Backlog #11: Le Petit Soldat (1960)

I don’t think that I have seen anyone look as stunningly beautiful as Anna Karina in this film. We’re all quite in love with her, most of all, the camera. She only has to look our way to leave us needing a good sit down somewhere.

All of this love for his partner slots into Godard’s film, a shoestring-budget political thriller contemporaneously set around the Algerian war of independence. It’s a cool, cynical but spiky piece. The soldier of the title is a nondescript fellow, draft-dodging in Geneva, but making a living doing grim tasks for French intelligence. He’s given a FLN agent to take out but he vacillates. Eventually he’s kidnapped and tortured by the Algerians before being let go. Deciding to leave for Brazil with his FLN-sympathising girlfriend, the final joke is that the government gets hold of her and tortures her to death.

Bruno has no conviction at all for the cause he’s employed by, beyond patriotism. He’s conscious that the government are just as bad morally as the freedom-fighters. He’s presented subjectively contemplating this throughout, and there is no resolution available to him. War and its consequences are the arena of his life.

Le Petit Soldat manages to be both downbeat and sparkling. It is politically lucid and interesting. The subjective presentation of the characterisation of Bruno as her goes through the film is a development. The dialogue and reflections are refreshingly droll. Despite being a low budget art film set in a world of cynicism and brutality, it’s an entertaining (though harrowing) watch.

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Backlog #12: Tristana (1970)

I really liked this film. It looked great and it had an air of great sincerity and passion. This belied its plot matter a little, which is melodramatic: the title character is an orphan who is taken in by a dignified but somewhat feckless gentleman, Don Lupe. She is obliged to become his lover – eventually she becomes fed up with this situation and leaves him for the handsome painter. Tristana becomes seriously ill, losing a leg and decides to return to Don Lupe, who by this point is past his best. She, having matured, now realises and harnesses her power to dominate over him.

We might expect a run-of-the-mill period melodrama. We get the setting: old Toledo looks fantastical and instantly arresting. We also receive a fascinating study of character as the relationship between the distinguished old man and the young maid intertwines and end up turned upside down. Don Lupe starts off as an exemplary bourgeois socialist gent: a man of leisure living off of his means, garrulously atheistic and anti-clerical. He’s a hypocrite too when he takes Tristana off of the street as, we find out, a toy for his gratification.

Tristana accepts this situation undemonstratively. In this first third, she is blameless. As the narrative proceeds, this virtue becomes more and more ambiguous. She starts to understand herself, exercising her freedom to leave and eventually return to Don Lupe. Her return is motivated by her material needs and this motivation exercises the theme twist where Tristana is a cold, distant nurse-like matriarch over the man, who is amiably old and tired; winding down his days with card games with the local priests.

What has happened? Desires, motives, sex and power. Human relationships and time. How we try to influence one another to our own personalities and will, paying no heed to the question if this is desirable and none at all to the consequences. That we are responsible for ourselves and that we have to take decisions through our life’s course based on what is best for us now, not on what we would desire ourselves to be.

That all of this exploration of our selves takes place within the framework of a provincial melodrama is something else to notch against the genius of Bunuel. This is a remarkably reflective film and a quiet masterpiece.

Backlog #13: La Femme Infidèle (1969)

This is a very stylish, classy but rather shocking movie (the three adjectives fit together well). It’s a psychological thriller that is a brilliant study of crime, passion and moral ambivalence.

Charles (the husband) is a typical executive, his wife (Hélène) tends their beautiful home and brings up the son. She is wonderfully elegant, but carries a control that expresses a mild hauteur. He, more furtive in countenance, clearly loves his family, but in a dull, dependable, buttoned-up way. From the start, we’re a trifle uneasy at this body language –what is going wrong, is there something else there?

As it happens, the husband starts to share this suspicion and hires a private detective who, soon enough confirms that Hélène is visiting the house of a writer, Victor Pegala. At this point, Charles has not come across to us as a particularly impressive or sympathetic character; and the news is no surprise to us. But his shock and sorrow at learning the truth really touched me.

This shock and sorrow manifests itself shortly after, when he decides to call on Pegala. The writer is sharply taken aback by his visitor. Charles appears to contentedly admit defeat, which at first glance emphasizes his pathos. However, he’s still blindly grasping for the truth: admitting to the other man that he gives his wife liberty, he completely disarms Pegala, who unburdens himself about his passion in a wide-eyed charismatic torrent; over a coffee table chat, the two men are gloriously contrasted. Charles fully absorbs the personal horror that there is someone else who understands and connects with his wife much better than he does.

Charles serene demeanour quickly becomes clouded. Pegala remains in a reverie and is oblivious to the blunt object that hits him. This brilliant passage concluded, it is followed by a fantastic set piece, where Charles, without a pause to drift from the task at hand, meticulously tidies up the mess in Pegala’s flat and removes his corpse to the boot of his car. This task completed, Charles then has a much more fraught journey across town, finally concluding with an unbearably tense moment where the body finally disappears into the swamp.

Charles returns to his wife. He seems happy enough now, but Hélène is out-of-sorts, particularly when two detectives turn up to question her about her relationship with the disappeared man. Her understandable unease at the perceived consequences of this questioning is perhaps the most striking of the film’s ironies. The trail gets warmer and the detectives return, this time questioning Charles, who unconvincingly denies any knowledge of Pegala. His wife finally discovers what has happened when rifling through his jacket. She is shocked, but on reflection realizes the truth about her husband and burns the evidence. To no avail: he is finally led away.

I’m sorry if the above is more of a plot spoiler than a review; but La Femme infidèle is a film with a very smooth and glossy surface, but a remarkable amount of passion and tension beneath the poise. It’s a film that approaches perfection in what it undemonstratively does. It may be a touch sedate – it takes a while to simmer, but the irony and moral ambivalence are wonderfully done.

Backlog #14: The Silence (1963)

The Silence is a spare, tense film. Two sisters, who clearly do not get on at all, are travelling through central Europe on the train. The older sister is a tired, strained, emotionally repressed spinster suffering from a chronic illness. The younger is more vibrant, the embodiment of physical sensuality. One is an academically gifted writer, the other at a glance more uncomplicated and straightforward. The boy, who is the younger sister’s child, is placed as the neutral character here, between the two opposing characters of the women.

All of this is established in the opening scene in the train carriage. On a broiling hot summer afternoon, Ester sits stock still in a tweed jacket, open in contempt of her sister, who lounges around in comfort on the carriage bench in a summer dress. The boy meanwhile, stares out of the carriage window at the passing scene outside.

We then move to a large central European town, generic in nature, but clearly troubled, by the tanks rolling through and the air of authority around. The film is mainly confined to a grand, but fusty hotel that is empty of guests and has seen better days. Here Ester remains in her room typing out manuscripts, coughing in fits and brooding over her fate. She and her sister are suspicious of each other to the point of paranoia. Eventually Anna leaves and goes out into the street, encountering sensuality and eroticism in the form of a cafe bartender and a couple in the cinema – experiences that she is incapable of resisting.

Ester senses what has happened and is horrified when Anna relates these events to her. The polarized emotional grounding of both sisters becomes apparent. Ester pleads with her sister to stay with her. Anna decides to go in search of another encounter with the bartender. This develops further when Ester confronts Anna in bed with him. Ester is confronted with the reasoning that her goodness and skill is a construct built to obscure her repressed sexuality and emotions and her hatred of herself and others. Anna is not a sympathetic character, being vain and shallow to a fault, but she is positive and does not have her sister’s hang-ups.

The Silence is an exploration of two different types of character and emotions; of what happens when our relationships break down and we lose the nerve and will to communicate; of whether knowledge and wisdom will result in happiness or neurosis and fear.

Bergman developed some of these themes later on in Cries and Whispers on a wider, more colourful palate. The Silence is more low key, less demonstrative but possibly more powerful as a study of these themes. Certainly the way that the sex suddenly enters the closed, gloomy world of the sisters shocks us. The lack of dialogue and the wide angle shots of Ester’s bedroom backed with lengthy close-ups on the character’s faces, enclose her loneliness (for me typified by the sequence where she and the decrepit waiter falteringly attempt to connect over Bach’s music) and present to us the horror (to her and us) of her situation.

Backlog #15: The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

Asseyez-Vous. This is a bewildering movie. Its setting is contemporary seventies France (both urban and provincial) and its characters are bourgeois and official types. The basic plot scenarios are very mundane: going to bed, visiting a sick relative, giving a lecture, children playing in the park, a family meal, seeing your doctor, staying at a hotel. What we would take for granted in acting out the course of our lives.

The Phantom of Liberty applies the subversion of surreality to these situations: a man is told he is terminally ill and responds by attacking the doctor. Shortly afterwards he is informed by the prefect that his daughter, who is sat to his (oblivious) right, has been kidnapped. Earlier on, a lecture in a police academy leads into a scene where a family shits communally at the dinner table and eats their meals alone in the bathroom.

The hypocrisies under attack here are typically religious and those of officialdom. There is a lot of sex too: taboos are broken in the most innocuous manner. The Phantom of Liberty says that the society we take for granted is a surface of cracked plaster and we have responsibility for our truths and morals.

Although the structure, linear but non-linear, where each episodic situation leads on, through the thin thread of another character appearing within and taking the plot with them into another sequence, does not satisfy our notions of strong plot and characterisation; each chapter does not resolve anything, but just dissolves into the next. The character that has dominated our perception for the previous ten minutes becomes ephemera.

We take delight in the normality contrasted with the mad, the innocuousness of it all. The Phantom of Liberty is a superb film.

Backlog #16: The Red Shoes (1948)

This is a brilliant piece of work, but I didn’t take to it. Simply put, it was too fantastical and full of artifice for my taste. And I found the tragic climax jarring (although logical enough, given the tone of the film).

The main characters were beautiful, talented and aristocratic, which also jarred with me (being none of those things), but seriously, I didn’t feel any empathy with them (maybe this is due to the film’s age and that this scenario was within a world fighting for its survival five years earlier). I have no affinity for ballet either, so the spectacular sequence of the ballet in the centre of film, I could only appreciate from an aesthetic and not a technical viewpoint. And Monte Carlo is not a setting I can emphasise with much (not knowing that it was a centre of ballet) – it certainly isn’t a background for a tragedy.

My churlish objectives now stated, I can state that The Red Shoes is a glorious film, vivid and dream-like at its best. Anton Walbrook is as majestic as you would expect – Lermentov is an outrageous character but he’s totally convincing. I’ve found that films which dramatise the mechanics and business of productions aren’t always subjectively satisfying (as I state above I’m not a ballet-head), but The Red Shoes is satisfying in this respect.

I prefer Powell and Pressburger’s earlier masterpieces: Colonel Blimp, with its moving study of emotion and having to accept the realities of life, and A Matter of Life and Death, halfway between fantasy and reality in so many ways. I don’t like The Red Shoes as much because it floats above reality and the view of the ground I don’t find sympathetic. But it is a remarkable piece of film-making and a must watch.

Backlog #17: Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

I false-started on this film twice, falling asleep both times at the 40 minute mark. This is in spite of its plot, which is very simple: a man leaves his family and runs off with the nanny. Supported by various surreal crimes, they take to an idyllic lifestyle on the Riviera, before she becomes bored. When they eventually reunite, her true loyalties become clear and it ends in conflict and bloodshed.

This simple plot is packaged however, as a sparkling but unfocused narrative (it was plotted the day before filming and scripted as it went along) that drifts between brilliance and tedium. It’s a critique of our capitalist, materialist society (shallow, valueless and pitiful) through the frame of a rambling road movie (similar to Godard’s Weekend two years later) where a couple embark on a journey from where they can and do survey the ruins of our world.

I preferred the first third of the film, where Ferdinand and Marianne flee Paris and make their way south. Most of the dramatic inspirational moments were here: the start, where Ferdinand reads aloud to his pre-school daughter a description of Velazquez’s late period, the party scene which sets the scenario he runs from, the bizarre crimes they commit. After this point I found that the narrative and characterisation ran out of steam too much. Perhaps I was too tired to be tuned in to details.

Still, it’s an entertaining watch, if hard work. The leads are charismatic and engaging enough, the music is memorable and evocative and the cinematography is splendid: a widescreen vivid palate of primary colour is presented. The dialogue is full of zingers and bangers and Godard’s ideas and asides are always engagingly brilliant. Pierrot Le Fou is too much of a transition for it to be my favourite Godard (I tend to prefer his smaller scale monochrome) or further still his best, but it’s a remarkable film.