Tag Archives: French

CAPSULE: BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (2001)

Le pacte des loups

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christophe Gans

FEATURING: Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, , Émilie Dequenne,

PLOT: It’s 1764 and a vicious monster is terrorizing the French province of Gevaudan; the king sends his foremost naturalist, along with his Iroquois companion, to track down and slay the beast.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Convoluted plot and Matrix-style combat in a period drama do not a Weird Movie make, but darn it if it doesn’t come close.

COMMENTS: When contemplating this wondrously over-the-top film, I was struck (once more) with too many ways to open a review. Perhaps, “Wikipedia informs me that Brotherhood of the Wolf is a ‘French historical action horror film'”; or alternately, “Reader, be warned that along-side the ‘Recommended’ tag slapped at the top should be an as-prominent ‘Ridiculous’ tag.” I’ll settle, instead, on the following: “Baroque ’90s action hits its peak in Christophe Gans’ period drama, Brotherhood of the Wolf.” This movie crams in so many rehashed film techniques that it becomes a gloriously Bruckheimer-Woo-Ritchie-Besson-esque romp through mid-eighteenth century France.

The French Revolution is in full swing, but within minutes we careen back to half a century prior. Two horsemen in the rain approach a gaggle of thugs (dressed in drag) who are harassing an old man and his daughter. Down jumps Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois warrior, and after a bit of slow-motion, quick-cut bandit-thrashing, he remounts and continues his journey with the other rider and soon the two arrive at the castle of Gévaudan’s local aristocrat. Who are these mysterious strangers? Along with Mani is the much-laureled Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a natural philosopher and some-time adventurer, who is determined to solve the mystery of the “Beast of Gévaudan.” What follows involves French-court courtship, martial-arts, French-court politics, a mess of cultists, and even some aristocratic incest. And of course there’s that big wolf monster cutting down the peasantry with impunity.

The stylistic approach Christophe Gans employs is apt for a narrative as convoluted as Brotherhood of the Wolf. Granted, he allows himself one-hundred and forty minutes to spin his yarn, but a miniseries’ worth of characters, events, and twists is jammed therein. The cinematic bombardment is pinned onto the plot bombardment: slo-mo combat set pieces, where one man (typically Iroquois) dispatches the baddies with an unchanging expression; staggered “pan and pause” shots setting things up for some not-so-subtle action foreshadowing; and even a few reverse chromatic effects for no reason other than, “Hey, you know what would look cool?”-ism. Having immersed myself during the ’90s in some of the best action movies the decade had to offer, I saw all their elements distilled in the service of an obscure eighteenth-century wolf legend1)Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.. I was overwhelmed with what could be best described as “smirking nostalgia.”

Alas, while Brotherhood of the Wolf stands as tour-de-force that attains considerable novelty through its impressive derivativeness, it is something of a “weekend warrior” in the realm of weird movies. Gans keeps the movie’s tone turned up throughout the run time, but despite being the director of the second (ever) Certified title, he seems more commercially inclined with this “French historical action horror” romp. But I have no complaints about that what-so-ever.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Brotherhood of the Wolf plays like an explosion at the genre factory… I would be lying if I did not admit that this is all, in its absurd and overheated way, entertaining.” –Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

References   [ + ]

1. Admittedly not as obscure to residents of France, but still.

LIST CANDIDATE: SITCOM (1998)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Évelyne Dandry, , Adrien de Van, Lucia Sanchez

PLOT: The father of a bourgeois family brings home a white lab rat as a pet; taboos break and hilarity ensues as the rat has psychic (?) encounters with one family member after another.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: I asked my Magic 8-Ball about the List prospects of this Metamorphosis-as-a-French-comedy-of-manners with spontaneous homosexual awareness, paraplegia-onset sadomasochism, a mysterious pet rat, and a steady stream of patrician epigrams: “Signs point to ‘Yes’.”

COMMENTS: The spirit of Luis Buñuel lives on with François Ozon’s ultra-French take on the family comedy, Sitcom. All the Buñuel boxes (or, “boîtes”, if I may) are checked down the line: upper-middle class family, domestic setting, the crumbling of norms. Playing like its titular genre, Sitcom relies heavily on its capacity for clever silliness, while subverting that self-same genre’s cliched “Family meets Challenge to finish with a Happy Ending.” The family here, however, careens immediately over the edge, the challenge comes in the form of a possibly paranormal rat, and the happy ending is ripped straight from ‘s long-forgotten “whimsical” period.

The unnamed father (François Marthouret) returns home one afternoon with a lab rat, adding a pet to his already very nuclear family. That evening a dinner party brings together the father, the mother (Évelyne Dandry), their son Nicolas (Adrien de Van), their daughter Sophie (Marina de Van), their Spanish maid María, and María’s Cameroonian husband, Abdu. Immediately beforehand, Nicolas has a moment alone with the rat, and at table he is restless until he announces out of the blue that he is homosexual. The mother recruits Abdu—a physical education teacher with experience counseling teenagers—to talk to her boy. As Abdu tries to work out his approach, he sees the rat, gets bitten by it, and then proceeds to help the son confirm his homosexuality in an altogether hands-on kind of way. In turn, each household member has his or her life-changing encounter with the rat.

While Sitcom is an ensemble piece, with each family member’s collapse and growth explored, the focus ends up, almost through omission, on the father. During his son’s discovery and embrace of homosexuality, his daughter’s failed suicide that turns her into both a paraplegic and a dyspeptic dominatrix, and his wife’s eventual seduction of the son, he remains impressively unflappable. When Sophie asks him if he knows about what happened between his wife and son, he remarks, “Of course”, adding, “I don’t think incest will solve the problems of Western Civilization, but your mother is an exceptional woman.” However, Sophie’s hopes of seducing her father are soon quashed when he admits he does not find her attractive. Having only aphoristic rejoinders to scandalous revelations, the father figure remains something of a cypher.

One hint is given during the opening dinner scene. The father delivers a monologue about the Ancient Greeks, musing, “Homosexuality was an institution with no shame.” Here’s a man who is quite probably gay himself, but he retreats into the trappings of bourgeois convention. And Ozon somehow litters other contemplative and tender moments throughout the zany norm-breaking silliness. Maria comforts Sophie’s much put-upon boyfriend in an NC-17+ kind of way in one scene, and things are kept impressively platonic as Nicolas washes his sister’s hair while talking about his encounter with their mother, both naked in the tub together. And so it goes. I’m not certain on the particulars of how I stumbled across this movie during college, but I saw it around the same time as Visitor Q. That’s appropriate, as I cannot think of two more feel-good family comedies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Francois Ozon’s absurd, outre “Sitcom” rips a page straight from the Luis Bunuel handbook of bourgeois contempt and writes a novella of relentless sociosexual ludicrousness brought to a Guignol head by the lab rat who’s moved in with the suburban family under siege… Ozon is seemingly attracted to our pop garbage, jamming a few sticks of Acme TNT in the structural silliness of our sitcoms and watching it go ‘boom.'” –Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: KING OF HEARTS (1966)

DIRECTED BYPhilippe de Broca

FEATURING: , , Françoise Christophe, ,

PLOT: Signal Corps pigeon-keeper Charles Plumpick is mistakenly sent into the recently abandoned town of Marville to defuse German explosives, but his mission hits a road block when released members of the local insane asylum adopt him as their king.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: King of Hearts is whimsical, farcical, pacifist, fairly amusing and even sometimes tense—but not weird. Film-maker Phillippe de Broca lets his hippie-freak flag fly high, but the tone and story are altogether too bright and straight-forward for this to parade anywhere near List candidacy.

COMMENTS: It is altogether natural that a movie like this—an atypical period film (WWI) made during a disruptive decade (the 1960s) concerning a small French town taken over by the inmates of an asylum—appeared on our radar. Though filmed during the (stage) theatrical run of another asylum-themed dramaKing of Hearts is preaching more to the pacifist/anti-establishment choir than dealing, cinematically, with any madness other than the folly of war. While it is set during the first World War, it’s more of a fluffy predecessor to other counterculture anti-war films like Altman‘s M*A*S*H or ‘ Catch-22.

It is safe to presume that in contemporaneous times, Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) would have been a draftee. The Great War was a strange beast, though, and as an Englishman there’s every reason to believe that this bookish lover of birds would have volunteered the minute he heard that Jerry was on the march. As a signals officer for the military (specialty: carrier pigeons) with a name similar to a bomb disposal expert, he is sent off to the recently evacuated—and recently booby-trapped—town of Marville. Feeling guilty, one of the townsfolk unlocks the insane asylum as he flees. After wandering out, the inmates find all kinds of diversions: dressing up fancifully, enjoying shaves and haircuts, and staging ad hoc parades. Our hero Plumpick is mistaken for their King, and spends the movie being feted, scurrying madly to find the bomb trigger, and getting seduced by a cinematically antediluvian manic pixie dream girl.

I was reminded of my love of darker cinema when I first watched King of Hearts: it is entirely missing any aura of unease, much less menace. The “insane” people are all highly functional, charming, and seemingly guilty of nothing more than harmless delusions and a capacity for wonder. The British soldiers are Scottish, the only reason for which I could deduce was so the film-maker could have a bunch of kilted yobbos running around (there’s a trio of soldiers sent after Plumpick that wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the constables in The Pirates of Penzance). The Germans are boobs in the “Hogan’s Heroes” mold. The showdown between the two sides when they descend upon the city is the only bit of violence, and its orchestrated in a manner that screams, “Hey! I think war’s stupid!”

What kind of movie would it have been if Plumpick were infiltrating a bomb-laden city peopled by actually insane citizens? Obviously the movie would have been very different; and almost certainly much less beloved. King of Hearts was received lukewarmly at its release, but developed a considerable cult following since. There are some decent laughs, some clever lines, and yes, despite my complaints, I largely enjoyed the thing. However, throughout it all I couldn’t help but wonder, “How much darker, troubling, and altogether more glorious could this have been if the inmates had been more like those found in Charenton?” Ah well.

WHAT CRITICS SAY:

“…a surrealistic jewel of a comedy which you realize, when you can catch your breath between laughs, has made the case for the sanity of the lunatics and the madness of the war-waging sane.”–Charles Champlin, The Los Angeles Times (DVD)

335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

Weirdest!

Recommended

Le fantôme de la liberté 

“Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”–Luis Buñuel

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Hélène Perdrière, Pierre-François Pistorio, , François Maistre, , Pascale Audret, , Adriana Asti, many others

PLOT: The Phantom of Liberty has no straightforward plot, but moves between vignettes through various linking mechanisms. The opening, about Napoleon’s troops desecrating a church, turns out to be a story being read by a nanny; the child she is watching is given “dirty” photographs by a suspicious lurker, then her father has strange dreams which he relates to his doctor, whose nurse interrupts their conversation to ask for time off to visit her sick father, and so on… Subsequent stories involve the nurse spending a night at an inn with strange characters, a professor who lectures to a group of gendarmes, a “missing” girl, a sniper killing random pedestrians, and a police prefect who gets a call from beyond the grave.

Still from The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title was suggested by a line from the Communist Manifesto: “…a spectre [translated in French as fantôme] is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism…” Substituting “liberty” for “Communism” is typical of Phantom‘s process of reversing our expectations to shock us out of our complacency.
  • The film was co-written with Buñuel‘s late-career collaborator , the fifth of the six scripts they wrote together. They devised the scenario by telling each other their dreams each morning.
  • This was Buñuel‘s second-to-last film, in a career that lasted nearly fifty years. He was 74 at the time of release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The famous toilet/dinner reversal scene, which, while not at all explicit, is one of the few moments that still has the power to shock modern viewers, simply on the strength of its revolutionary idea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Jealous statue; emu in the night; commode party

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Angry statues, wandering emus, gambling monks, a celebrity sniper, and assorted perverts jostle up against each other in Luis Buñuel‘s penultimate filmed dream, perhaps the most purely Surrealist effort of his late career.

Short clip from The Phantom of Liberty (in French)

COMMENTS: Working with , Luis Buñuel began his career with a cannonball to the gut of rationality, the incendiary eye-slitting classic Un Chien Andalou. It was a barrage of disconnected Continue reading 335. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974)

THE JACQUES RIVETTE COLLECTION

Included in the set:

Duelle (1976)

Noroit (1976)

Merry-Go-Round (1978/1983)

Still from Duelle (1976)
Scene from “Duelle” (1976)

It’s heartening that lived long enough to witness a renewed interest in his work, and a resurgence in its availability, before his death in early 2016. Part of the group of directors who ushered in the French New Wave (along with Truffaut, , Rohmer, and Chabrol), Rivette made two features, Paris Belongs To Us (1961) and La Religieuse [The Nun] (1967) before changing his working methods. Influenced by an interview with , the events of May 1968, and improvisational theater, this shift towards improvised performance and experimentation resulted in L’amour Fou [Mad Love] (1969) and in pushing the aesthetic further with Out 1 (1970), followed by Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

A good portion of his films are available on DVD, although some of those were not the original versions (usually cut by the distributors due to time restraints). Fortunately, that situation is now being rectified by releases such as this one, which concentrates on some of Rivette’s 1970’s output that’s been difficult to view since the films’ initial release.

The films in the collection were the result of Rivette re-teaming with the producer of Out 1, Stephane Tchal Gadjieff, to do four films that were planned to be loosely interconnected. As events played out, only two related films, Duelle and Noroit, were made; a third was started, but production stalled and was abandoned. One more film, Merry-Go-Round, was completed in 1978, but didn’t see a release until 1983.

Duelle and Noroit were shot back-to-back, and as part of the planned four film cycle, the interconnections are very strong. An integral part of both films is the use of live music performed by musicians onscreen, and both involve an element of fantasy. Unlike Rivette’s previous two films, which utilized improvisation from the actors, these were scripted.

Duelle plays as a conglomeration of , influenced by (notably The Seventh Victim) and , with a subtle fantastical element. It starts out as a thriller involving a search for a valuable gemstone, but events turn out to be orchestrated by two opposing supernatural adversaries—the Daughter of the Sun (Bulle Oglier) and the Daughter of the Moon (Juliet Berto)—engaged in a battle-by-proxy utilizing mortals as pawns.

Noroit is a somewhat loose adaptation of the Jacobean play “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” cast as a pirate adventure and the major roles gender-flipped towards women. Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) with the help of her accomplice, Erika (Kika Markham), plots and enacts revenge against a group of pirates, led by Giulia (Bernadette Lafont). It also has roots in elements of Duelle, as more preternatural events occur by film’s end.

Merry-Go-Round retains the live-music-performed-onscreen element of the previous two films, but downplays, if not completely eliminates, the fantasy. Two strangers, Ben () and Leo (Maria Schneider) are in Paris to meet a mutual friend—Leo’s sister Elisabeth—who does not show up. They band together to locate her, which leads them all around Paris where they encounter a variety of characters who may have some connection to Leo’s (presumably) dead father and a small fortune of 20 million francs. It sounds straightforward, but there’s also what appear to be disconnected side narratives of Leo and Ben, set on a beach and in a forest, in conflict with one another.

As a whole, this set provides a look at some fascinating, yet flawed films; which, one could argue is part of the charm of Rivette’s work. If your introduction to Rivette was Celine and Julie Go Boating (criminally still not available in the U.S. on disc), and you felt adventurous enough to see what the fuss was over Out 1, then this collection is the logical next step in your Rivette study. If you haven’t seen any of his films, I’d recommend seeing Celine and Julie and Out 1 first before jumping into the Collection.

The Arrow Films limited edition boxset includes both Blu-ray and DVD discs for the films, along with a booklet with essays from Jonathan Rosenbaum, Mary M. Wiles, Brad Stevens and Nick Pinkerton. Extras include Scenes From A Parallel Life, a featurette featuring an archival interview with Rivette about the films; interviews with actresses Bulle Oglier and Hermine Karagheuz; and an interview with Rosenbaum. The UK release also included Out 1 in the set, but as Carlotta Films had the rights for the U.S. release, the US set contains only the three films mentioned.

329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)

Weirdest!

Le testament d’Orphée, ou ne me demandez pas pourquoi!

“Man seeks to escape himself in myth, and does so by any means at his disposal. Drugs, alcohol, or lies. Unable to withdraw into himself, he disguises himself. Lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort.”–Jean Cocteau, Diary of an Unknown

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jean Cocteau, , ,

PLOT: Time-traveling poet Jean Cocteau visits a professor and asks to be shot with his faster-than-light bullets in hopes of escaping the condition of timelessness. After the bullet frees him from his 19th century garb, he wanders outside, witnesses a strange gypsy ritual, and unknowingly summons Cégeste, a character from his movie and play Orpheus. Cégeste orders him to travel to the goddess Minerva with an offering, but along the way they are detained and interrogated by Death and her chauffeur Heurtebise (two other characters from Orpheus), among other surreal encounters.

Still from The Testament of Orpheus (1960)

BACKGROUND:

  • Testament is the third part of Jean Cocteau’s “Orphic trilogy,” which begins with The Blood of a Poet (1930) and peaked with its second entry, Orpheus (1950). Since characters from Orpheus play a role in Testament, this film will be much more meaningful to those who saw the second installment. Blood of a Poet has no narrative connection to the others, only a thematic one, and can be viewed in any order.
  • Cocteau was 71 when he made this film, which he intended to be his final statement in cinema. He wrote that the title Testament of Orpheus “has no direct connection to my film. It meant that I was bequeathing this last visual poem to all the young people who have believed in me, despite the total incomprehension with which I am surrounded on the part of my contemporaries.” Cocteau died three years after Testament was released.
  • Reportedly, when the production was short on funds, François Truffaut invested some of his profits from his recent hit The 400 Blows so Cocteau could complete his Testament.
  • The film’s French subtitle (or alternate title), “ne me demandez pas pourquoi,” translates to “do not ask me why.”
  • Besides Cocteau, the cast is uncredited. At the end, Cocteau says that “Any celebrities who you may see along the way appear not because they are famous, but because they fit the roles they play and because they are my friends.” Among the cameo appearances: musician Charles Aznavour, Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Pablo Picasso, and director . Former Orpheus appears briefly as Oedipus.
  • Edouard Dermithe, who plays the key role of Cégeste, was Cocteau’s adopted son, a fact alluded to in the script.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau stages his own funeral. His pallbearers are lanky black horse-men. The mourners are gypsies. His corpse exhales smoke. He doesn’t stay dead long.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The Poet as time-traveling fop; pantomime horse boy toys; Athena’s jet javelin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his final film, a giant of the avant-garde unapologetically indulges himself in a surrealistic journey through a misty netherworld bordered by dreams, imagination, and narcissism.

Brief clip from The Testament of Orpheus

COMMENTS: The Testament of Orpheus is, beyond question, a self-indulgent film. “Testament” has a dual meaning: it is a statement of Continue reading 329. THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS (1960)