Tag: Film buffs

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.

 

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Farewell to Childhood Innocence, a Look Back at Louis Malle’s Goodbye, Children

Perhaps one of the reasons why Louise Malle’s 1987 movie “Au revoir les enfants” (Goodbye Children), is so moving is its believable portrayal of schoolboys.

The story pivots around a friendship between Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse), and Jean Bonnet (Raphael Feito), both staying at a French Catholic boarding school in the Nazi occupied France in 1944.  Manesse and Feito the actors behind the main characters had no prior experience in acting.

We never get to see Julien’s wealthy father, his mother a charming Parisian sends him to the boarding school to be away from the Nazi-stricken Paris. One day a new student arrives at the school, his name is Jean Bonnet. At first, Julien joins in the childish custom of picking on the new kid but soon they form a friendship. Both boys love to read.

After a while, Julien discovers that his friend avoids questions about his family. He skips choir practice and doesn’t recite the morning prayers, and the priest avoids giving him the communion wafer when he kneels at the altar.

His suspicions drive him to search Jean’s locker, in there he finds a book with the name Kippelstein on it. For Julien that doesn’t mean much. He doesn’t know anything about Jews. He questions his brother about why everyone hates Jews. “ They’re smarter than us, and they killed Jesus,” replies the older brother. ‘ But it was the Romans who killed Jesus,” says Julien curiously.

Even though Julien doesn’t feel any resentment towards Jews, he is envious of Jean as he is an excellent piano player and his essays get higher scores than his. Nevertheless, Julien keeps his friend’s secret. We see a close-up of him sitting in a bathtub with the sounds of Jean playing the piano as if the boy is making a final decision of keeping Jean’s secret.

The story takes place towards the end of the war, France’s collaborationist government is very disliked, and an American invasion seems to occur at any moment. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Julien and Jean get lost in the woods while included in a treasure hunt with the rest of the boys. “Are there wolves in the forest?” asks Jean. It is way beyond the curfew time, so two German soldiers stop them. By instinct, Jean begins to run. The Germans go after him give the boy a blanket and offer both of them a ride back to the boarding school. “ You see, us Bavarians are Catholics also,” they tell them.

Director Louise Malle himself had lived through a story similar to the story of his movie at the same boarding school (le Petit-College D’avon). The school like many other schools at that time took a few Jewish students in to save them from impending death. According to historian Francis J. Murphy, these schools’ endeavor to save Jewish children from death played a factor in the survival of 75 percent of Jews during the World War II.

Malle had said that he never forgot the day that the Nazis invaded their school and arrested the three Jewish students and their headmaster. According to him, the students lined up, and all said goodbye to their master as he took a final look back and said: “ Au Revoir les enfants” (goodbye, children). Malle’s school headmaster died at Auschwitz three weeks later.

Louis Malle had an undeniable influence on the French New Wave cinema. He made “Elevator to the Gallows” (1958), following his main character of the movie with a camera while riding a bicycle. Malle switched to making conventional movies like “Atlantic City” (1980), “Pretty Baby” (1978) and “Au revoir les enfants” (1980) later in life. Something that lost him the approval of some movie critics who thought he has given in to the pressure of making commercial films. However, he never stopped experimenting in filmmaking, and his later films“ Vanya On 42nd Street” (1994) and “My Dinner with Andre” (1981) testify to that.

We never find out if Julien did play a part in his friend’s capture. Nazis enter their class and demand to know the identity of the Jewish student. Julien involuntarily looks at Jean. We might all make the mistake of looking the wrong way without even realizing it from time to time. Jean doesn’t blame him as he is packing his things to go. “They would have caught me, anyway,” he tells his friends as the duo say their final goodbyes.

The movie ends with a close up of Julien’s face – as was the style of French New Wave Cinema filmmakers. The shot lasts for 25 seconds during which we hear Jean playing the piano in the background.

 

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.

 

This Appalling Life: a Review of Luis Buñuel’s Tristana

“It is a poetic principle that the freedom of the individual must fight against the restrictions of reality… I am still, thank God, an atheist.”
– Luis Buñuel
Luis Buñuel was hugely interested in depicting the complexities of human relationships and his 1970 film Tristana is the most explicit example of that.

The movie is the story of Don Lope (Fernando Rey) a middle-aged atheist/Marxist who becomes the orphan Tristana’s (Catherine Deneuve) guardian after the death of her mother. While determined to only treat her as his daughter he becomes tempted and forces her into a sexual relationship. He rationalizes this and argues that she’d do worse than that being left on the street.

The girl is disgusted by his sexual advances and is holding a grudge against the old man over it. She secretly goes out of Don Lope’s house and meets a handsome young painter (Franco Nero) with whom he runs away. However, she falls ill and develops a tumor in her leg, under this impression that she doesn’t have much time to live she goes back to Done Lope’s household. Don Lope calls a doctor who suggests that her life can be saved by the amputation of her leg. Thus she survives and stays with the man whom she wants to avenge for taking her virginity as a young girl. Don Lope’s much older and weaker now, reduced to playing cards with priests just to have some company even though he is an atheist.

This movie never becomes a melodrama about a poor young girl taken advantage of by a father figure and disabled by the hands of fate, though it could easily be. The whole situation is appalling and that is exactly what Buñuel wanted it to be – exploring the complexities of human nature and the sadomasochism of human beings.
There are some recurring dream scenes in the movie. One is Tristina’s dream about the severed head of Don Lope’s on a church ball. According to some, that was one of Buñuel’s own recurring dreams: Buñuel was a lifelong atheist just like Don Lope.

To make the situation more disgusting than it already is Buñuel gets the deaf-mute boy of Don Lope’s servant involved in the story as well. He desires Tristana, but the girl who is bitter and cold after the amputation of her leg rejects him but mercilessly tortures him at the same time (revealing her naked body to him from the balcony).

Not many directors can take us to their own private world of nightmares and dreams and show us the ugly side of human nature and still be able to make an excellent movie. That is why Luis Buñuel is still considered to be one of the best directors of all time.

 

 

Fetishes we can’t Resist: a Look at Luis Buñuel’s Most Erotic Film “Belle De Jour”

Long before Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut, there was Luis Buñuel’s “Belle De Jour”: the story of a refined young wife of a reputable surgeon whom out of boredom secretly works at a brothel once or twice a week.
Some critics, including the late great Roger Ebert, believe this film to be the best erotic movie of all times. Buñuel never saw eroticism as something that only exists in nudity and the act of sexual intercourse but rather delved into human imaginations and strange fetishes and shamelessly depicted them in his movies. The audience follows the story of “Belle de Jour” through the eyes of Severine (played by Catherine Deneuve). For Severine sex is a dull act unless she is subjected to a vast amount of attention over it – even violence.

She finds her marriage with a seemingly perfect young surgeon Pierre (played by Jean Sorel) whose response to her refusal of sex is a single good night, to be terribly tedious. Pierre, on the other hand, sees her frequent avoidance of intercourse as a sign of virtue and adores her for that. They have a family friend Henri (played by Michel Piccoli) who is also in love with her seemingly moral character and proper mannerism – annoyed by it Severine always dismisses his compliments and resents him.
In Severine’s fantasies, Pierre demands sex or orders others to rape her, and she loves him for it. Her main fetish is to be dominated and humiliated by her lovers. She dreams about being tied to a tree while Pierre and Henri throw mud at her. She also has other small turn-ons and fetishes to which Buñuel hints throughout the movie – the sound of carriage bells and cats’ meows.

Severine’s fantasies find a way of realization when Henri accidentally tells her about a high-class brothel in which housewives work part time to earn an extra income.
Memorized the address of the brothel mentioned by Henri in their conversation Severine walks in there a few days later and is admitted in by Madame Anais (Genevieve Page)- the owner of the brothel. She gets scared at first and runs away, but the curiosity and temptation bring her back. As she tries to avoid sleeping with a fat middle aged man, Madame Anais pushes her and orders her to do so, surprisingly she promptly obeys her, something that compels her to conclude:” I see you need a firm hand.”
It can be very shocking for today’s audience to find out that there are no explicit sex scenes in one of the most erotic movies ever made. Buñuel’s interest was to show us the weirdest human fetishes and sexual “ fantasies” thus the camera always shies away when it comes to the real act of sexual intercourse. Buñuel masterfully toys with our minds and leaves us intrigued in the scene where an Asian client of the brothel who cannot speak French properly keeps showing the girls an object that looks like a music box. We never find out about the content of the box the only thing we get to see is a bloody bed sheet and Severine’s playful smile – insinuating the client’s fetish with the mysterious box.
One day, two gangsters come to Madame Anais’s brothel. One of them is Marcel (played by Pierre Clementi). He is very young, wears a leather cape, carries a sword -stick and has several unsightly steel teeth. Severine is especially impressed by his bad manners, his taunts, and his gangster persona. Marcel falls in love with her, not knowing that he’s a puppet in her hands, a toy with which she satisfies her sexual fantasies and fetishes – the best one.

Luis Buñuel who is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors of all time was a surrealist who collaborated with Salvador Dali as a young man in “ Un Chien Andalou.” He was very amused by the vast and diverse world of human fantasies and intended to depict that in his movies. He believed that most of us are hard-wired into sexual patterns from an early age and there is no escape from that – Severine also says that it is out of her hands and she’s lost.
Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and Luis Buñuel’s “Belle De Jour” are both about women whose marriages do not satisfy their uncontrollable hard-wired sexual patterns, and their husbands, suffering from the same fate remain clueless. It is all human nature.

 

 

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.