December 13, 2022

Two Films by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze

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The Immoral Moment / La Denonciation
Jacques Doniol-Valcroze - 1962

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A Game for Six Lovers / L'eau a la bouche
Jacques Doniol-Valcroze - 1960
Icarus Films Home Video DVD All Regions

It has been a short while since it was announced that Chantal Akerman's film, Jeanne Dielman had topped the recently released Sight and Sound critics poll. I would not mention that film except that it turns out that Jacques Doniol-Valcroze had a small role as the Second Caller.

Having two new 2K restorations of features written and directed by Doniol-Valcroze is a reminder of the work to be done to have a deeper and truer understanding both of French cinema and the Nouvelle Vague. While Andre Bazin is the name that always appears, it was Doniol-Valcroze who was a co-founder of Cahiers du cinema. His first feature, A Game for Six Lovers was released in 1960, but as a filmmaker, Doniol-Valcroze never became as internationally celebrated as the younger film critics who also made their feature debuts at that time. I could find no indication that A Game for Six Lovers even had a stateside release, while The Immoral Moment had a belated U.S. release by a very small distributor in 1967.

The Immoral Moment is closer to the work of Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais as a film about memory. Michel steps into a nightclub that is still dark, yet to be opened. There is a dead man on the floor. A couple of people step in from a lit hallway on one end, with another man entering from the opposite direction. Michel is knocked unconscious. The cops and the actual murderer and associates know that Michel did not kill the man, yet Michel receives threatening letters in spite of the fact he cannot identification of the killer. Michel tries to remember the moments before he was struck in the head. He also ties his cooperation with the police, or collaboration as he puts it, with a wartime incident when he provided information to the Nazis under threat of continued torture.

Doniol-Valcroze cuts between present day Paris and Michel's memory of being a prisoner, ending with his mistakenly acclaimed as a hero of the French Resistance. Michel returns to the nightclub which features women in various states of undress, imagining his wife as one of the performers. The film was shot in the CinemaScope ratio with Doniol-Valcroze frequently placing his actors on either side of the screen, including traveling shots following the actor. While stars Maurice Ronet and Francoise Brion may be familiar to some, the most recognizable actor here is a younger Michael Lonsdale, the future James Bond villain, Hugo Drax, of Moonraker.

A Game for Six Lovers has a few bits of business to distinguish itself from some of the bedroom farces of the time. Two estranged cousins, Fifene and Jean-Paul, are invited to a country estate for the reading of a will and a possible inheritance. Jean-Paul is delayed, and Robert, Fifene's lover, shows up pretending to be the male cousin. Their hostess, Milena, and her lawyer, Miguel, are sometimes lovers. The estate's majordomo, Cesar, pursues the new maid, Prudence. This is the kind of film that was popular in the early 1960s in the art theater circuit because it was considered racier than anything from Hollywood, although it would be rated PG-13 now.

The film begins with the title song from Serge Gainsbourg who also wrote the music, sort of jazzy soft rock. Top billed Bernadette Lafont, as the new maid, suggests sauciness even when motionless in close-up. In one scene, she is chased by the insistent majordomo, ripping off her clothing, leaving Lafont, seen from a distance, in bra and panties. The Canadian actress Alexandra Stewart provides moments of partial nudity in bed as well as a nude swim. This is not a film for those who get worked up about the male gaze. The French title translates literally as "water of the mouth", and more loosely as "mouth watering".

December 06, 2022

Missing

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Sagasu
Shinzo Katayama - 2021
Dark Star Pictures

What is noted about director Shinzo Katayama is that he served as an Assistant Director to Bong Joon-ho on Mother and Bong's segment in the omnibus Tokyo!. What brings Bong to mind in Missing is actor Jiro Sato as Harada, the miserable sanitation worker whose disappearance initiates the story. Sata bears some resemblance to Parasite's Song Kang-ho physically, but lacking Song's sometimes unfounded optimism. The sad sack Harada is a grubby, part-time sanitation worker who is introduced as needing the care of his middle school daughter, Kaede. Harada's sudden absence is taken seriously only by Kaede who is certain that her father is in search of a serial killer in order to claim the reward. Katayama reverses the more common narrative of father or father-figure as the searcher with the daughter or young girl as the searched. As the film progresses, it becomes a darker exploration of human nature.

Katayama's Japan only looks attractive from a distance. Most of the film takes place in what appear to be the grungiest sections of Osaka. There are hardly any streets, but mostly a claustrophobic maze of alley ways, pathways clogged with bags of garbage and abandoned junk. In a later scene following the serial killer, Yamauchi, he is shown a pictorial view of the small island by an orange farmer. Down from the peak, is a rough road with worn down people and houses. Yamauchi also has a scene with a woman on a beach. Their relationship is unclear. The beach is otherwise dull and devoid of any other people. Where Harada works is too organized to be described as a garbage dump, but it is an industrial site filled with things that have no more use. From the opening scene, most relationships are depicted as transactional, from spare change to millions of yen, even in literal matters of life and death.

The opening scene is composed of a series of traveling shots following Kaede running through the streets of Osaka, with the occasional shot of composed of multiple surveillance cameras on one screen. Following on this is a later scene where Kaede spots Yamauchi, with the camera following her as she pursues the suspected serial killer on foot and bicycle. There is some graphic horror but most of the scenes depicting murder are more luridly suggestive. The narrative is awkward, depending on two extended flashbacks to explain the relationship between characters from the points of view of the three main characters. The final scene is of Harada and Kaede playing ping pong. The camera zooms out from the table to show the two on each side of the screen while they come to a mutual understanding following a resolution of all that has previously transpired. There is a second game where Harada and Kaede are going through the motions of playing ping pong while the camera zooms towards the middle of the table. This last scene could well be a nod towards Antonioni's Blow Up with its missing murder victim and a tennis game with a ball heard but not seen.

November 29, 2022

Knife in the Head

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Messer im Kopf
Reinhard Hauff - 1978
Cohen Media Group BD Region A

What I first found striking about Knife in the Head is that it is the first film I have seen that presented West Germany as a police state. The images of a police raid on what appear to be student activists, random checkpoints on the road, and surveillance cameras are all depicted as part of life in Munich, 1978. The implication is that for some citizens, there is only marginal difference on which part of Germany is home.

Bullet in the Head might be a more accurate title as the titular knife is one that is imagined. A scientist, known by everyone by his family name of Hoffman, goes to meet his wife, Ann. With a group of people at what is later identified as a youth center, Ann is being arrested. Hoffman runs into the small building. Hoffman is seen in a freeze frame with the sound of a gunshot. The actual event is the subject of conflicting descriptions. How Hoffman gets shot in the head is unclear. What is known is that he has brain damage causing him memory loss and lack of motor skills. Hoffman rebels against his sense of being an infant in the body of a adult male, and being the subject of gawking by some of the other patients due to newspaper reports depicting Hoffman as a political terrorist.

Even if the political aspects of Knife in the Head have lost their topicality, the film is still worth seeing due to the performance of Bruno Ganz as Hoffman. The depiction of physical and mental impairment and gradual, if partial, repair has been noted for its accuracy. In this regard, this is not a feel-good story about one man's victory overcoming adversity. Reinhard and screenwriter Peter Schneider are able to find humor in Hoffman's relearning simple words that offer brief breaks from the drama. Simultaneous to Hoffman's physical and mental recovery are his dealing with Ann's relationship with another man, and a dogged detective's insistence that Hoffman is faking his maladies and is guilty of stabbing a policeman in the raid.

While not as well known as his peer, Volker Schlondorff, Reinhold Hauff has a tangential connection with the New German Cinema. In addition to founding the production company Bioskop with Schlondorff, there is the casting of Bruno Ganz with Angela Winkler as Ann. Ganz is probably best known for Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire and his performance as Hitler in Downfall, while Angela Winkler had the title role in The Lost Honor of Katherine Blum in 1975, and was more recently more widely seen in recent version of Suspiria. The sparingly used music for the film was composed by Krautrock keyboardist Irmin Schmidt from the band Can. The blu-ray was sourced from a 2019 4K restoration. The two supplements are a 2007 interview with Reinhard Hauff where he discusses his working methods and work with his cinematographer and editor, and a 2008 interview with producer Eberhard Junkersdorf.

November 22, 2022

French Noir Collection

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Speaking of Murder / La Rouge set Mis
Gilles Grangier - 1957

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Back to the Wall / Le Dos au Our
Edourard Molinaro - 1958

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Witness in the City / Un Temoin dans la Ville
Edouard Molinaro - 1959
KL Studio Classics BD Region A Two-disc set

If there was ever a home video release that should have come with commentary tracks, or at least a booklet, this three film collection would have benefited from some extra care. Ideally, French film noir expert Ginette Vincendeau would be the person for such a task. Anyone else would be forced to rely on Professor Vincendeau's writings as well as their own personal investigations into both the history of the genre and of lesser known French films and filmmakers. Especially for the U.S. based film cinephile, there is a limited understanding of French cinema based on those films that were imported for the art theater circuit as well as the vaulting of the filmmakers associated with the Nouvelle Vague at the expense of almost everyone else. Vincendeau would remind us that aside from being a French term that first became popular in in describing certain Hollywood films, film noir has its roots with several French films from the 1930s that explored people who lived in the margins of society.

The two directors here, Gilles Grangier and Edouard Molinaro, are not part of Francois Truffaut's despised "Cinema de Papa". Neither are they transitional figures between generations like Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker. Instead, they are craftsmen who essentially made French films primarily for a French audience. Grangier is in need of further research as a director with a record of commercially successful films locally, unknown abroad. Described by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, Grangier ". . . was a working-class film-maker who came up from the streets of Paris, and started in the movies as a stuntman, grip, prop boy, any job he could get." Bradshaw's article was written in conjunction with a retrospective at Lyon, France in 2021. The two films from Molinaro are both early works when the director specialized in crime films for his first five years. The films are both interesting to watch within the context of a career with Molinaro making an international reputation with his comedies, especially, La Cage aux Folles.

Jean Gabin carries his own freighted history in his roles as a crime boss since the mid-1950s. In Speaking of Murder, Gabin is Louis, the owner of a garage who augments his income with a trio carrying out the occasional robbery. His younger brother is out on parole, with the police leaning on him to help bust Louis. Family honor trumps honor among thieves. Grangier saves the visual panache for the climax with Gabin pursued on a staircase. The title translates as "the red light is on", the signal for when a heist is to take place. Among the better known supporting cast members are Lino Ventura as Gabin's volatile partner in crime, Marcel Bozzuffi as the younger brother and Annie Giradot as Bozzuffi's less than faithful girlfriend. Jacques Deray, best known for directing several films starring Alain Delon, served as an Assistant Director.

Back to the Wall is the outstanding film in this collection. An industrialist discovers his wife has a lover and creates a blackmail plot against the two. The plot gets disrupted by an unforeseen event. What was Molinaro's debut feature after a decade of short films comes closest to the classic concept of film noir. The music by Richard Cornu seems to have taken its cues from the scores Max Steiner wrote for Warner Brothers melodramas in the 1940s. The influence of Orson Welles is apparent from the many shots making use of depth of field, deep shadows, extreme angles and emphasis on scale with someone or some object in the foreground with a character seen at a distance. The opening scene is almost dialogue free while Gerard Oury is seen methodically cleaning up an apartment, removing and disposing of a corpse. Jeanne Moreau stars as Oury's wife in a year that included Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, cementing her place as one of France's top actresses. Claude Sautet, who would make several notable crime films, served as the Assistant Director.

Witness in the City was Molinaro's second film. Not as stylized, the story zig-zags from following a man murder a woman on a train to his being released from criminal prosecution. The narrative shifts to being about the husband of the murdered woman. Lino Ventura, in an early starring role as the wronged husband, takes his revenge. Seen by chance by a taxi driver, Ventura is certain of being identified. The film is based on a novel by the team of Boileau and Narcejac, source authors for Vertigo and Les Diaboliques. There is nothing otherworldly here though there is some suggestion of horror with the opening scene murder and the hanging of the wife's lover. Molinaro also employs a jazz score. What is also notable is the elaborate car chase scene that included a reported 400 Parisian cab drivers that concludes in an actual zoo. What the film has in common with other works by Boileau and Narcejac is the fatalism. The image of Ventura behind bars edited with the shots of the caged birds might strike some as too obvious. Sandra Milo plays a cab company dispatcher, while Francoise Brion briefly is seen as Ventura's wife. Gerard Oury also had a hand in the screenplay.

Reviewing the filmographies of the directors, writers and several of the actors, there are a variety of connections to be found mostly in French crime films. The most obvious connections are with Jean Gabin who reestablished his stardom as an aging gangster for most of career from the mid-1950s. Lino Ventura would switch more frequently between cop and criminal and would co-star with Gabin. For myself, my appreciation of French crime films became deeper following the viewing of several films and having more of a sense of the history that these actors brought with them.

November 16, 2022

Lost Illusions

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Illusions perdues
Xavier Giannoli - 2021
Music Box Films BD Region A

There is a close-up of a man eating a pastry at an artistic salon. The scene takes place in a provincial French village during the 1820s. The French Revolution is well over and royalty is reasserting its place in all aspects of life. There are similar shots where the consumption of food takes place where a privileged audience is also consuming art. While there is no exact correlation, Lost Illusions shows both some of the roots of what has become part of mass culture and the similarity to some of the hucksterism that currently exists.

The film is based on the first two volumes of a trilogy by Balzac. I have not read the novels, but from what I have gleaned from other sources, Xavier Giannoli trimmed much of the source material concentrate on the rise and fall of the aspiring young writer who goes to Paris to seek his fortune. There is some off-screen narration by the man who would act as his nemesis and friend. What is helpful is that this narration helps place the story into its historical context, although some general knowledge of French history is useful.

Lucien Chardon works at a printshop in a small country village. As a poet, he has the patronage of Madame de Bargeton. Lucien wants to be recognized under his mother's royalty connected family name as well as making a name for himself as a writer. Both he and his patroness run off to Paris where their relationship is undone by the unstated rules of Parisian society. At a time when upward mobility was rare, Lucien learns quickly how to sell his skills as a writer for a small, politically liberal, newspaper. Lucien dives into an environment where class, money, and social and family connections mean everything.

Capitalism and consumerism run amok. Reviews of novels or plays are based on who pays the writer the most to express a bias one way or the other. An small army of paid audience members will applaud or boo on opening night. Everything has a price depending on the highest bidder. Nathan, the narrator points out how advertising was created to encourage people to buy things they do not need. For Lucien, he gets the invitations and the social standing he believes are rightly his, while maintaining a facade of being wealthier than he is, and being unaware of the unstated rules. While Lost Illusions takes place in early 19th Century France, Lucien's story arc has some resemblance to that of Sidney Falco, the columnist played by Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success.

The best known cast members here are Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, Gerard Depardieu and Cecile de France. The blu-ray comes with brief interviews with four of the cast members and a short montage of the film's locations. Lost Illusions won seven Cesar awards, the French equivalent to the Oscars, including Best Film last February.

November 13, 2022

Denver Film Festival - My Small Land

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Mai sumoru rando
Emma Kawawada - 2022
Gaga

I might have overlooked My Small Land had it not been for the recommendation of Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling. Even while making the circuit of several film festivals, Emma Kawawada's feature debut is running below the radar and at this time does not have U.S. distribution. Kawawada worked for a time as an assistant to Hirokazu Kore-eda. As other critics have pointed out, there is some similarity with the low-key tone and the story about a family in some kind of peril.

The family here is Kurdish refugees in Saitama, just outside of Tokyo. While not precisely stated, it is indicated that the family has lived in Japan for at least a decade as the main character, Sarya, meets with a favorite elementary school teacher during her senior year in high school. Sarya uneasily carries a duel sense of self, of being a Kurd at home while more thoroughly Japanese at school and at her part-time job at a convenience store. Kawada introduces this duality by opening the film with a Kurdish wedding celebration. There is no indication where this celebration is taking place until Kawada cuts to a shot of Emma on the commuter train to Saitama. Sarya's plans to go to college collapse when her family is denied political asylum. Even greater than the possibility of Sarya forced to return to a country that she barely remembers is the threat to her father's life as a political dissident.

Sarya also complicates her life by telling her friends that she is German rather than try to explain what it means to be a Kurd. Because of her fluency in Japanese, she is also called upon to act as a translator, bridging the language gap for the Kurdish community in her Saitama neighborhood. The is a universality in the portrait of immigrants in another culture, between keeping traditional practices and language that collide with assimilation. For Sarya, this means expectations of an arranged marriage with a young Kurdish man versus her aspirations to go to college. There is a humorous scene where the father, attempting to cheer the family after they have had their visas rescinded, takes them to a restaurant where they debate whether it is proper to audibly slurp ramen.

While Kawawada's sympathies are on the side of Sarya, she lets the characters speak for themselves. The film serves as a critical look at some of the more insular aspects of Japanese culture, especially when certain restrictions have unintended consequences. Kawawada spent two years interviewing Kurds living in Japan. Not mentioned in the film is that Japan only allowed citizenship for less than one-hundred refugees. Due to the immigration laws, Kawawada had to be careful in her casting. Sarya is played by teen model Lina Arashi, birth name Lina Kahafizadeh, with members of her own family as her father and siblings. Rather than rely on the script, several of the family scenes were improvised. While mostly in Japanese, there is dialogue in Turkish and a Kurdish dialect. There is also a bit of autobiography with Kawawada having a British father and Japanese mother, with that being treated as an outsider within one's own country while wanting to establish a sense of belonging.

November 12, 2022

Denver Film Festival - EO

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Jerzy Skolimowksi - 2022
Janus Films/Sideshow

Always mentioned in discussing EO is that Jerzy Skolimowki was inspired by the French classic, Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson, from 1966. While it is not a requirement to appreciate the new film, I would recommend seeing Bresson's to compare the similarities and differences, but also because it is great filmmaking. For myself, I cannot write about Skolimowski without discussing Bresson, but also some thoughts on Skolimowski's past work.

There is a streak of fatalism in Skoliowski's work. Deep End (1970) opens and closes with excerpts from Cat Stevens' song, "But I Might Die Tonight". The more recent Essential Killing (2010) ends with the death of the Arab terrorist on the run. Even the titles suggest finality. Even when there is no death, characters find themselves in situations over which they have no control.

Au Hasard Balthazar is about the life of a donkey in a small French border town. Initially adopted as a pet by a school girl, Marie, Balthazar grows to be a working animal, mostly abused by his respective owners and neglected by the now teenage Marie. The majority of the film takes place in the unnamed town, and several scenes to not involve Balthazar at all. The one scene the Skolimowski takes from Bresson is of Marie in a tight two-shot embracing and petting the donkey. EO, the name of the Skolimowski's donkey and the sound of the donkey's bray, is embraced and petted by his young, redhead owner, Kasandra. While not outright duplicating the older film, the visual similarity can not be missed.

Where EO is markedly different is that it more significantly is from the point of view of the donkey, with fewer scenes exclusively of people and very little dialogue. Eo not only goes through a series of multiple keepers, but travels from Poland though unidentified parts of Europe including an Italian villa. Freed from being part of a circus that has gone bankrupt, EO has his own sense of independence and mischievousness. Even with the few comic moments, it would be a mistake to confuse EO with an animal film intended for family viewing. Even the people with the best intentions towards EO are questionable. More questionable are the interactions between those people.

Unlike Bresson, Skolimowski makes extensive use of extended traveling camera shots. There is a greater sense of intimacy in choosing the narrower Academy ratio rather than a wide screen format. PaweĊ‚ Mykietyn provided an unusual film score with parts incorporating the gamalen. The screenplay, co-written by producer Ewa Piaskowska was also inspired by the desire to break away from the traditional narrative film structure. Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes last May, EO is now Poland's entry for the International Film Oscar.