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The rich are not like you and me
Lester's one grab for auteur status, before he settled for empty spectacle (Superman II and III, The Three and Four Musketeers, etc). Sorry to say, despite the extreme beauty of some of the sets and costumes--Tony Walton was chief designer, with David Hicks assisting--and Nicholas Roeg's superb camerawork (those sun-drenched streets, the boats, everything lovely), this film is a confused mess.
If Lester had tried to make it with Arthur Penn's emotional directness instead of Alain Resnais's scrambling of time and plot elements, it might have been very good. Instead we get barrages of chopped-up scenes thrown at us; we don't know if Petulia was beaten last week, last year or next week. Very few scenes are allowed to stand on their own, one such is the George C. Scott-Shirley Knight argument at his place when he throws the bag of cookies at her. We are able to see his frustration and wild humor surface here. You can't tell what's going on inside Christie's head for most of the picture, one dumb shtick act follows another (stealing a tuba, turning up in the hospital library just to bug Scott, and on and on). Christie is a fine actress, and was just about the sexiest woman on the screen then--forget about that Jacqueline Bisset robot--but Lester doesn't let her develop her character.
What we have is a sado-masochistic couple (Chamberlain-Christie) with a sinister Faulknerian father in Joseph Cotten: listen to him talk about family values in the old south in a tone of barely-suppressed rage as Christie lies in her hospital bed, comic-horror. Into the mix strides Scott, with a lot of emotional issues of his own (wife lost, kids estranged), and our hapless surgeon must try to keep Christie out of the morgue. It just doesn't work.
Taking Off (1971)
Forman's most unassuming film
Milos Forman is settling in to America here, learning the ways of rich Puritans. The casting is just about perfect; I don't recall Buck Henry being as expressive--in that deadpan way--in a movie. The scene between Georgia Engel and Lynn Carlin, in which Engel relates stories of her husband's incredible sexual drive is wonderfully funny. The strip poker scene between Henry, Carlin and their guests Audra Lindley and Paul Benedict, that ends with Henry singing an aria, naked, on top of the dining-room table has passed into cinematic legend.
Miroslav Ondricek's camera work is really exceptional; it makes a success of one scene that drags on too long--the therapy group with the participants smoking reefer. Ondricek's ability to give life to interiors is amazing: see how he cuts from the ancestral paintings to the would-be dopers, making comments on both. This man, who turns 70 this year, is a master, and if I just give a partial list of his work you will know what I mean: The Fireman's Ball, If..., O Lucky Man!, Hair, Amadeus.
Les orgueilleux (1953)
Powerful story of faith and love
Allegret's most impressive location story, far better than the damp philosophizing of Une si jolie petite plage. I liked the approach: the characters are not symbols of alienation or corruption but have lives of their own. The meningitis outbreak in this Mexican town doesn't stand in for the moral decline of the West, unlike the plague in Puenzo's La peste, one of the worst films William Hurt ever made. I imagine that if Luis Bunuel had done this adaptation of a Sartre story, it would have looked a lot like Los olvidados, and the vomiting and sweating of the victims would have taken precedence over the moral self-questioning of the characters.
Gerard Philipe is tremendous as the drunken ex-doctor with a terrible secret; he was able to forget that he'd become the official leading man of French cinema, star of the Cinema of Quality that Truffaut detested so much. Ditto for Michele Morgan, whose parts usually had aristocratic backgrounds, or at least great wealth. As the not-very-grieving widow of the first disease victim, she holds the picture together, making sure we don't get too swayed by Philipe's lowlife antics.
Une si jolie petite plage (1949)
The text we read at the beginning indicates the direction of the film; we are asked to sympathize with and not to condemn the orphans and abandoned children brought up in state-run facilities. We are told that these children often grew up to become the "elite" of society. The Gabin character in Carne's Le jour se leve also grew up on the "assistance publique," but he is a fighter for justice, unlike the passive, tormented Pierre. Yves Allegret has filmed Gerard Philipe as a sort of Christ-figure walking through the muddy streets of this third-rate resort town. There is a scene with Madeleine Robinson cuddling Philipe that is very much like the Pieta.
Jean Servais as the slimy Fred has some effective scenes; he reminds us of Jules Berry driving Gabin to murder in Le jour. If the script had focussed more on the conflict between Pierre, the killer of the club singer and Fred, the dead woman's old boyfriend, instead of devoting reams of script pages to the social and political aspects of homeless children (no matter how moving their plight may be) the noir tradition would have been much better served.
I'll finish by praising the actors: Servais is great, Jane Marken as the proprietress of the hotel is a model of petit-bourgeois intolerance, Carette's salesman is boring and right. Only Gerard Philipe fails to give a rounded performance because the script won't let him.
Hôtel des Amériques (1981)
Gilles is sponging off his mother, who runs a small hotel in a French coastal city. When he meets Helene, she takes over the job of mothering him, even treating his minor wounds at the hospital one night when he gets into a fight. Gilles's other passionate relationship is with Bernard, a self-absorbed, mediocre singer-guitarist who can't stay out of trouble with the law. Bernard's true passion is probably for Luc, the gay man he beats up in a washroom.
It's beautifully made; sometimes I thought I was watching a Carne film with Michele Morgan instead of Catherine Deneuve. Bruno Nuytten was the cinematographer; there's no one better for moody night scenes. Philippe Sarde's music is full-blown romantic, sometimes too much so. Techine doesn't bother with character development through plot, he just assumes that whatever passes in front of his camera is telling the story. Those casino scenes go nowhere, and the effort to bring Helene's dead lover's architectural plans to life is wasted, since it's just another occasion for Gilles to look hangdog and helpless.
All in all, it left me wondering about Techine's willingness to engage the viewer in the film's material. I walked out of Barocco many years ago, and Soeurs Bronte left me pretty much cold, although I admired the acting. Hotel des Ameriques doesn't seem to be about anything, and the characters are cardboard.
Rendez-vous à Bray (1971)
Between reality and fantasy
Delvaux was one of those directors who kept on working in his own creative world, seemingly oblivious to the pressures of the commercial world. He got his start by playing the piano for screenings of silent films in Brussels in 1950, just as the hero does here. Then he did TV documentaries before making his first feature, The Man Who Had his Hair Cut Short. Like Un Soir, Un train that preceded it, Rendez-vous a Bray is very lovely to look at (cinematography by the great Ghislain Cloquet) but it unfolds in a sort of glacial calm that leaves me cold.
Because the tone is so restrained, the acting so diminished in expression, the story never really engages the viewer. Mathieu Carriere was never my idea of a romantic lead (he was thinner than David Bowie), and Anna Karina, trying to start her career again after the breakup with Godard, just does the minimum, with no help from Delvaux. There are hints of a Jules et Jim type of triangle, with pixyish Bulle Ogier as the girl who would interrupt the passionate friendship of Carriere and van Hool, but it isn't fully developed. Delvaux is just too fixated on those beautiful interiors, and nothing, not even the carnage of the war--it's 1917--can get him out of them.
Les amants de Vérone (1949)
Andre Cayatte was the director of many tiresome pictures in which he took moral positions on capital punishment (Nous sommes tous des assassins), the yellow press (Il n'y a pas de fumee sans feu), and just about any other issue that came to his attention. Now, we could dismiss him as just a French Stanley Kramer if he hadn't made films like this one in his younger days. It's a very highly-colored version of Romeo and Juliet in which Jacques Prevert's script dispenses with most of the play's story to concentrate on political comment. The Maglias are a very disturbed family indeed. Not only is the head an ex-fascist but the brother, played by Dalio, is hallucinating pretty freely (he had a bad war, we are told). Only Georgia, Ettore's daughter, played by the 16-year-old Anouk Aimee, has any quality of humor and generosity. The Romeo is played by Serge Reggiani, looking somehow a lot younger than he did in Casque d'or.
When we add Pierre Brasseur to the mix, things really get wild. He's playing a sort of Satanic figure, a demon of hate and revenge, as if trying to top his portrayal of the thug in Quai des brumes. There's a wierd sado-masochistic character to his relationship with the Maglias that I can't recall seeing before in film. He won't stop at murder to have Georgia as his wife. Cayatte's direction has pace and the lighting is especially fine--Alekan's camera really caresses the lover's faces.
Les biches (1968)
So elegant, so empty
Chabrol had a habit in the 60's of casting his wife in lead roles; these are often the most forgettable of his films. Stephane Audran was used for her object-like beauty (her cheekbones are really striking)but there isn't much behind the mask. Here, playing Frederique, a bisexual rich woman in glamorous decors out of Vogue or Madame Figaro, she gets to swan around in chic clothes and give jokey line readings. To the cook: "Vi-o-let-ta, je te pre-sen-te Ma-de-moisel-le Whyyyy-eee!"
Thankfully, there is a story to be told, and Chabrol does that competently enough, although there is far too much time given to those two stalwarts Attal and Zardi, here playing gay musicians sponging off Frederique. Jacqueline Sassard plays Why with no discernible interest or ability; she's got a luscious, pouting mouth but no presence on the screen. Jean-Louis Trintignant, the boy toy, is as earnest as a Boy Scout, which is all the part calls for. This is not a serious study of polyamory, or alternative sexuality or anything else. It's chic, expensive and dead.
Yes, it would be easy to criticize Molokh for being slow, and for having Russian actors mouthing German words that aren't natural to them, but I found this film to be fascinating through most of its length (and if Tarkovsky had made it, it would have been TWICE as long).
What we see is Hitler and his inner circle being jovial and vicious by turns, along with loopy discussions of racial characteristics (Czech men have droopy mustaches, indicating moral turpitude; the Finns are rendered mentally unfit owing to cold weather, etc.) There is a lot of backstabbing going on between Bormann and Goebbels; pity that Goering isn't in the film--we would have benefitted even more from his cynicism. All of this has the ring of truth--I recently read Speer's memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, which has detailed accounts of these lunch and dinner talk-fests.
Yelena Rufanova is not convincing as Eva Braun--too slavic looking--but Leonid Mozgovoy with his dumpy body is great as Hitler. The hypochondria, the refusal of middle-class pleasures--no slippers!--the insane political musings: it's all here. Leonid Sokol is Goebbels, absolutely. The rat face on a dwarf's body, the desperate ridicule of Bormann whom he knows is cutting him down: this is fine acting.
Sokurov adopts Leni Riefenstahl's style to tell a Wagnerian story of grandeur and collapse.
Enjoyable knockabout comedy from a master
Claude Zidi has made comedies with all the best actors in France: Coluche, Thierry Lhermitte, Daniel Auteuil, Josiane Balasko; I imagine they sign on when they know he's directing. Here he has got Belmondo and Raquel Welch in an entertaining but not deeply probing picture(certainly not as deeply as Salut l'artiste, Yves Robert's film on stunt performers, with Mastroianni).
Belmondo has a lot of fun being physical, throwing his 44-year-old body down staircases and over moving cars. That stomach is still as flat as when he made Breathless with Godard, he's a marvel. Raquel Welch looks better here than I can remember her in Hollywood pictures, she's well lit and wears some great outfits by Scherer. She looks a lot better than she did in Mother, Jugs and Speed, or any of those junkfests. Finally, Aldo Maccione as the director is so easy to watch--and I've watched him in many pictures--he's like the perfect shady night club manager, married to the mob.