Category Archives: Monochrome 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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Some Like it Hot

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Today my film reviews are travelling back, way back in time, to the golden age of Hollywood Starlets and Billy Wilder’s 1959 Some Like it Hot. I always hear that humour doesn’t transfer well over generations but I can assure you that Some Like it Hot is just as funny today as it ever was.

Starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in an all-female band the form is more like a Shakespeare play than a modern comedy, but once you tune into the genre it’s actually completely charming. The brunt of the comedy comes from a complex series of mistaken identities and mild sexual innuendos. It seems surprising just how racy some of these jokes are despite their obliqueness. Truly, constraints are the father of creativity.

All three principal players never miss a beat in this film. It’s hard to review Marilyn Monroe’s performance since she acts exactly as the pop culture canon trains you to expect. She’s sweet, a little ditsy and hopelessly, tragically romantic. However I will congratulate the costume department for having found new and innovative ways to drape fabric in such a way as they leave nothing to the imagination. Both Lemmon and Curtis are impressive, switching between distinct personas on screen within seconds. Curtis particularly, pretending to be two different people as Joe is spellbinding in all three incarnations. His characterisation is, naturally, humourous and caricatured but consistent to the point of incredibility.

What’s great about this film is that it hasn’t aged one bit. While, of course, it now feels like a period piece, the humour and archetypes employed are so timeless that it doesn’t feel alien like many of the films contemporary to it. It’s still a living, breathing piece of cinema rather than a dusty, odd museum piece that can only be appreciated through contextual knowledge of the time. That makes this raucous comedy all the better in my eyes.

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

Napoléon – 1927

007-napoleon-theredlistIt truly is an extraordinary experience watching a silent film with live music. I have been lucky enough to see a film in this way three times, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr with a decidedly non-authentic Jazz soundtrack, Harbour Drift at the London Film Festival 2013 and yesterday, Abel Gance’s Napoléon accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. The score for this third film was written over thirty years ago by Carl Davis and is widely considered to be the definitive classical score for the film. Hearing it live, it’s obvious why. Not only does the score hugely heighten the emotional impact of the film it is also masterfully synchronised to the visuals. Not a single cue is missed. If an instrument is on screen, you are hearing it. It even matches when the characters are singing the Marseillaise, as the orchestra swells into the chorus you see the crowds mouthing the chorus filmed a hundred years ago. It’s a bizarre sensation, to hear a piece of music completely in time with what was happening on the other side of the camera a century ago.

However, no matter how excellent the music it will always be overshadowed by the film it accompanies. Gance’s epic blurs the lines between history, fiction and documentary. Recreating some scenes almost exactly as they would have happened while in other places giving precedent to symbolism and emotion above historical fact. In 1927, the year when the ‘talkies’ burst onto screen Gance’s film represents a zenith in silent film production. When sound came in and anchored the camera to a static microphone it was work like Napoléon, the expressive and experimental side of cinema which suffered. The use of visual metaphor and motif is especially powerful, the sway of the ocean mirroring the sway of political opinion and an eagle representing Napoleon’s power. Throughout the film the cinematography and editing are incredibly modern. The film pioneered techniques such as splitscreen and and superimposition and these are used to fantastic effect but not overused. The freedom of the camera to go wherever the characters bodies, or indeed minds, go makes it an immersive piece of cinema. You truly feel the emotions of the characters and see the world through their eyes, not just physically through POV shots but emotionally. Panic and fear in fast cutting, cold in the blue tint and anger in the red.

There are a few places where the narrative drags but this is understandable in a five hour film, not every section will interest every viewer in a film which encompasses war, love, poverty, government and the lives of the aristocracy. Yet each and every section is rendered with the same detail and thorough mise-en-scene as every other. After an hour or so you can genuinely find yourself forgetting that you are watching a fiction, rather than the actual events. Albert Diudonné’s interpretation of Napoleon himself is captivating and deeply emotional. It brings humanity to the legend without trivialising or caricaturing the character of Napoleon. He holds the film almost single-handedly throughout. It is his burning passion that drives the action and holds the viewer’s sympathy regardless of any preconceived notions the viewer may have had.

The famous triptych sequence is truly a sight to behold. After so long watching a film in a tiny 4×3 box the world suddenly opens up as the film and the character of Napoleon reach their full potential. The triptych is not just a way of creating a widescreen effect, the images are duplicated and mirrored across the screens. The wide shots convey a huge sense of scale, but the real innovation is in the sequences projecting different images onto three screens. It’s an idea that was used by Gance in 1927 and then largely ignored for 100 years. He was doing then what James Franco’s As I Lay Dying is doing now, to at least equal effect. In the last couple of minutes the three screens take on a new significance as the left and right reels are tinted blue and red respectively. The film becomes a glowing tricolore instilling a sense of patriotism and joy that really captures the spirit of Napoleon’s legacy. In those final moments he becomes the cultural hero and you can’t help but admire the film, the man and the performance that has brought these images to you. It’s astonishing and completely breathtaking. Napoleon should not be judged as a film within its time, it should take its place alongside Gone With the Wind and Citizen Kane as a film where cinema took flight.

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

Ida – 2013

Ida

Pawel Palikowski’s newest film has just been crowned winner of the London Film Festival, Warsaw Film Festival and won the critics award in Toronto. So what is so captivating about this film? The synopsis sounds pretty dreary “a young orphaned Polish nun goes on a journey with her aunt” isn’t exactly the kind of thing that gives the average reader thrills of excitement.

What Ida has, however is the simple lure of beautiful things. Shot in black and white in the largely obsolete 4×3 aspect ratio every shot is composed with this in mind. Unlike many other black and white films which hover in a washed out grey for two hours, Ida is short, snappy and fully in command of pure white and deep black. Every shot is composed with pinpoint precision to have just the right patterning of light and shade. The aspect ratio makes the film easier to take in, rather than your eyes darting from side to side of a widescreen. Ida’s visuals would be challenging in a widescreen format due to the amount of empty space and obscurity in the cinematography. This empty space is entirely necessary, and a key part of the story of Ida. The cinematography is every bit as bleak and lonely as Ida’s mental state, even going so far as reducing this empty space as Ida becomes more comfortable in her surroundings.

Agata Trzebuchowska’s performance as the almost entirely mute eponymous Ida is sensitive and accomplished. Her mastery of body language and expression means that the emotional journey is completely understood by the audience. While there are complex issues about morality and religion wrapped up in the plot, Trzebuchowska’s performance, combined with Pawlikowski’s sensitive lighting and framing, reduces this into the essentials human experience of confusion and the search for an identity. While the viewer may not agree with Ida’s decisions her motivations are perfectly understood despite her overwhelming silence. Agata Kulesa provides the foil to Ida’s composed, pious silence in her forthright pugnacity and borderline alcoholism. Kulesa’s performance is without a doubt fantastic in itself, but ultimately forgettable compared to the other merits of the film.

It takes a huge amount of directorial clout to pull off a film in an unfamiliar format, in black and white, with very little dialogue and only two characters. For Pawel Pawlikowski these elements add up into a left field gem that will stay with you for long after the screening finishes.

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

La Belle et La Bête – 1946

belleOpening the London Film Festival from my point of view is a newly-restored version of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et La Bête. Of course, the story has been around for much longer but this film was the first, and continues to be considered the best attempt at rendering the story in celluloid.

Cocteau literally tells the audience to suspend their cynicism and disbelief from the word go. This is a surprisingly effective attack. Even I, with my determination to critically view cinema found myself charmed into just letting that go and enjoying the magic. And magic it was. The film is a picture-perfect fairytale, with smatterings of Cinderella and a comforting resemblance to the Disney Beauty and the Beast (which, I soon realised had paid homage outright stolen many elements of this film, including an entire character). I felt truly transported back to a childish perspective. The archetypes are like every Grimm and Anderson tale I was ever read and so the film, despite being unnerving in places, is overwhelmingly relaxing and nostalgic.

The script lacks nothing in terms of wit and irony, in places being genuinely laugh-out-loud funny in its characterisation. This is only added to by the dead-pan mise-en-scène, even the most ridiculous scenes and characters are shot in still camera as if nothing more unusual was happening than some drizzle. The special effects are further evidence that the French film industry really did just decide to ignore that there ever was a war on and continue on its merry way. People float through corridors, statues move and people fly. It’s a crash course in the dramatic potential of black and white cinema. I imagine that the sense of wonder one feels watching this film has not been at all diminished in the last 60 odd years.

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

Masculin Féminin – 1966

masculin-feminin-1966-02-gRecently I have watched four Godard films. A Bout de Souffle, Masculin Féminin, Weekend and Le Mépris. It was only when I watched Le Mépris, which is not considered part of the nouvelle vague, that I had a breakthrough in understanding what the nouvelle vague, or at least’s Godard’s part in it was.

These films are not by any means easy to digest. They are films made by film critics for film critics so at first viewing are basically closed and inaccessible to the viewer. It was only after two films and three weeks that I felt I understood enough to attempt a third film. I will first review Masculin Féminin. The style is not quite documentary, more an exposé of cinema itself, the characters are self-aware, mocking their own performances. Brigitte Bardot even appears as herself for a cameo, so blurred are the lines of fantasy and reality. Plot goes for a burton: the whole film seems to be entirely disconnected moments in the life of young people. These instances are divided into chapters, blurring the lines between different media and allowing the more scholarly diction of literature to become a part of film. However, suddenly, we are forced back into a plot-based way of thinking at the very end as the characters have to explain the narrative we have just seen. What this shows us is that life is so much more and less than the stories we frame it as. Even telling a story gives the whims of the human heart and the winds of fate far too much credit.

As well as this already groundbreaking style the film is boldly political, as if Godard simply had too much to say at any one time. “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola” appears emblazoned across the screen in one of the many intertitles. These intertitles are crucial, flashing on screen with barely enough time to be read they contain the keys to understanding the film, an ironic reversal of a picture being worth a thousand words. Every so often the film cuts to a series of interviews, questionnaires on politics and sex. The questions seem to be loaded with meaning but we are never told what. We later realise that we only believed so because the characters were so passionate about these things. Yet the political activism seen in these young French intellectuals is almost pitifully insincere. Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) splits his time between spraying socialist slogans on walls and trying to be like James Dean. For all his bravado and self-determinism he is utterly and tragically controlled by his love for a woman.

It is difficult to comment on the acting performances in Masculin Féminin, one gets the impression that in truth very little acting is going on, for all we know what we are actually seeing are the conversations had before the camera started rolling. Each word and thought is so genuine that it is somewhat disarming, you feel as if you are watching a documentary of people’s personal lives and views. This counterbalances the confusing and imposing thematic and stylistic features allowing the film to be understood as a charmingly realistic story of unrequited love. But it is so much more. It is like a snapshot of being young. Each character dreams of political change, free love and a great, successful future: they will probably never achieve this but it does not matter, they are now frozen forever in this naïve and joyful state. While the places and particulars may be different the themes still affect every young person today. Yet no other generation has recorded it with such faith or such boldness.

A Bout de Souffle – 1960

breathlessA charming film which consists mainly of an extended duologue. Two people who may or may not be in love spend a few days and nights together. The camera seems to observe passively as their relationship develops. However littered throughout this carefree romance are shots of a classic cops and robbers chase. The drama and the sweetness sit together as oddly as these two bedfellows.

The first half of the film serves as a seduction scene. Impossibly a man who lies and steals for a living has found a woman even more guarded than he is. They discuss little insignificancies for hours with her rebuffing him at every turn. She is aloof, coquettish and absolutely maddening for a man with a private agenda. There is no sentimentality in Godard’s camera, it shows us a situation without drawing back or making light of it. All that you see simply is. Godard edits out the silences, replacing them with bold jump cuts as the repartee continues. Truffaut’s script is razor sharp despite it’s deliberate oblique quality. The pertinent details are never quite addressed but are made perfectly clear in these actions of these charmingly capricious characters. If it wasn’t treated so plainly and naively this would be a hyperbolic tragedy. However, with a light jazz accompaniment and a spring in its step the action blithely unfolds, barely leaving a blip in the fabric of society.