Monday, March 25, 2019

A Countess from Hong Kong (Charles Chaplin, 1967)

Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong certainly encapsulates the recurring quandary of engaging with an auteur’s late work, persistently raising the question of how to distinguish a knowingly backward-looking, honed-down classicism from mere outdatedness, artistic fatigue and irrelevance. In this case the evidence for the latter position is fairly extensive: the film contains long stretches that appear intended to function as screwball comedy (Marlon Brando’s Ogden is hiding a stowaway, Sophia Loren’s Natascha, in his cruise ship cabin, triggering endless outbursts of running and flapping around in response to knocks on the door) but in practice just die on the screen, the victim of flat staging and pacing and unengaged acting; a romance develops between Ogden and Natascha, but if this wasn’t spelled out in the dialogue, we likely wouldn’t be able to tell from anything that’s visible on the screen (the lack of chemistry between the stars is overwhelming). It’s probably most interesting in the brief bits of business that one can imagine a younger Chaplin reserving for himself: an extended sequence in which Ogden’s butler Hudson (Patrick Cargill) prepares for bed while dizzy from Natascha’s presence in the same room; the diversionary sleight of hand exercised on another passenger who’s on the prowl for Natascha. There’s something stubbornly admirable too about the extent of the film’s artificiality: the external shots are so few and for the most part so indifferently integrated that one wishes Chaplin had dispensed with them altogether. In the end, the film feels stubborn to the point of solipsism, treating the Hudson character with significant callousness, dumping the key emotional and financial negotiation between Ogden and his wife (Tippi Hedren) in mid-stream, and ending on a most stiffly and formally conceived romantic reunion (“Shut up and deal,” it isn’t). The occasional evocation of “world peace” and political unease is surely counterproductive in reminding us that the film is indeed set on this specific planet in the 1960’s, rather than in the sealed-off, timeless studio world for which it appears to pine.

Monday, March 18, 2019

L'homme en colere (Claude Pinoteau, 1979)

The quality of Claude Pinoteau’s L’homme en colere might be summed up by the slapdash misspelling of several lead actors’ names in the opening credits, and by the presumably inadvertent omission of Lisa Pelikan’s name altogether from the end-roll. This merely sums up a pervasive quality of vagueness and displacement, typical of the era’s co-productions, and extended here in consistently perplexing, and thus rather fascinating manner. Lino Ventura plays Romain Dupre, a retired pilot summoned from France to Montreal by the reported death of his estranged son; the corpse turns out to be that of another man, setting off Dupre in search of the truth. Much of the interest merely comes from seeing Ventura (inherently searching and substantial, but less compelling and engaged here than in his previous year’s visit to Britain in Jack Gold’s Medusa Touch) in particularly time- and place-stamped settings: at a Montreal disco; in a restaurant where the menu is splattered with gaudy pictures of horrible-looking food; at a Canadiens’ hockey game; standing in front of a marquee for Burt Lancaster’s Go Tell the Spartans; and most spectacularly of all, playing scenes (albeit in different tongues) with a dubbed Angie Dickinson, faintly echoing her Hawksian peak as a woman with little distinct direction or agenda, who almost instanteously hitches her fortunes to his. The plot is convoluted and hard to follow, working its way to a distinctly under-powered new beginning between father and son (the film’s deployment of flashbacks to evoke their past conflicts is among its least artful points, which is indeed saying something). The movie conforms to all the underwhelming preconceptions about the dominant Canadian cinema of the time, exhibiting little or no artistic personality, relying on extremely cursory plotting and staging, and seeming to be besotted with the availability of international “names” (Donald Pleasence also turns up for two brief, meaningless scenes). As noted, I managed to extract a few compensations from it; more discerning viewers may not even come away with that much.

Monday, March 11, 2019

To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)

Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief is generally classified, not too inappropriately, as a relatively light-hearted diversion between weightier efforts: although the plot is organized around the mystery of the identity of the thief to be caught, any suspense is entirely notional. The film is heavy with established signifiers of “sophistication” – gorgeous French Riviera settings (it duly won an Oscar for its cinematography, although of all Hitchcock’s films, it often comes closest simply to assembling pretty pictures) with costumes and jewelry to match; it has Cary Grant and Grace Kelly (of whom, likewise, little more is asked than to stand in the foreground of those pretty pictures – the film in no way engages with Grant’s presence in the way of the later North by Northwest). Certainly it has its recognizably “Hitchcockian” elements, but those elements seem generally disembodied, almost abstract, as such signalling a tendency which would become increasingly prominent in the director’s later work: consider for instance the placement and effect of such devices as the opening close-ups of screaming victims intercut with black cats on the roof; the cutting from a seduction scene to an explosion of fireworks (so overemphatic it almost transcends the cliché) and the almost equally overwhelming explosion of flowers during a chase scene; the use of back projection at various points; the costume party finale, with Grant (or is it?) clad in a bizarre black-masked get-up. The movie hints at psychosexual undercurrents of the kind that would be more fully developed in Marnie – Kelly’s Frances Stevens is a sexual aggressor with a somewhat sordidly facilitating mother, clearly drawn to Grant’s John Robie for his deviant past (and she’s not even the only age-inappropriate woman trying to throw herself at him) – but these remain defiantly underexplored, no less so than the weightless evocation of lingering allegiances and resentments dating back to the French resistance.

Monday, March 4, 2019

La belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)

Viewed from one perspective, Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse is one of the most specific films ever made about the creative process: it spends well over an hour of screen time observing the painter Frenhofer (Michel Piccoli, with a major assist from the hand of Bernard Dufour) as he prepares to paint a long-brooded-over project for which Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart) will serve as the model: his process involves first sketching in a book and then progressing to large canvases, studying her in ever-more rigorous poses in a search to excavate some kind of truth. One may often get lulled during these sections into the feeling of watching a form of displaced documentary, but Rivette’s rigour and scrutiny mystifies as much as it clarifies, and this is the source of the film’s true genius – to evoke, in a way which evades precise explanation no matter how often one sees the film, the capacity of art to bend perception and behaviour and understanding. Like many Rivette films, the film has elements of classic myth or fairy tale: Frenhofer’s vast home evokes an ancient castle with endless rooms and possibilities; his wife (Jane Birkin) evokes a lovely but somewhat doomed princess; there are hints of past traumas and conflicts which manifest themselves in various forms in the present; the finished painting is in various ways a site of danger and rupture, and must be banished for the sake of stability. All of this suggests an inwardness and hermeticism, but at the same time the film feels wondrously open and probing.The climax plays like a form of dance, the characters swirling around each other, testing new parameters and chemistries, but the final note suggests a wound that won’t readily be healed. The film is playful but never trivial, beautiful but never merely scenic, erotic but never prurient; it’s long (although not by Rivettian standards) but inexhaustible.