Tag: Best Directors

A Taste of French Realism: Reviewing “The Dreamlife of Angels” 18 Years After Film’s Release

Why is it that young people in French movies are so different from their American counterparts? They are more mature and sad. Perhaps, French cinema does a better job at depicting real people.

The young characters of “The Dreamlife of Angels” (La vie rêvée des anges) are just as described above: sad and seasoned. The movie is about a friendship between two 20-year-olds who are both struggling to survive. Unlike young people in American films, they have to work hard to survive.

The movie begins with the introduction of Isa (Elodie Bouchez), a short-haired tough cookie with a scar over one eye. She is a backpacker who tries to make a living off of cutting photos out of magazines, pasting them on cardboards and selling them as “ tourist views.”  The job doesn’t earn her much but helps her to meet a man who offers her a job in his sweatshop.

It is there that she meets Marie (Natacha Regnier). They become friends, and soon Isa moves in with her. They spend their days hanging out in the malls and streets, kidding around, jokingly trying to pick up guys. They are not prostitutes – on the contrary, both are still hopeless romantics. Isa tells Marie about a man she met once she was working with a home remodeling group. She tells her friend about how they slept with each other and how when the job was over she left, and he’d let her go. Isa wonders if she lost a good chance, Marie doesn’t think so.

Marie meets Chris, a wealthy club owner one day when she’s caught stealing a jacket, he pays for it and invites her to his club. Marie and Isa go, they know the club’s bouncers already – Marie is sleeping with one of them. Soon, Marie is obsessed with Chris and his money. She is willing to drop even the most meaningful relationship in her life – her friendship with Isa- to be with this man.  The amount of maturity that Isa is showing in this situation is unbelievable. She has the shrewdness to see how Chris will end up hurting Marie and tells her so. But she refuses to listen.

The movie reveals what American films are so reluctant to demonstrate: not everyone reaches what their hearts long and love does not surmount it all. Marie is still idealistic enough that cannot choose the club’s bouncer – a genuinely honest man with less money- over its owner. The film’s story takes place in Lille, this choice of location suits the theme of the movie as Lille seems to be the least romantic city in France. In this film, we see Lille as a city of dispirited streets whose people seem to be too tired to care.

Eric Zonca made the “Dreamlife of Angels” when he was 43. The Parisian director moved to New York at the age of 20 and worked at various jobs for ten years till he made it as a commercial director. Zonca returned to France eventually to make serious films, and this was his third feature. He does a great job at creating characters that the audience can’t help to feel a strange familiarity with them. You cannot imagine Isa and Marie in Los Angeles or New York. It is almost impossible for an American director to make such film without adding an ugly amount of violence, scenes of drug dealing and nudity to it.  Bouchez and Regnier shared the best actress award at the Cannes film festival in 1999 for their roles in the movie – which they indeed deserved.

“The Dreamlife of Angels” might not be a feel good movie, but it is as real as the life itself.

 

A Knife that Cuts Meat: A Look at Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher

The main characters of Claude Chabrol’s “Le Boucher” or “The Butcher” have very different professions, she is a school headmistress, and he is a butcher; but loneliness brings them together. She triggers dangerous impulses in him, and he seems to have changed her forever when their friendship comes to an end.

The story of “Le Boucher” or ” The Butcher (1970) takes place in a peaceful French village called Tremolat. The film begins with a wedding scene and the only thing that stops the audience from thinking they are going to watch a family drama is the film’s haunting soundtrack.

From the moment the first murder takes place at the village, Popaul the Butcher becomes our primary suspect. We all know it and just waiting for the moment to find the proof. One would wonder if Miss Helene (Stéphane Audran) suspected it too, long before she saw his lighter at the scene of the crime.

The question that we as the audience get to wonder about is that: will he kill her too? It appears that Miss Helene, a woman of an excellent education is amazed by his savagery at times and lets him near her to feel a thrill even though she knows he is dangerous.

During a school trip when Miss Helene takes her students to the Lascaux caves and shows them the wall paintings inside, she speaks of Cro-Magnon Man and his savagery with admiration. Questioned by a child about what Cro-Magnon Man would do if he came back she answers: “Maybe he would adapt and live among us or maybe he would die.” Is she unconsciously thinking of Popaul?

Miss Helene first meets Popaul  (Jeane Yanne) when she is seated next to him at the wedding ceremony of her colleague. The first thing that attracts her attention towards him is his skilled way of carving a roast. She watches him in fascination and starts eating her piece before anyone else. It’s hard not to notice her happiness and her constant awareness of the butcher’s presence.

After the wedding, he walks her back to the school- where she also lives. We have an amusing three minutes and 46 seconds of both of them walking in the village. “ Do you smoke in the street?” The butcher asks her shocked. She says she does and adds an attitude to her smoking as well. Chabrol draws a picture of female domination with this scene and the one at Miss Helene’s place where Popaul sits on a small chair next to her that makes him look like one of her students.

She is not married, neither has any lovers. Questioned by the butcher about it, she speaks of her former bad experience in love, which made her decide to do without men. Popaul doesn’t seem to have much to say except for his rants about his 15 years in the army and the many corpses he has witnessed while being in Algiers and Indochina. During the school trip to the cave, children sit on the ledge to eat their lunches, a drop of blood falls on a little girl, it’s the blood of the new victim – the bride of the opening wedding scene.

Miss Helene goes up and discovers the body and the special lighter she has recently given to the butcher for his birthday. She takes the lighter hides it in her hands and won’t tell the police about it. Not long after the incident,  Popaul comes over; he has brought a jar of brandy marinated cherries. “ They’re the best I’ve ever had,” says Miss Helene before even trying one. The suspense in that scene is very high, what does she thinking? Isn’t she scared to sit with a killer? Finally, she asks for a light to smoke a cigarette, he pulls out the same lighter, she lets out a relieved laughter.

Chabrol makes a theme of smoking in this movie. Smoking becomes the sign of Miss Helene’s power over the butcher. We never see him smoke unless she starts smoking. Her blonde hair is another theme, of which we get two meaningful close-up shots.

The story comes to a crux which will not be described to avoid spoiling the film for those who have not seen it, but at the end when the butcher appears weak, and his eyes are full of need, Miss Helene remains calm and cold. We can’t guess her thoughts. Does she feel satisfied that she has power over this man? Is she afraid? Does she pity him? Or maybe she gets some form of sexual pleasure out of this?

Stephane Audran, who plays Miss Helene in this movie, was married to Chabrol when he made this film. She has very expressive eyes. In fact, her eyes play a major role in this movie. They are hiding all of her secrets in them and add to our suspense. Her character in this film is oddly similar to Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Belle de Jour”  She was married to Chabrol for 16 years, during which they worked together in several movies – “Les Cousins” (1959), “The Champagne Murders” (1966), “Les Biches” (1968) and “Le Femme Infidele” (1969),

Claude Chabrol born in 1930, started his career as a film critic writing for an anti-establishment magazine called Cahiers du Cinema – just like Godard and Truffaut. He died in 2010 and was one of the few survivors of a generation who founded a radical form of filmmaking known as the French New Wave Cinema. He has made numerous movies including “ La Ceremonie” in 1995 which has drawn a lot of admiration. His last movie came out in 2009 – one year before his death.

What some of the reviewers of “ Le Boucher” seemed to have missed is the psychological aspect of the film. Reducing this film to another horror movie about a savage murderer would be unfair. It is true that we have a killer on our hands. But was he always like that or he was hugely traumatized in the army and is a victim himself? He seems to be disgusted by the meats he has to cut every day. Is he appalled by his profession?

Do we have to praise Miss Helene just because she does not commit a crime? “ What would you do if I kiss you?” Popaul  asked her after she told him about her bad luck in love .” Nothing, but I rather you didn’t,” she replies. Couldn’t she stop the murders by sleeping with him? Why does she tease him like that when she has no intention of even granting him a kiss?

She seems to be very nonchalant about the news of the first murder. She remains calm when she discovers the next body. Does she have a fetish of danger? Is Popaul fascinated by her because she is emotionally unavailable?

These are the questions that remain unanswered in the movie. One thing for sure is that this film is not a simple horror about a butcher who killed young women because Claude Chabrol was no ordinary filmmaker.

 

Young and Disillusioned in Paris: A Look at Truffaut’s First Film “The 400 Blows”

“I have always preferred the reflect of the life to life itself.”

–    Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut’s first film “The 400 Blows” (“Les Quatre Cents Coups”) is the most intensely absorbing coming of age film ever made. It is the story of a school boy (Antoine Doinel) growing up in Paris. His parents and teachers consider him nothing but a troublemaker. The audience gets to see another side to him – when he puts up a poster of Balzac and makes a shrine for him by lighting a candle under his picture. This film has one of the most memorable endings: a shot of him looking straight into the camera. He has just broken free from a detention house, desperately tired; he runs until reaches the sea, caught between future and the past he looks behind and then walks towards the sea. He has never seen the sea before.

Jean-Pierre Léaud plays Antoine Doinel. The striking disillusionment in Léaud’s eyes makes you feel like he is not acting but rather living his life in front of the camera. This film was a start of a long collaboration between  Léaud and Truffaut. He was Truffaut’s Antoine again in a short film called “Antoine and Collette” (1962) and appeared in Truffaut’s three other films, “Stolen Kisses” (1968), “Bed and Board” (1970),“Love on the Run” (1979).

“The 400 Blows” considered being one of the first French New Wave Cinema films. Perhaps one of the elements that make such simple film so excellent would be the fact that its story is influenced by the director’s days as an adolescent. Truffaut dedicated the film to Andre Bazin who helped him to get his life together when he was a young man.

All the events of the movie seem to be there just to add to the impact of the film’s final shot. Film’s hero Antoine lives with his mother and stepfather and is in his early teens. Antoine’s mom, (Claire Maurier), is a blonde young woman who wants to keep away from her family – perhaps frustrated by their poverty, or distracted by an affair with someone from work. The boy’s stepfather, (Albert Remy), is a happy-go-lucky guy who tries to be as friendly as possible with Antoine – although he is not deeply attached to him. Both of his parents are preoccupied with their problems outside of the home and judge him by the terrible school reports.

Antoine’s teacher (Guy Decombie) knows him as a troublemaker and refuses to view him in a different light. He is not lucky either. When students pass a pin-up amongst each other in class, it is Antoine that gets caught with it. The teacher sends him to stand in the corner of the classroom as punishment where he writes a complaint on the wall. So the teacher orders him to wipe it off the wall, this stops him from transcribing tomorrow’s homework, so he skips class. However, he is forced to make an excuse for missing class, so he says his mother is dead. When her mother shows up at school, alive and outraged, he becomes known as a liar.

However, this boy reads Balzac and loves him. He loves him so much that unconsciously writes a part of one of his stories engrained in his memory in his school essay, and gets suspended from school over plagiarism.  From here his life takes a turn for the worst. He steals a typewriter from his stepfather’s workplace with his friend and gets caught and sent to detention house when tries to return it.

The only scene in which Antoine Doinel cries is where he is being driven through the streets of Paris to a detention house from the police station looking out of a barred police wagon– with a thief and three prostitutes.  His parents try to avoid taking him back in their conversations with authorities arguing that he will run away again. We see Antoine pulling up the collar of his jacket to his mouth from the day he gets arrested; we don’t know if Paris has gotten colder or that he feels colder away from his parents and under the care of social services.

However, the film has its fun moments as well. “Les Quatre Cents Coups” or “The 400 Blows” is a French expression which means “raising hell.” In one of the most hilarious scenes of the film, we see a physical education teacher leading a group of students on a morning jog on the streets of Paris. The boys run away two by two behind him until he ends up leading two students without realizing it. Another light moment in the film is when Antoine almost sets their place on fire by lighting a candle in a shrine he has made for Balzac in his bedroom. His parents forgive him, and they all go out to the movies. Antoine is happiest at that scene sitting in the backseat of his stepfather’s car laughing joyfully to his parents’ funny remarks about the film.

Truffaut made “The 400 Blows” when he was only 27 and died too soon at the age of 52 due to brain cancer, taking with himself many great ideas that could be fantastic movies. He made 21 films during his lifetime. However, “The 400 Blows” will always remain an ode to his younger self, fatherless and scared at school and on the streets of Paris. He was Antoine Doinel, and that makes this film so deeply touching.

When Jean-Luc Godard Changed Cinema: A Look at the Director’s First Film “Breathless”

Patricia Franchini: Listen. The last sentence is beautiful. “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief”. Which would you choose?

Michel Poiccard: …Grief’s stupid, I’d choose nothing. It’s no better, but grief’s a compromise. l want all or nothing.

Avant-garde filmmaking began with Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (“A Bout de Souffle”) in 1960. One of the most influential films of French New Wave Cinema “Breathless” was the first movie in which “jump cuts” were debuted. Using jump-cuts means using “cuts within continuous movement or dialogue, with no attempt made to make them match.” This film is unique in showing an unprecedented amount of repulsion towards authority and in portraying young people who absorbed in their self-centered worlds, remain largely oblivious to what is going on in the real world.
Godard’s “Breathless” and Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” directly influenced the youth rebellion of the 1960s. Perhaps, all young killers in Hollywood movies were trying to imitate Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
The surprise factor is compelling in “Breathless” as the events taking place in the movie appear very much accidental – as in real life. The two young characters are quite naive and immoral at the same time – as many young real-life criminals are. Michel the leading male character is a car thief who loves Humphrey Bogart and tries to act like a tough gangster that he is not. The young female character of the film is Patricia (played by Jean Seberg) an American in Paris who wants to enroll at the Sorbonne and meanwhile sells Paris editions of the New York Herald-Tribune on the streets. They are both unsure of what they want to become in life. Michel seems to kill just to keep a gangster persona. His tough act appears to be one of the reasons Patricia pursues him- she is also sexually attracted to him.
Michel practices the facial expressions of movie stars in the mirror, dresses like film noir gangsters and never stops smoking. Godard makes fun of chain-smoker leading male characters of movies when Michel takes his last breath, and a cloud of smoke comes out of his mouth. Maybe 26-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo would appear a bit unattractive to play Michel (a New York Time reviewer called him “hypnotically ugly” at the time). But he plays Michel the way you can’t imagine him to be played by anyone else, and that is how you can tell that an actor is doing a good job. After all, we all know not being dashingly handsome does not stop French actors from becoming huge stars –Gerard Depardieu is one example of that.

Jean Seberg (film’s Patricia) was an American actress who found fame and success in France. Her film debut as St. Joan of Arc in Otto Preminger’s “Joan of Arc” (1957) didn’t go very well in America. In fact, she received terrible reviews for her acting in the movie. Preminger who had discovered her at 18 when she came to his talent search auditioning session made another movie with her the following year (Bonjour Tristesse) to prove the reviewers wrong, but it did not go well either. As a result of that Seberg, immigrated to Europe when she was 21 and was cast by Godard to play Patricia.
Patricia is the most enigmatic character in the movie – unlike Michel. We all know Michel is a young man whom fascinated by movie stars tries to act tough to hide his insecurities. But Patricia’s story is entirely different. She doesn’t find the fact that she might be pregnant to be paramount. She finds out Michel is indeed the cop murderer everyone’s looking for, has a wife and uses various aliases and takes this information with utmost indifference and detachment. One can’t possibly guess her thoughts from her facial expressions either. Her cheating on Michel is also a well-thought test – to find out if she loves him. Her cold-hearted, femme fatale persona is something that many reviewers have failed to point out – except for the late great Roger Ebert.

The film’s process of making was entirely experimental – as it was with most French New Wave Cinema films. Godard and many other New Wave Cinema directors started their careers as critics for an anti-establishment film magazine called Cahiers du Cinema. The whole film is an experiment. Godard wrote the script for each scene the same morning they had to shoot them. Director Claude Chabrol was the movie’s production designer; writer Pierre Boulanger plays the role of the police inspector, director Jean-Pierre Melville plays the writer whom Patricia interviews at a press conference and Godard and Francois Truffaut each play small roles in the film as well – Godard plays the role of the informer. Everyone behind the scene also helped a little in front of the camera– as in a film made by cinema students.
Raul Coutard film’s cinematographer (Godard’s favorite cinematographer) does a magnificent job, especially in the scene where Patricia and Michel are in bed smoking, and the clouds of smoke mingled with the light coming out of the window make it look as if they are sitting on a big cloud. It is the same scene in which Patricia comes home and finds Michel in her bed, they argue, flirt and smoke till she finally lets him make love to her. She presses her face on a painting of a girl by Renoir and asks Michel to judge who’s prettier at the same scene, and Michel sits next to a portrait of a man holding a mask by Picasso.
Godard uses jump-cuts throughout the film. A technique which emerged quite accidentally – Godard took a scissor and just cut everything he thought was boring. Jump-cuts went to become a popular technique amongst filmmakers.
“Breathless” received a spectacular reception from the public and film critics. Filmmakers left the theater questioning all the traditional notions of filmmaking. Godard had changed cinema permanently.