Monday, April 29, 2019

L'amour fou (Jacques Rivette, 1969)

It’s only in the closing moments of Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou that we learn the rehearsal process we’ve observed for much of the preceding four hours was limited to three weeks and that an opening night is looming; for much of the film we might have believed the process to be effectively infinite and self-justifying, the idea of a finished performance solely notional. In this regard, the play mirrors the challenging length and rhythms of Rivette’s film, and of his cinema as a whole – he would go from this to the twelve-hour Out One (for which L’amour fou often in itself resembles something of a rehearsal). It’s among his more pessimistic and closed films though, with a strong, entropic feel: the viewer might take from it the sense that such an artistic exploration is inherently capable of reaching an end, and that the attempt may only cause stagnation and collapse. As the film starts, the married couple Sebastien and Claire are respectively director and star of the play (Racine’s Andromaque) – she rapidly flees the production, ostensibly unable to tolerate the film cameras that he’s allowing to film everything. He recasts the role with an old girlfriend, while Claire continues to hover around the edges of the production: as his creative process breaks down, she experiments with finding her own mode of expression, some of this entailing the film’s most comic notions (as when she becomes obsessed with bringing home a particular breed of dog). Rivette deliberately confounds any clear reading of their relationship – a scene of apparent rupture might be followed by one of togetherness; ultimately they withdraw entirely from the world for several days, wrecking the apartment and seeming on the verge of becoming feral, but this too suddenly comes to an end. Claire ultimately breaks out, commenting that she’s “woken up”; Sebastien, it seems, can be allowed no such escape, art being ultimately less malleable than life. Rivette’s body of work would evolve toward easier pleasures and more composed expression: L’amour fou almost carries the sense of incubation, of one of cinema’s greatest artists ruminating and pondering his own future direction and its attendant limits.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Flying Deuces (A. Edward Sutherland, 1939)

In most respects, Flying Deuces is run-of-the-mill Laurel and Hardy – rickety in much of its plotting and execution, and not particularly inspired in most of its set-pieces. It warrants some serious reflection as a contribution to their oeuvre and mythology though, for its (I would say) quite unnerving preoccupation with death, and worse, suicide. It’s not so much that Ollie decides to kill himself after being rejected by the girl he loves, but that he assumes Stan will come with him, cold-bloodedly painting him a picture of the derided, unviable existence he’ll lead, absent Ollie’s oversight and guidance. The argument works too, until external intervention sends them on another path - into the French foreign legion, where they’re again rapidly faced with a mortal threat, sentenced to death for trying to desert. But then, at the end, Ollie actually does die, leaving Stan alone (and looking as happy as he does through the whole film) until a bizarre reincarnation/transmigration intervenes. Perhaps there’s something inherently metaphysical in the discontinuous L&H universe – for example in how they go from having wives and apparent social respectability in Sons of the Desert to having no apparent life experience at all in other movies, the only fixed point being each other – but Flying Deuces makes that weirdly explicit. But in case this makes the movie sound like an anticipation of Ingmar Bergman, there’s the offsetting moment where even in the midst of life-threatening mayhem as they run from pursuing soldiers, they’re captivated by a bunch of musicians and stop for Ollie to sing Shine on Harvest Moon while Stan performs a lovely little dance. Their work wouldn’t be so beguiling if not for the recurring optimism, for the regular surrender to something hopeful and elevating, even as their dimension-spanning mutual dependence provides an existential barrier to such opportunities being more than fleeting.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Un flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s last film Un flic may not necessarily seem to add much to his filmography: it’s another terse, tight-lipped crime thriller, shot through with isolation and alienation. The film’s primary (and tertiary) interest may lie though in just how far it takes those attributes, seeming to push with chilling certainty toward a kind of vanishing point where people might hardly register at all, except as disillusioned, hollowed-out markers, playing out a pointless destiny. The film features one of the most passionless sexual triangles in memory: Simone (Catherine Deneuve) sleeps with both the policeman Coleman (Alain Delon) and a villainous club owner Simon (Richard Crenna), apparently with the knowledge of both, but Melville makes such limited use of Deneuve that her presence almost seems to pose some kind of puzzle. The film contains several counterpointing portraits of quiet anguish – one of Simon’s partners in crime who’s driven by unemployment, watched over by his anxious wife; a transgender informant who seems to stare at Coleman with unexpressed longing – but they mainly only serve to underline the detachment of the principals. The major wordless set-piece – the daring theft of a consignment of drugs from a moving train – is largely self-contained, with only minimal narrative connection to what comes before or afterwards; when resolution comes, it’s without even a moment of exultation, and the concept of closure hardly comes to mind, partly because of what still hangs (or at least should hang) over Coleman and Simone (he shot too soon and killed an unarmed man; she carried out cold-blooded murder) and otherwise because it’s never clear what exactly was open. Melville’s choice of exteriors – from the most isolated bank to be found anywhere outside a Western; to the modernist exterior of the police headquarters – supports the sense of abstraction; he drains the interior of Simon’s club of any sense of pleasure or eroticism. One certainly wouldn’t recommend the film as the place to begin with Melville; but it’s a disquietingly apt place to end.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg, 1980)

From one perspective, the use of Billie Holliday’s “It’s the Same Old Story” over the closing credits of Bad Timing might seem like a rather tritely ironic take on the disturbing narrative we’ve just witnessed, an implication that every dreamy love story is just one twist away from comparable sickness. But the song’s greater resonance is in the invocation of stasis and repetition, of events being drawn toward a singularity or vanishing point. At one point, Theresa Russell’s Milena expresses a wish that Art Garfunkel’s Linden would understand her less and love her more, or put another way, join her in following the emotional and sensual demands of the moment over those of a structured narrative (Linden is a research psychoanalyst who we pointedly see at work in Vienna’s Sigmund Freud museum). The film works toward a particularly nasty granting of her wish, circling around a moment where Linden indeed submits to the demands of a key moment, but at the cost of completely objectifying and dehumanizing her, even of bringing her to the brink of death. The third main character, Harvey Keitel’s detective, doesn’t so much investigate the event as will himself into being a displaced participant in it, seemingly seeing in Linden’s transgression some kind of terrible, humbling artistry (that of the director behind it?). Several scenes take place on the border between Austria and (as it was then) Czechoslovakia, on the border between freedoms and ideologies, and Linden periodically does profiling work for the US army, an underdeveloped strand that nevertheless feeds a sense of paranoid destabilization. For all the fragmented evasiveness of the film’s structure, Roeg’s visuals are direct and intimidating and accusatory: it isn’t a particularly “pleasant” watch by conventional measures, its prevailing tone drawing heavily on Garfunkel’s snotty, self-righteous Linden, but that’s just another measure of Roeg’s aesthetic fearlessness during his peak period.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Les uns et les autres (Claude Lelouch, 1981)

Claude Lelouch starts his epic Les uns et les autres by citing Willa Cather: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” This initially plays as an acknowledgment of the universal calamity of war: the film sets up scenarios in France, Germany, Russia and the US, then plunges them into immediate upheaval, dispatching some people whom we might have expected to be major characters so rapidly and cleanly that the impact is almost subliminal. As it travels into the present day, the film’s narrative keeps gathering speed, often carrying the sense of a teetering helicopter: transitions from meetings to relationships to break-ups take mere seconds; fates are sealed in a couple of lines. Intentionally or not (it’s hard to tell), Cather’s maxim comes to seem not so much like an assertion of shared experience but as one of existential meaninglessness and stasis, in which nothing really evolves across generations (underlined by casting several actors as both mothers/fathers and their daughters/sons, and minimizing the use of aging make-up) or borders or transitions, and in which the national and social distinctions of the earlier sequences fuzzily converge. The redemption, it seems, lies in music: the movie overflows with performance – spanning dance and orchestral and pop videos and jazz bands, played to large crowds and empty halls, before cameras and in rehearsal rooms – culminating in a final extended showpiece that brings together most or all (it’s hard to keep track) of the surviving characters either as performers or as spectators (the notion of sublimation into spectacle is one of several respects in which the film brings Scorsese’s New York New York to mind, although the comparison only underlines the recurring passionless of Lelouch’s creation). The film has no shortage of diversions then, and the ambition is almost hypnotic, but the further it pushes toward greatness, the smaller and emptier it ultimately feels.