Saturday, May 29, 2010

Personal Canon: 21. À Bout de souffle (1960)

À Bout de souffle, aka Breathless (1960)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg
Grade: A
**Read this retrospective review and others like it at InRo**

The opening line of dialogue in "Breathless" is "After all, I'm an arsehole", the first of one of many admissions by Jean-Paul Belmondo's Michel that he isn't the perfect guy to be in a relationship with. It's not the only confession on show; Jean-Luc Godard may have gotten more overtly political with age but his debut, as part of a trio of films dedicated to revolutionising French cinema, is well and truly throwing down the gauntlet. The restless bravado and adrenaline-fuelled antics of leading man Belmondo may lay claim to the film's enticing title, but only form part of the nature of "Breathless" as a crash course in rebellion.

After stealing a car, Michel proceeds to speed wildly through the French countryside, culminating in a police chase which he settles by shooting and killing a uniformed officer. He reacts to this with not an inkling of consideration or regret (Godard's cinematic style is often too brisk to allow for that anyway) and moves onto yet more shady dealings in the heart of Paris's criminal underworld. You get the impression that he isn't exactly dealing with the crème de la crème of the city's amoral hierarchy, as their exchange is a tad amateurish and very nearly foiled. Nevertheless, he hopes to obtain a wad of money from the venture and run away to Italy with an American woman he met in Nice three weeks previously.

Jean Seberg, as the American twenty year-old Patricia, knows that Michel is no good, despite all of her entertaining to the contrary, testing his commitment to her by questioning his feelings even though she knows that the preferred response isn't coming. At one point she even steps onto a balcony Juliet-style to illicit romantic affection from her would-be Romeo, only to be admonished and told to come down. For all of their flirting it becomes painfully obvious that Michel and Patricia are completely unsuited to each other. As well as being recklessly uncommitted to any one girl or goal, Michel is hopelessly unable to guage anyone else's feelings or opinions, content to measure their tryst through physical, sexual intimacy.

The feeling I get from "Breathless" is that Godard intended to create a more crime-based noir setup, with the forefront of the story coming from Michel's misadventures as a tearaway villain rather than his connection to Patricia. The film's sudden shift from the opening act of hooliganism to a more intuitive, romantic drama feels so sincere and immersive to be even slightly orchestrated, and their relationship is interrogated to the extent that it becomes so lucidly sadistic to watch. Godard's entry into the era of the French New Wave is undoubtedly antagonistic and provocative, mirroring the discord of filmmakers towards mainstream cinema at this time. Michel speaks directly at the camera, a vessel for the authorial intention of Godard as he spouts the lines, "If you don't like the countryside, if you don't like the mountains, if you don't like the city.... get stuffed". Godard's style of direction and its disregard for cinematic protocol defines "Breathless" to a point, but doesn't deter from what is a scintillating, profound study of a man and woman drawn together through primal necessity. Like Bertolucci later did with Last Tango in Paris, Godard instigates a situation where we aren't necessarily involved with either proponent of the romance, but captivated by their desire to live in the moment, regardless of their future life and loves.

Perhaps there's something about "Breathless" that appeals to my romantic sensibilities, the feeling that when you're young you aren't bound to commitment even though you secretly crave it, and that when tested loyalty counts for very little. One can mistake love for sex, physical attraction, the need to rebel, but when push comes to shove we know what we don't want. Michel, as a dreamer, has a very narrow concept of success and failure, and doesn't recognise that Patricia is keen enough on him to try and construct a more positive image of the guy as a loveable rogue. Patricia is most identifiable from an audience standpoint in her introspective infuriation with Michel, and thankfully Godard never pertains to iconise Michel as a matryr of anarchism, and if anything portrays France as a haven for exploitation and deceit.

The French New Wave is often characterised by the sharp cuts and jazzy accompinament that peppers "Breathless" and its superficial glamourisation of Paris and its citizens. "Breathless" bears many similarities to thirties crime dramas like John Cromwell's Algiers and Howard Hawks' blistering, original Scarface, in that it discourages empathy for its leading man, charting his downfall through a sprawling, neo-noir setup. Godard can get away with re-interpreting thirties gangster pictures/forties noir cinema as a desperate, tragic waste because Michel is such a profligated, disconcerting presence, so unconcerned with getting caught in the first place. Unlike Hawks' film "Breathless" isn't consciously delivering an impression of Michel so much as allowing Belmondo the freedom to be indefensibly fearless (the worst kind of courage?) and is a much more impacting feat because of this. That's perhaps why Patricia's pressured role as an informant to the police doesn't have the melodramatic caveat of a Raymond Chandler novel, and why the lack of real devotion towards any character or story strand works so well.

This Paris, like thirties Algiers, is a ruse for grubbier disgrace. The wrenching sadness about "Breathless" is in its confirmation of life as unfulfilled, and Michel's late proclaim that he's "had enough" sums up the film's dogged independence as an entity eager to shun rules as much as Michel himself. A rapid, slightly abrupt finale reads as if Godard had just put the phone down on a call that was somehow getting out of hand. He's said all he needs to say, and even though "Breathless" won't always amount to everyone's idea of polish, the result is so much meatier than the sum of its parts.

*A digitally restored version of "Breathless" was shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival last month, and is released in cinemas from May 28th*

Thursday, May 20, 2010

1952, Year in Review: The Quiet Man

The Quiet Man
Directed by John Ford
Starring: John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald
Grade: B

There's something permanently lovely about John Ford's "The Quiet Man", even if watching regressive sexual politics and unending traditionalism isn't exactly my cup of tea. If there's one knack Ford had it's for capturing community spirit and togetherness through the internal conflict of an ingrained collective. In two of his Oscar wins, The Informer and How Green Was My Valley, the Irish and Welsh villages debate over how to solve the problems of betrayal and capitalism respectively, and the approach towards the conflict in "The Quiet Man" doesn't differ greatly from that of these pictures.

Set in Innisfree, a village in Ireland, the film is a romantic comedy of sorts, devoted to the relationship between a disgraced Irish-American boxer (Wayne) and the sister of the village's chief land-owner, 'Red' Will Danaher (McLaglen). Sean Thornton's return to the town after a lengthy absence instigates resentment in Will, who wanted to buy the Thornton property. Moreover, the newfound Americanised ideology of Sean angers Danaher, and exacerbates their relationship considerably. Through the help of the townsfolk Thornton is finally able to court Maureen O'Hara's Mary Kate, despite the remonstrations of brother Will, but in the process further complicates his and her position within the community.

Essentially "The Quiet Man" is about the difficulty of cultural convergence, and the problems one faces when encountering a very concentrated way of life. Mary Kate is in love with Sean but she's also fiercely protective of her background and tradition, to the extent where she'd give him up to preserve a level of perceived dignity. I don't necessarily feel that Thornton was that cavalier a presence for audiences at the time, since post-war American life seems, by all accounts, a period in which people wanted to negate tradition. Still, it is mostly left up to Sean to do the converging, since Ford is evidently keen to reinforce those core cultural values and woo us into buying into Innisfree as a home from home.

Despite the undeniable candor "The Quiet Man" feels too reverent of Ireland's salt-of-the-earth, brazen, simplistic life (considering Ford's Irish heritage, it's little surprise) that it often distracts us from considering whether that's an appealing option to Sean. The indiscretion which forced him to give up physical confrontation altogether reveals a more sinister element to his character, yet this other persona is referred to so sparingly that Sean comes across as little other than a charming, quiet man marooned in an environment that feels specifically designed to test his patience. A late decision to show his fists acts as a realisation of the conviction of his earlier actions, but is a fundamental encouragement of unhealthy, needless aggression and curbs the ambitions of an otherwise successful fighter.

But then, the film works so well at crafting humanist qualities in its characters that I feel a tad guilty about denouncing it for neglecting Thornton's perspective. After all, he's rather like the only visitor in a circus of attention-seeking souls that court petty playground feuds and rollercoaster romances. Maureen O'Hara too indulges in Innisfree's salutation of drama as a fixture of rural insularity, and even as Mary Kate often forms the serious obstruction to happiness for both herself and Sean, it's telling that she isn't silly enough to think that he won't eventually come across to her way of thinking. Sean is only an outsider as much as the town will allow, and the majority of Innisfree's gala parade are always on his side.

Showcasing a celebratory attitude towards resistance to change, "The Quiet Man" doesn't comprehensively address the resentment estrangement often leads to. Still, the impressive ease with which Ford establishes a commonality that appear so wholly self-governing and sustainable ensures that it ranks as a fetching achievement. Bruises come with building bridges but the strain ends there.

Academy Awards


Best Director: John Ford
Best Cinematography, Colour


Best Picture
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Victor McLaglen
Best Writing, Screenplay
Best Art Direction, Colour
Best Sound, Recording

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

1952, Year in Review: The Bad and the Beautiful

The Bad and the Beautiful
Directed by Vincente Minelli
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame
Grade: C+

There's a moment in "The Bad and the Beautiful" where in the midst of a heated argument Lana Turner launches a glass bottle at Kirk Douglas, very nearly clocking him square on that famously-chiselled chin of his. I remain clueless as to the level of intent behind this moment; if it amounts to a bout of needless melodrama, a lesson in method acting, or some kind of meditation on life imitating art and vice versa. In short, that foible summarises my feelings about the sketchy extent of the film's satire, and whether Minelli is aware of the difference between brave filmmaking and savvy filmmaking. He certainly scores points for a deftly cynical attitude towards the film industry and its fickle, frivolous cultivation of disloyalty.

Dogulas' Jonathan Shields starts off as a reckless gambler, indebted to a Hollywood Producer who then gives him a job that a million guys would kill for. First blood to Minelli in the "be shameless to succeed" stakes, a point that's re-iterated later through promiscuity and betrayal of the highest order. "Beautiful" is also heavily critical of men and male-dominated big business in a way that was surely novel for the fifties, rarely encouraging empathy for Shields or his achievements. His stormy relationship with Actress Georgia Lorrison dominates as a makeshift connection that works wonders for both their careers but does nothing for their personal life. They're an engaging enough partnership, no doubt, but because Minelli is too keen to maintain a prehensile perspective Douglas and Turner often feel coldly demonstrative of his chastise. The succession of soap opera-esque tiffs, while aesthetically brutal and bare on the screen, don't give us enough of an insight into the pair and become a repetitive fixture.

After ninety minutes "Beautiful" hastily veers from Jonathan and Georgia to focus on Dick Powell as a screenwriter and Gloria Grahame as his neurotic wife, a move that confirmed to me that Minelli really isn't sure of how to manipulate his ideas into the film's narrative. Mirrored with the previous story strand this sudden attempt to introduce an alternative avenue feels tacked on to give the allusion that "Beautiful" is more of a rounded drama with Shields at its centre. Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa, with all it had to say about the movie business, was made three years after this film, and works better by chronicling the rise of one particular Actress.

If you didn't already know that Hollywood is the haven of a ruthless juggernaut of commerce, you certainly will after watching "The Bad and the Beautiful". Yet, for all of the freshness in the approach towards its subject, the film is much too disjointed to achieve the impact as a sniping commentary that its dramatic title and glitzy cast-list might suggest. 

Academy Awards

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Gloria Grahame
Best Writing (Screenplay)
Best Art Direction, Black and White
Best Cinematography, Black and White
Best Costume Design, Black and White

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Kirk Douglas

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Agora": Review

Agora (2009)
Directed by Alejandro Amenábar
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Evans, Ashraf Barhom
Grade: C -
*Head on over to In Review Online to read this piece, along with reviews of other current releases*

It's become commonplace for Rachel Weisz to emerge from conflict with supreme dignity, whether she's battling Egyptian mummies, political corruption, or—in this case—pesky Christians. She's the voice of reason and there’s not much to question in her serene gaze. In his latest project, Alejandro Amenábar (“The Others,” “The Sea Inside”) casts Weisz in the role of Roman philosopher Hypatia, who becomes caught in the tide of an early Christian uprising in 4th-century Alexandria. Amenábar fetishizes the period, flaunting the visual splendor of temples and statues that were specifically reconstructed for the film, and littering the production with swooping aerial shots and lengthy pans that enhance its sense of scope. But his indulgent approach lessens the movie's impact as a historical drama, and his tendency to glorify neatly placed props and ultra-clean lines distract us from Alexandria’s volatile populous. Its citizens are engulfed by his set, never seeming to truly inhabit it, consigned to the status of images on a postcard or guests at a costume party.

A rather long prelude of events leads to the collapse of Alexandria’s Roman temple, setting in motion a tumultuous future for Hypatia’s pagan community, which must now deal with the pressures of conforming to Christian ideology. While more traditional religious “epics” (e.g. “Ben Hur” or “Spartacus”) deal with a community's active rebellion against change, “Agora” feels like a meditative overview, much freer in structure. Amenábar isn’t preoccupied with displaying battles and laying down definitive plot points, so he's able to address the principal theme of faith versus philosophy through Hypatia’s passive brand of resistance. She navigates the sparse streets while contemplating whether the Earth orbits the Sun or vice versa, blithely unconcerned with religion and intellectually superior to the peripheral squabble. As a critique of society’s general intolerance towards nonconformity, there is at least something to say here, but it soon becomes clear that “Agora” isn't the film to say it.

So Amenábar must resort to exploiting Hypatia’s status as a virgin and all-around savior to juice up an otherwise languid affair. Openly courted by resident poser Orestes (Oscar Isaac) and secretly courted by lowly slave Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia remains cold to the advances of both. After each man lays down an ultimate display of affection, she gives one the “gift” of her menstrual blood and frees the other from slavery. Her relative softness towards Davus suggests that she might care enough about a man to spurn a life of study and chastity, but Weisz's reluctance to portray Hypatia as anything other than an untouchable beacon neutralizes any glimmer of real desire. When introduced, the romance in “Agora” is theatrical and hollow, over-dramatized to mitigate the fact that the inherent munificence of its radiant subject does not extend to two-and-a-quarter-hours of solid entertainment.

Weisz is perhaps too old to play her part convincingly—not in any cosmetic sense, but rather in the sense that her intellectual assuredness prevents Hypatia's dreamer characteristics from being fully realized onscreen. The film would have been better served if Amenábar had allowed Weisz to exercise some creative license with Hypatia, finding conflict within herself and the transitory state of Roman life rather than pitting herself against the rest of the world. “Agora” falls hesitantly into the middle ground either because Amenábar is unwilling to make a film about a virgin who doesn’t entertain the idea of sex, or (more likely) because he’s unable to concede fault or doubt in his heroine. Likewise, the redundancy of picturesque visuals is telling. The ante is upped, but there’s a tentative refusal on the filmmakers' parts to let the history speak for itself, a sensational endeavor to fashion a love triangle out of very little, and a suppression of any concrete discussion that briefly emerges. Christianity conquers, Roman culture teeters on the brink of extinction, and “Agora” creeps into the realm of the disingenuous.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

1952, Year in Review: Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge
Directed by John Huston
Starring: Jose Ferrer, Collette Marchand, Suzanne Flon, Zsa Zsa Gabor
Grade: C -

In his 1950 Oscar-winning turn as Cyrano De Bergerac Jose Ferrer must sport a nose that even Pinocchio would balk at, and yet that didn't deter him from returning two years later to an even bigger physical handicap in John Huston's Moulin Rouge. He waddles along with tiny legs that "stopped growing" for reasons never fully explained, and as tortured artist Henri Tolouse-Lautrec he bears the burden of this handicap for stretches of the film's lengthy running time.

Was Ferrer going for Oscar numero deux? C'est possible. More likely he felt that the period prestige suited his well-spoken sensibilites, and I'll concede that he'd largely be justified in that assumption. He's much more impressive in Cyrano, but oddly charming here, even as the film becomes increasingly repetitive in the to-and-fro of his desperate relationship with local whore Marie Charlet.

Marlene Dietrich showed in Josef Von Sternberg's The Devil is a Woman that as a devious Spanish temptress she could pout and allure better than anyone else in the Thirties (save for maybe Greta Garbo). Collette Marchand's efforts -- while admittedly marooned in a lesser vehicle -- amount to whining and flailing, understandably unsure of whether Marie is supposed to hold any flicker of a torch for Lautrec, and therefore reluctant to commit to any course of action regarding the character. Much of the early narrative is saturated with this thoroughly disinteresting relationship, and offers little real insight into the motivations of Tolouse-Lautrec, failing to detail why either Charlet or the period instilled the man with such a prolific degree of inspiration.

There's a hint of a character study jumbled somewhere inside Moulin Rouge; the desire to chronicle a man trying to find himself inside his work. Late moments concerning his romance with Suzanne Flon offer mild recompense to a strangely throttled middle portion, but otherwise the plotline trundles arduously along, worsened considerably by the occasional introduction of needless, clunkily-directed montages of colourful etchings to demonstrate a severe passing of time. Despite all of the lavish cosmetics afforded to Huston's picture it never manages to get a handle on the particular brand of plastered Paris in which Lautrec reigned, a crime which finally renders Moulin Rouge a crashing failure.

Academy Awards

Best Art Direction, Colour
Best Costume Design, Colour

Best Picture
Best Director: John Huston
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Jose Ferrer
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Collette Marchand
Best Film Editing

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

1952, Year in Review: The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille
Starring: Betty Hutton, James Stewart, Charlton Heston, Gloria Grahame, Cornel Wilde
Grade: C -

The closest modern equivalent to Cecil B. DeMille's oft-criticised Best Picture winner is probably 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Not really because of any crossover with regard to plot (one film is about backstage tension among a circus troupe, the other about a man ageing backwards) but because the two pictures share a level of self-importance synonymous with Oscar Bait. While Button was beaten by Danny Boyle's Slumdog piledriver The Greatest Show managed to hold on for victory, amidst stiff competition from John Ford's The Quiet Man and legendary anti-Western High Noon.

Most frustrating about DeMille's picture is the feigned sense of grandeur that filters through it, spelled out by an intrusive booming narration that stresses the sensational and urges you to absorb the Serious Spectacle. The impetuous immediacy of DeMille's emphasis on scale -- not necessarily even style -- over substance feels all the more redundant as the narrative comparatively dwindles in complexity and ambition. The troupe of performers (the likes of which include Betty Hutton as a vivacious trapeze artist and James Stewart as a depressed clown) engage in some seriously unconvincing, self-conscious scenery, strewn with storm-in-a-teacup-style issues that feel extracted from films like William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, but with no consideration for thematic relevance or involvement.

It's certainly true that The Greatest Show on Earth hasn't aged at all well - not least because the emphasis on technicolour showmanship and general business is so motivated towards seeming innovative for the early Fifties. With relative retrospective enlightenment the coarsely theatrical set-pieces that intersperse the film's misjudged melodrama are strangely laboured, and fail to engage enough to warrant their lengthy sojourn.

I do wonder how much influence DeMille had in Hollywood at this period. Just two years previous to this Norma Desmond had clamoured for his attention in the delicious Sunset Blvd. and he's still regarded as one of the most famous Producers of all time. I can't help but think though that Oscar made a cardinal error in bowing down to The Greatest Show on Earth, since every frame reads of arrogant, lazy filmmaking, to the extent where I don't see how anybody could ever believe that it attains the level of expectation and ambition that it purports to have.

Academy Awards

Best Picture
Best Writing, Motion Picture Story

Best Director
Best Costume Design, Colour
Best Film Editing

Sunday, May 02, 2010

1952, Year in Review: My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel
Directed by Henry Koster
Starring: Richard Burton, Olivia De Havilland, George Dolenz, Audrey Dalton
Grade: B

In 1952 it was the turn of someone other than Alfred Hitchcock to adapt a Daphne Du Maurier novel. More than a decade after The Second Mrs. De Winter questioned her beloved, shifty Max in Rebecca, it was Richard Burton's Phillip Ashley falling in love with somebody clouded in doubt. The final scrawled words of Ashley's cousin Ambrose, "Rachel my torment", is an unanswerable denunciation of a woman Phillip has never met, but while he looks ready to fight tooth and nail to find out how and why Ambrose died, it doesn't take long for cousin Rachel (De Havilland) to curb these protestations and soften his gaze.

The film's gothic prologue, consisting of a motionless body dangling from gallows, all but guarantees that Henry Koster will grasp at every opportunity to up the dramatic ante of My Cousin Rachel. As it is Du Maurier's already-packed novel sacrificially lends itself to the screen, schematically plotting to deliver the outcome of the tenuous relationship between the besotted Phillip Ashley and his resplendent object of affection. The creakily framed narrative offers less room for Du Maurier's themes to breathe, and so that may discourage some from fully committing to the film's central relationship. Still, even as My Cousin Rachel so brazenly opts for the linear, Du Maurier and Koster ensure that the primary interrogation of Rachel's true motives makes for enthralling viewing.

A broody Richard Burton skulks through most of the running time --unquestionably leading, but clearly not experienced enough to be taken seriously in that category at this point-- like a bratty, fickle simpleton. He inhabits the character's devolved foolishness in moving erratically from extreme concession to resentment, even though not a whole lot around him changes. Upon reflection My Cousin Rachel is unnervingly accurate in its judgment of character, Koster and Burton all the more effective for fuelling paranoia that doesn't fully pay off.

My Cousin Rachel will mostly be remembered for a final twist that rather knocked my socks off. Once divulged it's clear that the film has always been working towards this payoff, but functionally results in a triumph for all involved. This embittered about-turn makes you reconsider much of what you had already taken for granted, and only made me hanker for a repeat viewing. Rachel my torment.

Academy Awards

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Richard Burton
Best Art Direction (B & W)
Best Cinematography (B & W)
Best Costume Design (B &W)

Un Autre Project, aka Glutton For Punishment

Yes, it's true that I am barely a tenth of the way through a personal canon, and not even close to finishing my 2009 Addict awards. Still, I figure that more projects can surely only help to increase the frequency of posts on the blog.

Lately, I've been hearing the number 52 an awful lot. I have no idea why. It seems as if it has probably sub-consciously affected my film viewing though, since four of the last ten viewed flicks have been from that particular year. Thus, I've decided to turn this into a project, and am going to attempt to continue with '52 viewing, providing reviews for each film, inclusive of those four to which I earlier referred.

So watch this space for some serious retrospective action. Or better still, watch Gloria.