A nun bribes some children to guide her to a doctor who she insists cannot be Russian or Polish. They ask for money but she has none so she gives them her rosary. They take her to the French Red Cross, find Dr. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) and ask for help. Dr. Beaulieu is a working-class communist but the Red Cross is only there to help their wounded and mop up their operation before moving to the French section of occupied Berlin. It is not within the remit of the French Red Cross to help locals, indeed it would be a danger to do so amidst Polish and Soviet forces, and thus she refuses. As she wakes up the next morning, she looks outside her window and finds that the nun is still there, knees on the snow, praying to God for help.
Moved by such faith and also probably made aware of need and desperation, the good doctor decides to help. When she arrives at the convent, she finds a nun in the process of giving birth. The child’s in breech, the nun refuses to be touched, but the good doctor nonetheless manages a caesarean and mother and child are saved. Despite the nuns’ resistance, the good doctor insists on returning to provide aftercare and soon discovers that seven of the sisters are pregnant and all due to give birth almost at the same time. It seems that they were all brutally raped, young and old, first by receding German forces, then by invading German ones. There’s also an attempted gang rape of the good doctor by Soviet Forces whilst returning from the convent to the Red Cross at dawn – a narrow escape.
Thus is set into a motion a film about the brutality of men and the strength of women, about a sisterhood that exceeds the narrow range of convent walls, about mothering and children, about faith and goodness that needs no faith to exist. The Innocents is a female-centred film, feminist too. It’s largely shot in close-up and mostly within convent walls and snowy landscapes. It at times feels slow but it is the type of slowness that embeds itself in one’s mind, makes one linger on images, ponder themes, think through what the film presents and how it presents it long after the film is over. It’s a film worth watching.
A Québécois action film? I had to see it! It turns out that there’s been a lot of action films made in Quebec since I last had a look in. As Brendan Kelly points out in The Montreal Gazette, this one’s a sequel to the very successful Nitro (2007) by the same director; a Fast and Furious knockoff about a man returning to his criminal past in order to get the heart transplant his wife so urgently needs. The sequel begins with the hero, Max (Guillaume Lemay-Thivièrge), in jail due to what happened in the original; with his now teenage son Théo (Antoine Desrochers) involved in a criminal gang as a hacker, and Max’s attempt to reconnect with and protect Théo, who blames his father for his mother’s death and wants nothing to do with him.
Nitro Rush is not so much a genre movie as a ‘genres’ movie, bringing together jailbreak film, heist film, chase film, and encasing it all within a father/son melodrama punctuated by lots of cleverly done action. It’s not quite good but I enjoyed seeing it very much. I loved seeing the city I grew up in as a space for action instead of merely the place where people in Québécois movies examine their troubled psyches; I liked seeing well-loved actors such as Micheline Lanctôt (as ‘La femme en noir’, the government operative who makes a deal with Max) and Antoine Olivier-Pilon (so alive and emotionally transparent as the protagonist of Xavier Dolan’s Mommy) get a chance to do their stuff and do it so well. I liked seeing what types of action can be achieved on a low budget (an extensive range, with the heroine, Daphne — Madelaine Péloquin — doing quite a lot of it); and I found it genuinely thrilling. I also liked seeing the dreams and aspirations of a culture revealed to us in these low budget-genre movies by choice of penthouse décor, costuming, ideal body-types, the gadgetry associated with particular types and and social-sexual-familial relations,
I find these genre films often more revealing ideologically than those auteurist ones through which an individual conscientiousness tries to find expression. Genre films from smaller national cinemas don’t just aim please the populace, they’re also a necessary training ground through which the filmmakers can get experience, try out things, take chances; play with action, time and desire. Nitro Rush is the product of a ‘national’ cinema in dialogue with its culture in a way that auteur films are so often not. It really is not very good. But I enjoyed it very much and it was worth my while.
Whilst waiting for a screening of Miklós Jancó’s The Round-up (Hungary, 1966) at the Cinémathèque Québécoise, I wondered onto an exhibition of photographs by Gabor Szilasi, a Hungarian photographer who emigrated to Montreal from Budapest after the popular uprising of ’56 and made a specialism of shooting Québécois filmmakers, often on set, always in context. The one on which my eye most lingered is the above, entitled, ‘Chambre de Louis-Philippe Yergea’ taken in Rollet, Témiscamingue, on July 1979.
At first glance I though, ‘this is what a gay man’s bedroom looked like in rural Quebec before the age of the internet’. I imagined Monsieur Yergea making annual trips to Montreal, buying the little porn then available and hanging it up on the walls and ceiling of his bedroom as object of veneration, worship, desire; fetish objects, wank material, make-do objets d’art; a bricolage of Yergea’s longings and desires. I can’t imagine anyone, rural or urban, having a bedroom like that now, with images proliferating in the internet and in the rest of our culture as they do.
A closer look reveals that it’s not only naked men on the walls; there are naked women also; we see a picture of the Virgin Mary, to the right of a naked man, above what might be Shirley Temple; below the naked man and to the left of Shirley Temple, is a glam shot of a couple, elegantly dressed, the woman bearing a striking resemblance to Faye Dunaway (an even closer look reveals that the couple is Johnny Halliday and Sylvie Vartan, French icons of the era). On the corner, above lots of spread-eagled young men is a holy portrait of Joseph and Child. The sacred and profane mingled together, mixed up with traces of pop-cultural icons; all surrounding the bed; a place for sex, dreaming, contemplation, rest and unrest, oblivion and wakefulness. What thoughts did those images and their placement give rise to? Why were they so meaningful that they necessitated nightly viewings instead of, say, being taken out from under the bed for easy arousal. Why the necessity of display, of having one’s mind fed by those images, nightly. Also, did anybody ever accompany Monsieur Yergea into that bedroom? Was it a private place, or was it occasionally open to others? Did he share the house with anybody; and if so, what did they make of the longings on display?
Simon Greenacre pointed out to me the similarity of Yergea’s room to Joe Orton’s: both are wall to wall cut-outs, imagery used as wallpaper, and both are in a bedroom (see Joe Orton’s below). One can feel the desire and inspiration both sets of images sought to evoke. But their differences are also very considerable. One is on the high-cultural side — roman statues, royal portraits, Van Gogh self-portraits. Some of Yeager’s are also icons of veneration and emulation but most of them are more low-rent and available: desirable men and women, offering themselves up to the camera, and presumably to Yergea’s gaze. The images of those anonymous bodies, coupled with the highly specific faces of the saints, brings out the play of the sacred and the profane, there to be worshipped but also as spur to defilement, a kind of ecstasy before death, or at least the ‘little death’ that is so concretised in Yergea’s bedroom.
Joe Orton’s bedroom
Mostly, the photograph (and indeed those of Joe Orton’s bedroom) once more underlined to me how powerful images of all kinds once where. I remember once entering a church in Seville, one which had previously been a mosque and before that a synagogue; going in from the grinding sun into the coolness of the church, and as one went into the darkness, the eye was entirely focused on an icon of the virgin, the only source of light descending as if from the heavens to illuminate it. The light brought out all the sparkles in the dress that costumed the icon so as to give it a glow, like an inner fire. It was like a mise-en-scène of religion and of desire, one that in this context, affected all senses, the smell of incense, the feeling of coolness, the removal of sound. I wondered then what it must have been like to grow up in medieval times and grow up with this being one of the few images one had access to seeing. The awe and wonder it must have inspired, the richness, the beauty, the desire, the sex, the heavenliness of it all. I felt we had lost that now that images of every kind are available everywhere. But it was still there for Louis Phillippe Yergea in his bedroom in 1976, if with the sexual element already clearly a dominant.
A cinephile’s dream movie. The sparse lettering of the opening credits begin, that 30s version of jazz standards start on the soundtrack, and one’s spirits lift. One knows one’s in safe hands. One knows one’s in a Woody Allen world. Café Society glows with a kind of nostalgia for how romance should be, how it used to be in classic movies. The great Vittorio Storaro bathes all the early scenes in a soft yellow light, as if this world is seen through a piece of amber. The palette will turn bluer, if never dark, as the film unfolds and the protagonists discover the glamorous lives they once dreamed of and now enjoy have come at a price.
Café Society is a film buff’s movie: we get to see the houses of Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy’s. All major movie stars are mentioned as within the radar and reach of agent Phil Stern (Steve Carrell). We get to see Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy and William Powell in Riffraff and Barbara Stanwyck in Red-Headed Woman. Characters tell anecdotes of how proper Irene Dunne is and of Robert Montgomery’s palazzo in Venice. Romance blossoms in Malibu frolicks. The air is thick with Ginger Rogers being unsatisfied and searching for new representation.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Bobby, Phil Stern’s nephew, sent by his mother (Jeannie Berlin) to Hollywood so that he could get a job and benefit from some nepotism. He is Woody Allen’s best ever alter-ego (and it seems that for several decades now every young star who could possibly pass for Jewish (Jason Biggs) and even those who can’t (Hugh Grant) has now had a go) Everything Eisenberg does does is interesting, and the self-criticism that comes across more as an assertive condence in Allen is more gentle and believable coming from Eisenberg. He and Kristen Stewart are a dream couple, both glamorous and gauche. She wears jewellery like she doesn’t care for it, as if Louise Beavers or one of those big saucy black maids of 30s movies plonked it on her head whilst lazily dropping cigarette ash into the soup. The setting, the music, the family, even the tone, recall Radio Days (though the family is not as sharply delineated here as there).
The film is structured as two triangles centred on Kristen Stewart (Vonnie). She’s Phil’s secretary and is having an affair with him when he asks her to show his nephew around Hollywood. Phil’s always promising to divorce his wife and marry her but they’ve been married for twenty-five years, they’re Jewish, and it looks like it’s never going to happen. As Vonnie shows Bobby around, they fall in love and Bobby proposes; and that’s what spurs Phil to tie the knot with Vonnie. The theme of the film is that timing is everything, and how when it comes to love these lovely people, who really are meant for each other, their romance is simply mis-timed. They’re out of step even though they’re longing to dance together.
The film gets its title from the group of aristocrats, celebrities, politicians and gangsters who are precursors to the jet set of the 60s and who met up in glamorous upscale bars in Manhattan. This is where Phil goes, backed by his gangster brother ,to make a success of himself, find another Veronica to be happily married to and start a family. And yet….If Phil-Vonnie-Bobby form one triangle, when the setting turns to New York, Bobby-Vonnie-Veronica becomes another.
Café Society asks you to keep in mind the differences between the two Veronicas, the differences between New York and Hollywood, London and New York, that it is all driven by a kind of gangsterism and that it is all imagined through a 30s lens (there’s even a Catholic conversion scene in jail that is a nod to Angels with Dirty Faces). It tells is story through a differentiation of knowledges, who knows what, when, though here played for suspense and farce rather than melodrama and tears. Though tears, or at least a welling of them, overhang the last part of the movie without fully being expressed.
The song list, all from the great American Songbook and most (all except those from the nightclub scenes) heard in their original versions by the likes of Count Basie and Benny Goodman tells the story (and what a songlist!): Jeepers Creepers, My Romance, The Lady is a Tramp, Zing, Went the Strings of My Love, Out of Nowhere, This Can’t be Love. It’s glorious, as is the end, which seems adult, realistic and romantic at the same, achieving the same rueful tone, a wise loving in an acknowledgment of what cannot be, that echoes so many of the songs. Do you have to be conversant with 30s and 40s culture to appreciate it fully? Maybe, but if so, get cracking. I loved it.
Woody Allen’s first film on digital.
I just love the way Lino Ventura says ‘he la, he la, industrielle’ here, just after he’s thrown his gun on the floor and under the chair, and whilst the cops begin to raid Jean Gabin’s nightclub.
Watching so many French gangster films recently has made me aware of how many of these films one thinks of as ‘French’ were actually European co-productions, often with Italy — Maigret tend un piège, Maigret voit rouge, Le tueur — sometimes even with the US: e.g. Le clan des Siciliens. I’d not given it much thought until seeing Llanto por un bandido (Carlos Saura, Spain/France/Italy, 1964) which is known as La charge des rebelles in French. I’d bought it as a Lino Ventura film — a mistake, as he’s only in the first twenty minutes or so – and not realising that it was the French version of the celebrated Spanish film Llanto por un bandido.
Seeing it made me realise that the price of hearing Lino Ventura in French was not hearing co-star Lea Massari in Italian, and worst of all, not hearing one of the most glorious and expressive voices in the cinema, the sound of Francoist Spain, not just in its pejorative and critical aspect, but as expressed in that deep hoarse voice, a sound produced by smoke, wine, sun, and the punishment of a lifetime of pronouncing a j with a Castilian accent, the sound of clearing your throat after a cold, the sound of cleansing your respiratory system so you can breathe through all the bullshit of Francoist culture, the sound of pain, and feeling and love too. All of that is missing from the French version. All of that is the sound of Paco Rabal’s voice.
Llanto por un bandido in French makes one weigh aspects of filmmaking. On the one hand, we must be grateful, because without the financing made possible by co-productions, these films might not have been able to be made. On the other hand, the loss of actors’ voices, particularly great actors with great voices, is not negligible.
To make you aware of the price we pay when these voices are erased by co-production agreements, I wanted to show you four distinctive instances of Rabal’s voice, the first in a landmark film of the era, where Rabal plays a radio announcer and sounds like the archetypal one (I’m afraid I could not get sub-titles but listen to the sound); then half a decade later as an embodiment of changes in Spain for Buñuel in Viridiana; much later, in the late 80s, for Almodóvar in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, his voice having deepened and made more expressive with age, and the director making full use of it and also what Rabal then represented for Spanish audiences; in the middle of this period, in 1967, again for Buñuel, this time in Belle du jour but in with Rabal speaking his own broken French, mixing it in with Spanish phrases and adding to the general seedyness of his character, Hyppolite de Murcia. Finally, an exchange with Lino Ventura, where Ventura speaks with his own voice and we realise all that is lost when instead of the sounds we know so well, that voice comes out of Rabal’s mouth, in French. It’s a sadness.
Historias de la radio (José Luis Sáenz de Heredia, Spain, 1955)
end of Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, Spain/Mexico, 1961)
Rabal and Abril in Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Pedro Almodóvar, 1989)
Rabal speaking French with his own voice in Buñuel’s Belle de jour (France/ Italy, 1967)
Ventura, Rabal and others in La charge des rebelles (Carlos Saura, Spain/Italy/ France, 1964)
After writing this post, Melanie Selfe directed me to a superb piece in Camera Obscura entitled ‘The Name above the (Sub)title: Internationalism, Co-production, and Polyglot European Art Cinema’ (Issue 1.46 pp. 1-44). There, Mark Betz begins by citing Jean-Marie Straub arguing in 1970 that ‘
Dubbing is not only a technique, it’s also an ideology. In a
dubbed film, there is not the least rapport between what you
see and what you hear. The dubbed cinema is the cinema of
lies, mental laziness and violence, because it gives no space
to the viewer and makes him still more deaf and insensitive.
In Italy, every day the people are becoming more deaf at
an alarming rate.
Betz then roundly refutes that argument and goes on to explore how :
European art films have thus been left free to carry on as
signifiers of stable national cinemas and identities or as gleaming
expressions of their auteur’s vision, somehow not blurred by
the quite specific determinants of cross-national cooperation that
leave their marks everywhere on the film, from its budget to its
shooting locations to its cast to its sound track.
My viewing over the last month highlights all of those marks and substantiates Betz’s arguments and the underlying multi-layered and complex relations that underpin co-productions in general and the art cinema variant in particular.
I’d add also the more personal understanding that, whatever the pleasures of what is gained, here that of the work itself, one always yearns and desires that which one loves and seems lost. For me, in this specific instance, the aspect that relates to sound, and specifically the sound of Paco Rabal’s voice.
Superb flamenco soundtrack in an extraordinary sequence of Carlos Sura’s Llanto por un bandido/ La charge des rebelles, with Francisco Rabal and Lea Massari. Carolo Rustichelli designed the score; the songs, flamenco and traditional folklore, were adapted by Pedro del Valle, sung by Rafael Romero and Luisa Romera; on guitar and speaking to the times in the billing ,Pedro del Valle (hijo/son)
In his autobiography, Si yo te contara, Paco Rabal (Madrid, El Pais/ Aguilar, p. 257) Rabal recounts, how Saura’s brother, Antonio, one of the most distinguished late20th-century painters in Spain, helped dress the sets, something that may account for the traces of a history of Spanish painting the film everywhere evident in the film.
Jose de Ribera’s ‘Boy with a Flower-pot, top left; Velazquez’s portrait of Sebastian de Morro; Goya’s etching of Velazquez painting, top left. On the bottom an image from Saura in Llanto para un bandido; on the left de Ribera’s El patizambo. It’s clear the extent to which the images in the film — stark, elegant, striving for a realism that highlights character and conditions — are indebted to Spanish painting, particular Goya and Jose de Ribera. The image from the film below, for example, conveys the chiaroscuro lighting of the era, the relative simplicity and starkness, the evocation of a way of life through details of food and clothing; the demonstration of of ordinary, daily tasks, and of course the central focus on working people:
In his biography and autobiography, both wonderful, we’re told how the film was a multi-lingual co-production and how Ventura, Massari and Rabal would speak to each other in Italian on the set. I’ve written more extensively on dubbing Rabal in another post, but as if working in various languages and dubbing different actors for different markets wasn’t distancing enough, Rabal speaks of how the film itself aimed for a Brechtian distanciation.
Various posters, under various titles, for a film that ended up a flop.
Image Posted on Updated on
I was amused to see that in the opening menu of the French DVD for Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan, we’re invited to click on ‘Lecture du film’, instead of ‘Main Film’ or merely ‘Film’, thus inviting us to read, or engage in a reading. Of course, viewing always involves making sense of things, but ‘a reading’ also implies that there are depths, interpretations that need to be unearthed, complexities that need to be unravelled.
I found it rather funny because all of the pleasures that Le clan des Siciliens offers are shallow ones, which is not to say that they are not worth experiencing, or that they are so shallow as to not constitute pleasure at all. Indeed the film offers many pleasures, all superficial, and each a joy, beginning with the stars: The publicity for Le clan des Siciliens advertised ‘Ensembles les trois grands du cinéma français’, ‘pour la première fois réunis à l’écran/ ‘French cinema’s three greats, together onscreen for the first time,’ a slogan which must have at least annoyed Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo and all the other French male stars who weren’t Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Lino Ventura.
Le clan des Siciliens/The Sicilian Clan is very rewarding to look at as a genre piece; it is to a degree inspired by the jewellery heist genre, and the modish way of filming it, that made The Thomas Crown Affair (Norman Jewison, USA, 1968) such a big hit the year previously. It also contains the hijacking of of an airplane that would feature so prominently in the Airport films and help turn them into some of the biggest blockbuster hits of the 70s. The film also foreshadows the interest in the Mafia that would find such extraordinary expression in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films in the years to follow. And last but not least, in France it would revive popular interest in the ‘polar’, the French crime thriller, an interest that has yet to wane.
The plot revolves around Roger Sartet (Alain Delon), a lifelong thief who Commissaire Le Goff (Lino Ventura) has finally brought to justice after many years. Sartet gets indicted but on his way to jail, he manages to escape the armoured and guarded vehicle transporting him there with the help of Vittorio Manalese (Jean Gabin), the head of a Sicilian clan with international connections operating from Paris. Manalese is just about to retire to his land in Sicily when Sartet comes to him with the perfect crime. Sex, double-crossings, money, jewels and the survival of the family itself will be at stake; all with Le Goff chasing Sartet’s tail and finding in the Manalese clan much more than even he bargained for. But though the plot is serviceable, it’s not what makes Le clan Sicilien such an exhilirating, if superficial watch. Here are some illustrations of the aspects of the film I loved most:
a) A mise-en-scène of various kinds of stardom, carefully deployed, and designed to be put to meaningful use, visually, narratively, and taking into account audience expectations to maximise the pleasures on offer.
b) Every shot is interesting to look at (far left), expressively lit (middle) and artfully composed (far right)
c) The shots, pretty, artful and beautifully lit as they are, are also composed to allow for plot and narration. Here, for example, director Verneuil and cinematographer Decaë — one of the very greatest — create a composition that allows for the whole Sicilian clan to be seen. You see the grandmother, off-screen but relflected in the mirror knitting in the upper left hand corner, his children and son-in-law at table discussing the heist, Gabin centre and the recipient of all light, engrossed in the tv, a source of light, that will spur his grandchild, seen coming through the door-way with his mother, to reveal something he saw that will transform the narrative, that will twist the preceding events into the tailspin that will follow to the end. Significantly, the only one in the room but not onscreen will be the source of the trouble that will follow, the cause of the decimation of this ‘happy family’. It’s the work of at least very highly-skilled craftsmen
d) The kind of film that makes you want to find out where one can buy the accessories
e) The security system is what’s being discussed, the grand jewellery, by some of the greatest design houses of the century — Chaumet, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and others — is what’s being shown
f) A hint of the perverse within the clan, at least homophile if not homosexual
g) a truly great score by Ennio Morricone. I’ve put extracts below with and without images so you can hear the sound itself, and how dialogue is then interwoven with it. But later also the sound accompanied by images so you can see how expressively put together it is. Who cares that Gabin is the least convincing Sicilian ever? He’s clearly head of the food chain in every other department, rightly head of the clan, and the flute and that ‘Boing Boing’ sound — so distinctive but one I can’t name the source of — will so memorably accompany, announce and dramatise his fate and that of the other protagonists.
Lino and Gabin filming the last scene with Verneuil
– what Verneuil and Decae manage to achieve with the help of Gabin, Ventura and the other filmmakers in terms of sound and image
Le clan des Siciliens was a blockbuster success, with 4.8 million spectators in France alone. The film probably benefitted from the publicity generated by Alain Delon being involved in the Marković affair, where Delon was questioned for the murder of his bodyguard ,Stevan Marković. As you can see in the wiki page for it, it’s a scandal that implicated the highest levels of government, not only murder but also a soupçon of sex, and threats that nude pictures of the wife of the future president of the republic would be exposed. Alain Delon was often suspected of having connections with the Corsican mafia, and that extra-textual knowledge, along with the recent scandal, undoubtedly helped make Delon believable as a mafioso. He’s a pleasure to look at but it is Lino Ventura and Gabin (even with his accent) that give the performances worth watching. They ,the set-pieces and the way the film looks and move are what made the film a blockbuster hit and continue to be the source of the many pleasures the film offers, shallow as they might be.
Why would anyone want to see an unpretentious genre film – not particularly stylish; by no means the best example of its kind – like Le gorille vous salue bien?
Well, for one, it’s interesting to see what the French conceived of as their ‘no. 1 secret agent’; makes an interesting change in comparison to James Bond – friendly and street-smart gorilla instead of charming know-it-all gentleman with sardonic sense of humour and sadistic tendencies ; it’s interesting to see the care that the film takes with its beginning and ending, the one responding to the other as in classic cinema; it’s interesting also to see how the film carefully structures its narrative, balancing it with spectacle, leavening it with humour: its constantly engaged with a popular audience and might be part of the reason the film remains engaging: it’s interesting to compare the fight scenes (see below) to the ones we see now, how they seem slow and inexpert, with blows clearly faked, yet often shot in a combination of long-shot and with lengthier takes than we get now — Le gorille lets us see actions completed.
It’s interesting to remember that this type of popular genre film (it was a considerable box office success) co-existed with New Wave Cinema and the previous kind, what François Truffaut would call the ‘cinéma de papa’, straddled both, would supersede them all and would make inroads into all Western European markets.
Fans of Hollywood gossip will be interested in seeing Bella Darvi, named by Darryl Zanuck in a burst of megamoguldom after himself and his wife (Darryl and Virgina, thus Darvi); its interesting to see how in their scenes together, the camera always favours her and leaves the gorilla in shadows. But to no avail; attractive as she is, she’s no star: Lino on the other hand…
The main reason to see the film today is that Le gorille vous salue bien is the film that would make a star of Lino Ventura. The year of its release, he’d already appeared in three films in supporting roles, high profile ones such as in Maigret tend un piège, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud/ Lift to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958), Montparnasse 19/ Modigliani of Montparnasse (Jacques Becker, 1958) for top directors such as Delannoy, Malle, Becker. Here it’s only Borderie. But ‘Le gorille’ is star-making role. In the opening credits we’re teased by billing merely listing ‘Le gorille’; by the end of the movie, we know the gorilla is Lino Ventura and we want to see more of him. The success of this film would lead to many more Gorilla films but they’d have to settle for Roger Hanin in the title role: Ventura would go onto bigger and better things and would become one of the most popular and durable stars of French cinema.
Disco music mixed with salsa and opera, a lead character that spouts poetry, a teenage romance with a showbiz background, lots of disco dancing, Jimmy Smits in good form and a slightly camp look at a late 70s setting: The Get Down could have been made for me.
I loved the first episode (directed by Baz Luhrmann) and was intrigued by Ben Travers’s argument in IndieWire that TV series aren’t movies or novels, that they’re tv shows and constructed that way. But that the Get Down might be an exception in that the series, ‘isn’t constructed like a string of small arcs cut together to form a greater one. Instead, it really is put together like a film: one big arc made up of stunning, stand-out moments in between. Some of those moments function as satisfactory end points, while other episodes conclude seemingly at random — almost as though they were dictated by time’.
I’ll have to wait and see for myself. What I can say on the evidence of having seen only up to the second episode is that there are indeed stunning, stand-out moments – visually, musically, dramatically and in terms of performance – that are so far keeping me watching.
In the second episode, ‘Seek Those Who Fan Your Flames,’ directed by Ed Bianchi, I loved Grandmaster Flash teaching the kids how to spin a groove, Cadillac discoing his way to child murder and the beautifully visualised moment where all of the young characters’ dreams go up in flames.
I am particularly smitten by what Jimmy Smits is doing as Francisco ‘Papa Fuerte’ Cruz: he conveys the man’s ambition, the carnie tent barker qualities that make him a politician, the steel that makes him dangerous. He’s taking considerable chances in his acting choices: each can potentially cross a line and become too much. But they haven’t yet. He’s been consistently entertaining – he’s performing with an audience in mind; each gesture is done for effect– without yet being embarrassing. Quite the opposite. For me, his slightly florid performance is enough of a reason to see the show: in the clip below for example, I love the way he says the ‘not prohibited’ bit in the line ‘Violence is discouraged but not prohibited’ and the way he uses his hands and his eyes to accent the word ‘spiritual’ at the end of the clip. It’s marvellous. But marvellous as Smits is, The Get Down is as of yet offering so much more.
A minor Maigret. I’d thought Jean Delannoy’s direction of Maigret tend un piège (France/Italy, 1959) efficient but unexciting. But Gilles Grangier’s work here makes Delannoy seem Jean Renoir in comparison: Maigret voit rouge is visually uninteresting, the plot is recounted in great and very dull detail, often by Gabin, who seems tired, perhaps because he’s been asked to do what is usually relegated to supporting players. Too bad he didn’t feel insulted: it might have given a little fire to his performance. That said, he’s Gabin: he’s always watchable; and there’s Françoise Fabien in an early role as Lily, a gangster’s moll; Michel Constanstin looking like an even more threatening Jack Palance, as Cicero, the American killer; and the always droll Guy Decomble as Maigret’s sidekick, Inspecteur Lognon. The fight and chase scenes are not terrible either. It’s not nothing; but it’s not much.
The story begins with an unknown person being shot down by a passing car. Inspector Lognon is a witness. But when the police arrive, the body has disappeared. Lognon follows a lead to an American bar and gets badly beaten up on his way out. Inspector Maigret takes over the case, discovers that the bar is run by Pozzo (Vittorio Snipoli) an American of Sicilian origin and that Lily, the Belgian barmaid who works there, is involved with an American and has been hiding his mafiosi buddies. Maigret calls in the help of Harry McDonald (Paul Carpenter), an American diplomat who turns out to work for the BFI. All is not as it seems. Maigret will discover that what’s at stake is a key witness to a Mafia case in the US and he’s got to find him before the American gangsters do.
The film is most interesting when seen from an ideological perspective. Maigret voit rouge is set during the height of the Twentieth Century’s American Empire, and at the very peak of it’s most glamorous moment, the Camelot years of John F. Kennedy’s Presidency. France seems in thrall to everything American (see images at the very bottom): Chicago, gangsters, bowling alleys, transistor radios, Rocky Graziano; jeans, t-shirts and talking as if one’s mouth is full, like Marlon Brando. But there’s always a twist. Here the transistor radio plays jazz. Moreover, though France has reason to be grateful to an America so recently France’s liberator, it’s not just going to roll over and let them take over the country. I wonder how audiences reacted to the clip above where the American says:
‘I warn you I’m going to have to call Washington.’
‘And I warn you that I’ve been obliged to inform the Ministry of the Interior.’
‘It will become a diplomatic incident.’
‘Better then a judiciary error.’
‘This affair is not what it seems. I belong to the FBI.’
‘And I to the PG, each to his business.’
‘But listen to me Jules.’
‘There’s no more Jules. If you want to discuss the affair get in touch with Inspecteur Maigret at Quaie des Orfèvres from 8 o’clock’.
I imagine audiences of the time in France applauded the exchange. Needless to say, there’s a reconciliation at the end with Maigret and McDonald, and thus France and the US, becoming friends once more. But this time on terms set by Maigret. It’s very vividly dramatised and the only element of the film I found fascinating. I’m not surprised that this, Gabin’s third outing as Maigret, was also his last.
For Gone With The Wind fans: There’s a lovely scene in L’armée des ombres/ Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) where two heads of the French resistance — Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) — are in London for a meeting and they end up at the pictures watching Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939). As they come out of the cinema and onto the street, in probably the most brightly lit moment in the film, with the GWTW billboard shown in what looks like a brilliant Technicolour palette, Jardie says, ‘For the French the war will be over when they can read Le Canard enchaîné and see this marvellous film’. Once again entertainment, bright light and brilliant colour signifying the utopian hopes of a grey, war-torn London in a film about shadows, armies and resistance to existing realities.
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A film that makes one re-think notions of good and bad in cinema: On the one hand, Pierre Granier-Deferre is such a heavy-handy director, with the conceptual and symbolic dimensions of Le chat so underlined and over-signalled: birds fluttering outside windows, sirens circling, golden youth of long ago seen through hazy irises in flashback; the little house surrounded by wrecking crews turning the old world to dust; garbage trucks regularly reappearing at their front door, perhaps to pick up the wreckage of the protagonist’s lives: there are times where one can’t control the giggling (see the trailer posted below). On the other hand, any director who can get actors to do what Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret do here, alone and together, deserves all the praise there is. They are so gobsmackingly good — so electric – and the roles they play so great — offering such scope and variety of human character and emotion, and changing through time to boot — that one can only offer admiration and gratitude.
Julien Bouin, a retired typesetter, has been married to his wife Clémence (Simone Signoret) a former circus worker for over 25 years. He now can’t stand her. Everything she does irritates him. Why, she asks? Is it cause she got old and fat, cause she drinks? He doesn’t know. All he knows is that one day he stopped loving her. Because of that, she now hates him too. They shop separately at the same shops, keep their food under lock and key in separate cupboards, cook different dishes in the same kitchen, sleep in the same room but in different beds, do little mean and spiteful things to each other. Every day.
Gabin plays Julien as quiet, all closed-in; neat, carefully dressed. A mild-mannered man who does things carefully, systematically but who won’t be pushed to do what he doesn’t wants to He’s a man who takes pride in doing things carefully and well. Also, he still needs to love; and not the kind of physical love that one can get anywhere either but an outlet for real feeling. He finds it in his cat. It drives Clémence mad that a cat who neither needs it nor appreciates it becomes the recipient of the love Julien should be bestowing on her. She tries to shoo the cat away, attempts to lose him in the supermarket. But no, he returns to steal the attention, the caresses, the love that rightfully belongs to her. So, one day, she kills the cat….
We know Signoret was a great beauty. She’s someone who did speak many languages, and we can believe she plays the seven instruments Clémence claims to be able to. And we can understand the bewilderment, anger, fury that this little typesetter not loving her incites. We see the defiance in every glug of whisky, the determination in the speed with which she manouvers her bad leg through the shops, no limp is going to hold this woman back: the Chinese silk robe in the loud red of someone who demands being noticed. The cigarillo on the side of a mouth. Only the loss a her husband’s love could lead her to crocheting with the fury of someone who wants to commit murder. But the film underlines one can’t hate that much without it being overlaid by love: Signoret communicates the tenderness beautifully. Gabin also.
Le chat beautifully conveys a gamut of human emotion – characters who feel that much is Simenon’s gift to the filmmakers; it is fitting that he is billed alongside the ‘monstres sacrées’ of french cinema and above the title of the film . The director’s gift to the actors is to give them the space to be these people and to showcase them properly for us. Then the actors…well. Watching Gabin and Signoret together play this couple is like watching two great opera singers duet in a Verdi aria: raw, vivid, fine, delicate, explosive…. And watching them seems to me to be essential to anyone who wants to know what great acting in the cinema can be; they bring out areas of human feeling, emotion and experience that lesser actors don’t even known exist.
In the interview that accompanies the Studiocanal DVD, Granier-Deferre speaks about how the producers had not wanted Signoret. Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’armée des ombres, her previous film, had been a failure, and she was (most unjustly) being blamed for it. They went through all the other names of fancy actresses and finally Gabin asked Granier-Deferre: ‘you’ve really got your heart set on that Signoret?’ ‘Yes’. He calls the producer and says ‘If Signoret is not in it, I don’t do the film’. ‘Six hours later I got Signoret,’ remembers Granier-Deferre. Good thing he did too. Because Signoret and and Gabin are the only reasons to watch the film; they make one feel it’s essential viewing; and it certainly is to fans of Gabin, Signoret, Georges Simenon or anyone who’s interested in seeing great acting in the cinema.
A narratively crude but visually elegant French cop flick, Le tueur is a fatalist noir that doesn’t psychologise and doesn’t explain. It’s told very leanly through a series of chases and shootings, often filmed on location, and well evoking the seedy underbelly of the Pigalle of the period, with its porn films, sex shops, shady cons. It’s got one musical motif, very effectively deployed throughout the film (and not to be confused with the dreary theme song at the end that sings out the themes of the film to us), and perhaps over-uses the zoom so characteristic of the period. Change is one of its themes, and we see it not only in the narrative conflict between old and new styles of policing but also in the film’s use of landscape and location. Le tueur is a document of Paris in the process of change, with the building sites that would become the Tour Montparnasse and the Forum des Halles used prominently and effectively.
Commissaire Le Guen (Jean Gabin) has spent seven years of his life catching ruthless killer Georges Gassot (Fabio Testi) only to find him judged mentally imbalanced and locked up in relative comfort. As the film begins Gassot, fakes his way through several tests and fights his way out of captivity. His brother François (Jacques Richard)is waiting for him outside and drives him away to the relative safety of Marseilles. However, Gassot can’t keep himself from going out of his hideout and into the city’s red light area, where he hooks up with Gerda (Uschi Glas), a prostitute from Hamburg but also gets spotted and returns to Paris with Gerda. François Tellier (Bernard Blier) puts pressure on Le Guen to catch him as quickly as possible and Le Guen, after seeing several of his ploys fail and only three months from retirement, places Fredédo Babasch (Gérard Depardieu) in jail so as to befriend François, who’s been caught, and help capture Georges.
Almost a century of cinema greatness in twenty seconds: Gabin and Depardieu share a shot.
What’s unusual about Le tueur is that, as the title suggest, the protagonist is the killer. He’s not crazy but he’s ruthless. As the film begins we’re told that he’s fated to have bad luck. He knows it; even attempts to cut the bad luck line out of his hand with a knife; all he dreams of, dreams he shares with Gerda, is to get a bit of money and run off to a hot country. But it is not to be.
Fabio Testi, is very handsome, very athletic, and very inexpressive. I found him perfect for the part. The film has Gabin, with watery grey/blue eyes that have seen everything and can hide as much as they reveal. His Le Guen is an old school strategist, not above trying to orchestrate events to get the justice he believes Gassot deserves and that the courts won’t grant him. There’s also Bertrand Blier as Le Guen’s boss, with his crushed hound dog face, every look an expression of disappointment and evocation that nothing good in the world will happen ever. In the last quarter of the film, Gérard Depardieu appears in one of his first roles, a live-wire whose every movement is energy, humour and hope. And in the middle, what they’re looking for, who they’re all chasing after is….a blank.
The world that this cypher, this bearer of bad luck, this dreamer who’s every attempt to realise that dream makes life more of a nightmare, is beautifully framed and lit for us by the great Claude Renoir in the Eastman colour that so vividly brings out certain blues and yellows and reds. Here, as is right, blue predominates. I’ve put a considerable selection of stills from the film, in chronological order, so you can appreciate, the compositions, the use of colour, the artful creation of this dark, blue, world that the film presents so well.
In spite of its cast and it’s look, the film has been accused of offering the same satisfactions as episodic television; a judgment I find harsh but understandable; how one appreciates this might depend on whether and how much one values lean spare storytelling and a relative lack of psychologising.
The film theatre is often romanticised as a communal space, curlicues of smoke lending atmosphere to an audience hypnotised by utopian adventures and united in shared responses that in turn help shape them. We also hear of the cinema as a place for courtship rites, as a free space where certain types of sexual encounters were possible both for heterosexuals and homosexuals, the back rows and the dark providing a measure of safety. However as we can see in this clip from Dernier domicile connu (José Giovanni, 1970), it could also be a dangerous place for single women. And as we can also see, the ethics in resolving this could be underhanded: entrapment was common. Here, Marlène Robert is the bait, Lino Ventura the strong arm of the law.
I love the Maigret films; they offer the double satisfaction of thrilling you with some of the worst humanity has to offer – though usefully shown tastefully – and then restoring order; moreover, that rebalancing is itself done in an orderly and systematic manner; one we’ve learned to know and enjoy playing along with.
In this one, Gabin’s first outing in the role, (he would inhabit it twice more, reunited with director Jean Delannoy in Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre / Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case (1959) and Maigret voit rouge/ Maigret Sees Red, (Gilles Grangier, 1963), the first images we see are a knife being thrown right into the heart of Paris, then we’re shown the shadow of a pipe in close-up (see below). It seems to me that those images, which start the film, embody the appeal of this type of detective film: violence at the heart of a community and threatening to rip it apart and then the cozy comfort of a pipe, with its suggestions of pensiveness, its indication that brains will win over brawn, that reason will transform chaos into order, that homeliness will be restored. These films do not disown the animal, the emotional and sexual impulses, but they’re always the source of the crime. Intelligence and thought are the way to remove such unruly impulses from social structures: the films are a paean to reason. If Maigret sets his traps correctly, the killer will be caught.
Maigret tend un piège starts at Place des Voges, in the Marais district. It’s set in the film’s present but it already has a nostalgic tone. The Place des Voges has a butcher shop, ladies knit and chat with their neighbours outside their flats, everyone seems to know each other. Then, we’re introduced to a young woman returning from work, a violinist, husband at the café, child asleep upstairs. Of course, she’s murdered. Typically, we’re not shown who’s done it. We see only a gesture of gloved hands re-arranging a belt: a gesture that will prove telling. Then, again, in typical fashion, Maigret is called for (anonymously), we’re introduced to the basics of the case (a serial killer on the loose in the Marais, one who’s already committed four crimes, and is after the same type of woman), and then we’re introduced to the main character (Maigret is longing to retire, we’re made to think he’s alone but then a wife is introduced; he’s got a whole corner display case on top of a cabinet to hold his many pipes, they’ve built a house in the country in the village his wife’s from – this is a film that assumes Parisians have strong links to rural areas); lastly the suspects are introduced one by one, as one by one suspicion is removed until the real killer is found.
One of the wonderful things about the Simenon films, and true also of this adaptation is how tightly plotted they are. So here for example, the first suspect is Barbereau (Alfred Adam). He’s married to Louise (Jean Boitel) who had an affair with the previous owner of the butcher shop and is thus resented by his widow Adèle (Lucienne Bogaert), and the son Marcel (Jean Desailly). Marcel is married to Yvonne (Annie Girardot), just the type the serial killer’s been murdered. Marcel will be a suspect; Yvonne will be both a suspect and a potential victim. But who has access to Barbereau’s butcher shop? Everything is neatly tied together.
The film offers many pleasures: the depiction of milieu, the tight plotting, the way the narrative is constantly interspersed by comic bits (I particularly love Guy Decomble, whom you might remember as the exasperated schoolteacher in Les quatre cent coups/ The Four Hundred Blows (François Truffaut, 1959), ‘performing’ a phony suspect for the waiting press) , Lino Ventura as Maigret’s sidekick, Annie Girardot. But above all there’s Jean Gabin. I don’t know if it’s due to his training in the music hall but he makes everything interesting. He’s on, never overdoes it, but every little gesture, every response, even the act of listening is rendered worth watching. There’s a lovely moment, where he’s at home, tired and wiggles his pudgy middle-aged toes that I think his symptomatic. He conveys the character’s feeling but also gives the audience a flourish; he knows we’re watching and wants to give us something extra. It’s expressive and endearing.
Maigret tend un piège is a well-paced film. Delannoy keeps the camera in constant motion in a way that is unobstrusive yet creates a flow. On the other hand, everything seems to be shot with the camera at eye-level, which I can’t quite figure out as I suspect some of the scenes might have been more dramatic with more variation in angles.
What bothers me most about the film is that what initially seems the casual sexism of the period turns into something more vicious by the end. There’s a scene when one of the suspects, a cabaret entertainer, is at home drinking tea and his girlfriend appears from the shower to show her breasts to the audience and one thinks ‘oh French cinema was so advanced!’ But later we learn how the killer is coded as being homosexual (he’s never had sex with his wife in all the years they’ve been married. It’s what drove her into the arms of the dancer and later to murder; moreover, it’s all the fault of his mother. If she hadn’t driven him to paint and play sonatas, he might have ended up a normal boy, who didn’t kill women because he couldn’t get it up for them. These films, striving, as they do to reassert social order are also quick at removing any kind of otherness. They’re inherently conservative. I don’t generally mind. But I did here.
Casual cocaine-taking in Touchez pas au grisbi. Jeanne Moreau gets slapped for it. But I find it remarkable that she’s doing it in plain sight, if a little furtively, in a 1954 film. Watch out for the look that she gives René Dary at the end.
An efficient cop film, with touches of the spy thriller; not a masterpiece but a good and representative example of the genre in France, worth seeing today for the considerable pleasures it offers; and of historical interest because: it confirmed the stardom Lino Ventura had achieved the year previously in Le Gorille vous salue bien (Bernard Borderie, 1958); the screenplay is adapted and with dialogue by Frédéric Dard, one of the most famous and prolific crime writers of the last half of the twentieth century; the screenplay is also co-written by Claude Sautet who was also First Assistant Director on the film, and it is this meeting between Sautet and Ventura in Le fauve est lâché that would lead to Classe tous risques (1960) and L’arme à gauche (1966); and, on a more minor and perhaps personal note, it deploys Boris Vian’s great ‘Fais-moi mal Johnny’ in a scene where it evokes the associations you’d wish it to: rebellious youth in a slightly dangerous bohemian setting.
Le fauve est lâché begins excitingly with an assassination. Important papers touching on national security are stolen, and the French Secret Services (DTS) arrive on the scene. As this is happening, Paul Lamiani (Lino Ventura), a former forger turned resistance hero and secret agent, now retired, is shown busily running his own bistro and blissfully ensconced in family life. Secret Services try to reel him back into his old life, ‘For France’. But it involves betraying an old comrade and Lamiani will have none of it; with a touch of Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, he replies, ‘You keep your mind on France, I’ll take care of my bistro and nothing else’.
The DTS, Direction de la surveillance du territoire, the French National Police operating as a domestic intelligence agency, won’t take no for an answer. They play dirty, plant some fake money in his mattress, and threaten to revoke his license and his family’s livelihood until he co-operates. Thus the film sets up a tension between male friendship, the family and national security. It’s a tension that is missing from many contemporary cop flicks or action movies and whose value is worth underlining: the action is always underpinned, motivated, given emotional resonance by weightier and more complex consideration. What’s important in life? What is the value of friendship? What is one willing to sacrifice for family and children? What is it to be a man in France in 1959?
As a ‘polar’, a cop flick, Le fauve est lâché has plenty of fight scenes, well-filmed and interesting to us because of the divide between what was considered exciting in 1959 and now. Could a simple punch up between two men with little cutting be exciting? Well, yes. Moreover, Labro lets us see a completed action: thus, when the squat if not quite podgy Ventura jumps down a cliff, you see him do it, and understand what it’s cost the character physically. To say that action is imbued with feeling in the film is not to deny the pleasure of the set-pieces, particularly the spectacular one shot outside the cliffs of Etretat and also the one within the cliffs, where Lamiani is imprisoned by barriers, surrounded by enemies, and with the high tide threatening to drown him. It looks extraordinary (see below) and generates suspense.
In Lino Ventura (Editions First: Paris, 2014), Phillipe Durant claims that Ventura had no confidence in Labro’s handling of the action sequences and that Claude Sautet, 1st Assistant Director as well as screenwriter on the film, took over the filming of the ‘falaises d’Etreta’ sequences: ‘With the star’s support, the assistant becomes director…With him the scenes achieve an intensity that Labro would no doubt have been unable to achieve….Thanks to Sautet, Le fauve est lâché, acquires a new dimension. Not that of a great work but at least that of an honest action film’.
Ventura’s contract for the film had stipulated, amongst other things, not only a salary of 3 million francs, twice what he’d earned for Le Gorille vous salue bien, his first big hit in a starring role, but billing above the title: so he went into the film as it’s star. However, the success of the film confirmed that stardom. Le fauve est lâché was a box office hit. Budgeted at a modest 82 million francs, it did almost as well as Le Gorille vous salue bien with 2.1 million tickets sold and better than Le Valse du Gorille, the sequel to Le Gorille vous salue bien, which Ventura had turned down amidst fears of typecasting and in which he’d been replaced by Roger Hanin.
The trailer for Le fauve est lâché (see above)is most instructive on what Lino Ventura’s star persona represented in 1959. Trailers are so interesting for highlighting, revealing, explaining a star’s persona at any given point. The trailer offers a promise of certain characteristics on view or to be displayed by the star; a promise to the audience to explain the particular embodiment of a type with the associated pleasures audiences may expect from it. The voiceover tells us, ‘You know only him but look at him well. See how this time he’s calm, tranquil, a quiet father retired from business, at least a certain kind of business. He’s all placid behind his counter. But don’t believe it! It’s sleeping waters. Dynamite which covers…and here is the wildcat released, unchained…This man is dynamite, a sort of force of nature against which we’re helpless…This is the hero of Le fauve est lâché. There he is, more violent, more captivating than ever. This man is Lino Ventura’.
The film delivered on the promise of the trailer. Ventura has presence and he embodies the type well. But what the audience was allowed to discover for itself was just how good an actor Ventura had become. See the scene above: Gangsters have kidnapped his son in exchange for the secret papers and he’s calling Secret Services to inform them that this is where their dirty tricks have led to and that his son means more to him then his country. It’s all done in one shot which begins with him bouncing down the stairs, pushing his employees out of the way, dialing, getting his gun out of the drawer and into his pocket, and as the camera slowly moves into a close-up, unleashing his wildcat onto the authorities. See how his fists clench, how his voice rises to almost a scream, but how his eyes remain focussed, still. It’s this emotional unleashing from a place of relative emotional placidness that gives it the power that it has. And it’s also an example of how the film gains by building its action sequences on family melodrama.
The film was released on the 21st of January 1959; as we’ve seen, a considerable hit; and well-reviewed: Jean de Baroncelli in Le Monde wrote: Yesterday ‘gorilla’; today, wildcat; Ventura has in a few months become the no. 1 heavy-weight champ of French Cinema’. Watching Le fauve est lâché one understands why.
 Soutenu par l’acteur principal, l’assitant deviant réalisateur…Avec lui, les scenes atteignent une intensité que Labro n’aurait sans doute jamais pu susciter…Grâce a Sautet, Le fauve est lâché acquiert une nouvelle dimension. Pas celle d’une grande oeuvre mais au mons celle d’un honnête film d’action (loc 1783 on Kindle, translation my own)
 ‘Hier “gorille”, “fauve” aujourd’hui, Ventura est devenu en quelques mois le “pos lourd” no 1 du cinema francais. Translation my own, Phillip Durant’s Lino Ventura, loc 1783, Kindle.
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Les innocents aux mains sales/ Dirty Hands is an ingenious thriller by Claude Chabrol with a glorious opening: Romy Schneider plays Julie Womser, a St. Tropez housewife saddled with a rich but impotent husband (Rod Steiger as Louis Womser). As the film begins, she’s sunbathing nude, a kite falls on her bum, a cute man (Paolo Giusti playing Jeff Marle) chases after his kite, she asks him to remove it and offers herself to him. She brings him home; the husband’s there, drunk; they make out anyway; and in what seems a nanosecond, they’re planning his murder. I won’t go into the plot because it’s full of clever twists and continues to surprise until the end. Suffice it to say that it’s an elegant, almost minimalist chamber piece, with outstanding use of sound and the zoom lens so typical of that period.
What I want to focus on here are the clothes. The 70s are often seen as something of a sartorial joke; and that may be true of men’s fashion, particularly when we look at old family photographs of ourselves wearing psychedelic prints, long pointy collars, flares and platform shoes. But it’s a glorious period for women’s fashion, so influenced by vintage forties clothing with it’s variant on the platform, the knee-length suit, the cinched-waisted gowns etc. And as the 2015 exhibit, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 2015 demonstrated, ‘No two designers defined and dominated the decade more than Yves Saint Laurent and Halston. They were the era’s most influential and celebrated clothing creators, becoming celebrities in their own right. Both have been the subject of countless books, articles, films, and exhibitions.’
I have already in this blog commented on St. Laurent’s clothes for Romy Schneider in Max et les ferrailleurs and César et Rosalie. I here simply want to explore the various looks developed by Romy Schneider, Chabrol and St. Laurent in Les innocents aux mains sales and how they function as aspects of the mise-en-scène to evoke something about the type of woman Romy Schneider’s Julie Womser is, how she’s feeling, how she’s hiding what she’s feeling; how they express what’s happening to her; how the clothes serve the storytelling, characterisation and mood in the film.
After her nude introduction, we’re shown Romy Schneider in a sexy, hip-hugging black dress; elegant, with a jewelled strap but also showing lots of flesh. What’s evoked is wealth, elegance a sexyness that remains distanced , sober and sheathed, but that nevertheless is offered up to Jeff Marle on a white shag rug as soon as her husband has drunk himself into a stupor
Look 2: The kaftan, such a staple of 70s clothing, particularly St. Laurent’s, here conveying elegant couture casual; perfect for St. Tropez and the opposite of what we associate with Demis Roussos. It’s the setting where the husband surprises her with the gift of the car that is to play such an important part in the plot subsequently.
Look 3: The murder
How does a murderess look? Well, a chignon helps. Here Julie/Romy is dressed in black, the collar a hint of the sexuality that drives the passion and edges it into murder. Note too the cut of the dress, the bit of leg and the heels, which seem as much of a weapon as the chignon.
Look 4: The Sleepless Night. Light blue on a darker shade of blue for ‘une nuit blanche’ when she thinks she’s murdered her husband, can’t sleep and gets ready to make up her lies, dress them into view, and lie convincingly to the police.
Look 5: A Kaftan for The Morning After a Murder. This evokes and might be a precursor to St. Laurent’s famous Russian and Chinese inspired collections of the late 1970s. See also look 7.
Look 6 and 7 : Changes to Call the Police, in a darker shade of blue, closer to her sheets than her nightgown in Look 4, but then returns to Kaftan though this one is slightly different than the one above whilst clearly aiming to recall it. Romy’s Julie clearly’s got a collection in her closet
Look 8 and 9:
She returns to look 2, where her husband had bought her the car, but this time to receive a letter from her lover; and then goes to meet with her bank manager and the police at the bank but in the same dress she called the police in earlier but now wearing a black widow’s cape. The looks are clearly associative, symbolic, meant to unconsciously render situation and character whilst also recalling situations and events (here she’s wearing the kaftan she wore when she received the car that was her husband’s token of love but which we’re here told is how her lover drove away the husband’s body. Love turned to murder via money and passion)
Looks 10 and 11, Turbaned in black and wearing a respectable and elegant grey tweed to meet her husband’s friend and business manager, where she once more meets with the police who are getting suspicious of her. When she goes to see the judge she wears the same sober and elegant colour scheme but in a different outfit (see image three, below right). It’s like at this point in the plot the looks, colours, even textures of the character are seeping into one another.
I also want to bring in here some of the associations turban sand berets have for us: Frenchness, as we can see below with Michèle Morgan; a Parisian variant of it we associate with the ‘we’ll always have Paris’ flashback in Casablanca with Bergman and Bogart; the intelligence and coolness we associate with De Beauvoir (here with Nelson Algren; the turban was a signature look for her as it avoided having to do her hair, clearly not a problem for Julie/Romy); and lastly the underworld of noir femme fatales evoked by Bergman’s take on Dietrich in Arch of Triumph (Lewis Mileston, USA, 1948)
Look 12: At her nadir, when all the evidence points against her plotting with her lover to kill her husband; Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier film her in silhouette in a flowing dress, with a flowing scarf; when she comes in we see her all in black, like the unfortunate black widow she believes herself to be. Then, when her husband tells her what happened we flash back to her making love to her lover, the glittering strap being all that’s needed to associate this scene with the beginning (Look 1) where she had sex with her lover and which we now know her husband watched. Now she offers herself to her husband in an echo of the first time she offered herself to her lover, naked and in the sunshine; here enclosed in darkness and distance. At the end, he pays her, like the whore he believes her to be.
Look 13: After her husband returns and pays her to have sex with him, Julie makes herself up to be her version of an elegant whore, with St. Laurent seeming to draw inspiration from Lauren Bacall’s look at the end of To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, USA, 1944) and Dietrich in Blonde Venus (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1932). The Dietrich reference also recalls how in her biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich by her Daughter, Maria Riva recounts how hard Dietrich worked at her looks, that she designed them in consultation with Von Sternberg and Travis Banton, and how her performances were powerfully based on the progression of ‘looks’ that had a narrative and dramatic function in the film, particularly as ‘put on the scene’ by Von Sternberg as part of his mise-en-scène
Look 14: In black now, still trying to pretend she’s the innocent and respectable widow but the mise-en-scène showing us the situation is not as as clear as it seems. The grey tweed jacket she wore when she went to see her lawyers is hanging nonchalantly from the chair she’s sitting in and later revealed to be accompanied by a matching skirt:
Look15: In most of the last half-hour of the film Romy’s half black/half tweed turns into full black, eventually accompanied by a crochéd shawl of the sort you’d expect rural peasant widows to wear (and echoing the cape she wore in Look 9 when she first went to meet the authorities). It’ s in this dress that the plot and the actress goes through a whole series of events: she’s discovered not to be a widow, the lover she though dead returns, she gets raped in that dress, and she discovers that when she was thought to be guilty there was no sentence whereas when she’s known to be innocent there is. She does a lot of running — seeking help, fleeing danger — in this dress; and the hem seems to be weighted so that it moves beautifully, in sync and as a result of Julie’s turmoil and distress. It’s the ‘little black dress’ in motion and in performance as put into the scene by Romy Schneider and Yves St. Laurent
Still in black, after she’s been rescued from a rape, and comforted by a red and black tartan blanket, of the sort one associates with Canadian lumber jackets, kilts, homey blankets, and worn like a shawl.
Telling her lawyer (the wonderfully cynical and funny Jean Rochefort), ‘when I tried killing my husband, nothing happened to me, now I try to save him and I’m been punished’. Her look is entirely calm, sophisticated (the hairstyle), demure (the heavy scarf/collar) and as we can tell not only from the cut and fabric of the clothing but from those earrings, rich. However, the chignon seems to bear witness to murder.
Look 17: Suffering chic-ly in minimalist modern interiors that evoke wealth, richness (the gold cigarette lighter on the otherwise empty table), anomie and lonelyness and before the great finale where the darkness calls out her name.
Undressing and Dressing:
In a way the whole film is about dressing and undressing Romy Schneider. She’s a mystery the film 9and the audience) is meant to uncover. We first see her in shades, a reflection of the audience’s desires, a morsel eager to be eaten. The film, then often films her in shadow, partially, in silhouette (see image two below)
The film undresses Julie/Romie only to dress her up in various guises, so she performs different types of femininity for her husband, her lover, the police, the judge, and the audience. She’s often shown having agency over this costuming/construction, the clothes part of her masquerade, the body a kind of currency with which she pays and rewards, both part of the way she performs the various aspects of Julie’s character into being. The most telling point is when her husband returns, pays her to have sex like the whore he thinks she is, and she curls her hair and dresses in white in that Bacall/Dietrich echo is that is the only moment we see her in white in the entire film.
In between displaying her body, selling it or having it raped, the film dresses her mostly in black, with various types of accents; shiny for the lover, sober and sleeklined for the murder, enclosing blue when she talks to the police, or framed by grey tweed at the solicitors, or accented by different shawls. The only moments of colour and brightness are the kaftany casualness with the husband or the moment where she contrasts in binary whiteness to accept that she’s prostituted herself to her husband and is wiling to accept the bargain. It’s really quite extraordinary what a look at the uses of clothing in a film can reveal about character, story and storytelling, not to speak of the performer’s art (which I have not quite done so here though Romy Schneider is glorious). It’s a gorgeous wardrobe by Yves St. Laurent, expressively worn by Schneider and beautifully deployed by Chabrol.
Jared Leto’s look and performance were the only thing I really loved about Suicide Squad: he moves from innocent, heightened, romance to some leering looney almost before our eyes; the kind of transformation one remembers from childhood cartoon characters; and he brings a completely new spin to the role Heath Ledger put such a strong stamp on that it’s been his until now. But no longer. Leto seems all sweet and innocent and then he begins to leer in a lewd and suggestive way; it’s like sex mixed in with innocence and somehow rendered sweet instead of pervy because it’s the meeting of souls that the Joker and Harley Quinn are after.I though Leto wonderful; he and Margot Robbie together looked like they’d been sketched by the same artist and their relationship is a looney romance that lifts the film every time they share a scene. Most of the rest of the performers were fine, and they did look the part, especially Robbie, though maybe because her role is larger than Leto’s it was easy to see how repetitive it became as the film unfolded. I did find Cara Delevingne quite terrible in the long shots, like she had no idea how a Goddess should move and was simply trying to remember what frenzy had been like in the High School Discos.She’s not much better in the close-ups. Her performance and that of Viola Davis made me think what a straight-jacket ‘realism’ has become to American acting. Like they can’t imagine a stylised performance structured purely for the purpose of effects. What a pity.
But the performers weren’t the problem….At the moment none of these big budget movies seem to know how to do action; yet that’s their bread and butter; they do the look: things exploding, characters poised for movement, explosive backgrounds. But there’s no thrills at, say, an action completed because the quick cutting prevents one from seeing it; and narratively, there doesn’t seem to be anything at stake in the action: we don’t know the consequences of a shot or a movement, or even what the characters need to do to get out of a situation: it’s barely narrated and it’s not dramatised at all. And yet these films are almost all action; so if that’s not working, the spectacle actually ends up not being very spectacular. I found it dull and noisy. And I’m sorry to say that as I’ve really admired David Ayer’s work in End of Watch and Fury.