Tag Archives: French

251. PLAYTIME (1967)

(G. Smalley contributed additional commentary and background to this article.)

Play Time

Playtime is a film that comes from another planet, where they make films differently.”–attributed to Francois Truffaut

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek

PLOT: A nearly plotless “day in the life” of 1967 Paris: a group of American tourists arrive in the city, but instead of visiting the monuments they are taken to a complex of skyscrapers to shop. Meanwhile, Monsieur Hulot is trying to keep an appointment, but gets lost in a mazelike building in the same downtown complex. After business hours, everyone converges on a restaurant on its opening night for a chaotic celebration as the building falls apart around them.

Still from Playtime (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • The third of four features in which Jacques Tati played the affable, bumbling Monsieur Hulot.
  • Playtime was in production for three years; the downtown sets were constructed by hundreds of workers and were nicknamed “Tativille” among the crew.
  • The film was incredibly expensive to make and Tati took out personal loans to finance it; it was a disappointment at the box office and he went into bankruptcy, giving away Playtime‘s rights in the process.
  • Tati shot the film in 70mm (which was capable of a 2.20:1 aspect ratio, one of the widest formats), and initially insisted the film be screened only in that format in venues with stereophonic sound, despite the fact that very few theaters could meet these specifications. (Partially for this reason, the movie was not screened at all in the United States until 1972). He later relented and allowed 35mm prints to be struck.
  • Humorist and newspaper columnist Art Buchwald wrote the English dialogue for Tati.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Many people will best remember Hulot’s view from the second-floor view of a factory-like job site composed of a maze of cubicles—a workplace prophecy that’s come true. We chose a scene—one of three in the film—where straggling Barbara opens a door to one of her tour’s commercialized sightseeing destinations, only to see the Eiffel Tower (or the Arc de Triomphe, or the Sacré Coeur) perfectly reflected in the plate glass. These shots express Tati’s theme of the disappearance of culture under the ugliness of modernity, while retaining the wistful hopefulness that is characteristic of his work.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Faux Hulots; cubicle labyrinth; doorman with no door

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Playtime is about the alienating, isolating influence technology has on human beings. It’s not the standard elements of plot, narrative, character development or dialogue that pulls an equally alienated audience into this unfurling drama, but the careful choreography of hapless humans navigating a barely recognizable hypermodern Paris. Play Time is a sort of anti-Brazil.


Short Clip from Playtime

COMMENTS: Do you remember when watching “Tom and Jerry” on Continue reading 251. PLAYTIME (1967)

CAPSULE: THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freya Mavor, Benjamin Biolay, Elio Germano,

PLOT: When he’s away on business, a Parisian secretary who has never seen the ocean takes her boss’s Thunderbird on a road trip, but everywhere she goes people swear they’ve seen her before—is she going crazy?

Still from The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For a while, the Lady seems to be driving her borrowed car into French territory, but she ultimately crashes it into mere implausibility.

COMMENTS: Forget the car, glasses and gun: the Lady, portrayed by Freya Mavor, is something to see. Freya was the Norse goddess of love and sex, and with her red hair, willowy build and tempting freckles, Mavor could pass for Scandinavian love goddess (she’s actually Scottish). It’s the Lady (not the plot) that is Lady‘s chief asset, and the way he shoots Mavor, I think director Johann Sfar knows it. He begins the film with her dancing madly at the sea shore, flaming hair flying around her head and bare feet pattering on the sea-soaked concrete of the pier, then cuts to an earlier scene where the model/actress is shot in unflattering light to actually make her look kind of ugly (a remarkable feat of cinematography). But as her confidence increases throughout the story, her hemline rises. Mavor’s girlish looks and waifish figure lend her an air of forbidden innocence that makes her future behavior seem all the more shocking.

As the pseudo-doppelanger plot synopsis might suggest, mirrors will provide key imagery here, and an early scene where the Lady’s reflection disobeys her provides one of the first hints of an ever-increasing subjectivity that leads us to suspect that she’s headed for madness. The plot kicks into gear after the Lady has borrowed the car, and keeps running into people who insist they’ve seen her recently; for example, eating breakfast that morning in a country café when she was actually in Paris at the time. On her road trip, she’s also assaulted at random, and starts making poor decisions re: picking up sleazy drifters at roadside motels. Our attention is diverted by Sfar’s style (cool music, cool cars, sexy chicks, impossible occurrences); and the Lady seems to be turning schizophrenic, until fifteen minutes of closing exposition explain what’s really been going on all along. Many people criticized the climax as a clunky dénouement device, but I was more disappointed in the solution to the mystery, which relies too much on crazy coincidence for my satisfaction.

Johann Sfar has been hanging around on the fringes of weird films for a while now, starting with the mildly hallucinatory biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, and continuing with The Rabbi’s Cat, his arcane adaptation of his own graphic novel about a snarky, sacrilegious pet. In Lady‘s second act the thick, nearly surrealistic atmosphere makes this remake of the seldom-seen 1970 shocker of the same title seem like it’s going to be Sfar’s weirdest film; ultimately, however, it ends up as his most conventional. Sfar remains an unpredictable force with the potential to unleash something fantastically weird in the future, although each near-miss diminishes our enthusiasm for his work just a little.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sfar creates the eerie impression of being trapped in someone else’s dream. Relying on hallucinatory tricks in which time seems to roll back on itself, or else lurch forward to some possible future, the helmer makes everything feel surreal enough that we hardly stop to consider the only logical explanation, delivered in stultifying detail over a tedious, low-tension climax.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: L’ IMPORTANT C’EST D’AIMER (1975) [THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO LOVE]

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Fabio Testi, Jacques Dutronc, Roger Blin, Claude Dauphin,

PLOT: Nadine Chevalier (Schneider) is an actress on the verge of being ‘over the hill’ and acting in films far beneath her talent. Servais Mont (Testi) is a freelance photographer who also shoots pornography for a local crime lord (Dauphin), paying off a debt. They meet on a film set and a definite connection is established and acknowledged; however, Nadine is married to Jacques (Dutronc), a film buff and dreamer, and is still devoted to him.

In love, Servais helps her by anonymously backing a play with a part for her, borrowing the money from a crime lord. But things do not work out as hoped, ending with violence and suicide—and a glimmer of hope at the end.

Ux9_yRDHZ5-CvCCtewQhIwowGk0@750x446

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Compared to Zulawski’s previous two films and the two to follow, this would probably be considered his first “normal” film, a romantic melodrama. However, no Zulawski film could be considered “normal”—the intensity is still there, but it stays within the confines of the real world the film establishes, rather than spinning off into its own universe. Plus, it has Klaus Kinski. The Important Thing Is to Love may not be full-on “weird,” but it’s worth a look on its own terms.

COMMENTS:  After the Polish Government effectively banned Diabel and kicked Zulawski out of Poland, he went back to France where he had studied and worked earlier before becoming a director. He worked as a script doctor and appeared in some films before being approached with this project, based on a novel by Christopher Frank, “La Nuit Americaine.”

At heart, the movie is a love story—well, a love triangle—but there’s plenty of room for some of Zulawski’s usual concerns: the cause of Art over Commercialism; the corruption and loss of innocence; friendship and betrayal. Also present is the use of doubling (note the open and close of the film); references to classical works (Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in this case); and, of course, staircases.

The best available release is Mondo Vision’s DVD, which comes in a special and a limited edition (the limited edition including an expanded booklet and a CD of the acclaimed score by Georges Delerue). The DVD also features a commentary by Zulawski and Daniel Bird, along with an interview with Zulawski. Audio is in the original French language, along with English and German dubs and English subtitles.

L’ Important C’est D’aimer was the second Zulawski film to get exposure in the West when it was featured on L.A.’s Z-Channel (as can be seen in Xan Cassavetes’ documentary Z-Channel: A Magnificent Obsession).

That Most Important... 1

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though the films of Andrzej Zulawski are known for their boisterous energy and feverish excesses of sex, violence and the bizarre, his third film L’important c’est d’aimer (The Important Thing Is to Love) is tempered by a richly humanistic story and a shattering performance by Romy Schneider, which she considered to be (and many critics agree) her career zenith.”–Tim Lucas, Sight & Sound (DVD)

242. L’AGE D’OR (1930)

“It is LOVE that brings about the transition from pessimism to action: Love, denounced in the bourgeois demonology as the root of all evil. For love demands the sacrifice of every other value: status, family, and honor.”–from the program to L’Age D’Or

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Gaston Madot, Lya Lys, Max Ernst

PLOT: It begins as a documentary on scorpions. “Some hours later,” reads an intertitle, and suddenly we are on a rocky beach where a peasant spies four chanting bishops perched on a rocky outcropping. Later, on the same beach, a man and a woman are discovered locked in an embrace; they spend the rest of the movie attempting to consummate their love, as the action shifts to “Imperial Rome” and a private concert at a wealthy bourgeois garden party.

Still from L'age D'or (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • The bohemian aristocrat Vicomte Charles de Noailles commissioned this film as a birthday present for his wife (a poet and a descendant of the Marquis de Sade). Because of the scandalized reaction to the film’s blasphemous content, the Vicomte was threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, and quickly withdrew the film from circulation.
  • The film’s original title was to be Un Bête Andalou.
  • As with Un Chien Andalou, Buñuel originally planned to co-write and co-direct with, but the two had a falling out before the film was completed. Dalí is credited as co-writer, but disowned the film later, and what remains of his contributions is a matter of conjecture.
  • Painter Max Ernst had a large role in the film; other less-famous members of the Surrealist circle appear in smaller parts.
  • The opening is footage from a 1912 documentary. The ending is a reference to Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom.”
  • Along with official members of the Surrealist movement, Pablo Picasso, , Vladimir Nabokov, and Gertrude Stein were among those in attendance at a private screening hosted by the Vicomte.
  • Buñuel had hoped that Un Chien Andalou would incite riots and was disappointed when it was a huge popular success. L’Age D’Or did inspire violence. Members of the Fascist-leaning “League of Patriots”  threw ink and the screen and destroyed paintings by Dalí and other Surrealists that were being exhibited in conjunction with one screening. The French authorities banned the film within a year of its release “to preserve public order.”
  • Because the de Noailles family removed L’Age D’Or from distribution, the film was not legally screened in the United States until 1979.
  • At the urging of the Spanish Communists, who considered Surrealism bourgeois, Buñuel later re-cut L’Age D’Or into a 20-minute short to make it less difficult and more accessible to proletariat viewers. This version of the film did not survive.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For its poster image, distributor Kino Lorber takes the scene where Lya Lys, frustrated that her finger-sucking foreplay with Gaston Madot has been temporarily interrupted, satisfies her desires by fellating the toe of a nearby statue. But we find the moment where she walks into her boudoir to see a cow lounging on her bed to be funnier, and less expected. (Footnote one: one source reports that this scene is a pun, since the word for “cow” [“vache”] was then-current French slang for “cop.” If so, the fact that this meaning is lost on contemporary audiences makes the image even more surreal. Footnote two: a still that frequently accompanies reviews of the movie shows a man crouched down next to the cattle-infested bed; this shot does not appear in Kino’s cut of the film, and may be from a promotional still).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Shoo cow; stone toe sucking; Jesus leaves the orgy

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Skeletal bishops on the beach, cows in the bedroom, and Jesus at a murder orgy: the scandalous L’Age D’Or was too hot and weird for 1930, and still carries the power to shock today. Watch it for its historical importance, but also as a profane prayer—an unapologetic hymn in praise of unfettered individual desire.


Short clip from L’Age D’or

COMMENTS: In the repurposed documentary footage that opens Continue reading 242. L’AGE D’OR (1930)

241. PIERROT LE FOU (1965)

“Velazquez, past the age of 50, no longer painted specific objects. He drifted around things like the air, like twilight, catching unawares in the shimmering shadows the nuances of color that he transformed into the invisible core of his silent symphony. Henceforth, he captured only those mysterious interpenetrations that united shape and tone by means of a secret but unceasing progression that no convulsion or cataclysm could interrupt or impede. Space reigns supreme. It’s as if some ethereal wave skimming over surfaces soaked up their visible emanations to shape them and give them form and then spread them like a perfume, like an echo of themselves, like some imperceptible dust, over every surrounding surface.”–opening lines of Pierrot le Fou, supposedly from the book on modern painters Ferdinand reads throughout the film

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING,

PLOT: Ferdinand, who is married to a wealthy Italian woman and has recently lost his television job, leaves a bourgeois cocktail party early and skips town with babysitter Marianne, with whom he had coincidentally had an affair years before. After knocking out an intruder, the two go on a crime spree and end up living on a remote island, but Marianne grows bored and wants to return to city life. Things get complicated when Marianne, who claims her brother is a gun runner, kills a man in her apartment, and the lovers are separated.

Still from Pierrot le Fou (1965)

BACKGROUND:

  • Pierrot le Fou is a (very) loose adaptation of Leonard White’s pulp novel “Obsession.” In the novel, the babysitter is much younger than the man she runs away with, creating a “Lolita” dynamic; when Godard decided to cast Belmondo and Karina, the nature of their relationship had to change.
  • “Pierrot” means “sad clown,” a stock character from commedia del arte. Pierrot is archetypically foolish, in love, and betrayed by his lover.
  • Two days before the film was to shoot, Godard still had no script. Some of the film was therefore improvised, although, according to Anna Karina, the extent to which the film was made up as it went along was later exaggerated.
  • Godard and Karina were married in 1961; by the time Pierrot was released, they were already divorced.
  • The film was booed at its debut at the Venice Film Festival, yet went on to do well at international box offices.
  • Director has a cameo as himself in the cocktail party scene, where he gives his theory of the essence of cinema.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The despondent Ferdinand, speaking on the phone, grabs a paintbrush and begins daubing his face blue. Once finished, he goes out into the Mediterranean sun, carelessly swinging two bundles of dynamite—one red, one yellow—around his body. He’s off to end the movie.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Topless cocktail party; scissored dwarf; Pierrot is blue

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Inspired by a film noir plot, but shot in a sunny primary-color pop art style that banishes all shadows, Pierrot le Fou is a bittersweet contradiction, and a story that refuses to sit still: it’s a road movie, a romance, a comedy, an adventure, a musical, a satire, a meditation, a surreal fantasy, and a postmodern lark (sometimes, it’s all of these in a single scene). Godard’s personality holds it all together with a lighthanded unity that he would seldom pull off.


Video review of Pierrot le Fou from Lewis Senpai (MoviesEveryday)

COMMENTS: “Fou” means “crazy” in French. Ferdinand’s lover, Marianne, calls him “Pierrot” throughout the film, although he constantly Continue reading 241. PIERROT LE FOU (1965)

LIST CANDIDATE: LI’L QUINQUIN (2014)

P’tit Quinquin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bruno Dumont

FEATURING: Alane Delhaye, Bernard Pruvost, Philippe Jore, Lucy Caron

PLOT: A big city detective with facial tic disorder comes to a remote French beach village to investigate a bizarre double murder: parts of the victims were found inside the bodies of cows.

Still from Li'l Quinquin (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Bruno Dumont’s sprawling (206 minute) longform Gallic mystery is quirky and ominous in about equal measure, with an ambiguous non-conclusion that adds to the weirdness while also making the entire enterprise feel strangely incomplete.

COMMENTS: Because of its quirky dark humor and strange-outsider-in-a-stranger-town mystery plot, L’il Quinquin almost always dubbed “the French ‘Twin Peaks.'” Indeed, it shares many of that series’ strengths and weaknesses: absurd, dark humor; meandering subplots that can become more interesting than the main thread; fascinating rural eccentrics; a hint of the supernatural; and an unsatisfactory resolution.

That last part bears keeping in mind. Although L’il Quinquin is presented as a mystery, beginning with the macabre discovery of human body parts inside of cows, the murders are, most frustratingly, not solved at the end. This fact is in accord with the director’s wishes—he presents a world where evil is allowed to triumph, even to the extent of remaining anonymous—but, after such an amazing buildup, the anticlimax inevitably leaves a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.

That disappointment won’t arrive until the very end, however, and there is much to savor up until then. We’ll start with the performance of Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a detective who looks like Albert Einstein with uncontrollable facial tics—his expression changes an average of two times per second. Pruvost projects a weird sort of competence, and serves as the film’s disapproving moral center, but shares the limelight with Alane Delhaye as the titular Quinquin, a mischievous “bad kid” who absorbs the town’s unreflective racism, but is redeemed by his innocence and his genuine love for a neighbor girl (Lucy Caron, whose penetrating stare recalls the blank intensity of Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom). There’s also an African Muslim boy who snaps when a popular white girl rejects him; a beautiful and talented young chanteuse who seems bound for the big city; Carpentier, Van der Weyden’s dim and nearly toothless second-in-command; Quinquin’s uncle, a speechless, nearly catatonic wreck just back from the institution, given to wandering around in circles; and dozens of other weirdos in brief bits (like the developmentally-disabled English man who throws dishes in a restaurant while the detective is giving a status report to his superior officer). Offbeat comic touches, often quite absurd, break up the serious dramatic sections: a pair of priests preside over an awkward funeral and giggle inappropriately; Quinquin is bedeviled by a costumed younger boy calling himself “Speedyman!” who shows up on his doorstep without explanation; a car careens down the street on two wheels. But in the midst of all this everyday madness, things grow ever darker, as secrets are uncovered and more and more bodies are found, leading the detective to his eventual, apparently final, conclusion: “l’enfer, ici” (“this is Hell, here”).

But for all L’il Quinquin‘s assets, it ends on little more than that involuntary eyebrow shrug by our detached detective. I appreciate an ambiguous ending, when well done, but the idea of a mystery that is never resolved, yet is wrapped up in a way that the audience will find emotionally satisfying, remains cinema’s elusive white whale.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a wonderfully weird and unexpectedly hilarious murder mystery.”–Scott Foundas, Variety (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015)

Avril et le monde truqué

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci

FEATURING: Voices of Philippe Katerine, Marc-André Grondin, Jean Rochefort, Bouli Lanners (French); Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tod Fennell, Tony Robinow, (English dub)

PLOT: In an alternate history where technology never advanced past 1870, young April seeks to find her scientist parents, abducted by unknown forces with superior technology.

Still from April and the Extraordinary World (2015)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: More than one mainstream critic has referred to April and the Extraordinary World as “wonderfully weird.” Checking my movie reviewer decoder ring, I see that when used as a modifier to “weird,” “wonderfully” translates as “mildly and in the least threatening way imaginable.” April may not be super-strange by our standards, but it is at least playing in the right ballpark. This exciting, imaginative and visually superior cartoon it may be able to make the List on the sliding scale: the better the movie, the less pervasive the weirdness required. (Also, there was one walkout in the theatrical audience of three, and walkouts automatically earn List Candidate status).

COMMENTS: Let’s try an alternate plot synopsis for April and the Extraordinary World: in 1870, Napoleon III’s attempt to create an army of invulnerable monkeys (just roll with it) to fight the Franco-Prussian War goes awry, resulting in a world where technology stalls in the steam age and France goes to war with the United States over timber resources in Canada. The “extraordinary world,” not April, is the star of this French import; and what a world it is! The Eiffel Tower is now a stop on the Paris-Berlin steam line, cars run (badly) on wood-burning engines, and our heroine, April, has a talking cat (although that‘s unusual even by the standards of the time). Whenever a scientist—Fermi, Einstein, the Curies—nears a revolutionary discovery that would drag society out of the Steam Age, they mysteriously disappear, abducted by governments who want to use their talents to build super-weapons to fight the ever-raging wars over scarce resources (when our story begins, the world’s coal supply has been exhausted, and nations’ industries are now burning less-efficient timber). This world is not the quaint, cute utopia imagined in much of steampunk literature; although the tone is adventurous rather than bleak, the world is dystopian and polluted. In Europe, freestanding trees are found only in museums, and the streets are covered in ash. It’s not steampunk, it’s sootpunk.

April has garnered comparisons to everything from The City of Lost Children to Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin with a touch of Metropolis, but I think the most appropriate touchstone here is the works of . Not just Howl’s Moving Castle, even though this one does feature a house that moves on stilts. It’s actually the fully-realized, impeccably detailed fantasy world, the lovingly hand-crafted animation, and the plot centered on young protagonists making their way through an epic setting that spurs the comparison. Like a Miyazki film, April expertly interweaves world-building episodes and light character development with sequences focused on action and spectacle, while leaving aside animated Hollywood’s emphasis on pat morals, clever pop-culture references and jokes aimed over the heads of kids.

If the word “extraordinary” in conjunction with a fantasy-adventure set in a low-tech France starring a female heroine whose name begins with “A” sounds familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. That’s not an accident, as both movies were based on graphic novels by Jacques Tardi, whose name appears in the opening credits under a drawing of a pterodactyl.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a visual delight, an animated French steampunk adventure that is smart, exciting and wonderfully weird.”–Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MON ONCLE (1958)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola, Adrienne Servantie, Alain Becourt

PLOT: A young boy being raised in a sterile modernist home prefers the company of his childlike uncle, one M. Hulot.

Still from Mon Oncle (1958)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I’m far from set on including a Jacques Tati film on the List, but if he were to show up, Playtime would make a better choice.

COMMENTS: Mon Oncle could almost be described as a tale of two houses. There’s not a lot of plot; the movie hinges on set design more than anything. The movie’s satirical targets, the Arpels, live in a white, clean-looking modernist geometric home fitted out with all the latest 1958 gadgets, like automatic garage door openers (incroyable!), air-conditioning, and an automatic steak-flipper. The most significant of all the doo-dads is the dolphin fountain in the garden, which a vigilant Mme. Arpel turns on and off (to save on water bills) depending on the social status of the villa’s latest visitor. The Arpels are thoroughly bourgeois consumers; M. Arpel owns a hose factory (the source of a gag later in the film when he hires  hapless frere-in-law Hulot). Oncle Hulot’s apartment is more magical. Like it’s most famous tenant, it’s a ramshackle, organic, and impractical domicile. We view Hulot enter from across the street and see as he passes through half a dozen windows and balconies, not always emerging exactly where we expect.

Easygoing, unambitious Hulot, with his rumpled overcoat and the ever-present pipe clutched between his teeth, represents an almost bohemian view of life as something to be enjoyed at leisure. The Arpels, obsessed with acquiring status symbols, find him to be a shamefully out-of-touch embarrassment, and seek to make him into a respectable member of modern society. They try to find him a job and a spinster to wed. Of course, his nephew finds his nonchalant oncle to be a lot more fun than his nagging parents. I’d certainly side with Hulot over the Arpels, but it’s not much of a choice; they take all the fun out of being rich. As satire, however, Mon Oncle is far too forgiving, almost affectionate to its targets. The critique never stings—which is not the way Voltaire or Molière would have done it. The Arpels seem merely foolish rather than venal. And parts of Tati’s attack are now dated. The Arpel’s decor, then chosen to represent the ugliness of modernism, now looks quaint and almost classical. I wouldn’t mind living in their house at all.

As comedy, Mon Oncle is dry stuff, usually cute rather than funny. Tati recycles gags that might have been used by vaudevillians or silent comedians; rarely does the dialogue itself have any zing or purpose. A schoolboy prank that causes pedestrians to walk into light poles is as mischievous as things ever get. Hulot accidentally busts the water supply to the fish fountain and oversees a malfunctioning hose production unit, but the mishaps never get truly out of control, and certainly never approach the dangerous. The gags get elaborate, but go on for some time without much payoff, making them more to be admired than beloved. It’s hard to dislike Jacques Tati, but I’m not the biggest fan of these Hulot pictures. Like a beautifully plated but insubstantial French dish, there’s an awful lot of mise en scene to chew on for very little nourishment.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…perceptibly contrived when it lingers too long and gets too deeply into the dullness of things mechanical. After you’ve pushed one button and one modernistic face, you’ve pushed them all.”–Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “christine,” who called it a “totally weird but fun 1958 French movie.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

231. ORPHEUS (1950)

Orphée

“When I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming. Only the people and places of the dream matter. I have difficulty making contact with others, as one does when half-asleep.”–Jean Cocteau

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , María Casares, François Périer, Marie Déa, Edouard Dermithe

PLOT: Orpheus, a famed poet in post-war France, is stagnating until his life takes a sudden turn when a brawl at the Poets Café precipitates a ride with Death and her latest victim. Smitten by her mystery and charm, Orpheus becomes obsessed to the point of neglecting his wife, who is dispatched by supernatural agents. It turns out the underworld has rules, though, and complications force Orpheus, Death, and the innocent people in their orbit to redress their unauthorized actions.

Still from Orpheus (1950)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film is an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1926 play of the same title.
  • Orpheus is the middle film of Cocteau’s “Orphic Trilogy”, preceded by The Blood of a Poet (1932) and followed by Testament of Orpheus (1960).
  • The credits for the movie were all drawn by Jean Cocteau, who was something of an artistic jack-of-all-trades: poet, painter, filmmaker.
  • Orpheus is played by Jean Marais, a matinée idol whom Cocteau launched to critical acclaim with Beauty and the Beast (1946). Marais was also Cocteau’s lover. By the time Orpheus was being filmed, Cocteau had a new lover, whom he cast as Orpheus’ professional rival, Cegeste.
  • The unearthly transmissions from the Princess’ car radio were inspired by the coded BBC broadcasts Cocteau heard during World War II.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau’s bag of tricks in Orpheus is a large one, but the most memorable bit of legerdemain shows up when Orpheus is making a second trip to “the Zone,” a wind-scarred mass of ruins that makes up the Underworld. Orpheus and his guide, Heurtebise, struggle against gusts of tremendous force as they travel, only to plummet laterally upon turning the corner into the tribunal chamber.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forward in reverse; Underworld radio; mirror doorways

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cocteau’s obsession with mirrors continues unabated, and in Orpheus they explode, dissolve, and are traveled through with a magic so commonplace it borders on the mundane. The Underworld is overseen by judicial bureaucrats, time is flexible (but at a price), and for a movie about poets and poetry, it’s interesting that there are no examples at all of the latter.


Criterion Collection promotional video for Orpheus

COMMENTS: As a writer and as a director, Jean Cocteau hit the Continue reading 231. ORPHEUS (1950)

CAPSULE: THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE (1991)

Les Amants du Pont-Neuf

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Klaus-Michael Gruber

PLOT: A drug-addicted derelict falls in love with a newly homeless painter who is slowly losing her eyesight.

Still from The Lovers on the Bridge (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a conventional (by European arthouse standards) romance with a few mildly surreal adornments. It’s not Hollywood, but Bridge wouldn’t lead anyone to suspect that Leos Carax had something as thoroughly weird as Holy Motors in his future, either.

COMMENTS: While the French have a stereotypical reputation as the world’s greatest lovers, a survey of their movies reveals that they are also the world’s greatest cynics about love. They specialize in a particular type of romantic story: tales of obsessive, destructive passion they call “amour fou.” You can see archetypal examples of amor fou (which translates as “mad love” but also carries the connotation “foolish love”) in works like s Pierrot le Fou (1965), Jacques Rivette’s L’Amour Fou (1969), and more recently in the biting Love Me If You Dare (2003).

Far from groundbreaking in its narrative attitude, Carax’s Lovers on the Bridge falls well within the amour fou tradition. Bald, wiry, limping, and covered in the recurring scabs of the young clochard, the chamelonic Denis Lavant is Alex, a sometime fire-eating gymnast and full-time homeless drunk. Lying in the road, left for dead, he is sketched by nearsighted artist Michèle (Binoche). When they later wind up sharing neighboring concrete benches at nighttime on the Pont-Neuf (which is closed for construction), he falls for her. Although he shares his wine and a precious celebration with her, it quickly becomes apparent that Alex has no idea how to love someone unselfishly. He maneuvers to keep Michele away from any return to her previous life of privilege, eventually resorting to actions with deadly consequences. Binoche’s character remains more mysterious; she comes from a prosperous background, but has chosen to abase herself the face of her oncoming blindness. Previous heartbreak also factors in. She promises to fill Alex in on her backstory but never fully does so; we must piece together information, but we are left to fill in some blanks. In fact, a major event we witness in her story is contradicted by a later revelation, leaving us even more confused.

Their love story, then, is at the same time novel and familiar: an old tale of foolish love enacted by new players. The movie’s main pleasures come when Carax indulges his experimental moods in the central section: the camera reels through a Bastille day parade like a drunk; we see a soused Alex and Michèle lying in a gutter, shrunk to the dimensions of trash. The bravura sequence that everyone remembers shows the lovers drunkenly dancing across the bridge as fireworks burst behind them, with the music changing from a polka to a waltz to a rocker every couple of seconds. It’s the kind of scene a movie can hang its hat on, and a director can make a reputation with.

The government allowed Carax to film on the Pont-Neuf, but the movie took so long to make (three years) that permission expired. To finish the story Carax built a massive replica of the bridge in the countryside. This extravagance led to the film’s estimated budget of $28,000,000, which made it one of the most expensive French films ever produced to that time. Furthermore, due to disputes with distributors Lovers did not premier in the U.S. until 1999, eight years after completion. The movie’s finances were even more snakebitten than its protagonists’ romantic prospects, but like them, the filmmakers soldiered on madly. Perhaps it’s cinema fou.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This melodramatic excess leads, after a time, to a romantic conclusion that seems to dare us to laugh; Carax piles one development on top of another until it’s not a story, it’s an exercise in absurdity.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (1999 US release)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tom Trainor, who called it a “Phenomenal film. And weird as hell..” Suggest a weird movie of your own here).