A young girl nicknamed Pomme (Isabelle Huppert) works is an assistant at a beauty salon, living a quiet live with her mother and enjoying a close friendship with Marylène (Florence Giorgetti), the owner of the salon, a bitter, aging romantic who seems to lay herself open to any new relationship only to be regularly dumped. Marylène and Pomme go on vacation to Couburg, on the coast of Normandy, so that Marylène may recover from her latest heartbreak. This happens swiftly and Pomme is left alone, to her own devices, and rather vulnerable. Pomme is quickly spotted by François (Yves Beneyton), a tall angular bourgeois who’s charmed by her reticence and purity. They fall in love. He tests her, asking her to close her eyes and follow his directions so that he takes her right to the edge of the cliff to prove her trust in him. But really she shouldn’t have.
On their return to Paris, and wrapped up in each other and in a haze of love, they quickly set-up home together in a tiny apartment. Soon, however, class differences appear, start pecking at their happiness, and eventually shatters it: She doesn’t know how to handle the cutlery at dinner in his parents’ country house; the best his mother can say about her is that she’s honest; she can’t really participate in the conversation with his radical intellectual friends. But he really can’t explain the dialectic to her, much less its historical materialist variant. For all his tremulousness, delicacy, and shows of concern, he’s a selfish phony. Eventually, he leaves her. He’s surprised and guilty that she offers no resistance. But she sinks into a depression, faints on the street and is brought to a sanatorium. He goes visit her, but Mr. Sensitive needs his friends to come along for support. He’s more interested in being reassured that he hasn’t done anything wrong than in seeing how she really is. He asks her what she’s been doing. She’s been to Greece she says. Has she been with other men? Oh yes, many. He takes his leave and she returns to the sanatorium reading room, adorned by tourist posters of Greek holidays she’s obviously only been to in her dreams, as she starts to knit her lace; her future a reliving of the only love she’ll ever know, from one, who like her father, and like all of Marylène’s friends, wasn’t worthy.
It’s a lovely film, edited in languid rhtyhms, and interestingly feminist. The film begins at the salon, women beautifying themselves, making themselves up, putting on masks of femininity so that they can perform the masquerade as they leave the salon, masks which Pomme rejects: she can’t help being too much herself; she’s got no guile; it’s what will attract François to her and the reason he’ll eventually leave her. Despite living for the ideal of romantic love, none of these women get to experience it past the first stage of courtship and sex, except the intellectual Marxist friend of François, the independent woman, who by the end of the film is settled with her husband and expecting a baby.
Isabelle Huppert is extraordinary, first as a plain girl, barely past adolescence, then someone mysterious and astonishingly beautiful (one can understand why François is so taken with her) and lastly as someone so withdrawn she’s barely there, with a measured tentative walk and a pinched blank face; her future an endless clicking of herneedles; her lace-making ensuring that any thought is kept mechanically but efficiently at bay. A close-up image of her so made-up that she’s like a mask of the woman she thinks he wants — which then turns out to be the moment he chooses to reject her so that the mask is shattered by tears — is moving, beautiful and mysteriously resonant. It’s an extraordinary performance and the main reason to see the film.
But not the only one. Claude Goretta is probably best known in Britain as one of two young Swiss filmmakers (Alain Tanner was the other) so inspired by the two first Free Cinema programmes that they were inspired to make the marvellous Nice Time (1957) documenting London’s Piccadilly on a Saturday night. But abroad, Goretta made a name for himself in the 70’s and 80s with acutely observant and complex films such as Pas si méchant que ça/ The Wonderful Crook (1974) and La Provinciale. Pauline Kael said of the former, rather derisorily, ‘we know we’re seeing films made by artists’. But we do; and we are; and they’re worth seeing again. The Lacemaker is an excellent place to start.
Seen at EICTV in Cuba
César et Rosalie is the kind of film current cinema seems to have given up on: about love; small scale but thought through; each shot both a picture worth looking at and a space of feeling; and about something worth feeling too, which is to say it’s about that which hurts.
César (Yves Montand) loves Rosalie (Romy Schneider). Years before, Rosalie had loved David (Sami Frey), an art designer and illustrator, but he moved to New York for work. On the rebound, she married an artist, Simon (Dimitri Petricenkio) and had a child with him, Catherine. Neither cared for the other enough to stay together but they each love their child and get on very well as a result. As the film begins, she’s with César, a rich dealer in scrap metal, rough-hewn, extrovert, manly, in many ways the opposite of the quieter and more artistic David. César is head-over-heels in love with Rosalie. But then, David reappears.
Two men in love with the same women is a staple of Hollywood cinema. But there, the bigger star always wins, even in Lubitsch’s Design for Living (and by-the-by, Ralph Bellamy is perhaps the most famous never-quite-a-star who made a career of playing the man who lost out in films of the 30s and 40s)). There was another type of film, one where men were equals in relation to their feelings for the woman, and where they in fact bond with each other over their feelings for her (which she reciprocates towards both, though maybe not at the same time or when they want or need it most). In this type of film, which begins to appear later, the woman is the central character: Truffaut’s film might be called Jules et Jim but its plot is all about Catherine; and the camera is completely in love with the woman who plays her, Jeanne Moreau. Perhaps due to the influence of ‘La Nouvelle vague’ in general and Jules et Jim in particular, there was a vogue for this type of scenario in the 1970s: Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) is but one example; and in fact Paul Mazursky even directed a loose remake of Jules et Jim called Willie and Phil (1980) which I remember liking very much. César et Rosalie is part of this cycle, at the very beginning of it in fact, and in my view, the best exemplar of it.
But let’s return to the beginning. César and David interact before they meet, in a competitive car chase to the wedding of Rosalie’s mother that César loses. César is a man who is not used to being challenged much less beat. And, in relation to Rosalie, it’s not David that beats him, more a kind of nostalgia Rosalie has for that which never was between her and David that nonetheless remains a whisper of a yearning, one which César’s crude attempts to drive David away inflames into a shout . She still longs for dreamy, artistic David. But she continues to love earthy, business-savvy César. He in turn does everything possible to keep her, not only buying her a country house but, eventually, even bringing David to her. Near the end of the film, she flees from both but, in the process of losing her, the men discover they like each other and become firm friends.
At the end, as César and David are eating by a window, the camera shows us Rosalie, seen behind an iron gate, arriving in a taxi. The camera then cuts back to the men and we see David looking at César looking at her. David’s always been the one who loved without desiring. César’s love has been total, focused, certain. However, as the camera returns to Rosalie, the frame freezes, a throb, a heartbeat before we can be really sure of who she’s returning for; perhaps she’s returning for both.
These nuances of feeling, mixed up, uncertain, sometimes with emotion at battle with reason is one of the things that makes viewing César and Rosalie such a rich and lovely experience. Another is that though Rosalie loves both, she’s never really confused about her own feelings. She’s not only honest to others but to herself; and Romy Schneider, lovely in every film I’ve seen her in, is especially touching here. There’s something feline, fragile but honest about her Rosalie. She seems gentler than everyone else in the movie, elegantly melancholy as if the tinge of sadness that envelops her weighs down her movements; as if her integrity, her principles,and her honesty, were burdens impossible to shake.
Montand is also a joy. He’s at his most likeable and best here. I’d forgotten how sexy he can be; big, light of step but with a firm stride, short of thuggish but capable of brutishness; and with a showman’s eagerness to please. He makes us understand why César is a successful businessman and shows us that charm is part of the arsenal he draws upon in his constant battle to win. One gets a sense not only that he sees Rosalie as a class above, as almost too good for him, but that the intensity of his emotions have taken him by surprise. Montand has a way of jutting his shoulders back, tilting his head up and flashing a great big smiles that shows he’s a seducer who knows how to charm, and charm all: men, women children. We see him in action, singing, telling stories, and he’s at all times believable: we’re as delighted as the audience within the film. Yet there’s also the panic in his eyes, and the sadness ,and the bursts of violence over what happens. We see that, although he might be a class below David and Rosalie economically, his feelings are as pure, as honest and as refined as anybody’s.
The film is produced by Michelle de Brocca and beautifully mounted with superb production values. Phillip Sarde’s music has a jaunty electronic urgency that gallops situation and feeling along. Sautet stages scenes in long takes with, and I’d never thought I’d use this phrase, an elegant and restrained use of the zoom. Characters express their feelings in beautiful locations beautifully filmed by Jean Boffety and the locations and the way they are filmed are part of the way the film expresses those feelings. Schneider wears a glorious Yves St. Laurent wardrobe, amongst the most elegant 70s fashions you can hope to see, particular in terms of clothes worn as everyday wear, that I would like to know more about. We even hear Michel Piccoli as a discrete voice-over narrator filling in some of the backstory but in a way that deepens and enriches: we never get the feeling he’s telling us all there is to know.
Here’s the beauty and strangeness of César and Rosalie: there’s a sense in which the wardrobe, locations and situations are somehow addressed to a female audience; the plot also seems to centre on the woman; and yet, it is the character of César who is the vehicle for and bears the burden of feeling. And it is perhaps that combination that makes it seem so rare and special, particularly when packaged as a glamorous, commercial, big-star vehicle. César and Rosalie is exquisite.
Dead Man Down doesn’t quite work: not-so-deep in its not-so-rotten core is a romance that’s not rendered romantically; and the action isn’t good enough to stand out on its own (as in the District 13 films say). Visually, the film is serviceable but doesn’t dazzle; and there’s something off and perhaps off-putting, at least to American audiences, in having all these Europeans in what is essentially a New York movie. Yet, what actors they are!
Colin Farrell is getting more handsome as he ages, and he’s got gravitas now; when he was younger, his charm was that he evoked a sense of life as a whiz on whiz; that everything was fun with the right drugs. Now he conveys the feeling of a man who’s lived, who’s had troubles, who thinks, and a lot of that thinking is about what’s made him unhappy. Of course, that’s the role; but he seems to inhabit that brooding presence; he kind of evokes a melancholy menace just with his stillness.
Noomi Rapace is harder to watch. She’s got an unusual and unsettling presence (you can understand why she was cast in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She’s got a face with wide, flat, rounded cheekbones that can come across as plain; and in some scenes here she seems kind of stumpy in her too-high heels; but suddenly she can also unfurl a stream of fury, or evoke a kind of ease with skill, or make herself seem an original and startling beauty.
It’s a role and a story that seem to have confused some critics but that make perfect sense to me: a girl who’s been damaged unconsciously sees her life ruined whilst the cause of it gets off scot free and wants revenge. She meets a man, also, hell-bent on revenge. They’re opposites, she claims to be talkative though we never see her in quite that way; he claims to be reticent; though we never quite see him that way with her. They’re clearly made for each other. The film offers excellent reasons why she’s one way in the beginning and quite different at the end (Farrell changes with her, though less mercurially, as befits the plot).
Terence Howard is in it, slimmer and more handsome than previously though never quiet as threatening as he should be. F. Murray Abraham also appears (and it feels odd that he’s the only one in the whole film, including Howard, who really seems to belong in NYC). Poor Dominic Cooper is given the role that redeems the hero. The person who makes the greatest impression in the shortest time is Isabelle Huppert: like very few actors on film, Vanessa Redgrave is one of the few examples that come to mind, she can conjure a role into existence out of mere line readings and minimal gestures. and delight the audience with a non-existent part; it’s a lovely kind of witchcraft.
Dead Mand Down is not for purists; those who like action will be pleased without being thrilled; those who like noir will have seen darker examples; it’s a romance that’s not a comedy and that lingers longer on loneliness than is comfortable. But people who like an interesting and intriguing combination of all of the above, with superb actors who seem to be growing in skill right in front of your eyes, will find a lot to look at and like.