This is the first Emmanuel Mouret film I’ve had the chance to catch and may be the first of his films to have received American theatrical distribution. I can’t claim to know too much about him, but I understand he is extremely well known in France. This is mostly a quirky romantic comedy, but there were a couple of moments that were extremely effective and interesting. He uses the camera in some interesting ways in these moments and I will keep him on my radar. This worth catching on DVD at a minimum if you can’t make it to the independent theatre to see it.
Archive for the ‘French Films’ Category
Kristin Scott Thomas now splits her time and career between France and the rest of the world. This is the first French language film that I have seen her in and she is at her best. This is another small budget character drama but it unfolds more like a mystery. Thomas has just been released from prison after many years and moves in with her younger sister and family. The circumstances surrounding her imprisonment and her familial estrangement unfold over the stretch of the film brilliantly. Debut director and screenwriter Philippe Claudel actually writes mystery novels as his day job and handles the jump to film expertly. The film meditates on loss of varying types with virtually every character. Their disparate reactions and coping mechanisms are realistic and enlightened. Claudel earns the audiences empathy brilliantly and seems to falter only at the very end of the story with a reveal that is a little nonsensical and arguably unnecessary. I would expect this to make some yearend best lists and believe that an Academy Award nomination may be coming for Kristin Scott Thomas.
From the first frame, Le Doulos sunk its gritty hooks into me with a shadowy backward tracking shot that must have been three minutes long. Set in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Paris (the one that looks like New York), the film is an examination of friendship, loyalty and trust between male animals. A resurrected Serge Reggiani stars as Maurice Faugel, a professional thief recently released from prison with some scores to settle. His cracked reflection near the start of the film telegraphs a trajectory as the story begins weaving a web of false impressions and backtracking timelines. If Le Doulos’ alternate universe is guided by a law, it is surely bitter irony.
Jean-Paul Belmondo costars as Silien, an underworld acquaintance of Faugel with an impressive poker face. The film tells us at the opening that Le Doulos is a slang term for a police informant (the American release title translation was The Finger Man). Faugel is warned that their loosely associated criminal circle regards Silien as a snitch, but despite his recent prison time he is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The film is an exercise in contrast, shot on black and white film in intentionally exaggerated, extreme shadow and light. Duplicity is represented in half lit, half dark faces and a shadow on a wall is an ample hiding place in Faugel’s world. Melville speaks this highly stylized visual language fluently and his cinematographer Nicholas Hayer and production designer Daniel Guéret are up to the task of capturing his technically difficult vision.
The mood and story remind me of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and other works of gritty pulp noir writer Jim Thompson. It seems likely that the tightly woven structural storytelling elements and the subject matter of this film have been heavy influences on Quentin Tarantino’s first few films as well. Using the transitive property, that makes this film deeply influential on a significant percentage of the films of the past fifteen years. I should note that the screenplay is a Melville adaptation of a novel by crime writer Pierre Lesou.
The print is newly and nicely restored for this Criterion release. The special features are slight but worthwhile with a three scene commentary track by Melville biographer Ginette Vincendeau, and two select new interview segments on Le Doulos with former Melville Assistant Director Volker Schlondorff and Melville’s Publicity Agent Bertrand Tavernier (both subsequently went on to directing careers of their own). These interviews have really piqued my interest in Melville as a personality. Finally there are two archival interviews with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani (whose appearance on a chat show also briefly features Melville himself) as well as an essay on Le Doulos by film critic Glenn Kenny.
When I think of movies made prior to the early 1950′s, before American cinema began a steady shift toward naturalistic acting styles, I tend to think of what I would deem stage acting for the camera. Musical speech patterns, big gestures, and “charm” come to mind. I have yet to find my way into embracing that style of filmmaking. I’d like to think that I will grow to appreciate it for its own virtues, but I don’t have to grow today.
Grand Illusion, spine number 1 of the Criterion Collection DVD releases, feels fresh and modern despite more than seventy years passing since filming wrapped. Given the current policies in America toward POWs with Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, Desert Storm seems quaint. By starker contrast, the interactions in director Jean Renoir’s classic POW camp film, set during the First World War, are friendlier than a current day trip to the post office. Renoir addresses this directly in an included introduction, filmed for an American theatrical re-release of the film after the end of WWII. (It seems that after WWII, it was important to clarify that these Germans weren’t necessarily the noble guys depicted in his pre-WWII film.)
Renoir was exploring a wartime chivalry that probably never existed (despite what the Hogan’s Heroati might have you believe). He uses the setting of POW camp life to explore the broader issues of class and religious discrimination. Erich Von Stroheim plays the unforgettable Capt. Von Rauffenstein, an injured and now sidelined pilot placed in charge of a German POW camp. Von Rauffenstein affords captured French officer de Boeldiue, portrayed with appropriate stuffiness by Pierre Fresnay, special privileges due to their common upper class backgrounds and military rank. Von Rauffenstein relates more closely to the French officer than his own German soldiers and pines for some suitable company. Despite de Boeldiue’s refutations of such privileges, Renoir shows that class discrimination is a two way street. Jean Gabin is the star of the film, portraying Lt. Maréchal, a direct report of de Boeldiue. While Maréchal is privy to his Captains refutations, and they clearly like each other, they still mutually remain at arm’s length.
Furthering his social and class examination, Renoir introduces fellow prisoner Lt. Rosenthal. Rosenthal (played wonderfully by Marcel Dalio) is the product of a wealthy Jewish background and receives large packages of wine, food and assorted sundries shipped to the prison from his family. Rosenthal is entirely generous with the abundant goods, sharing the items with all of his bunkmates in the prison. Despite the obvious class differences between himself and most of the others, he is not treated with equal distance as is Capt. de Boeldiue. Renoir seems to be pointing out that religious prejudices overrode the class differences between men in his time. Even Gabin himself slips into anti-Semitic territory with Rosenthal late in the film before righting himself. This aspect of the film would become all too realized just after completion of Grand Illusion in 1937.
I was interested to find out that this was the first POW escape film. You can see most of the conventions associated with this subgenre of films present in Grand Illusion. Also of note, perhaps a more appropriate translation of the film’s title would be The Great Illusion as this is the intended commentary Renoir is making about the notion of war and class in human society.
The Criterion print of the film is absolutely beautiful with startling clarity and depth that was believed lost prior to the rather incredible discovery of the original film negative in the 1990’s (originally saved in, of all places, the Reichsfilmarchiv vaults). The commentary by film historian Peter Cowie is academic, though it should be remembered that this was recorded fairly early in the life of audio commentaries. The special features on the disc are small in number and much of them are of the text variety, a convention less common on DVD releases of the past several years. I will say that I don’t typically enjoy reading my special features, but the information on the discovery of the camera negative is quite fascinating and the accompanying demonstration of the film’s restoration shows the incredible improvements made upon this release.