Tag Archives: French

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ALPHAVILLE (1965)

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard

FEATURING: Eddie Constantine, , Akim Tamiroff,

PLOT: Detective Lemmy Caution sneaks into a soulless, computer-controlled metropolis in search of a fellow agent, and eventually sets about destroying the entire enterprise.

Still from Alphaville (1965)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Alphaville is Godard’s angry screed against the inhumanity of the modern world. Appropriately, he adopts a low-tech approach to depict a future world governed by mathematics and free of human passion, and lets the awkward collision of noir and science fiction create a naturally unsettling, thought-provoking landscape.

COMMENTS: There’s a story of how Alphaville came to be that is not strictly necessary to understanding the film, but which does offer an intriguing insight into the mind of its fiercely independent director. FBI agent Lemmy Caution was the creation of a British novelist, and was portrayed in seven French-language films by expatriate actor Eddie Constantine. Audiences came to know Caution as an archetype of the grizzled tough guy who is as apt to use his fists as his wits to solve problems. Godard evidently decided that this character would be the perfect antidote to a universe where a computer has extinguished human emotion, so he created a plot that brought the detective into the future. But knowing the havoc his plan would wreak, Godard enlisted his assistant director to draft a false treatment based on one of the original books, which was presented to the moneymen who eventually bankrolled the picture. Cash in hand, Godard set about making a movie of his own design with the cheeky subtitle une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), essentially obliterating the character and derailing Constantine’s career.

It’s a clever bit of legerdemain as well as a fascinating example of cultural appropriation. But I tell this story because it offers a useful insight into some of Godard’s  unusual choices in Alphaville. Soulless, dystopian futures were hardly without precedent, but as far as Godard is concerned, Paris in 1965 already is just such a dystopia. He carefully avoids the most familiar sights of the City of Lights, using newer buildings and designs to reflect the changing soul of the city. But even without futuristic flourishes or scenic adornment, Alphaville the city is unmistakably Paris, with modern architecture and new devices—Caution’s Instamatic camera and Ford Galaxie were startling new innovations for the time—standing in for the future-as-now. For this reason, Godard isn’t just stealing Lemmy Caution to be his bad boy. He needs the constant of Lemmy Caution to hold on to, because he’s out to show that the modern world has become completely detached from humanity; the detective is essential as a familiar icon of a blood-and-guts world to stand up to the soul-sucking new. And even if you aren’t familiar with the character specifically, Constantine’s recognizable hard-as-nails portrayal marks him as the thing that doesn’t belong in Alphaville. Like Mike Hammer showing up in Brave New World, Lemmy Caution is here to stand out, representing humanity in all its passion and even ugliness. He is discordant just by being.

Part of what makes everything so uncomfortable is how normal it all looks, with just one thing put off-kilter to turn the prism. Caution checks into a nice hotel room and is escorted by a helpful but disengaged employee who immediately takes off her dress in anticipation of being used for sex. Every room has a helpful dictionary, which is regularly replaced with a new volume to reflect the words that have been stricken from the vocabulary at the computer’s direction. Familiar cities still exist in the outside, but their names are slightly off. Leading citizens watch passively as rebels—in full-throated protest against the computerized dictatorship—are executed in a swimming pool, after which bathing beauties haul away the bodies. Perhaps the most distressing disconnect is heroine Natasha, a dark-eyed beauty whose status as the daughter of Alphaville’s creator is curiously irrelevant. When she makes a bold proclamation at the film’s conclusion—“Je t’aime”—it signals a connection with her humanity, but the words are chillingly unpracticed, as she tries them on like a pair of shoes that have yet to be broken in.

The most science fictional element is α60, the computer that runs Alphaville and saps the population of its humanity. Godard could never have envisioned the computer as the placid and murderous HAL 9000 or the charmingly imperious Ultron. Instead, α60 is malevolent, a mob boss with a voice that mangles speech as easily as its master plan mangles souls. The computer speaks bluntly of mankind’s doom, and only Caution seems capable of (or interested in) saying no.

Godard isn’t subtle. The scientist who runs the central computer is named von Braun, a blatant call-out to the German scientist who masterminded America’s moon rocket program. As if that weren’t sufficiently on-the-nose, we learn that von Braun previously went by the name Nosferatu. And when Caution destroys α60 with a few carefully chosen words from Jorge Luis Borges, the effect is so catastrophic that human beings are suddenly unable to walk. Faced with going big or going home, he lays it all on the table.

Because Godard has no time for subtlety. He sees the cataclysm happening in real time. He is demanding that the world rise up against those who would place formulas above poems. Humanity is dying, he says, and Alphaville is his howl at the dying of the light.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It begins as a fast-moving prank that combines the amusing agitations of a character on the order of James Bond and the highly pictorial fascinations of a slick science-fiction mystery, and it makes for some brisk satiric mischief when it is zipping along in this vein. Then, half way through, it swings abruptly into a solemn allegorical account of this suddenly sobered fellow with a weird computer-controlled society, and the whole thing becomes a tedious tussle with intellectual banalities.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by ubermolch. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BUFFET FROID (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bertrand Blier

FEATURING: , Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet, ,

PLOT: A man in the Metro confesses his fantasies about killing strangers to a stranger; a surreal series of casual murders follows, most occurring over the course of a single long night.

Still from Buffet Froid (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This dreamlike and absurd black comedy about murder may be the most Buñuelian movie never made.1)The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

COMMENTS: “Don’t you ever get odd ideas?”, young and unemployed Alphonse (Depardieu) asks a stranger in the Paris Metro. Director Bertrand Blier has plenty of odd ideas, most of them revolving around murder and his characters’ blasé reactions to the ultimate crime. It turns out Alphonse may, or may not, have killed the accountant he met in the subway—but no one seems to care. His wife merely throws his bloody switchblade in the dishwasher.  He goes to his new neighbor, who just happens to be a police inspector, to report the death, but the man is off duty and can’t be bothered. Another murderer shows up at his doorway and Alphonse invites him in for dinner and a glass of wine. Then, through a series of dreamlike coincidences, the inspector and the killer join Alphonse on a murder spree—if such a laid-back, stumbling affair can be called a “spree,” and if some of the mysterious killings qualify as “murder.”

For the most part, the film’s events occur over one long, endless night—with perhaps a nap or two—before a sunlit epilogue in the French countryside. Characters never show up unless they are needed as killers, victims, or witnesses—there are no extras waiting for trains in the Metro, the Paris streets are deserted, and even the skyscraper that houses Alphonse’s apartment is totally uninhabited except for him, his wife, and the newly-arrived Inspector. Alphonse, and the other characters, also complain about the cold—they never seem to be able to get warm. Perhaps they are feeling the chill of the grave?

Alphonse is the dreamer who has an inkling that he might be dreaming—he is the only one who (occasionally) wonders what’s going on, who finds it odd that no one seems to care that he might be a murderer. Everyone else accepts the ever-shifting social dynamics with the calm acceptance of someone living in a dream. The acting is utterly deadpan and droll. A man is tortured by being exposed to a string quintet. Alphonse mentions that he has nightmares that last all night where he is wanted for murder and chased by the police. Perversely, in the nightmare script that plays out, the police don’t hunt him, but abet his ambiguous crimes. Some of it is a black satire on modern alienation, but the surrealism of the scenario speaks to deeper fears—death is the only sure constant in this movie where caprice otherwise rules the night.

Buffet Froid flopped (commercially) on its release, wasn’t screened in the U.S. for seven years, and is barely distributed today. It is reportedly a cult film in France, but that doesn’t do much for the rest of us. I was able to find it on the free-streaming service Kanopy (which requires membership at a a participating public or university library—and the catalog my differ depending on your supplier).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A blackly surreal procession of amoral and/or illegal acts…  producing a cherishably Buñuelian depiction of the far-from-discreet crimes of the bourgeoisie.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dwarf Oscar,” who called it an “an absurd and deadpan comedy that gained a cult status here in France.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

References   [ + ]

1. The comparison is hardly diminished by the presence of actresses Geneviève Page (Belle de Jour) and Carole Bouquet (just off That Obscure Object of Desire).

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MFKZ (2017)

Recommended

Mutafukaz

ムタフカズ

DIRECTED BY: Shôjirô Nishimi, Guillaume “Run” Renard

FEATURING: Voices of Kenn Michael, Vince Staples, Michael Chiklis, Dino Andrade, Giancarlo Esposito, RZA (English-language dub)

PLOT: Angelino leads a dead-end existence with his flaming-skulled roommate Vinz in a city without hope until a truck accident leads to some freaky superpowers and crazy violence against an unstoppable invasion.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Because there’s no other home for a Jhonen Vasquez/Ralph Bakshi-style mash-up from the studio that brought us Tekkonkinkreet in alliance with some subversive Frenchies.

COMMENTS: Through some twist of fate, 2019 has been shaping up to be “The Year of the French Film” for me. Whether bearing witness to psycho-dream bombast, bracing myself against existenti-o-action chicanery, or enduring millennialist tedium, I have fallen quite firmly into a pulsating realm of Gallic sensibilities. Add to these titles something offbeat, exciting, and abbreviated: MFKZ. Before diving into the creamy center of this review, let me first assert the following: I am not, and have never been, on the pay-roll of Canal+, StudioCanal, or Société des Cinéromans. To paraphrase a famous North-of-France poet, I was neither born French nor achieved Frenchness, but somehow seem to have had Frenchness thrust upon me.

Having managed to hold down his pizza delivery job for almost three weeks, Angelino is forced to hand in his delivery scooter after getting smashed a bit by an oncoming truck. What distracted him? Why, the lovely Luna, who shows up in his life just enough to screw it up. Not that he needs any help with that. He’s constantly in fear of the omnipresent psycho gangs, he’s two months behind in his rent for his crummy apartment (though at least the cockroaches are friendly), his roommate and best friend Vinz (Vince Staples) is even less employed than he is (possibly owing to the fact that his head is a flame-crowned skull), and his other friend is a conspiracy-theory-spouting spaz of a cat (or something). Still, after a bad headache from his concussion and a nasty encounter with S.W.A.T.-y police goons, things start looking up as he discovers he’s suddenly got powers of strength, speed, and stamina quite beyond the norm. Good thing, too, because ‘Lino and his pals uncover a sinister plan from outer space.

For some reason I feel compelled to preemptively defend the “Recommended” label. I didn’t feel this way while watching it—it was an absolute hoot, combining lots of neato visual gimmicks (the high-speed chase by some “Men In Black” guys pursuing a hijacked ice cream van is a great bit, mixing gritty Bakshi with Grand Theft Auto), clever visual references (keep an eye out for “El Topo‘s” bodega), and recurring sci-fi/noir craziness that kept me elated throughout. The plot-line is just about as ridiculous as you can have without becoming incomprehensible, and the protagonists are wedged seamlessly into their urban milieu. And there’s a Shakespeare-spouting mega-thug, voiced by none other than RZA. But I digress.

I’ve read a number of reviews for MFKZ, and most of them are pretty down on the whole thing. This might simply be a case of a love-it/hate-it divide, with the majority falling in the latter category, but I’m almost certain I detected an undercurrent of sneering dismissiveness. MFKZ is full of life: never-say-die heroes, never-seem-to-die villains, and never-have-I-seen-such-detail backdrops. Nishimi and Renard have together created a beautifully realized genre classic: slacker-everyman saves the world and oh yeah, there are a bunch of tentacle monsters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Any film encompassing Nazi-punching lucha libre wrestlers and top secret moonbases should by rights be huge fun, but even Renard finds himself conceding, ‘What the F*** is Going On?’ in a mid-film graphic. Enjoyment will depend on a tolerance for that randomness teenagers apparently find hilarious.”–Mike McCahill, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CLIMAX (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: About two dozen dancers, all of approximately equal importance

PLOT: A modern dance troupe goes crazy when someone spikes their rehearsal party sangria with a heavy dose of LSD.

Still from Climax (2018)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Literal LSD trip movies don’t come along that often. Ones made with this much skill and care are even rarer. Climax is messy and flawed, but impossible (for us) to overlook. And Gaspar Noé is probably the only master of world cinema who regularly contributes trip reports to Erowid.

COMMENTS: Near the beginning of Climax, we watch interviews, presumably from the audition process, playing on a TV screen. Attractive young people are asked about their philosophy of life, their drug use, their greatest fear. We get to know them a little, but what might be more important are the names of the books and VHS tape boxes flanking the TV screen: Possession, “Un Chien Andalou,” Salo, Suspiria, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, Zombie. While none of these (except perhaps Suspiria) have much real thematic relationship to Climax, Gaspar Noé’s roll call of influences at least puts the well-traveled weirdophile on notice that they’ve bought the right ticket.

The movie is not one long, unrelieved freakout; it does build to a, well, Climax. After those preliminary interviews and some preliminary structural foolishness (the end titles play first, and the opening credits are delivered in the middle of the film), we start with a long, energetic, contortionist techno dance number, a real wower for fans of intricate choreography. (It must have been quite a challenge for the casting director to find top-notch professional dancers who were also capable of overacting to Noé’s demanding specifications). After they’re done rehearsing, the troupe choose to unwind by… dancing, but now lubricated by a punchbowl of sangria. At this point several of the dancers break off into pairs and we watch a series of conversations that further introduce us to the sprawling cast of characters. While everyone is bisexual and can think of few topics of conversation besides who wants to screw whom, it’s remarkable how efficiently this dialogue establishes a recognizable look and narrative hook for each of the dancers so that we seldom accidentally confuse them when the trip proper begins. It’s character differentiation more than character development, but it works very precisely in this context. Next up is another long dance scene, this one shot from above, as the dancers form a circle and each takes his or her turn freestyling in the center of the mob. After this diversion the party breaks apart and people start to notice that they’re feeling weird, leading them to wonder just what was in the sangria. When one dazed dancer suddenly starts urinating on the floor, they realize they’ve definitely been dosed, and paranoia starts to rise as the mob throw accusations at first one suspect, then another.

After the LSD kicks in the film adopts a Slacker strategy, with the camera following a single dancer around, watching the mini-drama as he or she copes with the situation, then peeling off to follow another. Sexual jealousies and suppressed perversions are, naturally, the main demons that the tripping hoofers battle, but there are also violent beatings, suicidal impulses, and a child wandering around the premises to be dealt with. Some simply succumb to the terror of being on an unknown, but high, dose of an intense pscyhotropic drug with no preparation. Each dancer gets a chance to freak out, with some spotlight solos. At the movie’s peak—which perhaps goes on uncomfortably long—everything is light in a hellish red with upside down and spinning cameras, as the party dissolves into an indistinct orgy of sex and violence. The denouement is grim, but we do actually find out who was responsible for all the carnage.

What does it all mean? The author offers us a couple of pretentious epigrams. “Love is a collective impossibility.” “Death is an extraordinary experience.” Not really helpful. More than anything, the drug trip is a convenient excuse for Noé to indulge in melodramatics that would otherwise be implausible. His characters howl, writhe, and piss themselves in animalistic degradation. It’s equally an excuse for him to indulge his melodramatic style. Is Climax a satire? Perhaps, since everyone is ultimately so unlikable, but if so it is a very dry and unfunny one. Is it a metaphor for our chaotic, backbiting modern times? Maybe. France is described as hell (specifically by the minority members of the troupe), and yet the titles announce (ironically?) that Climax is “a French film and proud of it.” I don’t think Noé commits himself to any particular interpretation; he’s simply interested in choreographing as much misanthropic excess as possible. With Climax, I’m more convinced than ever that Gaspar Noé has no idea what he wants to say with his art—but is nevertheless supremely confident about how he wants to say it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the nuttiest, trippiest dance party you’ll ever attend.”–Brian Truitt, USA Today (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: PARIS IS US (2019)

Paris est à nous

DIRECTED BY: Elisabeth Vogler

FEATURING: Noémie Schmidt, Grégoire Isvarine, Marie Mottet, Lou Castel

PLOT: Anna does not go on her boyfriend’s flight that crashes; back in Paris, she becomes increasingly detached from herself and society.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alhough there are many Canonical titles that, it could be argued, are a bit incomprehensible, they also necessarily have some verve, panache, charming idiosyncrasy, or other stylistic or narrative merit. Paris Is Us is wanting for a purpose to complement its opacity. If you seek aimless ennui worth watching, check out Godard‘s early works instead.

COMMENTS: Two interesting things happened within minutes of each other when I began Paris Is Us. The first was a demonstration of the differences between dubbed dialogue and subtitled dialogue. (For reasons unknown, Netflix defaults to the English-language dub when available for its foreign fare.) The second was my cat hunting my pen as I waited patiently to find something worth writing down. That excitement out of the way (by correcting the audio to play the French-language track and by my cat nestling down to go to sleep next to me), I found myself trapped for the long-haul of a not-particularly-organized (and even less happy) spewing of montage.

Regular readers of my reviews know that this is the “plot” paragraph. There isn’t much more to say beyond the bare-bones description above. (And I’m probably repeating this ruse, now that I think of it.) The few minutes of dialogue in English perhaps skewered the whole viewing experience, as I couldn’t get the whole Frat-bro dialogue out of my mind while the (now) French-speaking twenty-somethings went on ad nauseum about: What if we’re all in a video-game? Isn’t there more to life than money? And can we even do anything about the state of this world that so drives us to European angst? Clattering around these musings were some specific lines that stood out, working at least as spoken in French (I shudder to think of the Frat Bro voice dub), like “I wanted it to create something so I could feel… alive” (in regards to hoping two planes might crash into each other overhead), and “We have something unique. We can’t throw it away” (said in the midst of one of the incessant fights between Anna and Greg).

I admit this is a really lazy review, but I only give the film-makers a qualified apology. Paris Is Us could have been tossed together by any freshman-level film students given cameras and a Parisian backdrop. The first act was long enough to make me dislike the protagonists; the second act stretched one obliquely conveyed tragedy across twenty-odd minutes; and the third act’s only saving grace was the random appearance of the only older character (Lou Castel), an ex-con on his way to visit his daughter’s grave. He has moved on with his life in the face of his double-tragedy, and the young ‘uns in the rest of the movie could do well to learn from his example. The administrator described this as “your oddest gamble” for Oscar week. It was a gamble. I have lost, but you needn’t do so.

Paris Is Us streams exclusively on Netflix (at least for the time being).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ce qui frappe immédiatement dans PARIS EST À NOUS, c’est son incroyable ambition esthétique. L’équipe du film prouve que la configuration de tournage imposée par son économie de moyen n’est absolument pas un frein à la qualité visuelle du métrage, bien au contraire.” –Aurélien, leblogducinema.com1)I’m keeping this quote in French because, like the movie, it sounds much more complex this way than it actually is.

“…a surreal slog in search of a plot.”–Joel Keller, Decider

References   [ + ]

1. I’m keeping this quote in French because, like the movie, it sounds much more complex this way than it actually is.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LET THE CORPSES TAN (2017)

Laissez bronzer les cadavres

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Elina Löwensohn, Stéphane Ferrara, Michelangelo Marchese, Hervé Sogne, Dorylia Calmel, Marc Barbé

PLOT: After hitchhikers interrupt an otherwise precision gold heist, the thieves find themselves pinned down in a sex artist’s derelict haunt by an out-gunned but tenacious motorcycle cop.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: During the first half I felt inclined to write this one off as an overstylized Frenchy heist-Western. Then I realized two things: a rather strange undercurrent kept bobbing to the surface throughout, and “overstylized Frenchy heist-Westerns” are very few and far between.

COMMENTS: There must be an archetype to explain the character of Luce (Elina Löwensohn), a sex-goddess artiste fighting to her last smoky breath against law, society, and age. Her coastal hideaway reflects her mind: grandiose but crumbling, free but tortured, joyous but destructive. This setting is the anchor for machinations involving a gang of hard men, a scumbag lawyer, a drunken novelist, and two determined law enforcers. Let the Corpses Tan sets off a precision-rigged narrative bomb within the confines of an evil ant-farm.

At Luce’s dilapidated estate, a mountaintop retreat for various decadents, a gaggle of toughs has assembled to commit a daring robbery. The execution of Rhino’s (Stéphane Ferrara) plan goes like clockwork, with gunshots punctuating the passing of time. His young driver keeps the gas pedal to the floor, swerving the intricate route away from the armored car, now relieved of its 250 kilos of gold, as he nervously watches the clock. Up the hill, a burnt-out writer (Marc Barbé) attempts to sleep off his eternal hangover; on the road down the hill, the driver nearly crashes into a young woman. She is the nanny of the writer’s son, who has been brought with his mother to find the reclusive novelist. The few seconds the crooks could spare are taken up collecting the trio before zig-zagging back. The authorities are soon on the lookout for the missing persons and the missing gold. Before you can say “existentialist ennui,” two no-nonsense motorcycle cops ascend upon the villa and things start going very badly for everyone. Except Luce. She can’t get enough of this deadly violence and frantic backstabbing.

This movie feels wrenched from the 1970s, complete with vintage Ennio Morricone score, but reprocessed in a Cuisinart. Intertitles appear throughout, simultaneously grounding viewers with demarcations of the exact minute of the action while disorienting them by shunting between all the characters as they travel madly like ants around the ancient monastery in which the cops and robbers find themselves holed up. This motif is made explicit with a series of ant-covered aerial shots of the clutch of ruins. The resulting effect is a neo-pagan feel, itself established further with a series of flashbacks to the days when these grounds were used for some very personal performance art on the part of the endlessly drinking, smoking, and often-topless Luce. Flashbacks show the many explicit rites (lustful, shadowy acolytes and lactation-inducing bondage, among other things) that cemented Luce’s psyche to the very grounds the characters find themselves trapped upon.

Let the Corpses Tan is a gloriously explosive ratatouille-Western that immediately captures the viewer’s attention with hectic editing and smirking heartlessness. Assembling all the best elements from arthouse and grindhouse, Cattet and Forzani blast a Frenchy shot across cinema’s bow as they stand by, taking a drag on a cigarette. Watching it is akin to watching your philosophy seminar turn into a bullet-riddled hostage crisis.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s a profoundly weird film but hypnotic nonetheless. – Mark Medley, Toronto Globe and Mail (festival screening)