Tag Archives: french film

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
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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

Jules et Jim – 1962

Jules et Jim 2Widely regarded as one of Truffaut’s seminal works Jules et Jim tells the story of a love triangle spanning almost an entire lifetime. Truffaut wastes no time about being revolutionary, the very first frames of the film assault the viewer with short cuts and a racing voiceover. A friendship between the titular characters is built up from nothing into a believable bond that the viewer invests in during about 30 seconds of film. Truffaut doesn’t allow the viewer to rest during the film, the soundtrack is forceful and loud, full of eerie discords. In some sequences the film seems to portray some heightened reality, freezing and zooming in on what is important as if seen through the minds of the characters.

Unfortunately it seems that there has been a historical opinion that this film shows three people who are in love and their joint relationship. I dispute that entirely. Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) are best friends who share everything, even going so far as courting the same woman until she makes a choice. This is proven early in the film when they come across the absent-minded Thérèse (Marie Dubois) who can’t even tell the two men apart yet ends up sleeping with one of them nonetheless. The character of Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) is yet another example of this airheaded female archetype that the two men share an appreciation of. Both Jules and Jim blithely superimpose their ideal woman onto Catherine. Their ideal is a fragment of statue they once saw, by mixing the ideas of the two Catherine is given a legendary importance, akin to an ancient culture. She is thoroughly undeserving of such a comparison but Catherine is all too happy to accept their attention. Over the decades that follow she will abuse them, hurt them and reject them in her desperate search for attention but they still follow her with idiotic loyalty. I suppose that their foibles are to be forgiven, after all, they are in love.

What is much more extraordinary is the robust nature of their friendship. Catherine tries with all her might to elicit jealousy from either one or to turn the two against each other, but it is all to no avail. She comes close, effectively exiling Jim from their life. It’s extraordinary that these men allow a woman to come between their friendship at all, a friendship that wasn’t damaged from fighting on opposite sides of a war. Truffaut’s omniscient narrator seems to mock these two who allow Catherine’s dramaticism to hold sway. While they puzzle over Catherine’s feelings the narration tells us directly of her selfishness. The camera hangs on her just as these men dote on her but we so not see her through lovers’ eyes and are left bemused more than enchanted. Yet beyond Catherine’s attention seeking and frivolous antics are two men who are so similar that they love the same woman. At the same time, they care so deeply about each other that they accept sharing her.

In the end this is what Truffaut has captured, Jules et Jim is aptly named, in the end it’s a friendship, not a ménage-a-trois. Jules and Jim remain friends with no ill will, even when confronted with a woman whose selfish behaviour challenges their bond.

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

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