Seeing it once more for the umpteenth time, I thought Rita Hayworth more glamorous and beautiful than ever. She’s this glossy, luscious, rhythmic, sexually aware and knowing presence, with hair that has a life of its own and is as sexually enticing as any other part of her. Gilda is a totally glamorous film and in its own way very democratic in all its impulses. I love the uncle Pio character played by Steven Geray in that his ‘peasant’ insults illustrate that democratizing aspect of Rita’s character – she always treats him as an equal in spite of being a gal on the make — versus Glenn Ford’s – the more vulgar whore– only to redeem him later. Johnny Farrell learns how to be loved by Gilda as he learns to respect Uncle Pio.
I remember a friend many years ago raising an eyebrow when I told him how much I loved Gilda. It’s been in my life now in one way or another for thirty years. And I still love it. But I now more fully understand why he thought it not a good film: The characters don’t resemble any real people, the plot is ludicrous, the ending unbelievable and pat, a lot of extraneous characters that don’t feel necessary and that not enough is made of. Nothing in it is for one moment believable. It’s all hokum. By one set of criteria, it’s a bad film.
However, if a film inevitably ends up being a collection of moments in one’s memory, this is full of treasured ones: the highly symbolized and highly sexual initial meeting between Johnny and Ballen (George Macready); Gilda’s strip-tease; the introduction of Rita (‘decent, me?’); the moment where Ballin threatens her as she’s lying in bed (the shift in focus and light); the moment after she drinks to damn the woman who ruined Johnny’s life; the moment where Glenn brings her back from the pool and Mundson becomes graphically two-dimensional; the party sequence with the s/m gear. There are brilliant dialogue bits as well (more women in the world than anything else, except insects?) It’s a good illustration of the difference between a landmark film and a great film, between a sociological phenomenon and a work of art, between a cultural memory and the repository of cultural values.
…And yet, films that might not have a direct referent to the world that we live in but that nonetheless tap as deeply and directly into a collective dream world of fantasy and longing as Gilda – a world we might very much wish to live and participate in — are so rare as to constitute their own, very particular, art form. Maybe, as the tagline goes, ‘there never was a woman like Gilda’ but the film sure succeeds in making us wish there were.
The lights went out in American cinema just before the iron curtain went down in Europe. ‘ In Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, we’re told, ‘”Film noir” is literally “black film,” not just in the sense of being full of physically dark images, nor of reflecting dark mood in American society, but equally, almost empirically, as a black slate on which the culture could inscribe its ills and in the process produce a catharsis to help relieve them.’ According to James Naremore, ‘thrillers of the 1940s and 50s…were perversely erotic, confined largely to interiors, photographed in a deep-focus style that seemed to reveal the secret life of things, and often derived from the literature of alcohol – a substance especially conducive to desire, enervation, euphoria, confusion and nightmare…Indeed the narratives themselves are often situated on the margins of dream as if to intensify the surrealist atmosphere of violent confusion or disequilibrium that (French critics) Borde and Chaumeton regard as the very basis of noir’.
Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady fits most of the characteristics they all describe but doesn’t make Rosenbaum’s list. It seems a key noir but one that doesn’t feature as much in the discussions of the mode as one might expect. Though released the same year as Double Indemnity and a popular success in its day – it’s the film that really jumpstarted Siodmak’s career — Phantom Lady is a noir treasured primarily by connoisseurs of the genre.
Phantom Lady begins with an extraordinary close-up of the back of a woman’s head (Fig A). She’s wearing an ostentatious fur-lined hat whose plumes extend practically to the edges of the 4-3 frame (see fig. 1). Who is this woman? Why so ostentatious a hat? Why is she filmed from behind? Why is the focus shallow so that the emphasis is on the back of her head and on her hat? Who is this faceless woman with fur and plumes? All will be important but the film doesn’t tell us right away. Instead, the the hat seems to come into being with increasing light, the camera pulls back, the set comes into focus – a bar –we see a barman, the woman turns her head, shows us her face and we see her borrow a nickel. The camera begins to pursue her, but we don’t know where her destination is because rather than trail her there, the camera instead follows an incoming man to the bar. This sequence shot will be rhymed by the last sequence shot in the scene but the scene there will end on the barman for reasons that will subsequently become clearer. This is a film where every camera movement, every choice of composition or editing seems purposeful.
In three minutes a world, a mood, and a dilemma are clearly established. A lonely man meets a lonely woman bar. He’s got tickets for a hit show but has been stood up. Will she join him? The woman, hysterical for reasons not yet known to us, agrees but only on condition that they don’t exchange names and addresses. From the first shot, the film hooks us narratively and has us purring with pleasure at the skilled and inventive visual storytelling. Just as importantly, from the first scene, the élan and complexity of the staging, announces that one is witnessing the work of a great director.
I felt like David Parkinson, when he writes on ‘How I Fell for Robert Siodmak’, there are some directors, ‘who knock you for six the first time you encounter one of their films, with the result that you not only remember that particular epiphany for years to come but immediately want to see more of their work.’ Phantom Lady proved a similar encounter with Robert Siodmak for me as well: the staging at the scenes at the bar, the angles, the shooting in depth, the travelling shots across the bar, it’s not dazzling, it doesn’t strike you dumb, but one just purrs with pleasure at seeing a filmmaker who knows his way around camera and mise-en-scène as ingeniously as Siodmak does here.
In another excellent piece on noir for the BFI, Parkinson writes: ‘Siodmak didn’t patent the noir formula, but he showed how to blend German expressionism and French existentialism with American angst and, in the process, he directed more canonical landmarks than anyone else in the new genre’s heyday. Dismayed by the world around him, Siodmak examined societal injustice, domestic turmoil, gender conflict, sexual repression, psychological trauma and the rise of the career criminal. Preferring to shoot on controllable studio sets rather than on location, he used deep-focus photography, precise camera moves, meticulously designed mises-en-scène and sculpted lighting effects to create milieux beset by paranoia, greed, lust, obsession and violence. Multiple flashbacks, rapid cuts, mirrored images and unsettling scores reinforced the sense of urban alienation, moral decay and nightmarish paranoia.’ Not all of these are evident in Phantom Lady but most are; and that’s part of the enduring fascination of the film for me: how a film that is not quite good enough can still be a canonical noir, arguably the ur-text of the genre (though I’m quite happy to use cycle or style or mode if that better fits your understanding of the body of films. I in fact prefer cycle to refer to these films from the early 40’s to late 50s).
Phantom Lady raises interesting dilemmas; it’s the work of someone who has a mastery of the medium but who doesn’t quite have control of the material he’s given to work with; it’s also one of the most memorable and significant of the cycle of 40s film noirs, sharing the same sense of dislocation and alienation, the trope of the investigation or search for the woman – and this film manages to find several ‘phantom ladies’ –; the distinctive high key-lighting that encases a world in shadows that are not merely landscape or background but moral and in this case almost metaphysical. Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell, through their skill at composition and lighting, make of these shadows and shapes some of the most beautiful and haunting images of 1940s cinema. Yet, the pulpiness of the material – adapted by Bernard C. Shoenfeld from a Cornell Woolrich novel he wrote under the name of William Irish — and some of the worst acting of any landmark film prevent this from being as good a film as its impact would suggest.
Yet the film is full of interesting tangents; extra-diegetically, the screenplay is credited Joan Harrison, Hitchcock’s past and future collaborator. Does this have any bearing on the film’s focusing on a woman who’s impersonating women, performing different types of femininity, and in search of a ‘Phantom Lady’ to help save the man she loves? The film also has proffers a wink to Carmen Miranda, the other and extra-diegetic Chica Boom Girl, then at the height of her fame and being impersonated by everyone, perhaps most famously Mickey Rooney. . Franchot Tone, the biggest marquee star in the film, only appears half-way through and as a villain. The film links the then fashionable Freudian psychology to madness, and links the villain to Modern Art explicitly by associating him with Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Serial killing and Modern Art go together in this film.
Visually the film clearly owes a debt to German Expressionism and the use of lighting, canted angles and overt symbolism is fascinating particularly in the extraordinary sequence where Elisha Cook Jr. jams with the jazz band. The scene with the secretary following the barman to get him to confess that he does know the ‘Phantom Lady’ are also examples of superb noir mise-en-scène: staged in depth, the film begins by showing Carol (Ella Raines)alone, staring; then people gather, then she’s the only there, then she disappears. Later, when we’re shown her following him, amidst these little pools of light illuminating little but the rain, we only see her (superb) legs. There’s then this wonderful moment at the train station when they’re waiting for the train and each of them is acting with their eyes, and there’s this instant when it’s indicated he might push her but for this black lady entering the station. It’s a lovely moment of tension, indecision; the hint that something much darker than what we’ve seen so far is a possibility. The whole scene culminates in the bartender being run over by a car whilst trying to get away from her. She’s wearing a plastic see-through rain-coat not unlike Joan Bennett’s in Scarlett Street; whilst all that’s left of the duplicitous barman is his hat, in a puddle of water on the road, glistening from the light of the street lamps in the cold dark night.
The film is marred by the performances of the leads. Allan Curtis is handsome but very wooden. Ella Raines is very beautiful if stiff as the good-girl secretary and then hams it up way too broadly when she impersonates the good-time girl. As already indicated Franchot Tone appears late in the movie, as the hero’s best friend, and everything that prevented him from being a star — he can pass for handsome but isn’t quite, there’s a slight superior sourness to his puss and a kind of distancing to his person, part of the reason that though highly regarded as an actor, he never quite made it as a star – is used very effectively here. Indeed, Siodmak does better with the supporting players – Regis Toomey is a delight as the detective who’s always hewing gum, always in character, always focused on what’s happening on the scene. His eyes are always doing something, particularly noticeable in relation to the lovely lump that is Alan Curtis. And of course the superb Elisha Cook Jr. as the nervy, needy, and seedy sideman.
Structurally, the film has a fascinating premise: everyone remembers him (the bartender, the cabdriver) but no one remembers her; she’s the Phantom Lady. The film, like other noirs, involves an investigation of a woman (the wife who’s murdered, the witness who’s disappeared, etc) but here, and unusually in noir, it is a woman who is chercheing la femme and the woman rescues the man rather than cause his destruction, and she does this by donning different masquerades of womanhood. It’s quite extraordinary.
Visually, the film is beautiful with arguably as many images that are both typical and iconic as in any noir. The writing is pulpy; the acting often amateurish and stiff. But, oh the direction: the direction is a thing of beauty. After I saw The Spiral Staircase last year, I wrote, The real star, however, is director Robert Siodmak: his camera movements alone are a thrill to see; they creep, glide, close in, pay attention, sweep, peek, penetrate; all in wonderful compositions that will elicit awe and joy in those who can appreciate them’. This is at least as true of Phantom Lady but with even more beautiful images and ingeniously directed scenes that act almost as contemporary set-pieces. A B-movie, but one in which phantom ladies, masquerades, performativity, modern art, madness and desire intersect in dark and rainy urban streets; A B-movie directed by a master of the medium.
 Alan Silver, Elizabeth Ward, James Ursini, Robert Porfirio, ‘Introduction: The Classic Period’ Film Noir: The Encyclopedia London: Overlook Duckworth, 2010, p. 15.
 James Naremore, ‘American Film Noir: The History of an Idea’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, no. 2. (Winter, 1995-960, pp. 12-28, pp. 18-19.
Jean-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.
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.
Romy 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.
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.
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.
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?
In his beautiful and illuminating Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions, Guillermo del Toro writes, ’50 percent of storytelling (in movies) is “eye protein,” which is very different than eye candy. They look the same to the untrained eye, but they are fundamentally different’. One could argue that there are few directors who have provided as much ‘eye protein’ as Pedro Almodóvar: Minnelli, Preminger, Nicholas Ray, Del Toro himself, perhaps even others. But it’s hard to think of one who’s given us more. Yet, if that’s the case, why aren’t we more attentive to it?; why don’t we, so to speak, visually chew on that protein and let its nutrients feed and nurture whatever arguments we make on the film to a greater extent than we do now?
For example, on its initial release, there was a lot of debate as to whether and to what extent La mala educación/ Bad Education was autobiographical. Javier Royos, whilst focusing on the screenplay, writes in Cinemania that Bad Education is a film noir ‘born as a rebel yell against something Almodóvar knew from his own experience’. Jonathan Holland’s review in Variety, the trade magazine, highlighted the use of autobiographical material: ‘Pedro Almodóvar’s long-gestated, instantly identifiable Bad Education’ welds autobiographical matter relating to his troubled religious education into a classic noir structure, repping a generic shift from the classy, emotionally involving mellers that have dominated his recent output.’
There’s something interesting in that juxtaposition of the autobiographical and genre as genre is a setting for and horizon of expectations for the telling of that personal story; and, over time, as the story gets expanded, there’s a shift in the choice of genre Almodóvar finds appropriate to its telling: we first encountered the themes and a rough sketch of the characters in Bad Education almost twenty years earlier in La ley del deseo/ The Law of Desire (1987) but in melodramatic form and with more than a dash of comedy. That film too focused on a film director who was gay, who had made films in the early 80s and was part of the Movida that Bad Education also references. It was the film that inaugurated, Almodóvar’s production company, El Deseo, transformed in Bad Education into El Hazar, thus transmuting desire into chance, and, most importantly, it featured a moment in which Tina (Carmen Maura) walks into a church remembering all the times she’d ‘jerked off’ there when she was a boy only to come face to face with the priest she’d had sexual relations with as a child:
‘You remind me of an old pupil. He used to sing in the choir, too’ says the priest.
‘Father Constantino, it is I.’
‘How you’ve changed
‘Self-expression’ was considered an important criterion when evaluating Almodóvar’s authorship in the 1980s. For example, the press in Madrid had long recognized a gay sensibility in Almodovar’s films, even taunting him about not giving it full expression. ‘In the end he’s not prepared to reveal more…directly through (his) own sexuality’, wrote Carlos Benítez Gonzalez in 5 Dias (1982). It was seen as gay work by a director who had not formally come out; and there’s an unpleasant aspect to such comments, to such attempts to drag him out of the, or at least a, closet; as if the ‘coming out’ they sought was not so that his self-expression would be truer or deeper but so that he’d be more vulnerable to attack in what remained a deeply homophobic culture.
The fact that Almodóvar would not put homosexuality, or let’s be more explicit, homosexual characters, at the centre of his films was seen as a block to his self-expression. In turn, this was interpreted as a reason why his films were not those of a true auteur. It’s difficult today to look at films like What Have I Done to Deserve This or Labyrinth of Passionand not see them as key exemplars of gay culture. But Spanish critics then were searching for a more autobiographical form of self-expression. They wanted homosexual stories in a plot about homosexuality. Basically, they wanted him to out himself, even if only via a fictional alter-ego, on film. That, it seems to me, is the ‘self-expression’ they wanted from him.
When La ley was released, Pedro Crespo (1987) titled his review in ABC , ‘La ley del deseo unblocks the career of Pedro Almodóvar’. In the text he added that the world depicted in La Ley was relatively similar to (Almodóvar’s) own’. Thus, it’s not that Law of Desire is any more camp or has any less ‘gay sensibility’ than previous films like Dark Hideout/ Entre tinieblas (1983)or What Have I Done to Deserve This?/ Qué he hecho yo para merezer esto? (1984)that ‘unblocks’, it’s that critics are overly focusing on the story rather than on its telling; and urging him to tell stories about himself. Thus this pressing for the intimate, the personal, the autobiographical — and the insistence on its verification — is something that runs through critical responses to Almodóvar’s work.
So now that we’ve established why this concern with the autobiographical in Almodóvar’s oeuvre, is Almodóvar’s Bad Education autobiographical? According to Jordi Costa in Fotogramas, ‘it’s autobiographical and it isn’t: the game of masks is written into its DNA’. In another note, I would like to explore further this game of masks Costa refers to, how most characters are split into two or three different personas in the film, how some characters pass for others, how the film like any noir, whilst not cheating, guides us through false corridors, and how the labyrinthine narration moves through the perspective of different characters writing a story, reading it, seeing at as a film, remembering. The story is told through masterfully narrated fragments of point-of-view on story, film and memory. Bad Education is a film that wants to tell but doesn’t quite want us to know, wants to show but wants us to work at that seeing, it doesn’t want us to easily come to a fuller understanding.
In Bad Education, as they’ve set in motion the murder of Ignacio (Francisco Boira), Juan (Gaél García Bernal), who we’ve already seen in the guises of Ángel, Ignacio and Zahara, walks out of a cinema during ‘film noir week’ with Señor Berenguer (Lluís Homar), previously and fictionally Father Manolo, as the latter says ‘it seems all the films talk about us’. The camera then lingers on posters of Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Renoir’s La bête humaine (1938)and Marcel Carné’s Thérèse Raquin (1953). Those films definitely have a lot to say about Ángel and Señor Berenguer as characters in the narrative and about Almodóvar’s ongoing conversation with a history of cinema in general and noir in particular. But does Bad Education have anything to tell us about Almodóvar other than in the general sense that ‘all films speak about us’ or ‘all of Almodóvar’s films are an expression, however partial, of his consciousness’?
In the pressbook for the film, Almodóvar writes, ‘La mala educación’ is a very intimate film. It’s not exactly auto-biographic – i.e., it’s not the story of my life in school, nor my education in the early years of ‘la movida’, even though these are the two backgrounds in which the argument (sic) is set (1964 and 1980, with a stop in 1977).
What Almodóvar says in the film does not exactly contradict what he says in the press-book but neither is it identical to it. The very last shot of the credit sequence (see image capture 1-a above) ends with ‘written and directed’ by Pedro Almodóvar. The very first shot of the narrative of Bad Education proper starts with a close-up of a framed picture saying ‘written and directed by Enrique Goded’ (see image capture 1-b above). The cut separating each of those credits thus also links them, particularly since there is the same image of airplanes and stewardesses in the background. Now this could be an accident or a mere conceit except we return to it at the end of the film but in reverse order. The last shot of the narrative of Bad Education is a still image telling us what happened to Enrique Goded after this murderous incident of filmmaking and passion; the title informs us that ‘Enrique Goded is still making films with the same passion’(see image capture 1-c above); then the camera zooms in so close to the word passion that it dissolves (see image capture 1-d) and the start of the end credits begins with ‘written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar’ (See image capture 1-e). Enrique Goded and Pedro Almodovar are explicitely linked at the beginning and at the end; and in the end, linked above all, but perhaps not only by, a passion for cinema.
If the film seems to be saying that Enrique Goded is much more Pedro Almodóvar than the director himself will publicly admit to, then very first image points to another discussion of the autobiographical and that is in relation to the self-referentiality of the development of the oeuvre itself. Doesn’t that credit of Goded’s (refer back to 1-b above), which is also the background for the credit to Almodovar (1-a) also remind you of the poster for I’m So Excited (see below)? And doesn’t it also refer to ‘Girls and Suitcases’, the project that eventually turned into Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) but that is referred to explicitly as ‘Girls and Suitcases’ in Broken Embraces (2009)?
One image attributed to Enrique Goded can thus bring up a whole web of links, cross-referenced, to Almodóvar’s oeuvre that becomes an autobiography on film, not only of Almodóvar but of our own experience and interactions with his work. His filmic autobiography becomes in turn part of a memory of experiences that make up little stories we tell ourselves and others that are in turn transformed into a narrative, a changing one, of who that self is. At least, it does if we pay attention to that eye protein and chew on it.
Max et les Ferrailleurs is a noir in colour — bright Eastmancolour in the DVD transfer I saw — fresh as paint, and as brightly coloured as a children’s playground. But it’s a shadowy world that is depicted; one of cops and robbers, bars and cafés, precincts and prostitutes. And if each of the characters that people this world has their reasons for behaving as they do, none of them is saintly and none of their motives are pure.
The film focuses on Max (Michel Piccoli), a mono-manically obsessive cop intent on bringing a bunch of two-bit crooks to justice through the manipulations of the psychically bruised but physically peachy Lily (Romy Schneider), the girlfriend of one of the ferrailleurs, the not too bright but not too bad Abel (Bernard Fresson).
As with Les choses de la vie and César et Rosalie, this is another adaptation of a novel — this one by Calude Néron, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sautet and Jean-Loup Dabadie — and another tightly structured, carefully composed and subtly told tale of morally complex people. But Max et les ferrailleurs is a darker film then either although it’s a darkness that is composed by a layering of subtle shadings. First of all, the crooks aren’t really that bad. They’re just a bunch of guys who prefer to spend all day shooting the shit in a junkyard to working. They dream of a score but are really too lazy and unmotivated to do anything about it — until Max sets up his trap for them, a score so easy that they can’t help but fall into it. So who’s the bad guy, the entrapper or the entrapped?
It is no credit to Max that he sets his trap through Lily. We’re told she’s German, born in Bonn, who began street-walking in Munich as a teenager. She’s had a hard life; been pushed into drink and drugs from pillar to post throughout Germany by abusive pimps — to the point where she’s survived a suicide attempt. She’s finally free of all that and is, as Inspector Rosinsky (François Périer) tells Max, if not someone, at least something. She’s in a pleasant, not too involved relationship with the easy-going and rather nice Abel and she’s at home in Nanterre.
It turns out that Max knows the amiable Abel from when they did they did their military service together. Abel doesn’t ask Lily for money and he doesn’t mind that she turns tricks for a living. Max isn’t a bad person, or at least he doesn’t begin that way, but he’s effectively entrapping his friend by paying for the services of his woman. Moreover, Abel is the friendly and nice one. The worse that can be said of Abel is that he’s not ambitious and doesn’t quite stick to the letter of the law. But that is at least as true of Max.
In order to entrap the gang, Max hires Lily. He pays her a lot, too much for someone who pretends he only wants to talk. In fact, it’s through these talks that he begins spinning his web. But he also can’t help looking at her, taking endless photographs and papering the walls of his rented flat with them. She begins to see him as something more than a trick too. They develop feelings for each other as they talk, feelings that they sense but can’t quite admit to; after all, there’s money involved. The camera loves Romy Schneider. Max loves looking at Romy/Lily through the camera. We love what we see, even what he sees, though his looking overlaps into a voyeurism that we share, but tinged with a perversity that begins to make us a little uncomfortable. We love Romy Schneider. Lily’s done nothing bad to Max. Yet, she senses an easy score and is not above setting up a robbery of the bank Max pretends to run.
Max et les ferrailleurs is shot in fluid long-takes. It doesn’t feel as the kind of cinema that blows you away by its use of the medium – it’s certainly not self-consciously ‘cinematic- — until you go over how the story is told in your mind, and think of how subtly, how beautifully, how classically, how economically and how powerfully what is shown and how it is shown affects how you understand and what you feel.
I’ll linger on two scenes here as brief examples. The first (see above) is our introduction of Lily. In a subtle, narrationally motivated way, Sautet gives Romy Schneider a fabulous star entrance. We see her through Max. In fact his face goes in and out of focus as we see what he sees. An iris, meant to stand in for the long end of the telescope, provides a space in which Romy and Abel then appear. We know she’s a prostitute partly because of how she’s smoking and walking and mostly because of what she’s wearing: a ribbon around her neck tied into a jauntily-angled bow (Romy’s signature look for this film, she will wear such a ribbon in different colours in most scenes with Max), high-heeled ankle-strapped shoes, and a shiny black vinyl raincoat that might be a nod to Joan Bennet’s iconic streetwalker look as Kitty March in Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street (1945).
Soon Max’s attention focuses strictly on Lily. His telescope, which began following first the gang and then the couple starts following her movements rather than Abel’s. In fact, his first question to Inspector Ronsinsky is a follow-up for context and background to the interest first aroused scopically. After the Inspector gives Max and us this background plot (the unenviable but inevitable task of ‘supporting players’ in the type of film where stars are, protagonists do, and the rest of the characters tell), we return to look at Lily, and though the images we see at first illustrate what the voice is telling us, that Nanterre has become her home, they also exceed that telling. We see that she’s beautiful, we see that she’s happy, we see that she’s part of a community, her window looks out on a world that calls to her and that she’s a part of; and she’s got Abel, nice Abel, a man who clearly is fulfilling her sexually and supporting her emotionally, in the background, behind her, and to her delight. This is the pleasant and pleasantly functional, if maybe not rapturously joyful, world that Max, with his quest for ‘justice’, will destroy.
The other moment I’d like to linger on is the moment Max succeed in capturing the crooks and goes to tell Lily with the intent of reassuring her that she’s in the clear. A gendarme blows his whistle almost as if to announce the moment. The film then cuts to Max going into a café. The camera follows Max as he goes into the café but then remains outside as he goes towards Lily (the camera first moving right but then left). Why does Sautet leave the camera out? What distance is being created? It’s interesting too that there’s a mirror behind Lily so that his reflection is present in Lily’s reaction to what he’s done. The moment, however, is Piccoli’s as it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t only captured crooks, he’s destroyed lives, he’s de-facto put a death-warrant on Lily, he’s destroyed a potential future for them both, in fact, he realizes he’s worse than the poor sods, too lazy to even devise their own hold-up that he’s just put behind bars. Every nuance of perception and feeling is visible on Piccoli’s face, all understated but understandable. It’s an absolutely great moment in the film.
Max et les ferrailleurs is full of such moments: elegant, outwardly simple, seemingly casual, none of it drawing attention to itself, but capable of expressing all the complexities of what it is to be human in a series of unfoldings that deepen into a highly pitched but silent scream of feeling. A wonderful film.