Tag: Movies

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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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.

 

Friends Forever: a Look at the Film ” Jules and Jim” 55 Years after its Release

François Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” starts with an excited narration that tells the story of a friendship between two men – one French, one Austrian-. They meet in Paris and become best friends. “Each taught the other his language and culture. They shared an indifference for money.”

The Austrian Jules is unsuccessful at dating. Each of his dates turns out to have a particular flaw that makes him uninterested. He tries to be with a professional, but that won’t work for him either. The whole sequence of Jules trying his luck with different girls gives you this strange feeling that is not what this movie is about and we are in the early stages of getting into a much more complicated story.

Watching “ Jules and Jim” is a nostalgic trip to the times when filmmaking giants like Godard, Resnais and other New Wave cinema directors revolutionized French cinema. The film is François Truffaut’s third (He made “The 400 Blows in 1959 and “Shoot the Piano Player” in 1960). Even though Godard’s films are considered to be very influential in the development of New Wave cinema, “ Jules and Jim” remains to be one of the best examples of a form of filmmaking that refuses to play by the rules. There is something in the movie that appears fresh to the 2017 audience and unthinkable for the audience of 1962. The energy and, life that comes from the screen rekindles the relationship of the audience of today with the silver screen. It is no wonder that Americans copied Truffaut’s style in “ Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) just a few years after the release of “ Jules and Jim”. “ Jules and Jim” and “ Bonnie and Clyde” defined the sixties just to live stealthily in the corner of our minds like a hippie who dressed up in a suit and became a bank clerk in the seventies.

Truffaut’s masterpiece is an adaptation of a novel by Henri-Pierre Roche (1879-1959) who had lived through the events of the story. He was one side of the love triangle between Jules, Jim, and Catherine in real life. Roche wrote “ Jules and Jim” towards the end of his life, but the autobiographical nature of the story makes you feel like it was drafted by a young man, as Roche had to delve into his youth and recollect the moments described in the book. Roche’s Catherine was still alive when the film was released in 1962. She attended the film premiere anonymously and confessed later:” Yes, I am the girl who leaped into the Seine out of spite, who married her dear, generous Jules, and who, yes, shot Jules.”

However, Jim’s (Henri Serre) character does not perish with a shotgun in the movie (although Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) waves a gun to his face once). Truffaut wanted a more tragic ending than a lover wounding her love, taking the audience by surprise after hearing the four vague words of “ Jules, watch us, carefully!” the director leaves his audience shocked.

Jules and Jim are what one might call soul mates. They were made to be best friends. Once when Jules thinks he has found a perfect girl in Therese – just because she considers herself an anarchist and spray paints on the walls- after realizing he cannot find the love of his life in her, he confides to Jim that “ She was both mother and daughter to me.” Jules and Jim go from café to café and tell each other the stories of women who are not exactly what their mad souls desire.

One day they are invited to watch a slideshow of various sculptures, and they both become infatuated with a statue of a beautiful woman with a calming smile. The smiling woman captures their hearts so much that they decide upon a spontaneous trip to the Adriatic to see the statue. After they come back to Paris, they meet Catherine who looks exactly like their beloved icon. Jules becomes close to her and warns Jim that he is not willing to share this girl with him. Jim graciously agrees. They became inseparable. One of the film’s famous shots shows the trio in a rented cottage talking to each other while leaning out of separate windows. One night they go to watch a play, Jules doesn’t like the heroine’s free-spirited persona, Catherine loves it and jumps into the Seine just to show her admirations for her boldness and freedom. It is here that the narrator lets us know that it was her jump that made Jim’s heart weak for her. “ Jules and Jim” is a good example of best use of narration in a film.

Now they are both in love with one woman. World War I breaks out, Jules and Jim fight for different sides – they always fear that they might shoot each other- and Jules takes Catherine to Austria with the intention of marrying her. After the war, Jim goes to visit Jules and Catherine who are now married with a child (Sabine) and live in a cottage near Rheine River. Catherine is not happy. Jules tells Jim that Catherine cheats on him with different lovers. Jules is willing to do whatever it takes to make his Catherine happy. Even if that means sharing her with his best friend. “ If you love her, don’t think of me as an obstacle,” says Jules to Jim generously. Catherine asks Jim to move in with them. Jules contemplates divorcing her so that they could get married. Through all this he still considers Jim to be his best friend. He thinks what they have shared in their youth is so strong that they will survive this. But Catherine does not agree.

“ Jules and Jim,” unlike its name is Catherine’s film. It is an hour and a half of Jeanne Moreau captivating the audience with her stunning performance as Catherine. Her way of showing Catherine’s discontent is brilliant; it is in every inch of her body, it is in her face, it is even in her laughter. Perhaps it is her magic that we aren’t convinced that Catherine’s unpredictability indeed comes from her madness.

Historical aspects of World War I also being showed in this love story – Nazi book burning scenes. Truffaut also uses original newsreels of the war to make the story more believable. The film’s cinematography is as unconventional as it can be even by today’s standards. It is as if camera floats throughout the story. It breaks all the rules of how to shoot a movie set by the Hollywood directors and cinematographers.

The fact that the film goes through the time so quickly is actually one of its strong points. It is precisely as if an old man [Roche] is sitting at a café and goes through his memories to tell this story. It is exactly a trip in Roche’s mind, with happy days of youth floating by and days of sadness fading away in a dark passage.

Roche’s Catherine doesn’t need a psychiatrist to diagnose her of some form of hysteria – like Hitchcock drags a professional into the story to explain Norman Bates’s behavior in Pyscho (1960).Jules and Jim is a story of three friends whom unable to recreate the happy days of youth fall into the claws of sadness. It is one of those rare films that shows the inconsistency of human emotions in the best way possible.