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Unpretentious despite its detractors: in fact Cocteau at his most intimate
Le Testament d'Orphée is an uneven work compared to the more achieved and better realized Orphée (to which it is very tightly related of course) and for this reason, may not appeal to everyone, even those who were enchanted by Cocteau's visual poetry in Orphée. There are of course a good number of puzzling scenes, but they remain quite tame compared to Le Sang d'un Poète, a much more hermetic and typically surrealistic film (a la Bunuel), and Cocteau's approach, far from being that of some elitist intellectual, is in fact caring for his audience. The imagery presented to us in Le Testament is often introduced by Cocteau's off voice and very often also, by himself on screen. I always felt welcome to his world, comfortable in his poetic universe, because he truly seems preoccupied by how we react to what is shown to us. The numerous scenes with the Hibiscus flower are at the heart of how the various components of Cocteau's clockwork interact for the benefit of his spectators. We marvel at simple things now: Cocteau debunks the symbolism of the second part of the Trilogy: we're reminded that Cégeste and Heurtebise are the fruits of an early poem by Cocteau. We are reunited with the Princess (Maria Casares) and Heurtebise (François Périer) at a tribunal where everything and everyone now seems to be less threatening, where everyone is taking oneself less seriously than in Orphée. Le Testament is truly a work of love, of true affection from Cocteau to everyone of us.
There is nothing pretentious here, and only a few philistines may remain impervious to Cocteau in the same way as they likely are to poetry in general. Poets are the least well understood workers in our society, and for the densest among us, they are probably completely useless parasites living out of public charity. But if Cocteau's message is to be of any significance today to his fellow humans, 50 years after his death, it is that poetry does not need to be some hermetic language published in expensive editions for a happy few enlightened elite cut from the rest of society. One of Cocteau's pioneering contributions is his use of the "cinématographe" as he liked to refer to it as a tool for a poet to convey the mechanics of his mind to something tangible. He often said (e.g. watch the fascinating documentary Jean Cocteau: Autoportrait d'un inconnu (1985) on the Criterion edition of Le Sang d'un Poète, a must-see to truly understand Cocteau's cinema) that the poet does not control what he thinks, what he imagines, etc.: he is merely a conduit between some immaterial but powerful source (call it God, the gods or whatever) and his fellow mortals. Cocteau was the first recognized published poet to use cinema successfully and creatively to express poetry from the privileged and original point of view of a poet. His most achieved work in this respect was La Belle et la Bête, but the Orphée "trilogy" is a close contender for that matter. Furthermore, unlike other surrealists and fellow artists of his era (such a brilliant one, with so many luminaries from times the likes of which we will never see again ours is a whole different universe) whose output was mainly through painting and literature exclusively, Cocteau's poetic films are not only still among us, but through the contribution of scholars or simply cinema lovers, still resonate to this day and enjoy a second or third life thanks to the democratizing effect of digital technology. And this is where his effect and influence on us is at its most vivid and significant.
One can rightly argue that Cocteau's cinematographic book of tricks gets rapidly limited as we watch his films, and that his gimmickry may appear a little bit naive, especially to 21st-century eyes. However, one must be reminded that what we witness by viewing his films is the vision of a poet, and this is where the viewer must try to put him (her)self, i.e. to discard our unforgiving, CGI-saturated view of film images, and concentrate on the symbolism of Cocteau's universe.
This is why one should not watch the Testament d'Orphée before the better rounded up works, especially La Belle et la Bête, which is a true masterpiece. And as with all masterpieces, everything else, including one artist's other works, pales in comparison. But at least, Cocteau's language becomes better articulated and more understandable once we have been exposed to the most seamless of his poems.
Dead End (1937)
An aptly named movie, in more ways than one ... unfortunately
Sadly, I'm not as enthusiastic as other reviewers. I have seen much of Bogart's filmography, from The Petrified Forest to his last (The Harder They Fall), and my collection now includes nearly 30 of his movies. I watched this film with reasonable expectations, being aware that his part there is a support one. After all, Bogart was stealing the show even in his early years, when his contributions were merely secondary.
Well I just watched Dead End for the first time yesterday and was left rather cold and even disappointed by it. As appropriately mentioned by others, it's really very (like in 'too much') theatrical, but not in a good way, at least for me. I was not familiar with these "Dead End Boys" and unlike others, I was far from impressed and was in fact irritated by their performance. It's one thing to deal with the overall atavistic overwrought style so typical of so many '30s movies, but it's another to try packing up as many pointless rough exchanges between young street brats as you materially can within an hour and a half. I mean, what is the point of keeping these absurdly annoying "misérables" relentlessly and dumbly insulting either each other or their opulent oppressors? As long as they're yapping their brains out and erase any silence or moment for reflection that might subsist in that blatantly dated movie play (a deliberate choice of words on my part...). Reading about how these young actors, who had been sent over to Hollywood to transpose their NY theatrical act to cinema, caused absolute chaos and sheer havoc offstage, I am almost tempted to think that Wyler, an otherwise very competent and often brilliant director, dealt with this wild bunch as best as he could, but likely experienced serious difficulties while piloting the making of this movie, with mixed results, to say the least. After Dodsworth the year before, what a turnoff! In his career, Wyler succeeded a lot in entertaining his viewers, and I was hoping that this one would be no exception. However...
I am able to cope with most typical '30s movies along with their exaggerated declamatory style and machine-gun stance delivery. That's not the point.... I'm afraid that the Dead End play has failed to be adapted to cinema and is in fact a rather grating Frankensteinian creature with too many theatrical parts and functions to be palatable in the cinematographic language. The movie tries too hard to deliver social messages while attempting to narrate a potentially enlivening story and to present characters to whom we should somehow relate, but who end up leaving us indifferent at best (e.g. most of the main adult characters, including Bogart) or worse, extremely annoyed as with many of the Dead End bunch, I'm afraid to say.
As for the major characters, there isn't enough space and time left for them to grow on the viewer and to become well-formed entities. I have seldom watched a Bogart as wooden as in this movie, and this has nothing to do with this being a support contribution. Bogart almost always stole the show before he started playing lead parts. No. As I see Dead End, it was in the end a showcase for the Dead End Brats and a list of their socio-political statements, a sort of 90-min allegory of the abysmal gap between rich and poor. Anything but a well-designed movie. There have been countless films dealing with this subject matter, and I'm afraid that Dead End is .... well, quite aptly named, after all. In more ways than one.
Renoir: cinema as an impressionist art form
This film is deliberately full of short scenes without apparent rational purposes. If there was one or maybe two such scenes, one might see those as plot holes or dead ends, i.e. as flaws.
Personally, I see this film as an impressionistic film about a famous impressionist painter. The very thin storyline along with the numerous vignettes of the daily life of a painter, his model, his sons and his family/maids (eating, painting, cooking, talking about this and that, sleeping alone or together, bathing, or simply being idle), all filmed with the extraordinary beauty of the Côte d'Azur and its unique light which drew so many painters to the region: everything concurs to making of this film a painting on film. A painting that uses the impressionist technique: myriads of small brush strokes of colours which seem out of place, unexpected or even plain wrong, whose purpose we understand only when we look at the overall canvas once finished. Renoir is such a painting.
This is a masterpiece. I found it as mesmerizing as the most beautiful impressionist paintings, whether they are by Renoir or Monet, Degas or Cézanne. I was literally transfigured by the sheer beauty of the images, and could not care less for the meaning of every little strokes of this large fresco of the beauty of nature in that region blessed by a magic sunlight... There is no pace when contemplating a painting. Everything else stops while one immerses oneself into it.
And if there is one overall purpose for this movie, it is contained in the short epilogue shown at the end of the film. Jean Renoir became the famous film director of international renown, and this movie conveys the circumstances -mostly his relationship with Andrée - that led him to take this career at a time when he saw himself as mere canon fodder with nothing else after the war had ended. There are several ways to tell a story, and this is a new one. The originality of Renoir (2012), what makes this movie so unique is that it transposes a painting technique to cinema.
Do not expect much action. As Pierre-Auguste Renoir says in the movie (paraphrasing) as an almost zen principle: "Do not interfere with the course of nature: picture yourself as a cork carried over by a stream, and let yourself slip away slowly as time flows by...". This is exactly how one should watch that extraordinary movie. A healthy film for the soul.
Love & Savagery (2009)
A rare gem from a Canada/Ireland co-production: easily overlooked!
I caught this by sheer curiosity on Netflix. One of these purely intuitive, instinctive selections that turn out to be pretty rewarding in the end... I was much intrigued by the capsule on Netflix which went by something like "while doing field work near a small port on the Ireland coast, a young geologist from Newfoundland becomes enamored of a serene, innocent local girl who has a strong personal relation with God". I'm paraphrasing here but that was basically the only introductory note. I found it rather exotic and enough out of the beaten path to capture my insatiable curiosity.
And God did I have a good idea today! Because compared to the truckloads of manure that are shipped from the big studios every year, this was so extraordinarily refreshing and so powerful despite its modest means. It's the best demonstration that one does need only truth and truthfulness to make a film interesting, provided that you come up with an original setup. Sometimes, hundreds of millions are spent with good purpose and a mega-production may live up to its promises and need the investment made simply because of the cost required to make unique and perfectly credible illusions. The best example is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which remains to this day my number 1 movie of all times. But next to a 2001, films such as "Love and Savagery", with a ridiculously low budget, no-name yet excellent actors, and intrinsically gorgeous scenery manage to grasp a viewer's attention and imagination and leave a durable impression on him/her.
I will not unveil anything of the story except the premises: Michael, a young Newfoundlander gets acquainted with Cathleen - played by Sarah Greene, a young Irish actress and a name to remember- a pretty girl working in a pub and who plans to enter the local convent and become a nun. Michael learns about her career plans almost right from the beginning, and the film describes the evolution of his ardent, devoted courtship in an environment increasingly hostile to him for several reasons. And I'll stop here. The rest is for everyone to discover for oneself.
Let's say that this is about the mystery of Love when boy meets girl and an earthquake follows in both individuals. I'm using the capital "L" not because God is at the center of the intrigue, but simply to indicate that the movie is about the universal value of the word, i.e. physical love (the sexual aspect of love) as well as love as the cement that transcends all differences and that can overcome all hardships and abolish all wars, the love of serious hippies.... Hence my use of Love. The movie is about that Love as lived by two individuals who have to cope with its far-reaching implications.
My review would be incomplete if I forgot to give a special mention about the splendid role of Cathleen. Sarah Greene's expression and acting perspires the sort of purity, of virginal candor that would be expected from her vocation, and yet, she also shows great strength, the same solidity that we see in the intriguing, unique limestone formations studied by Michael around her small Irish hometown. I am looking forward to see more of her. She is absolutely mesmerizing as an actress, and she has both true external and internal beauty by standards of her own. She has a gorgeous face that does not fit with the usual Hollywoodian or Cannesian canons, but is more comparable to these actresses who look serious while taking your breath away, e.g. Lisa McAllister, Susie Parker, etc. Entirely believable in her role in Love & Savagery, and the film works largely because of this. A key element to why this is a pure gem.
A magnificent pearl from the rugged coastlines of Newfoundland and Ireland, and how Love will bridge the wide ocean that separates these two regions. Do yourself a big favor today and watch this film.
L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961)
A demanding, but ultimately rewarding cinematographic experience
There have been many, many discussions about the meaning that Resnais wanted to convey with Last Year in Marienbad. Having just listened to the interview that Resnais gives (in French) about the movie (and which is available on the Criterion edition), and having the additional luck to speak French as my first language, I can confidently say that Resnais seemed extremely ambiguous about any meaning that the film might or might not have. By meaning, I am referring to any single interpretation or rational explanation of the movie. The author of an artistic piece, whether it is painting, music, sculpture or any medium of expression, does not have any obligation to provide a formal explanation of his/her work.
Very simply said, I believe that Resnais, here, managed to make a film in the same way as any other artist using any other form of artistic expression. And he succeeded beautifully. We are hypnotized by the sheer, amazing beauty of the images and the actors, the pathos-inducing organ playing and the playful tricks that Resnais spread throughout the dialogues/monologues, the sets, the reflections in the mirrors, and the whole bagful of cinematographic visual gimmicks, charades and deceptions and then some more. This alone exerts a fascination on the viewer, and simply by shutting down the analytical part of one's brain - something akin to the full sensory availability or receptiveness one can achieve practising yoga or TM -, one finds out that a LOT is happening in Last Year in Marienbad.
When watching the film in such a state of receptiveness, the artistic value of Last Year in Marienbad begins to take over, and the urge to find a single logical thread, or any thread at all, tends to dwindle and allow one to really enjoy the pure experience of watching that movie. LYAM is not a popcorn/Tweeting-while-watching kind of film, by far and large: one must be entirely available, both mentally and physically to appreciate it totally. Difficult movie? Sure. Aggravating? Yes. It's not a flawless masterpiece. Like the jury at the 1961 Cannes Festival, I find Giorgio Albertazzi's (X) accent absolutely grating on my nerves, and the artistic choice of using the combination of a refrigerating, detached acting style with an artificial, pretentious-sounding, emotionless and mechanical tone of speaking (verging on the ridiculous), a resounding mistake. Despite these flaws, and choosing to accept them nonetheless, LYAM remains in its form an exquisitely beautiful movie and a pure ravishment for the senses. It is also probably the purest form of expression the seventh art ever reached. It's likely the closest a film has ever been from expressing the feeling of abstraction that lies at the blurred frontier between wakefulness and sleep. An oneiric film that compares with all other abstract forms of art.
I listened very closely to Resnais in the interview I was mentioning at the beginning. I really don't think he had a clean-cut, first-degree story to tell with this movie. He clearly leaves you the impression that he was first and foremost seduced by the aesthetic values of the script Robbe-Grillet had sent him. That was his leitmotiv and that was the leitmotiv he also tried to convey with the movie.
I was intrigued by the suggestion made not only by Ginette Vincendeau, the cinema scholar who is interviewed on the Criterion Supplement DVD, but also by Resnais himself in an interview apparently made around the time that LYAM was released (according to Mrs. Vincendeau's recollection - I didn't look for that interview yet), that the movie's actual subject is rape. Of course, rape is one among the few first-degree meanings that anyone with a brain can deduce easily in several scenes of the movie. Until I learned about this, I could not really decide that the idea of a rape was formally presented in LYAM. As for all concrete suggestions that come to mind when absorbing the film, there always remains a feeling of ambiguity that prevents the idea that this deals with rape from gelling. But if it is true that LYAM actually deals with rape in a topical manner, I will soon revisit the movie keeping this in mind. As a note of caution, however: in Resnais' interview on the Criterion DVD, Resnais later seemed to deny that we should view the culprit scenes as depicting a rape.
Decidedly, LYAM is the cinematographic representation of Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty. That is, when you see something in the movie, you automatically end up missing something else that then escapes your detection, with the result that you can never obtain a full knowledge of the movie's content. Or, let's say that the film's beauty is as evanescent as the most delicate and colourful jellyfish's: you can only contemplate it from behind a glass panel in an aquarium. As soon as you remove it from its element to better watch it, it then becomes a lump of amorphous jelly that evokes disgust instead of the exhilaration felt when a barrier existed between the animal and you.
Ultimo tango a Parigi (1972)
A tragic voyage into the innermost recesses of human nature
Many people have confessed their inability to grasp the meaning of Last Tango in Paris, if one assumes it actually has any single meaning, instead of several possible ones, depending on the character's perspective). I had experienced a similar frustration with LTIP. After watching it with great expectations the first time, I was truly frustrated and thought that more than an in-your-face movie defying of any moral authority, it was mostly an overblown case of new emperor's clothes. I did not like Brando's nihilist playing, but this was because I was virtually unable to dissociate Brando from the despicable yet profoundly human character (Paul) he was playing. It was only after a couple more viewings that I was able to tame the scary aspects of that movie enough to start understanding it better. Brando's acting is so overbearing, so incredibly brave, and at the same time, so terrifying that it takes some determination to go past these feelings and start enjoying the numerous merits of LTIP. And I am glad today to sincerely say that it is not some pseudo-intellectual depicting of the new emperor's clothes. Absolutely not, and I can even say that LTIP is an essential movie for our time, for all times. Bertolucci has realized many gems of movies, and LTIP is certainly one his most interesting, albeit darkest ones.
I rated it 8/10, however, and this is only due to some amateurish aspects of the movie, which play a little against my pure enjoyment. First, the choice of Maria Schneider to portray Jeanne was brilliant due to her volcanic eroticism, her very organic physical presence and the superb geographic study of her juicy nude body from all saints' hell, due to Vittorio Storaro's expert use of lighting. She exudes the sexiest archetype of beauty, the idealized vision of the liberated young woman who inspired Bertolucci's story, as we now know : perfect breasts, baby face, fleshy lips that invite juicy alcove feats, in short, the ArchBabe. However, Schneider does not convey credible emotions and makes it hard (!) to follow her inner feelings and understand the actual drama unfolding before our eyes from her perspective. All we have is Paul/Brando's towering point of view, which is a lot, but not everything. I don't know whether Schneider perfected her craft later on in her career (sadly terminated too early, though), but in LTIP, the only chord she is able to strike is the ingénue's, and boy! is she ever good at it. But she overplays it and what I see is an actress trying very hard to interact with Brando's character, but ends up always being the naive sex kitten with which Paul could have played forever, instead of developing Jeanne's slow downfall. One is never aware of Jeanne's mental process, of her inexorable progression towards the finale, even after repeated viewings. All curves, no substance :-)
Second, Bertolucci apparently thought that for such an experimental and daring movie, there was only one logical choice: the experimental and daring type of actor that epitomized the French intelligentsia of that period, Jean-Pierre Léaud, who probably learnt acting by correspondence, and learning is a euphemism here. I never really understood the kind of fascination that a whole generation of existentialists had for this eternally youthful and ever charming prodigy. The world is divided into Léaud-lovers and Léaud-haters, with no middle ground. Léaud acts either extremely badly, so badly that it gives him a boyish charm and has Léaud-lovers pitying him. Or he acts so ridiculously badly that Léaud-haters see in him the symbol of all the phoniness that keeps the moral authority of pseudo-intellectuals artificially alive. Once their thin patina of intelligence is removed, the living-room philosophers that the whole Léaud/Antoine Doinel persona represents so well appear to us just like the helpless, terribly misguided Jeanne's fiancé who panics in reaction to Jeanne's animal eroticism that is well beyond his artificial universe. However, just like with Schneider, it is very hard to believe for even a moment in whatever emotion Léaud is struggling to convey. He keeps reciting his lines like a monotonous Sorbonne luminary on acid as if the fate of humanity was calmly decided by him, one solemn nihilist declaration after another.
So 8/10, 2 points short from perfection only due to two problems with casting. Not bad, after all. This movie must be absorbed in repeated doses. LTIP is a very potent work, and Brando's interpretation of a lost soul slowly devoured by the demons that his wife's suicide has let him invade his existence, is everything you may have heard about, and much more. Simply consider the scene where Brando confesses his despair and his loss to the dead body of his wife: such moments of pure cinema, such performances filled with the most vivid and authentic expression of human sentiments are very rare, and make one realize that actors of Brando's stature are never legions in this world. I was very deeply moved by that scene, and many others, and I had no idea that an actor projecting as tough an image as Brando could reach the innermost recesses of human nature and stir them up with a monologue that still resonates in my ears. But more than Brando's acting, it's Bertolucci's vision, its intelligence and sensitivity which takes the viewer for a voyage to the frontiers between ecstasy and despair, between pure love and pure madness, from incredible beauty to painful visions of how empty human life really is, once any motive for living has been lost.
LTIP touches the sublime, the common fabric of all living souls, and asks us the ultimate question: is total, true and unconditional love possible at all on equal terms between two human beings? And if you are left with doubt, what's life's worth? Not very many movies establish the foundations necessary to ask such a question, and this is why I value LTIP so much, despite its few flaws.
Under Capricorn (1949)
A serious miscasting error ruined a potentially great piece
Why do I think this Hitchcock movie does not work? Well, for me, there is one main reason, and that's the terrible miscasting of Joseph Cotten as Sam Flusky. We are supposed to feel great sympathy for this man who apparently loves his woman greatly (e.g. he buys her such a nice ruby pendant, but treats her like trash in front of everybody at the governor's ball), who took responsibility for Henrietta's brother's murder (whom she apparently killed herself), and for whom Henrietta is so much in love and feels so much, despite the fact that we are not shown one atom of a reason why she should be so enamoured of that man. Sam is the epitome of dullness, brutality, roughness and he is a total bore. What the heck is Ingrid Bergman doing with that Neanderthalian equivalent of a husband anyway? Cotten was ideally cast as a cold-blooded killer disguised as a candy uncle in Shadow of a Doubt, but here, he is just plainly miscast and unable to evoke the kind of passion and devotion that she expresses for him even after he throws his rival Charles out of the house and into the dangers of the Australian plain at night like some piece of refuse. He is totally despicable, and poor Ingrid cannot evoke emotions in the viewer no matter how good she is in her role of a poor woman victim of life circumstances and who must rely on Sam the Brute, Sam the Still-Convict for her future, her very survival.
And I am even more convinced about my theory that the first choice for filling Sam's role was none other than Burt Lancaster, who had to decline for lack of availability with his schedule (couldn't time travel back to New South Wales, XIXth century :-)). Now just picture Burt side by side with Joseph, and tell me: for whom would you feel sympathy despite all the misery he causes to his wife by being so totally cold and insensitive and just plain boring as ten nun's diaries ? Burt Lancaster had that aura of good and warmth around him, no matter how much of a villain or "bad guy" he was supposed to be in his roles. And he would have been ideal in that role ! Take his role in Birdman of Alcatraz as a dangerous criminal convicted for 2 murders (including one of the worst to society, i.e. killing a guard) who finds his redemption in veterinarian ornithology. What a clear demonstration that he would have done extremely well as a Sam Flusky ! I'm sure that Ingrid, who seems to me to have been a very bright woman, would have probably found it easier to make us believe in her pleas for her husband's innocence and well-being.
As for me, I simply cannot penetrate through that thick wall of indifference that Cotten has so efficiently built between himself and the rest of the world. Therefore, I just couldn't espouse Ingrid's devotion and love for her iceberg-like husband. Burt was Hitchcock's real choice, and it seems to me that he (and Alma, who loved SOAD a great deal) just thought: "Joseph did so well in SOAD. He'll do Burt's part very well, I'm sure." And they gave the role to Cotten without perhaps considering some adaptations of the script to accommodate the dramatic difference in the type of character that Lancaster and Cotten evoked on the big screen. I know that changing a script to fit a different actor might not have been Hitchcock's cup of tea (I mean, does anybody talk softly to cattle before sending them to the slaughterhouse ?). But in this case, it might have made the difference between a minor film in Hitch's legacy and one of the caliber of Rope, for instance.
Yes, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the poor casting choice of Cotten Joe WAS the reason why this whole enterprise ended up being on the verge of a total bore (I gave it a 5/10, so far my worst rating for a Hitchcock's movie, below Topaz and Torn Curtain, which got a 7/10). I even feel bad for Ingrid Bergman every time I see her pleading for her Sam. She tries sooooo hard, but ends up being extremely grating on my nerves because it sounds so totally wrong and beside the point..... Imagine, Ingrid Bergman, an actress who manages to grab my total self simply watching and listening to her in all her other fantastic roles. 'Under Capricorn' is one in which she undermines the great persona that she has managed to build, no matter how striking she always looks. The most beautiful diamond can seem out of place again the wrong background...