Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Inspecteur Lavardin (Claude Chabrol, 1986)

 


In Claude Chabrol’s first go-round with Jean Poiret’s Inspecteur Lavardin, Poulet au vinaigre, the character flagrantly roughs up suspects and tramples over the rule book, ultimately solving the big case but letting one of the guilty parties off the hook altogether, based on his own notion of morality (or, just as likely, his assessment that some people are just too idiotic to be marked as criminals). At the start of the second film, there’s a brief reference to how those previous excesses earned him a transfer, but no sign that he’s in any way reformed, his ultimate solution to the crime this time being to frame an innocent man to whom he’s taken a dislike. Perhaps the film’s most intriguing aspect is the apparent utter lack of self-examination surrounding this denouement, and the absence of any sense that Chabrol means us to reflect on its wider implications; not for the first time with the director, it’s hard to know where manipulation shades into indifference. Certainly the presence of Jean-Claude Brialy and Bernadette Lafont, both of whom worked with the director at the dawn of his career, suggests a broader and more personal context, but the latter in particular is kept at a strange distance. The film plays enjoyably enough with the genre’s inherent affinity with voyeurism, through its use of mirrors and hidden cameras and the Brialy character’s strange hobby of crafting eyeballs – Lavardin’s major breakthrough comes simply from rewinding a video tape and sitting down (alone, in darkness) to see what’s on it. But the revelation of guilt hardly seems to matter, given its lack of correlation with punishment and justice, in the context of a town where well-known moralists turn out to be kingpins of the sex and drug scene, where people long presumed dead secretly live on, and so forth.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Prizzi's Honor (John Huston, 1985)

 

Prizzi’s Honor was largely acclaimed at the time as a late career peak for director John Huston, and one can certainly admire the sense of unflustered control that he brings to it; however, it’s awfully hard now to determine whether the expertise yields much more than a sustained impenetrable blankness. Essentially it’s a single premise film (and not a premise of great inherent interest or wider applicability) - a cold-blooded amorality (under the guise of family unity and honor) that permeates and subsumes all else, from the exercise of business to that of love and marriage. High-ranking mobster Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson) falls for Irene (Kathleen Turner), a glamorous stranger he glimpses at a family wedding, and soon determines he can’t live without her, even as it comes to light that she’s herself a professional assassin, and responsible for embezzling money from the all-powerful Prizzi family for which he works, so that he would typically be knocking her off rather than wanting to marry her. Huston carries the inscrutability to a surely counter-productive extent, such that the final, potentially tragedy-tinged machinations between Charley and Irene become almost entirely abstract and meaningless (especially as Nicholson’s initially amusing performance rapidly becomes monotonous, and Turner doesn’t get much opportunity to flesh out her character); it’s rendered somewhat more interesting though by the sense that Huston might know exactly that, and is almost daring the audience to find him wanting. The script’s steady flow of deadpan incongruities (“I didn’t get married so my wife could go on working,” protests Charley, as Irene plans out a role for herself in an upcoming atrocity) marks it as a comedy of sorts, but one devoid of any relief, stifling laughter as thoroughly as it does moral accountability. Anjelica Huston’s supporting actress Oscar now seems as peculiar as much else about the film.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Property is No Longer a Theft (Elio Petri, 1973)

 

Elio Petri’s Property is No Longer a Theft may at times seem overly didactic and single-minded, but then it’s dealing with a subject that properly continues to inspire such obsessive frustration – the all-pervading, all-defining influence of capitalism, such that it’s unclear whether “I am” and “I have” can be meaningfully distinguished as forms of identification. It’s embodied here by Ugo Tognazzi’s Macellaio, who continues to work a day job in his butcher shop (a bit improbably perhaps, but the recurring association with raw meat makes its own point) while amassing a huge portfolio of property and material assets, much of it in some way shady, so that when Total, a former bank clerk, keeps on targeting him as a subject of (relatively petty) theft, Macellaio's main concern is about the police getting too close. Macellaio embodies the self-righteousness that’s only become more prominent since then, certain that his defining role in the structure absolves him of all other sins (of course, his self-justification of himself in Biblical terms omits any consideration of the passage about a camel going through the eye of a needle) – his sexuality is as much a matter of distorted commodification as everything else, with his mistress explicitly viewing herself as a worker who clocks in and out. At the same time, it’s persuasively suggested that society relies almost as much on petty criminals, not least because they provide a constant stream of easy distraction from what the real crooks are getting away with. Total, meanwhile, obtains little gratification or lasting benefit from his actions – he’s even afflicted with an allergy to money itself, its proximity sending him into chronic itching. At various times Petri disrupts the reality to have the main characters address the audience directly from a disembodied space, although you might argue the film hardly needs such accusatory Brechtian underlining. Still, the cumulative effect is suitably, drainingly powerful.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Into the Night (John Landis, 1985)

 


Into the Night certainly isn’t among John Landis’ more prominent movies, but it’s one of the more tonally interesting ones, even if it would have taken more directorial bite and finesse to raise it to anywhere near greatness. Jeff Goldblum’s Ed is a sleep-deprived aerospace engineer, his fatigue causing him to make mistakes at work, and rendering him almost incapable of reacting when he finds out his wife is having an affair; one night he drives to the airport, vaguely inspired by a friend’s suggestion that he should just randomly get on a plane, and suddenly has a stranger (Michelle Pfeiffer) jump into his car, on the run from a quartet of Iranian assassins, which is just the entry point into an entire parallel world of super-wealth and murderous intrigue. The film works well enough on a narrative level, but often feels as if it’s reaching beyond that for something elementally creative, for a sense that Ed’s only hope for rising from stagnation lies in leaving all familiar reference points behind and embracing whatever chaotic possibility emerges from the darkness; by setting part of the movie on a film-within-the-film movie set, and in particular by casting dozens of movie directors in small roles, Landis seems to suggest a professional self-examination that aligns with the personal one. Even if such ambition isn’t entirely realized, the movie maintains an appealing air of thoughtfulness, embodied in Goldblum’s air of absent preoccupation, seemingly not sure whether he’s dreaming or awake, inhabiting fiction or reality. Such uncertainty might be abetted by the film’s odd tonal shifts, depicting the assassins in quasi-buffoonish manner, and yet rather chillingly callous in its violence at other times. On top of all that, one would have to appreciate any movie that cast David Bowie as another killer called “Colin Morris”, last seen in a fight to the death with a bodyguard played by Carl Perkins, setting off a whole other chain of associations.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Jeanne La Pucelle: Les Batailles (Jacques Rivette, 1994)

 

As superbly realized by Jacques Rivette, Jeanne d’Arc is both a figure of immense psychological and historical specificity, and a forerunner of the kind of behavioural mystery that populates much of his great contemporary-set work. The mystery of how an illiterate young woman could have acquired such vision and purpose is integral to her longevity as a cinematic icon, and Rivette allows room for a range of readings and responses; for example, she convinces the “Dauphin”, whom she aspires to restore to the throne, of her legitimacy by privately revealing something to him that (in his words) only God would know, but the film withholds the details of what that actually consists of. Sandrine Bonnaire perfectly embodies Jeanne’s stubborn fortitude, while also conveying her fragility and immaturity, her feelings easily hurt by enemy insults, entirely believable when she says she would rather have been at home sewing; the physical immediacy of her presence channels that of the film around her - the climactic battle scene captures as few others ever have the sheer smallness and intimacy of war at that time, the primitiveness of the weapons and tools at hand, the physical closeness between adversaries, the overwhelming fatigue. This vividness meshes with Rivette’s recurring interest in theatre and performance, with Jeanne clearly aware of herself as a projection, styled and dressed to fit the desired image, keenly aware of the power of symbolism in forging reality (such as her insistence in using that term “Dauphin” until the circumstances justify its replacement by “King.”) For all its seriousness though, the film isn’t without a streak of deadpan socially-based comedy, particularly in the varied reactions of the male soldiers to the impassioned female in their midst (she instructs one of them in toning down what she sees as his overly colourful use of expletives).

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)

 

A film like Martin Ritt’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold takes on an additionally bleak resonance in the post-Trump presidency period, where every day provides added evidence of how easily principle is abandoned, corruption is embraced, and black is proclaimed as white: one major difference is that whereas Ritt’s film describes a world of grubby little men mostly operating in shabby circumstances, our modern day schemers and traitors stand proudly under the coldly facilitating lights of social media. Without such present-day reference points, such cold war films might increasingly seem to retreat into pure dated abstraction, endless games of positioning in which the assessment of political (let alone moral) ground won versus lost becomes impossibly rarified and subjective. Spy who Came in from the Cold – revolving around a field officer now (apparently) out of the game, his personal weaknesses perhaps driving him to flirt with treachery -  remains one of the more compelling examples of the genre, not least for the wondrously drab depiction of working-class Britain, with several references to the low wages for which people toil away, and an almost total absence of any sense of pleasure and fulfilment beyond what alcohol provides, all of which squashes any sense of ideological idealism; indeed, the most biting enmity in the film is between an ex-Nazi and a Jew who now find themselves (officially at least) on the same side, old prejudices and resentments at best only temporarily suspended. For all the film’s condensed and stylized aspects, it conveys a compelling sense of pervasive societal unease and insecurity, capable of pushing people toward extreme action, even if they could hardly explain the specific logic of those actions. Richard Burton, seldom an ideal film actor, is at his most effective here, his stiffness befitting a character consumed by self-loathing and cynicism.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Un jeu brutal (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1983)

 

The title of Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Un jeu brutal might refer both to the specific contrivance that’s ultimately revealed to drive the plot, and to the all-embracing, terrible wonder of creation – it’s a measure of Brisseau’s conviction, his odd brand of depraved poetry, that the duality doesn’t seem merely pretentious. Christian Tessier (Bruno Cremer) is a brilliant scientist who quits his role in cancer research (sacrificing potential saviour-status when his former colleagues shortly afterwards announce a breakthrough) and returns to live with his teenaged daughter Isabelle (a memorable Emmanuelle Debever), in whom he’s shown no interest for years; she’s paralyzed in both legs, her behaviour almost feral, and he imposes a new regime of order and education on her life, the faltering progress of which accelerates after she becomes more sexually aware (by virtue of secretly observing her young female teacher lounging naked in her room, and later through her partially reciprocated attraction to the teacher’s visiting brother). Meanwhile, on his frequent trips away, Tessier is carrying out a parallel project of slaughtering children, in what he ultimately reveals as a plan ordained (in improbable coded message form) by God. The film frequently pushes us to reflect on the cruelty of the natural order, and while Tessier clamps down on Isabelle’s nastiness to animals and lack of empathy, the object appears to be to harness and direct the darkness of one’s nature rather than to suppress it, for the purpose of more fully emerging into the light – Brisseau frequently bathes in the varied beauty of the landscapes around the house, from field to river to mountain, with individual scenes evoking concepts of baptism, or pilgrimage, or rebirth. It would be a stretch to call the film entirely admirable or credible, but it may linger in the mind longer than many more straightforwardly consideration-worthy works.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Brave (Johnny Depp, 1997)

 

Seen in retrospect, Johnny Depp’s The Brave (made when the actor was just about at his peak of coolness, preceding the commercial highs to come and the subsequent reputational collapse) seems suffused by a desire to withdraw – into silence (there’s little dialogue, and none at all for the first ten minutes or so), into myth and beyond. The film is set around a hand-to-mouth melting-pot community, the landscape dominated by mounds of garbage and shimmering heatscapes, which suddenly yield to something quasi-Lynchian as Depp’s unemployed and luckless Raphael, following on a tip he received in a bar, enters a strange building to ask about a job, descending into a symbolic hell in which he’s eventually offered $50,000 to extinguish himself in a snuff film in a week's time. Taking the offer and a cash advance on the basis of stunningly little negotiation, Raphael conspicuously spreads the money around, attracting various kinds of suspicion; at the end of the week, he’s strengthened his core spiritual bonds, while putting himself beyond redemption in other ways. The film resists the audience’s most likely expectations, whether for some kind of last-minute escape or for any depiction of what Raphael must finally endure; with his business with the world as we know it concluded, it leaves his final hell to him and his acquirers. Depp has an intriguing if patchy feeling for eccentricity, although it’s a rather distant viewing experience, even allowing that this is inherent to what’s intended. The film has at least one major see-it-if-you-can aspect, the casting of a long-haired Marlon Brando in one of his last roles, extending the fateful offer from a wheelchair, in between musing on pain as a virtuous end to life and blowing on a harmonica, a performance no doubt “phoned in” by some measures, and yet embodying Brando’s unmatched capacity to transform whatever cinematic space he (however peculiarly) chose to occupy.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Plaisir d'amour (Nelly Kaplan, 1991)

 

Nelly Kaplan’s last feature film, Plaisir d’amour, works an enjoyable if not ultimately too surprising variation on a self-gratifying male fantasy. Guillaume (Pierre Arditi), a practiced seducer (1,003 past conquests, we’re informed), chances into a position as tutor to a teenage girl on a tropical island; the girl is absent when he arrives, but while waiting for her arrival he separately beds, with little difficulty, her grandmother, mother and sister, all of whom share an elegantly dilapidated colonial mansion, with no male authority figure in sight. He figures he’ll step into the driver’s seat, but his attempts to impose greater order and efficiency get nowhere, and he becomes obsessed with the perpetually delayed girl (whose letters home and readily accessible diary indicates a psyche of a sexual rapaciousness that outdoes his own). The film suggests greater moral stakes through glimpses of fighting between the island’s army and its rebel faction, and through its late 1930’s setting, with WW2 percolating in the distance; and steadily muddies the sexual waters (both the women’s eccentric servant (Heinz Bennent) and their talking parrot appear to regard Guillaume as an object of desire); frequent references to Albert Einstein and a fanciful opening sequence throw in some scientific and mystical resonances as well. In the closing stretch, it becomes clear how little power and agency Guillaume has had throughout – he tips over into quasi-madness, and becomes a simple nuisance, his utility spent. It’s in no way a major film (not the equal of Kaplan’s La fiancĂ©e du pirate, which is much more zestily provocative on its own terms, and more broadly resonant as a social critique), but it’s an elegant one, even if a lot of it plays very conventionally and decoratively (there’s seldom a moment when any of the women seem to be behaving entirely naturally, albeit that this fits in with the artificially heightened nature of things).

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Solid Gold Cadillac (Richard Quine, 1956)


For all its contrivances and simplifications, Richard Quine’s The Solid Gold Cadillac is notable as one of the few movies about shareholder democracy, its uplifting finale revolving around the collection of sufficient small-stake proxy voting forms to overturn the complacent status quo. Laura Partridge (Judy Holliday), on the basis of her meagre holding of ten shares, regularly attends the meetings of the mighty corporation International Projects, irritating the complacent board members with her probing questions about their compensation packages and the like; they eventually give her a job, on the theory that it’s the best way to stifle her, but her threat to the established order only grows, especially when she starts a relationship with the company’s ousted founder McKeever (Paul Douglas), now in a high-ranking but unsatisfying Washington position. The film unnecessarily blunts its attack by, among other things, portraying the directors as such inept, disengaged boobs that they couldn’t possibly have attained such power (their sole plan to increase profitability is to get more government contracts, for which their strategy seems to consist solely of endlessly begging McKeever for them). The titular automobile only appears in the very last scene, as a symbol of Partridge’s ultimate professional and romantic triumph - the film switches from black and white to colour to better showcase the vehicle’s stunningness, although it’s rather a shame that a film that holds up corporate integrity and ethics would end on such a grandiose symbol of conspicuous consumption. For all the dismal personal behaviour on display, the movie is likely to be watched now with a significant amount of nostalgia, for a time when bloated dreams of self-enrichment capped out at annual salaries of a few hundred thousand dollars, or when an insignificant stakeholder like Partridge could even grab as much of the executive suite’s attention as she does here.


Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Rendezvous in Paris (Eric Rohmer, 1995)

 

Eric Rohmer’s Rendezvous in Paris could almost evoke a rather plaintive response – the work of a man in his mid-70’s, immersing himself in protagonists four or five decades younger, obsessively examining and reexamining the mechanics of love and attraction, as if in search of something that tragically got away. The film’s sparseness – it was made under extremely minimal conditions, with just a handful of closing technical credits – gives it the sense of a modern pilgrimage of sorts, albeit that the site of the pilgrimage is on the doorstep, the city of Love, inexhaustible fount of pleasure, frustration and complexity. The film’s three segments are all, in the broadest sense, triangles: Esther suspects that her boyfriend Horace is seeing someone else, and then by chance meets the someone else in question; an unnamed woman, her relationship with her long-time partner on the rocks, meets an unnamed man in a series of locations, unwilling to take things beyond a certain level; a painter is set up with a Swedish visitor and takes her to the Picasso museum, but then finds his attention drawn to someone else, ending up without either woman. Rohmer’s genius with such material lies in his extreme attention to detail and awareness of contingency, for example of how the slightest change in the existing dynamic or equilibrium might disrupt something that might otherwise have tenuously held together; the film’s final scene points to how one never knows what may live in the memory, or may count as a compensation. Regardless that the characters are mostly living fairly basic lives, financially speaking, it’s hard not to view the film as a kind of aspirational fantasy, in which disappointments and compromises are as intoxicatingly necessary as the moments of fulfilment, all of it a reason to keep walking and talking and flirting, and ending things and beginning others.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates, 1973)

 

The title of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle subtly points to the film's structuring displacement –  it identifies Eddie as its central point, played by its biggest star by far (Robert Mitchum), but concerns itself as much with the chains of connection around him, to the point that Eddie ultimately becomes more notable as absence than presence. He’s a habitual criminal, looking to avoid pending prison time, even at the cost of giving people up to the police – first the ones he doesn’t care about, and then even those he does - but his view of the big picture, and of his own place within it, is fatally limited. The film is populated with risk-aware characters trying to shore up their positions, posturing and pushing others around, but often still misjudging the real threats – it’s full of subtly tragic ironies and inter-dependencies. But if the constant transacting of guns and information almost verges at times on self-contained abstraction, the film provides sufficient evidence of the brutal tangibility with which this activity intersects with the real world, depicting a series of bank robberies (carried out with guns channeled through Eddie) in forensic detail. The film’s audaciously desolate climactic stretch has Eddie failing in his final play, and gradually fading from the movie and from life itself, becoming drunk and incoherent and lost in a hockey game crowd, his subsequent death shown with chilling offhandedness, treated largely just as a training exercise between experienced and novice killers; in the final low-key scene between two of those “friends,” his death is barely even worth dwelling on. Mitchum is ideally cast, allowed a rare opportunity to evoke a life and a history that don't run out at the edges of the frame, his wife and kids briefly but astutely depicted, marooned outside the community of “friends” that wearily propels his fate.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

A bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

 

It’s hopeless at this point to try saying anything new about Godard’s Breathless, and yet of all films it still feels like the one that might most be written about, or rather responded to, whether in words or celluloid or gestures or dreams, still in possession of a space all its own, where established orders of classical cinema and post-war American exceptionalism and gender relations and social correctness are in their different ways teetering or fraying or morphing, to be abandoned or appropriated depending on their adaptability. One could rhapsodize over every moment, but the dying run of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel is as worth singling out as any – a defiantly absurd cinematic flourish, but with real life (or “real life”) all too obviously continuing on each side of the street, people going about their business apparently oblivious to, or unmoved by, the gorgeous history-making charade taking place within feet of them, and yet preserved for posterity whether they know it or not, a moment of their life rendered transcendent even as they looked the other way. One could speak of so much of the movie in similar terms – it shimmers with a constant sense of delighted experimentation, of trying poses and attitudes on for size, of relishing the sound of new words and the look of new faces, of creating and immediately fully occupying fresh cinematic space, of happy accidents (the resonances attaching to Jean Seberg prime among them). One almost feels protective of her and the movie, knowing that Godard would so quickly move on – for all Michel’s immense charisma (and Belmondo here is one of the all-time great alluring screen presences, and he and Seberg one of cinema’s all-time fascinating couples), he expresses himself worn out by the film’s end, ready to yield if circumstances would have allowed (if a friend hadn’t thrown him a gun), a capitulation that seems like Godard’s own acknowledgement of territory already defined and conquered.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960)

 

John Huston’s The Unforgiven provides some early images of pure relish, the three frontier-dwelling Zachary brothers high on the imminent prospect of material wealth, with several references to the sexual gratification that might follow, dynastically plotting to cement through several possible variations of inter-marriage their ties with the neighboring Rawlins clan. The fourth Zachary sibling, adopted daughter Rachel, seems in her impulsiveness and vibrancy both more modern and more primal than the others, a duality that becomes suspicious to the surrounding settler community when a mysterious old man claims that her ancestry is Native American (in the film’s terminology, Kiowa Indian); once the word is out, the Kiowa steps up its hostility and the community starts to fracture from fear, suspicion and prejudice. In the end, the four siblings are left standing among the ruins of their home and business, the family’s coherence apparently having survived the ordeal, but the movie provides little scope for optimism about its prospects of recovering its external bonds and standing, or about those of the country being built around them. Huston’s delighted engagement with actors reaches a kind of zenith here, pushing Audrey Hepburn and Burt Lancaster to the point of frenzied excess at times, and surely enjoying the contrast with Lillian Gish as the mother, a portrait in severe perseverance; it’s Gish who’s at the centre of some of the film’s most haunting (and we’re encouraged at times to read events in almost supernatural terms, as if the layers of myths and past traumas standing in the way of progress were ever lurking in spectral form) moments, playing on a grand piano out in the open to counter the ominous music coming from their adversaries, or unilaterally ending an in-progress “trial” by shoving the horse away, ensuring that the defendant will end up hanging from the noose, uttering no more truth nor lies.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)

 

Watched shortly after the welcome ending of the Trump years, the most prominent topical reference point for Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain might be Qanon, a swirling, ever-renewing theory of everything, in which its adherents claim (however sad their disillusionment) to transcend the lying confines of conventional understanding (the main narrative follows a group of powerful individuals, each associated with one of the planets, that comes together to acquire ultimate power). Of course, the comparison is unfair to the ecstatic and (in their way) deeply-sourced aspects of Jodorowsky’s work, but the film is, by some measures at least, so (as they say) out there that it’s hard for the uneducated viewer to separate meaning from opportunism. It certainly impresses as an exercise in physically committed movie-making – pressing tigers and hippos into action for the sake of one or two shots, marshaling a series of staggering crowd scenes, a parade of amazing sets and other design elements and any number of logistically impressive shots (it’s staggering that the budget was apparently under $1 million); it also has a constant parade of nudity, mostly of an impersonally ceremonial kind of nature, summing up the absence of much that feels authentically human, or relevantly rooted in contemporary experience (leaving aside its various satirical aspects, for example its parodies of the excesses of the military-industrial complex, which although overdone at least further demonstrate the scope of Jodorowsky’s imagination). The surprisingly offhand nature of the ending seems on the one hand unequal to the involved quest that led up to it, but on the other hand asserts the film’s most direct connection with its audience, an implicit invitation to take from it what we wish and discard the rest. Still, even though one could list the movie’s points of interest almost indefinitely, it all ultimately feels less illuminating or potentially transformative than any number of far more modest, earthbound works.