Gaspar Noé dials down his typical cinematic spectacle to bring us a slow and moving exploration of dementia and how it drives a loving couple apart. He still has one visual trick up his sleeve, however: Vortex uses splitscreen to show us two lives lived in close proximity but not shared. His cameras follow their subjects individually, sometimes observing them go about separate activities, sometimes occupying almost the same perspective as the characters sit together and engage in conversation, nearly giving us a unified widescreen shot that captures both husband and wife in the same frame – but never being able to. But while Vortex is given structure by its visual design, what it depicts is as crucial as how it depicts it. It’s not a sentimental film, but neither is it harsh – and it’s well worth your time.
In 1975, caring for her infant son and unable to spend much time away from home, Agnès Varda turned her camera on her neighbours on her street, Rue Daguerre in Paris. In Daguerréotypes – the title a pun on the photographic process for whose inventor the road is named – she both observes them at work, running their shops and providing their services, and asks them questions about their lives, discovering where they’re originally from (most are not Paris natives) and how they met their husbands and wives. It’s a gentle, relaxed form of portraiture, one that combines imagery of the practicalities of daily work with the subjects’ descriptions of dreams and histories – although the use of a travelling magician’s show is arguably a little too precious. We discuss the different ways in which we respond to their stories, José commenting on Varda’s clear affection for the subjects, Mike arguing that there’s a tragic dimension that overhangs the film, with talk of dreams and escape.
Daguerréotypes is a sensitive portrait of a local community and a time capsule of an era that is now half a century old, and worth watching.
Jacques Tati’s masterpiece, 1967’s Playtime, is an extraordinarily ambitious work of visual comedy and social satire. Mike’s been keen to see this for fifteen years or more, knowing of its reputation for detailed visual design and the 70mm cinematography that shows it off, waiting for the right moment. José, when Mike suggests we watch it, thinks he’s seen it many years ago, but soon realises he was probably thinking of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Tati’s rather more charming comedy of fourteen years prior, so it takes him a while to get into Playtime‘s rather more offbeat gear.
And he is ultimately a little cold to the film, though not immune to its appeal and pleasures, while Mike loves it unconditionally. In a somewhat alternate, near-future Paris, the plot, such as it is, follows two characters: Monsieur Hulot, the character Tati played in several films, as he stumbles through a France he finds unfamiliar and devoid of humanity; and Barbara, an American tourist visiting the city. In approximately six fairly distinct vignettes, Tati explores a vision of a consumerist, modern, and alienating Paris, the Eiffel Tower, symbolising the warm, cosy Paris of old, a long way away, merely a distant feature on the horizon or a reflection in a window. It’s an attitude for which José has little sympathy, though Mike suggests that the development of the final scene, a kind of funfair around a traffic jam, can be seen as a synergy of the traditional and modern, and finds it moving.
There’s a huge amount to discuss, including the design and execution of the jokes; the impossible scale of the set, nicknamed ‘Tativille’ and whose astronomical cost would ruin Tati, who was forced to file for bankruptcy; to what other films, if any, it can be compared; the visual design, cinematography, choreography, and colour; the use of nationality, particularly American; and how the film might play differently today compared to upon its initial release – Mike arguing that it may have anticipated changes to the real world that would later materialise, such as the cubicle office, that diminish the otherworldliness we might otherwise feel.
Playtime is a significant work of satire and well worth seeing, particularly given its beautiful restoration in 2014. Don’t miss it for fifteen years. Don’t be Mike.
We conclude our dalliance with Jean-Pierre Melville with 1970’s Le Cercle rouge, a heist film with an impressive cast of Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, and Yves Montand. We discuss how genre conventions operate in the film – the shortcuts an understanding of genre provides allow details to make the difference, Mike suggesting that it all comes out through character relationships and quirks.
In discussing Le Cercle rouge, we think back on what we’ve learned about Melville’s style, themes and interests. For Melville, emotional attachment is dangerous and makes one vulnerable; it’s a rather bleak outlook, but José argues that his films aren’t without their romantic aspects. Mike remarks upon the way in which Melville’s style has been interpreted and appropriated by the filmmakers he influenced, noting that the vivacity with which, for instance, Quentin Tarantino effuses about Melville is not reflective of Melville’s films themselves, which are slower and more pensive than you might be led to expect. To José, it’s existentialist cinema through and through, and, naturally, he loves it.
Jean-Pierre Melville draws upon his experiences in the French Resistance for 1969’s Army of Shadows, which depicts an ensemble including Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret and Paul Meurisse working to disrupt the Nazi occupation of France, rescuing Resistance members from captivity, operating safehouses… and killing informants.
Army of Shadows‘ view of the Resistance is far from romantic, showing the ordinary people who comprise it being driven to extreme measures in the cause of remaining hidden and evading capture, and the threat of capture and death hanging over them at all times. We compare it to The Great Escape, a caper in which prisoners of war work towards a big victory – there’s nothing of the sort in Army of Shadows, the Resistance only ever staying one step ahead of the Nazis pursuing them. Resistance itself is the victory, and it comes with costs.
We think about continuities between this film and Melville’s other work. The isolation felt in Un flic and Le Doulos comes through here, the Resistance members needing to work together but constantly suspicious of one another, as anyone could turn informant; emotional connection is a danger, as it can be used as a thumbscrew. But the film depicts the courage of the Resistance, the inhumanity of the situations into which they’re forced, and elicits a range of feelings simultaneously. It’s a complex, intelligent, essential film.
We visit another Melville, 1963’s Le Doulos, about a network of criminals searching for an informer in their midst. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays his thief with such assuredly French swagger that it’s no wonder why Quentin Tarantino names this film as a significant influence, though we also pick up on the story’s similarity to Reservoir Dogs, in particular the botched robbery and snitch mystery.
The film has clearly been preserved beautifully, the crispness of the images on Mubi’s stream simply breathtaking. As with Un flic, we consider the characters’ alienation, emphasised here through composition and framing, and their decisions, including the idea that all these men try to do the right thing by their particular code.
Despite looking for things to like, Mike is ultimately nonplussed and a little bored by Le Doulos, preferring, on reflection, Un flic, while José, as ever the spirit of sunshine, beams with praise for it. We can at least agree that it looks fabulous.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film, Un flic (A Cop), has a bleak feel, its characters isolated amongst harsh architecture and the neverending business of cops and robbers. Alain Delon’s cop follows the trail of Richard Crenna’s thief, whilst handling informants, other cases, and an occasional relationship with Catherine Deneuve.
It’s a film in which feeling shows through small actions, glances, and behaviour. The cop has seen the worst of humanity and carries a weariness with him, but that just makes his capability for generous gestures more meaningful. Mike remarks upon the similarity between cop and thief, both going about their work with a sense of lifeless inertia. We also note the central heist sequence’s clear influence on the climactic set-piece in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, comparing the ways in which the scenes work and what their intended effects may be, and José comments on the film’s blue-tinged look, something that contributes greatly to its sense of melancholy.
A delicate, intelligent love story, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire undulates with complex, interlocking themes and emotions. It’s a film about looking: who looks, who is looked at, how one should be seen, for whom the gaze is intended and what the rules are. Héloïse, a young aristocrat, refuses to have her portrait painted for the approval of a Milanese nobleman; an artist named Marianne is commissioned to do just that, but in secret, forcing her to steal glances at her subject and, outwardly, act merely as her companion. The women’s relationship quickly develops, and soon they are collaborating on the portrait to which Héloïse had hitherto objected.
Sciamma demonstrates an eye for beautiful, sensitive composition, and with cinematographer Claire Mathon creates some simply stunning imagery, evoking 18th and 19th century Romantic art; truly, this film understands what it means to paint with light. We consider the differences between the characters: one formerly resident in a convent, brought home to take over her sister’s role to be betrothed; the other a skilled worker, whose life experience Héloïse is keen to probe – and this is to say nothing of Sophie, the maid, who forms friendships with both Héloïse and Marianne, and the drama of whose life experience surely outweighs theirs combined. We discuss how the boundaries between the three – particularly Héloïse and the two workers – are broken down; without the rule-keeping figure of Héloïse’s mother present, the young women are able, to an extent, to reshape the world in which they live. But patriarchy overhangs the entire film, even with men physically absent throughout; the painting into which Marianne and Héloïse are investing their love is the very thing, intended for the Milanese suitor as it is, that will seal their fate to live separate lives.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an ambitious, confident, complex and beautiful film whose imagery soars on the cinema screen. See it.
A group of dancers parties the night away, but someone has spiked the sangria with LSD. There are extraordinarily long takes, sex, drugs, violence, and horror. Yes, it’s a Gaspar Noé film.
Climax is a singular cinematic escape into a vision of Hell. Boy, there’s a lot going on. We grapple with the film’s themes of sex, violence, drugs, youth, dance, sexuality, nationality, culture, and whatever else we can remember of its insane 96 minutes. We discuss what we did and didn’t like about the dancing – the pros and cons of the way it’s shot – and what value there is in extraordinary cinematic violence in a world in which footage of horrific real-life violence is commonplace. We discuss the detail of Climax‘s cinematography and editing and the effects they have on our experiences, particularly shooting upside-down and inserting almost subconsciously brief flashes of black frames in otherwise normal cuts. We’re reminded of Do the Right Thing, The Exterminating Angel, and Salò, and indeed Climax wears its influences on its sleeve. José reads it allegorically, finding reference to Europe, cultural power, and race, though so far adding it all up remains beyond us.
It fired Mike up enough to have a go at a guy who’d had his phone on during the cinema, but it enveloped José so completely that he didn’t even notice the distraction. And Mike made a film like this once! As he puts it, “Not as good as this, probably, but a lot shorter.” You can see that here if you like:
In short, Climax is certainly worth your time. There’s so much going on and we’ll be seeing it again when the mac screens it in November.
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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.