Category Archives: European Screen

Les Belles de Nuit – 1952

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One of the wonderful things about cinema is that despite the relative youth of the medium it came into being at a time that was so democratic and individualist that it seems one can never run out of it. The sheer number of filmmakers existent across the globe at any point in time means that variety really is the spice of life, in terms of style and content, when tracking back through the archives.

Thus is the optimism that René Clair’s 1952 film has left me with. Made just after the second world war, a time when French society was desperately trying to justify itself after the upheaval of it’s war regime les belles de nuit traces French history elegantly backwards. It seems as if Clair is trying to assert his contemporary France by calling up the national memory of bygone eras. We see France in the not-at-all-nostalgically-named Belle Époque, the revolutionary wars, the old monarchy and the time of the musketeers.

But les belles de nuit is not a political film, despite the potential for socio-historical analysis. The heart of the film rests on the performance of a certain foppish and endearing Gérard Philippe, down and out pianist dreaming of love. And this he does, literally. He shuts himself off from his real life in order to chase the fantasy women he sees in his dreams of the past. It’s not that his normal life is unsatisfactory, far from it – his friends worry for him, he has a beautiful girl in love with him and he’s a talented musician. The film explores what happens when someone can’t see the joy in their own life and feels the need to escape. It’s a little like a cross between Midnight in Paris and It’s a Wonderful Life.

The interest from a cinematic point of view comes from a humourous lightness of touch that removes the potential for melodrama but fails to fall into parody or silliness. Yes, the film is funny, the dream sequences complete with moving pantomime theatre sets are indulgent and kitsch – but they’re dreams and the shifting narrative sands and archetypes of dreaming are rendered so well that the humour itself becomes poetic, rather than the film hovering and to-ing and fro-ing between gags and serious moments. Every potential joke that can be made, within the limits of the natural absurdity of life, is made. Even when it’s patently ridiculous and ironic to the extreme the running gags never seem impossible, just unlucky.

Most importantly Les Belles de Nuit is enjoyable. Certainly, it opens doors to speak about artistic inspiration, the significance of dreams, the dangers of naïve nostalgia and the necessity to appreciate what you have while you have it, but when all is said and done you will still be able to put on this film, sit down and pass a good hour and a half laughing and smiling with the characters on screen.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            4/5
  • Intellectual:     3/5

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Ce que je trouve magnifique dans le cinéma c’est que, malgré sa naissance relativement récente, il nous est venu à un moment de l’histoire si démocratique et individualiste qu’il me semble impossible de l’épuiser. C’est-à-dire que la quantité de cinéastes qui auront existé dans tous les coins du monde à n’importe quel moment donné produit une variété de styles et de thématiques vraiment époustouflante, surtout quand on le regarde avec du recul.

C’est à cela que m’a fait penser ce film de René Clair. Réalisé en 1952 juste après la deuxième guerre mondiale, époque troublée de la France après l’Occupation, Les Belles de nuit retraverse l’histoire de la France avec élégance et grâce. Il semble exprimer ce qu’est la France en 1952 à travers une mise en valeur de ce qu’elle était auparavant. Il nous montre la France de la Belle Époque, les guerres en Algérie, l’Ancien Régime et le règne de Louis XIII.

Mais Les Belles de nuit n’est pas à proprement dire un film politique, malgré la forte possibilité d’une analyse socio-historique. Au coeur de ce film se trouve le fin jeu de comédien d’un certain Gérard Philippe, tout charmant en tant que pianiste fauché qui rêve d’amour. Ceci est ce qu’il fait, littéralement. Il rejette sa propre vie pour retrouver les femmes imaginaires dont il rêve chaque nuit dans ses rêves des mondes passés. Ce n’est pas que sa vraie vie est invivable, bien au contraire – ses amis s’occupent de lui, une belle jeune fille est amoureuse de lui et il est lui-même un musicien doué. Ce film examine donc les conséquences quand on n’arrive pas à apprécier sa propre vie et qu’on sent un besoin d’y échapper. C’est un peu à mi-chemin entre It’s a Wonderful Life ­and Midnight in Paris.

D’un point de vue cinématographique l’intérêt vient du style léger et humoristique qui allège le potentiel de mélodrame en même temps qu’il évite de (se) dégénérer en parodie, voire en niaiserie. Oui, certes, le film est drôle, surtout les séquences de rêve où le décor bouge et semble tiré d’une mauvaise pantomime – mais ce sont des rêves et c’est exactement ça qui rend si bien la sensation de flou narratif qu’on sent tous dans les rêves. L’humeur elle-même devient poétique, plutôt qu’un basculement fatiguant entre le sérieux et le drôle tout au long du film. Chaque blague qui peut se faire, en tenant compte de l’absurdité indéniable de la vie, se fait. Même quand la situation devient ridicule et ironique à l’extrême, les blagues ne semblent jamais venir du royaume de l’impossible, juste de la mauvaise chance.

Mais ce qui est le plus important chez Les Belles de Nuit, c’est qu’on s’amuse en le regardant. Oui, on peut y tirer des discours sur l’inspiration poétique, la signification des rêves, les dangers d’une nostalgie naïve et surtout la nécessité d’apprécier la vie pendant qu’on la vit, mais en fin de compte ce sera encore possible de s’asseoir devant ce film et de passer un bon moment avec les personnages qu’il nous présente.

*Note from the blogger – the French translation is not a permanent feature on this blog, however more will be appearing especially for French Cinema on an ongoing basis of when I feel I can adequately express everything said in the English in French* 

 

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West – 2013

gallery_image (1)Often in life we find ourselves met with tangible goals, milestones that we try to pass in the belief that they will change or benefit our lives in some way. Classic Hollywood cinema was a sucker for these ‘happy endings’, the point where everything cannot help but inevitably get better. However in our post-modern world these stories ring false and we want to see beyond. This is where Christian Schowchow takes us in West, the story of Nelly, a single mother trying to start a new life with her son, Alexei in West Berlin.

Before the title card flashes up Schwochow has already treated us to three distinct and powerful vignettes. These show us the story up until the point where the story would classically end. The first, an idyllic snow scene: mother, son and father as the perfect family unit. Next, the breakdown of this unit, the loss of a father figure and the arduous crossing to West Berlin. Lastly, the pop music stirs up in the background and the bright lights shine. Alexei, a veritable child of Marx and Coca-Cola picks up an empty Coke can and treasures it. It’s a short segment but already we sense the imposing falseness, the bright lights and misplaced hope that will accompany this crossing.

The good/bad dichotomy between East and West Germany is totally deconstructed in this film. Schwochow treats the golden myth of social mobility and capitalism with the same cynical eye as the degenerate films of New York: Gatsby, Taxi Driver. The atmosphere is claustrophobic, full of close ups and hemmed in by the concrete walls of the Refugee Centre. Ongoing interrogations into Nelly’s past and motives bar the way to citizenship, leaving them to rot in the paranoid, hopeless ghetto they find themselves in.

Jördis Triebel won Best Actress at the German Film Awards for this role and it’s not hard to see why. The film is always either with Nelly or Alexei which gives her a huge amount of screen time. It would be so easy to slip into a portrayal of an erratic, on the edge woman with no real depth but Nelly’s anger, paranoia and hatred always seem justified. The extreme nature of her actions just serve to highlight the cruel and difficult circumstances she has to deal with. Tristan Göbel also gives a fantastic performance, however he stays a little more within the archetype of a kind child in a difficult situation. Nevertheless his deep distress is palpable as he tries to reach out and make his, and his mother’s life better without ever breathing a word of complaint.

There’s a near-documentary harshness in the cinematography. So much is handheld and Schowchow allows some things to fall out the edges of frames, as if by accident. There’s no sentimental symbolism here, just a cold hard examination of the facts. Many of the plotlines don’t finish, or at least finish unsatisfactorily, leaving us in the lurch. Yet in the end that’s the point of it all, to be able to leave behind the past and the paranoia, be it caused by East or West.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            5/5
  • Intellectual:      5/5

I have not been so blown away by a film in a long time.

Un Homme et Une Femme – 1966

aQpd2orQ9biBLTCQUbNtrFOLof8When Un Homme et Une Femme was released in 1966 Claude Lelouch was a failing, critically reviled director with only five films under his belt. After winning the palme d’or for Un Homme et Une Femme  he became one of the auteurs of a generation. A startling transformation, facilitated by a startling film.

Un Homme et Une Femme  tells the story of a widow and widower (Anouk Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant respectively) who meet by chance and end up falling in love. It’s a saccharine premise but this is undercut with Lelouch’s refusal to leave out the uncomfortable, truthful parts of dealing with love and death. The film isn’t melodramatic about these deaths, rather letting them fade into the background of the action and story. This new love takes over from the mourning period and they react to this process wildly differently. Anne is stuck in limbo between loving Jean-Louis and accepting the loss of her husband. Jean-Louis meanwhile has moved on and joyfully accepts a new love into his life. This tension seems to be played out in the colour scheme of the film. The unfulfilled, empty time between two loves is often in desaturated tones of sepia. However this seems to be applied inconsistently, as if there was once an intelligent idea that got lost in the pursuit of aesthetic.

The result of all this is a beautiful, light film, which distracts from the deeper thoughts of love and death with a jangly soundtrack and some ethereal close-ups. The aesthetic is flawless throughout, romanticised and reminiscent of the old Hollywood ideals that probably never existed. Despite her character being riddled with emotional turmoil, Aimée’s role as actress is limited to a few key lines and generally being pretty. If it weren’t for a few killer monologues Trintignant’s part would be the same. The actors just exist in this beautiful world, communicating through a few stolen glances. It’s an effective technique, but it’s easy to see how this film could have been another Lelouch flop had he not been gifted with these two actors who can bring a silent, mellow love story to life. It almost feels as if the whole film just happened by accident as Lelouch was filming things that he found pleasing to the eye.

You can’t help but enjoy Un Homme et Une Femme  but it’s very hard to tell whether this greatly enjoyable ride was a work of genius or a lucky break dressed up in the clothes of an art-house success.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Amélie – 2001

Amelie

I think that if I had to make a list of films that will be mentioned in nearly any cinema conversation I wouldn’t get too far past The Godfather and Pulp Fiction before someone brings up French cinema and, consequently Amélie. Often in these conversations people are surprised to find that I am not a fan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s homage to the concept of whimsy.

For those who haven’t seen the film, Amélie is the story of a lonely young woman (Amélie) who lives in Paris and works as a waitress. The film opens with a long voiceover detailing random events that coincide with Amélie’s conception. This voiceover appears throughout the film to introduce new characters, who are invariably boiled down to a few quirks by means of introduction. We are shown people who enjoy cleaning their handbags, cracking crème brulées and even a hypochondriac. Jeunet seems to want to show us the unique beauty in each and every person, but somehow misses and ends up painting two-dimensional characters that enjoy the same banal things as everyone else. Seriously speaking, has anyone ever not enjoyed sticking their hand in a bag of grain? Since these characters are never actually explored in any more depth they end up as cardboard cutouts with opinions like “strawberries are nice” worn as badges of honour. They are, like the colour scheme of green and orange, stunted and incomplete.

This would all be forgivable, given the fairytale-like setup and mood of the film, if it were not for Amélie herself. Often described as “naïve with her own sense of judgement”, she is shockingly unsympathetic. Her charming actions include: refusing to return a prized possession, breaking and entering, defacing her mother’s grave and generally interfering with people who never asked for her help. At best she’s presumptuous, at worst she’s rude, invasive and selfish. Her behaviour is perfect characterisation for a teenager with a black and white world-view but this woman is 24 and is still throwing tantrums when others don’t follow her childish schemes like she wants. This would not be acceptable behaviour if we saw it in a friend or an acquaintance and simply capturing it in shallow depth of field with romantic music doesn’t make it good behaviour, just more palatable to observe.

If this was truly a fairytale there would be some moral to the story, a lesson to be learnt and Amélie would grow as a character. That’s the point of fairytales, to demonstrate the morals and ideals of the author. However Jeunet lets her get away with her behaviour, no one ever calls her out on being rude or manipulative and in the end she gets exactly what she wants with minimal effort. The emotional highpoint of her character arc is opening a door to find the guy she likes just standing there. The moral of the story seems to be that you can do whatever you want so you long as you believe you’re justified and life will always go your way. A dubious, if not dangerous, message to be sending.

In the end, Amélie is pretty and whimsical but there’s nothing at the centre. It’s like the difference between an out of proportion drawing and a Picasso. The Picasso speaks to us because there is knowledge and thought behind the aesthetic. The quirky kooky aesthetic here is not even a disguise, it is the entire substance of the film and a film cannot thrive on that alone.

 

  • Entertainment: 1/5
  • Artistic: 1/5
  • Intellectual: 0/5

 

Les Amants du Pont Neuf – 1991

amants-du-pont-neuf-1991-22-gSet on what can be argued to be the most distinctive bridge in Paris, Leos Carax’s film captures a fleeting moment in time for all of us to consume. In 1990 Pont Neuf was dilapidated and closed for repairs. Against this backdrop, although not actually filmed on the bridge itself, we meet two people, both equally dilapidated. Michèle (Juliette Binoche) is an artist losing her eyesight and running from her marriage. Alex (Denis Lavant) is an aggressive alcoholic. The only thing these two have in common is their misfortune and their home sleeping rough on Pont Neuf.

Carax’s camera refuses to be bound to a classic narrative style. At times we are seeing the world through Michèle’s eyes. Fireworks and lights appear in painful high contrast flashes. Over-stimulating her eyes and the viewer. Later it feels like a music video, the soundtrack ramps up into cynical electro-trance tracks as the characters seem to dance. It’s an almost painterly treatment of the subject matter. There are entire sequences with no dialogue that show us more about the relationship than some films ever achieve. The camera has been utterly freed here and it creates a shockingly anti-narrative result. While the plot does move forward it seems to be just a coincidence of time passing. Les Amants du Pont Neuf is a collection of moments in a love affair, the ones that are remembered for years to come.

The central theme is one of rebuilding. We enter a world that is harsh and gritty. The hospital is less welcoming than the street here. It’s a terrible snapshot of life for the homeless of Paris. As the film progresses it starts to get better. The bridge itself is still in ruins but Alex and Michèle seem to improve, they earn some money and even manage to reintegrate into society a little. When the bridge, and everything else, is finally whole it seems impossible that they are the same people who we saw before. The camera seems to capture two completely average people, and you wonder whether they have been neutralised, normalised by the passing of time. Is that all that humans really wish to do? To regulate the actions and emotions of everyone around us, fix them all up to be more pleasing to the eye? It certainly seems to be the case in Carax’s interpretation. Whatever is not beautiful is rejected in this world, and those that can see clearly will naturally never stoop to what is less than perfect.

Carax never allows his style to become self-important. There are echoes of the old greats of cinema at all the most poignant moments, even Singing in the Rain gets an allusion. All the beauty and all the rule-breaking is informed by a knowledge of how to communicate through the lens. It makes for a deeply moving film, even when you can’t yet understand its significance or meaning.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              5/5
  • Intellectual:       4/5

Paris – 2008

parisAfter deeply enjoying the Auberge Espagnole trilogy and Le Peril Jeune, I decided to branch out into the rest of Klapisch’s filmography. I had high hopes for Paris. I tend to be a sucker for films set in and inspired by the city of lights. Klapisch’s contribution to the cohort seems to fall a little flat.

Paris is a multi-strand story, pulling together stories from neighbours, relatives, acquaintances and strangers to make a coherent whole, a cohesive Parisian community if you will. The trouble is that very few of the characters are established strongly enough in the beginning. We are presented with a flurry of people all more or less the same, middle class and unhappy with their lot in life. Out of these a couple stick out as the “main” protagonists. Romain Duris plays Pierre, a Moulin rouge dancer who is now dying of a heart defect. Fabrice Lucchini is a professor grieving for his father and his own youth. Meanwhile Juliette Binoche plays an unhappy divorcee, but then has Juliette Binoche ever played someone who was in any way romantically fulfilled? Fortunately these three do end up being the characters that are focused on most closely, especially Pierre. There’s an idea that everything we see has been invented by Pierre to fill the boredom of being bedbound but it’s not filled out as an idea and it wouldn’t really change anything either way. Everyone else fades into a melee of one-scene wonders. Even the ones that do recur are so poorly defined that it’s difficult to remember which is which.

In a film that seems to want to genuinely celebrate the diversity of life in Paris having these three, relatively mundane stories as the focus with everyone else as peripheries rather unfortunately reinforces the class issues Klapisch seems to want to bring out. Conversely if these were the only stories Klapisch is interested in, why muddy the water with the other characters at all? There is ample material in these stories that is glossed over for the sake of much more forgettable characters.

Quite apart from all this, Paris is one of the most painfully cynical films I’ve seen in recent memory. The overall message seems to be one of futility. We all will die. Happiness is something we perceive in other people but no one has. Most of all, the idea that everyone you love will die or move on seems to be championed throughout the film. There are flashes of genius in how this is put together, Duris’ performance is incredibly moving throughout. His pain and nostalgia is felt implicitly by the viewer as he looks through old photo albums. It’s impossible not to sympathize with him. Yet Duris’ performance is isolated in a singularly bizarre and miserable film.

  • Entertainment: 2/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes – 2000

fbb800eee2df5ba74ce50b8a90ce511b10a2183bReturning to my quest of watching every Francois Ozon film I finally got hold of Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brulantes today. It’s a far more stylised and raw film than Ozon’s later works. There’s a roughness in the quality, the camera movements are not so well-oiled. Despite being his third feature, it feels almost like a prototype of Ozon’s work that would extend outward into everything he made subsequently.

From the opening scenes you feel the weight of cinematic history bearing down on the characters. The acts are boldly denominated in the style of the nouvelle vague. The characters sit in choreographed symmetrical spaces, it’s like Wes Anderson before Wes Anderson got the stylistic monopoly on framing things neatly. The cinematography is deliberate; the camera is as much a character as anyone on the screen. As a viewer we hover in the space, swerving and following the characters nearly everywhere. The tempting glances into what we’re not shown only add to the feeling of claustrophobia that the characters display. We are an unwanted voyeur in their space, but we can’t escape it any more than they can. It’s a literal thing, the camera never leaves the apartment, except for a few shots showing us apartment windows that isolate the inhabitants as if in prison cells. By the end of the film you’re gasping for sunlight, fresh air, anything but you remain as trapped as you were in the beginning.

The intrigue in the film is how you are pulled in in the same way as those on screen. Franz, a young engaged man, meets Leopold, an older businessman, who propositions him in a somewhat predatory manner. You feel as if Franz should run away at this point but yet you want to see it play out. This curiosity pulls all three of the other characters and the viewer towards Leopold, despite him being objectively unattractive and objectionable. However don’t take this to mean that the film is weighty or serious. In one unforgettable scene the film finally decides to throw the balancing act between satire and drama out the window and plunge into what feels like comedy set pieces. Yet through all of this there’s still the tragic undertones being experienced by Franz. Zidi is sensitive as a performer, bringing out the confusion and anguish of someone who seems stuck in a parody of their own life. His portrayal shows that it is indeed just as unsettling as one would imagine. Even throughout the more surreal twists and turns Zidi remains as the sane everyman in this universe of tragic coincidences and comic timing.

It’s a thoughtful piece but entertaining, there are deep and terrible questions raised by the series of events. Reframed, it could be a Shakesperean tragedy. Ozon refuses, and in true style gives us an absurdist existentialist piece of entertainment, after all, they’re only characters, it’s not like the tragedy even exists!

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       4/5