Tag Archives: french cinema

Goodbye, Claude Chabrol

I guess I thought Claude Chabrol, having made fifty-some movies in fifty-some years, wouldn’t die any time soon. Least of all today.

I guess, somehow, I thought the gentleman director of Les Biches, Le Boucher, and the only Madame Bovary worth seeing, would have to live on, if only to show serious film-going Americans that he deserved to be referenced not as a footnote or appreciative aside, but up top with Godard and Truffaut, where every discussion of the French New Wave invariably begins.

I realize now that Chabrol and I have had what I can only describe as a private relationship. Seems an unusual way to characterize an association with a person one has never met, but as I think back on it I’m certain it’s true. I tend not to go on and on about The Story of Women or Merci Pour Le Chocolat, though I’d like to. And on that rare occasion when I can get rapturous about La Femme Infidele without changing the subject, I feel an urge to keep it together.

Am I protecting him from opposition? Am I, like one of Chabrol’s stable of hypocrites, stifling my excitement for the sake of propriety? Maybe. But I suspect there is something darker to it, something more perverse. As I think back on those nights (they must always be nights) when I watched Chabrol in public, with an audience, or at least a group of friends, I remember feeling my attention split. The direct artery between me and Chabrol would fracture and spread to each person around me, and the otherwise volcanic force of blood flow would be slowed. A fidget to my left, a laugh to my right, and the acute sense of focus Chabrol works so hard to maintain would be lost.

Of course every careful filmmaker deserves careful focus, and to say one deserves more than another is to show a personal favoritism that most careful critics try to avoid. But in the case of Claude Chabrol, whose cinematic volume was turned down to whisper level, there is an impulse to sit as close to the screen as possible, to put one’s ears and eyes right up against the image and take a deep breath in, like a lone yogi sitting on a mountain top.

Chabrol is often compared with Hitchcock, and for good reason; they share similar interests, a similar sense of humor, and Chabrol himself invites the comparison (his book, Hitchcock: The First Forty Films, written with Eric Rohmer, is considered to be one of the best of Hitchcockiana’s first generation). But when I watch Vertigo, I sit far away from the screen. Hitch’s English libido – raging with despair, fraught with guilt – can be that overpowering. Chabrol, French as they come, is so at ease with his unease that sometimes it looks like he isn’t doing anything at all.

Claude Chabrol

(June 24, 1930 – September 12, 2010)

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Micmacs is The New Film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

I remember the day I saw The City of Lost Children, the first of Jeunet’s films to really breakthrough into US art houses.

I didn’t know it then, but I’m sure now it was one of those outbursts of total imagination, like Caligari and Metropolis and Brazil, films whose singularity is without precedent or successor. In trying to describe it, one inevitably sells it short, but if we’re going to try to understand how far Jean-Pierre Jeunet has fallen in the years since The City of Lost Children, it’s important to try to put a finger on what he once was.

The achievement, as always, is twofold; one happened in front of the camera and the other behind it. First, with co-director Marc Caro, Jeunet created the world of The City of Lost Children. Simply, they gave us a mise-en-scene that expressed the sound and complicated logic of their new world. Vivid sets, costumes, and a company of actors matched only by the faces in Daumier, gave us just about everything we would need to experience total immersion. Then came the camera, the second achievement. Having set the stage, Jeunet and Caro bent it into the kind of expressionistic nightmare Jacques Tati might have had after a night of reading The Brothers Grimm, drunk on absinthe. Their taffy-like camera could go anywhere and do anything. It was elastic. It flew. It moved like a flea, it moved like a crane.

I remember the day – days after seeing The City of Lost Children – when I discovered that Jeunet and Caro had made another film, Delicatessen, which I must have been to young to have caught on its first run in 1991. I rented it, and had the same eureka – perhaps a double eureka – compounded by the new knowledge of Jeunet and Caro I brought to the viewing. To this day, I’m still not sure which film is better. Like a good fairy tale, The City of Lost Children packs an emotional punch; but Delicatessen, in its wit and caricature, is as clever about human strangeness as Bunuel’s drollest films. I could watch them forever and – as Joni Mitchell says – still be on my feet.

Then Jenuet got hot, took a job directing Alien Resurrection (the fourth, and worst, of the Alien franchise), retreated for several years of wound-licking, and returned with Amelie in 2001. There isn’t really much to say about that. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but I remember it felt like the product of a diluted sensibility. What it had was an excess of charm (almost cloying) and a colorful, Rube Goldberg approach to narrative. Okay, fine. If people loved it, it was probably because they didn’t know about the great work that had preceded it. Those of us who were already fans of Jeunet and Caro expected more from the circus.

After Amelie, Jeunet continued on without Caro (they split after Alien Resurrection) and lost yet another shade of darkness. A Very Long Engagement was a failed attempt to get into David Lean mode; you could feel Jeunet desperately wanting to go global and it came off as insincere. Once again, Audrey Tautou was set up to be the next Audrey Hepburn, but I think we can all see now she was really nothing more than a human pastry. Yum, but where’s the beef?

Now we have Micmacs, Jeunet’s limpest yet. I saw it with a friend, also a fan, and we left the theater with our heads down. “Gilliam, Burton, and now Jeunet,” my friend sighed. I sighed too.

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Riding the Wave

Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, Two in the Wave, about Godard, Truffaut, and everyone’s favorite Vague, opens this week. A.O. Scott wrote something characteristically bland here.

Forgive me, but I have to sin. When Godard and Truffaut behave as themselves, their films tend to slip into excess; Godard goes into solipsistic maximalism, and Truffaut into a kind of flabby melancholy. I know I’m supposed to be wild about Pierrot le fou but it’s just so damn polemical I can’t bring myself to give it the second and third chances everyone tells me I should (at least Brecht, when he got too Brechtian, had Kurt Weill to diffuse the air of importance). Same with all of those later Truffaut love stories. Put on one of the Antoine Doinel movies (after The 400 Blows), and I’ll start to wish I were watching Woody Allen, or if he fulfills his promise, Noah Baumbach.

My blasphemy ends there. While it’s true I never loved Truffaut and never loved Godard, I love Godard when he acts like Truffaut and Truffaut when he acts like Godard. You could see a touch of each of them in Day for Night and Contempt, films as formally rigorous as they are romantic. Personally, I can’t get enough of either.

And while we’re on the subject of The New Wave, I can’t resist shouting out to my two favorite Vague-ers, both of whom, film for film, are more consistent, and I think cleverer, than either Truffaut or Godard. They are, perhaps unsurprisingly, Agnes Varda and Claude Chabrol.

I haven’t been shy about my longstanding love affair with Claude Chabrol (I gushed here), but I haven’t yet had a platform to practice my fondness for Varda, the filmmaker they call “The Godmother of The French New Wave.”

It comes down to this: in films like Vagabond (her masterpiece) and The Beaches of Agnes, Varda shows herself to be someone who plays with cinema the way Frank Gehry plays with buildings. Godard plays too, but to extend the architectural analogy, he’s more like Frank Lloyd Wright – he doesn’t play well with others. But Agnes does. She takes you by the hand and leads you through the maze. Even when she leads too forcefully, you never regret being in her company, and even when she’s mischievous, you never leave exhausted. The freedoms Truffaut and Godard proposed – freedoms that often shackled them – Varda continues to renew.

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What Does Cannes Do?

In the spring, a young cineaste’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Cannes. Or, in the case of certain cineastes, not so lightly.

Does it matter? Does Cannes really do anything anymore, or has it become an airless pageant, one long, beachside photo-op with a few screenings thrown in for old times’ sake?

No: Cannes does matter. As opposed to Sundance, a festival which seems to get more and more insular, self-congratulatory, and (I don’t even know if this phrase will make sense) aesthetically vestigial with every passing year, The Cannes Film Festival has continued to raise the level of film consciousness not just in France, but throughout the world.

Cannes’ partnership with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, along with its commitment to spotlighting documentaries about filmmaking (this year’s subjects include docs about Ingmar Bergman and legendary cameraman Jack Cardiff), is proof of the festival’s seriousness. But Cannes’ greatest gift to the film going world is, I think, in the field of restoration. Every year, after a vigorous cleaning-up (or in the case of certain critical cases, a full-blown rescue), a new crop of classics – some of them fringe, some of them mainstream – gets a Cannes platform. And because a Cannes platform means a world platform, these great works can once again (or maybe even for the first time) be given their due.

This year’s round of restored prints includes Bunuel’s Tristana (presented by Almodovar), Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, as well as The Tin Drum, Psycho, The Kiss of The Spider Woman (too long forgotten), The African Queen (too long remembered), and – this one’s particularly exciting – a restoration of Visconti’s The Leopard, which contains what is easily the most purely beautiful passages of film ever shot. Now they will be more beautiful than ever.

When people talk about movies looking beautiful you’ll often hear them say, “It looked like a painting,” or something to that effect. They mean it as high praise, but often, the painterly, portrait-like compositions they’re referring to are too studied, making the movie feel dead and stilted, more like a museum piece than an actual living, moving piece of life captured on film. Naturally, studied can be beautiful – as in the films of Peter Greenaway and Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman and others – but in The Leopard, especially in the film’s final moments, Luchino Visconti is onto something trickier: portraits that move. Keeping up that painterly framing is no easy task considering that the very nature of the moving image means his compositions must be ever-changing. So how does he do it? How does Visconti keep his world alive without losing his hold on the perfect frame?

Now that the film is restored, we’ll have a clearer answer than ever before.

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Luis Buñuel: A Personal History

The filmmaker Luis Buñuel was born in Spain on February 22, 1900, one hundred and ten years ago this week.

If they’re aggressive about it, most contemporary American filmgoers don’t get to Buñuel until their college years. By then, they’ve probably had their first run-ins with Fellini and Bergman (definitely 8 ½, maybe Persona), and have very likely sampled the early Godard, if they’re that way inclined (I wasn’t). There are variations of course (I saw Fanny and Alexander and worked backwards), but any way you get them, these are the filmmakers who picked us up from the prom, drove us up to Make Out Point, and took our Hollywood virginity.

Then, a year or so later, Buñuel creeps in there. And I do mean creeps. Maybe it was some clove-smoking girl in college, maybe it was rakish professor of World Cinema, or maybe it was the greasy guy at the video store. In either case, there comes a point when the young cinephile exhausts the Italians and the French (and Bergman), and uncovers the strange and often wonderful world of Luis Buñuel. It happens to everyone. Just as babies start to walk, children learn to speak, and grownups find their favorite drink. (Buñuel’s, but the way, was a martini. He wrote, “To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of a martini…Like all cocktails, the martini, composed essentially of gin and a few drops of Noilly Prat, seems to have been an American invention. Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative powers of the Holy Ghost pierced the virgin’s hymen ‘like a ray of sunlight through a window – leaving it unbroken.”)

I’ve digressed, but that’s how Buñuel would want it. He’d also want you to imagine me – a scholarly type, and published, soon to be twice published – with my pants down as I write this, or, like the famous scene from The Phantom of Liberty, sitting contemplatively on a gleaming white toilet, imagining myself in bed with a cold, cold, legless woman who is actually the English Prime Minster, a man, but played by a woman.

An all-around anarchist, Buñuel wants to explode everything – literal and figurative – including government buildings, traditional narrative forms, sexual mores, and Jesus Christ. As a college student beginning to understand the joys of explodability, Buñuel was just what the medcin ordered, and in films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Obscure Object of Desire, (perennial favorite) Belle du Jour, and (my favorite) The Exterminating Angel, all aspects of civilized life were fair target. Cut to: “Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won’t melt, since nothing’s worse than a watery martini. For those who are still with me, let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients – glasses, gin, and shaker – in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake it, then pour it out, leaving only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve.”

But just as I fell for Buñuel, I crept away from him. And I do mean crept. Buñuel’s refined esoteric sensibility (not to mention his undeniable talent) will keep his films in fashion as long as people are making movies – a terrific thing, and quite deserved – but it makes it difficult to admit – at least publicly – that in the days since college, he and I have had a tiny falling out.

Over time, I saw the mechanism behind his satire begin to creak. I saw the jabs coming, and they were the same jabs he’d been jabbing his whole life. (Part of the problem, I think, was that he was so good so early in his career – Un Chien Andalou was 1929 – that it didn’t leave him too far to go.) Buñuel, who seemed the most grown-up filmmaker – the only filmmaker ever to truly intimidate Hitchcock – seemed to me, around the time I left college, a case of arrested development. Like Hitch, he was, in the end, shackled by his perversities. He never blew them up.