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Le crime ne paie pas (1962)
Under-appreciated gem, very different from Oury's later work.
Beautiful actresses and handsome men in sumptuous sets and costumes act out four tales of lust, treachery and murder – one in quattrocento Venice drawn from Stendhal and the other three in Paris in the 1880s, 1913 and 1961. All in a frame story which morphs into the fourth episode, recounted tensely in almost real time. Some good writing evident, particularly in the third episode from the celebrated pair of Boileau and Narcejac to whom we owe both "Diaboliques" and "Vertigo", and classical acting in delivery and posture. The second episode in the 1880s, based on a real life case, is given an extra illusion of authenticity with spoof caricatures echoing those in newspapers of the time.
The picture as a whole exhibits intelligent construction, technical flair, and an adult view of the world, centred strongly on the desirable but manipulative women around whom the men revolve. There is even very brief profanity and nudity. All very different from the direction Oury took in his next highly enjoyable but undemanding films, aimed successfully at general audiences. In this work there is little explicit humour, apart from a fun cameo by Louis de Funès, whose efforts at talking English make him unintelligible, and some nice moments from Danielle Darrieux being charmingly drunk. It also features an English officer, here played by Richard Todd whose French is accented but excellent, an idea Oury used again with Terry-Thomas in "La Grande Vadrouille" and David Niven in "Le Cerveau".
Apart from the usual anachronism that in the three historical episodes hairstyles and make-up remain all too close to 1962, no complaints about a film which really ought to raise Oury's critical reputation posthumously.
Dulces horas (1982)
Oedipus gets his mother back from the dead
A film one can take on various levels. The overt story is of Juan, a man whose emotions are frozen in his childhood at the point when his beautiful sexy mother, loving the boy too closely after his father abandoned them, took an overdose in front of the hapless child. These traumas he seems unable to leave behind, living in their constant shadow. We know he is trapped, because his practical sister Marta has got on with her life, marrying and having three children while he broods alone.
The siblings can be seen as two halves of Spanish society. One lives in the present, without any apparent illusions, while the other is mentally in a past he cannot escape. The siege of Madrid, its population short of food and fuel being bombed nightly by the Germans. The absent father, in his case safe in Argentina with another woman. The mother, without any authorised outlet for her desire, who flirts shockingly with her pre- teen son. The unfeeling uncles, one of whom brags of his exploits fighting for the Germans in Russia while the other matter-of-factly takes the boy to his usual brothel for an early initiation.
Though Juan's mental landscape can be pitied, even if he does rather revel in it, there is a strong temptation to view his search for lost time as comic rather than tragic. What is shown of his prosaic father and over-romantic mother, to say nothing of the somewhat eccentric family surrounding them, might suggest laughter as a response to their woes. After all, they are well-off middle class with a nice Madrid flat and a maid (who lets young Juan feel her breasts for a peseta a time) plus, most important after 1939, are on the victorious Nationalist side. Even his mother's suicide, heartlessly cruel to the boy, is done in an Emma Bovary style of drama.
The suspicion of black comedy is reinforced at the end when the actress Berta, long unsure how to relate to Juan, works out that she must treat him like a ten-year-old and starts scrubbing him maternally in his bath. He has got his mother back from the dead, pretty and loving and all his!
Storia di Piera (1983)
The real story is below surface actions and words
The story of Piera is told from the actual moment of birth in the delivery room to the date of the film. Her mother Eugenia often seems at odds with the world, indulging in eccentric behaviour within the family and outside. Her father Lorenzo, by contrast, appears a level-headed bureaucrat with a job in the then-powerful Italian Communist Party. As his wife becomes more erratic, he loses his post and suffers a collapse that puts him in a mental hospital. Piera gives up school to work for a dressmaker and follow her dream of acting, her favourite part being the Medea of Euripides, the woman who poisoned her successor and knifed her own sons when her husband left her. Eugenia's condition deteriorates, however, and she too is confined. At the end, the unmarried star of stage and television takes her fragile mother to an empty beach for an outing together.
Parallel with the story of her abnormal family we see in sometimes very frank detail Piera's discovery of her sexuality: kissing games with local boys, her first period, a lesbian affair when she is hospitalised for asthma, and then men. There are also incestuous overtones involving both parents. For example, visiting her father in the institution, she reciprocates some sexual fondling to let him think he is still a male and not a neutered invalid. Beyond sex though, to my mind, is the closing moment when mother and daughter strip off in the surf and hug each other tight.
Visually striking, being set in the new towns with their futuristic architecture that were built in the 1930s on the drained Pontine marshes, with many shots having a painterly composition that uses shape, colour and light to evoke moods. One example of many is a night scene when Eugenia and Piera on foot are chased and surrounded by a group of young men in cars who threaten gang rape. The main light comes from the headlamps, which become sinister emblems of violence and dominance, exuding not benign natural light but harsh artificial light. Eugenia wrong-foots the aggressors by smashing the pairs of headlamps one after another, symbolically emasculating her attackers.
Tremendous acting from the three principals, even though the two women had to be dubbed. Mastroianni is wonderful as the caring husband who gradually becomes unhinged. Huppert has the gifts to reveal the inner desperation and determination that Piera shares with her favourite dramatic rôle. And Schygulla deserved more than her Cannes award for her courageous performance as an impossible woman, appearing like a cheap tart initially but in the end a pale wraith with no make-up under cropped hair reminiscent of Joan of Arc.
Recommended to all who can appreciate a tale told from the women's point of view, where the real story is below surface actions and words in the complex web of emotions.
La voz dormida (2011)
Occasional flashes of bravery and of compassion
Another story set in the grim beginnings of the "New Spain" during the drab winter of 1940, as the victorious nationalists rounded up their defeated opponents to be jailed and in many cases shot.
Where this film differs is that it concentrates on the women, being set mostly in a Madrid prison where we see both republican inmates, some with babies, and the staff keeping them there, who are wardresses under the command of nuns. The role of the church in supporting the regime comes under heavy criticism. That Franco's rule was thoroughly unpleasant from the start is taken as given and even after 70 years little attempt is made at balance, for this is the story of the victims.
Touching moments from the two principals, Inma Cuesta and Marìa Leòn, playing sisters in their late teens who learn painfully what dignity and courage mean. Their men are communist guerillas in the mountains, one of whom is tortured to death and the other sentenced to 30 years.
Sombre prison interiors and grey wintry exteriors convey the gloom that prevails, intensified by a sparse soundtrack. Only occasional flashes of bravery and of compassion lighten the tense oppressive atmosphere.
Un amour de pluie (1974)
Bitter-sweet fleeting relationships
Yet another of those French films that just catch a moment in time and the bitter-sweet fleeting relationships of people, shot with attractive photography, backed by charming music and centred on a good-looking pair of adulterous lovers.
Bored rich wife Élizabeth and her teenage daughter Cécile leave Paris for a few days' holiday in a spa hotel at Vittel run by the effervescent and ever-swigging Madame Édith. Élizabeth soon succumbs to a another guest, a mysterious solitary Italian called Giovanni, while Cécile promises her virginity to a lad in the kitchens called Georges. That's all there is: no plot, no action, and no character development beyond the fact that every love affair changes a woman at least a little.
It would be going too far to say the story enters the territory of Chekhov, though it is reminiscent of his tales of empty lives. For no political, cultural or spiritual dimension clutters the simple account of the parallel encounters. Echoes of French history intrude very tangentially when the characters visit Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, already turning into a shrine to the recently departed General de Gaulle, and a fountain at Domrémy-la-Pucelle allegedly used by Joan of Arc, a previous saviour of the nation.
Director and scenarist Jean-Claude Brialy gives himself an amusing cameo when he reprises his brief rôle in "Les 400 coups" as a man trying to pick up a beautiful woman. Back in 1959 it was Jeanne Moreau and here it is the delectable Romy Schneider, whose charm carried the picture for me.
Così fan tutte (2006)
Enjoyable film of a wonderful production
Bethany Cox says it all, bless her, leaving little to add about an enjoyable film of a wonderful production.
I liked the girls' frocks, dead right for the period and subtly signalling their characters. For Fiordiligi (blonde Miah Persson) a tight bodice and close-fitting skirt in patterned eau-de-nil, to show her outwardly more severe stance. But lots of bosom and voluminous candy stripes with bustle for the more frivolous Dorabella (brunette Anke Vondung).
Close-ups, so often a difficulty when filming opera, here give us lots of physicality, with the young people's hands going all over each other's bodies in ironic contrast to their frequently high-flown words. Though officially left to our imagination, one can readily believe that there are two consummations within the 24 hours of the bet.
Les galettes de Pont-Aven (1975)
Mid-life crisis of an umbrella salesman
Henri Serin (Jean-Pierre Marielle), married with two kids and on the road all week seeking orders for umbrellas, is stuck in Brittany after a collision with a wild boar, an irruption of untamed nature into his dull life.
While his car is being repaired, he starts reverting to the man he wishes he had been, dedicated to painting, drinking and enjoyment of the female body. The latter, women being what they are, is never simple and we see some amusing encounters: a jolly but married shop owner (Andréa Ferréol), a Canadian nude model (Dolores MacDonough), a surly prostitute in Breton national costume (Dominique Lavanant) and, finally, a sweet hotel maid half his age and half his height (Jeanne Goupil) who runs off with him. So it ends as fantasy, that happiness is running a beach stall with the girl you love.
On the way we meet a lot of colourful people in picturesque settings, hear a lot of very rude French (plus some unintelligible Breton), and see a lot of human skin and hair. In fact, profanity, nudity and sexual activity abound, though not as outrageously as in « Les Valseuses » from the previous year or « Calmos », which starred Marielle the following year. All in all, a pleasant exploration of the male menopause.
PS The version I saw had hilariously inapposite English subtitles, looking as if they had been created by someone who knew neither language, perhaps a Korean computer program?
The Ebony Tower (1984)
Watchable, but slight?
Nice setting of an old French manor in summer inhabited by an old dragon of a painter (Olivier) and two maidens, former art students, that he has ensnared (Scacchi and Wilcox). Into his realm to interview him comes not a knight errant but a self-satisfied example of the modern world (Rees). One of the girls, shy but gifted, wonders whether to escape with him and rejoin the world. Before the end she realises he is not worth it.
The book said a lot more but we have to be satisfied with the brief foray of this film, which is emotionally and intellectually thinner. To compensate, we get glimpses of some fine paintings and, in a re-enactment of Manet's "Déjeuner sur l'herbe", some fine bare girls. Overall it comes across as watchable but slight, the strong point being the beauty and more than that the poignancy of Greta Scacchi as a bright talented young woman unsure of her direction.
Rendez-vous à Bray (1971)
An appointment with death?
Follows in many ways Delvaux's preceding work "Un Soir, un train", using the bleak wintry plains of Picardy. A film of secrets and nuances, playing with objective time and external reality, which will leave viewers who cannot appreciate its subtleties in the cold. Without an ending, you have to imagine what could happen in the light of what you think has happened (another of its references to our own impending ends).
At root it is the story of Julien, a young man who most of the time is a fish out of water. From a modest family in Luxembourg, his country is overrun by the Germans in 1914 while he is a pianist in Paris. His friends there are Odile and her lover Jacques, a rich young composer who gets Julien a job on a newspaper while he goes off to join a fighter squadron. Later, Jacques asks Julien to meet him behind the front at Bray in his family's country house, which is shut up and looked after by a solitary housekeeper. Julien turns up, but Jacques never arrives.
Around this central thread are spun many mysteries. Waiting at Bray for Jacques, with artillery thundering nearby, Julien reflects on their time together in Paris before the war. Memories of the three young people having fun remind us often of Truffaut's "Jules et Jim", though them all ending up naked in the River Marne has no ill effects. He also revisits his triumphs and humiliations. For Jacques has the assurance of riches and breeding, while Julien is a poor uncertain immigrant speaking French awkwardly. As well as their love of contemporary music, mainly Debussy and Franck, the three love films about Fantômas. Julien however has no girl to love.
He also claims that he cannot fight for a country that no longer exists, which is almost certainly self-deception. On the train to Bray, he talks about the war to a bearded French soldier who is travelling with a striking silent woman. With difficulty finding the decayed and shuttered house, he is greeted by a beautiful but monosyllabic servant. At bedtime, in a dressing gown with her hair down, she shows him to a bedroom where, after offering herself silently, she stays the night. That could well be his fantasy but, like much else in the film, we do not know.
In the morning he rushes across the fields to get a train back to Paris, but it leaves without him. Some reason that we have to guess keeps him at Bray, foreshadowing the eerie atmosphere of Chabrol's "Alice ou la dernière fugue".
Superb mood-setting cinematography and first class music of the time are a joy for eyes and ears. While the male leads are perfectly adequate, the two females are entrancing. Bulle Ogier as Odile plays a fun blonde, her shoulder straps slipping and her food wobbling around her dinner plate. But Anna Karina dominates as the nameless enigmatic housekeeper, sphinx-like in leaving herself to be understood without words.
Une chambre en ville (1982)
Below the opaque surface, the outline of a fairy tale?
Like "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" a wholly sung opera and like "Lola" wholly set in Jacques Demy's native city of Nantes, even using several shots of that palatial shopping arcade again.
For much of the time, however, the camera gives us a proletarian Nantes of graffiti-scarred back alleys, barricaded works whose employees are out on strike and squares full of detritus. No prettily painted streets emptied of people and cars, but a working town full of tension, shot in sombre tones often tinged with blue. Twice we see riot cops who after breaking into fierce song break up demonstrations with batons and gas, leaving victims behind. One fatality is the chief protagonist, the shipyard fitter and toolmaker François (Richard Berry) whose room gives the film its title.
On the street where this occurs we see at the top the cathedral and at the foot the prefecture. One a symbol of ebbing church power, for this drama shows few signs of Catholic faith or morals, and the other standing for state power, incarnated in the lines of identical armoured police decanted from identical vans with menacing sirens.
As well as the brooding corporate violence of police and unionists, individuals flare into moments of savagery. Edmond (Michel Piccoli), the erratic owner of the TV shop, after applying a hot soldering iron to his wayward wife Édith (Dominique Sanda), threatens first his innocent mother-in-law Madame Langlois (Danièle Darrieux) and then his wife with a razor, before finally and fatally using it on himself. The unbalanced wife draws a pistol on him and later uses it on herself. Madame Langlois, François' landlady, favours the strikers but not violence and instead stays sozzled throughout.
A dark tale, with only occasional flashes of love to penetrate the blackness. Violette (Fabienne Guyon), the teenage shopgirl François makes pregnant and abandons, has the unconditional love of her mother (Anna Gaylor), while François has unquestioning support from his loyal workmate (Jean-François Stévenin). As for the fierce love that suddenly erupts between François and Édith after she picks him up in the street by opening her coat, this seems more operatic than real, a grand passion unlikely to survive the cold light of many dawns.
Top acting honours go to the two leading ladies. As Madame Langlois, the widow of a colonel and daughter of a baron who never leaves her elegant flat, Danièle Darrieux exhibits immense presence in the face of many challenges but is never far from her bottle of chilled white wine and sometimes, so silly of me, knocking over a footstool. Outperforming her, and at the peak of her womanly beauty, Dominique Sanda plays her daughter Édith as an over-the-top character who for almost all of the film is wearing either a fur coat with nothing under it or just nothing. As mother-daughter relationships go, this one may amuse at times but underneath carries many layers of pain. Michel Piccoli is even further over the top as Édith's husband, voluntarily immured in his shop and unable to satisfy the rampant sexuality of his wife, who has turned to part-time prostitution for kicks.
The singing, a continuous récitative without arias that is mostly dubbed, is made deliberately unshowy, as are the unsustained melodies by Michel Colombier and the unpoetic lyrics by Demy himself. All done with care to keep music and words unobtrusive, so that they complement the images rather than overpower them, fit the place and theme, illuminate the feelings of the characters and move the plot along.
Set in the year 1955, when Demy was in his early twenties, the look and the artefacts of the time seem perfectly chosen. Even the taunting chant of the strikers "police, milice" is redolent of the era, comparing the republic's admittedly tough cops to the hated fascist paramilitaries of the Vichy régime abolished only eleven years earlier.
Everybody who has loved "Lola", "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" or "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort" should see this film immediately. Everybody else should be aware that it is opera sung to lyrics where, as soon as you adapt to the magical way of marrying song and image to convey emotions and enrich the narrative, you will be hooked. Underneath the sometimes gritty surface is the skeleton of a fairy tale, the sort of story Demy loved which speaks to something deep in humans.
Tire-au-flanc 62 (1960)
Inventive and playful comedy
Visually and aurally inventive farce about induction and basic training of army conscripts, centring around asinine but amiable upper-class twit Jean and fellow recruit Joseph, who happens to be his family's worldly- wise chauffeur.
In the tradition of silent film, much of the comedy is knockabout, dreamlike or surreal. A long segment involves instructing the squad on how to salute an officer when you are involved in a range of other tasks such as carrying a bucket, riding a bike or riding a horse. In each case the relevant prop arrives on the barrack square by magic and the intrepid corporal then demonstrates the relevant action.
In the tradition of the nouvelle vague, many quiet chuckles come if you recognise allusions to earlier works. Paying homage to "À propos de Nice", the soldiers attend the carnival and, as in Vigo's 1929 film, some girls doing high kicks show their knickers. Another extended sequence is a tribute to Hollywood musicals when, in a dream, Jean returns to the assault course where he had been humiliated by his maladroitness. This time the sun is shining, the obstacles are decorated with streamers and balloons, romantic music is playing, he is Gene Kelly and the colonel's beautiful daughter in a flowing summer frock does acrobatic dance routines with him.
From a stage play by André Mouézy-Éon and André Sylvane, written before the First World War, that was made into a silent film by Jean Renoir in 1928 and had also been filmed by Fernand Rivers in 1950. Truffaut has a cameo as an ex-jailbird, which he was in real life, while the delectable Bernadette Lafont, his protégée who had become a muse for Claude Chabrol, appears not only as a pin-up but also as a glamorous film actress, as she was in real life. Affectionate playing with the medium of film and with its history is one of the picture's delights.
Milou en mai (1990)
Almost posthumous Buñuel?
While France is threatening to erupt into revolution during the beautiful spring weather of May 1968, a family of the haute bourgeoisie assembles at a large country house in the lovely Gers area of the South-West for the funeral of the matriarch and the division of her goods.
The former is delayed because municipal workers, including the gravediggers, have all gone on strike, while the latter is disrupted by two events. First, the notary arrives to read the will, which gives 25% of movables to the young housekeeper, who has been comforting the eldest son Milou, leaving only 75% for the family. Then the old lady's jewels are found short, raided by a granddaughter who promptly renews an old association with the notary in the hay loft.
So the time passes, between and during meals, with wrangles over material goods and many amatory diversions. One might almost think that this group of people, most of whom who have little or no concern about the events convulsing their country, are interested only in food, money and sex, plus a bit of music and marijuana.
Aftre alarming reports of impending disaster on the radio and from rich neighbours, panic seizes them. Abandoning the delightful house and without taking anything useful, they irrationally hide in the woods. Cold, wet and hungry, they are saved by the housekeeper, who finds them to give the news that President de Gaulle is back in charge of the nation and everything will return to normal. After at last burying the old lady, the family return to their preoccupations: the spectre of revolution has passed.
Altogether it could be a posthumous piece by Buñuel, which is not surprising as the script is by his long-lived and prolific collaborator, Jean-Claude Carrière. Surrealism has several outings, from the opening where the eldest son calms his bees by declaiming Latin verse to the ending where his dead and buried mother returns to the empty house to dance with him. While the impotence of the bourgeoisie, imprisoned in their obsessions, recalls the trapped party in "El ángel exterminador" as well as the couples on their inescapable carousel in "Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie", the subsequent flight into wilds that are not Eden evokes "La muerte en este jardín". In the end, the character who really shows common sense and care for others is the housekeeper, a working-class woman.
Despite many echoes of the provocative Spanish maestro, this work is wholly French in feeling and execution. Even the one foreign actress, Harriet Walter playing an Englishwoman, speaks the language excellently.
Stress-es tres-tres (1968)
An ancient story that reflects Spain of its time.
Antonio, a rich businessman with a flash American car, drives his glamorous wife Teresa (whose blonde hairdo we learn later is not real) and their best friend Fernando from Madrid to the rocky coast near Almería. Tension is in the air from the start.
Antonio has succeeded in his job but not in his marriage, for Teresa is bored and all too open to the gallantries of Fernando. The thought that she might already have rejected him and chosen another torments Antonio, with his jealousy interpreting every rebuff to him and every favour to the other as evidence of incipient or actual adultery. By the end, when the three have reached a deserted beach, we are not sure how much of what we see is only in Antonio's tortured mind, which has turned to thoughts of murder.
Visually, the black-and-white film shows the arid empty expanses of rural Spain with few buildings or humans, concentrating on the intense cross-currents between the three principals but also making them mere figures in a timeless landscape.
Though their drama is indeed ancient and universal, it is also local and contemporary. Antonio is one of the new rich under Franco, an apparently apolitical and agnostic technocrat who has adopted Western ways (he likes trail bikes and aqualunging). In a neat symbol of new versus old, his overlong car can barely traverse the medieval streets of a village they enter. Yet his veneer of affluent modernity crumbles when confronted with the ultimate challenge to innate Hispanic machismo, a wife who may be unfaithful and her potential lover. Fernando seems equally trapped in his genetic heritage.
Teresa, not played by a Spaniard, is a more modern woman, considering herself free from unquestioning obedience to a patriarchal husband and free to accept advances from another. Geraldine Chaplin shines as first of all the trophy wife, tired of her husband's obsessive attention, who hides behind sunglasses, make-up and peroxide wig. When she gets down to the beach and into a plain black bikini, a different woman appears who is young and intensely alive, with short dark hair and scrubbed laughing face. Finding a footless black stocking in the sand, she puts it on one leg to look like some fetishist's dark fantasy.
We travel part of the way with the trio on their journey, but are left to imagine the outcome. A human triangle acted out in isolation under the unfeeling eye of nature is of course reminiscent of two earlier works by Polanski, "Knife in the Water" and "Cul-de-sac". The unsettling wife in the latter was also named Teresa.
Bored, annoyed or just disappointed?
Several reviewers seem bored, annoyed or just disappointed by this film.
Well, it is not a crime film. The trial scene tells you that, when the defending lawyer presents his case to a grinning judge in song. And the policeman leading the case, who we never see, has been bonking one of the key witnesses, the glamorous pedicurist and tango dancer. The mystery elements are not meant to be taken seriously, being almost a McGuffin, for it is not really a police or detective story nor, with the fanciful coincidences and whimsical names, is it plot-driven.
So what on earth is the film about? For a start it is a tribute to Maigret, France's most famous fictional detective. Maigret had a loyal wife who kept him well fed and took an intelligent interest in his cases. Bellamy's lovely wife keeps him lively in bed as well. Maigret studied people, had a way of getting them to talk and then listened acutely. Watch how brilliant Bellamy is, particularly with women who, even if they do not give him the whole truth (how many do?), certainly tell him a lot.
As so often in French cinema and literature, what we have is an exploration of relationships, of interactions between people, analyses of character. The title tells us that, It is about Bellamy, his life, his work, his delightful wife and in particular his dark side. Here, his half-brother is his evil shadow who inverts all his values. Bellamy has given up drink and his brother is an alcoholic. While Bellamy upholds the law, his brother steals from everybody. Bellamy seeks out the truth: his brother tells lie after lie
What we are given by the ageing Chabrol is a journey into the mind of a man who has spent his working life fighting crime yet, like all of us, has the hidden criminal within him. By spending time with Bellamy, we see some of his essential humanity and so see something of ourselves.
La banquière (1980)
Picturesque recreation of Paris between the wars
Picturesque recreation of Paris between the wars to a strong score by Ennio Morricone that explores the intersecting worlds of commerce, journalism, finance, politics and the law through the career of Emma Eckhert, a Jewish girl who starts in the family hat shop, rises to running her own fraudulent bank, begins influencing national affairs and ends up in jail. Based on the real Marthe Hanau, she is played by the always-watchable Romy Schneider, who ably shows Emma's personal life as well: arranged marriage followed by divorce, two little boys to raise, lesbian amours and final affair with a young married politician whose beautiful wife seems ambivalent.
While the story of Emma's public and private lives is interesting to see, casting a light on sectors of French society at the time, it could have been told in much less time with considerably fewer characters. The main justification for the film is therefore la Schneider. Among good supporting roles are Jean-Claude Brialy as her lawyer, Jean-Louis Trintignant as a rival banker and Marie-France Pisier as her lover's wife.
Jours tranquilles à Clichy (1990)
A colourful journey into an imaginary past
Reviewers have complained that this film does not capture enough of the book by Henry Miller and includes things he did not write. Of the additions, for me the frame story rings poignant and true. On the Californian coast we see the dying Miller obsessed by one last unconsummated passion for a beautiful young nude model, a recreation of the bewitching teenage Colette he had lost. Outside on the beach the ghosts of his old Parisian friends gather for him to join them. Then we move into his memories.
Of these, the added stuff about fascism and communism in 1930s Paris does seem feeble. But my defence for both departures is that they are at worst ironic and at best comic. The real Miller and some of his friends may have taken themselves fairly seriously but in this film the cavortings and occasional soul-searchings of American exiles in Paris, immune from the harsh political facts of European life, border on the absurd. His devotion to Proust is treated satirically and to a Parisian his frequent comparisons with Brooklyn are merely ridiculous.
In fact we see virtually no real Paris, the city being most of the time conveyed by sets, which deliberately distance the story to a dreamy insubstantial past. Like the artificiality of the book, the film creates a fantasy world, one of untrustworthy recollection from a gifted, persuasive but ultimately unreliable narrator. Though actuality does intrude when Colette runs away and jumps onto a very real Metro train, so leaving the imaginary sphere for the quotidian.
While intensely autobiographical, incorporating wholesale people he knew at the time, Miller's work is fiction. It is not a diary but a melody spun out of his experience, looking beyond outward events to his inward poetic and philosophical reflections. This last dimension is what I miss in Chabrol's film, which mostly stays closer to the colourful surface occurrences of the characters' lives. Although I don't think many male viewers will complain about the often revealed surfaces of the many lovely women.
The Aerodrome (1983)
It is always better to stay at home and marry the barmaid than to join the Nazis.
Very well written and shot film with first-class acting, excellent music and apt dialogue. All round far better in quality than most Hollywood dross.
Captures much of the spirit of the complex 1941 book by Rex Warner, which under the surface of a melodramatic and somewhat surreal story addressed a number of philosophical issues. In particular, it contrasted the hate-filled logic of fascist tyranny that was then triumphing all over Europe with the muddled imperfect affectionate life of rural England.
The two worlds are typified by the village and the neighbouring aerodrome. In the village people are free, make their mistakes and believe in, even if they by no means always obey, traditional Christian values. On the air base, religion is abolished and harsh man-made rules are enforced by rigid discipline.
Roy, a naïve 21 year old from the village, joins the air force and rises rapidly. He quickly learns to suppress the feelings that he grew up with and to regard the villagers as benighted, while women are just prey. But as he sees more of the ruthless and dangerous behaviour by the air force, its moral corruption and its cruelty, his conscience awakens. In the end he returns to his widowed mother in the village and marries the barmaid he always fancied.
The book was vague about the exact years when it was set, though it was clearly not during the Second World War, and the brutal air force it describes was certainly not the Royal Air Force that was then defending Britain heroically. The deliberate haziness over time is kept by the film, which uses aircraft and equipment from several different decades, but is more explicit over the Nazi-like nature of the air force by clothing the officers in uniforms reminiscent of the SS.
Recommended as a story, even though deliberately far-fetched, as a satisfying viewing experience and above all as another reminder about the life-denying emptiness of totalitarianism. It is always better to stay at home and marry the barmaid than to join the Nazis.
The Foreman Went to France (1942)
Exciting adventure with humour and romance
Exciting adventure, with nice moments of humour and a bit of stiff- upper-lip romance, about the daring exploits of a factory foreman (Clifford Evans) who single handed goes over to France in June 1940 to retrieve some vital machinery before it falls into the hands of the advancing Germans. Vividly shot in black and white, with music by William Walton and script partly by J. B. Priestley, it portrays the tragedy of the French collapse and the terrible toll on civilians.
In a commandeered British Army lorry with two Tommies (Gordon Jackson and Tommy Trinder) and a blonde American secretary (Constance Cummings), commandeered as interpreter, he finds the machines and heads for the coast, but then the troubles start. They are strafed by German fighters, attacked by German dive bombers, fight through German infantry and shoot their way out of a German-held château. More sinister in a way are their encounters with fascists, collaborators and fifth-columnists. To viewers at the time, this collection of slime represented not only the shameful Vichy régime over the Channel but also the internal danger Britain could face.
Highly recommended, both as a period piece that gives you a window into that dangerous time and as an inspiring quest. Under challenge an ordinary man finds that he has the qualities of a hero, acquires loyal helpers, overcomes his evil adversaries, brings home the treasure and wins the beautiful girl.
Les mariés de l'an deux (1971)
Enjoyable fast-moving comic and romantic drama
Enjoyable fast-moving comic and romantic drama set in the USA and France during the eventful year of 1793. Central to it is the stormy relationship between Nicolas Phillibert (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his childhood sweetheart Charlotte (Marlène Jobert), daughter of a wine merchant in the port of Nantes. The ups and downs of their rocky marriage and of their temptation by others are played out against the much greater dramas engulfing France.
We see the Reign of Terror raging, with kangaroo courts, drowned corpses in the river and royalists carted off to the guillotine. We also see the royalist counter-revolutionaries at war against the new régime in the Vendée. Finally we see the Soldiers of Year II, the mass levy raised to fight the Austrian invaders. Much of the film was shot in the unspoiled Romanian countryside, using thousands of soldiers with authentic weapons and kit.
As a re-creation of a complex historical time as well as a humorous exploration of a quirky couple's on and off relationship, the film is constantly exciting. Belmondo gives us his usual action man, indulging in continual fights, chases and dramatic escapes while exuding manly charm. Jobert shines as his spirited wife, switching from combative to coquettish in less than an instant but collapsing in a swoon if caught out. Smaller roles are well fleshed out, so we continually meet interesting and original characters, while the score by Michel Legrand adds an often ironic period flavour. Recommended!
L'as des as (1982)
Light-hearted romp that does not conceal the darkness
Enjoyable adventure full of fights, chases, lots of laughs and good clean fun with a resourceful hero (Jean-Paul Belmondo), trainer of the French boxing team, a beautiful journalist he fancies (Marie-France Pisier), a brave little German boy he takes a liking to (Rachid Ferrache) and a bear cub named Beethoven who just tags along.
Starting in the air over the Western Front during 1916, the film moves from Paris to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin to Berchtesgaden. There the boy's Jewish family, trying to escape to Austria, end up by mistake in the Berghof and are welcomed, if that is the word, by Hitler's grim sister (Günter Meisner in drag). Given instruments and ordered to play music for the company, they alternate with a Bavarian oompah band on the terrace. In a surreal sequence, the dancers in Alpine costume switch between the local Schuhplattler and a swooping Jewish dance. To get the family over the frontier to safety, Belmondo dresses as an SS officer and steals the Führer's car.
A light-hearted romp that does not conceal the darkness of the time when it is set or the worse that was to follow.
Dialogue and acting are often fun.
Only one review? Let me add another, because the premise of a rich banker and a tart escaping their separate pasts to be butler and maid in a country house means that they can use their skills in the new job to comic effect but always risk exposure. The story is in fact not too well developed but that doesn't matter because the dialogue and acting are often fun.
First, of course, we must place the immortal Jean Gabin who exercises his tremendous presence, dominating other characters by his intelligence and force of personality. When Suzanne as a whore warns him that her protectors are hard men, he merely says "But I am a banker" and outwits the dim thugs in no time. As butler, while cleaning the shoes he notes that the master uses the same bootmaker as the ex-King of Spain.
Equal second to my mind come his frenetic employers, the two Bernardacs. He is the incomparable Philippe Noiret, trying to combine pompous businessman and father with passion for his new air hostess wife. She, the Swiss Liselotte Pulver, combines daytime adultery with evening drinking but always charmingly. The lovely Mireille Darc as the prostitute turned chambermaid Suzanne can only come fourth, because she is unfortunately given too little to do.
Little contemporary touches recall a long gone era. In the girls' bedrooms pictures from magazines of contemporary pop stars are stuck up on the walls. And in Paris at that time to be chic one had to drive an English car, so we see posh Daimlers and Rovers, sporty Austin-Healeys and Jaguars, plus the ubiquitous Mini.
Moderato cantabile (1960)
Worth seeing twice for Moreau alone
The story is extremely simple. When a woman is murdered in a bar, the bored wife of a local employer becomes obsessed with her fate and discusses it with a witness, an unemployed man who used to work for her husband. Without much secrecy the two progress into an intense but unconsummated affair, never even kissing. Yet, like all affairs. it has to end.
What counts is the way the story is told. Visually it is striking, in atmospheric black and white widescreen set wholly in bleak winter light in an unromantic little Atlantic port. Workmen in berets and women in headscarves trudge about, while the rich travel in nothing more exciting than a Peugeot.
Aurally, the score is mostly the Diabelli sonatina labelled "moderato cantabile" that the woman's child is learning, its light charm a contrast to the darkness of the story. In the bar the jukebox blares out jazzy Latin numbers while sirens from ships and factories interpose a melancholic note.
Of the two principals, Jeanne Moreau is the perfect incarnation of a sexy bourgeoise full of unfulfilled longings: the film is worth seeing more than once for her alone. As her nearly-lover, Jean-Paul Belmondo performs manfully and is always interesting to watch, but looking gloomy without animation and conversing literately without any cheerful obscenities are not what we want from him (he was not so happily cast in "La Ciociara" the same year either).
Talking is what the two lovers do, this being a French film, but like "L'Année dernière á Marienbad" the dialogue is from a novel not from life. By inserting this layer of artifice over what might have been said in reality, the couple are distanced from boss's wife and out of work man and their affair becomes not real but a product of imagination. While highly dramatic, the agony of the wife is however close to the truth of a woman's heart into which men, whether unfeeling husband or cautious lover, can never quite see.
PS For people who enjoy bourgeois rituals being disrupted, like the wedding reception in "Melancolia" or the post-opera gathering in "El ángel exterminador", the dinner party at the climax of this film is a small joy. Shortly beforehand, the wife nips out to the local bar that is full of working men and downs several wines. Once at table, after just managing the fish, she loudly refuses the meat and rushes away to be sick. Not the perfect hostess in 1950s provincial France.
PPS Not a few similarities with the 1956 film "Le Sang à la tête" based on a Georges Simenon book "Le Fils Cardinaud". In both, the major employer of a West Coast port loses his neglected wife temporarily but publicly to a young working man.
Climbing High (1938)
All enjoyable fluff
Reviwers have been sniffy about this light madcap comedy, starring Jessie Matthews as a penniless lingerie model in a West End advertising agency and Michael Redgrave as an amiable young man about town with a huge Mercedes convertible. He is meant to be marrying a manipulative penniless aristocrat, after him only for status and money, but after knocking our Jessie down twice falls for her instead. The climax unites key characters in the Swiss Alps for final tomfoolery and pairing off.
Nice cameos for Basil Radford as Redgrave's pal, Torin Thatcher as Jessie's Canadian brother, Noel Madison as an American ad man. Alastair Sim as a Communist model who doesn't believe in working under capitalism and Francis L Sullivan as an escaped madman who thinks he is an opera singer. He and Jessie duet hilariously in old standards like "Maritana" and "Il bacio", so we hear her delightful singing even if we don't get any dancing.
It is all enjoyable fluff, free of any social or political content, meant only to amuse. Not Jessie's greatest picture, but she is still entrancing as ever.
Un pilota ritorna (1942)
Heroism, but also sympathy for both combatants and civilians
Rossati is a young pilot who joins a squadron at an Italian base flying missions across the Adriatic to bomb Greece. When British fighter planes come to the aid of the Greeks, his unit starts losing aircraft and men. He has to bail out over Greece and, placed in a barn with other Italian prisoners, helps a doctor and his daughter Anna operate on a wounded officer. As German forces advance, under conditions of increasing suffering the prisoners and civilian refugees are marched towards the sea. Strafed and dive bombed by the Luftwaffe on the road, when they get to a port it comes under heavy bombardment. Though reluctant to abandon Anna, Rossati escapes and makes his way to an airfield, where he manages to steal an RAF Hurricane and head for home. Flying low, Italian anti-aircraft batteries wound him but fail to bring him down before he reaches his home base in triumph.
The story is dramatic and well told, with an evocative score from the director's brother. Though made to praise the Italian air force, the men are revealed as humans, not cardboard heroes. Great sympathy is shown for the civilian victims of the fighting in Greece and the British are treated fairly as well. It is Italy's unseen German allies who only unleash death and devastation.
The Silver Fleet (1943)
The price of patriotism
Set in Holland during the German occupation and produced by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, who had already shown the bravery of the Dutch resistance, ably led by Googie Withers, in "One of Our Aircraft is Missing". This time Ralph Richardson is shipbuilder Jaap van Leyden, Googie Withers is his loyal wife and Esmond Knight is von Schiffer, the Gestapo officer in charge of security at the shipyard.
Two submarines under construction are to be finished for the Germans who first, by one means or another, need to obtain the co-operation of the workforce. Van Leyden agrees to stay at the helm, earning the hatred of the town as a Quisling, but with the aim of secretly organising resistance. The first submarine is hijacked by the Dutch workers, who sail it to England. With the second, the Germans will allow no Dutchman on its first sea trial except their trusted van Leyden, who has invited various German VIPs. With a hidden bomb, he sends the submarine, himself and all the Germans to the bottom. So secret was his plan that only after his death does his wife discover his heroic role.
Technically, the film is well shot, giving you the feel of a little town on the North Sea and of the shipyard which is its main business. Its message is very simple: that if you love your country, you must be ready to die for it. The telling of the story is more complex, as the many German characters are shown as humans, not caricatures, who bear no particular ill will to their Dutch neighbours but exhibit just enough insensitivity and arrogance to make you eventually loathe them.
Recommended for the atmosphere of the community under repressive occupation, for the deadly cat and mouse game played by van Leyden and for the huge dignity and courage imparted to the role by the masterful Ralph Richardson.