December 17, 2017

Coffee Break

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Your Name (Makoto Shinkai - 2016)

December 12, 2017

Maigret

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Maigret Sets a Trap / Maigret Tend un Piege
Jean Delannoy - 1958

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Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case / Maigret et l'affaire Saint-Fiacre
Jean Delannoy - 1959
Kino Classics BD Region A

One way of making a blu-ray a "keeper" is by having Nathan Gelgud do the cover art. Kudos to Kino for going above and beyond the lame photoshop efforts of some companies that think just issuing a film on home video is enough.

As for the films themselves? Historical curiosity is what attracted me in the first place. I revisited a vaguely remembered passage of Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema, where he paraphrases Francois Truffaut's declaration that the worst film be Jean Renoir is better than the best film by Jean Delannoy. I can't really argue that point as the only other Delannoy films I've seen were costume epics, both with Gina Lollobrigida, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Imperial Venus. Coincidentally, Renoir also made a Maigret film, La Nuit de Carrefour which Jean-Luc Godard declared as "the only great French detective movie - in fact, the greatest of all adventure movies." The films could well be considered representative of the "tradition of quality" that Truffaut, Godard and the others criticized, and notably were released at the same time French cinema was about to undergo a major shift.

Jean Gabin, re-established as a star in France after a slump following World War II, played Georges Simenon's famed detective twice for Delannoy, and a third time, to lesser effect in 1963 for Gilles Grainger. The first of these films is the best, featuring early performances by Annie Girardot and Lino Ventura. A killer has attacked four women in the Marais district of Paris, with Maigret leading the police investigation. The entire film appears to have been filmed in studio sets, with long, dark alleys. How this works in Delannoy's favor is with his frequent use of tracking shots through streets or within the police station. The scenes of murder are depicted with screams and shadows. There is one very brief moment when a gigolo's girlfriend pops her head through a doorway, topless, with a few seconds of footage that probably was never seen by U.S. viewers back in 1958. One of the other highlights here is the performance by Olivier Hussenot as a mousy detective who can't stop sneezing.

Delannoy took Maigret on location with the second film. A countess, the widow of a small town's land owner, receives a letter stating that she will die on Ash Wednesday. Maigret, who knew the woman as a youth, returns to Saint Fiacre after almost forty years, in hopes of preventing a murder. Something is amiss when the chateau is revealed to be almost empty of furniture, with the outlines on walls where paintings once hung. The mystery is solved in an almost leisurely fashion in the course of two days. Visually, the film is less stylish, though there is a nice use of close-ups of hands of Gabin and Valentine Tessier, as the countess. One nice scene is of Maigret gaining the confidence of an alter boy with tales of his own youth in the same church.

Delannoy could well be deserving of a re-examination. Among the writers, Delannoy filmed screenplays by Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre. Even though he made films during the Nazi occupation of France, Delannoy was also a member of the Resistance. Forced to redo a film starring the the Jewish Erich von Stroheim, the film was recast with fellow Resistance member Pierre Renoir, Jean Renoir's Maigret. In 1953, in his book on French cinema, Georges Sadoul described Delannoy as "an honest craftsman, capable of good work and worthy of his international reputation." Sometimes, that's more than enough.

December 10, 2017

Coffee Break

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Ulrich Thomsen and Stine Stengade in Fear Me Not (Kristian Levring - 2008)

December 05, 2017

Death Laid an Egg

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La morte ha fatto l'uovo
Giulio Questi - 1968
Cult Epics BD Regions ABC / Region 0 DVD two-disc set

Sure, there's a shot of black leather gloves, and a woman's throat is cut, but to describe Death Laid an Egg as giallo seems to be missing the point, or at least misleading the viewer. The genre elements are only a small part of the visual and political shenanigans concocted by Questi in collaboration with co-writer and editor Franco Arcalli. That there is something that passes as a plot almost seems like a way to conveniently end the film.

Where Death Laid an Egg really shines is as a work of pop art on celluloid. Quests begins with a series of off-kilter shots of people who may or may not be connected, in various hotel rooms, with one primping his luxurious hair, another man encasing his head in clear plastic, while we hear, but do not see, the conversation between another man and a woman, perhaps a prostitute. The company where Jean-Louis Trintignant works has a giant egg statue in the lobby, while his office is decorated with a large poster of a chicken skeleton. There's a graph chart with two oversized jagged lines, blue and red, that looks more like a artist's parody of a real graph chart. Only seen up close was some kind of chandelier with glass drops that resembled vials of blood. On the road, Questi focuses on the directional arrow on the highway, and an unexplained car on fire.

I would have suspected that Franco Arcalli brought in the more political aspects of the film, but further research indicates that this might not be the case. English language writing on Questi is scant, based primarily on the two films he is known for by English language viewers. Arcalli would later collaborate significantly with Bernardo Bertolucci as a writer. Trintignant is the business face of a chicken farm owned by wife Gina Lollobrigida. Living with them is a young niece played by Ewa Aulin. The farm has become fully automated, much to the displeasure of the former workers. The farm, as such, is a large structure with row after row of caged chickens. The centerpiece of the farm is a huge, centrifugal machine that seems to somehow do everything from distributing the feed to completely plucking the chickens. Touched are thoughts that have become more widely discussed in the almost fifty years since the film was made, especially discussions of bioengineering the chickens for commercial purposes.

The film also features one of the handful of film scores by Bruno Maderna. One of the supplements on the blu-ray is the soundtrack album. That Maderna did the music score instead of someone more traditionally melodious like Riz Ortolani would be one way Questi would undermine genre expectations. Just as the violence is more suggested than seen, so the potentially erotic moments seem deliberately flat. After seeing Death Laid an Egg, you might not look at an egg yolk in quite the same way.

December 03, 2017

Coffee Break

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Jean-Pierre Leaud in The Pornographer (Bertrand Bonello - 2001)

November 28, 2017

Portrait of Jennie

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William Dieterle - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

A struggling artist, trying to make a living at a time of great instability, finds his fortunes change when he encounters a beautiful woman with long, black hair. The woman in question is revealed to be a ghost. I finally got around to seeing Portrait of Jennie about six years ago. And I started to re-title the film "Jennie Monogatari", after noting some similarities with Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari. As it turned out, I've not been alone in noting those similarities.

The film begins with lofty quotes from Euripides and Keats on life and death, truth and beauty, essentially setting up the premise of a love that transcends human limitations and understand. And this is a beautiful film, gorgeously photographed and emotionally stirring. But what is really transcended here is any bit of logic. The film takes place in depression era New York City of 1934. Artist Eben Abner is alone in Central Park when he first encounters Jennie, dressed as a young girl of maybe ten years old from 1910. Why does this girl, not even a teenager, zero in on a guy who's old enough to be her father? More curiously, while Jennie reappears, seemingly at random, a little bit older, with the goal of being of marriageable age for Abner, why is she fuzzy about memories of her own life? And how does one make sense of Jennie being sent to a convent school where most of her classmates become nuns, when the dialogue points out that Jennie isn't Catholic? And while I'm at it, as it is established that Abner lives in a garret apartment, it didn't strike anyone as odd that Abner's Irish pal, Gus O'Toole would haul a full size harp to accompany himself on a song.

Keep in mind that Portrait of Jennie took over a year to produce, with re-writes and re-shoots mandated by producer David O. Selznick for a final cost of about four million dollars. This was slightly greater than the budget for Gone with the Wind, for a film that is essentially an intimate love story. I'm going to have to guess that the assumption was that if the viewer could accept the idea of a love story between a mortal man and a beautiful female ghost, than all the plot holes and inconsistencies will disappear as easily as easily as Jennifer Jones whenever Joseph Cotten glances away from her.

Troy Howarth seems like an unlikely choice for the commentary track, given that he is best known for his writings on Italian horror films. Howarth does provide a plethora of details on the production, giving credit where due, especially as Selznick productions are often known for having several uncredited hands in the final work. The commentary is probably of greatest benefit for younger viewers with less familiarity with the actors, including brief biographies of the supporting players. Howarth also discusses how the final, tinted reels of Portrait of Jennie were shown in the process known as Magnascope in a handful of theaters. Reportedly, it was at these theaters that Portrait of Jennie did well commercially. Having been to the theater where Jennie played in New York City, the Rivoli, I can almost imagine how overwhelming the experience would have been.

Perhaps why Portrait of Jennie works in spite of itself, and why I like this film in spite of its illogic, is because it is a blend of classic Hollywood filmmaking alternating with scenes taking place on location in New York City. Some of this is probably due to the jolt of neorealism that appeared in films only a couple years earlier. And it's probably what inspired Selznick to work, albeit not successfully, with Vittorio De Sica in 1953, with Jones starring in Terminal Station. There are a couple of longish tracking shots of Jones and Cotten walking through Central Park, a location much used in the film. New York City also appears as a ghost town with the pair seen on the streets in a scene that appears to have been filmed early in the morning. In retrospect, Eben Abner sailing through a hurricane to reunite with a ghost names Jennie is dwarfed by the ambitions of David O. Selznick to provide the ultimate showcase for the woman who was about to be his wife.

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November 26, 2017

Coffee Break

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Alice Taglioni in Paris-Manhattan (Sophie Lellouche - 2012)