Saturday, July 31, 2010

Volpi Cup Winners: Victoire Thivisol

Victoire Thivisol in "Ponette"

(Won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival in 1996 over Oyanka Cabezas in "Carla's Song" and Irene Papas in "Party")

In her role as a girl who suddenly loses her mother Victoire Thivisol (Four years old during the filming of "Ponette") has emotion and sentiment on her side; rarely are children afforded an entire feature-length picture with which to display such a wrenching sense of loss. It's understandable since surely people as young and technically fledgling are somewhat of a loose cannon -- few kids beyond Jackie Cooper have commanded continual respect as a leading character actor. Thivisol never again attained the level of admiration she managed with this performance, but at the age of 19 one would certainly never count her out. A follow-up role in Chocolat brought promise, and she is still working, so perhaps if a hefty role comes her way she may become the next Marion Cotillard, however much you view that as a success.

"Ponette" is a brave film, not least because most of the dialogue centres around infant playground chatter, innocent remonstrations on religion and whether when people die they are truly "gone". Writer/Director Jacques Doillon modifies religious scepticism to accomodate the naivety of youth, and rarely over-calculates the spats Ponette has with her wily friends. He recognises the whys and why nots of grief, the struggle of accepting loss, and especially the problems that children have with understanding ideological difference (or indifference) in adults. Ponette's early reaction to the death of her mother -- a result of a motor accident involving the two -- is churlish, stroppy, as she clambers atop a car, part-rebelliously and somewhat uncertain of how such a vehicle has contributed so heavily to her mother's demise. Thivisol immediately asserts that Ponette is thinking about her situation, not merely reacting to finality by bursting into tears and stamping her feet. She accepts the "death" but evidently doesn't know how it will affect her life, whether she should even cry, since her father has confronted the event with a boulder-like sense of resentment. Even at such a dizzyingly-unidentifiable age Thivisol is able to impart an impressive amount of detail into the relationship she has with her father, reacting to him with fluid, unrehearsed fear, and recognises that this fear stems from emotional-not-physical abuse. Her later scenes with him possess a more aggressive dynamic, and you can see that Ponette wants him to cry, to confirm the pain that she is feeling instead of launching into a verbal coming-to-terms speech that doesn't help to explain what is buzzing around inside of her head.

Thivisol's emotional intelligence is such that even the intermitten breakdowns that come from prayers that don't produce, kids that attack her weakness, a growing inner-conflict between faith and logic, are telegraphed as waves of uncertain emotion, rather than wailing releases of surefire showmanship. She palpably wrestles with the internal unanswered questions we ask ourselves when someone dies, and therefore captures grief in its purest form. Keisha Castle-Hughes' Paikea also had an absent mother in 2003's "Whale Rider" (a role that made 13 year-old Castle-Hughes the youngest ever Best Actress nominee at the Oscars), and while I admire that performance immensely her efforts feel more orchestrated (either by her or Director Niki Caro) to generate sympathy for their protagonist. Thivisol benefits from the fly-on-the-wall style of her director, occasionally unsure of where to look and what to do, and subsequently the plight of Ponette is a much looser, organic prospect. Even at her blankest moments of extreme close-up Thivisol is crafting something for herself and the film, which I find astonishing given the enormity of the task involved and the obvious limitations imposed by her minimal acting experience.

In the late stages of Doillon's film Ponette is crouched over the grave of her deceased mother, clawing at the soil that separates her from the source of parental affection that she isn't getting elsewhere. When asked about this scene, or more specifically about how she managed to make herself cry, Victoire replied that it was normal for Ponette to cry because her mother was dead. It's an observation that only serves to reinforce the instinctual impression Thivisol brings to "Ponette", a generous respondent to her Director's studious childhood melancholy.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Volpi Cup and its History of Best Actresses

(Note: Years skipped are those where the prize was not handed out, for whatever reason.)

• 1934 Katharine Hepburn in "Little Women"
• 1935 Paula Wessely in "Episode"
• 1936 Annabella in "Veille D'armes"
• 1937 Bette Davis in "Kid Galahad" & "Marked Woman"
• 1938 Norma Shearer in "Marie Antoinette"
• 1941 Luise Ullrich in "Annelie"
• 1942 Kristina Soderbaum in "Die Goldene Stadt"
• 1947 Anna Magnani in "L'onorevole Angelina"
• 1948 Jean Simmons in "Hamlet"
• 1949 Olivia de Havilland in "The Snake Pit"
• 1950 Eleanor Parker in "Caged"
• 1951 Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire"
• 1953 Lilli Palmer in "The Four Poster"
• 1956 Maria Schell in "Gervaise"
• 1957 Dzidra Ritenberga in "Malva"
• 1958 Sophia Loren in "The Black Orchid"
• 1959 Madeleine Robinson in "À Double Tour"
• 1960 Shirley Maclaine in "The Apartment"
• 1961 Suzanne Flon in "Tu ne Tueras Point"
• 1962 Emmanuelle Riva in "Thérèse Desqueyroux"
• 1963 Delphine Seyrig in "Muriel"
• 1964 Harriet Andersson in "Att Alska"
• 1965 Annie Girardot in "Trois chambres à Manhattan"
• 1966 Natalya Arinbasarova in "Pervyj Uchitel"
• 1967 Shirley Knight in "Dutchman"
• 1968 Laura Betti in "Teorema"
• 1982 Susan Sarandon in "Tempest"
• 1983 Darling Legitimus in "Rue Cases Negres"
• 1984 Pascale Ogier in "Les Nuits de la pleine lune"
• 1986 Valeria Golino in "Storia d'amore"
• 1985 Kang Soo-yeon in "Contract Mother"
• 1988 Shirley Maclaine in "Madame Sousatzka" & Isabelle Huppert in "Une Affaire De Femmes"
• 1989 Peggy Ashcroft & Geraldine James in "She's Been Away"
• 1990 Gloria Münchmeyer in "La Luna en el Espejo"
• 1991 Tilda Swinton in "Edward II"
• 1992 Gong Li in "Qiu Ju Da Guan Si"
• 1993 Juliette Binoche in "Trois Coleurs: Bleu"
• 1994 Maria de Medeiros in "Três Irmãos"
• 1995 Sandrine Bonnaire & Isabelle Huppert in "La Cérémonie"
• 1996 Victoire Thivisol in "Ponette"
• 1997 Robin Tunney in "Niagara, Niagara"
• 1998 Catherine Deneuve in "Place Vendôme"
• 1999 Nathalie Baye in "Une Liaison Pornographique"
• 2000 Rose Byrne in "The Goddess of 1967"
• 2001 Sandra Ceccarelli in "Luce Dei Miei Occhi"
• 2002 Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven"
• 2003 Katja Riemann in "Rosenstrasse"
• 2004 Imelda Staunton in "Vera Drake"
• 2005 Giovanna Mezzogiorno in "The Beast in the Heart"
• 2006 Helen Mirren in "The Queen"
• 2007 Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There"
• 2008 Dominique Blanc in "L'Autre"
• 2009 Kseniya Rappoport in "The Double Hour"

I have see 12 of these 56 performances, and there isn't a bad one among them. I've probably been spoiled there. The win that sticks out the most has to be Shirley Knight for "Dutchman", victorious over Catherine Deneuve in "Belle de Jour" (the Golden Lion that year), and in a sex comedy that lasts less than an hour. Still, who am I to judge?

Analysis of some of these women to follow soon, beginning with the youngest of them. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Golden Lion of San Marco, and its History of Winners

(Note: gaps denote years where the award was not given, for whatever reason.)

1949: “Manon” by Henry-Georges Clouzot
1950: “Justice est fait” by André Cayatte
1951: “Rashômon” by Akira Kurosawa
1952: “Jeux interdits” by René Clément
1954: “Romeo and Juliet” by Renato Castellani
1955: “Ordet” by Carl Theodor Dreyer
1957: “Aparajito” by Satyajit Ray
1958: “Muhô-Matsu no Isshô” by Hiroshi Inagaki
1959: “Il Generale Della Rovere” by Roberto Rossellini & “La grande guerra” by Mario Monicelli
1960: “Le passage du Rhin” by André Cayatte
1961: “L'année dernière à Marienbad” by Alain Resnais
1962: “Ivanovo detstvo” by Andrei Tarkovsky & “Cronaca familiare” by Valerio Zurlini
1963: “Le mani sulla città” by Francesco Rosi
1964: “Deserto rosso” by Michelangelo Antonioni
1965: “Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa” by Luchino Visconti
1966: “La battaglia di Algeri” by Gillo Pontecorvo
1967: “Belle de jour” by Luis Buñuel
1968: “Die Artisten in der Zirkuskuppel: ratlos” by Alexander Kluge
1980: “Atlantic City” by Louis Malle & “Gloria” by John Cassavetes
1981: “Die Bleierne Zeit” by Margarethe von Trotta
1982: “Der Stand der Dinge” by Wim Wenders
1983: “Prénom Carmen” by Jean-Luc Godard
1984: “Rol Spokojnego Slonca” by Krzysztof Zanussi
1985: “Sans toit ni loi” by Agnès Varda
1986: “Le rayon vert” by Eric Rohmer
1987: “Au revoir les enfants” by Louis Malle
1988: “La leggenda del santo bevitore” by Ermanno Olmi
1989: “Beiqing shenghsi” by Hou Xiaoxian
1990: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” by Tom Stoppard
1991: “Urga” by Nikita Mikhalkov
1992: “Qui Ju da guansi” by Zhang Yimou
1993: “Short Cuts” by Robert Altman & “Trois couleurs: Bleu” by Krzysztof Kieslowski
1994: “Before the Rain” by Milcho Manchevski & “Aiqing wansui - Vive l’amour” by Tsai Ming-liang
1995: “Cyclo” by Tran Ahn Hung
1996: “Michael Collins” by Neil Jordan
1997: “Hana-bi” by Takeshi Kitano
1998: “Così ridevano” by Gianni Amelio
1999: “Not One Less” by Zhang Yimou
2000: “Dayereh” by Jafar Panahi
2001: “Monsoon Wedding” by Mira Nair
2002: “The Magdalene Sisters” by Peter Mullan
2003: “Vozvrashcheniye” by Andrei Zvyagintsev
2004: “Vera Drake” by Mike Leigh
2005: “Brokeback Mountain” by Ang Lee
2006: “Sanxia haoren” by Jia Zhangke
2007: “Se, jie” by Ang Lee
2008: “The Wrestler” by Darren Aronofsky
2009: “Lebanon” by Samuel Maoz

I have seen 12 of these 53, which is a lowly 23%. Tellingly, none of them have gone on to win the Best Picture Oscar (this is no middle-of-the-road hunting ground, after all), though "Brokeback Mountain" came tantalisingly close, and you can make an argument for "Atlantic City" too.

Observation and ranking of those twelve films to follow soon.

Venezia 67, Line-Up Announced

The line-up for this year's Venice Film Festival has been announced. View it here at the Festival's official website.

I'm obviously most excited for Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere", since I loved her first three films. Other interesting prospects come in the form of the already-announced "Black Swan", and Kelly Reichardt's follow-up to "Wendy and Lucy", Western "Meek's Cutoff". Work from Francois Ozon, Monte Hellman, Vincent Gallo, and Adellatif Kachiche also feature.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal for Venice and Toronto

Awards fever is catching at the moment with the past week's announcements regarding the upcoming Venice and Toronto festivals. Thursday brought the news that Darren Aronofsky's ballerina-thriller "Black Swan" will open Venice, just a week after Toronto revealed it would be starting with "Score: A Hockey Musical". Julie Taymor's "The Tempest", starring Helen Mirren, has been chosen to close things on the Lido (out of competition), while news today puts some tasty-looking features on the rest of Toronto's slate. Among those making the trip to Canada are Nicole Kidman's bid for an Oscar comeback in "Rabbit Hole", and Mark Romanek's adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel "Never Let Me Go".

I will be going to Venice again this year up until September 9 and am hoping to catch the slew of titles circling, the likes of which include Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" (already confirmed), Julian Schnabel's "Miral", and the probable World premiere of Ben Affleck's second film as a director, "The Town". There is still no news on whether the mysterious Terrence Malick and his interminably absent "The Tree of Life" will bow in Italy, although if that was a possibility I'd have expected something more concrete to go on by now.

The full line-up for Venezia 66 is expected on Thursday, and August on this blog will be dedicated to previews of upcoming Venice 2010 features and reviews/ranking of the modest amount of Golden Lion and Volpi Cup (Actress) winners that I've managed to see so far.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sit Down and Shut Up: "Love Story" and its Ode to the Romance Genre

Love Story (1970)
Directed by Arthur Hiller
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Ali MacGraw, John Marley, Ray Milland
Grade: D+

“You look wonderful” says Ryan O’Neal’s Oliver to Ali MacGraw’s Jennifer when he returns to their home one evening, to which she responds, “No I don’t. I look OK for a Thursday night.” If “Love Story” was less self-definitive one could believe that it could adhere to beauty being in the eye of the beholder, or at least that Jennifer was being a trifle modest about her appearance. Instead the issue is laid to rest with ease, and this moment is an apotheosis of the film’s heavy-handed approach towards reality.

Screenwriter Erich Segal ensures everyone is kept in check by doing away with much of the exposition of Oliver and Jennifer’s budding high-school relationship, which swiftly becomes something much more serious. The couple appear to know each other inside-out fairly immediately, casting opinions in their first encounter at a library that are rarely, if ever, contravened afterward. He is the promising Harvard law aspirer who almost wants to spurn ambition to stick two fingers up at his snobbish, pushy parents, and she is the mouthy small-town girl who knows her own strengths and limitations. The early moments of their courtship ingratiate the couple to us, partly because of the amusing punchy banter they engage in, and somewhat as a result of O’Neal and MacGraw’s discernible chemistry. Jennifer is more upfront at first, her flagrant use of “god damn” the seventies equivalent of outlandish femininity, and as she goads Oliver by calling him “preppy”, she lightens the assertion of the couple’s class differences while ensuring that they remain an issue. The lofty social superiority of Oliver’s parents is the only obstacle for the couple in the first half of the film, but barely really registers as a legitimate qualm since Oliver is already so resentful of them anyway. The argument reaches a heady conclusion and, in dramatic terms, is dealt with simply and cleanly.

“Love Story” as a title is projecting an impression of itself as the 101 of romance, a literary portrait, and whether one sees this as the pinnacle of its pin-holed genre is down to whether you buy into complexity being spurned for a lineated, easy-beaten path. Even the strengths of “Love Story” detract from the modesty of the patent-like setup. Spearheaded by one of the most rousing, iconic film scores, the accompaniment is utilised rashly, with a primary intention to manipulate the slightness of the film’s themes and plug them with an aesthetic sense of grandeur. Even at its most wrenchingly sour the dramatic force of the film is weary, since it permanently appears to be working to finalise its characters' uncertainties and encourage universal acceptance of fate. “Love Story” is constantly delivering on Shakespearian elements of romance and tragedy, but without making any of its characters daring or interesting enough, extinguishing what it enflames almost in fear of making its audience uncomfortable for ten minutes.

Hiller’s film will most likely be remembered for the drastic climax of its romance, which essentially reinforces the view of “tragedy” as natural but love as unbreakable. The emotional impact of the late tragedy is minimal, since the briskness of formulating their relationship makes the Actors’ late, thankless requirement to allude to years of attachment a little desperate. And is it years? The time that passes is so unclear and uneven, and the terminal illness of Jennifer, along with the rest of the film, feels rushed unsteadily, as part of feeding populist impressions of romance as heartbreaking and zealous. We aren’t registering with the characters so much as an idea of romance as a paradox of the physically-fragile and emotionally-untouchable. Even the illness is lower on angst than is expected of a true “melodrama”, the Doctor disclosing a bleak diagnosis (to her husband not Jennifer, I might add) that neglects to explain what she is actually dying of. “Love Story” doesn’t deem a detail like this important because it won’t affect people’s perceptions of the romance or the essential devastation of losing the love of your life, which I find more than a tad insulting. The film is perpetually unconcerned with clarity that doesn’t involve the bare essentials of romantic fiction, mechanically moving from A to B to C in order to deliver its payload of tragedy. “Love Story” could well be viewed as the mainstream extreme, since it mirrors the expectations of a romantic audience by never once challenging itself or its characters.

The famously spoken tagline of the film, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, speaks volumes. The people who cried during “Love Story” more likely did so in the way one would observe homeless, neglected animals on charity ads. The film is designed to collate thoughts about love as fateful and significant into a commonplace collective – of course romance can be tragic, but “Love Story” is willing us to accept its own shallow pool of thought as an honest concession. In the same vein as its characters we’re sucked into a regimental order of cinematic control, indoctrinated into a brand of weeping consumers neutered of senses, unconcerned with real people and real problems. “Love Story” is escapist fare, not in the least unconditional, and therefore somebody somewhere is surely owed an apology.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

How Women Crashed "The Bachelor Party"

Directed by Delbert Mann
Starring: Don Murray, Patricia Smith, Jack Warden, E. G. Marshall, Philip Abbott, Carolyn Jones, Nancy Marchand, Larry Blyden
Grade: C+

Delbert Mann's "The Bachelor Party" began as a teleplay in 1953, written and adapted by Paddy Chayefsky, Mann's collaborator on Marty. The central role of Charlie began with Eddie Albert and is reprised in this 1957 picture by Don Murray, off the back of his Oscar-nominated squawking with Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop. "The Bachelor Party" begins with Charlie looking thoroughly miserable, listening to his wife elate about their new pregnancy to her mother. It quickly becomes clear that Charlie is disillusioned with life in his nine-to-five routine, wondering whether the prospect of marriage, children, and a mortgage is worth the strain.

There's something to be said for the film as one of the first of its kind to document the institutionalisation of life, especially considering that we see films that re-iterate this point even now. Revolutionary Road uses similar examples of people willing to rebel against an assumed path, grandstanding marriage to proclaim that there were Issues in the 1950's and people SHOUTED about them! "The Bachelor Party" throws its issues around but lets Don Murray whimper in the corner about things, occasionally making toiled speeches to colleagues who in turn get their chance to reveal how dented their own manhoods are. Legitimate concerns are proffered, but at the expense of real insight. We don't get to see these men in enough genuine situations that expose their concerns, and instead the "The Bachelor Party" is much too reliant upon a one-night-only, booze-fuelled trawl across tawdry terrain.

Don Murray isn't strong enough to carry the film's issues on his own, which is a shame because overall the ensemble is very canny. The women of the film, in slim supporting roles, represent the attempts to balance out the dominant sense of failure in the male. These take the form of Charlie's suffering wife Helen, his sister Nancy, and a lonely party girl nicknamed "The Existentialist".

Patricia Smith as Helen Samson

Smith, a prolific TV Actress, is someone I hadn't previously come across. As Charlie's wife Helen she doesn't have to delve fathoms to extricate sympathy for her pregnant character, continually given very little affection or information by her miserable husband. Still, Smith remains consistently wary, eager to please but completely sure that she wants the life that Charlie is doubting. She gives us an early sense that Helen is a limpet, dependent upon the corporate stakes of her spouse, but reveals more about her character through bursts of silent rage and dubious glances to demonstrate the woman that Charlie fell in love with. These emerge when talking to Julie, whose willingness to let go the misdemeanours of her own husband rile Helen to a surprising degree. There are more inklings of romantic history in her performance than in any other singular force in the film.

Nancy Marchand as Julie Samson

In a five-minute scene, Nancy Marchand's Julie reveals to Helen that she knows her husband is having an affair, and has had affairs in the past. This is a sure attempt by Chayefsky to normalise the masculine approach to crisis in looking further afield; and the 'boys will be boys' assessment feels at least accurate to me, if not an entirely rich analysis. Marchand approaches the subject as a quest for re-assurance, much like Norma Shearer did in The Women long before "The Bachelor Party" was even made. She lets us know that Julie is hurting, ceding her own veil of pride to allow a different perspective, even if it isn't what she wants to hear. This scene is designed to test the already-dwindling belief in Helen towards Charlie's loyalty towards her and their new arrival, but also helps to bring a different dimension to the film. It reminded me much of Bergman's Waiting Women, made shortly before this, which similarly addressed the female dilemna with regard to relationships. The passive option is not always the easy option.

Carolyn Jones as 'The Existentialist'

The intriguing moniker that the film gives her is akin to her role in the film, but reads as misleading given the depths of character Jones is able to impart from such a short amount of screentime, and limited room to breathe. She's given a lengthy monologue to spout which essentially amounts to piffle, and all but acts to distance her possibility as a romantic option for Charlie. Jones pretty much nails the inflection of her sporadic account, working so hard to achieve it that she's unable to give it the meaning it doesn't have, but when her and Charlie embrace she turns into an altogether different commodity. She alters perceptions of her character as a bit of an easy broad when she insists on Charlie telling her that he loves her, doing so with the right amalgamation of shame and hope, so as to lull him into a false sense of security. Is this woman worth it because she wants love, or is she more trouble?

"The Bachelor Party" frequently over-simplifies the male predicament, to the extent where the actions of the group of men become arduous and rather repetitive. Every man gets their turn at stating his insecurities, flailing Scotch glasses around and sweating like pigs, their concerns plainly evident, over-addressed, lacking real emotional intelligence. But there are little touches to their rapport that generate curiosity, and Charlie's relationship with Helen is an honest, worthwhile element, when it could have effectively acted as a token demonstration of misery. They say 'behind every good man is a good woman', and on this evidence, Delbert Mann's "The Bachelor Party" purports to this theory, succeeding in its depiction of interdependence more than it ever should.

Friday, July 02, 2010

DVD Review, The Essential Claude Chabrol: Vol 1

The Essential Claude Chabrol: Vol 1
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Jean Poiret, Marie Trintignant
Grade: C
***To read this review, and others like it, visit Subtitled Online***

One of the founders of filmmaking in the French New Wave era Claude Chabrol has been active since the late Fifties, winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival with just his second feature film, “Les Cousins”. His career has been a lengthy and prolific one, leading to his reputation as one of the greatest French film directors there has ever been. Artificial Eye’s recent release of the new Essential Claude Chabrol DVD collection marks the 80th birthday of the man this very month, and thus far consists of two volumes, with more expected to follow. Volume 1 encompasses three films; the murder-mystery “Inspecteur Lavardin” (1986), the bleak character study “Betty” (1992), and the blackly comic “Merci pour le chocolat” (2000), starring one of Chabrol’s favourite Actors, Cesar-winner Isabelle Huppert.

The lesser-known “Inspecteur Lavardin” begins with the sinister discovery of a man’s slain corpse on the beach of a French coastal village, and the arrival of the Inspector assigned to the murder case. Lavardin is in the Hercule Poirot mould of sleuth; arrogant, self-satisfied, and facetious in his methods but nonetheless effective, uncovering a web of deceit and intrigue. Jean Poiret, previously Oscar-nominated for his writing work on musical “La Cage Aux Folles”, plays the titular officer, and is clearly revelling in the outspoken nature of his authoritarian figure. What develops is a solidly watchable mystery, the aftermath of the murder of Raoul casting into doubt the legitimacy of his marriage to Hélène (Bernadette Lafont) as well as suggesting her possible motives for killing him. Also suspected is Helene’s gay brother Claude, who admittedly thought Raoul contemptuous of him, his sexuality, and his involvement with amateur dramatics.

By contrast, “Betty” never quite attains as light a tone as “Inspecteur Lavardin”, since it essentially focuses on the mystery surrounding one woman and her ambivalence towards commitment. It is a tragedy of sorts, charting the descent of bourgeois housewife and mother Betty Etamble into alcoholism and depression following her failed marriage to husband Guy. A chance encounter in a bar leads her into a friendship with Laure (Chabrol’s ex-wife Stéphane Audran), who gets Betty a room in her hotel and attempts to guide her back onto the straight-and-narrow. The film flits back and forth in time, between Betty as a singleton, an adulteress, and finally as a divorcée. The late Marie Trintingnant gives a devastating performance as the troubled woman, offering multiple facets of her character’s unnervingly self-destructive lack of worth, a tour-de-force for the ages.

Certainly, at least, of more recent times, “Merci pour le chocolat” is one of Chabrol’s most famous works, a frothy tale of family secrets, child complexes, and jealous chocolatiers. Famous pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc) is taken aback when approached by a young woman named Jeanne, who is told by her mother that when she was born the hospital first identified her as the daughter of the Polonski family. The fact that Jeanne is an aspiring pianist also lays claim to the possibility of her as a relative, a suggestion not entirely welcomed by Andre’s new wife Mika (Isabelle Huppert), who herself comes from a family famous for its confectionery. What ensues is a slow-burning chronicle of a family harbouring deep resentment, inevitably culminating in dramatic revelations.

Chabrol’s upfront style, while brave and novel, can often translate as disingenuous. “Inspecteur Lavardin” and its wry tone perhaps most blatantly demonstrate Chabrol’s tendency to deal with serious issues matter-of-factly, the camp interplay the Inspector engages in with various characters far too distracting, and heavily indulgent of the film’s whimsical tone. One often feels as if Chabrol is deliberately alienating his characters to illicit moral guffaw, deriving comedy from injustice, the absence of serious conflict where many would think there should be. In “Merci pour le chocolat” the early confession by Jeanne’s mother that they might not actually be related is divulged over a lunch the pair have with friends, and there is no attempt to address the pain both would feel if this turned out to be true. Chabrol generates comedy from melodrama without really attuning his characters to this style, or suggesting why Jeanne has her head in the clouds, completely unfazed by this early setback that she marches up to Polonski’s door with not a moment’s consideration. Both films feel particularly contrived to deliver plot mechanics, allowing the Actors in them to be engulfed in mystery but never really part of that mystery, to the extent where you guage their self-conscious bemusement with the attention-sought, harsh realities of Chabrol’s approach to themes of family, trust, and guilt.

“Betty” is all the more successful because Chabrol affords Trintingnant more of an opportunity to work with Betty, to characterise and humanise, than he does with his other leads. As a character, Betty isn’t essentially dissimilar in her apparent self-awareness, but Trintingnant is able to allude to this as a fixture of the woman’s inherent sexualisation, disguising the true intent of Betty’s confessional monologues as a flimsy way of developing the character. Still, Chabrol has enough of a handle on the film as a tragedy; a woman’s picture the likes recently seen in the Italian I Am Love, to express that guilt can go both punished and unpunished, a point that I suspect he’s trying to make with “Inspecteur Lavardin” and “Merci pour le chocolat”. Most of the volume’s inspirational moments emerge from “Betty” and Trintingnant.

The three films share common themes and traits which make the decision to collate them into a trio comprehensible. However, as a journey of Chabrol as a filmmaker volume 1 of this new collection would surely be better served by beginning with either Chabrol’s debut or his award-winning follow-up. Instead, the decision to band together tarter, more cynical works that represent neither the nature nor the quality of his career is in danger of doing the man a grave disservice.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

"What's Up Doc?": A Review Of 1950's Harvey

Directed by Henry Koster
Starring: James Stewart, Josephine Hull, Victoria Horne, Peggy Dow, Jesse White, Charles Drake, Cecil Kellaway, William H. Lynn
Grade: B

In order to relate to this film you must first regress to your childhood; did you at any time have an imaginary friend? If the answer is yes, and said friend was a six-feet-three-inches tall rabbit called Harvey, there is much in this film for you. If not, and the idea of a forty-two year old man talking to an invisible mythical creature is somehow not drawing on your experiences, then never fear, Harvey has enough bite and wisdom to make for raucously fun viewing.

Elwood P. Dowd, and his hearty feelings for friend Harvey, drive his sister Veta up the wall, and force her into a difficult decision about the future of their lives together. This leads to a frantic, sprawling chase, with many others being drawn into the family's troubles. Amidst this talk about Harvey, Henry Koster resists the temptation to dress a tall man in a bunny outfit. Harvey remains invisible for the entire film, only depicted visually once, in a portrait of Elwood and the rabbit together. By not drawing attention to the fantasy elements of the film, Elwood's reverence and insistence upon Harvey is conceded as a natural fixture of a worrisome equilibrious state. This isn't "normal" behaviour, but it is normality for Elwood and his family, who appear to have lived with the situation as it is for long enough.

For all of the implications about mental illness and the need to understand it, Harvey's presence as a legitimate figure is introduced too early, and the film's overall rationalisation of him instigates inconsistencies within the narrative. The problem therein lies in Veta's journey to the sanitarium to have her brother committed. The long appointment she has with the chief psychiatric advisor Dr. Sanderson encompasses hysterical remonstrations of how she simply can't cope with her brother's wild affection for a transparent creature, how it prevents Veta from entertaining guests, and her daughter Myrtle Mae from attracting suitors. The increasingly erratic tone of Veta leads the Doctor to assess that she herself is the insane one. During Veta's initial discussion with the Doctor she confesses to having sometimes seen Harvey, allaying the impression that she believes that he exists. Veta's turmoil in deciding between her brother's happiness and her social status is halted by her wrongful imprisonment, which feels as much of a punishment for her attempted actions as it does a trigger for the film's galavanting antics to be thrust into life. The regret that filters through Josephine Hull as Veta takes shape with every disappearing second of Elwood's impending hospitalisation. She shows such canny ability in using her roundabout hesitancy to demonstrate the impetuous nature of Veta as a loveable fusspot, in her way trying to please everybody even though she really can't. I don't think that Harvey creates enough of a predicament for Veta to allow us to understand why she intends to commit Elwood for believing in someone she knows herself is actually there, even if Hull does an excellent job in making this fact seem like something that Veta is desperate to banish to her sub-conscious.

As Elwood, James Stewart surveys the ratpack of unnecessary commotion before him like an infant watching older children play games he can't quite understand yet. He suppresses the wide-eyed goofiness of his persona to accomodate Elwood's studious pleasantries, since, after all, he is the most capable of seeing past the surface of life. Elwood never once speaks out-of-turn and yet exists to be out-of-turn, and Stewart recognises that the role calls for efficiency and dynamism as much as it does neutrality, encouraging understanding without appearing to, even though you sense that he needs people to like him to survive.

Harvey occasionally takes on this more self-important role as an indictment of how the mentally ill are treated, as a social embarassment that can only be remedied by imprisonment and pill-popping. While John Cromwell's Caged was dealing with the prison system in a much more damning fervour that year, Harvey rather shrewdly skirts about the issue by portraying Elwood as the most utterly harmless, easy-going, pleasant person you could ever wish to meet. It's an easy way of gaining sympathy for Dowd, and works mainly because the film's absence of a fiercely opposing, authoritarian character allows for everyone in Harvey to interact on a similar level. As Capra's You Can't Take It With You reinforced the importance of family and the triviality of finance, Harvey sends a message that generosity, kindness, and imagination supercede social reputation and traditional views of "normality". It reads as a screwball view of stability as culturally-rigid, cruel even, and a celebration of people's weaknesses as an integral, unashamed part of their character.

"Do Unto Others" is an old religious philosophy, but a lovely one, even more prominent than the ears of a giant imaginary rabbit, or Josephine Hull's interesting collection of hats. The beguiling energies of Harvey's stage heritage often assume the task of hurtling us towards an accepting conclusion, but I feel keenly subserviant towards its demands to be liked, since what it offers is so ultimately special. Harvey owes more to the nuances of James Stewart's rich portrayal than some will attest, but there's much to be said for its inimitable brand of faith.