Saturday, September 28, 2019

Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1950)

In a lesser film, the emphasis on writing in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest might seem over-emphatic, almost as a negation of cinema: for a significant portion of screen time we see the words on the pages of the priest’s journal and simultaneously hear them in his voice over. In Bresson’s hands however, the repetition deepens our compassion for the meticulous thoroughness of the protagonist’s struggle, while surely suggesting a linkage between the man of God and the artist: each consecrated to his interpretative process, to relentless self-examination, to a journey of uncertain destination. The film’s ultimate tragedy is embodied by the priest’s incapacity to craft the final entry, by the intrusion (however respectful) of the voice of another, by the yielding of all imagery to that of the cross. The film depicts the priest’s life as small and strained, doomed almost from the start (there are hints of what we might now call fetal alcohol syndrome), but with the capacity to acquire a kind of majesty (or grace, in the film’s terms) if it were allowed to approach God expansively and openly, to rely as much on intuition as on dogma and ritual. But the rural society to which he’s assigned is parched and grudging and set in its ways, tolerant of the church as long as it maintains its boundaries as an abstract pillar of continuity and order and discipline, unable to countenance true questing or suffering. The film feels so unerringly composed that later Bresson works may almost seem strained by comparison (this is a purely relative assessment, I should emphasize). It also encompasses one of the purest expressions of bliss in his work – a brief ride on the back of a motorcycle ride that leaves the priest momentarily exhilarated, certain he feels God’s hand in the experience (it’s a moment of surrender that may bring to mind the older Bresson’s delight in For Your Eyes Only, for its “cinematic writing”). Diary of a Country Priest is at once resolutely tangible and specific and wondrously transcendent, an inexhaustible filmic pilgrimage.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Un singe en hiver (Henri Verneuil, 1962)

Henri Verneuil certainly doesn’t rank among the front rank of French filmmakers, but his films are never dull, and are often surprisingly ambitious on multiple levels. Un singe en hiver starts out as a mixed bag, an impressive recreation of WW2 occupation and attack undermined by a cringe-inducingly scene-chewing Jean Gabin drunk act. But then we’re fifteen years in the future, and Gabin’s character, Albert Quentin, is in his fifteenth year of sobriety, and almost perishing from the boredom of it all, running an inn in a small town where few people visit: no wonder then, that his resolve might crack when a guest like Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Gabriel Fouquet shows up, another soul preoccupied with past losses and glories who in the present finds full expression only at the bottom of a glass. The film is dotted with odd character sketches – a boarding school principal who pretends she can only speak English; an eccentric store owner with a story to accompany every item of inventory – which we eventually understand as part of a philosophy of tolerance, of an understanding of what it takes to get through an uneventful existence: some of us bake the fantasy release into our very beings, for others it accumulates into a grand pyrotechnic release (the film may be implying that war itself can be partially understood in these terms) after which we may more readily settle into our long emotional winter. The grandly bombastic dialogue, by Michel Audiard, may not be generally naturalistic or persuasive, but it’s seldom ignorable either. As so often, the existential plight of the male counts for much more than that of the female – Quentin’s wife is allowed only the briefest moments of self-indulgence before returning to her designated role of quietly unquestioning support, and the film’s other main female character only exists to facilitate his outbursts, a role into which she slots back with barely a hitch after the fifteen year break.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)

Any attempt to briefly describe the plot of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance would have to say something about changing places, or mutually appropriated identities, or the transmigration of souls - about vice and versa as the poster put it. And yet, if measured by screen time this is a relatively minor part of the movie, and one that hardly seems to arise organically from what precedes it: it seems more likely that James Fox’s gangster Chas and Mick Jagger’s rock star might spend a few days avoiding each other before going their separate ways. It’s a tribute to the film’s druggy, ornate, discursive texture that it always feels it might slot into place (sort of anyway) with just one more consciousness-shifted try. But in practice, further viewings just yield further points of reflection and oddity. To cite just one, I always forget how far the movie goes down the path of genre, sinking with real relish into the brutally swaggering gangland world and its pretensions to external respectability – sometimes it feels as if Turner and his milieu might just be a projection, excavated from the secret heart of the violence (the intertwining of the worlds, especially in the “Memo from Turner” performance, support this view). And yet Turner’s house is so brilliantly and specifically visualized, and the languid behavioural rhythms so compelling (Chas’s probing pillow talk with the boyish Frenchwoman Lucy feels particularly authentic) that this explanation clearly won’t do: Turner embodies new propositions and realities (however undefined and faltering, as indicated by his un-Jagger-like withdrawal from stardom) that in one way or another will undermine the old certainties. The film teems with oddities of emphasis or pacing, or expression or framing, and sometimes makes you wince (that’s how the close-up of Borges makes me react anyway) and yet you might fantasize about living entirely within it.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Le pont des arts (Eugene Green, 2004)

Eugene Green’s Le pont des arts is indeed a film of bridges: of the real-life Parisian location of its title as a site of loss and redemption, of art as a means of spanning people and worlds, of the connective raw materal of cinema itself. The film contrasts a semi-established classical singer and a disaffected philosophy student: they never formally meet, but the beauty of the singer’s art creates a bond which outlasts her personal tragedy and provides to the student a new direction and purpose (this is, no question, a misleadingly tidy synopsis). Green favours a restrained performance style and head-on, interrogative close-ups, a style which tends to emphasize the distance between people and the created nature of the narrative – when the two protagonists finally touch, the event is depicted only in shadow – but the joy in ideas, the belief in high culture as a source of transcendent beauty, are absolute (a sequence studying the audience’s reaction at a Japanese No production, and a brief encounter with a Kurdish singer, make the point that such effects aren’t confined to canonical Western glories, although the film seems more iffy about rock and roll). At the same time though, Green skewers the earthly pretensions which constantly get in the way: in particular, the singer’s milieu is depicted as overrun by grotesquely self-regarding monsters who take pleasure in making tools out of people (the film, it should be said, is often very funny in this regard). In the end, it’s both a seductive immersion in a certain type of cinematic tradition (one in which it seems meaningful that the student somewhat evokes Jean-Pierre Leaud) and an assertion of art – in that magical space where actors and acted-upon find communion – as an abiding zone of difference, one which Green’s other, equally strange and scintillating, films confirm and extend.