Tag Archives: Georges Marchal

Mesalina/ Messaline/ The Affairs of Mesalina (Carmine Gallone, Italy/France/Spain, 1951)

 

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So far I’ve seen María Félix as an actress only stage so she can charge more for her favours, as Lady Lucifer, as goddess on her knees, and as someone who only God can judge and may God forgive her. It’s almost inevitable that she should play Mesalina, who neither asks for nor seeks the forgiveness of any God.

She’s got Emperor Claudius (Memo Benassi) wrapped around her little finger and is already bankrupting Rome with her demands for jewels as the film begins. Claudius is too old and too busy, however. And she’s lonely. So she takes on a series of young, handsome lovers and, when she tires of them, she has them killed. She also has them killed if they gossip too loudly about their trysts with her. In fact, she has no compunction about killing anyone who gets in her way or is the least bit inconvenient.

She’s scared of death, but only when it comes to her own. In what must have been a very daring sequence for its time, Mesalina in blonde wig slinks off at night to a seedy brothel to satisfy her lust with as many men as she likes and, after she’s done, quickly stabs to death the poor prostitute who happened to recognise her. The combination of sex and death is luridly highlighted.

One wonders how they got this through the censors. But then, director Carmine Gallone was expert at doing just that. He’s started off making films in 1914. He was one of the leading directors during Mussolini’s dictatorship (Scipione l’Africano, 1937) and was famous for his epics (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, 1926). He was often compared to De Mille, and one can understand why: this has exciting scenes with hordes of men riding two horses standing, fights to death, Christians being thrown to the lions, Nubian slaves whipping dancing girls. It’s all redeemed in a sub-plot with two young lovers (Erno Crisa as Timo; Delia Scala as Cinzia) by highlighting the power of love and the power of faith (she chases after her lover into the arena and prevents him from being eaten by lions by praying to Christ, see below).

All of the religiosity is an alibi for the violence; and the violence and spectacle is all a setting for Mesalina’s wickedness. She’s got power, jewels, and as much sex as she wants. Her weakness is that she wants to be loved. Her choice is Caio Silvio; and as played by the very handsome George Marchal, one can understand why. But it’s a mistake. She had his best friend Valerio (Jean Chevrier) sentenced to death. While he’s heading a plot to depose her; she’s plotting to marry him and kill her husband so that they can rule together.

It’s all very sensationalistic and very entertaining, a tabloid rendering of the wickedness of Rome. Whilst watching it, I thought how can a film look both expensive and cheap. There are enormous sets, thousands of extras, but then all the little details seem wrong, like they haven’t taken proper care. There’s a ballet scene where the two dancers dancing with Cinzia keep going in and out of the frame, like director and dancers just got it wrong and couldn’t be bothered to correct it.

In the scene above Caius is forced to submit to Mesalina’s request to see him. She’s just had the friend he loved sentenced to death, though she made herself seem generous, in allowing him to choose the form, an opportunity to show us a beautiful women opening Valeria’s veins whilst he lounges in a chaisse longue. Caius accuses Mesalina of doing it only because she covets Valerio’s house and gardens. She admits it. She can’t help it if she loves pleasure. She’s doomed not to be loved and it’s her only compensation. But what if he loved her, he asks. Then the Emperor’s days would be numbered, she replies. She looks at the window comments on the beauty of the night, the smoke on the horizon, and the lovely smell of Spring. He tells her it’s from Valerio’s funeral pyre. He’s so enraged, he tries to strangle her. Her last reply is that she will get her torturers to make him scream with love. It’s that kind of film.

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As you can see from the clip. It’s not very imaginatively shot. Also, whilst María Felix is beautifully lit in close-up (see above), there’s a lot less care in medium and long-shot (as you can see from the clip). She looks a bit hard in certain sequences. And certainly the character as written does not arouse empathy, understanding, or identification, like the Mexican films do, even when showing Félix at her most wicked. Mesalina is there to excite and to be judged, by the film and by men.

The DVD I saw it from has both Italian and Spanish versions. And though I expected the film to be dubbed in Italian, it was disconcerting to see María Felix dubbed in Spanish. One misses her distinctive soft cadences, the lack of which might also add to the impression of hardness in the characterisation. Still, the film was a big success in Italy, increased her international stardom, and paved the way for her filmmaking in France. She remains the main, if not the only, reason to see Messaline/ Mesalina/ The Affairs of Mesalina. 

José Arroyo

La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel, France/ Mexico, 1956)

 

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La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden is the second of what Raymond Durgnat has labelled Buñuel’s  “revolutionary triptych”, along with Cela s’appelle l’aurore (1956and La fièvre monte à El Pao (1959) : “Each of these films is, openly, or by implication, a study in the morality and tactics of armed revolution against a right-wing dictatorship.” Each is also a France-Mexico co-production with big stars. In this one Simone Signoret, Charles Vanel, Georges Marchal and, as Phillip Kemp tells us in the fine essay on the film accompanying the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, Michel Piccoli, in the first of seven films he would make with the director,  more than any other actor.

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Revolt and Death

The film is split in two halves. In the first, diamond prospectors in some Latin American country are arbitrarily revoked their rights to the claims they bought and given twenty-four hours to vacate the area with all their goods the risk of forfeiting them. The ruling powers are authoritarian: might is power; power is law; power is wielded capriciously and unjustly. The people rebel but don’t act cohesively and lives are lost without much ground being won. Both Tony Rayns and Victor Fuentes have written of how in the first half of the film Buñuel drew on his understanding and knowledge of the Miners’ Strike in Asturias in 1934 and also on some of the happening during the Civil War.

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The second part of the film is when the main stars have to escape and get stranded in the jungle: the criminal adventurer (Georges Marchal) the prostitute (Simone Signoret), the priest (Michel Piccoli), the rich prospector (Charles Vanel) and his daughter Michèle Girardon) all struggle to survive; and as they do social categories fall asunder, old dreams die, Paris gets torn to burn and illuminate, pen and paper can lead to freedom, The Garden becomes a jungle, prayer books can light fires, ants eat snakes before people do, diamonds get thrown into the sea, the jungle can bring forth jewels and champagne, some go mad, and some survive…at least for now.

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Prayer books do have their uses…

It’s a very great film, a complex one that dramatises Buñuel’s perennial themes of exile and entrapment but also deals with authoritarianism, colonialism, people’s natures and their capacity to change, religion as passive upholder of exploitation; and allegories on the Edens in the real world and those in our minds. Phillip Kemp mentions one can trace an attempt to replicate the success of Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur (1953)/ The Wages of Fear: Charles Vanel is in both. Tony Raynes and Victor Fuentes both see Nazarín (1959) as Buñuel’s subsequent development of the character of the priest, here played by Michel Piccoli and then by Francisco Rabal in the later film.

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A priest in exile

In a very illuminating interview that is an extra in the Masters of Cinema edition, Tony Rayns says, ‘We can see his very fluent, very neutral, anonymous visual style. The film is filmed almost entirely in follow shots, pans following action. There are not attempts at expressiveness in the compositions. There are no particular emphasis or editing tropes that are there either in the film language or in the composition of individual shots. This is studiedly neutral from Buñuel’s point of view, and that became his trademark style….He didn’t look for emblematic compositions. He didn’t look for shots that would startle us. His version of Surrealism is that the uncanny, the inexplicable, the mysterious, should be integrated as much as possible within the flow of seeming naturalism so that it would be more effective as a startling device. He didn’t want the sudden shock. He wanted the underlying disquiet or the underlying wonderment. For him that’s what Surrealism meant.’

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Jewels in the jungle

La mort en ce jardin/ Death in the Garden deserves much more attention than I’m able to give it here. All I want to point to now is that Simone Signoret, beautiful and in a gorgeous Eastmancolour, gives a performance that must rank amongst her very greatest (though there’s so much to choose from). Phillip Kemp writes that Signoret proved particularly difficult, ‘because she didn’t want to do the film..She had to go through New York on her way to join us in Mexico so she slipped some Communist documents into her passport, hoping to be turned away by American immigration, but they let her through without a murmur. Once here and on the set, her behaviour was at best unruly, at worst very destructive to the rest of the cast’. If so, she was worth it. Her presence at the height of her beauty and in colour plus her performance are in themselves reasons enough to see the film today (though there are many others). Death in the Garden is now available on blu-ray in a very beautiful transfer as part of the Masters of Cinema series.

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José Arroyo

 

Cela s’appelle l’aurore (Luis Buñuel, France/Italy, 1956)

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I went to the ballet last night. But what I woke up thinking about this morning was Buñuel’s Celà s’appelle l’aurore. Why isn’t it better known? In the opening scenes a lady faints, insects swarm around dead fish, a man beats a donkey that won’t move, workers get hurt at a factory through the cost-cutting measures of a careless owner and a young girl gets sexually abused by her grandfather whilst the whole family wails around her. ‘Sadly, she’s now old enough to remember,’ says the Doctor (see images below). Buñuel acknowledged it as one of his favourite films, designating it as a ‘love-yes-police-no film’.1

 

It’s from 1956, the first film Buñuel made upon his return to France, and is relatively conventional and quite extraordinary. Gaston Modot and others from L’Àge d’or appear. Kosma did the music. The film contains Buñuel’s usual witty anti-clericalism (see image below). ‘It was not well received. The film is just one cliché after another,’ wrote Eric Rhomer, a huge ado about nothing’. But John Baxter, in his Buñuel writes that Rohmer was then so right-wing and Catholic that colleagues like Ado Kyrou called him a fascist. (p.244).  Truffaut, writing in Cahiers du Cinéma also dismissed the film: ‘I dislike Celà s’appelle l’aurore because it’s badly acted: that’s all there is to it.’ How wrong he was. There’s much much more to it. But Truffaut was often blind to the political implications of any work.

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‘Many people have said, “A Buñuelian detail.” Okay’, says Buñuel, ‘but I’m sorry, sometimes reality inserts its own Buñuelian touches all by itself. When the Americans invaded Africa during the Second World War, they found a monument of Christ and used it to string needed telephone cables. And since the doctor had been in Africa, he has this photograph in his home: Jesus’ face hung full of insulators and cables. This is not an invention of mine.’ 4

The film can be read as supporting armed insurrection and all the usual institutions (the church, the police etc) are shown to be corrupt. That aspect of the plot revolves around a young tenant farmer, Sandro (Giani Esposito) recently back from laying his body at the service of the liberation of his country but now about to be thrown out of his job and home because his wife Magda (Brigitte Eloy) is dying with tuberculosis and he’s been neglecting the fields. The landowner is completely unsympathetic. The tenant’s personal problems are none of his business. Turning a profit is. A new tenant (the aged but still handsome Gaston Modot, see image below) arrives with his own family even whilst the wife of the previous one is on her deathbed). The new tenant is kind enough to drive the couple to stay with friends but the wife dies on the way. The husband loses his mind and decides to kill the person responsible for all of this, the rich-landowner and indusrialist Gorzone (Jean-Jacques Delbo). He does, and in the middle of a party where the police chief, the priest and all of the pillars of the establishment are enjoying the lavish hospitality of the careless murderer. After the deed is done, Sandro runs to the Doctor for help. Who does the Doctor side with? Sides must be chosen in the world that Buñuel depicts for us here, so how does one behave morally and ethically in so choosing? ‘Valerio is led by love and friendship to act against his own class by defendng a worker who has committed a revolutionary act,’ write Bill Crohn and Paul Duncan in Luis Buñuel: The Compete Films, p. 105.

 

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Even a deathbed is no guarantee against eviction

There are scenes in the film that without quite taking flight into the sphere of surrealism nonetheless extend it a hand so as to show the finger to an uncaring world. In the scene below, for example, Doctor Valerio (Georges Marchal) is at a nice restaurant trying to comfort his wife (Nelly Borgeaud) after she’s fainted. She hates Corsica: the poverty, the misery, the lack of culture, the way he’s too busy and never has time for her. She wants to go to Nice, family, civilisation. At that moment, almost out of nowhere comes an elegant figure gliding on a bicycle, sitting on the handlebars, playing a violin and smoking a huge stogie. It’s a thrilling image, a nonsensical one. The camera cuts back to the couple but then the violin player appears, this time on foot. The wife screams ‘I can’t stand it. Make him stop’ at the sound of the music. But the violin player carries on even as they get up to leave and until the moment that he gets paid. This is so typical of Buñuel: the insolence, the black humour, but the dignity too. There’s a feeling of esperpento, that life is to be revealed in all its tragedy, objectively and to the point where one can only laugh. As soon as the Doctor hands over the bill the street performer’s playing, which has been a torture to the wife, stops. But not before. He’s a professional. (I’ve gone to such lengths in describing because the clip below is in French with Spanish subtitles, but worth seeing even if you don’t speak either of those languages).

 

 

The doctor sides with the people. Lucia Bosé, who appears to bring love and passion to the doctor’s life and beauty into ours (see below), also makes her choice. She risks her well-being by sheltering the fugitive and in doing so proves she’s more deserving of Valerios love than his wife; so frail, so delicate but, with the help of her father, so firm in taking care of life’s little niggles: They’re the ones who informs the police, thus betraying Valerio and condemning Sandro to his short and tragic fate . It’s great. And increasingly relevant to the time we live in.

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The pull of Lucia Bosé

There are a few images of undoubted interest to Buñuelians that I’d like to draw your attention to below:

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The Police Inspector, Comissaire Fasaro, played by Julien Bertheau, is associated with the writings of the Paul Claudel, the right wing and Catholic writer whose poem to Pétain in 1940 led to accusations of collaboration with the German invaders. Here his work on theatre is interestingly pictured amongst the paper and stamps of officialdom and bureaucracy but also amidst the restraints implied by the handcuffs. He’s also often pictured in front of a crucifixion by Dalí. ‘That is to say that Dalí and Claudel were a poet and painter of the police, thogh both are excellent, of course,’ says Buñuel. 2

Above I’d like to draw your attention to the image of the women, united in their grief for the child who’s been molested, and offering succour and emotional support to the mother prostrated with grief at what she must feel is her fault (she allowed her father, who already had a reputation for that kind of thing, to live with them). Note how the move to the next scene is a dissolve, and how the tragedy and poverty of one class melts into joy and ease of a higher one through the clearly phallic and here central symbol of the palm tree.

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The owners of the means of production in the well appointed drawing room of their mansion in Corsica, with a portrait of Napoleon, a native son, posing in an authoritarian stance,  given pride of place, fitting for the owner of the factory where workers are carelessly hurt and the vineyards where peasants are cruelly evicted from their home on their deathbeds
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Buñuel’s foot fetishism is not neglected in this film, and the Doctor taking his socks off is given way more time, and more significance, than is usual.

Cats appear throughout the film, in the beginning (see first set of pictures, amongst children and decaying fish) wild, abandoned. The doctor picks up and strokes a street cat by the sea. Sandro, caught between the might of the lion, and the homeless kitty he strokes and nurtures, contemplates murder. We see other animals also, each behaving according to their nature; the donkey who won’t budge in spite of the beating (see first set of pictures), later the turtle, offered as a gift, who turns itself over, and walks away in close-up.

The film often shows us the people it sides with behind bars or filmed outside veiled windows, denied the freedom to move, love, even live.

But the film offers resistance (the murder; Valerio refusing to shake the Inspector’s hand) as well as  love and brotherhood, even in death (right) and ends on an image of love, camaraderie and hopefulness amongst those who offered help and resisted. The sign on the right is an advertisement for Dubonnet that begins with Du Bon, ‘that which is good’. ‘I acknowledge that tht scene is a bit symbolic,’ says Buñuel. 3

It’s a surprisingly rich film and I’m sure a closer look will un-peel even more layers than I’ve been able to draw out here.

 

According to wiki, ‘Film critic Raymond Durgnat has called this film the first of Buñuel’s “revolutionary triptych”, along with La Mort en ce jardinand La fièvre monte à El Pao: “Each of these films is, openly, or by implication, a study in the morality and tactics of armed revolution against a right-wing dictatorship.”

José Arroyo

  1. José de la Colina and Tomás Pérez Turrent, Objects of Desire: Conversations with Luis Buñuel, edited and translated by Paul Lenti, New York: Marilio Publishers, 1992, p.122
  2. ibid, p.123
  3. ibid. p. 124
  4. ibid p. 126