Jean Renoir: The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)

June 6, 2017


Jean Renoir considered  The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) to be a turning point in his career, a film that opened “the door to some projects that are more completely personal.” He would go on to make A Day in the Country and The Lower Depths immediately after (I have written about both in previous weeks), on which he had significantly more control. Lange was originally proposed and conceived by Jacques Becker, and its script was later revised by Jacques Prevert. Renoir invited Prevert on set to collaborate in its production. The film is a provocative blend of performance styles, with the radical Popular Front aligned October Group (Florelle, Maurice Baquet Sylvie Bataille, Jacques-Bernard Brunius) meeting the old-fashioned theatrical boulevardiers, the latter exemplified by Jules Berry’s craven, charismatic depiction of the womanizer Batala, owner and operator of a struggling publishing house. His incompetence and greed take advantage of mild-mannered Western writer Lange (René Lefèvre) until Batala disappears and the company is run cooperatively by its employees. It is a both a joyous vision of a worker-run business and finely tuned character study of what could drive a man to murder.

In 1935 Jacques Becker, one of Renoir’s assistant directors, and Spanish painter Jean Castanier wrote a screenplay for what was then called Sur la cour (On the Yard). They offered it to producer André Halley des Fontaine, who was, per Pascal Merigeau’s Jean Renoir: A Biography, the “wealthy heir of a family of steelwork owners”. Becker had previously convinced Halley des Fontaine to fund his medium-length debut Pitiless Gendarme and its follow-up Une tête qui rapporte (both 1935). But Halley des Fontaines did not trust Becker enough with the larger investment required by a feature, and so instead turned to Renoir. Becker was furious, for as Merigeau reports it was heavily rumored that Renoir, “learning about what was happening with the screenplay…muscled in on the deal and obviously met with no reluctance on the part of the producer.” Renoir had been in the business for ten years without a real box office success, and was taking work where he could get it, even if it was at the expense of his friends. Becker and Renoir would reconcile a few months after their break, and Becker would work as his assistant director through La Marseillaise in 1938.

Renoir brought Jean Castanier on to write a revised treatment for the film, which they worked on in April of 1935. In this early version the framing sequences were set in a courtroom, not the border hotel it would be shot as. Part of the reason for his eagerness to take on the project might have been its treatment of a cooperative. In his book on his father, the painter Auguste Renoir, he recounts an event was Auguste was seventeen and working at a porcelain factory. Their boss was thinking of selling the business, and was “proposing to create a cooperative. They would pay the boss for rental of the premises with their profits. The workers would share the remainder in equal parts. The idea was to take swift action against the machines that were coming to steal their bread and butter.”

In the film Batalan’s already teetering publishing company is faced with a quandary when Batalon is reported dead. With the help of a loopy creditor’s son and Batalan’s sole surviving heir, an agreement is made to run the company cooperatively, with decisions made jointly by the employees. Lange had sold the rights to his increasingly popular “Arizona Jim” character to Batalan, but is able to share in the profits with his boss’ passing. In the little courtyard outside the office, many more intrigues play out, including laundress Valentine’s (Florelle) single-minded romantic pursuit of the oblivious Lange, a star-crossed affair between another laundry maid Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaia) and Charles (Maurice Baquet), the son of the building’s frequently soused concierge (Marcel Levesque, a favored actor of Sacha Guitry). The movie crackles with life and incident, every nook and cranny of this little courtyard an opportunity for storytelling, and Renoir and his DP Jean Bachelet keep the camera moving to catch each development. This peaks in the final sequence with a  brilliantly staged 360 degree pan that encompasses every floor of the office building and the entirety of the courtyard, ending in the fateful crime of the title.

The meeting of Renoir and Jacques Prévert was fortuitous, as both were headed in opposite directions politically. Prévert had become disillusioned with the progress of Russian Communism after a recent visit, while Renoir was still enthralled with its possibilities. Prévert was likely directed to the project by Castanier, a fellow member of the October Group, a leftist theatrical troupe which mounted productions at trade union meetings, workers’ halls, and the open air. Renoir recalled his contributions to the film in 1957: “We worked together. I asked him to come to the set with me. He was there every day, which was very kind of him; and I would say to him constantly: ‘Well, pal, that’s where we have to improvise,’ and the film was improvised like all my others, but with Prévert’s constant cooperation.”

Merigeau writes that Renoir exaggerates both the extent of Prévert’s presence on the set and the amount of improvisation (the film sticks very close to the shooting script). But much of the energy of the film is generated by the generational clash in performance styles. Jules Berry is a phenomenal ham as Batalan, playing to the balcony with his operatic patter and balletic seduction techniques. Sylvia Bataille recalled that Berry told her, “‘You know, Renoir wants him [Batalan] to be cynical, but I’m going to lighten him up and give him some smiles.’ And the more he made him smile, the more cynical the character became.” Batalan is heartless and irresistible, contemptible and magnetic, depicting both the charms and snares of capitalism. Though in Renoir’s films the people are never reduced to symbols, they are far too charming for that.

It is when Berry plays off of Florelle, a whip-smart Joan Blondell type who was part of the October Group, that the movie takes on dimensions of generational exchange or frisson. Berry is grandiloquent where Florelle is rawer and more realist – their exchanges crackle with curdled flirtation. When the cooperative takes over these gendered workplace battles no longer take place, instead it’s a cacophony of voices, disordered but joyous. It is at peak euphony during an office party when the titular crime takes place, where Lange makes a principled decision to take a life. It is understandable theoretically, almost necessary to maintain the communal life so beautifully rendered by the rowdy cast, but Renoir also lingers on the life draining from the victim’s face. For every act, there is a cost. Lange pays his, and escapes over the horizon.

This is the seventh part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The previous entries:

Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

 Nana (1926)

 La Chienne (1931) 

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

A Day in the Country (1936)

The Lower Depths (1936)

Jean Renoir: The Lower Depths (1936)

May 30, 2017


“That man who makes films where people spit on the ground.” – Jacques Schwob d’Héricourt (producer) on Jean Renoir

When the funding ran out on A Day in the Country (1936), Jean Renoir left that film unfinished to start casting on The Lower Depths (1936). An adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play starring Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet, it was a major step up in budget from the independent operation he was leaving. The Lower Depths captures the changing fortunes of Gabin’s flophouse thief and Jouvet’s gambling Baron, their lives intersecting up and (mostly) down the social ladder. Production started on September 5, four months after a coalition of leftist groups known as the Popular Front swept into office in France. Renoir was becoming one of the public faces of the movement, writing articles for the Communist paper L’Humanite and attending meetings and screenings at the Ciné-Liberté, a self-described “worker’s cooperative for variable-capital production” that would battle “against the ill fate with which film is saddled”. The political Renoir was not the artist Renoir, however, who took his production money wherever he could get it. The Lower Depths, for example, was produced by Films Albatros, which was founded by White Russians who fled the country before the 1917 revolution. While restricted somewhat by its stagebound material The Lower Depths still contains remarkable scenes of downward mobility, highlighted by Louis Jouvet’s smirkingly disgraced Baron, who finds a home dozing in the grass.

Les Films Albatros was founded in 1922 by Alexandre Kamenka, who moved to Montreuil shortly after the revolution – they had produced Le Brasier ardent (1923), which was one of the movies that inspired Renoir to get into filmmaking. Renoir biographer Pascal Merigeau writes that a flood of Russian-themed films were produced in France after the success of the Popular Front, like Taras Bulba (1936) and Rasputin (1936/’37). Most of these were panned by L’Humanite, they headlined their Taras Bulba review “Some White Russians Make a French Film.” Working with Les Films Albatros was politically troublesome but professionally wise, they had the money to go swiftly into production, and Renoir, more than anything, wanted to work. So he accepted Kamenka’s offer to adapt Gorky’s play. The original script was written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of dystopian novel We, which would be banned in the Soviet Union. Zamyatin left the Communist Party in 1917, and was only permitted to leave the country after he directly petitioned Stalin: “For a writer such as myself, being deprived of the possibility of writing is equivalent to a death sentence.” He was allowed to leave for Paris in 1931, after the personal intervention of Maxim Gorky.

Zamyatin wrote the script with Jacques Companeez, which Renoir then thoroughly revised. Renoir recalled that their version was “very poetic, but absolutely impossible to film.” One of the major debates was where to locate the film – make it Russian, relocate to Paris, or keep the locale indeterminate. Renoir decided on the last option, but at the last minute there came pressure from the Communist Party to make the film Russian, because they “wouldn’t accept the work of the great Gorky presented as anything other.” So what we are left with is an unknown city and French actors, but with Russian names, the film having a very vague specificity. It was vague enough to receive widespread praise, receiving plaudits in L’Humanite, winning the inaugural Louis Delluc prize for best French film, and by the end of the year Renoir would receive the Cross of Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur from the government. One of the only sour notes was hit by André Gide, a fellow traveler who became disenchanted with Communism after a trip to Russia – he called the film, “unworthy of Renoir.”

The film focuses on the relationship between the underworld thief Pepel (Gabin) and the inveterate gambler Baron (Jouvet). They meet fortuitously when Pepel breaks into the Baron’s home, who welcomes him with open arms for a night of drinking and card games. For the Baron had lost his fortune at cards earlier in the evening, and all his possessions would be repossessed soon enough anyway. Pepel lives at a flophouse run by slum landlord and fence Kostylev (Vladimir Sokoloff) and his wife Vassilissa (Suzy Prim). While carrying on a fitful affair with Vassilissa, Pepel’s true affections lie with Vassilissa’s sister Natascha (Junie Astor). After dispensing with his final assets The Baron joins the flophouse and becomes a dispenser of cynical wisdom, while Pepel tries to convince Natascha to run off with him. But Kostylev is trying to pawn off Natascha on an inspector to keep him off their case, and will resort to abusive ends to keep Pepel away from her.

Pepel is a similar figure to Boudu in Boudu Saved From Drowning (1931), one who espouses the life of  a drifter (they both love dozing in the grass), who gets wrapped up in the moneyed classes problems. What makes Boudu a greater film is its refusal to engage in middle-class melodrama – Boudu just cuts loose and sails down a river. The Lower Depths has plenty of tempo-braking speechifying and plot-lengthening manipulations. But the performances often lighten the lugubrious load. Jouvet has a face like Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch and uses each face wrinkle at max capacity, though usually for a bemused smirk. The Baron watches his world disappear around him as if lessening a load. Jean Gabin’s Pepel is still weighed down, despite all of his paeans to bummin’ it, he is getting sick of living so close to death and despair – one of the most moving sequences finds him speaking with a sickly lady, stating that “death is like a mother to us”, us being the poor. For The Baron poverty is a choice, but for Pepel it has become a curse he is trying to escape. Renoir and his DP Fédote Bourgasoff create a visual scheme of floating dolly shots for The Baron’s upper class escapades, and locked down shot-counter-shots for Pepel’s working-class wanderings. The Baron can move easily, while Pepel is nailed down. This visual schema is broken up by the end, shifting along with their fortunes. The final image would be influenced by a private screening Renoir received of Modern Times (1936) before it arrived in French theaters, ending on a backwards tracking shot of Pepel and Natascha strolling towards the camera, their fates realigned.

This is the sixth part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The previous entries:

 Whirlpool of Fate (1925)

 Nana (1926)

 La Chienne (1931) 

Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)

A Day in the Country (1936)


November 16, 2010


White Material opens with a shot of dogs crossing a headlight-lit road, followed by flashlights illuminating the well-appointed interior of an abandoned bourgeois home. The sequence ends with the image of an African revolutionary leader named The Boxer (Isaach de Bankole) lying dead, his face etched out in circles of light. It is a film about coming out of the darkness into this rather cursed light – what is revealed is dissolution and chaos. Claire Denis’ allusive and texturally beautiful film opens this Friday from IFC Films, and will appear on video-on-demand services starting November 24th. I participated in a round table interview with Denis and star Isabelle Huppert last week in NYC, and their insights will be liberally sprinkled in with my own below.

Huppert stars as Maria Vial, the sinewy-strong manager of a coffee plantation in an unnamed African nation (it was shot in Cameroon). A seductive voice crackles over the radio about armed unrest and the iron hand with which the government plans to put it down. Maria’s workers start fleeing en masse, and soon her ex-husband Andre (Christopher Lambert) urges her departure as well. Her father-in-law Henri (Michel Subor), the owner of the plantation, is a ghost-like presence, sickly and waiting for death (the fate of a white man’s burden), while her son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) shows signs of mental breakdown. Everything is falling apart, and yet Maria is obsessively intent on completing the year’s harvest. She exists in a state of willful ignorance, unable to accept the destruction of the only home she’s known.

Huppert and Denis emphasize the split nature of Maria’s personality. Together with DP Yves Cane (long time collaborator Agnes Godard was tending to her sick mother at the time), Denis frames Maria up close with a handheld camera, emphasizing her isolation. And yet within these spare framings, Huppert exudes an indomitable, intractable kind of fortitude. Her denial of reality doesn’t unmoor her from it, but makes her dig deeper inside of it. From the outside,  the perspective of the French soldiers in helicopters urging her to leave, she is fragile and soon to be victimized. But in the cocoon of close framing she is a warrior, her pink cotton dress, as Denis described it, a kind of armor. Denis again: “I remember a scene from the coffee plantation. There was this young man, young worker in the plantation, took his moto, raised his arms and said, ‘every morning when I go on my motorcycle I feel  free and strong’. I really liked that. She [Maria] was seen by the French soldier as a little fragile victim they came to rescue. A minute after riding the motorbike she starts feeling, ‘I will make it, I will manage to finish the harvest. I will not be a victim’.”

Huppert:  “As Claire was writing the script with Marie [author and first time screenwriter Marie N’Diaye], I remember she was giving me clues, she was something like a bionic woman, a super woman. By this exaggeration she gave me a clue of what she wanted. Not psychological, but a physical approach to the character. I remember when she said that to me. It really opened a whole world. A totally physical approach, and nothing else. So I started to learn how to ride a motorcycle, and when I got to Cameroon I started to learn how to ride the tractor. So the character was defined by resistance to the natural elements, and the whole situation against her.”

As self-destructive as her behavior is, Maria is still imbued with a kind of faded grandeur. She is fully committed to the colonial project even to the point of death. She identifies completely with the land, raking in the coffee cherries with the workers and focused only on keeping the farm open. It is a phenomenonally physical performance by Huppert, even standing still she seems like a natural part of the landscape, a stylish scarecrow.

Her principles are paternalistic and outmoded, but at least she has them. The violence that threatens the edge of every frame seems to have no principles except destruction. The rebels are terribly young, child soldiers drafted into a war they didn’t choose. The government is run by cynical profiteers, organizing militias for their own protection but caring little that the rest of the country will burn. In the midst of this chaos, Maria is a stabilizing presence. She is insane, but steady. This steadiness of belief is why Denis continually compares her visually to The Boxer, the mythical rebel leader, and the only other character who seems to believe in his own cause. The Boxer is also given intimate single close-ups like Maria, while the rest of the film uses medium to long shots set on a tripod.

His story is also one of dissolution. He is wounded, his life slowly draining out of him while the rebellion he once led spirals out of control. Like Marie with her family, the rebel forces are no longer under his command. And yet he remains impossibly serene, his face an imperturbable mask. Their destinies are intertwined through these visual, thematic and structural rhymes. Structural, because the opening shot of his death immediately precedes the introduction of Maria, riding a bus to nowhere, before it moves back in time to establish what led her to get that empty look on her face (She meets The Boxer briefly in this middle section). This flashback structure establishes the entropic direction of the narrative – we know things will fall apart, but not how. White Material was shot before 35 Shots of Rum, but was released a year later, not just due to the vagaries of distribution, but also because she spent so much time establishing the structure. In the interview she said the script was written in chronological order, but that the bus scene got stuck in her mind, because she wanted, “To have Maria appear in the broad daylight, already lost, already too late.” The opening shot of the Boxer was necessary because she wanted,  “Dark night preparing her to walk into daylight. I cannot explain why.”


June 8, 2010

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The greatest cinephile deal going right now is for Arrow Films’ 8-Disc Box Set of Eric Rohmer films, which includes all six entries in his Comedies & Proverbs series, along with Love in the Afternoon and The Marquise of O.  At Amazon UK (a region 2 disc, you’ll need an all-region player to spin it), it’s priced at 11.93 pounds, which is 17.27 USD. That’s the highest sublimity-per-dollar ratio you’ll find anywhere! Guaranteed.

So with summer approaching, ready to expunge sweat from heretofore unknown pores, I watched Rohmer’s The Green Ray (1986, titled Summer in the U.S.) in my un-air conditioned apartment on a 90 degree day. Delphine (Marie Rivière) is planning a vacation to the Greek isles when her friend backs out two weeks before departure. Scrambling to find an alternate getaway, she gloms on to another friend’s trip to Cherbourg.

This begins a frustrating, lonely journey as Delphine bounces from resort town to resort town, each densely populated sun-dappled spot making her feel more alone than the last. She refuses to mask her pain with play-acting or empty flirtations, holding firm to her ideal of romantic love. Her interest in superstitions and the supernatural is curiously stoked by the fortuitous appearance of green playing cards and a mention of Jules Verne’s novel The Green Ray. She senses a pattern in these shades (the kind of game playing one is used to seeing in Rivette), which leads her to embrace the spirit of the Rimbaud epigram that begins the film: “Let the moment come/When hearts will be one.” (“Song From the Tallest Tower”, translated by Wyatt Mason)

For most of the movie though, her attitude resembles the second stanza in the poem:

Just say: let go,


Without hope

of greater joy.

Let nothing impede

August retreat

Delphine would like nothing more than to disappear. The three fulcrums of the story are her walks into nature, in which she’s trying to fade away. In Cherbourg, she wanders around a leafy path, stopping in front of a wooden gate. Alone with her thoughts, Rohmer cuts to a montage of tree branches swaying in the wind, before cutting back to her face. In a film that’s mostly two shots, or shot counter-shots, of people conversing, these quick cuts to empty spaces are privileged, emphasizing her oppressive solitude. She cries in close-up. Unable to disappear, she leaves town instead – and the second shot finds her strolling through the Alps, pausing to graze her hand against the hard-packed snow. In a rare long shot, her silhouette is visible against the backdrop of craggy peaks, her tears elided. She cuts her visit short, and soon finds herself in Biarritz, strolling down a stone staircase in a red poncho, hoping to find some kind of peace by the caves – but the tide is high. In an interview on the DVD, Rohmer calls this her “descent into hell”.

Rohmer uses splashes of red throughout the movie – on Delphine’s bag, a suitor’s sweater, a Cherbourg dress – and finally ending in the poncho – marking her lowest point. While the reds spiral downward into despair, the greens offer a way out. She finds a green-backed Queen of spades on the streets of Paris, a green ad for a seance  that reads,”Regain contact with yourself and others…”, and a green-backed King of Hearts. She even mentions that a medium told her that green would be her color for the year. Finally, she overhears an older group of tourists discussing Jules Verne’s The Green Ray, in which she hears that the final ray of light the sun emits before sinking below the horizon is green. It is only visible on perfectly clear days, and according to Verne, a Scottish legend claims that:

“this ray has the virtue of making him who has seen it impossible to be deceived in matters of sentiment; at its apparition all deceit and falsehood are done away, and he who has been fortunate enough once to behold it is enabled to see closely into his own heart and read the thoughts of others.”

Helena Campbell, the heroine of The Green Ray, refuses to marry the pretentious knob Aristobulus Ursiclos until she sees the ray and understands her own heart. Rohmer clearly pulled some aspects of Delphine from Helena. Verne again:

“De Maistre has said, “there are in me two beings: myself and another.” The “myself” of Miss Campbell was a serious, reflecting being, looking upon life from the point of view of its duties rather than its rights. The “other” was a romantic being, somewhat prone to superstition…”

Along with this similarity of temperament, they share a fractured itinerary. Helena forces her two Uncles to travel from isle to isle, in order to find the perfect sea horizon to view the ray which Aristobulus keeps clumsily blocking. They are constantly on the move. Delphine is on her own jagged path, seemingly more out of lassitude than romantic intensity, but both girls end up searching out the ray for a kind of transcendent self-determination.

Delphine encounters a series of Ursicloses along the way, from the strapping and shirtless to the meek and leather-jacketed. She dismisses them all with skittish indeterminacy, running away rather than causing a scene. It is only when exhausted in body and soul, collapsed in a molded plastic seat at the Biarritz train station, that she opens herself up, as open as her copy of Dostoyevsky’s THE IDIOT (and she very well may aspire to Prince Myshkin’s absolute lack of self-regard and Christ-like innocence…she at least relates to his rejection by society).

An exchange of looks with a cabinet-maker leads her to an impulsive jaunt to  St. Jean de Luz, where she passes the gift shop “Le Rayon Vert” (The Green Ray), until  she settles on a bench with her man and tries to answer a question. She’s just waiting for the light…

The beauties of this final sequence ought not be put in words (or I’m not the one who’s capable), as it captures the moment “when hearts be one” with a joyfulness and lack of artifice that would make Rimbaud and Myshkin weep. I’ll let Jules Verne and Rohmer have the last act:

Helena felt instilled with new life as she inhaled the fresh breezes; her beautiful, clear eyes sparkled with health as she gazed on the rippling waters of the Atlantic stretching far and wide, and her pale cheeks were faintly tinged with pink. How lovely she looked! And how charming her whole appearance! Oliver Sinclair walked a little way behind, and regarded her in silence; he who had often accompanied her in her long walks without the slightest embarrassment, now scarcely dared look at her for the wild throbbing of his heart!

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May 18, 2010

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A groggy John Huston welcomes you to today’s equally confused post. He’s an interview subject in Peter Lennon’s Rocky Road to Dublin (1967), an acidic documentary portrait of 1960s Ireland. Lennon wrote a series of articles for The Guardian about how the Catholic Church and their Republican government cronies were choking off the cultural life of his country, and he adapted his polemics to the screen with the help of regular Godard cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Intimate and barbed, Coutard’s handheld camera nudges its way into bustling pubs, sparsely attended hurling matches (soccer was banned as a “foreign sport”), and the backyards of splenetic Irish authors.  Recently released on DVD by Icarus Films, it’s a unique inverse of the silent “city symphonies” made famous by Walter Ruttmann. Maybe call it a city (and country) evisceration.

So why trot out Huston now? Lennon’s film was the last one screened at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival before Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut shut it down to support the general strike which was occurring outside its doors. There’s a short “Making of Rocky Road to Dublin” included on the disc, and there is footage of a Peter Lennon arguing with Godard and Truffaut at the screening to allow the doomed discussion of his film to continue. All of which is a rather long-winded preamble to talk about this year’s Cannes Festival. Of all of the coverage I’ve been reading, by far the most entertaining has been that surrounding Godard’s latest provocation, his new feature FILM SOCIALISME.

The fun began when The Independent reported that the film would be subtitled in “Navajo English”:

as in old Westerns where the Native Americans spoke in choppy phrases. Because the dramatakes place on a cruise ship where no one speaks the same language, Godard has fashioned his subtitles concisely to say the least. If a character is saying “give me your watch”, the subtitle will read “You, me, watch.”

This is both hilarious and conceptually apt, and will make initial screenings of the film difficult to parse for mono-linguists like myself. Critics will have to work for this one. Manohla Dargis and Ben Kenigsberg take their (provisional) shots at the NY Times and Time Out Chicago, respectively. Dargis charts out a structure: cruise ship-gas station-cities and a hint of a theme, taken from an interview at “the Americans liberated Europe by making it dependent.” The full interview with Godard, conducted by friend and former collaborator Daniel Cohn-Bendit, has been translated by Craig Keller at his blog Cinemasparagus.

Kenigsberg focuses more on the visuals, of a “woman reads Balzac at a gas station while standing next to a llama”, and says it is “stunning to look at—memorable images include a man lecturing to what appears to be an empty auditorium and a boy in a Soviet shirt conducting a phantom orchestra”, but considers it more “tossed off” than his previous essay films (recently Notre Musique (2004) and In Praise of Love (2001)).

For a thumbail reaction internationally, the Letras de Cine blog has been posting number ratings from critics worldwide, and FILM SOCIALISME has the highest average ranking (9.36 out of 10) out of every film polled (Manoel de Oliveira’s highly anticipated THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA is in second with a 8.73). In any case, it’ll be a long wait to see it in a U.S. theater, which is why I was thrilled to see Dargis link to, which is streaming the film for 7 EUR through tomorrow. However, it doesn’t look like it is accessible to people in the U.S. (and Spanish critic Miguel Marias said it wasn’t working for him either, in a comment at Cinemasparagus).

Godard canceled his press conference appearance with a characteristically enigmatic fax to festival head Thierry Fremeaux, as Dargis reports:  “‘problems of the Greek type”’had prevented him from attending and that he would go to his death for the festival, but not one step more.’”


Some rare screenings this week as the Migrating Forms festival rolls on in NYC. First was a trio of recent shorts from Jean-Marie Straub, Artemis’s Knee (2008), The Itinerary of Jean Bricard (2008), and The Witches-Women Among Women (2009). Bricard is the last film he made with Daniele Huillet, his long-time collaborator and wife who passed away in 2006.  For context and analysis of these works, Richard Brody’s laudatory short piece at The New Yorker is the place to start. He has a handle on the source texts (by Cesare Pavese, Heinrich Schulz) and music (Mahler), that my circumscribed education has…circumscribed.

The most striking work for me is Jean Bricard, which opens on an epically long take of a camera riding along on a boat. As it passes a autumnal B&W landscape of skeletal trees dotted with bulbous nests, one expects it to resolve itself as a simple, starkly beautiful  landscape film (shot by Irina Lubtchansky and her brilliant late husband William). But then there is a jolt of humor, as the boat passes two consecutive arrows, each pointing in opposite directions. This graphic comedy rouses one out of reverie and into the story they tell, which emerges in voice-over from Mr. Bricard, a French Resistance Fighter during WWII who was recorded by sociologist Jean-Yves Petiteau in 1994. The film slowly reveals itself to be about decay and loss. As Bricard recalls an uncle who was murdered in the high grass by Vichy forces, Straub-Huillet circle round the abandoned Coton Island where he lived, framing the sunken cafes and muddy shorelines of a river raised, re-directed and polluted, essentially destroying the island and relocating its inhabitants. History and geography both show the scars of time.


The last item on my viewing list is an early David Cronenberg feature, Stereo (1969), also part of Migrating Forms. It’s a resourceful piece of no-budget sci-fi that utilizes the Brutalist architecture of Scarborough College in Canada to its fullest extent. Long corridors, slanting windows, and slab-like structures are the rather ascetically imposing settings for some telepathic experimentation. Cronenberg shot the film with no synchronous sound, recording a lengthy voice-over of doctors’ reports, analyzing the actions of the “patients” on-screen. These subjects are college-age kids given ESP on the operating table, and thrust into the habitrail of the campus to study the possible development of a new kind of language and family units. The voice-over informs us that a couple of the patients have had their larynxes removed in order to further force the issue of ESP language formation.

The structure an ingenious way to save on sound costs, but the voice-over eventually falls into tedium, and the frequently striking compositions of men fading into the architecture becomes the sole force of the film. The narrative loses drive, but Cronenberg never loses the lack for conjuring uncanny images. A curio, but one well-worth seeking out. It’s available as an extra on the Blue Underground DVD and Blu-Ray for his racing film, Fast Company.


July 14, 2009


What better way to celebrate Bastille Day than to honor the greatest French Revolution film noir of all time on its 60th anniversary?  None, I say! The baroque madness of Reign of Terror is shared by three great Hollywood artisans: director Anthony Mann, cinematographer John Alton, and production designer William Cameron Menzies. Mann and Alton cranked out  T-Men for the Eagle-Lion studio in 1948, which became a minor hit, earning $1.6 million on an investment of $424,000. Eager to cash in, the studio had the duo squeeze out the magnificent Raw Deal later that same year.

Looking to class up their operation, Eagle-Lion entered a distribution deal with independent producer  Walter Wanger to churn out some serious minded historical spectacles. Having worked on the John Ford-Gregg Toland collaboration The Long Voyage Home and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, among others, he was supposed to bring respect to this neighbor to Poverty Row. He was given seven figure budgets for two films: Tulsa (1949, a Susan Heyward Western), and The Bastille.

It soon became clear that Eagle-Lion had overextended itself, and The Bastille was downgraded from an ‘A’ picture to a programmer (the budget was supposedly hacked to around $750,000). Working quickly to change the film from a big-budget spectacle to a historical potboiler, Mann handed Aeneas MacKenzie‘s heavily researched script to Philip Yordan. MacKenzie specialized in period piece paegantry, having written Michael Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and who later went on to write the script for The Ten Commandments. Yordan went in for more pulpy fare, and became a trusted scribe for Mann, working with him all the way through The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964. It’s usually an impossible task to assign authorship to scripts that have gone through multiple rewrites, but in this case I think it’s safe to say that Yordan’s fingerprints are all over this. The tongue-in-cheek humor (Robespierre: “Don’t call me Max!”…note that Yordan also wrote Johnny Guitar (1954)) and noir machinations seem to be miles away from the stodgy reconstruction of Ten Commandments.

Perhaps I should briefly note the plot…an emissary of the Marquis de Lafayette, one Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings) has been tasked to go undercover and filter information from Robespierre back to the leader of the opposition, Barras (Richard Hart). His contact is an old flame, Madelon (Arlene Dahl). Standing in his path are Robespierre himself (Richard Basehart) as well as his lieutenants, Fouche (an unforgettably obsequious Arnold Moss) and Sant-Just (Jess Barker). Without the period trappings, it’s a police procedural, with a climactic chase and all the rest.

Confronted with a sudden lack of funds, Mann’s team had to improvise, and they did it brilliantly. There are a few visual motifs that Mann sets up with Alton, including a simple one involving mirrors, denoting duplicity and vanity, and generally marking the characters for doom. In the first image, Robespierre’s ally is snuffed out after admiring his visage. In the second and third, Madelon is shunted into the background as a trembling ghost – as she has yet to fully gain D’aubigny’s trust. The last shows Robespierre’s face in full plumage before it gets blasted off.

William Cameron Menzies had to whip up a crowd of thousands with a cast of hundreds. Leger Grindon’s book, Shadows of the Past, from which I’m drawing the production history, notes that in filming the National Convention:

The designer squeezed a hundred extras onto a small rising gallery of benches, flooded the set with irregular shafts of light, and then photographed and enlarged the scale of the image. These shots were integrated through rear projection with the foreground of the Convention. The crowd fills the flat space of the background and spills, limitless, over the edges of the image.

His inventive use of rear-projection in conjunction with his other tricks truly pulls off a sense of dizzying magnitude. In its uncanny vastness, Menzies’ tricks adds to the feeling of vertigo that the characters are trapped in, and which might possibly would have been lost in the higher budgeted version.

Alton’s cinematography is all claustrophobic menace, with an unusual amount of distorting extreme close-ups that emphasize the caricatured nature of the whole enterprise (while also obviating the need for elaborate sets). The grotesque figures that Alton frames lend the film a comic book sensibility, pulled straight from the pages of Classic Comix. One could draw a line straight from Frank Miller’s oeuvure to this film, for better or worse, right down to it’s darker than dark palette and shocking violence (a gunshot to Robespierre’s mouth is excised in some prints of the film. There is also kitty kicking, torture, and various other thwacks to the head).


According to Grindon, Reign of Terror opened in 1949 during the week of Bastille Day in Los Angeles. It performed modestly, pulling in under $40,000 before closing after 11 days. Before releasing the film in NYC, Eagle-Lion completely changed the marketing for the film, emphasizing the action elements while barely mentioning the French Revolution backdrop. The title was changed to The Black Book when it was released that autumn in New York (it’s been released under both titles on home video, although Reign of Terror has become the standard, as evidenced by the recent VCI release, which is supposed to display the best image quality currently available). Despite another middling box office showing, it eventually turned a profit after two years of bookings.

TCM is screening the film on September 7th at 1PM, so there’s no excuse. Rent the DVD or settle in with TCM, but by all means watch this sterling example of creativity seeking ingenious ways around a lack of cash.


April 21, 2009


Four faces of Jean-Luc Godard,  (L-R from 1968, 1970, 1979, and 1980) taken from the tantalizing DVD artifact “JLG in USA”, which accompanies the March/April edition of The Believer (Full Disclosure: Don’t hold it against it the magazine, but my wife and I wrote a brief article in the issue). Compiled by BAM programmer and Film Desk founder Jacob Perlin, it contains four short films of interviews, lectures, and home movies recorded at the cusp of Godard’s experimental video work in the early 70s with the Dziga Vertov Group and beyond, through his return to more personal art films with Every Man for Himself in 1980. This period is still the least understood in his career, and the few films I’ve seen from his seventies work, Ici et Ailleurs (1976) and Numero Deux (1975), are both extraordinary and demanding. For those like myself eager for further info into this part of his career, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly moving look at a man going through artistic and (one assumes) personal upheaval.

The disc begins with a D.A. Pennebaker/Ricky Leacock production, “Two American Audiences”, documenting a visit by Godard to NYU on April 4th, 1968 to discuss La Chinoise, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. As Pennebaker is quoted in the notes: “Of course, none of us in the room knew about that then.” A month later, Godard, along with Francois Truffaut, rushed the stage at the Cannes Palais des Festivals stage, urging solidarity with the striking students. A moment out of time. Godard takes questions from a variety of delightfully hairy film students and moderator Serge Losique. Losique asks if the Maoisms spouted by La Chinoise‘s callow youth are a simple reflection of the times, a mirror, or a political call to action. Godard, whose cinema lies in the space between either/or, who revels in contradiction, admits that there is movement between both. It is not static, “it’s a movie, a movement.”

He is openly sympathetic to Maoist thought,  but his intellect is too searching to make a simple propaganda film. These sympathies are troubling, but his film work is often far more complex and nuanced than his stated political positions. He can’t help but let the artist introduce ambiguity and other complications. La Chinoise is both a parody and homage to the dreams of revolutionary youth, absurd and romantic. Godard bristles at a questioner who notes this humor, but his filmmaking gives the lie to this, with its playful digressions and in-jokes (one character’s defense of Johnny Guitar gets him expelled from the cell). His cinephilia is still in full bloom in this interview: “The average film of the silent era, or even the Hollywood film of thirty years ago – was much more subtle and intelligent than the average Hollywood film today”. He goes to oppose Gone With the Wind to Doctor Zhivago to prove his point.

The second film, Godard in America (1970), was shot by Ralph Thanhauser when Godard was deeply involved with the Dziga Vertov Project, his Marxist film cooperative that also included filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin. Questioned by Andrew Sarris about his new group, it’s clear his priorities have shifted the political above the aesthetic, his cinema become a tool for revolutionary thought. Or at least that’s what he claims. I have yet to see a Vertov project, although the material used in Ici et Ailleurs was footage abandoned by the group in 1970, and re-purposed by Godard to investigate the deceptive nature of filmic representation, how the images of these Palestinian fighters would have “added up to zero” since each new frame completely replaces the one before it. In the documentary, Godard and Gorin flip through their storyboards, laying out the structure that Godard would completely deconstruct six years later.

The third film, “A Weekend at the Beach with Jean-Luc Godard”, is an amusing curio shot by photographer Ira Schneider. Godard stayed at Schneider’s beach house for a weekend with Wim Wenders, Alice Waters, Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others. It’s strange seeing such an eccentric intellectual as Godard wearing a sun hat and joking with friends (I can see the US Weekly story now, “Godard: He’s just like us!”). Schneider, no fan of the obstreperous Frenchman, offers a short, drily funny voice-over in an attempt to de-mystify this object of film cult adoration. Nice try! But he still mystifies me.

The most incredible piece of footage on the disc is an interview with Dick Cavett from 1980, done for the release of Every Man for Himself. It was being received as a comeback of sorts, since it was a return to a form of narrative. Godard denies he ever left, that he was just “pushed away.” That much is true – he never stopped working, people just stopped watching. But with Isabelle Huppert, texts by Charles Bukowski (who Godard mischievously claims was unknown in the US at the time), and a plot revolving around prostitution, he got his name back in the papers. This two-part encounter with Cavett is combative, enlightening, and surprisingly touching. When Cavett quotes some critics as calling his films too “distant” (which I would call one his strengths), Godard responds that he thinks he’s getting closer, and that he’s possibly found a balance between the charismatic personality of his earlier works to the almost didactic form of his experimental work. He calls Every Man for Himself a second first film, comparing it to a return to childhood, except  this time he went through the back door or a second floor window.

There’s also plenty of his film critical insights. He predicts that Scorsese’s next film would be “beautiful” (Raging Bull); that Woody Allen’s use of B&W in Manhattan was an empty gimmick; that Jerry Lewis was a painter who was a master with space and geometry, and that his infamous Day the Clown Cried project also sounded “beautiful”. Godard gamely responds to Cavett’s stylistic questions, his use of slow-motion to capture the intimacy of a fight scene, and the freedom necessary to his dynamic use of sound, which often runs independent of the image track. In an unexpected bit of emotion, Cavett recalls an old interview inquiring about Godard’s ambition, which, after a pause of 42 seconds, he responded, “I would like not to be so lonely.” Godard reiterated this statement, and went on to say that he would always like to feel that the door to his parents’ room was open at night, so as not to be afraid of the loneliness. He said he was no longer afraid.

35 SHOTS OF RUM (2008)

March 17, 2009


35 Shots of Rum begins inside of a commuter train, the industrial landscape zooming past the conductor’s front window. Then there is a cut to an off-duty transit worker, Lionel (Alex Descas), smoking a cigarette by the tracks.  Director Claire Denis repeats this contrast throughout the opening sequence,  back and forth between the gleaming locomotive and Descas’ impassive face. Soon his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) enters the montage, an exhausted rush-hour passenger on the way home.  This simple, wordless sequence sets up the central dynamic of the film: Josephine’s drift into adulthood delayed by the centripetal force of family comforts, located in the reassuring solidity of her father and their apartment.

Screened as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vouz with French Cinema, it is another beautifully textured work from Denis, her first fiction feature since L’intrus (2004). 35 Shots of Rum is a return to a more linear form of storytelling after L’intrus‘ narrative refusal, which used an associative whirl of images inspired by continental philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (you can read my former academic self’s thoughts on this remarkable film in Senses of Cinema). Denis turned to the family drama because of Yasujiro Ozu and her mother. As she told Robert Davis of Daily Plastic:

it’s the story of my grandfather and my mother. She was raised by her father. And once I took her to see a retrospective of Ozu, and she really had a sort of shock to see that film [Late Spring]. That was maybe ten, fifteen years ago. I told her, “Maybe, once, I will try to make a film like that for you.”

This film is a promise fulfilled, a worthy successor to Ozu’s placid genius and a delicately embossed love letter from daughter to mother.

Lionel is a widow, and Josephine is his only child. Their bond has been cemented through their everyday rituals, lovingly detailed by Denis’ long time cinematographer Agnes Godard. Every night Lionel comes home, changes into his robe, and showers before sleep. Descas is filmed in long shot, with a tentative push-in down the hallway as he turns into the bathroom. Diop is shown in close-up, a cascade of smiles lighting up her face – one for every familiar noise Lionel makes. This noise-as-bond contrasts to an earlier sequence, when their life-long neighbor Noé (Denis axiom Grégoire Colin), comes home and lingers in an upstairs hallway, listening to the music emanating from his beloved Josephine’s stereo. Again Godard uses a small push-in, to an empty hall this time, followed by a close-up of Colin’s face, his loneliness evident on his cadaverous features. This same combination of shots indicates separation, a lucid interplay between shot and counter-shot, long-shot and close-up, that is representative of the precise emotions wrought by Godard’s camera throughout the film.

This lucidity is shown-off to marvelous effect in the film’s major set-piece, set at a cafe nearing closing time. The whole makeshift family (Lionel, Josephine, Noé, and Lionel’s ex-flame Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue)) head out to a concert only to have their car break down in a storm. They wait out the weather in the cafe, and all of the characters’ emotions come to the fore, expressed with a minimum of dialogue. Just like the father in Late Spring, Lionel is adamant that Josephine stop caring for him,  fearful that he is robbing her of her youth. So with the Commodores’ “Nightshift” on the jukebox, Noé cuts in on the father as he dances with Josephine. Relegated to the bar, a remarkable series of edits and performances occur. In medium-shot Colin and Diop move closer, his dextrous fingers letting down her hair, pulling himself into her. This is intercut with a series of close-ups of Descas, witnessing the flirtation. His performance is extraodinary for its surface calm as his daughter is seduced by Noé, his will for her freedom resolute. His only concession is a brief glance downward as Noé moves in for the kiss, before Josephine pushes him away, still unsure of her love. This exchange is the emotional nexus, but the cross-currents effect Gabrielle, as Lionel pulls the restaurant owner aside for some physical escape of his own, eliciting a secondary shot-countershot series. The intensity of emotion here is breathtaking, hearkening back to the power of silent cinema as well as the minimalist aesthetic of Ozu.

The film ends in a bittersweet glow, not unlike the haze produced by knocking back a few Cuervos. With elliptical grace, Denis implies a wedding, and an escape, through a gorgeous insert of a necklace spinning ’round Josephine’s neck and Noé cracking a smile. Again it is a close-up shot/longer counter-shot pattern, but instead of emphasizing their physicality (creating noise, slow dancing), it aims to capture the ineffable contours of love and memory: the close-up necklace connoting the absent mother, Lionel as patient fatherly hands clasping it on, and Noé out in the hallway in medium-shot, out of sight of the bride but reacting with a beatific grin, as if his adoration let him see through walls.