Archive 2: At the Maison Francaise

During the course of a year from April 2010 to April 2011 I wrote several dvd reviews for the website of the Maison Francaise d’Oxford.  This came about from my being a regular at their excellent film library.

The MFO have since re-vamped their website and my reviews are no longer accessible, so it seems a good time to give them a page on Cellophane Tears.

The films reviewed were:  The Girl Cut in Two, The Woman Next Door, In the City of Sylvia, A Tale of Springtime.

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Intermission 2 (Less is more!)

It’s time for me to gracefully accept  the low frequency of my  postings and remind myself that Cellophane Tears is primarily a personal archive.  I was never going to be a 365-blogger (how on earth do they find the time…?) but reading the WordPress blog it’s easy to feel a sense of failure.  “Post regularly” seems such good advice, but from the self-admonishing “must do better” tone of some of the comments I sense that we are putting ourselves under too much pressure.  Maybe we should accept that we’re not publishing houses.   In my case, if I am to maintain any kind of quality then I will have to accept “low frequency” as “less is more”.

Having said that, I’ve watched an interesting range of films in recent weeks:  Apocalypse Now, Z, Le Orme (aka. Footprints), Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and hope to review some of them here on Cellophane Tears in the not too distant future, but for the moment I’ll look briefly at two relatively low-key yet big-name vehicles from France:

Potiche  [Francois Ozon, 2010]  The title of this undoubted curio translates as “Trophy Wife” and it’s a hugely entertaining genre-crossing ensemble piece that wears bold 70s decor without allowing itself to be swamped by mere nostalgia.  It’s the first film I’ve seen by Ozon (although I knew he had previously adapted an unproduced Fassbinder play) and his interweaving of trade unionism and family loyalty seems cut from the West German’s cloth; yet the warm, pastel tones, light comic touch, and radiant performances of Catherine Deneuve and a now larger-than-life Gerard Depardieu make for something altogether more feelgood.

By contrast, Villa Amalia  [Benoit Jacquot, 2009] promises  more than it gives.  Notwithstanding Isabelle Huppert’s unsympathetic protagonist, too much screentime is given over to relatively inconsequential material prior to her flight for a new life.  Somewhere there is a very interesting sense of a woman methodically going about the dismantling of her identity – and the difficulty of doing so in contemporary society – but it plays within an unrelentingly miserable first 50 minutes.  It’s a film that can’t decide in which direction it should be heading (the director knowing personally the novelist whose work he is adapting probably doesn’t help) with a sub-plot-ish strand involving a middle-aged bi-sexual friend that goes pretty much nowhere.  All this delays Ann’s sojourn to a Villa Amalia and sensual Italian girlfriend just not given the opportunity to achieve any resonance.

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The Golden Age

Another lengthy intermission, but nice to be back…!

Midnight In Paris  [Woody Allen, 2011]

Despite my longstanding admiration of Woody Allen’s work during the 25-year period  from Bananas to Everyone Says I Love You, his ultra-prolific Twenty-First Century output seems to have passed me by… And so I was quite unprepared for Midnight in Paris – unprepared for its glistening, intellectual insight and for a film that may well stand comparison with those familiar 1970s classics. It’s a claim I certainly did not expect to make (I had the impression Allen was knocking out screenplays on autopilot) but Midnight In Paris could well be a summation of his romantic (love and death) obsessions:  a modern-day fairytale in thrall to the city as an idea, concept, and work of art. It’s also a film enraptured by the mysterious power of the imagination. A Cinderella in reverse as midnight chimes with a conceit that becomes a kind of Parisian Purple Rose of Cairo meets Manhattan for successful screenwriter Gil Pender – the archetypal Woody Allen romantic who imagines relinquishing his Beverly Hills lifestyle to live in Paris and write a novel, but feels constrained by a fiancée who cannot appreciate its rainy backstreets while being made to feel inferior by her staunchly Republican parents and the pseudo-intellectual posturing of her old teacher (characters given the kind of dialogue that remind us we’re in Woody Allen territory).  Midnight In Paris also exudes the understated craftsmanship of a seasoned filmmaker:  the bright, tourist expanse of Versailles and fluorescent confines of the present alternating with the surreal green or tobacco-toned interiors of the 1920s; the brilliantly performed music of Cole Porter; the ensemble portrait of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Picasso, Dali, Gertrude Stein et al (there’s so much packed into a rigorously edited 89 dvd-minutes that it should be made a compulsory object lesson for all those filmmakers currently anesthetising audiences with 150-minute running times)…  Ultimately, Midnight In Paris is a film adoring of a cityscape and artistic enclave that could easily be mistaken for cliché; yet exists as a belated reminder that Woody Allen possesses a visionary romantic sensibility equal to that of any great Frenchman.

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In Praise of Shadows

I remember staying up during 1988 and 1989 to watch the B-grade horrors produced by Val Lewton at RKO during the 1940s  – and still have several of them on self-recorded VHS (complete with personalised cases utilising photocopies from Joel Siegel’s difficult-to-find study of Lewton). So it was interesting to revisit six of them over Christmas, because for a long time their monochrome otherness represented something of a personal touchstone.

Curse of the Cat People  [Gunther Von Fritsch & Robert Wise, 1944]

Amy in WonderlandCombining Lewton’s trademark shadowplay with the decade’s propensity for gothic house melodrama and psychiatry (a book entitled The Inner World of Childhood is mentioned by Amy’s teacher) Curse of the Cat People masterfully utilises all the resonance of its better known predecessor to paint one of the cinema’s most poetic evocations of wonder and terror. The friendship between Amy and Irena (her father’s dead first wife) becomes deeply moving as Ann Carter’s wide eyes convey all the lonely magic of only-childhood; while the glistening Simone Simon (every inflection of her voice exuding melancholy) cleverly reclaims audience sympathy. By way of contrast, Cat People‘s now married couple (having moved from New York to white-picketed suburbia) occupy bright rooms and attempt to rationally analyse their child’s ‘fantasy’ world as all the while Amy watches seasons unfold around her: from forested sunlight to the flurry of autumn leaves (when she first sees Irena) and the glittering Christmas card landscape conjured by her ghostly companion… Amy also encounters (and befriends) Julia Dean’s theatrical turn as the arthritic and reclusive Mrs Farren – an old woman who claims her daughter is an imposter (another brooding portrayal from Elizabeth Russell). Serving China tea and inviting Amy into the opulent darkness of her parlour (a Victorian storybook realm of headless horsemen and Kings of Spain) Mrs Farren provides the narrative with a strangely interior counterpoint while also representing that curious affinity between young children and old people; but ultimately the curse is Amy’s shimmering, once-removed connection with Irena – a past that Amy’s father comes to realise can no longer be concealed.

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N.B.  Time has passed so I will watch Cat People again and review at a later date…  (I guess another thing I’ve learned about blogging is that I shouldn’t make promises!)

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The Africa Star

Having admired Nestor Almendros’ cinematography for both Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut, as well as his scintillating colour landscape work in Barbet Schroeder’s More, I borrowed a library copy of the illuminating film-by-film biography, A Man with a Camera, and it was there I learned of the documentary film, Idi Amin Dada:  Autoportrait.

Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait  [Barbet Schroeder, 1974]

He’ll have it shown on Ugandan television every night, because it’s really him: the star of Africa.  [Barbet Schroeder Newsweek interview, 1974]

Barbet Schroeder gained intimate access to the larger than life Idi Amin for this fascinating slice of post-colonial megalomania. The dictator was keen to raise his profile and Schroeder’s semi-journalistic brief means he rarely intervenes, allowing Amin’s irrepressible showman persona verbal carte blanche as we become witness to the music and colour of the African continent; the Ugandan army’s inept field manoeuvres;  hilarious swimming race exploits; and Amin’s fantastic view of himself within the world order (referring to Nixon as if they were of equal standing and of Uganda’s international aid to Britain’s failing economy).  Indeed, there is very little you can impose upon a man who has awarded himself the title: “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshall Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, King of Scotland, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in particular”. Nevertheless, Almendros’ often hand-held 16mm camera ensures transparency and the subject is rendered a fallible human being (as opposed to the cartoon clown of tabloid newspaper notoriety); while the dvd notes explain that the excised closing narration (not reinstated by Schroeder, unlike several other cuts enforced upon him when Amin held 150 French citizens hostage) viewed the dictator as “a deformed image of ourselves”.  An observation made apparent by one of Amin’s impossibly ‘British’ military bands marching around their drought-faded parade ground.

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A Trick of the Light…

Not only did this film-within-a-film almost certainly influence Irma Vep (see Intermission), but it could well be Truffaut’s most ingenious work…

La Nuit Americaine  [Francois Truffaut, 1973]

Truffaut portrays his own directorial self calmly navigating the fluctuating temperaments of actors and crew members – alongside countless production demands such as having to decide which hand-gun he would prefer in a final scene – as one perpetually renewed by dreams of its mischievous adolescence (the starry-eyed fan stealing photographic stills of Citizen Kane). And from his opening dedication of the film to silent movie starlets Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Truffaut proceeds to display the internal workings of the magic lantern that is cinema in a way that renders La Nuit Americaine no less magical for doing so: the almost breath-catching moment when a kitten finally decides to drink from a bowl; the wiring ‘trick’ with a candle; Truffaut’s never less than innovative technique (the freeze-framings in an airport arrivals hall are just perfect); to the hastily manufactured snow conveying a very real sense of everything coming together at the last moment. La Nuit Americaine seems to have it all: an international cast, comedy, drama, pathos, irony (“in the future all films will be made on the street without stars or a script…”) as well as a profound respect for the artifice inherent within the transforming process of the production itself. And one is left with an overwhelming realisation that no-one loved cinema quite so much as Francois Truffaut. Indeed, he confides his defining aesthetic to Jean-Pierre Leaud’s fragile leading man: Namely, that cinema is more important than life.

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NB. La Nuit Americaine refers to the cinematographic trick of simultaneously under-exposing and avoiding sky so that nighttime scenes can be shot during the day. Hence the film’s US and UK distribution title, Day for Night.

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Intermission

Well I guess I’m not the first ‘new’ blogger to say “I really meant to post something during the last month, but…”

Nevertheless, I think I’ve learned something from this absence: my original intention of watching (and reviewing) two films per week was overly ambitious. I imagined myself dashing off reviews of every film I happened to see; whereas in reality critical impressions may take their time in forming or else fade altogether. Jean-Charles Tachella’s 1975 award winner Cousin Cousine seems a case in point. A perfectly decent film with an original script, fine acting and some very gallic humour; but having watched this film little more than a month ago I cannot recall much beyond the faces of the principle players. In short, when time becomes limited I will focus upon material that leaves some deeper imprint. Having said that, here’s a sort of catch-up (my belated impressions, perhaps?) of the films I’ve seen over the last month or so…

Le Parfum d’Yvonne  [Patrice Leconte, 1994]

Gorgeous location cinematography as air-brushed people move elegantly through a colour supplement version of Lake Geneva circa 1955, but precious little by way of edification. Then again it is ‘Un Film de Patrice Leconte’.

Irma Vep  [Olivier Assayas, 1996]

Maggie Cheung prowling hotel corridors in a latex cat-suit with Jean-Pierre Leaud as her film director in the throes of a nervous breakdown seemed a tantalising prospect. A near impossible billing? Yes, but still an enjoyable low budget original with eye-catching ‘treated’ celluloid sequences and fascinating monochrome outtakes on the dvd.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid  [Thor Freudenthal, 2010] & Rodrick Rules  [David Bowers, 2011]

I’m not usually a fan of purely adolescent fare, but both these films are consistently inventive in their aesthetic design (incorporating the Jeff Kinney-style cartoons from the books on which they’re based) and chock-full with winning characters and performances as well as laugh-out-loud lines and situations. They also  manage to be alternately joyous and touching, yet incisively brilliant in their dissection of the claustrophobic obsessions of the middle school peer group. (And refreshing to see a mainstream movie peopled largely by unknowns.)

Book:  The Good, The Bad, And The Multiplex: What’s Wrong With Modern Movies

Mark Kermode’s brilliantly entitled, frequently hilarious and eye-opening account of contemporary cinemagoing and its brain-freezing ills: the demise of the projectionist; the ascendancy of fast food; the corporate confidence trick that is 3D. All this alongside the author’s seemingly extraordinary (and depressing) hypothesis that “blockbusters can no longer fail” makes for a compelling read.


And “Coming Soon” to Cellophane Tears…

Le Cinema Verité: Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait; Two in the Wave; Varda Shorts.

A mini Val Lewton season screened on BBC2 over Christmas and I will at the very least review the magnificent Cat People and Curse of the Cat People.

Watching François Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine for the first time was an undoubted highlight of the festive period. It also proved to be the last straw for Jean Luc Godard in terms of his deteriorating view of Truffaut…

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Being and Nothingness

Watched my Connoisseur VHS of this on a beautiful day in late October…

Solaris  [Andrey Tarkovsky, 1972]

Cosmonaut Chris Kelvin’s last day prior to the Solaris mission is spent absorbing the serenity of the natural environs of his father’s house (where fronds of water-weed undulate just below the surface of the most seductive stream ever captured by a film lens) as well as watching archive footage of an inquiry into unexplained phenomena during a previous expedition; a contrast made all the more compelling by Tarkovsky’s measured pace and brilliant editing. Adapted from a 1960s Sci-Fi novel, the “Soviet response to 2001” analogy was understandable, yet not overly helpful. The feminine is absent from Kubrick’s opus, but here the dark-eyed sensuality of Kelvin’s dead wife, Hari – replicated by the vast, oceanic memory of Solaris and projected into the degraded physicality of the space station itself – comes to represent the recurring, hypnotised impossibility of earthbound yearning. Tarkovsky creates a mind-bending love story while contemplating the essence of being: whether it’s the disquieting suddenness of the monochrome sequences; the elegant Sovcolour Scope compositions; the scene of weightlessness imbued with Breughel and recollections of Kelvin’s mother wrapped in fur against a snowy landscape; or the use of Bach’s Choral Prelude in F minor, Solaris is an existential wonder. Just try and watch during a sunny daytime so that 160 transforming minutes later you can drift outside and look around as if it really were your last day on earth.

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Archive 1: Changing Landscapes

During early 2005 I wrote a 500-word essay to accompany an Eric Rohmer dvd box-set issued in the UK by Arrow Films.  This set included eight features (all six Comedies & Proverbs, as well as Love in the Afternoon and Die Marquise Von O) alongside various extras.

My essay took its title from the English translation of one of these dvd extras, Metamorphoses du Paysage:  a short 16mm film made for French educational television in the 1960s.  Its warmth and intellectual curiosity embody the spirit that Rohmer’s work maintained throughout his long career.

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Written in Pencil – Part 3

And two more from the notebook in the shape of the modern French thriller…

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not  [Laetitia Colombani, 2002]

The appealing features of Audrey Tatou in bright sunshine and among the almost fantasy red of roses soon give way to her character’s darker, obsessive motivations and the clever technical trick of a rewound / repeated narrative (from her victim’s perspective) in this unnerving thriller. Perhaps on occasion the cinematography reaches for merely an approximation of the ‘contemporary’, but mostly the 26-year old director’s touch remains sure-footed as she keeps herself one step ahead: details unravelling (and fascinatingly so) in the ‘second’ narrative as we become witness to the case history of an erotomaniac: “a condition in which a person is obsessed with another person and groundlessly believes that person to be in love with him or her”. An earlier prize-winning short film, Le Dernier Bip (included on the dvd) is brilliant confirmation of an amazingly youthful director’s facility with this kind of material: as if the walking talking Parisian of a Rohmer comedy suddenly finds a grinning Chabrol in the director’s chair.

Monsieur Hire  [Patrice Leconte, 1989]

Eminently watchable yet overrated psychological thriller that nevertheless maintains interest for the duration of its very short running time. Adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon the central premise intrigues, but remains undeveloped and much is left to the viewer during sequences that seem designed primarily to accommodate Michael Nyman’s score. Leconte, a director of surface and more surface, is not overly interested in plot mechanics and we are left with the portrait of a none too appealing misanthropist; albeit imbued with enough pathos to convey Hire’s loveless existence and all-consuming need for the rite of observation.

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