Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Robert Bresson
B&W, 75 minutes, 1959

Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket is a strange little film, especially so when placed within the French New Wave Film movement and alongside a similar film like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

The resemblances between Pickpocket and Breathless are small but perhaps intended. The protagonist’s name is Michel in both films; both men are criminals; both men show a disconcerting restlessness. But there the similarities invite, in fact demand, contrasts. Michel the pickpocket is a quiet, almost shy man; he seems to have literary ambitions, appears well-educated, and his own restlessness is a 75 minute-long dance of eyes looking down, staring, challenging, and swiftly surveying his environment. Michel from Breathless provides his own score, dialog, and special sound effects in his hyped-up, nervous, non-stop physical motion and during the commission of his violent crimes.

I don’t know if there are any intended comparisons and contrasts that one or both director is making. Each film should stand alone, even if the film-maker consciously adds some reference to another film, actor, or director. The French New Wave directors all seem to share the trait of paying homage to one another and their influences within their films.

Pickpocket is a striking anomaly within the artistic movement and the genre of criminal films. It closely matches its protagonist’s quiet, his subtle eye movements, and the slow-motion revelation of each pocket picking maneuver. Bresson wrote a moral to his story that is shown before the film titles roll and the moral comes true by the time Fin rolls onto the screen. There is no irony to Bresson’s treatment of the people or the subject.

Like the soft classical musical score, Pickpocket’s story unfolds via the written confession of Michel. We see Michel’s hand actually writing the words he then narrates, almost in real time to the handwriting, without the verbal choppiness that this technique so often engenders in other films. Martin LaSalle, who plays Michel, is adverse to any kind of animation. His acting is so low key that is seems primitive, like the real people who are used in Italian realist films to stand in for professional actors. The Paris, city-life crowds move and flow around him and he looks at them without emotion or interest.

The first few minutes of the film set Michel in a nervous, thrilling relation to the people surrounding him as he challenges himself to steal, to become a pickpocket—there is none of the violence or superiority of Breathless’ Michel. Pickpocket portrays nervousness and tension by using direct gaze as Michel looks into the eyes of each potential victim and they stare back into his eyes. The scenes play out uncomfortably long, the mutual stares should produce more hostility or discomfort in the characters than is shown on the screen. Such direct visual confrontation should be produce some emotional reactions but, oddly, it does not. Bresson may be making a point about the ennui or disinterest of his contemporary Parisians; he may staying true to the emotional temperament of Michel whose story this is, who is narrating and shown writing each scene.

Michel’s reasons for becoming a pickpocket are as muted and pedestrian as his apparent demure personality. He seems to be espousing a Nietzschean philosophy with the overturning of morals by what Nietzsche described as “The Superman.” The people to whom he shares these ideas with are not outraged, they seem as quietly intellectual as Michel. In fact, Michel neglects his reading and presumed writing as he descends further into crime as is demonstrated by a police inspector who runs a finger across the dust on the cover of one of Michel’s books. Bresson has Michel-as-narrator/writer propose that he is having "nightmares" from which he has awoken. It is ironic that Michel's motives are as subject to debate as any other philosophical proposition.

The heralded “second soul” of the pre-title-sequence moral and Michel’s own writing belongs to a woman name Jeanne who lives in the apartment house where Michel’s dying mother resides. Not until the end of the movie will these two characters fulfill the destiny Bresson (or Fate, if you will) have laid out for them.

There is a striking feature of the complex personality of Michel that is especially exposed in his relations with Jeanne. Her character betrays an obvious potential romantic interest in Michel but he cannot or refuses to see it. The same point is raised by Michel several times when he cannot remember where he has seen certain faces that pass him in the crowds where he is working. This non-recognition is very strange for a character whose only lively interest is in surveillance. Why is Michel so blind to what should be most obvious to him?

Bresson shows no interest in the mechanics of pickpocketing. The camera slows down the action as the stolen object passes from owner to thief and from hand to hand; this seems to be a contrivance to show the audience what would, in ‘real life’ happen very quickly, almost invisiby. After all, pickpockets wouldn’t exist if they are slow-handed and as obvious as Michel and his friends. The fact that Bresson writes for Michel a two-year-long criminal spree in Milan, then Rome, and finally London means that Bresson/Michel have little interest in criminality, but also to show that Michel is very good at what he has chosen to do. But if he is so successful in three countries, why is he so easily caught at the end of the film? Is it a form of 'bad luck' that Michel previously invokes as ‘good luck’ (more than skill) in one of his earlier, successful robbery attempts?

Pickpocket ends true to the moral at the film’s beginning. Michel is caught and imprisoned by a man he at first failed to recognize was a police inspector. Does he invite his own capture, unconsciously submit to justice and to reform? He is visited by Jeanne, who he once again sends away, not recognizing that she visits out of love for him. But in a letter, a piece of writing curiously enough, he comes to “see” that Jeanne has always loved him and that he is now prepared or becomes aware of his own love for her. The collision between his 'fate,' his love interest, his writing, and his vision make this moment both an emotional and intellectual whole.

One thing: this ending reminds me of Anthony Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange, when it was republished with a previously missing ending—an ending that therefore did not make it into the much more notorious film by Stanley Kubrick of the same name. In the intended, but unpublished ending (the controversy over who cut the ending, author or publisher, has no bearing on this topic) to A Clockwork Orange, the violent young criminal is rehabilitated not by soulless and misguided social and scientific agencies and techniques. The boy in the book becomes aware of time passing; he falls in love with a girl his own age; they marry and start to have children—these events change the violent criminal into a respectable lower middle-class husband. I wonder how Burgess' more realistic ending would have fared with Kubrick and the social and cultural attitudes of the 1960s and 70s? Would Kubrick's generation have wanted the anti-hero of the film or the mended and middle-class (bourgeouis?) hero of the novel's recently published ending?

Far more than any philosophy that can explain Michel’s criminal beginnings and the end of this phase of his life, it is a middle-class, perhaps denigrated by supposedly more modern and sophisticated ideas—some would argue cynical and Nietzschean—conception of Love as a saving agency that brings us to the end of the lessons that Bresson has written into and directed in his quiet little film, Pickpocket.

** images from Wikipedia.com

Jean-Luc Godard
B&W, 87 minutes, 1960

Breathless is a film in a hurry and I don’t mean that as a pun. Jean-Luc Godard, who directed the film, presents one view of reality that matches the manic pace of its protagonist, Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo. The story is random, Michel’s movements are obsessively on-the-go with ‘thoughtless’ dialogue of him talking to anyone about anything—including direct speech to the camera, and thus to Godard’s audience. Mostly, Michel comically talks non-stop to himself.

The plot of Breathless is one with Michel’s personality; during one of his many criminal actions he shoots a policeman and spends the rest of the movie avoiding capture. Michel steals cars; he breaks every traffic law in France as he drives the stolen car through the french countryside, although we are not told where he is going or his purpose. His reckless driving attracts the attention of the policeman whom he ends up killing. He steal from girlfriends, mugs a stranger in a bar's bathroom, and he lies and cheats throughout the film. It isn't completely certain that his obsession for Patricia has any of the expected motivations we are used to, such as, love or lust.

The other plot element, the one that keeps Michel in Paris to meet his inevitable death being shot by the police, is one stubborn idea he has: Michel is determined to get to Paris, retrieve a lot of money that is owed him, convince a woman with whom he spent either three or five nights with, and together they will escape to Italy. Money, the girl, and Italy are all that Michel concentrates on for the rest of the film until his stubborness kills him.

There is irony is this stubbornness of Michel’s when the rest of Breathless portrays him as such a manic, spontaneous, criminally motivated, aggressive, and, above all, in constant motion—a kind of motion that would a normal, well-adjusted person certainly very tired if not literally breathless.

Patricia, the female lead character, is an American supposedly studying in Paris using her parents’ money. She has a job delivering the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysee. She seems to have ambitions of being a writer, at least being a journalist. She refuses most of Michel’s advances, has no intention of going with him to Italy or in hiding that fact. She ends up informing the police of Michel’s whereabouts that leads to Michel’s death in a gun battle on a Paris street.

Viewers, critics, can make whatever they will of the story and characters in Breathless. I think all of our traditional ways of encountering and making sense of story, character, movie, are beside Jean-Luc Godard’s point when he made this film.

Godard has his own touch points throughout the movie that are both idiosynchratic to Godard’s cinematic purposes and funny character traits that can hide Godard’s fascination.

Michel is an obsessed reader of newspapers. There is seldom a scene involving Michel that does not contain his quest to obtain, read, or discard a newspaper. It may be traditional in French newspapers to put police and crime news on an inner page of the paper, a practice that would explain why more often than not Michel immediately opens the paper to the jump pages of traditional American newspapers. It is true that Michel eventually follows the enclosing net around him for his murder of the policeman, but there are also comic moments, such as when the police publish his mug shot Michel’s police photo resembles a model or actor’s fashion head shot photo than the grubbier police processing criminal photo. Michel’s obsession with newspapers, like the fatal obsession to get his money and his girl and escape to Italy, culminates in the film’s ending. The police have gunned down Michel—who did not get his money, was betrayed by his sexual obsession in the girl, Patricia, and not getting any nearer to Italy than stealing Italian cars—and as he lies in the street a policeman picks up a drifting newspaper and uses it to cover Michel’s dead expression. There is something so ironic in this closure of the newspaper theme that ti seemed darkly comic.

Godard is fascinated by all the new media. Obviously, movies occupy his attention and he inserts many references to American and French films, directors, and actors that he presumably likes. Jean-Pierre Melville makes a cameo appearance (as a pompous modern philosopher-novelist), he holds a press conference on the jetee at Orly (the site of Chris Marker’s film, La Jetee).

But the most important aspects of Godard’s method is the way he shows the thing itself instead of the more traditional representation of pre-Modernist novels and films. Samuel Beckett wrote of James Joyce that:

“Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read—or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” (Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, Shakespeare and Company, 1929).

Godard’s method in Breathless is very similar to Joyce’s method as Beckett described it. Godard film, with all of its elements of composition, editing, lighting, camera movement, and all the other technical aspects of film-making in relation to the movie’s story and characters, and their relation to real life and real people.

One moment in the film demonstrates my thesis. Patricia meets a Herald Tribune reporter for lunch. In the course of receiving an assignment to interview the Melville-character at Orly, it is obvious that the man wants to have sex with Patricia. Godard edits his moment of speaking his seductive invitation with odd edits—fast edits that go back or repeat the exact words several times except the differences in the man’s body language, his verbal intonation, and other small cues. The edits are rapid. The effect is unsettling to the traditional film-viewer. Why the abrupt cuts, the repetition of material, and the oblivious of the film’s characters to this disjointed ‘reality’ inside their cinema-universe?

Godard is demonstrating how the man rehearsed his proposition to Patricia. The editing and style is in keeping with the breathless pace of the movie, and with a nod to Beckett’s explanation of “…His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” Godard’s edits are the thing itself; in this case, the multiplicity of a moment that has importance to the male, at least, and which is rehearsed before and, if either character is of a brooding nature, an internal replaying of the hopeful question and the negative answer; as a being with desire and another being who is desired and does not want the other’s desire.

I think a contrast of Godard to his contemporary, Francois Truffaut, would illustrate how Godard is a radical among a group of radicals. Both men knew and understood film and film history; both innovated formal storytelling and cinematic practices; but Truffaut is warm in tone or point-of-view and his relationship to characterization while Godard is cool or cold in tone and in his more detached approach to characterization and plot.

Neither man should suffer in making comparisons between the two. It just so happens that Godard is much more disruptive, disturbing, unsettling, and confrontational to his audience. The audience might use strategies like rejecting his film as too unsettling to their customary expectations of film or trivializing or taming Godard by touting their own sense of mastery over Godard’s techniques. There are too many details in Breathless that resist any complete exposition and tidy categories of explanation.

Beckett summarized the simple revolutionary techniques of James Joyce in order to involve readers in Joyce’s fiction. Godard should be viewed in the same terms Beckett advises with his literary master for it is clear that Breathless is the work of a towering cinematic genius in an age of other wonderful films made by revolutionary directors.

** images available from Wikipedia.com

Monday, October 20, 2008

The 400 Blows

Francois Truffaut
B&W, 98 minutes, 1958

I think of Francois Truffaut as a great storyteller, one who ‘writes’ with a camera instead of a pen or word processor. This is not a criticism of his obviously expressive, lyrical, technically adventurous camera work. Story does not serve as a pretext for innovation and pyrotechnics in film-making; story is the raw stuff of Truffaut's vision of Life and is the reason for his acclaim as a French New Wave director.

Perhaps his most famous film as well as his first feature-length film, The 400 Blows is more widely known for its subject matter and its typical Truffaut child-protagonist than for any editing or timing or direction. Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the central character, 14-year-old Antoine Doinel, gives a stunning performance as the rebellious, immature artist. No other child-actor performance came close to Léaud’s until Steven Spielberg made Empire of the Sun with a young Christian Bale who also gives a stunning performance. The similarity between the two films of master directors demonstrates their mutual affinities for children’s perspectives as well as technical expertise. And both men are capable of showing the dark side of Life through children’s eyes while also maintaining the more familiar and safe attributes of a child’s whimsy and innocence.

The 400 Blows is, in my opinion, two different films, fused seamlessly together but that could also stand apart as complete and satisfying short films in themselves. The first half of The 400 Blows is the more innocent and optimistic film, full of the warmth and hope that so often characterize Truffaut’s films. Jean-Pierre Léaud and the other children in his class commit petty crimes aplenty, demonstrate both a hidden and open disrespect for the dull and stodgy adults that Fate has inflicted upon them, upon every child that has parents or teachers.

There are moments of brutality and abuse in the first part of The 400 Blows, certainly, but these afflictions are easily absorbed and overcome by the children’s own ingenious, if whacky, strategies. But there are deeper currents in the first part of the film that both serve as a pretext for the second, darker, less hopeful half of the film and enrich our understanding of what may be unique to Antoine Doinel’s personal experience.

It might be helpful to take a moment and explain some of the background information on this film, from the notion that The 400 Blows is an autobiographical film of Truffaut’s real experiences as a child, to the connotations of the name of the film.

All of the film is based on autobiographical materials from both Truffaut’s life and that of his best friend (from the age of 11 to the end of Truffaut’s life), Robert Lachenay. But according to Lachenay’s interviews on the Criterion Collection edition of The 400 Blows, the darkness of the film came from the two boys’ experiences during the Occupation, where the Nazis ruled over France. The privations of the film would take another meaning or tone entirely if Truffaut had set his movie during those darker, communal times. The eccentricities, cruelties, and perversions of the adults would seem the lesser of evils compared to Truffaut’s experience of Nazi-occupied Paris.

Additionally, Truffaut and his best friend and collaborator took scenes from their more mature troubles assimilating to Nation Service, France’s mandatory military service. All of the bleak jail scenes and the deadening process of the juvenile criminal system owe as much, if not more, to Truffaut and Lachenay’s failure to assimilate into the anonymous workings of the Army than any memory of two 14-year-olds

Another problem with understanding this film is the title. The 400 Blows seems more like an existentialist description of a young artist who willfully and stubbornly chooses rebellion against the corrupt and disturbed adult world that has him within its power. In French, the title is a colloquialism that means something like ‘sowing wild oats’ or ‘raising hell;’ a title that has more in common with Truffaut’s first short film (which Lachenay fully funded), Les Mistons (The Brats) than with Sartre or Camus.

The second film concentrates on Doinel’s experiences after being turned over to the police by his stepfather. There are no more gags or laughs. Doinel, who always had a sense of acceptance beneath his rebellion—that his treatment is just the way of the world, seems even more passive. But there are scenes of Doinel learning from his other prisoners, especially the mythology and meaning of escaping from the detention facility. We are shown images that remind us of World War II: small children with their faces pressed against the wiring, locked in a pen; the escapee being led away by the authorities to an unknown fate; Doinel’s degradation with one of the proctors, forced to choose which hand the man will use to slap Doinel in the face.

These two films, or the division within a single construction, along with everything I have mentioned thus far makes any reading of The 400 Blows very problematic for me.

Is Truffaut aware that the light-hearted title and the first half of the film is strongly contrasted to the darkness of the rest of the film? What did he mean by the title? What does he mean by claiming to base this film on autobiographical materials when friends and collaborators indicate a mixture of more than one man’s memories, and a much wider age range than Truffault focuses on Antoine Doinel?

There are more troubles for a viewer in the first half of the film. Here, I would like to discuss the relationship between Antoine and his mother. All of the other commentary I have heard in researching these scenes between mother and son look upon their relationship as one of mutual lying to the father, a kind of co-opting of the son by the mother to deceive the father. Such a reading of the scenes is certainly valid. But I would add a more sinister aspect of the relationship, one where the mother—accustomed to manipulating men with her sexuality—uses her physical presence to “seduce” her 14-year-old son.

We first meet Mrs. Doinel when she returns home and chastises Antoine for forgetting to buy flour. She is sitting on Antoine’s bed, clearly visible to us and so probably to Antoine as well, and removing her nylon stockings. When we first met Antoine Doinel he was caught as the last in line of school boys passing a pin-up drawing in class—the boys are obviously at the crux of puberty, enormously influenced and confused by their growing awareness of sexuality.

Later in the first half of the film, Doinel runs away from home. However, he doesn’t skip school even though he is now presumably his own master. Ms. Doinel comes to collect the missing son and takes him home. We are shown a fairly long scene of the mother’s manipulation of her love (perhaps more) for the boy by bathing him, kissing his abdomen through the towel, denying Antoine a nightshirt, sending him to bed naked. Mrs. Doinel sits on the edge of Antoine’s bed trying to discover what Antoine knows, if and whom he told anything about her behavior.

Mrs. Doinel’s actions are evidence of either an unconscious or corrupt attitude of a mother toward her son. Clearly a case for a mother’s “seduction” of her young son would not stretch credulity.

Is it Truffaut’s intention to include this dysfunctional (to say the least) primal scene as a key to Doinel’s character, his family’s psychology, and the complete corruption of adult society?

Despite the questions I've raised (and others I have no space to discuss), The 400 Blows remains a lyrical and powerful film almost 30 years after Truffaut made it. His storytelling instincts, his use of memory and nostalgia, his presenting his film from a child’s point-of-view without condescension or lack of authenticity, all of these things identify Truffaut as a master film-maker. The details and questions that may or may not be left for us to find in a close reading of the film provide an unusually powerful depth for a movie of this genre.

Perhaps the most emblematic of the difficulty of “reading” The 400 Blows is the final shot of the film. Antoine Doinel has escaped the detention center only to arrive at the seashore, a place Doinel previously said he wished he could see. But now he reaches the knife’s-edge between the end of land and the beginning of an immense ocean. Truffaut freezes Doinel’s picture and the look on Jean-Pierre Léaud’s face is as mysterious as a mask.

How much do we really understand about Antoine Doinel; or about The 400 Blows that is his biography? How close a fit is Truffaut’s own image to that of his young actor’s? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere upon Doinel’s face...somewhere deep within this extraordinary film.

** images available from Wikipedia.com

Le Beau Serge
Claude Chabrol B&W, 98 minutes, 1958

French New Wave director, Claude Chabrol, shows himself a master of suspense in his 1958 film, Le Beau Serge (translated as Handsome Serge). What is a shame is that Le Beau Serge is not in the suspense genre, suspense is not really pertinent to the film’s subject matter, and even Serge is not really the protagonist in Le Beau Serge.

The plot elements of Le Beau Serge start with the film's true protagonist, Francois Bayon, who returns to his native French village after spending the last 12 years studying and fulfilling his dreams in Switzerland. We learn that Francois is back to spend a supposedly milder Winter in France after surviving a nearly fatal but mysterious lung disease. He also wants to see his old childhood best friend, Serge. Francois comes to learn what village life is really about and how his escape so darkly is contrasted with the disintegrating life of Serge. Francois eventually risks his life (his health while searching for Serge on a cold Winter night) to redeem Serge by his own example of selflessness.

That is the basic outline of Le Beau Serge. The summary leaves out many important points but it is basically a good outline of the film. What is mainly left out is Chabrol’s mastery of building suspense, distrust, evil, and moral decay that threatens the lives of the main characters if not the entire village.

The opening sequence of the film is the first, and not the least, example of Chabrol building suspense on the viewer’s lack of information as to what the film is, what it is about. A long shot showing a road that leads towards the viewer in the foreground also exposes the emptiness of country life in France. This is not the vivid cityscapes that are favorites among other French New Wave directors. The season is Fall, and the landscape is barren, dying, and vaguely menacing. In what is a characteristic motif of the film, Chabrol uses music to express, or enhance, the mood he is aiming to present. The dark, somber brass score is a further emotional weight upon the viewer. The bus arrives in the village. Francois exits the bus and meets old friends—an old woman he fondly calls ‘grandmother’ and his friend Michel. Chabrol’s camera follows the activities of the bus driver as he searches for Francois’ bag. As the camera searches the bags, looking for the Swiss label that identifies Francois’ luggage (and, if this were a suspense/thriller, might hold some darker secret). The camera finally shows us what is on the other side of the bus: two men, silently waiting, smoking on the other side of the bus.

This is a classic suspense-thriller scene. Who are the men on the other side of the bus? Are they waiting for Francois, and if they are, why? The music fades in and out, painting mostly dark tones, emphasizing our uncertainty. Finally the suitcase is found, the bus moves on, and the denouement of the first suspense scene should take place. It turns out that the two men waiting are Serge and his father-in-law, Old Glomard. Serge ignores Francois’ calls to him and follows Glomard into a bar. Michel, the first of many village sources of news and information, informs Francois that both men are merely drunk, as they are almost always drunk. The sinister aspect of two strangers seemingly waiting to confront Francois resolves into a kind of animal brutality—the only reason Serge and Glomard are waiting is that they are too drunk and stupid to walk around the bus to reach their destination, where they intend to increase their stupefaction by drinking even more.

I lingered on this scene because it is emblematic of the rest of Le Beau Serge. Chabrol spices his film with tension building up into some more familiar, genre-fulfilling type of release found in the thriller genre but each moment of suspense ends in the flat narrative of the inhuman, brutal, stagnating life of the village.

Francois is always observing his old home from windows and doors, removed from the realities of the present by his memory of a more idyllic past. The current villagers are now people who are either fatalistic (such as Michel, who is resigned to being a baker as his father had been a baker before him) or like Serge. Serge’s struggle with this diminished present after being an equal or better scholar than Francois, who once had dreams of being an architect, is now a creature caught in a bizarre relationship with the Glomard family; his wife, Yvonne, his father-in-law, and a younger daughter named Marie.

The villagers provide all the exposition in the film while serving the roles of local gossips and newspaper reporters; a situation the more city-oriented Francois begins to resent. There are stark realities of rumored incest within the Glomard family. Yvonne’s first baby, the child who made Serge marry Yvonne and abandon his dreams, is born a mongoloid and soon dies. Superstitiously, everyone thinks that Yvonne’s second baby, unborn as the film opens, will be the same…and for the same supposed reason, incest with her father.

Most of this film is very satisfying in the tensions and suspense Chabrol controls so easily. But the film turns in its ending and becomes a religious allegory of the Christian doctrines of Christ’s setting an example, of suffering for our sins, of the redemptive quality of self-sacrifice.

Chabrol is subtle in his use of Christian symbols. Francois is beaten up by Serge and falls in front of a window whose frame and lit glass panes form a cross on which Chabrol lingers. The recovering Francois is determined not to abandon his friend, to be an example of how he can be a better husband and avoid the temptations of the corrupt Glomards.

The ending of the film leaves Serge a rejuvenated man, happily accepting his wife and child now that he has some assurance that Yvonne is not like the incestuous Marie, that the healthy son is truly his own. Francois slumps down in Serge’s filthy rooms, either exhausted or possibly dying from the lung disease and exposure to cold.

I admit that I prefer the suspenseful aspects of Chabrol’s use of imagery, editing, storytelling, his use of music (at times, a single chord or a single note is used to enhance the emotions on the screen). The overt religious tone of the last section of the film, while true to itself and satisfying in its own way, is less to my taste.

Chabrol starts out with master strokes of suspenseful film-making within scenes that turn into a sociological study of village life in France as a brute’s condition, harsh and destructive to the dreams of a more modern, city-focused France, ends the complete film on a transcendent note of religious redemption that either fits both the situations shown in the film’s the Nature-based village life and the Modernistic cityscape. To me, it is ironic that this same director ends a movie that is full of suspense and tension, already explored by Hitchcock whom Chabrol could match in his technique if he so chose, with religious resolution of certainty and faith opposed by temptation and sin. Hitchcock is arguably as obsessed with religion or religious morality while never really resolving any of its tensions—unless you count the destruction of the Woman in films like Vertigo.

Chabrol shows he is the master of his his religious tensions as he is master of the thriller film. Hitchcock can only hope to reach such a complete mastery of his material even if his films are more edgy, sinister, Modern, and violent; attuned to the current trends of secularization in modern life. Le Beau Serge ends in redemption and resurrection, choices that Hitchcock failed to make in the considerable body of his work.

I hope Chabrol goes on to explore the suspense genre in his future work; and perhaps also a more nuanced treatment of his religious themes.

** images available from Wikipedia.com

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bob Le Flambeur
Jean-Pierre Melville
B&W, 102 minutes, 1956

Who is Robert (Bob) Montagné, the high-roller or gambler (a few of the possible translations of flambeur) of Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Bob Le Flambeur? What does he do for a living? How old is he? What is his status in society, both his own circle and in the greater France or Paris in which he travels?

The great film critic, Roger Ebert, provides a translation of flambeur as a man who gambles with another person’s money. This translation is fair and illuminates Melville’s film as good criticism is supposed to do. My interpretation of the title involves less of a translation as it does an association of two Parisian types.

Charles Baudelaire, the 19th century French poet, essayist, and critic, wrote about a new modern type of man as a city-dweller and cosmopolitan he called the flaneur. The flaneur is, as explained on the wikilpedia.com website (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flaneur), “a person who walks the city in order to experience it…” and “as a "gentleman stroller of city streets", he saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. A flâneur thus played a double role in city life and in theory, that is, while remaining a detached observer. This stance, simultaneously part of and apart from, combines sociological, anthropological, literary and historical notions of the relationship between the individual and the greater populace…”

Bob’s history in the film indicates he comes from a Paris of 1911-12 where the Bonnot Gang, a group of criminal-anarchists with a murderous bent who were among the first to use modern technology, such as cars, to commit their crimes. But the whole of Melville’s characterization of Bob is of a non-violent, gentlemanly, respected gambler whose only criminal activity may be gambling after hours. Which version of Bob is Melville’s film revealing?

The plot of the film is fairly simple: Bob comes up with a plan to rob a casino in Deauville after he loses all of his money there.

Melville provides Bob with a cast of characters who are thoroughly more of our own time rather than that of a gentleman-gambler or robber, or of the Bonnot Gang’s violence. Bob tries to help an under-aged young woman who shows no remorse or doubt about her pursuit of a life in Paris’ underworld, including prostitution. Bob’s protégé falls in love with the young woman—again, an action more typical of Bob than the woman’s contemporaries. An abusive pimp, whom Bob refuses to help because of his code of conduct that doesn’t approve of abuse of women, sets in motion the cataclysmic ending of the film by informing on Bob and his rag-tag gang.

The film’s second half is filled with comical moments of Bob trying to run-through the robbery plan. The ending of the film is tragic because of the unnecessary death of Bob’s protégé; it is comical because of the gang’s incompetence to follow Bob’s plan; and ironic as Bob’s natural luck enables him to win all of the money he planned to steal with an epic winning streak at the casino.

The many atmospheres I’ve described make Melville’s film somewhat disjointed to me. The one clear thread throughout Bob Le Flambeur is the character (and the characteristics) of Bob Montagné. He is the film noir version of Baudelaire’s Symbolist flaneur. Melville’s contrasts between the old literary and artistic characters with the French New Wave modernist characters is the most fulfilling aspect of Bob Le Flambeur.

** images available from Wikipedia.com
La Jetee
Chris Marker
B&W, 27 minutes, 1963

The basic unit of any live or non-animated film is an image, a photograph. Motion is achieved by taking a fast sequence of images that shows movement seamlessly by manipulating film speed, camera speed, and other factors. The general effect is an illusion of reality depicted on the screen; the closer the movement and coordination of other film elements such as sound, editing, and others the more the film appears ‘realistic.’

Chris Marker, who we met as cinematographer in Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, directs his own short film, La jetee, as well as being its writer. These two activities within film are utilized to maximum effect and affect by Marker in his extraordinary film.

First, the story of The Pier or The Jetty, the English titles suggested for La Jetee is a mixture of philosophy and science fiction. A third world war apocalypse creates a totalitarian underground society that searches to survive by using its citizens as disposable guinea pigs in a time travel experiment to obtain fuel/power, food, and other essentials. How the time travel ‘works’ is the important theme of the movie.

The lethal experiments in time travel reveal a person who can both travel in the past and survive the process. The government learns that the man has a vivid memory of a beautiful woman’s face and a murder at the new airport at Orly where people are provided an island where they can observe the takeoff and landing of airplanes.

Marker uses this simple story to provide the viewer with a rich, thoughtful experience that is both satisfying and open-ended in the best traditions of relativistic modernism. The time traveler makes many trips back and even forward in time, constantly reintroducing himself and expanding his relationship with the woman he saw as a child at Orly. The film’s ending questions whether it is the woman or the murder or both that provides such a vivid memory that secures his time travels. After the government achieves its desires to acquire exclusive use of power and other essentials provided by the time travelers from the future, they send their own man back into time one last time. As the man runs towards the woman standing on the observatory ‘jetty’ at Orly he is shot to death by a government agent. So, as a child, the time traveler not only focuses on the beautiful woman’s face, he witnesses his own murder when he returns to this moment as an adult being used by his own rapacious government.

Marker’s cinematic method in La Jetee is a beautiful use of still photographs that provide different and dramatic angles, that can merge and superimpose over one another to create a third new image, and cut at speeds that simulate some slower version of ‘movement.’ The director is a master of filming still images, as we know from his previous work with Resnais. The stills photography is a masterful use of experimenting with film and time and our perceptions of both.

The most startling moment of La Jetee occurs roughly halfway through the film with a lingering shot of the beautiful woman whom the time traveler has managed to make his lover. As the movie camera moves over the images of the sleeping woman she suddenly awakens. In a brief sequence—the only movement of the image within the frames of their existence; that is, the framing of the photograph or the framing of the movie camera’s film of the photograph—the woman blinks her eyes and smiles at the camera. The effect is like staring at the Mona Lisa when she suddenly smiles at us.

So while the narrator and the time traveler try to convince us that Love is the emotion that accompanies the vivid imagery that allows the traveler to go back to his childhood; the more ruthless and cynical government in the post-apocalyptic future in the film gratuitously murders the time traveler. The reasoning behind this shooting is open to narrative and philosophical speculation, it seems to involve the barren, evil, murderous government wants to hedge its bets with the time traveler by linking his vivid imagery of the memory of the beautiful, loved woman with the image and impact of Death. Thus Love and Death compete for the young child's attention in his memory, a memory that makes the whole film (and the world within the film) possible.

Chris Marker’s use of still photography along with his simple but philosophically mature script makes La jetee one of the most interesting and satisfying avant-garde film experiences I have ever had.

** images available at wikipedia.com

Monday, September 15, 2008

Night and Fog
Alain Resnais
B&W and color, 31 minutes, 1955

A great shadow-line falls across the 20th century that effects as well as implicates all human activities and strategies that came before it. Activities include Art, both high art and low, including the relatively young arts of photography and cinema. The shadow is the Second World War and the Holocaust.

We are more aware of a social and political uneasiness in a work of art such as Shakespeare’s ‘A Merchant of Venice’ and its elements of anti-Semitism than previous eras of human history. Anyone who engages with Art (or Science, Politics, and other fields) feels, even if the intellect manages to avoid, the difficulty of that play.

The brilliance of Shakespeare’s language as well as some important lines spoken by Shylock about his treatment and condition as a Jew in an anti-Semitic environment cannot contrast, compare, or overcome the horrific issues brought to light by the Holocaust. With the emergence of Modernism as an aesthetic school, all texts (as all artwork like music and painting can be viewed as ‘texts’ in extreme definitions of postmodernism and other aesthetic schools) are subjected to analysis using every other cultural elements in our history. Shakespeare’s play is not less problematic for having been written before the Holocaust.

The short film “Night and Fog,” directed by Alain Resnais, uses the Art of cinema as a means of indicting the Nazis and all of those who cooperated with the corporatocracy that is a distinguishing feature of the Holocaust.

Resnais’s film is a documentary that mixes both color and black and white, still photographs and moving pictures, images and words. The narrator is Jean Cayrol, who was deported to Mauthausen and wrote a book called “Poems de la Nuit et du brouillard”—Poems of Night and Fog, from which Resnais takes the title of his documentary. He brings a gravitas, authority, and a difficult beauty to the narrative of the film.

The film is unafraid to mix the beautiful (landscapes and luminescent black and white scenic photography) with the brutal (images of the concentration camps’ prisoners and their abandoned belongings). Color is not used simplistically as a scheme to simplify whether an image is “bad,” “good” or even “neutral.” The mixture of color film and black and white, the ‘old’ versus a potentially comfortingly—because distant—modern and removed sense of the ‘new.’
There are no simplistic approaches to this short film and Resnais is firmly in control of his medium to keep our focus on his film’s subject. Interestingly, Chris Marker, the creator of La Jetee, the next film I will review, was part of Resnais’ team, utilizing his strengths in handling still images—providing movement into and between stills that mimics motion so well that the viewer is taken into the film as a motion picture.

Resnais makes his material move, focusing deeply into a still photograph of women prisoners’ hair cut away by the Nazis, resizing and reframing images, cutting from the past to the present, all of it guided by the voice of Cayrol.

The French New Wave emerged after the Second World War and, as I have noted in Truffaut’s short “Les Mistons,” there is something problematic that needs to be addressed in all art after the Holocaust.

The French New Wave impetus is partly due to the horrors of mid-century history, but also the continuing innovations, inventions (such as, color film, faster film stock) and the gradual return of prosperity. Having passed through the fires of war and horror, it would have been tempting to create a more sumptuous and beautiful art; but Resnais’ “Night and Fog” makes it explicit that the New Wave directors weren’t interested in any such easy returns to an idyllic sensibility, or to try and forget the lessons—emblemized by Cayrol’s dirge-like narration—that war and horror and the so-called blessings of modernity.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

First Film in Series

Les Mistons
Francois Truffaut
B&W, 17 minutes, 1957

Light and dark, memory and experience, movement and stillness; all of these dualities exist within the framework of Francois Truffaut’s “Les Mistons” (trans., The Brats). From the opening scene Truffaut uses his across, his camera, and the natural setting where he is filming to create a delightful picture of a young woman bicycling through towns and countrysides of post-World War II France. But as delightful as the visuals may be there is a more complex relationship between the elements of Truffaut’s film that is hidden, as the saying goes, in plain sight.

Light and dark mingle in a luminous cinematographic dance. The narrator says, “Bernadette led us to discover many of our darkly hidden dreams.” Later, he also tells us that, “She awoke in us the springs of luminous sensuality.” Light and dark appear in the shadows of the film’s setting but also in the dark foregrounding—where the watching brats are often shown, staring at Bernadette—and in the language of emotions that the narrator provides to us, complicated Truffaut’s otherwise simple coming-of-age-type story and the apparently simple, luscious way he films everything on which he focuses his camera.

The basic components of this short film are an older man providing off-screen narration on the specific events that we see, providing a story, a comprehensible narrative with beginnings and middles and ends. The characters in the film are few: Bernadette Jouve, sister of one of the brats, who is the center of the film; Gerard is a young man who dates, goes steady, and proposes marriage in the short vignettes he shares with Bernadette; finally there are the five brats, young boys who are on the cusp of puberty and who find their fascination with Bernadette both pleasant and bewilderingly intolerable.

Truffaut is a director who loves people. His films throughout his career—even those where he acts and plays no part in direction (for example, Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”)—are humanistic, warm and full of understanding and compassion for even the most transgressive of behaviors. In “Les Mistons” Truffaut confronts the sometimes charming, sometimes mean behavior of the brats as they relate to Bernadette.

The brats follow Bernadette one summer; an unspecified year but clearly after World War II that only enters this short film in the playing soldiers scene of the brats, who pretend to shoot and capture each other using their hands and fingers and voices as ferocious pistols and machine guns. I think Truffaut’s method of handling an event so cataclysmic is very fine and gentle, calming the original audience that could be overwhelmed with the anxieties of war, occupation, mass murder, and especially French collaboration. Death loses its harshness as the boys fall under a hail of imaginary bullets but by Truffaut’s film alone—using a blatant camera trick—one of the brats is raised from the dead by reversing the normal film motion.

Although war is acknowledged but contained within Truffaut’s direction, the central problem of this movie is Bernadette. The camera lens, like the brats and, from a distance in time, the voice of the narrator, all watch Bernadette. The act of watching this beautiful young woman may not have been any more problematic to Truffaut’s time than the theme he develops in the film between the brats, the boyfriend, and the narrator—all of whom are more or less in love with this youthful Bernadette—seen from a time when modern feminism has entered cultural criticism, Bernadette is viewed as an object within “Les Mistons.”

Bernadette’s treatment in the film is through multiple layers of male voyeurism: the older, off-screen, unidentified male narrator—one of the brats as an adult presumably; the brats; Bernadette’s boyfriend, Gerard; and, of course, the audience, the viewer of “Les Mistons.” The following are just a few examples within the film where Bernadette’s humanity, her feminist identity if you will, is contravened by the way Truffaut presents the story.
  • Bernadette is the center of stillness in the opening scenes where she travels from the city to a place where she can swim. She remains still, almost unmoving, as the background races past her. She is like a living postcard of a beautiful French day, alone in the sunshine, a beautiful French girl upon whom we are privileged to stare.
  • When Bernadette parks her bicycle and goes off-camera to swim, the brats do not follow her down to the water where they might get a view of Bernadette’s naked flesh—it remains ambiguous whether Bernadette is skinny-dipping or wearing some bathing suit that is small enough to satisfy the French film censors but also curious male eyes. The central shot is of a boy who lowers his face to smell and kiss the bicycle seat where Bernadette’s flesh made contact with her machine. The other brats don’t seem to know what to do with the bicycle and are shown, just before Bernadette’s return, doing incomprehensible acts of evaluation and investigation. Bernadette is clearly an object, not a complete person, in this scene and throughout the rest of the movie. She could even be a fetish—something far removed from actuality that magically represents and satisfies the fetishist’s desire for the original—when the brat kisses the bicycle seat instead of Bernadette herself. “Virginal heartbeat has its own juvenile logic,” the narrator explains, using his pre-feminist thinking.
  • Bernadette is an altogether fantasy figure in the tennis court scene where one of the brats, even though the narrator claims they came to harass her and Gerard, treats Bernadette like a fantasy queen when he retrieves her errant tennis balls. Even Bernadette’s body posture betrays her own stiffness and discomfort at the awkwardness of this moment.

The rest of this short film continues developing these main themes and techniques.

Gerard is ‘authorized’ to speak and express his feelings and he both chastises the brats and woos Bernadette, telling her in a melody of the wedding theme that he wishes to marry Bernadette when he returns from a mountaineering trip.

The brats write a “scurrilous” postcard that mocks the “virginal heartbeat” of their infatuation by writing expressly sexual messages that they mail to Bernadette. And they are ‘punished’ for this transgression by learning the news that Gerard has died in a mountain climbing accident. Typical of this Truffaut short, the brats and the audience learn of Gerard’s death through cuts to still pictures of newspaper coverage of the accident—all of us are spared a direct experience of true worldly tragedy via Truffaut’s technique of editing and montage, the distance of the off-camera narrator (who represents not only a maturity in this important episode in the brats’ lives but acts as the distancing of Time, the Past).

As the film comes to its conclusion, Truffaut’s camera still moves through the French city and landscape but the motion is much slower, more dark tones than light; even the season has changed from a sensual hot summer to the cool of autumnal October.

Our last view of the characters is that of the film’s central character, Bernadette. She is walking slowly as the camera moves back to maintain the relationship of her quiet, authoritative, either goddess-like or fetishistic presence in the film with the light/dark/energy/dying of her surroundings. The world moves but is transformed into something of instinctual, sexual, sensual importance because of Bernadette’s presence.

The film ends in an unspoken commentary on the fashion sense, perhaps the youth and immaturity that is in Bernadette but remains unspoken by the film and its various active players. Bernadette’s white, light, loose, flying open-bellied shirts and skirts, and also her almost trademark white knit cap is transformed into the dark tones, close-fitting and sober skirt and top. Whether consciously or not, Bernadette still clings to one aspect of her sensual uniform as the film’s center: her trademark white knit cap has turned shades darker but still remains jauntily covering her hair.

Truffaut, I think, loves his characters (and people, in general) so much that he protects us from real harm throughout “Les Mistons” and could be tamping down Bernadette’s grief over Gerard’s death, the death of her love if not her lover, by clinging to her ‘uniform’ even as the camera pans up over her head and the word “Fin”—The End—takes us away, back to our own world, our own childhoods, our own Bernadettes or Gerards, our own “virginal heartbeat” and its inevitable clash with knowledge and the World.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Welcome to the SeeinCinema blog where the French New Wave in cinema is our topic. Posts coming soon.