Tag Archives: Paris

CAPSULE: FRANCOFONIA (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Benjamin Utzerath, Vincent Nemeth, Johanna Korthals Altes, Aleksandr Sokurov

PLOT: An experimental documentary on the Louvre, with dramatic recreations of the Nazi takeover and Napoleon showing up in the museum after hours.

Srill from Fancofonia (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This stream-of-consciousness companion piece to Russian Ark, Aleksandr Sokurov‘s amazing one-shot exploration of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, is too messy with too many wild hairs. Ultimately, it seems to be more about Sokurov’s own artistic whims and impulses than it is about the Louvre.

COMMENTS: As the opening credits scroll, we hear director Sokurov take (scripted) phone calls regarding post-production work on his latest movie (presumably Francofonia itself). The second caller (“Captain Dirk,” who we’ll meet again later) asks about the director’s progress and he confesses “I don’t think the film is successful.”

I generally agree, although any movie that spotlights so many masterpieces from the Louvre can’t be a complete failure. Sokurov is a true connoisseur of European art (as seen in Russian Ark) and has a legitimate love for the Louvre, but this documentary/narrative hybrid piece shows no real organization or purpose. It’s like a spur-of-the-moment whirlwind trip to a museum. Partly, Sokurov wants to give an account of how deputy Louvre director Jacques Joujard hid the museum’s treasures from the Nazis ahead of the occupation of Paris in 1940, with the silent blessing of Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the cultured professor Hitler had appointed as “caretaker” of French cultural treasures. This potentially interesting story is told with both archival footage and recreations using actors. But Sokurov masks his straightforward tale with multiple digressions: his own poeticized musings on European culture; a mysterious character who runs around the darkened Louvre in a gown saying “liberté, égalité, fraternité”; the ghost of Napoleon (who shows up to point out his own portraits); Sokurov’s fanciful Skype discussions with the aforementioned Captain Dirk, who’s carrying a load of museum-bound historical treasures on a freighter imperiled by rough seas; and so on.

Francofonia suffers by comparison with Russian Ark, whose one-take, two-character gimmick imposed structure and discipline on the film while still allowing Sokurov to indulge his imagination. Sokurov is intelligent, and his a love for museums and for the preservation of European high culture comes across, but Francofonia is so scattershot that his passion is dissipated. A conventional documentary would hit at least as hard: indeed, moments when the camera merely pans over the straining figures of “The Raft of the Medusa,” or passes each curl in an Assyrian lamassu’s beard, or zooms in so we can see the intimate cracks in the “Mona Lisa”‘s aging canvas, are the film’s strongest sights.

Sokurov says he wants to create cinematic tributes to Madrid’s Prado and London’s British Museum next. I hope he finds a more interesting angle from which to film these projects than he did for his Louvre piece.

The Music Box Francofonia DVD or Blu-ray includes two substantial extras, each about an hour long: the making of documentary “Visitors to the Louvre” and “The Man Who Saved the Louvre,” a conventional documentary (which the DVD refers to as a “play”) on Jacques Joujard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sometimes the bizarre can illuminate the poignant, sometimes it distracts. In ‘Francofonia’ it most definitely distracts… terribly over-directed and seems strange just for the sake of being strange.”–Tom Long, Detroit Free Press (contemporaneous)

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)

217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

“The fact that the film is a failure means nothing. Didn’t God create a failure, too?”–Jonas Mekas on Zazie dans le Metro

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Catherine Demongeot, , Vittorio Caprioli, Carla Marlier, Annie Fratellini, Yvonne Clech, Antoine Roblot, Jacques Dufilho, Hubert Deschamps

PLOT: When 10-year-old Zazie’s mother leaves her in the care of her exotic dancer uncle for the weekend , the only thing the sassy little girl wants to see is the Metro, but it’s closed due to a strike.  So she sneaks out of her uncle’s apartment and encounters a dirty old man, who is also a policeman, among her many adventures. Her weekend ends when the many friends and adversaries she’s accumulated—including a cobbler, an amorous widow, and a polar bear—find themselves involved in a drunken food fight while the worn-out tyke nods off into dreamland.

Still from Zazie dans le Metro (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • Zazie dans le Metro is based on the hit 1959 comic novel of the same title by Raymond Queneau (a repentant former member of the Surrealist circle). The book relied heavily on wordplay and was widely thought to be unadaptable to film.
  • Although the film generated a small cult in France, Zazie was Louis Malle’s first flop after beginning his career with two hits (Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers).
  • Some parents were angry at Malle’s film, believing that the sexuality made it inappropriate for children. Zazie originally received an “X” rating (16 and over) from the British Board of Film Classification.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Surely, it must be Zazie’s impish, gap-toothed smile, which she breaks into whenever she imagines growing up to be a schoolteacher who torments her students by making them eat chalk.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Eiffel Tower polar bear; wet dog in a parrot cage; high-heeled six shoe-ter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: As Zazie’s transvestite uncle says, “Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream!” If a mad scientist found a way to cross-breed and , Zazie dans le Metro is the movie the mutant hybrid would direct.


The Criterion Collection’s “3 Reasons” video for Zazie dans le Metro

COMMENTS: There’s nothing in Louis Malle’s oeuvre that’s remotely like Zazie dans le Metro. There’s nothing else in the rest of the Continue reading 217. ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

LIST CANDIDATE: PLAY TIME (1967)

Playtime has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time. Please read the Certified Weird entry. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Tati

FEATURING: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek

PLOT: Monsieur Hulot gets lost on his way to an appointment and wanders around a nearly unrecognizable, technologically transformed Paris.

Still from Play Time (1967)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Play Time 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 sort of an anti-Brazil.

COMMENTS: Do you remember when watching “Tom and Jerry” on television, there would occasionally be a cartoon showing off a humorous version of cars or homes of the future? There would be no main character, just a narrator describing some startling innovation, and then there would be a sight-gag or funny noise to produce a laugh, and it would move on to the next futuristic comedic set-piece. Play Time is a feature film based on a very similar premise, with two differences:  there is a strong undertone of humanity and history struggling against technology, and there is no narrator to help guide you from one farcical gag to another.

The main characters are French everyman M. Hulot (Tati) and American tourist Barbara, who wander through the modern marvel that Paris has become and are continually obstructed by the technology that is supposed to make their lives easier. Hulot spends a long scene searching haplessly through a (then bizarre-looking but now surprisingly familiar) cube farm to find a businessman with whom he has an appointment. Barbara struggles to take a picture of something uniquely French, not just because pedestrians keep walking between her and the florist she fancies, but also because huge steel and glass buildings have almost completely obscured romantic Paris (the same city Cole Porter lovingly described in 1953, a mere six years before this film was released). With little meaningful dialogue and a tendency to abandon characters to their fates, it is difficult for the audience to make a coherent narrative out of the stark, gleaming, geometric scenes that linger slowly and deliberately on the screen. Particularly during Play Time‘s first half, the series of clever slapstick events that pepper the film supply the only human connection. They allow us to sympathize not only with Hulot and Barbara, but also with innocent cushions that blurt obscenely when sat upon and a broiled fish that is repeatedly heated, spiced, and basted, never to be served.

If discomfort and silly humor were the only features of Play Time, the result would be just like those “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, only bleaker and more disturbing. Fortunately, Tati allows humanity to win over technology, or at least stand on even footing. The citizens of super-Paris do eventually begin to connect with each other. Some of these connections are obvious: Hulot does eventually find his businessman, but he also bumps into several friends from the army, and he also meets Barbara. Some of the connections, though, are subtle, surprising, and hilarious, as when two families engrossed in programs showing on the television sets fixed to the wall dividing their apartments appear to be reacting to the events in the other family’s home. The movie culminates in a riotous party scene—possibly the best I’ve ever watched—at a restaurant slowly falling apart around the revelers due to shoddy construction. Here, technology does its absolute best to ruin the partygoers’ night, but they hardly notice; or if they do, they improvise on the destruction to the advantage of a good time. Meanwhile, a number of seemingly forgotten incidental characters from earlier in the movie—an obnoxious American, a portly sloven, a precise English businessman—come back and become much more alive and interesting amid the chaos. The movie’s weirdness never goes away, but it softens until it gently lands at the conclusion of 24 hours of hectic hypermodernity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Hulot on the loose in a surreal, scarcely recognisable Paris… a hallucinatory comic vision on the verge of abstraction.”–Time Out Film Guide

LIST CANDIDATE: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

Zazie dans le Metro has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Films ever made. Comments are closed on this post. Please visit the official Zazie dans le Metro Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY: Louis Malle

FEATURING: Catherine Demongeot, , Vittorio Caprioli, Carla Marlier, Annie Fratellini, Yvonne Clech, Antoine Roblot, Jacques Dufilho, Hubert Deschamps

PLOT: Young Zazie goes to Paris and stays with her exotic dancer uncle; the only thing she wants to see is the Metro, but the workers are on strike, so she explores the city instead.

Still from Zazie dans le Metro (1970)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It might make the List thanks to its insane, anarchic soul. A minor character casually kills a waiter by firing a woman’s high-heeled shoe at him, and a parrot transforms into a dog when it’s sprayed with seltzer water; something of this sort happens in just about every detail-packed frame of the film.  Zazie’s transvestite uncle proclaims the film’s manifesto: “All Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream…”

COMMENTS: Raymond Queneau’s 1959 comic novel “Zazie dans le Metro” was a surprise sensation in France; with its wordplay, neologisms and nonsense passages, it earned the author comparisons to a French James Joyce.  When Louis Malle decided to adapt it, he wanted to fracture the language of film in the same way that Queneau twisted words.  Malle used a constant barrage of editing and camera tricks as his main strategy for achieving this goal: speeding up and slowing down the film (sometimes within the same shot), having people unexpectedly pop into and out of the frame, and using rear projection effects and tricks of perspective.  There’s a shot where Zazie’s uncle talks to her as she sits on his right, and then the camera seamlessly swings around to show her now seated on his left; in another bit, one speaker in a conversation inexplicably appears in blackface in a reaction shot lasting under a second.  These editing pranks fit perfectly with the movie’s absurd scenarios: this is a film where the protagonists climb the Eiffel Tower and find a sea captain and a shivering polar bear at the top.  As she wanders about Paris, Zazie encounters a strange cast of characters, starting with her uncle (an artiste who dances in drag) and his wife Albertine (who has a mysterious power to hypnotize men with her beauty), and eventually including a dirty old man, an amorous widow with white and lavender hair, a parrot (who complains about the other characters’ yakking) and the aforementioned polar bear, among other eccentric denizens of Paris (the city is virtually a character itself).  Zazie almost has the form of a satire Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (1960)

CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Christopher Doyle, Oliver Schmitz, The Coen Brothers, , Wes Craven, , and others

FEATURING: Steve Buscemi, Miranda Richardson, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, , , Seydou Boro, Aïssa Maïga, , Elijah Wood, Olga Kurlyenko, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazarra, Gérard Depardieu, Li Xin, and many, many more

PLOT: Eighteen short films (averaging about six minutes each), each set in a different Paris neighborhood and each focusing loosely on the theme of amour.

Still from Paris Je T'aime (Christopher Doyle's "Porte de Choisy" segment) (2006)

 

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Of the eighteen shorts, only Christopher Doyle’s offering is actually weird (although a few others have some mildly weird elements).
COMMENTS: Like any anthology film, Paris, Je T’aime is a box of chocolates, with some bittersweet bon-bons, a few of the dreaded coconuts, and one oddly shaped piece with a taste you can’t quite place.  Putting the most curious confection aside for last, there are a few novel flavors in this box of sweets.  The Coen brothers serve up an absurdly paranoid—and laugh-out-loud funny—sketch.  A bemused and horrified Steve Buscemi stars as an American tourist who unwisely forgets his guidebook’s advice not to look Parisians in the eye in the subway, with strange, unfortunate, and hilarious results.  Impossible teleportations and lusty Gallic vindictiveness remove this one from the realm of reality.  Climbing a rung down the weirdness ladder brings us to Vincent (Cube) Natali’s offering, a stylized, silent eroto-vampire number starring Elijah Wood and luminous Bond girl Olga Kurlyenko; shot in faux black-and-white with hyperreal pools of red blood, it’s a mood piece tapping elegant cinematic myths.  Further down, Juliette Binoche is a grieving mother who dreams of cowboys in “Place des Victories”; and Sylvian (The Triplets of Bellville) Chomet brings us a slapstick story of love among mimes that won’t change your view of those despicable creatures, but offers respite from the reality of the surrounding tales.

The most memorable segment of all, it should be mentioned, isn’t one bit weird: Oliver Schmitz’ “Places des Fêtes” is the account of an injured Nigerian immigrant who wants to share a cup of coffee with the cute paramedic who comes to his aid.  His story is told in flashback, and the piece ends on a quiet but shattering image.  Compressing a lifetime’s heartbreak into five minutes of film is an amazing achievement.

The one fully weird sequence comes courtesy of respected cinematographer Christopher Continue reading CAPSULE: PARIS, JE T’AIME (2006)