Month: December 2013

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, USA, 2013)

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I love the sound of Casey Affleck’s voice; a high-pitched bass sound, roundly toned, softly uttered, as distinctive as any in the current cinema; and capable of expressing so much; here the strangled murmur of the intensely wished about to be extinguished. It’s got Rooney Mara, very good in it as well; and it’s lovely to see Keith Carradine onscreen at any time. But I didn’t think much of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; and there were moments where Bradford Young’s cinematography was so dark I felt I wasn’t seeing it either.  I suppose I found it sub-Badlands; however, I do understand why others rate the film more highly. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints conveys an acute but flowing sadness that remains in the memory and is difficult to shake off: a sigh for that which is treasured but can no longer be. It feels not only the story of a doomed couple but also a kind of mourning for America.

José Arroyo

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, USA, 2013)

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Nebraska poster

Nebraska is very funny, bleakly beautiful, and sad in all the right ways. An elderly man (Bruce Dern) ravaged by a lifetime of drink and with incipient Alzheimer’s is convinced he’s won a million in a sweepstake which everyone else knows is a way of conning elderly people to take out magazine subscriptions. David (Will Forte), the youngest of his two sons, decides to humour his father and drive him to Nebraska as a way of spending time with him, a way of getting closer whilst there’s still time. What the son discovers is what all children no matter how old are shocked to learn about their parents; that they are not defined simply by their relationship to their children; that they are automous beings who have dreams, desires, hopes, histories, and wishes which may predate and extend beyond their offspring; which sometime does not even include them. Nebraska is like a ‘30s Depression movie in its bleak view of America and in some of the wisecracks the mother (June Squibb) gets to utter. It differs in that the wisecracks are sometimes mean-spirited and in that the characters are as bleak, blank and miserable as the conditions of their existence.  It also rather shames itself by having no one on screen as smart as the man behind the camera — the film is spiritually hemmed-in and diminished by a whiff of smugness and self-satisfied superiority towards its subjects . A Cagney, a Davis, a Blondell, any working class prole in front of the camera in the 30s would have punched the highlights right out of Alexander Payne’s hair. But Dern no can do, which is perhaps why, in spite of concerted efforts since the late 60, and no matter how good he is, he’s never become a star. That said, it’s a great performance in an almost great film.

José Arroyo

The Butler (Lee Daniels, USA, 2013)

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A history lesson à la Classics Illustrated – the Scooby-Doo version – on the civil rights of black people in America told through an imaginative depiction of the life of Cecil Gains (Forest Whittaker), a White House butler who worked for eight different presidents, The Butler  is nonetheless at times very moving. Moreover,  the melodramatic story is wittily leavened  by a humor that seems agreeably camp; camp that is enlivening, affirming and all the more pleasurable to see for being unusual in a story that focuses on an African-American family. Whittaker is better at conveying the emotion underneath the mask of blankness when with the presidents than the on-the surface human emotionality when with his family. Oprah Winfrey gets the down-low and sexy dimension of the wife just right, a considerable achievement given who she is and what she represents. There is a pleasure in seeing an all-star cast play these historical characters: when icons impersonate icons does the iconicity  of each combine to jive or jar? I’ll leave it up to you to pick your favorites though I can’t resist mentioning that I was shocked at how Jane Fonda was made up to look, even if she was playing Nancy Reagan. A movie that has nothing to do with the art of cinema but a lot to do with the fulfillment of film’s role as ‘America’s National Theatre’; the way such films make Americans feel they’re taking part in a collective conversation; and the audience’s pleasure in seeing how wigs and costumes are used as a shortcut to period and how an array of actors, many treasured since childhood, are now doing, ‘being’ and enacting.

José Arroyo

Two Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, France, 2007)

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2 Days in Paris

A charming tale of a couple’s visit to Paris: he’s an American interior decorator; she’s a French photographer; they’ve already been together for two years; but not in her culture, not in her hometown, not with her parents, not in Paris. The film has genuinely funny moments of culture clash, and it’s definitely an intelligent woman’s take on romance. I found it an enjoyable film to see even though it’s not quite good. Adam Goldberg is totally charmless and very badly cast. Daniel Brühl appears as an eco-terrorist who might be gay. I suspect the woman in the audience will laugh out loud and all the men who don’t find Delpy adorable will feel unable to utter the ‘ouch!’-es they’ll so acutely feel. The film doesn’t know how to end, so a contrived voice-over is meant to wrap up what should have been left open and painful. Too bad….but a very promising directing debut from Delpy nonetheless.

José Arroyo

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, USA, 2012)

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I didn’t think much of this when I first saw it and seeing it again  on DVD leaves an even worse impression. The only thing that’s still fresh and interesting is Jennifer Lawrence. The rest is very clunky and already rather cheap-looking. Even having District 12 look like a photo of the Great Depression and having the place where all the rich people live look like Berlin circa 1936, à la Leni Riefenstahl, is too obvious, too uninteresting; and the Marie Antoniette haircuts and so on — I understand the rationale but it’s over-emphatic and inelegant: does even the makeup have to be slathered on to make these people ugly? The film doesn’t have the same kind of sympathy for these characters that the novel had and that the film will have to earn in the sequels. Nobody and nothing is really good or sharp. I particularly disliked Stanley Tucci, who keeps playing fey cultural deviants in one smug note, one that would kiss itself with glee were it able to pop in from another dimension … and yet, the film was one of the most popular of its year. But was it loved? I doubt it.

José Arroyo

The Woman in Black (James Watkins, UK, 2012)

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The Woman in Black

*Major Spoiler*

Daniel Radcliffe is surprisingly good as Arthur Kipps, the young solicitor whose life is unraveling due to the death of his wife in childbirth. He goes up North and into a haunted house. Every time ‘The Woman in Black’ is seen, a child dies. Radcliffe finds the reasons for this and hopes to put an end to it by reuniting ‘The Woman in Black’ with the child that was taken away from her (her revenge for her child being taken away from her is to take other people’s children). However, it doesn’t work and at the end Radcliff dies with his child. There is some very good direction by James Watkins. I particularly like the device that Radcliffe’s p.o.v doesn’t see exactly what we do until the end. Those initial moments where we see what he doesn’t are what begin the suspense and scariness in a film that barely throws a chill during the first half. The cinematography by Tim Maurice Jones is lovely, particularly the helicopter shots where you see them kind of imprisoned in this desolately beautiful landscape.  Screenplay is credited to Jane Goldman and is based on Susan Hill’s famous novel. I liked it but not as much as my friends did.

José Arroyo

Zodiac (David Fincher, USA, 2007)

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Based on the famed ‘Zodiac Killer’ who operated in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s and whose murders remain unresolved, David Fincher’s film has fantastic set design, marvelous mise-en-scène and complex story-telling. Gyllenhall is adequate as Robert Graysmith, the cartoonist who begins to detect a pattern to the killings. Where the film really breaks down is with Robert Downey Jr. as Paul Avery, the crime reporter who Graysmith enlists in his quest to solve the murders. Downey Jr. is becoming the ‘Greer Garson Of Our Day’: everything he does is meant to incite a round of applause, he can’t seem to get over the cuteness of each of his actions, and there’s an implicit gracious bow to each part of his performance, like a toreador after each pass of the cape; all  extraordinarily grande-dame-ish and irritating. In spite of Mark Ruffalo, fascinating as always, the casting rather sinks what is otherwise a fantastic movie: gorgeous to look at, marvelously plotted, rather dankly elegant, and with a searing visual intelligence. A film that sadly and ultimately remains unsatisfying but which every film buff should see.

José Arroyo

La veuve Couderc (Pierre Granier-Deferre, France, 1971)

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1934. A handsome man walking though the countryside in France sees a middle-aged widow get off the bus. She’s carrying a heavy package containing an incubator for chickens. He offers to help her bring it inside and lands himself a job in the farm and a bed with the widow, though that’s not strictly part of the bargain. The vagrant on the road is Alain Delon; the widow is Simone Signoret.

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In the first few shots director Pierre Granier-Deferre lays out a location — a farm separated by a bridge over a canal that has to be raised for boats and lowered for pedestrians; a social setting — France in the grip of the economic and political incertitude that followed the Stavisky affair; and dramatises a whole series of antagonistic personal relationships: The widow lives with her father-in-law on one side of the bridge; her in-laws live on the other; the in-laws want to take possession of the old man in order to kick her out and take-over the farm; the widow sees the farm as her right and makes sure she keeps her father-in-law happy to ensure it. On the other side of the canal, her in-laws have a nympho daughter, already with a bastard child, who’s got her eye on the vagrant. Meanwhile the widow Courdec has her weary eye firmly on everyone who wants to take what she sees as hers.

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La veuve Courdec is well-made film, an adaptation of a George Simenon novel, where the pettiness of people, their self-interestedness, their plotting for personal advantage, is couched in ideals not quite able to contain and mask the nastiness bubbling underneath them. They’re grasping, base; it’s what’s hardened the widow. She wants Delon, thinks money will keep him, but he’s his own man, goes after the younger tramp, her niece. He tells her quite clearly he fancies her niece because she’s younger. She gets jealous, kicks him out, finds out he’s a killer who has a gun. Nonetheless, she’s drawn to him and takes him back. There’s a scene where they sleep together and in the morning he reaches out for her in bed, and his whole body tenses as his hand wonders around the bed. She, looking down on all of this, on him, sees his body relax with relief as he finds her hand and she is moved. She knows his want for her is real. The look that Signoret gives Delon, it’s as if he’s the first person who’s ever showed her any affection.

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There’s a great scene after, where we see the widow washing her man’s trousers and lording it over the other women’s disapproving faces. Those women have always disapproved but now they’re disapproving at her flaunting of her pleasure — she flaunts her man’s washing with pride cause she’s still clearly getting some and they’re not – and their displeasure is a further source of pleasure to her.

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It’s a very deft  film, cleverly directed by Granie-Deferre, and easy to under-estimate. On first glance we might think it akin to a made-for-TV movie but with a bigger budget. And yet, it’s a work that deepens and gets richer upon reflection.  In a few shots you have a period, a political background, a rural setting with working people scraping by, each with a motive to hate each other, a killer on the run, a hardened widow too accustomed to petty cruelties, and a cross-set of desires heading in various directions. Granier-Deferre sets out the symbolism of the drawbridge, where people on boats loll pleasantly by but the hatred between the family is entrenched so firmly that lowering the drawbridge is only an opportunity for further hurts. There’s also the incubator, the promise of a richer way of life from giving life, but one that all of society is intent on destroying.

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The setting is rural, the look is green, there are the sounds of birds, all Delon wants is some sun, all Signoret wants is a little love. But it’s a world full of hatred that won’t let them have the little they seek. Even the music, a romantic score by Phillipe Sarde, one with elegiac overtones but with a forward movement, evokes that which is dreamed of but will forever be impossible. Speaking of the real feeling between them, between a middle-age woman running to fat and a handsome man in the prime of his life, Signoret tells Delon, ‘Nobody would understand’. ‘Nobody ever understands’ he replies. However, at the end of the film, when we get a little coda informing us that the name of the character Delon plays is Jean Lavigne and that he’d shot two people because he’d simply had enough, we do indeed understand.

Simone Signoret being great

        La veuve Courdec has sweeping camera movement, an eye for the image, a feel for period and for people but its core strength lies in its stars, two of the biggest in the history of French Cinema: Delon very effective and Signoret just absolutely great. There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where she tells Delon her story (see clip above)in front of her deaf father in law, and she raises her voices so her father-in-law can hear her, whilst her mind is still on setting out breakfast, that measures out a life-time of rage, and cuts through the well-crafted, middle-classness of the film into that which hurts, which is real, complex, human, trapped but in revolt. This is the realm of art which the film itself can never hope to aspire to but which the film is the setting and context for. There’s a reason Granier-Deferre attracted all the big stars. He not only helps them shine as stars but provides a platform where they can reach moments of greatness as artists which are not quite within the director’s own grasp.

José Arroyo

Jude Law in Henry V

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The production feels like Shakespeare for tourists: — too bare a design, too sparse a company – as if all the money had gone into the West End venue or Jude Law’s pocket, leaving but short change for all else. What with Scottish separatism, Welsh nationalism, migration into the UK and the role of Britain in Europe all currently hot topics, it’s in some ways a timely production, though what Shakespeare’s most rousing take on English nationalism, however inclusive, can contribute to the current debate is  still up for grabs, even after seeing the play.

This Henry V has been chopped up and shortened; probably in an attempt to render it palatable to an audience who really couldn’t care less what the play was about, the reasons for staging it now, or even the fact that it is Shakespeare. They’d just come to see Jude Law. And they don’t leave disappointed: He’s magnificent.

Seeing Jude Law recently in films such as Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2013) and Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, UK, 2013), highlighted how, as he was beginning to lose his looks, to grown into a baldy, baggy-eyed middle-age, he seemed to be gaining in stature as an actor. On film, he’s simply never been better. He’s no longer pretty in Side Effects  but who cares about pretty when he can play human and swayed and slightly weak but pushed to fight back and sometimes all of these things simultaneously and transparently? In Anna Karenina, as Anna’s cuckolded husband, Karenin, he seem to finally allows the audience to discover him as a great actor. Of the protagonists, he’s really the only one who conveys a recognizable person and a way of life. It’s interesting because the role is historically a dud (few actors win kudos for playing middle-aged, dull, and respectable). Yet, Law makes us believe him in the part, quite an achievement when one considers his career and persona.

There seems an inverse correlation between his looks and, if not his acting per se, then perhaps our appreciation of it. But onstage, our first image of him as Henry V, crowned, robed and bathed in amber light  — a sight that incites  a collective intake of breath — is  one that has more to do with how we first saw him in the movie all those years ago than on our experience of seeing him in the movies now. At that initial moment, Henry’s introduction to the audience, he’s as beautiful and golden as he was in The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, USA, 1999), looking divine in both the literal and slangy senses of the word.

Later, when he comes on-stage to receive the Dauphin’s tennis balls and begins to talk of the balls he’ll hang in Paris, he seems sexier than he ever has, manly, powerful. He’s dressed in a leather sleeveless jacket that is not quite a waistocat, tightly buttoned to accentuate broad shoulders and very slim waist, the jacket flaring slightly  just above the hip and overhanging a too large cod-piece. He wears green hipster trousers over boots of the same colour to lengthen the leg. The ensemble allows his body a full range of movement, and he’s an actor who can command his body to expressive purposes dramatically and with grace.  The contrast between how he looks and what he conveys on stage in Henry V and how he looks and what he conveys in the trailer for the forthcoming Dom Hemingway (Richard Shephard, UK, 2013is in itself a coup de théâtre

The Agincourt battle scenes give him a chance to heave, run, rant and eulogise, which he does effortlessly.  His ‘Saint Crispin’s Day’ speech is very fine though it doesn’t quite make you forget that this is the way ideology works, getting people to give up their lives for an idea at great risk and no material benefit to themselves, an idea underlined later by the troops he talks to when he disguises himself as an ordinary man and walks incognito through the encampment. Maybe we’re too cynical now to buy into it in the same way we imagine wartime audiences for Olivier’s film of Henry V  (1944, UK) did, or perhaps Law doesn’t quite pull it off. I any case one can imagine it being rousing without quite succumbing and allowing it to be moving. However, later on, Law pulls off the masculine mateyness required of him with the same élan that he did the regal, the imperious, and the lordly near the beginning when condemning the traitors to death.

IMG_7890Law’s obviously very good in the action sequences and he speaks the verse fluidly and well. He makes the stage crackle by his presence; proceedings seem to pick up pace and energy, though his voice lacks the power of Olivier and his speaking of the verse does not seem as varied as Branagh’s  (1989, UK) in the two film versions of the play that I have seen. However, as the play proceeds other actors rise to Law’s challenge and the play picks up pace. Ron Cook as Pistol and Matt Ryan as Fluellen in particular also got a round of applause from the audience for their comic playing, both excellent with the verse; the latter perhaps because of his youth, also bringing energy and physicality to his comedy playing. He gets his laughs without clowning but with verve. Ashley Zanghazha is also excellent as the one-man chorus who set the scene and dramatises the play’s self-reflexivity.

There’s a comic interlude in the play, an English lesson where Lady Alice (Noma Dumezweni) teaches Princess Katherine (Jessie Buckley) English, and probably inserted merely to allow the boys a costume change,  that nonetheless is very well thought through and directed and is funny and graceful whilst narratively setting up the final wooing of Princess Katherine by Henry.

That final wooing scene is the crowning glory of Law’s performance. He’s been charismatic, graceful, dynamic and moving throughout the course of the play. But nothing surprised as much as the comedy in his wooing: he gets laughs by letting the audience in the joke, the speech least likely to have been written about Law himself:

‘therefore was I created with a

stubborn outside, with an aspect of iron, that, when

I come to woo ladies, I fright them. But, in faith,

Kate, the elder I wax, the better I shall appear

But in his performance there is also the way he positions his leg, and the speed at which he gets up. The speech also allows him range. He’s simulatenously moving, embarrassed, flirty, arrogant and kingly; then a man wooing a woman and on the verge of doing wrong and almost apprehended by his beloved’s father as the French King walks in to the ratify the treaty.

He’s truly great. It’s hard to think anyone of his generation offering a better Henry V. And he gives the audience what they came for; not only the chance to see a movie star, but the thrill of seeing a movie star act live; a thrill in some cases charged with a more personal frisson (my friend, a fan, measured the distance from our seats to the stage and said, ‘I’ll probably never be this close to him again in my life’). When at the end one has seen a movie star give a great performance on stage  in one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire, then the joy is complete. Too bad Michael Grandage’s production doesn’t rise to the level of its star.

José Arroyo

Seen at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, 18th December, directed by Michael Grandage

Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline (Terence Young, USA/West Germany, 1979)

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The credits insist it is Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline so perhaps that is reason enough to blame him for this mess. Sheldon achieved great renown in Hollywood first as a very successful screenwriter (The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, Easter Parade), then as the creator of hit television shows (I Dream of Jeannie, Hart to Hart) but became a household name as a best-selling author. The L.A. Times called him ‘The King of the Potboilers’. In the 70s, tweens of my generation used to read him in conjunction with Harold Robbins (79 Park Avenue) and Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man) for their melodramatic mix of characters of low origins clawing their way into high living, corporate criminality and purple-y passages of kinky sex. Interestingly many of these bestsellers were turned into highly rated miniseries where the author’s name was usually attached (e.g. Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue). The works of Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins and Danielle Steele, at least as popular, are female equivalents, though these have a greater tendency to use showbiz or fashion as background setting.

Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline is directed by Terence Young and the screenplay is credited to Laird Koenig so some of the blame for this failure must go to them. The film feels like a television miniseries of the period but with a very big budget. The locations, the décor, the costumes, not to speak of that extraordinary all-star cast headed by Audrey Hepburn are all top. But the film is a mess right from the beginning.

Romy Schneider's star entrance.
Romy Schneider’s star entrance.

You know a film is in trouble when a secondary character( Romy Schneider) gets a better star entrance than the star, Audrey Hepburn; Romy gets to whizz around a track in a sportscar, win the race, take off her helmet, reveal yet another covering — a beige balaclava — before whipping THAT off and finally bringing into view the wonder that it is ROMY SCHNEIDER guzzling a bottle of  vichy water as if it was overflowing champagne; in contrast, we first see Audrey in a long shot in a museum brushing away at the skeleton of some prehistoric dinosaur looking like an aristocrat playing at housepainter – it’s very Greer Garson-ish grand and a tad embarrassing.

Our first sight glimpse of Audrey.
Our first sight glimpse of Audrey.

You’re convinced the film is heading down the toilet a few minutes later, when it gets  its star and  protagonist to perform the boring but necessary bits of telling the audience what it needs to know about her character. The director doesn’t even bother to get the reaction shots from the person Audrey is telling it to, Ben Gazzara. A better director would have given that exposition to Gazzara, nay a maid or an assistant, and let Hepburn ’emote’ in reaction. Bit players tell, stars do and feel. You can bet Cary Grant wouldn’t have put up with the kind of  treatment Audrey gets here.

I’ve made a point of using the stars’ names rather than the characters’ because the latter remain unknowable to us even after the film ends, and this is only one of the film’s many faults. Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline has a screenplay that tells rather than dramatises. On the one hand, music and direction underline everything for you in case you’re too stupid to get the obvious: on the other, however, smart you are, the film simply doesn’t make sense.

The story is about a super-rich industrialist who gets killed. His daughter (Audrey) inherits a share in the business with her cousins (the characters played by Romy Schneider and Irene Papas; we also know that James Mason is a relation but unsure of what kind). They’re all after money; they’re all suspects in the initial murder; they’re all capable of killing Audrey.

The film plays as a whodunnit, with Gert Fröbe as Inspector Max Hornung, a Poirot-type detective who uses a massive computer instead of his little gray cells to solve crimes. The crime solving takes us  through luxurious locations (Stately Home England, the Paris of Maxim’s and the George V, villas in Sardinia) with a detour via flashback to the Jewish ghetto in  Cracow (where the family business started) and another into the lurid world of pornographic snuff films. It’s all unbelievably trashy but meant to be glamorous and jet-set decadent.

This is a film where most of those involved seem to be at their worst. Terence Young’s direction is a klang of over-statement; the editing has to be amongst the worst in any big-budget production (Bud Molin is credited); the great Freddie Young does no more than make the stars and locations look good (which is not nothing; it’s just not enough); and even Enio Morricone’s contribution is an embarrassing one – a slushy score that a disco beat occasionally pulses into life (as in the drug manufacturing sequence). Also, the movie has that distancing, empty-sounding quality one gets from bad dubbing and the whole film is so poorly put together that Irene Papas, Romy Schneider and Audrey all play cousins but speak in their own accents without any explanation as to why they all sound so different.

Audrey dresses daringly for Ben at Maxim's
Audrey dresses daringly for Ben at Maxim’s

Still even a film as trashy as this has its compensations. Audrey Hepburn looks her age but still beautiful and ever chic, wearing those enormous glasses fashionable in the 70s that in America continue to be associated with Jackie O.

Romy Schneider doesn’t get to do much as the cousin married to a man who likes to stab beetles with pins and watch them slowly die (Maurice Ronet) but she looks stunning, is given a great entrance, and has the most interesting character to play. And of course, there are also James Mason, Irene Paps, Omar Shariff, even Ben Gazzara (though his part calls for a star rather than a very good dynamic actor). This is the type of production where one would expect the likes of Michelle Phillips, who is well cast here. The question is why did the others get involved? I suppose if Sir Laurence Olivier wasn’t too grand to star in Harold Robbins trash like The Betsy (Daniel Petrie, USA, 1978), only the year before this….

Bloodline really is as bad as everyone says and is only for fans of Audrey Hepburn, Romy Schneider or James Mason who, like I, are compulsed to be completists.

José Arroyo

Le Combat dans l’île/ Fire and Ice (Alain Cavalier, France, 1962)

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Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 13.30.52Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider dazzle in Le Combat dans l’île, their first film together. It’s a political allegory played out through a melodramatic love story and visualised as a noir. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Clément, the son of a rich industrialist who’s involved with a crypto-fascist revolutionary group that plans to assassinate a left-wing politician. Schneider is Anne, his wife, a foreigner and formerly an actress, ignorant of her husband’s doings until the maid finds a package in the closet that turns out to be a bazooka.

Clement doesn't like Anne talking to old pals, particularly when they're black and in showbiz.
Clement doesn’t like Anne talking to old pals, particularly when they’re black and in showbiz.

The film reminded me of Ascenseur pur l’échefaud/ Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, France, 1958) in its spare compositions, low-angle shots on people, wonderings through Paris, acute evocation of mood; and also in the close-ups on faces, the use of silence, and even the way the score is used (though here its mostly Mozart instead of Miles Davis). Both films convey a loneliness, a desperation in love and a quest for meaning that can be characterized as existential; and both convey a textured intensity of feeling that nonetheless seems overhung with ennui. I wasn’t surprised to see Louis Malle listed as producer in the credits.

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 13.31.29Romy Schneider is at her most beautiful and touching in Le Combat dans l’île; but then, I seem to feel that each time I see her. She’s exquisite here, still with a trace of baby fat but already seeming simultaneously transparent and mysterious; and capable of expressing a great range of emotion with delicacy and feeling. Le Combat dans l’île was her first film in France where she was to make her home and do her greatest work. Her Anne is extraordinary in that she’s able to convey the extrovert’s life one associates with an actress, her knowledge that her husband is shutting that life down, making it smaller, her love for her husband, and, when he beats her, her fear, hurt. and yes, arousal. Schneider not only succeeds in getting an audience to understand her Anne, but also, whilst invoking admiration for her beauty and skill as an actress, simultaneously incites a feeling of protectiveness towards her character. We understand and are with Schneider’s Anne.

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Trintignant matches Schneider and is to me the revelation of Le Combat dans l’îsle . He looks very young here and very attractive. There are moments when he comes out of the darkness and into the frame where the lighting highlights long eye-lashes and a full lower lip. He’s short but wiry and gives the impression of being quietly coiled but primed for violence. His political fervor is rendered as an arousal brought on by a feeling of mastery that also helps to explain his relationship to his wife.

The first time we see Clement hitting Anne before sex
The first time we see Clement hitting Anne before sex

There’s a scene mid-way through the film, when Anne and Clément are in the woods, which beautifully illustrates this sudden burst into the unexpected: Like most scenes between Clément and Anne, it is  characterized by a hint of violence that is also a hint of sex, and by a mutual affection that nonetheless victimizes her. It’s like they both find that danger sexy, and maybe for the same reason — the clarity of his dominance;. However,  she’s also very much a bird with clipped wings and revolts at the same time as she sumbits.

In the woods, he tells her he’s going to kill the former colleague who’s since betrayed him, and she, aghast at the thought but also at what that might do to them, to her, tells him ‘I wanted to live and you’re killing me. You’re destroying me bit by bit. You’ll end up by killing me too.’ As she says this, he gives a kind of gleeful smile, not at the thought of doing so, but because he finds such power exciting; it makes him feel alive. Trintignant then chases after her  nuzzling her neck affectionately without letting go of her hold on him, almost as if he loves her so much and is so insecure of his hold on her that he’s got to force it.

These are fascinating and original acting choices on the part of Trintignant and they’re thrilling to watch. I loved the moment where he stares at himself on a knife at breakfast or when he goes to kiss Anne in his final attempt to win her back and tenderly places a fist on either side of her neck before trying to kiss her. One can’t quite decide whether it’s adolescent confusion or underplayed psychosis that Trintignant is intending but these choices vividly convey why Anne continues to fancy him and why she stays whilst also showing how clearly he is capable of killing someone. It’s a great performance, one that makes of Clément a vivid contrasts to Paul (Henri Serre), the other man in what eventually turns into a triangle.

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Clément and Paul are blood-brothers from childhood. The film uses them as structural opposites in the narrative; Clément is short, Paul tall; one lives in the city, the other in an old mill in the country; one is married, one is widowed; one is right-wing, the other at least a democrat. One loses Anne; the other wins her; one forbids her to act, the other provides the platform in which she can shine. It’s too bad that the bad guy is a much better actor. Henri Serre then on a career high due to playing Jim in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, looks the part beautifully but diminishes his contributions to the film each time he opens his mouth. It’s very easy to understand why in spite of his initial celbritiy he never quite became a star.

The film gets its title from the final combat between Clément and Paul on the island. The battle is for Anne of course but it’s also for a politic, a way of life, and a particular kind of future. I’m not well versed enough in French history  to know what the film is allegorizing though it doesn’t take too great a knowledge of history to note that it’s related to then recent Algerian war,. However, such knowledge is not necessary to appreciate this moody, beautiful film which seems to shape a whole way of life and a set of moral attitudes out of shadows and light; and the way that that light hits fog, fire and ice, in the country and in the city.

Le Combat dans l’îsle is a film of the nouvelle vague by one of its lesser lights (I’d never heard of Alain Cavalier before this). It references Godard and À bout de souffle/ Breathless directly when Clément goes to find his wife at the ‘hôtel de Suède’ room no. 12. It also references Truffaut through the casting of Serre. Pierre Lhomme, who’s work here is so great also worked with Jean-Pierre Melville on L’Armée de ombre/ Army of Shadows (which would have been such a great title for this film had it not already been taken). But these are peripheral reasons to see the film.

Le Combat dans l’îsle deserves to be seen for  the beauty of its images, the intensity of the mood it creates, the economy with which the two assassinations are depicted (a lesson to any young filmmaker in how to do very powerful scenes on the cheap), the extraordinary performances of Schneider and Trintingant and the complex and exciting depiction of sexual attraction.

Aside from some of the voice-over narration, so typical of noir, my only complaint with Le Combat dans l’îsle is the knowledge that if Clément’s politics had been left instead of right, it would have been Trintignant rather than Serre, in the final clinch with Romy; and who wouldn’t have wanted that? Yet, if that is so, what does it say about the representation of politics in cinema?

José Arroyo

What’s New Pussycat? (Clive Donner, USA, 1965)

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Romy Schneider in a Blue Angel Hat but evoking a sweetness and innocence forever outside Dietrich's powers.
Romy Schneider in a Blue Angel hat but evoking a sweetness and innocence forever outside Dietrich’s powers.

Coarse, stupid, vulgar: What’s New Pussycat is a film that speaks its time — a culture on the cusp of a sexual revolution made possible by easily available contraception — and vomits up the most misogynist aspects of it. The film gets its title from Warren Beatty’s customary greeting to the women who phoned him. Beatty was initially set to play the protagonist,  Michael James, a playboy in love with his girlfriend but unable to resist the lure of other women and seeking help for this from a psychiatrist (a role initially set for Groucho Marx but here played by Peter Sellers) who’s got problems of his own.

O'Toole in a dream sequence, whipping away all the women who are after his body
O’Toole in a dream sequence, whipping away all the women who are after his body

In his brilliant biography of Beatty, Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, Peter Biskind writes of how Beatty had three reservations about the project as it was being developed: Woody Allen, who was writing the film, kept enlarging his part, initially just a few lines, at the expense of the protagonist’s; the casting of Capucine, who was then producer Charles K. Feldman’s girlfriend; and lastly, in his own words, that ‘My character had turned into some neo-Nazi Ubermensch who was unkind to women’.

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This is the body Capucine, Paula Prentiss, Ursula Andress and Romy Schneider can’t resist?

Beatty threatened to walk out of the project unless these problems were resolved. Feldman, who was Beatty’s great friend and mentor, shocked him by using Beatty’s threat as an opportunity to re-cast in favour of Peter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia and Becket and then much bigger box-office. But Beatty was right: Woody Allen’s part adds nothing to the story; Capucine is beautiful to look at but painful to watch; and the character of Michael James, even as played by Peter O’Toole, is indeed unkind to women, though not as hatefully as the film itself.

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The kind of film where Ursula Andress parachutes directly into O’Toole’s passenger seat.

The women in the film aren’t people, they’re dolls, some of them barely sentient, designed to fulfill different male fears or desires: there’s the fat Brünhilde (Edra Gale) who sings Wagner as she charges after her husband, Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers); the frigid ‘poetess’ who’s a virgin but only on one side of the Atlantic (Paula Prentiss, redeemed by her expressive low voice, a hoarseness that expresses more humanity than any of the shit she’s made to utter); the nympho with sadistic impulses (Capucine); the dangerous dream with leopard-skin mittens and a shark-skin body-suit who parachutes right onto the hero’s 1936-7 Singer 9 Le Mans racing car (Ursula Andress); and the lusciously pretty hausfrau girlfriend, who suffers, waits, and thinks only of getting a fixed date for her wedding (Romy Schneider, who against all odds, succeeds in making her character into a human being).

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The film loves O’Toole’s blue eyes more than its female stars.

Peter Sellers gets top billing but is an unfunny blank. A young, even boyish, Woody Allen, whose film debut this is, does his usual lascivious schtick. These two comic ‘geniuses’ can barely get a laugh between them, and certainly not one that doesn’t make at least this viewer feel diminished as a human being. The film is more in love with Peter O’Toole’s blue eyes than it is with any of its female stars. We’re meant to find him adorable even when he takes his shirt off to reveal a chest that is both droopy and scrawny or when he dances like a shaky stick howling at the moon begging for rhythm. O’Toole, however, also brings a lovely stillness juxtaposed with bursts of theatricality that both centres and sparks the film and makes it bearable.

Paula Prentiss in paisley
Paula Prentiss in paisley

 

What’s Up Pussycat? was a top-ten box-office success in 1965, the year that The Sound of Music topped the list. Although it is set in France, it very much evokes the look and attitudes of ‘Swinging London’ not only in its inventive visuals (the animated sequence at the beginning) but also formally (the self-reflexive pop elements of the speech purporting to be a vehicle for the author’s thought indicated through a flashing title; the dream sequence). Today it is probably best remembered for Tom Jones’s singing of the title tune. Fans of the Bacharach-David songbook will also enjoy an early version of ‘Little Red Book’ and the great Dionne Warwick singing ‘Here I Am’. Pop fans of the period may also delight in seeing Françoise Hardy crop up as the Mayor’s assistant. Those interested in film history might also see in this producer’s package an early antecedent to the Simpson-Bruckheimer High Concept cinema of the 1980.

In spite of the above, it is very difficult to see What’s Up Pussycat? today except as an exercise in a male privilege so entrenched it is oblivious to its own ugliness.

José Arroyo

La Banquière (Francis Girod, France, 1980)

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A star vehicle for Romy Schneider, one of very greatest of European stars of the 1970’s. La Banquière tells the story of Emma Eckhart, a working-class woman, persecuted for her homosexuality, who becomes one of the great financial wizards of the twenties and thirties before an all-male establishment plots her demise and, failing to outwit her, resorts to murder. The film is a rise-and-fall narrative which combines elements from Baby Face (the uses of sex to facilitate the social and financial rise of an ambitious woman) and career-women films of the 1940s such as Mildred Pierce (the building of an empire almost single-handedly albeit greatly aided by a community of women) though it lacks the energy of the former and the artistry of the latter.

Romy, dressed to love women.
Romy, dressed to love women.

It’s not without its pleasures however: primarily a superb Romy Schneider in one of her most famous roles and greatest hits, Jean-Louis Trintignant as Horace Vannister, the aristocratic villain, and a very young Daniel Auteil as Duclaux, a rather perverse looking and (perhaps thus) amoral young villain-for-hire. The film also has a very interesting look, beginning with a 1970s idea of silent cinema: black and white, energetic tinkling on the piano, the narrative distinguished from the archival footage incorporated into it by showing the latter in the speeded up form typical of shots filmed at 18 frames per second but projected at 24; then, transitioning into a post-WWI world of muted colours and the restrained elegance big money can buy (the Charleston is relegated to speeded-up black-and-white representation) . The Art Deco furniture and bibelots on display are sublime and make one want to pause the film to stare at them (not a good thing really), the clothes are beautiful, and La Banquière is in everyway a sumptuous production. However, it is also one of those films that remind you that many beautiful things inside a shot do not a beautiful or expressive shot make; one sometimes questions if Girod does in fact know what he’s doing with a camera.

Romy in one of her most celebrated performances.
Romy, beginning to be undone by men

La Banquière should be of interest to anyone intrigued by Romy Schneider, the ‘woman’s film’, and/or representations of lesbianism in cinema.  I can’t think of another big-budget, star-vehicle in a period setting where the woman at the centre, the woman who acts and is acted upon, is introduced as a lusty beautiful girl in love with girls, persecuted for that preference and encouraged by her father to lead her own life. We’re shown most of this in the first few minutes of the film: After having been caught in bed by the police with another woman and being brought home in a paddy wagon, her father tells her, ‘don’t be ashamed. They want you to feel ashamed so they can step on you. You’re beautiful, you’re intelligent, the world will smile on you!’. It’s, at least historically, quite an astonishing start.

Auteuil condenses a whole amalgamation of negative stereotypes --  pursed-lipped, prissy, and deadly.
Auteuil condenses a whole amalgamation of negative stereotypes — pursed-lipped, prissy, and deadly.

In La Banquière, all the girls fall in love with Emma, facilitate her rise and/or cushion her fall, and, as Emma is played by Romy Schneider, who can blame them? As the film progresses, she marries for money and status, several times, and has a child, all the while maintaining her primary relationships with women, before we’re shown her desires becoming more labile and expansive. The film is interesting too in that her downfall begins when she falls in love with a man (Daniel Mesguich), younger, selfish, worthless. It’s the type of representation sure to arouse debate in some circles, difficult to categorise and very much worth seeing because of that.

José Arroyo