfully felt regardless. Similarly, Truffaut captures the infatuation of one boy, Patrick (Georges Desmouceaux), with his friend's mother (Tania Torrens), gazing rapturously at her and associating her with a poster he sees of a man and a woman on vacation in a train car, locked in a pose that, for the young boy, seems replete with sexual promise: Truffaut cuts rapidly back and forth between closeups of the man and the woman in the poster, as though visualizing the way that the boy tries to make sense of the obvious attraction between the poster's couple.

Truffaut also drops a few subtle movie references into the film, in particular to Hitchcock's Rear Window. Patrick's father is confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed, and at one point he looks out his window and sees a man in the opposite flat stringing film through reels for a projector. But the Rear Window references are most potently realized in a clever sequence where Sylvie (Sylvie Grezel) is left at home by her parents because she's being stubborn, so she appeals to her neighbors in the adjoining buildings by using a bullhorn to announce that she's hungry. Truffaut's camera pans around the courtyard, where all the residents gather at the windows, and finally conspire to use a basket and a pulley system — like the basket used to raise and lower a dog in Hitchcock's film — to deliver some food to Sylvie for her lunch.

One curious scene is the one where the toddler Grégory plays with his cat by a window and hangs off the ledge when the cat falls to a lower balcony. Truffaut builds the obvious tension of this scene, in which the boy's mother has gone out and he's been left home alone, getting into a dangerous situation, edging into ever more precarious positions as he clambers clumsily along the balcony, hanging off the small rail that's the only protection between him and a fall of several stories. Down below, people start noticing and can only watch helplessly as the boy hangs off the rail and finally falls to the ground. At this point, Truffaut abruptly breaks the suspense by having the kid land on his butt and simply giggle, unfazed and unharmed by the fall, which in reality would certainly have injured him severely at the least. It's a totally puzzling scene, followed up by a conversation between Richet and his wife in which they conclude that kids are tougher than one thinks, which must be the trite moral that Truffaut wants to communicate here. But it comes off as a bizarre piece of fantasy, a surreal fracture in a film that is otherwise committed to low-key realism, really offputting in its casual dismissal of the danger of this scenario.

It's especially jarring because, while the film generally has a pretty light and rosy outlook on childhood, Truffaut doesn't flinch away from the story of Julien (Philippe Goldmann), a poor kid whose family is abusing and beating the boy, a discovery that only comes out during a school physical. This plotline is treated with real honesty and directness, and it provides the opportunity for a speech from Richet that sums up the movie's treatment of childhood: "life is hard, but it's wonderful."

For the most part, Truffaut leans more towards the "wonderful" here, and the film is charming and pleasant from beginning to end, with nicely naturalistic performances from all the amateur child actors. It's a low-key film, with only sporadic traces of the more emotionally intense approach to childhood that Truffaut had explored in The 400 Blows. For the most part, he gracefully and tastefully covers sexual awakening, friendship and teasing, petty stealing and pranks, with a light touch and a warm, affectionate sensibility. A sweet, unassuming film, Small Change is a slight trifle that's nevertheless often moving and quietly funny.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Madame Bovary

Claude Chabrol is so thoroughly associated with the genre of the thriller that it's always a surprise when he ventures outside its confines. Certainly, Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary is not what one expects of Chabrol; a period piece literary adaptation is very far from the director's familiar territory, even if this novel of a bourgeois woman's boredom and rebellion resonates thematically with Chabrol's usual topics. Chabrol plays it mostly straight, sticking faithfully to the source novel and delivering a dry, somewhat cool costume drama that doesn't really play to the director's strengths.

It's the story of Emma Bovary (Isabelle Huppert), married to the doctor Charles (Jean-François Balmer), who she soon realizes is a total bore, unable to provide her with the glamorous, exciting life that she dreams about. Dissatisfied with this dull marriage and her stultifying life as a homemaker, Emma alternates between periods of passionate affairs and wild spending, and periods of recommitment to the virtues of family and home. She has two torrid affairs, first with the sly playboy Rodolphe (Christophe Malavoy) and then with the sensitive young Leon (Lucas Belvaux), but neither of these loves can ultimately save her from the self-destructive streak that leads her closer and closer to oblivion.

Emma is a romantic who's filled with dreams by the novels she reads as an escape from her dull, passionless husband, whose intellect she finds so wanting. Under the influence of her desire for Leon, she walks around her garden, practicing swooning declarations of love with a theatricality that obviously indicates she's acting out scenes, imagining her own life as a novel, playing herself as a character in a romantic book. She's filled with grand dreams that are very distinct from the unfulfilling life she actually leads. In one of her happiest moments, she and her husband are invited to a fancy ball by a local dignitary, and Emma is so overwhelmed by the glamour and finery on display that she nearly swoons with pleasure, drifting around the hall listening to the stimulating conversations that she'll never have at home with her husband.

Chabrol wittily stages the big seduction scene between Emma and Rodolphe by cutting back and forth between the couple and the agricultural fair going on outside. He alternates between Rodolphe's passionate come-ons to Emma and the awarding of prizes for best manure and best pigs and so on, cleverly subverting the romance of the scene with these earthy rural details. After all, for Rodolphe this is just a game, a conquest, while for Emma it's like a scene out of one of her beloved novels, the fulfillment of her dreams and secret desires — the romance is a sham, stained by baseness. When Emma rides with Rodolphe into the woods and finally gives in to her passions, it's obvious that she's acting, performing a role. She's more excited by the idea of this secret affair than she is by its reality, which is perhaps why Chabrol discreetly cuts away from the actual lovemaking. The real pleasure for Emma is not the actual sex but the romance and melodrama of it; she gets shivers of pleasure by looking in the mirror and saying, "I have a lover," pronouncing it with the wonder of a woman living out her literary fantasy.

Emma is constantly searching for something, though she's not sure what it is, and one institution that the film repeatedly holds up as inconsequential is religion and the church, which offer scant comfort. She goes to see the village priest, but he just talks past her without really hearing her; submerged in the physical problems and poverty of his flock, he's unable, or unwilling, to appreciate the more metaphysical, less tangible problems that Emma wants to tell him about. The frustration of the shot is sublimely realized: while Emma stares straight ahead, her eyes wet, struggling to express her thoughts, the priest prattles on about the problems of his parishioners, oblivious to Emma's troubles — or, perhaps, deliberately stomping over them, trying to shame her out of her misery by pointing out how many worse problems are experienced by people of lower social classes.

The film is generally well-realized and well-acted, and moments like this are staged by Chabrol to maximize the emotional and thematic subtext of Emma's various encounters. The film as a whole, however, doesn't quite connect: it lacks the satirical bite of Chabrol's best work, despite the thematic continuity with his more personal works, and too much of it feels like a scrupulously faithful condensation of the source novel rather than the work of a director applying his own voice to this material.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Die Puppe

Ernst Lubitsch's Die Puppe is a delightfully kinky and absurd silent fantasia, a charming artifact of the master director's tenure in the German film industry before his emigration to Hollywood. Fast-paced and funny, it's a brilliant farce, a madcap and surreal confection that's a pleasure from start to finish. It's a celebration of artificiality and theatricality that opens with Lubitsch himself introducing the film by setting up a cardboard diorama, suggesting that he's about to act out a kind of cinematic puppet show.

Indeed, that's an appropriate reference point for a film that consistently deals with the slipping boundaries between the real and the artificial. This story of a girl mistaken for a doll takes place against a backdrop of blatantly cardboard sets, these flimsy-looking surroundings adding to the atmosphere of a strange fantasy, a children's puppet show with an adult theme. Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) is a fey and painfully shy young man who happens to be the only heir of his uncle, a wealthy baron (Max Kronert) who wants Lancelot to get married so that their line will carry on. The problem is that Lancelot is terrified of women, as evidenced by the comic chase sequence that results when a crowd of forty women come looking for the heir, pursuing him in their fever for such a prestigious marriage. Lancelot manages to escape to a monastery where he hides out, until his uncle puts out a newspaper ad promising a big dowry for Lancelot if he returns and gets married.

The greedy, corrupt monks concoct a clever and ridiculous plan: Lancelot will pretend to marry a life-like doll, get the money, and bring it back to the monastery. The only problem is that the doll, a perfect likeness of the dollmaker's daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), is broken and replaced by the real girl, who pretends to be a doll while Lancelot carts her off for the fake wedding. What ensues is an utterly lunatic farce packed with naughty gags and innuendos. Oswalda delivers a delightful performance as the girl playing a doll, her face agilely contorting into gleeful grins and eye-rolling expressions of disdain whenever her hapless new husband isn't looking. She's clearly enjoying her ruse, and the wedding scene especially is packed with charming moments, as whenever Lancelot's back is turned, Ossi — who as a doll isn't getting any food or drink — grabs glasses of champagne to swig and gobbles down any food on the plates he leaves unattended.

There's also plenty of sexual subtext here. Lancelot's fear of women is absurd and caricatured, as he runs in terror from the hordes of women who desire him. He's so skittish that he even flinches away from the chorus line of dolls who dance and pose for him in the dollmaker's shop; when the dolls kick up their legs, he buries his head in his arms, crying that it's too risque. He's assiduously proper to the point of repression, and it's only with what he thinks is a fake woman — and a better-behaved one than those bold dancers — that he can get used to the idea of spending time with a woman. Lubitsch plays up the naughty subtext of this "doll" seducing and toying with the man: he starts to undress her and she resists, miming that she can dress herself, and later he undresses in front of her, using her extended arms as a coat rack, much to her annoyance. For Lancelot, marriage makes him quake in terror, and he enters into it in the most unromantic fashion. He buys his wife — with the understanding that he'll be paid back and then some for marrying her, making marriage a transaction twice over.

Lubitsch surrounds this sexual farce with a toy box aesthetic that enforces the essential unreality of the whole affair. A paper moon hangs in the sky at night, its frown turning to a grin when it sees the doll kiss the man. Lancelot rides his bride to their wedding in a carriage drawn, hilariously, by some of the most unconvincing fake horses ever imagined, obviously consisting of a pair of men inside a costume, with their legs sticking out of the cloth. As the coach driver prepares to depart, he notices that one of these "horses" has lost its tail, and without fuss he stoops down, picks it up, and reattaches it. It's a wonderful little moment that would break the film's fourth wall if there were really any to break in the first place, and it's also a sign of the lightness and playfulness of Lubitsch's approach. He lets all of the film's seams show, especially in its elaborate painted sets — every bit as stylized and expressionist as the next year's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, albeit in a very different way.

Die Puppe suggests just how early in Lubitsch's career the director's brilliant comedic sensibility was developed. Clever, witty, and sophisticated, this is pure Lubitsch, a delightfully fluffy and fun comedy with a bit of a wicked edge to its sugary aesthetic.