Tag Archives: French

CAPSULE: THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker

PLOT: 300 years in the future, an ex-special ops agent turned taxi driver must collect four stones and discover the fifth element to stop the universe from being destroyed by evil, with the help of a scantily-clad supreme being.

Still from The Fifth Element (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTThe Fifth Element is unique and has its devoted fans, but although it’s much busier and more colorful than the average Hollywood space opera, in the end, it’s not so much weird as simply chaotic and overstuffed.

COMMENTS: You can probably gauge your tolerance for The Fifth Element according to your tolerance for antic comedian Chris Tucker and his amphetaminic falsetto.  Although he’s not a major player in the story, for better or worse his blond, over-coiffed, simpering talk-show diva dominates every scene he’s in, and is emblematic of the grotesquely overdrawn elements that populate Besson’s world.  Furthermore, his unnecessary presence is introduced through a senseless plot contrivance (the idea that this Oprah-on-a-galactic-scale pop icon would be obsessed with building a broadcast around a non-celebrity contest winner), which is itself symbolic of the way the script seizes any opportunity to shoehorn in any idea that occurs to it.  A few of those ideas include a future New York City grown up to the sky and jam packed with flying cars, Milla Jovovivh as a cloned carrot-haired “supreme being” wrapped in a tiny ace bandage, and Gary Oldman as a villainous comic-relief corporate honcho with a southern accent and a dedicated phone line to receive important calls from Ultimate Evil.  It’s insanely baroque, and the craziness itself is the glue that holds it together even as the wild story makes only a token gesture at sense, relying instead on the viewer to fill in the gaps through their familiarity with conventions of other blockbuster “save the universe” sci-fi epics.  Although it starts out looking like a Die Hard/Raiders of the Lost Ark hybrid set in space, at approximately one hour in comic relief completely hijacks the movie when Oldman’s Zorg threatening meeting with a high priest ends with him choking on a cherry and frantically punching buttons for random automated tasks on his desk.  The comedy never looks back, and this reliance on humor is the film’s ultimate downfall, because it is not very funny.  It’s filled with characters comically fainting, or being shut inside a collapsible refrigerator as Bruce Willis frantically tries to entertain multiple guests in his shabby apartment, or Chris Tucker delivering yet another incomprehensibly high-pitched monologue.  The movie is messy as hell, bouncing back and forth from action to comedy to spectacle to apocalyptic mythology with an eight-year-old kid’s enthusiasm and attention span, and that lack of focus may make the movie come off as mildly weird to those used to more disciplined Hollywood epics.  The Fifth Element has one thing unconditionally in its favor: the costume and set design is masterful, keeping the eye busy and delighted even while the mind wanders off the plot.  The background characters are all so punked out that the few clean cut authority figures stand out as the weirdos.  Although The Fifth Element is a cult movie some people treasure precisely because of its idiosyncratic flaws, which make it unlike any other would-be blockbuster, I can’t count myself among them.

With it’s overwhelmingly American cast and genre, there’s little that’s distinctively French about this movie except its director, Luc Besson, who had previously scored arthouse and critical successes with the stylish La Femme Nikkita (1990) and Leon [The Professional] (1994).  Nonetheless, it was the most expensive French made film to date, surpassing the great weird fantasy The City of Lost Children [La cité des enfants perdus].

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the great goofy movies–a film so preposterous I wasn’t surprised to discover it was written by a teenage boy. That boy grew up to become Luc Besson, director of good smaller movies and bizarre big ones, and here he’s spent $90 million to create sights so remarkable they really ought to be seen.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (Cannes premiere)

LIST CANDIDATE: EDEN LOG (2007)

DIRECTED BY:  Franck Vestiel

FEATURING:  Clovis Comillca, Vimala Pons, Zohar Wexleser

PLOT: A man named Tolbiac (Cornillac) awakens with amnesia alongside rotting corpses in a high-tech underground wasteland. He must find his way out of a massive labyrinth deep within the earth. To do so he has to collect and assimilate data and unravel clues to the bizarre circumstances in which he finds himself.

Still from Eden Log

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Shot entirely indoors in an underground setting, this unusual science fiction film blurs the line between supposed reality and apparent fantasy. Told visually, with minimal dialogue, the bizarre circumstances and setting disorient the viewer. One must see through the protagonist’s eyes to decipher his otherworldly experience. The fact that he has no memory and his world seems just as alien to him as it does to us heightens the challenge.

COMMENTS: Eden Log is told mainly with pictures. It is set in the near future. There is refreshingly little exposition. There are no long and grandiose on-screen paragraphs or narration at the inception telling about a land far, far away in a time long ago. As a result, the story is a bit murky.

The viewer must piece the action together from the protagonist’s experiences, which unfold from his point of view. The meaning of some events is not clearly delineated, and the beholder must learn how to interpret them. One must suspend disbelief to accept certain aspects of the plot, and one is never sure until the end how to understand some of Tolbiac’s impressions and experiences. It is, at first, hard to tell what is real and what is fantasy.

Tolbiac starts out at the bottom of a ruined, high-tech subterranean maze in pool of Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: EDEN LOG (2007)

35. DELICATESSEN (1991)

“I have a lovely memory of my producer, Claudie Ossard, who came to see us in these sewers.  She’d come in Chanel suits and high heels.  It was surreal to see her among these Troglodists dripping in oil.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus, Marie-Laure Dougnac, Karin Viard, Howard Vernon

PLOT:  In the near future, parts of French society have collapsed, most Parisian buildings

are burned out husks, and citizens have turned to a barter economy.  Among the many shortages experienced by city folk is a lack of fresh meat, but one butcher always seems to have enough flesh to trade for corn, or sex.  Answering an ad for a handyman, an ex-clown arrives at the bizarre boarding house run by the butcher and begins a chaste romance with his daughter—but is he there to do odd jobs, or does the butcher have something else in mind?

Still from Delicatessen (1991)

BACKGROUND:

  • The first of two films co-directed by Jeunet and Caro.  The pair conceived the idea for The City of Lost Children (also on the List of the 366 best weird movies of all time) first, but it was too expensive to produce.  Delicatessen could be shot on a single sound stage, cheaply, so they produced this film first.
  • In the opening titles, Caro is credited with “direction artistique,” while Jeunet is responsible for “mise en scène.”
  • Jeunet, one of three co-writers on the film, says that the idea for the story came to him because he used to rent a room above a butcher’s shop and would be awoken by the sound of the butcher sharpening his cleaver every morning.  His fiancee would joke that the landlord was killing his tenants for meat in order to convince him to move to a new apartment.
  • Caro not only refused to participate a director’s commentary, saying that he didn’t believe in them, but also requested that footage of him not be used in the behind-the-scenes segments on the DVD.  In his commentary, Jeunet implies that Caro is too self-critical, dryly suggesting Caro thought the film a failure because a barely visible garden hose was unintentionally left in one shot.
  • Delicatessen was picked as the Best Film at the Tokyo International Film Festival.  At home in France it won four César’s, including Best First Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design, and Best Editing.
  • The original trailer for the American release simply contained the entire “bed-spring symphony” scene, with the movie’s title appearing at the end.
  • At the time of release some reputable American critics reported that the film was either co-produced or “presented by”  Terry Gilliam, although Gilliam’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits.  It seems likely the Monty Python alum, whose early films are tonally similar to Jeunet and Caro, played some part the American distribution.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Howard Vernon’s aquatic second floor apartment, covered in a few centimeters of algae-green water and inhabited by frogs and snails who climb over all the furniture, the record player, and even over the dozing actor.  In the corner is a giant pile of discarded escargot shells.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Wandering through Delicatessen is like taking a tour of a

Spanish trailer for Delicatessen

dilapidated French boarding house filled with insane tenants, most pleasantly eccentric, some downright creepy.  You peer inside each room and find something unique and discomfiting.  The film is filled with bizarre characters and absurd comic interludes, set in a decaying near-future universe that is artificially “off.”

COMMENTS:  Except for Marie-Laure Dougnac’s eyes, there is no blue in Delicatessen, Continue reading 35. DELICATESSEN (1991)

29. THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN [La cité des enfants perdus] (1995)

“…someone who didn’t dream but, just the same, lived very well, yet would want to see, in dreams, a greater dimension of the imagination. For us, someone who is deprived of that is condemned to die. That’s part of what we wanted to say…  If one cannot dream and imagine things, and if one is sentenced to the everyday, to reality, it’s awful.”–Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet

FEATURING: Ron Perlman, Judith Vittet, Dominique Pinon,

PLOT:  A mad genius living on an abadnoned oil rig, who is growing prematurely old because he cannot dream, abducts children from a nearby port city and tries to steal their dreams.  His minions seize the adopted little brother of One, a foreigner and former sailor who now works in a carnival as a strongman.  One teams up with a streetwise orphan girl in the nameless, magical city to track down his little brother’s location.

City of Lost Children

BACKGROUND:

  • This was the second and final collaboration between Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, after the black comedy Delicatessan (1991).  Caro focused on the art direction, and Jeunet worked with the actors.
  • Caro and Jeunet conceived the idea for the film fourteen years before it was completed.
  • This visual effects spectacular, incorporating early CGI technology, was reportedly the most expensive film yet  produced in France at that time.
  • La cité des enfants perdus was the opening film at the Cannes film festival in 1995 and was in competition for the Palme D’or (losing to ‘s Underground).

INDELIBLE IMAGEThe City of Lost Children is a film that’s built around images: a CGI flea using its proboscis to insert a hypnotic drug into a man’s head, a disembodied brain in a fish tank, and a horde of frightening Santas all compete for honors—not to mention the city itself, a tottering port made up of rambling stairs, arches, balconies and alleys, which resembles Venice re-imagined as a Victorian junkyard.  The most iconic image, however, is gaunt old Krank in his gleaming lab hooked up to his dream stealing machine, a multi-tentacled headdress stolen from the laboratory of an avant-garde Dr. Frankenstien.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The City of Lost Children takes place in a magical city that could not exist except in the imagination, in dreams. It’s a fairy tale, but from the first scene—a child’s Christmas Eve dream that turns unsettlingly weird—it’s clear that this is no standard fantasy world that sets out a few simple deviations from our own, but instead a world of childlike wonder where the imagination is unleashed without respect for the possible.

Short theatrical trailer for City of Lost Children

COMMENTS: There’s a scene early on in The City of Lost Children where a dozing Continue reading 29. THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN [La cité des enfants perdus] (1995)

26. THE MILKY WAY [LA VOIE LACTEE] (1969)

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”–Matthew 10:34-36

DIRECTED BY: Luis Buñuel

FEATURING: , Laurent Terzieff, Bernard Verley, Edith Scob, ,

PLOT:  Two tramps follow the ancient pilgrimage road leading from France to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of the apostle James are supposed to be interred.  Along the way they meet strange characters from various times who debate ancient Catholic heresies, a child with a stigmata, an angel of death, and a nun voluntarily undergoing a crucifixion.  Also scattered throughout the film are recreations of fictional and historical events, including dramatization of an Inquisition trial, a cameo by the Marquis de Sade, and scenes from the Gospels.

milky_way_coie_lactee

BACKGROUND:

  • In retrospect, director Luis Buñuel realized that The Milky Way formed the first part of a trilogy about “the search for truth” along with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974). The subsequent two films use the same fragmented, non-linear narrative style pioneered in The Milky Way.
  • The film is exhaustively researched, with many of the episodes composed of direct quotes from the Bible or the writings of heretics.
  • Released while the general strike and student protests of May 1968 were still fresh in France’s mind and a spirit of liberal revolution was in the air, some leftists were not happy that one of their own had chosen this moment to make a non-political film about the history of heresy in the Catholic church.  According to anecdote, Buñuel’s novelist friend Julio Cortazar accused the director of having completed the film with financing from the Vatican.
  • Although the film is often blasphemous on it’s surface, it was well-received by the Catholic Church, who even intervened with the Italian censors to reverse their decision to ban the film.  This was an unexpected reaction, as the Vatican had declared Buñuel’s 1961 film Viridiana “blasphemous”.
  • With it’s large, almost epic cast, it’s inevitable that several French actors with significant contributions in the weird movie arena appeared in cameo roles, including Delpine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) as a prostitute, Julien Guiomar (Léolo) as a priest, and Michel Piccoli (La Grande Bouffe, Dillinger is Dead) as the Marquis de Sade.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The execution of a pope by a gang of anarchists, a scene that leads to the film’s funniest and most unexpected punchline.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  In The Milky Way two worldly pilgrims make their way through a

Original trailer for La Voie Lactée

strange, heresy-obsessed world in which every maître d’ is an expert theologian and Renaissance fops duel to the death over arcane philosophical doctrines, while any random stranger they meet may actually be God, an angel, or the fulfillment of a recent prophecy.

COMMENTS:  Of all the great directors, Luis Buñuel was the greatest prankster.  His son, Continue reading 26. THE MILKY WAY [LA VOIE LACTEE] (1969)

BORDERLINE WEIRD: GIRL SLAVES OF MORGANA LE FAY [MORGANE ET SES NYMPHES] (1971)

DIRECTED BY:  Bruno Gantillon

FEATURING: Mireille Saunin, Dominique Delpierre, Alfred Baillou

PLOT:  Two pretty young women travelling through the French countryside

Still from Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay [Morgane et ses Nymphes] (1971)

stumble upon the castle of an elegant witch attended by a bevy of beauties and a dwarf, who promises to keep them eternally young and pampered if they will give up their souls to her.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  With it’s hunchbacked dwarf in eyeliner, tokes off a hookah, and decadent, dreamlike atmosphere, Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay tries fairly hard to be weird.  But the film isn’t really as committed to creating a weird atmosphere as it is in filling the frame with as many tastefully hot lesbian sex scenes as it’s running time will allow.

COMMENTS:  Despite the acres of nude female flesh and Sapphic trysts, Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay is a serious attempt at art, albeit erotic art.  The cinematography and costumes are luscious, and the location shooting at a real French castle provides a sensuous, refined background for the ladies’ romps in the buff.  The setting is decadent, and so are the pleasure-obsessed slave girls and their mistress, who sip on wine and quote Baudelaire all day in between refined orgies and interpretive erotic dances.  It’s the kind of locale you might like to live in (especially if you’re a lesbian), but not one that’s especially interesting to watch.  The atmosphere is trance-like, but the actresses emote as if they were in a trance. Despite the high-stakes battle for the girls’ souls, everything is so sublimated and understated that little real drama emerges.  The sex scenes are of the tasteful sort where one girl carefully caresses or kissed the torso of her lover, but only briefly brushes a nipple by accident.  The ending to the film is surprisingly effective, although abrupt. 

The DVD presentation by Pete Tombs’ Mondo Macabro is really amazing for a film this forgotten.  Tomb’s writes exhaustive essays on the film, cast, crew, and even the Chateau de Val location, as well as including Gantillon’s short film, Un couple d’artistes.  It’s nice to realize that enthusiasts exist to give a film as obscure as Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay a release that’s as every bit as loving as Criterion Collection would if it were a respectable mainstream classic.  

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The first naughty scene… is potently erotic, and it sets the tone for the dreamlike stupor of lesbianism that permeates the rest of the film… Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay is classic soft-core exploitation, but it is done with such fun and gusto that nary a hint of coercion or negativity intrudes.”–Rob Lineburger, DVD Verdict

5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)

AKA Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus [dubbed and edited version]

“I love images that make me dream, but I don’t like someone dreaming for me.” –Georges Franjou

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Georges Franjou

FEATURING: Edith Scob, Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli

PLOT:  The face of the daughter of a brilliant plastic surgeon is horrifically scarred in an automobile accident.  The doctor makes her pretend to be dead until she can be cured; she floats about his Gothic mansion wearing an expressionless face mask, accompanied by the howling of the dogs her father keeps in pens to perform skin grafting experiments on.  When several pretty young girls go missing, the police and the girl’s fiancé start to suspect the doctor.
eyes_without_a_face

BACKGROUND:

  • Eyes Without a Face was adapted for film by the famous screenwriting team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who also co-wrote Les Diaboliques (1954) and Vertigo (1958), from a novel by Jean Redon.
  • Director Georges Franjou has stated that he was told to avoid blood (so as not to upset the French censors), animal cruelty (so as not to upset the English censors), and mad scientists (to avoid offending the German censors). Remarkably, all three of these elements appear in the final product, but the film did not run into censorship problems.
  • The film did poorly on its initial release, partly because the surgical scene was so shocking and gruesome for its day.  It was released in the US, in a dubbed and slightly edited version, as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus, paired on a double bill with the strange but now nearly-forgotten exploitation flick The Manster.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  The mask itself, the heart of the film.  There are several other worthy candidates, including the haunting final scene with Christiane surrounded by freed birds. Also noteworthy is the facial transplant scene, which is in some ways the centerpiece of this film (and comes almost exactly at the midpoint).  An anesthetized woman’s face is peeled off like the skin of a grape, in surprisingly graphic detail.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: At least until the very final scene, Eyes Without a Face is not

Original trailer for Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face)

obviously weird at all–in fact, much of Franjou’s accomplishment is in making the fabulous, far-fetched story seems coldly clinical and real.  But what gives the movie it’s staying power and makes it get under your skin is the strength of the simple images, particularly Christiane’s blank mask, which hides everything: both the horrors of her past, now written on her face in scar tissue, and her current motivations.  The imagery seems to reach far beyond the confines of the story and speak to something deeper–but what?  For this reason, the most common critical adjective used in conjunction with the film has been “poetic,” and the director Franjou is most often compared to is Jean Cocteau.

COMMENTSEyes without a Face is a sinister variation on the Frankenstein theme that Continue reading 5. EYES WITHOUT A FACE [LES YEUX SANS VISAGE] (1960)