Eavesdropping at the Movies: 163 – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Mike feared it might be the most tasteless film ever made. José doesn’t look forward to Quentin Tarantino films. But we both came away from this fantastical reimagining of a near-mythological era of Hollywood history having had a great time. Tellingly, for a film that exceeds two and a half hours, we both felt the time fly by.

Tarantino’s love for and expert knowledge of Hollywood and cinema informs all of his work, and arguably not that consequentially – he cribs shots, pastiches genres, and evokes styles and tones specific to cinema, but to debatable significant effect beyond the superficial. But in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH for brevity’s sake), the decision to bring this passion to the surface and tell a story directly about Hollywood results in Tarantino’s most meaningful and personal film. What he values is brazenly displayed here, and, Mike suggests, isn’t entirely pleasant to examine. He finds OUATIH initially troubling in this regard – with a day’s reflection on it, he comes to see it as deeply conservative and protective of privilege. In digging this up, we discuss its sexual politics, the way it uses race, and the clash it represents between the old and the new in a rapidly changing 1969 Hollywood. Mike argues that, as in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s revisionism revealingly reflects his fantasy of what an ideal world would look like and contain, and in this case it’s a little uneasy to stomach. He also takes issue with the way the Manson family are used, but not, as he feared, for reasons of taste – Charles Manson wasn’t in Hollywood by chance, he wanted stardom, and for a film in which the desire for and loss of stardom are interests, to show no interest in drawing a thematic link here is more evidence of Tarantino’s retrograde attitude.

The flip side to this coin is that the things Tarantino loves are wonderfully, warmly depicted. OUATIH is as much about television as it is cinema, if not more so, and Tarantino offers imagined and reimagined TV shows of many types in evoking in detail the time and place in which he grew up. To José, about the same age as Tarantino, there abound countless nostalgic pleasures; to Mike, disgustingly born 30 years too late, the film’s enthusiasm and obvious knowledge about its setting rubs off easily. The film easily convinces you to love what it loves, be it silly, overblown action movies; cheesy, overblown TV acting; or Brad Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt, which in one scene blows off.

Speaking of Pitt, José considers this his best performance, one in which he switches from evoking coolness and control to dumb and tripping balls. But for all the little touches and tone he brings to his character, Leonardo DiCaprio brings entirely different registers. His performance is a tour de force, his Rick, a declining Western star, constantly performing, even only to himself at times, and at every moment his emotions and thoughts are crystal clear, even under layer upon layer of performance. DiCaprio practically shapeshifts in sketches depicting Rick’s old movies and television appearances, and offers a sympathetic portrait of a star unable to adapt to his changing environment. It’s a rich, demanding role, and DiCaprio is spellbinding in meeting its challenge.

You’d be doing yourself a disservice missing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the cinema. It’s an excited, passionate trip through a Hollywood fantasy, hilarious, light, and thoroughly enjoyable – though, like so many fantasies, its underbelly is dark.

A very interesting article by Mark Olsen on the film´s ending can be found in the LA Times 

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Taekwondo (Marco Berger/ Martín Farina, Argentina, 2016)

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Marco Berger has become the poet of the closet. Has any other filmmaker explored its various extents, the gradations, the degree through which it can shift, in such detail and over the course of so many films? His oeuvre is a pointillist study of desire in the closet but on the point of emerging.

His latest, Un Rubio was all ´meaningful glances, sidelong views, sideways compositions of frames within frames, the small gesture, the way small things become deeply meaningful. Men desiring, men loving, men crying: all without much dialogue.´One can see all of this in Taekwondo. See, for example, in the images above, how a simple rack in focus in itself becomes a metaphor for the closet.

In Plan B, ”Scenes often begin on empty spaces, anticipatory of the people that will soon inhabit them; and scenes often end on empty spaces; characters have lived a moment; and the irresoluteness of it lingers and overhangs the scene.’ Note how even the shots remain similar from film to film. The one above left is from Plan B; the one of the right from Taekwondo.

In Ausente, ´’Social oppression is what creates the closet, and Martín having to live in the closet is what creates those sidelong glances, the looking on in secret, the interior yearning facing external barriers and lived through lies, the danger, the endangering’ The image on the top left is from Ausente, the other two, first anticipatory space, then that space filled by shadows who are looking on but hidden from view, are from Taekwondo.

In Hawaii, ´What separates Eugenio and Martin is class and this is depicted in the starkest of terms. But throughout the first part of the film what keeps them apart is also the uncertainty about the other’s sexual orientation, the false clues they give each other regarding their sexuality, the insecurity that their own desire will not be returned. They play peekaboo games with each other. But what they hope to win by doing this is at the cost of real understanding and becomes a block’. The image on the left is from Hawaii . Taekwondo has many examples of almost identical images or inserts of crotches, like the one of the right.

People have commented that not much seems to happen in his films. But I would argue that either they don´t know how to look or that they lack empathy in relation to conflicts that arise between individual desire and a closet that shifts depending on social situation and social context. A closet that not many of us, no matter how óut´we are, are immune to. There are very few of us that have the luxury of being out in every context, at every first meeting, no matter what the situation.

I´m not without sympathy for that perspective. Take ,for example ,the opening shot of Taekwondo below. One could argue that the whole film is in that shot: A couple, initially out of focus, approaches the camera, and in doing so, come into focus as a couple. But to me that would be that would be a misremembering of the shot, see how as the title comes into view, the couple veer of to the right. There are impediments to that coupling. Impediments that the film will explore: neither of the young men is sure the other is gay or reciprocates his feelings. There will be another man, Leo (Francisco Bertín, one who´s had sexual relations with Fer (Lucas Papa), is deeply in the closet, and will get in the way of the budding relationship, primarily through trying to get it on with German (Gabriel Epstein)

 

Now look at the end below: The first shot is a characteristic re-framing, from the darkness of the inside, as if peeking out, as all their friends leave the summer home. Finally the couple, Germán (Gabriel Epstein) and Fernándo (Lucas Papa), are alone, they get closer. The camera shows us the now empty tennis court, the soccer paraphanalia, all the sites previously peopled by friends now empty of them, and it´s only then, by themselves and in the dark, that the couple may kiss. Now look at the start of the film in the clip above again. You´ll see that the couple does come into view, but as the title comes up, they swerve to the left of the frame. The couple that´s come into focus but it can´t be held, there are impediments that have to be taken care of. The closet is ever-present in all of Berger´s work, but particularly in this one.

 

The story of Taekwondo is a simple one: Fer has invited a new friend he´s met in his Taekwondo class, German, to join him and his friends, all men, most of them friends he made at various stages of his school life — from kindergarten to High School — for a summer holiday. Most of the men are straight, three of them aren´t, two have a history, the other two have a crush on each other but don´t know if the other person is gay and, if so, whether that attraction is reciprocated.

What´s unusal about this film is that it very much feels like a typical Marco Berger film yet with an interesting perspective on heterosexual masculinity, perhaps the contribution of Martín Farina, who, significantly, is credited as co-directing the film. See the scene below where Fer is looking on at German, the longing evident to his friend, with the friend hinting that everything would be ok if that longing were to be acted on, a hint that Fer completely understands but nonetheless does not respond to.

What´s at stake in this film is the tensions created by gay men in a heterosexual context. This is brought into the film forcefully as soon as Germán enters the house, and he´s introduced to Fede, El Gordo (Juan Manuel Martino). As they´re all greeting each other, the film brings in a big close-up of Fede´s penis (see below) and from that moment on that becomes the elephant in the room. The men are undressing like this because there´s an assumption that it´s all amongst heterosexual men. But that´s not the case. Would the men behave differently if they knew there were three poofters amongst them? Almost certainly. Even if they do call each other gay every so often and discuss previous experiences when they were children. Who´s looking (the characters, the camera, gay, straight), how and when are they looking? What is the significance of that look. These are all questions the film puts into play

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The closet is both protection and a threat in Taekwondo, and its boundaries are constantly mobile and shifting. See the clip below with Germán reading his book, trying to focus so as not to pay attention to the man taking a shower nude next to him, whilst Léo appears, clearly taunting him with an unwanted advance, one that could reveal and shatter. The meaningful glance, the flash of cock, is both desire and threat, and its effect on German is clear from the last line he mutters to himself.

The film is full of looks at crotches that seem both undirected (who can that close-up of Fer´s crotch be attributed to: the camera, or Germán), followed by more clearly attributable point-of-view shots between Fer and Germán as they each try to figure out what´s going on between them.

The film has a wonderful moment ( see below) where a camp gay friend comes to bring some grass and he and Fer, can talk clearly, amongst gay friends, and it´s worth noting that it´s a type of ease, of clarity of communication, of understanding amongst gay men that is not seen elsewhere in the film.

One of the things that makes Taekwondo so rich and interesting is the way the heterosexual men are treated in the film, which would make a good study of masculinity and homosociality. We see their dreams, hopes, attitudes to sex, their competitiveness, but also their affection for each other and for Fer, who is central to the group; it is after all his house and his friends. The real threat comes from Leo, the closety gay man, constantly talking about his girlfriend, but threateningly imposing himself, and making of himself a barrier and block to the desires of the protagonists´. See the scene below where Germán accompanies Leo to do some shopping but Leo takes a detour. We see how a bed is ever-present, and then Leo effectively begins to cock-block by telling a story of how in love Fer is with a woman, a friend os his own fiancée.

 

Taekwondo is a film were very much happens, not in terms of plot, but in terms of  what the film has to tell us about individual desire in a homophobic context, the closet, masculinity, homosociality.  Perhaps thanks to Martín Farina, it´s the film in Marco´s oeuvre that is most densely peopled and where heterosexuality is not just a veil or a threat but a sexual orientation that takes on many shapes, including friendly ones. We understand these men´s hopes, desires, their fumbling failures, as easily as we do those of the protagonists. It´s a good-hearted film, but also a complex one where all the meaning and feeling is in the small detail, the hidden glance or even the outright look that can nonetheless be veiled as something else when challenged. Berger´s is a world that I´m happy to inhabit even, perhaps particularly, with Farina´s shaping glance.

José Arroyo

Two Drifters/ Odete (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal, 2005)

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Two mouths hungrily kiss. The camera pulls back to reveal it’s two young men, Rui (Nuno Gil) and Pedro (João Carreira). They’ve just celebrate their fist anniversary and exchanged rings: they’re madly in love. Their favourite film is Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961) and their song is ‘Moon River’:

Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re goin’, I’m goin’ your way
Two drifters, off to see the world
There’s such a lot of world to see
But it’s not to be. As Pedro leaves to go home, his car crashes and he’s thrown through the windshield. The scene where Rui finds him made me purr. It’s a complete Sirkian moment but with a swooney romanticism Sirk himself was incapable of: Rui cradles Pedro, now a corpse, in his arms. The rings they’ve exchanged glisten in the darkness. At the very moment Rui embraces Pedro, it begins to pour with rain, a totally expressive rendering, just like the beginning of Written on the Wind (1956); and the citation is not accidental: A poster of Sirk’s Tarnished Angels is prominently pictured in Rui’s bedroom.
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The other protagonist of Two Drifters is Odete. We’re introduced to her roller-skating through a supermarket looking very much like Shelley Duvall in an early Altman movie. The song playing is Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’. When she gets home Odete, tells her boyfriend she wants to have a baby. He just wants to fuck. She lashes back at him. They part, and she’ll spend the rest of the movie, like Rui, engulfed in grief, seeing the other side of Clouds:
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
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Rui and Odete will meet at the Pedro’s funeral. She will first try to pretend she’s carrying Pedro’s baby, then begin to shape herself into Pedro himself. Rui and Odete will end up together. But not as you think. And with Pedro looking on.
I’m an admirer of Rodrigues’ O Fantasma, which I think a great masterpiece. Two Drifters is almost as good: a very beautiful dramatisation of love, loss, grief and mourning —  very moving, very queer. It makes me sad that so many of us spend so much time spouting our disappointment in Marvel or Tarantino instead of devoting more time to the depth and beauty of films like this one. I shall be seeing it again.
José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 162 – Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw. If there’s a clunkier title out there, we’d like to see it. The first standalone film in the Fast & Furious series, and the first Mike’s seen at all, while José gave up some years ago, after seeing the first two. But José liked the trailer, and coerced Mike into accompanying him, which means that Mike now gets to force José to do something he doesn’t want to one day.

But, with expectations at an all-time low, Mike can confirm that he, in his words, “did not hate it”. In fact, despite it being obvious trash, with an entire family of awful, lazy jokes – the extended metaphors and puerile insults that The Rock and Jason Statham trade are comedy sinkholes – there’s quite a lot that charms us here. While Mike argues for the creativity and execution of the film’s action, José expounds upon his fondness for its stars, on the one hand through the humour and enthusiasm of The Rock, who Mike (who writes these descriptions) refuses to call Dwayne Johnson; on the other, Statham’s working class charm, which sets him apart from any other English star you’d care to name, all conspicuous products of privileged backgrounds and public schools, and none of whom can claim his level of box office power.

The film travels from one character’s home to another, beginning in London and moving to Samoa, leading us to discuss the film’s star vehicle nature – its stars are two of its producers, and indeed, there’s much in it with regards to their images that is closely controlled and orchestrated, Mike noting in particular the manner in which Hobbs, The Rock’s character, annoyingly laughs off Shaw’s insults, as if to say, “I’m The Rock, I’m very likeable and can take jokes”. But the move to Samoa in particular is one we enjoy, especially Hobbs’ slipper-wielding, affectionate mother, and the way his family and friends act as a unit and support him despite his estrangement from them.

Though we happily expound upon the things we enjoyed about the film, which are several, it is far, far from valuable or unmissable. Mike notes the enthusiastic response from the audience we saw it with, a response that rendered him emotionally bleak at sharing a room with them. Hobbs & Shaw is very well-made, expensively-produced trash, and José, for one, wishes we’d all venerate trash a little less.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

La Fin du jour/ The End of the Day (Julien Duvivier, France, 1939)

la fin

 

Anyone who loves actors and acting will be charmed by this paean to the profession from Julien Duvivier. The story revolves around three actors, too old to work and too poor to retire independently, who end up on charity at the  Old Folks Homes for theatre folk provided by the profession. One of the joys of watching the film is to admire the different registers each of the actors play in.

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Louis Jouvet, both extremely stylised and yet understated plays Monsieur St. Clair, a matinee idol, great star of drawing room comedy and melodrama, a gambler in love with love, who trails a history of broken hearts and suicides behind him. Half the elderly ladies in the retirement home seem to have had a fling with him at some point, often a highlight of their lives. He can´t remember any of them, including that of a woman wo bore him a son, but loves them all.  He´s all shoulders backwards, nose in the air, performing on and off the stage, re-sending himself letters he once truly did receive. Can he get at least one more romantic girl to commit suicide over him before he dies?

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Victor Francy is Marny, an actor worshipped by the profession for his handling of the classics, a darling of the critics, but also someone who never quite became a star and has turned dour, judgmental, closed-in and bitter . Marny despises Monsieur St. Clair for running off with his wife many years before, an adventure that resulted in her death, probably by suicide. Marny is a prig with a chip on his shoulder, far too easy to rile, always in a bad mood. Victor Francy, though always competent and believable, is simply not up to the heights of his two other co-stars.

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The great Michel Simon is a wonder as Cabrissade, perennially an understudy, perennially a bit player: did he just never get the opportunity or was he not as talented a he thinks? Whatever, his is the spirit of fun, and anarchy and daring: very comparable to Monsieur St. Clare in many ways — the love of the profession, the love of adventure — but with Cassibride less selfish, less self-involved, more ethical, much kinder. That said, nothing is going to get in the way of his final chance.

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The film is full of show-business lore, the peccadilloes, the competition, the little resentments, the hierarchies, the love for the theatre. There is also much sadness and this is in many ways a bleak film: people are selfish, greedy, no good. But they´re romantic and foolish also, devoting their life to something that is beyond the instrumental: they love the applause but they also believe in the power of theatre to change people and change society. This redeems them in their eyes and the film suggests it should in ours as well.

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Duvivier frames everything beautifully, keeps everything moving at a clip, and if anyone has doubts about how truly wondrous he can be with actors just look at Jouvet and Simon here. What skill, how they dazzle, two performances that could hardly be more different but could hardly be bettered.

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This is the third film I´ve seen (Marie-Octobre and La Belle equipe are the others) in a handsome series of French classics restored by Pathe and available on 1080 blu-ray from the 4k restoration. They all have very good English sub-titling, which surprised me.

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The film won Best Foreign Film at the 1939 National Board of Review Awards, and came second at the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

Marie Octobre (Julien Duvivier, France, 1959)

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Marie Octobre is now the name of Marie-Helène Dumoulin´s coutoure house. But it was once her code name in the French resistance. This evening she´s organised a get-together with all her former in colleagues the resistance group to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the death of their former leader, Castille,; killed when the Gestapo instigated a raid in the very room they are now reminiscing in. But was it a random raid or did someone turn them in?

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The film feels like a theatrical adaptation of the last segment of an Agatha Christie mystery, where everyone gathers in the drawing room and each is questioned about their whereabouts, alibis, motivations etc. Like an Agatha Christie adaptation, it´s got an all star cast: Danielle Darrieux, Bernard Blier, Paul Meurisse, Serge Reggianni, Lino Ventura. Each star is given their moment to shine, and all are excellent, with Regianni standing out not only for his emoting but for his charm (and to do credit to the others, apart from Darrieux, Regianni has the best role).

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To be fair, Marie-Octobre is thematically richer than the average Christie: What was collaboration with the Germans? Is it an absolute or were there degrees? How much choice did people have? Who behaved ethically and who didn´t? What is the intersection of individual and collective choice and action? Does any of this matter 15 years after the fact when even the statute of limitations has lapsed?   It´s an address-the-nation exercise in historical remembering with practically all the sections of society represented (the maid, the butcher, the doctor, the priest, the tax inspector, the printer, the plumber, etc.)

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Except for a few exterior shots at the beginning and end Marie-Octobre takes place all in one room. Duvivier shot chronologically, which certainly seems to have paid off with the actors, and keeps the whole thing moving well: it never feels static. Though it never looks particularly great either: Duvivier conscious of movement and rhyme but not really making the most of framing and composition in widescreen (1.66). One need only compare this to one of Hitchcock´s formal exercises to see how Duvivier here falls short. It´s a piece that works well —  it´s never boring — but that one can imagine working even better on stage, rather damning for a film.

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Sometimes I think the French New Wave ruined a whole history of French Cinema for subsequent generations with their condemnations of ‘quality cinema’, ´white telephone films´and ´cinema de papa´. Oops, to the critical dustbin go the marvellous Gremillons and Carnés and Duviviers and films by other great filmmakers of the 30s, 40s and 50s. And for several generations.

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But then one sees a film like Marie-Octobre and one understands. It´s stagey, lacks poetry, lacks depth, compositions and lighting are proficient conveying a sense threat and of things being off-kilter….but at a price (see how inelegant the compositions are in practically all the image-capture that illustrates this piece) . I know that Duvivier fans esteem this one highly, probably for its theme and the clever way the screenplay keeps one guessing. But as film art, it doesn´t add up to very much. If this is what the new wave directors were watching, then their position is very understandable indeed. But is this all they were watching. Did they not see Panique, La Belle Equipe, Pepe le Moko, La Bandera et?

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It is worth mentioning that Lino Ventura plays to his persona as a former wrestler, which he was before he took up acting. and worth noting also that Lucien Marinvale, the  butcher played by Paul Frankeur, keeps being glued throughout the narrative to a wrestling match taking place on screen, a commentary on what´s taking place in the drawing room as well as a domment on a society that seeks forgetting in spectacle. Perhaps it´s no surprise that Wrestling was something Roland Barthes felt compelled to write on.

 

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Marie-Octobre is one of the Collection Fondation Jerome Seydoux releases by Pathé, with English sub-titles, a lovely shiny print with rich blacks..

José Arroyo

 

Panique (Julien Duvivier, France, 1946)

 

Panique-Criterion-Blu-RayAnother adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel (Les Fiançailles de M. Hire),  a great film,  Duvivier´s first upon returning to France from Hollywood after the war, a noir, and a huge big flop at the time of its release. And one can understand why.

The film begins with a close-up of a pair of feet, pans past a hobo´s body, and rests momentarily on his face. No that´s not the Boudou who was saved from drowning in Renoir´s 1932 film. But as the camera pans back we see the actor who played him, Michel Simon, snatching a picture of this. In Panique Simon plays Monsieur Hire, a man who keeps to himself, is abrupt and without small talk, and a bit mysterious. Patrice Leconte remade Panique in 1986 as Monsieur Hire. I haven´t seen it but I´d be very surprised if it were any better than this.

The film has a characteristic camera move: a dollying back to demonstrate context or a dollying in to move the public sphere into the personal and private. And context,; the neighbourhood, the mob, the French, their narrowness, smugness, hypocrisy and murderousness is the theme of Panique. It´s no surprise the French didn´t like it. They´re not very well reflected in it.

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At the beginning of the film, after the neighbours and neighbourhood have been introduced, we get shown a pair of shoes. When they see them, the binmen react as if they´ve won the lottery. But the shoes are attached to a body. Who killed Mme Noblet. Was it Monsiur Hire? He certainly seems more preoccupied with the ripeness of his camembert than with the death of a person when he hears the news.

 

As all this is taking place, a woman comes to the hotel Monsieur Hire lives in. We soon learn that it´s Alice (Viviane Romance), who´s just come out of jail after taking the rap for her lover Alfred (Paul Bernard).  They´ve got to pretend not to know each other but their first and secret re-union by the side of the church, in large, looming closeups, intensely lit, as rather funereal music wafts in from the Church, indicates the depth and intensity of their passion. They´ve got to pretend not to know each other but will meet as if for the first time the next day.

 

Alice goes to stay at the same hotel as Hire. His room is one floor up and overlooking hers. She finds this creepy. Indeed the whole neighbourhood finds this solitary man so. Even his being nice to children in the neighbourhood is interpreted as the predatory grooming of a child molester.

Hire has two problems. Firstly, he is hiding many things: His real name is Desirée Hirovitch, a jew who doesn´t want others to know his identity or his past (and for good reason: The film is set in 46). He also works as Dr. Vargas, though he seems to be only a doctor of horoscopes; lastly he used to be a lawyer with a comfortable house in the country he left abruptly the day his wife ran off with his best friend. Though I´m sure family breakups and abrupt departures for people named Hrovitch had other connotations in 1946.  The second  problem Hire has is that he´s fallen for Alice, opens himself up completely to her, and she uses this knowledge to get the man she loves off the hook for the murder he´s committed.

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Things heat up, get out of control and murderous, when the Carnival takes over the neighbourhood.

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And the lighting in some of the shots could be taken straight out of an American noir of the period:

 

What begins as a whodunnit ends as social commentary. There are some scenes that are just extraordinary. Hire alone in the bumper-cars at the carnival, being crashed into by everyone. All these crude, smug couples, laughing at the violence they´re doing to a lonely old man. And then the extraordinary ending where Alice plants Mme Noblet´s purse in Hire´s room, and manoeuvres with her killer lover to turns the whole neighbourhood, — all to willing to believe the worst — against him, thus turning herself into a defacto killer….for Love. . The fat butcher, the smug tax man, the local hooker, the gossipy neighbours, all collaborate in killing this poor lonely jew who somehow managed to survive the Occupation. It´s a condemnation of collaboration, of social hypocrisy, of petit bourgeois culture, of intolerance.

 

It´s an incredible film with a soft, quite, knowing, sad and all too human performance, a truly great one, from Michel Simon as a man who closes himself off due to having suffered too much from love only open himself up to it once more and be killed for it.

It´s out now in a newly sub-titled and great looking version from Criterion.

 

 

José Arroyo

La Marie du Port (Marcel Carné, France, 1950)

 

Gabin as he is in La Marie du Port (right), and the much more youthful portrait the poster advertises (left). The image the poster sells harks back to his thirties films, perhaps hoping to appeal to his pre-war popularity and regain it. But it´s also an image that somewhat contradicts one of the film´s main themes, which is about inter-generational love. The film itself I´ve now seen twice and it gets better each time:

The film is based on the novel by Georges Simenon (see above) and tells the story of Henri Châtelard (Jean Gabin), a well-to-do owner of a restaurant and cinema in Cherbourg, the biggest town in the region, who accompanies his mistress Odile (Blanchette Brunoy) to her father´s funeral in the small village of Port-en-Bessin in Normandy, only to fall in love with her sister, Marie (Nicole Courcel).  There are several obstacles to the union of Châtelard and Marie: Marie is seeing a young local boy Marcel (Claude Romain), crazy in love with her and threatening suicide; she´s Odile´s sister; there´s a considerable difference in age (one of the things the poster for the film is trying to obscure); Marie doesn´t want to be a mistress like her sister, living the good life but shunned by ´respectable’ people — she wants a ring.

At the beginning of the film Henri and Odile are driving to the funeral of Odile´s father. They get a puncture and arrive late. These first few scenes paint a powerful picture of small town life and mentality. The house is so small, mourners and well-wishers remain outside, on the street. Inside, Marie is feeding the family. Odile and Marie have three younger siblings, which now have to be distributed amongst the aunts and uncles to be brought up. We get a sense of a subsistence culture –whether the children can earn their keep is part of the discussion of how and to whom they will be distributed –and that  children will most likely be used as slave labour until they come of age. Odile has escaped this by becoming Châtelard´s mistress. But at a price. She doesn´t really love him, or at least no longer. She´s stuck in Cherbourg where she really want to be in Paris. And she´s being shunned by the village folk she grew up with. Carné well indicates the community´s opprobium towards her by the expression in some of the mourner´s faces as she arrives to her father´s house (below right), something that reminded me of the scene with the nuns at the hospital in Almodóvar´s  Live Flesh (below right) and how a series of expressions can not only evoke character but a whole structure of feeling.

Marie is hard-working, dour, conscientious, honest, and Châtelard is smitten from the first moment he sees her (below left), an image significantly rhymed the first time Marcel sees her with Châtelard: interestingly, one is on the inside looking out, the other outside looking in.

Carné surrounds himself and this production with some of the greatest talents the French cinema of the period had to offer: Jacques Prévert worked on the screenplay (Louis Chavance and Geroges Ribemont-Dessaignes are the writers credited); there is beautiful work by Herni Alekan as cinematographer, the legendary Alexandre Trauner is with Auguste Capelier credited for the production design. And the way Carne orchestrates the various elements they contribute tells you all the story you need to know and more, as you can see in the lovely image below, where Claude, in the image that follows the one above right, sees Châtelard and Marie, clearly in love because, as you can see below, in that busy café, surrounded by people, and with Marcel´s own father propped at the bar anticipating the scene to come, the light seems to envelop them alone, a couple, even if they themselves don´t yet know it.

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One of the things that´s striking about the film is the presentation of a freewheeling, guilt-free, pragmatic and easy sex-life to almost all of its characters. Marie and Marcel are the exceptions: she too puritanical and serious, he over-excited and dangerously romantic. But they´re young and they will learn.

The clip above is preceded by a scene in which a party leaves Châtelard´s restaurant because their table has been handed over to the local football team who´ve just won a match. The party leave in a huff except for the young woman who goest to the cinema next door. Châtelard has gone there too to eat his lunch and get some peace and quiet. But before the newsreel is over, they´ve agreed to spend the night together. It´s a scene that luxuriates in the cinema itself,  letting us see it in wide shots, with the projector throwing a beam of light in the darkness, and the screen itself creating a glow in the space. Note the partial lighting of the characters, allowing us to see their expressions but evoking the covert by the surrounding darkness. Note too the adventurous (at sea) playful (the cat), the structured (army manouvres) the explosive (the guns going off), and the brief that´s indicated in the newsreel being shown but that is also commenting on the action we see.

Another scene that I also found unusual in its attitude to sex is the one where Châtelard and Marie, find Odile (Châtelard´s mistress and Marie´s sister) in bed with Marcel (Marie´s boyfriend).  Marie and Châtelard have had a fight, he goes to find Marcel and when he opens the door he sees Odile and Marcel in bed together. Instead of being angry he finds it a joke, laughs, and won´t hold it against them later. It´s a scene unimaginable in American cinema of the period.

What I also found intriguing about the scene is that we´re shown the action through a relay of close-ups that indicate each of the principals´reaction but tellingly we´re never shown a two-shot or a medium shot in which Odile and Marcel are in the frame together, as if the idea really is too incongruous.

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When Marie descends the stairs it´s photographed so as to evoke a feeling of hopes plummeting. But it´s not what Châtelard suspects: ‘If you only knew how little I care  about Marcel, even if he is with someone else, and even if it´s with my sister’. When Marie admits that she had really come for him, that she hadn´t wanted to say it but it´s true, the camera pans to a little girl, dressed poorly, with a milk can on one hand and a loaf of bread under her other arm,  behind a barred and locked gate that casts shadows inside (Châtelard here calls his house a cage). On one level the little girl is there as a narrative device to demonstrate the intrusion of the public on a private and sentimental moment. On a more metaphoric level, it´s clearly a commentary on Marie herself. But what exactly? It´s a moment that´s given considerable weight. It comes just after Châtelard says ‘Oh, so it´s for me that you´ve come’, at which point Châtelard looks left, and a pan follows his gaze to show us the little girl. Does that mean that there will be another young woman after Marie? Is it meant to signify a younger Marie. And does it mean that her choosing to go with Châtelard will be a kind of prison? I´m not sure but it´s an image that raises these and more questions and thus lingers in the mind (see above).

Carné is clearly in love with cinema and the cinema setting allows him to express it to us. Gabin is filmed against cannisters in his office, we see the projection system, posters, the cinema itself and clips from several films. The cinema also affords a nice contrast to the life and world Marie comes from.

La Marie du Port has two scenes set in Châtelard´s cinema. The first is the easy pick-up I discussed earlier on. The second takes place amidst a screening of F.W Murnau´s Tabu. Châtelard speaks of getting old, of time passing. Odile is off to Paris. Marcel to the cruise ships to become a lady´s hairdresser. Maybe he too will go away, in that boat he´s been fixing in the village. Besides one isn´t alone when one travels he muses. Marie comments that he doesn´t have to be alone. But he replies that, as she can see in the film,  there are girls in every port, ones that don´t impose conditions: rings, marriage. This is an interesting rhyming scene with the first scene in the cinema: the newsreel, vs Murnau´s romantic and luscious Tabu; they´re alone instead of part of the crowd as in the earlier scene, and more importantly, Marie walks out on him. She´s not that kind of girl. And he will chase after her, offer her the keys to his business, and make jokes about how at the wedding he´ll tell the officals she´s his daughter doing her first communion.

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Seeing  La Marie du port again I was struck by how queer it seems to me now and not just becaause Carné was gay and he met his long term partner Roland Lessaffre , the sailor next to Gabin above, on the film : Chatelard, unmarried in his fifties, the open relationship he´s established with Odile, the easy pickups in cinemas, the older/younger pairings and the switch the narrative delivers, the dream of escape to the big city, the dream to be a lady´s hairdresser, the homage to Murnau, the identification with the prostitutes and the lowlife, the handsome sailors, the hypersensitive youth who attempts suicide. It evokes a ´structure of feeling´´or a ´’gay sensibility´of another time without anything being mentioned. I read the book yesterday to see if it was just me projecting: it isn´t. The film follows the book quite closely and is a page turner, more ‘exciting’ than the film, but without the depth or any queer connotations. Claude Viau, Marie´s young lover, takes up less space in the novel whereas Carné gives him a whole set of recurring scenes, his own struggle and dream, plus the way he´s visualised. The other question is, if this is so glaring to me now, why did I not notice it upon first viewing in Bologna where the main topic of conversation seemed to be the discrepancy in ages between Chaterlard/Gabin and Marie/Nicole Courcel, understandable as it´s one of the film´s main themes  (in the novel he´s meant to be 37 to her ‘six months short of 18).

Screenshot 2019-08-07 at 11.22.07

La Marie du port was shown as part of the Gabin mini-retrospective at Bologna and he´s glorious in it, understated but alive at every, and in every film he´s got a moment of expression that brings a character alive. The moment below is characteristic.  The scene is really about Marcel and his father (Julienne Carette, the poacher in Renoir´s Rules of the Game).  Gabin´s just responding. But look at how he responds; his expression evoking a whole lifetime experience of dealing and humouring drunks, completely relaxed and at ease, yet indicating a strength capable of dealing with every situation.: a man who knows how to handle himself.  It´s wonderful.

 

As is the film. It´s a great film that hasn´t yet gotten it´s due, possibly because Carné and Gabin, separately and together, have so many other more famous masterpieces in their filmography. Don´t let that deter you.

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José Arroyo

 

 

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 161 – Cold Weather

Cold Weather is a mumblecore crime thriller, if it is indeed possible to conceive of such a thing, which it must be, because Cold Weather is one. Gentle, leisurely, and with a close focus on character relationships and foibles, it’s a pleasant and surprisingly engrossing film, more evidence of the reliability of MUBI’s curation. Never has a brother-sister amateur detective duo been so laid back.

José has issues with the ending, Mike has an issue with the crime story, but neither takes issue with the film’s strength: its characters’ relationships. Whether between adversarial brother and sister, amicable exes, or newly bonding buddies, these are smartly observed and efficiently rendered, and the film relishes moments such as a familial debate over who gets to drive, and a detour in which a character hopes that taking up pipe smoking will allow him to think like Sherlock Holmes. With the exception of some self-consciously ‘art filmy’ shot choices, the film is well directed by Aaron Katz, who maintains a precise and agreeably unhurried tone throughout, and earns characterful performances from his cast. José also remarks upon the cinematography, some later scenes shot during dusk capturing Portland’s natural light and industrial landscape beautifully.

It’s the least interesting of the three films we’ve recently explored on MUBI (the other two being O Fantasma and Border), but this low-key indie is lovely to spend time with, and worth a glance.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 160 – The Matrix

The Matrix, the Wachowskis’ groundbreaking, iconic sci-fi, is twenty years old this year, and we catch a one-off screening of its 4K restoration. Mike can’t believe he’s old enough for a film he watched as a kid to have a restoration, but this is the world we live in. Or is it?

Well, what an experience The Matrix remains. None of its pleasures have diminished with time, and with the benefit of the years that have passed since its initial release, we see it with fresh eyes. Mike looks at it as part of a late-90s cyberpunk/rave culture era that acts like a time capsule, comparing it to films such as eXistenZThe Beach, and Johnny Mnemonic, films born of the same culture and dealing with similar philosophical themes, and asking why only The Matrix has stood the test of time. José notes how the film is a product of its time in terms of technology – landline phones are not only everywhere but have plot functions, the computers are large and clunky, the text they display neon green.

We remark upon the film’s slow, noirish start, its willingness to flit between ideas and motifs, dropping them as quickly as it picks them up, and of course, the extraordinary action scenes, as thrilling today as they ever were. José considers the sustained, if not indeed increasing, appeal of Keanu Reeves, and the world’s affection for him. Mike asks whether Neo and Trinity’s love story really works, offering that he found the emotional core of the film to instead be the Oracle scene, and in particular the extraordinary warmth and humour that Gloria Foster brings to it. He also bangs on for a bit about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and assorted other shite. (He would also like to add here that his phone background has for years been an image of the Matrix’s ‘green rain’, and he may, in fact, believe that he is the One.)

What an unadulterated thrill it was to see The Matrix again, on the big screen where it belongs, after so many years. It may be bizarre to think of it as an old film now, but time makes fools of us all, and it’s a true great.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Worth noting that the film remains as influential as ever and only yesterday (Aug. 2, 1919), watching The Boys on Amazon Prime, the film was utilised as a pop culture reference known to all (see below)

 

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 159 – O Fantasma

We’re still with MUBI and grateful for the opportunity to see O Fantasma, directed by João Pedro Rodrigues: a film José had heard of and been encouraged to see by various friends, but hadn’t quite come his way until now. He thought the film was only a few years old and could now kick himself for having waited twenty years to see it. José thinks it a masterpiece, Mike doesn’t; though the film being clearly aimed at a gay male audience might help account for it, and it speaks to José deeply.

Following Sergio (Ricardo Meneses), a very handsome young garbageman in Lisbon, perpetually horny and on the hunt for sex, O Fantasma is feverish sex dream of a film, a reverie, that evokes the feeling of horniness, of being up for sex but having no one with whom to find release with. What starts as a hunt that eventually turns the hunter into the hunted. We discuss how the character of Sergio seems to have no filter and no fear. He lives in a homophobic culture fraught with danger but is free. The sexual situations seem to take on the form of a dare and, even in the most potentially dangerous encounters, Sergio’s glance seems to say “I’m not afraid of you and it could get sexual if you want it to”. We discuss how the film’s story is structured differently to a conventional narrative: there is a conveyance of a certain kind of sexual dreamscape. The various episodes might not cohere in terms of plot but do come together in the film’s conveyance of atmosphere and feeling.

We note how for an earlier generation this would have been an X-rated film due not only to its subject matter but to its explicitness. We also remark upon the film’s real queer gaze that is also a gay male gaze; something worth distinguishing. We compare the film to the New French Extremity films of the era but also note that where they possessed had a harsh kind of crudeness, O Fantasma is very stylised. José finds the film unusual and beautiful, with extraordinary images that are really potent and poetic.

Sergio feels his desires in a culture in which he’s allowed none of them. Yet this is a film that celebrates a full spectrum of desires, the freedom to desire and to act on one’s desires. O Fantasma is a film that will confirm every homophobe’s worst views of gay men – and that partly its strength. It’s a film that is made in and asserts freedom. Sergio’s gaze is radiant, subversive, and defiant.

If you’re a gay man interested in film, this is unmissable.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 158 – Border

Pickings are slim at the cinema at the moment, so it’s MUBI to the rescue. We chose Border almost at random, our criteria being only something that looked interesting and would still be on rotation by the time we released the podcast. And what a fascinating film we picked.

Border is a Swedish art film that reeks of mud, pain and isolation, but with a sense of fantasy and irony that render it a curious, surprisingly light affair, despite some gruesome imagery and dark plot developments. It gives us a lot to talk about: the interstices of ideas of gender, place, what it is to be human, how we categorise ourselves, what makes us behave towards others as we do. The film takes a figure of fairy tale, fantasy, and horror, placing it in a contemporary setting. It supports all kinds of interesting interpretations: as a racial narrative, as a trans narrative, as an exploration of nature vs. nature, as a dramatisation of the fluidity of ‘the self’. It opens up beautifully as we discuss it.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 157 – Toy Story 4

Following a break during which José has been exploring Argentina and Mike has been exploring John Grisham films, we reconvene with Toy Story 4, the latest in Pixar’s iconic animated children’s series. Mike’s seen it once already and is keen to revisit it.

José asks questions of the film’s messages, seeing the toys as faithful slaves, desperate for owners, and discarded once their value is exhausted. Mike argues for the characters’ internal lives and the idea that they are parents or stewards of their children. We at least agree on the Key and Peele characters, thoughtless and lazy stereotypes of blackness, and Mike suggests that the irony that Key and Peele bring to their personas might be intended to make their characters easier to swallow. And their characters have the effect of rendering in sharp focus everything that is white about the film, José picking up on what he sees a tokenism in the few human non-white or mixed race characters present.

Toy Story 4 finally makes something of Bo Peep, turning her into an action heroine, and we discuss feminism in the film and, again, whether this is simply tokenistic or not. And an argument ensues about whether the word “homeless” is appropriate to use with regards to her life, and what we can and should make of Woody’s fate.

And apart from all that, Mike laughed endlessly, and José laughed at Mike laughing endlessly! Despite there being much to pick apart, a great time was had by all in this charming, funny, and visually stunning film.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Tacos on Netflix

I was too tired to sleep and too tired to do anything yesterday so I watched ´Tacos’ on Netflix, wonderful, and made more so by the appearance of Lady Tacos de Canasta, my new heroine, who explained the role of the Mutje, two-spirit people in her culture, rather like the Berdache in North America, whilst making her tacos ´de canasta´and then selling them on her bike in full drag, looking, as she says, ´tan guapa/ so pretty´y ´con esa vocerrona aguerdientosa /loud and deep whisky voice´. All these types of shows are inevitably Ministry of Tourism, but I think this one is also more than that. For one thing, I love the relish with which the various people speak of the tacos, and also I love that voice-over, epic, grandiloquent, noble but about poor people´s pleasures…….and as you can see from the Lady Tacos de Canasta episode, very inclusive. Lady Tacos de Canasta appears in the third episode (see clip above). She´s fabulous and her story is very poetically told. Actually I like the way the whole series connects the taco to working people, and regions and nations, poetically. I don´t know if the series got better or if I simply got used to the rhythms of the language and expressions. But ti´s a show that will have you salivating, offer a social geography of food, and mixes it all up with a bit of poetry. I recommend.

José Arroyo

Un Rubio (Marco Berger, Argentina, 2019)

un rubio

Marcos Berger´s films — Ausente, Hawaii, Plan B — all seem to meld into one, meaningful glances, sidelong views, sideways compositions of frames within frames, the small gesture, the way small things become deeply meaningful. Men desiring, men loving, men crying: all without much dialogue. You feel like you´ve seen it all before in his work. Yet by the end, the narrative gets reframed and the power of the vision makes it seem new and beautiful again. I loved Un Rubio.

José Arroyo

Maigret et l’affaire St. Fiacre (Jean Delannoy, France, 1959)

maigret

 

Gabin returns as Maigret, this time in a nostalgic vein. The countess of St. Fiacre (Valentine Tessier) has received a death threats stating she will die on Ash Wednesday. She calls upon Maigret to return to the village where he grew up and help her with the case. Maigret had a crush on the Countess as a young boy, and the Countess, a warm-hearted woman, enjoyed being the object of it. Maigret ´s father had once managed the Chateau where he will now be a guest and indeed he´s got the Countess to thank for his education. There´s a real fondness and complicity on the ride from the train station to the Chateau between the characters and indeed the actors playing them. It´s lovely.

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The gathering of the suspects à la Poirot

The Countess dies as advertised, in Church, and during Mass no less. But who did it and how? There are lots of suspects: Lucien Sabatier ( Robert Hirsch), a young secretary and confidante gave her an injection the night before and he´s been trying to buy a flat in order to get married and needs money, the young Count (Michel Auclair) has been buying yachts and horses in Paris with money he doesn´t have and he´s being hounded for writing false checks; the village Doctor (Paul Frankeur) hasn´t been taking very good care of her. Many people have their reasons. At the end Maigret does a Poirot, gathers all the suspects for dinner at the Chateau, and reveals who the culprit is.

A slight but very satisfying film, well if unexcitingly directed by Delannoy. Much of the beginning is infused with nostalgia. We get a lovely feel for village life and how it´s changed. Structurally this is developed through a homology between the altar boy and Maigret who used to fulfil the same function in the same place when young. This is also developed by Maigret recognising all the villagers he once new and who tend to recognise him only once they clock his blue eyes (see below). The screenplay is very tightly structured so for example his visit to the Caretaker who has replaced his father in post takes place almost exactly half-way through the film. He also learns that the education of this caretaker´s son has been provided by the Countess, just as she had done for Maigret himself when he was young, and this other homology rhymes and differs with that of the altarboy. We will see that this young bank clerk is no angel. This is a tightly and well-structured film.

It is also a gently paced one, but the pace well seasoned by a sprinkling of suspicion over practically everyone. Everything is seen through corners, doorways and passageways (see above),  through the corner of an eye, generally Miagret´s. Thus the film shows clues as partial whilst making everything suspiciously interesting, particularly when the corpse is still upstairs, and parts of it remain visible in the corner of the shot during questioning.

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Maigret´s eye of course is observant. And Gabin´s eyes are not only blue, but completely transparent. A look, a shrug, a curt coded phrase. He doesn´t say much but he communicates everything. Perhaps Gabin is at his very greatest in these slight genre pieces where it´s his presence alone that warrants reasons for viewing.

Delannoy doesn´t dazzle visually. He tend towards triangular compositions and, with a few exceptions, one of which you can see below, keeps the symbolism largely at bay.

As you can see from the clip below, Delannoy does know how to film dynamically to keep the image interesting. Here Maigret moves through the newspaper printing presses though to the offices. It´s quite a lot of time to devote to the scene in terms of its import to the plotas a whole. And it´s clear that Delannoy is merely taking pleasure in showing us the workings of the newspaper. And I´m reproducing it here because it induced nostalgia in me. This is how many people even a village paper employed. Look at all the jobs in soldering, laying out the print, typesetting, printing and distribution. Not so long ago all papers functioned this way, and the larger ones, like the Montreal Star I visited as a child,  were an industrial marvel to behold.  Ahhh. It´s a minor, well-made film that incites all kinds of nostalgia. Gabin is perfect

 

I have written on two other Maigret/ Gabin films here:

-the previous one with Delannoy:

Maigret tend un piège/ Inspector Maigret (Jean Delannoy, France/Italy 1958)

And a later one directed by Gilles Grangier:

Maigret voit rouge (Gilles Grangier, France/Italy, 1963)

José Arroyo

Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937)

pepe

 

Pépé Le Moko is all attitude and atmosphere. It was remade in Hollywood as Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938) with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr, a blockbuster success which made a star of Lamarr and inspired the ‘take me to the casbah’ tagline still vivid to a generation of filmgoers. Boyer as Pépé was the inspiration for Pepe le Pew, the romantic cartoon skunk, enveloped in stink but searching for love.

pepe.jpg

Jean Gabin´s Pépé is more reminiscent of Bogart in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), an outer cynicism masking a fatal romanticism, smart and witty, cool and up for a joke in the most trying circumstances. The dialogue by Henri Jeanson overlays wit with ironic nonchalance and underlays it with danger and threat: it´s brilliant.

Pépé´s on the lam from the law, continuing to rob, the leader of his gang and a legend in the casbah. The casbah is such a jumble of doorways, alleyways and rooftops, that he can escape the police. But it has become its own prison. He´s sure to be arrested once he leaves it and descends into town. He dreams of freedom and Paris but makes do. He says  he´s happy to give his body to any woman but he won´t lose his head by giving up his heart. That is until he meets Gabby (Mireille Balin). The scene where he eyes up her jewellery is superb, all close-up longing, and initially one´s unsure if that longing is for the jewels or the woman.

Duvivier brilliantly directs for tone, atmosphere, and he knows how to get the joke in. The film has memorable set-pieces (the retribution for the betrayal of Pépé´s younger side-kick), Gabin and Frehél sing in the same film for the first time since Coeur de Lilas (Anatole Litvak, 1932) . And there´s a swoonily fatalistic  romantic ending where Pépé yells to his beloved. She´s on a ship  returning to France and his voice is drowned out by the ship´s whistle. Like in the great noirs that were to come later in the forties, he´s so undone by love, regret, a possibility receding before his very eyes, already crying for her, that he chooses death over prison and a life without Paris and her. It´s terrific.

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Gabin weeps his loss.

Gabin had already worked with Duvivier four times previously, in Maria Chapdelain (1934), Golgotha (1935), La Bandera (1935) and La Belle équipe (1936), and they would make other films together in the future (e.g. Voici le temps des assassins), But Pépé might well be the pinnacle of their success. In Pépé le Moko, her BFI book on the film, Ginette Vincendeau has convincingly argued that Pépé is the film that clinches the Gabin myth.  It´s a film that tried to find a vein and tone with which to communicate with its audience  in as entertaining a way as possible. This helped make it a blockbuster success then and that it continues to speak to several other generations of audiences means that it´s enjoyed enduring popularity since.

José Arroyo

La Bandera (Julien Duvivier, France, 1935)

la bandera

Annabella was the sensation of the moment in the French cinema of 1935 and gets top billing in La Bandera. But it´s Gabin´s film all the way, one he considered part of his ‘Palmarès,´his Greatest Hits, those which contributed to the construction of his persona as the defining star of 1930s French cinema, and by extension key to an understanding of French culture of the period. One can see it as a dry run for Pépé le Moko (1937) also directed by Julien Duvivier: a young man on the lam, exotic locales, male camaraderie and derring-do. One could group these films together with Gunga Din (George Stevens) for an interesting comparative study of French and American masculinity in relation to Orientalism in the action/adventure genre. 

Its Orientalism aside, La Bandera is great glamorous fun.  But can one cast it aside? It´s so central to its pleasures, all those extraordinary close-ups of Annabella encased in golden collars, bracelets, coins, veils. Perhaps one can only find it fun because one is  unaffected by its effects? These are questions I asked myself. But only in retrospect. 

The trailer well conveys the film´s themes and its attractions: ‘Can a life of heroism and abnegation erase the error of an instant? The trailer shows off the spectacle of army manoeuvres and promises ‘L’atmosphère vibrante de l’Espagne/ The vibrant atmosphere of Spain’ …You will passionately follow the painful adventures of Jean Gabin, ennobled by discipline, softened by love, crowned by a soldier´s heroic death…You will find your favourite star, Annabella, in an entirely new guise´.  Drama! Action! Humour! 

La Bandera delivers on all the promises of its trailer. It´s great trashy fun, no expense spared, with plenty of spectacle, exotic locales, stars, an extraordinary marriage sequence where Annabella and Jean Gabin drink each others´ blood, and one of the great death scenes Gabin would become famous for,

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As you can see above, Duvivier brings great visual flair to the film.  The still is from the great opening scene: a drunken couple is wandering through the streets of Paris. A man comes out of the shadows. She embraces him and asks him to join them for a drink. He gently pushes her aside and wonders off. As he does so, she realises her dress is stained with the blood from his hands. The camera tilts up to show us it´s Rue St. Vincent. It´s visually and conceptually brilliant. A great dramatic beginning to the story. 

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The murderer of the rue St. Vincent is Pierre Gillieth (Jean Gabin) and when we next see him he´s wandering the ramblas in Barcelona. The film ostensibly had location shoots in Barcelona and in Tetuán in Spanish Morocco, and the production was allowed to film in the military barracks of the latter thanks to the intervention of Franco, a few years later the Generalissimo of all of Spain, due to Franco, a famous cinephile, being a fan of Gabin´s. It´s worth noting that the film was made a year before the Spanish Civil War erupted. A few years later being a member of the Spanish Foreign Legion would not have seemed so attractive a proposition.

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Though there was location shooting in Barcelona, what we see are mostly process shots of Gabin wandering the Ramblas and the Barri Gotic/Gothic Quarter. However, one of the Barcelona scenes that really stands out, for me a marker of the differences between American and French cinema, is the nightclub scene below: nude women and drag queens are part of the picture — along with the usual thieves and prostitutes — that Duvivier so dazzlingly and dynamically visualises:atmosphere, spectacle, titillation, and a key dramatic moment where Gabin is robbed of what he´s stolen and is the impetus for him joining the Spanish foreign legion.  

 

The film contains a dazzling dream sequence to show us a whole array of male torsos as a context for expressing how haunted Pierre/Gabin is by his crime (see below), how others are equally disturbed by their past, and then finally Gabin´s satisfied stretching as he tells his colleague to shut up before he inventive cut (what is it called?) moves us onto love street. 

 

 

And of course Gabin is his own form of spectacle, certainly as visualised by Duvivier:

Steve Neale, developing and challenging some of Laura Mulvey´s ideas on the male gaze, has argued that a male spectator could bear to look at the erotic display of male bodies but only if it was part of, and somewhat displaced by, action. Those muscles of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in 80s/90s action cinema can be displayed in the way they were because they evoked power and were the basis of the violence to come. They could not be displayed purely for erotic pleasure but as a preamble for power, strength, violence. Brad Pitt and later stars and filmmakers changed all of that of course. But the action/adventure genre was one of the few sites were the male body was allowed to be displayed without excuses and Duvivier makes full and early use of that in La Bandera. And it´s not just Gabin we see. I post an image of Gaston Modot below simply because he´s wearing my favourite tattoo in the film, one which mysteriously disappears upon his death scene, a sad continuity error.

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La Bandera is also an interesting reminder of how men´s bodies, and what are considered fit male bodies, have changed since the thirties.

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I post the clip below, mainly for the line ´’vous êtes fort´and the way Gabin nonechallantly responds ‘oooof’. These films, and this one in particular, are not just about strength and being macho but about masculinity moralised: What is a good man? What qualities are endowed by nature and what must be worked for and acquired?

 

If Gabin is constantly praised for his strength and virility, — one of the questionable señoritas in the nightclub scene even says, ‘que macho!’ about him –, his virility is always relational. And the film has one character clearly coded as being both camp and comic, the comic relief but literally the butt of the joke, to comparatively shore up that which we´ve shown of Gabin (though in various ways all of the supporting characters fulfill this function).

 

In a very interesting piece on the film, David Cairns has written, ‘the mix of genre thrills — we’re way ahead of film noir here, which has yet to be invented and named, but that’s what this is nonetheless — and social realism is exciting as hell to me.  The film can be seen as a precursor to the later poetic realist films Gabin would do with Marcel Carné such as  Quai des brumes (38), Le jour se lève (39), which some have seen as precursors to film noir. As you can see below, there´s certainly a lot of imagery one would later associate with noir in the film. 

But it´s precisely the mix of genres, conceived of as attractions for a popular audience and executed to be as visually enticing as possible, that continues to charm. A blockbuster success of the period, a cornerstone of Gabin´s persona and with images of Annabella photographed as if she were Garbo or Dietrich and much better than later on when she would go on to Hollywood (and marry Tyrone Power).

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José Arroyo

 

Ritrovato re-cap: Quick Millions.

Richard Layne, Nicky Smith, Helen Vincent and I discuss Quick Millions, part of the early sound Fox films programmed at this year´s Ritrovato. We discuss it in relation to other gangster films of the era such as Public Enemy and Scarface, the passage of time montages, the iconography of the suit, Newsies, and the presence of both Spencer Tracy and George Raft, who makes quite an impression dancing. As we wrap up, Bertrand Tavernier walks past.

The film is on youtube and can be seen below: the difference in image and sound quality between this and what we saw in Bologna is reason enough to go to Ritrovato. George Raft´s dance can also be seen below just under the film itself,

 

José Arroyo

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 156 – Spider-Man: Far From Home

José returns from a week at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, just in time to see Venice crumble in Spider-Man: Far From Home, the latest injection of plot development to the Marvel series. It hits him in the gut and the film doesn’t recover, José seeing a lack of respect and intelligence that colours the entire experience for him. Mike, on the other hand, doesn’t particularly care for buildings, and finds a lot to like, including one of the more interesting villains Marvel has offered, one that self-referentially comments on image-making and the expanding chasm between what the public is shown and what is actually happening, and a setting – a school trip across Europe – that provides a way for the competing parts of Peter Parker’s life to interfere dramatically.

There’s much up for debate, our experiences differing severely. Two things we can agree on: it isn’t particularly well shot, and Tom Holland’s performance soars. Comme ci, comme ça, as they say in Europe.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.