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Illusions of an Alternative...
Bard's film tight-rope walks the authenticity of Vigoesque documented views with the ideological transcendental identification effects of an interrogative process. In that regard, Destroy Yourself might remind some of Wajda's Man of Marble/Man of Iron set, where personal history and collective reflection of a historical moment become intertwined. This intertwining is exposed and foregrounded through the alternation of scenes in sepia tones and black/white while drawn-out blank frames rupture the possibility of integrating the considerations of personal and collective into a clear unity. Perhaps there is a Brechtian challenge behind the film? The spectator must remedy the disparate views into a coherent whole in order to appreciate the immediacy of the individual to the collective historical moment. The kinesthetic flicker sequence is an overt cue to that effect... foregrounding the rupture of auditory and visual with the physical compulsion to listen but also close one's eyes. It serves as an alarm to rouse the spectator into opening one's eyes and to see what is being said. To witness action is to participate in the event. In some ways, Godard's La Chinoise operates on similar principles. Godard plays on the congruence of witness-participant relationships as opposed to a more threatening dialectic rupture Bard is in effect warning against in that relationship. The film hails the unbound quality of freedom and that acts of freedom naturally interpellate all of humanity as the human condition is to be free and to imagine freedom (like the girl's questioning of the freedom of the wall/behind the wall). The film has a kind of staggered procession, unlike Zilnik's Early Works which is continuously infused with a kinetic bond between character and milieu. The female protagonist (de Bendern) claims fear directly after stating that a revolution must be complete. The staggered pace may be seen to reflect the immense anxiety surrounding the Student Demonstration of 1968. The labored pace may authentically reflect the emotional suspension of the moment, however, it compromises the kind of energy and fervor needed to activate fence-sitters and the politically apathetic. Destroy Yourself seems more like the dear-diary confession of a frustrated activist sooner than a documentary-type manifesto of an active revolutionary. The film suffers from being a text which is about nothing in particular and everything in general... and thus has its emotional core in the collective memories of its cast, crew and director sooner than in that of those who lived through the historical moment or study it afterwards. I would find it arrogant to identify with a film that clearly has the precept of invitation but not the will to provide a return address for the RSVP. I still feel that the truest expression of emotion and invitation toward sincere sharing of the historical moment can be found in Med Hondo's Soleil O. Destroy Yourself may lack in revolutionary praxis but remains a text rife with demonstrations of dialectics through the medium. The theories of Brecht, Lacan, Eisenstein, Althusser, Marx and the Frankfurt School could all be evoked to explain the dynamics at play within this film. Although the film is not entertaining, it is intellectually-engaged.
Holy Motors (2012)
Don't read into it too much...
Leos Carax is known as one of the foremost directors in the tendency known as the Cinema du Look emerging out of France in the 1980s. One of the primary characteristics of this 'movement' was superficiality. As such, I would like to suggest the following reading for Holy Motors: the segments or 'vignettes' should be interpreted as defying deeper allegorical readings which imply some kind of paradoxical open hermeneutic interpellation of the spectator. A simpler approach to understanding the meaning and signification of the film should prevail - especially when dealing with the filmmakers of the Cinema du Look. The first five segments represent a juxtaposition of perspectives - subject/object and self/other. These vignettes also represent the five senses of human corporeal perception. The first vignette of the old woman beggar juxtaposes the sense of touch for the viewer (Metzian primary identification) with the sense of hearing for the subject-object (in this case, protagonist)(Metzian secondary identification). For the spectator, the lack of human contact as the beggar character persists in a phony campaign for alms provokes a tactile sense... a hug or helping hand. For the protagonist, the vignette exemplifies the sense of hearing as the stooped over, squint-eyed figure must focus only on the auditory to gauge a purpose in the act itself. This is underscored by the old woman who passes by in a semi-catatonic state... urging much recognition from the spectator but nothing from the subject-object. The second vignette juxtaposes the sense of taste for the viewer with the sense of smell for the protagonist. The motion sensors are a red herring in that they simply construct a minimalist mise-en-scene bereft of constant distractions. This 'purity' of representation has the effect of portraying a sense almost always cliché in cinema. Instead of a cheese factory or sounds of flatulence, the motion-sensored minimalist mise-en-scene allows the subject-object to be driven and directed by an animalistic energy akin to the olfactory sense of most successful predators. For the viewer, the sexual ambiguity of the exchange provokes a whetting, so to speak - an appetite as it were. The third vignette presents the madman who represents a sense of smell for the viewer through his appearance and actions while driven himself by taste. He consumes flowers, fabric, paper and human flesh. For the viewer, the flowers retain their signification with the olfactory sense. The fourth sequence presents a more pedestrian exploration of the human condition (the primary thematic of the film)... for the viewer, the radio music and heavy dialogue provoke the sense of hearing while juxtaposed with the sense of sight for the protagonist (demands for the daughter to look at him, the final shot of the sequence is a gaze through the side mirror of the car). The fifth sequence closes the sensual juxtaposition as the chinatown murder provoke a sense of sight for the viewer who must conform to an understanding of uncanny doppelgangers while the reciprocal stabbings and prompt for such actions in the limo accent the tactility that will define the sequence from the perspective of the protagonist. Then entr'acte... and it should be taken as matter-of-fact. At this point one should recall Bazin's assertions that the brain is destroyed prior to the heart. The second 'half' of the film, or second act operate on a new superficial level of the existential. The sex drive is dealt with first - gun as phallic signifier, overt dialogue directing bullets to "the crotch" - generally a carnal act to be sure. The next sequence predictably deals with death and old age - a signifier for the loss of mental faculties or the frailty of the brain organ more specifically. As foreseeable, the final sequence in the second act addresses the heart - a minor romantic subplot, heterosexual and relatively uncomplicated in its explication. What of the monkeys? Well, it seems that the third act is largely accented through its brevity. The final act delves into a deeper level of existential consideration. The apes juxtapose human consciousness and the Cartesian cogito with the limo dialogue and its representation of the Other. I have watched the film once, and not to consider myself in the ilk of Pauline Kael, simply believe that this film doesn't require a second watch for proper analysis. It is superficial in its meaning - signifiers are only complex in their juxtaposition. Don't read into this film too much! Perhaps, my analysis suffers from what Bazin acknowledged in Godard (that he interprets as he sees fit)... oh well, at least I'm in great company then. Holy Motors is a straightforward parsing of the human condition... there is little to no morality infused into the introspective approach and the discourse seems very inspired by Foucauldian architecture. The self-reflexivity is so superficial as to become misguiding... even sinister. That is the strength and essence of Carax's film... it misleads and tricks the naive spectator.
Le caporal épinglé (1962)
Le Caporal opens with a montage of WWII documentary footage. "Honor and glory to the survivors" provides a nice interplay between themes in Grande Illusion and more personal philosophies regarding the condition of the human race (Renoir's 'humanism'). The drama moves at a relatively slow pace and the performances are full of affect. More documentary footage has a voice-over narration in French but from the perspective of the Nazis. There is an element of self-reflexivity to the film not just through the use of documentary footage and a more psychologically-based stylistic system but also infused into the themes of coercion and resistance. Le Caporal is more concerned with individualism than Grande Illusion which focused on group dynamics. This is underscored by the obsessive compulsive worry that one character shows for the safety of his cows, regardless of what is happening in the moment. The story does not track the multiple characters but instead folds their offscreen progress in with the corporal at regular intervals. He becomes a transient in their lives (hence elusive). There is a disconnect in this regard and a repetition to the structure of the narrative that underscores this disconnect. The graceful allusions in Regle with Schumacher are replaced by purely cynical portrayals of Germans (the drunken warmonger states "I'm probably a better German than you all"). Scorsese commented that Le Caporal Epingle is "in a different emotional key than La Grande Illusion".
Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1959)
Philosophy in the Clouds
An unusual intro sequence involves layering the diegetic world through an odd specularity utilizing newsreel interviews and binding characters to different milieux. There are a plethora of tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions of science and nature which reminds one of Makavejev's oeuvre (especially in the link being sexuality). Rare Renoirian soft focus accompanies one-shot closeups while the self-reflexivity leads to a near mocking of the famous Renoir stylistic system. Depth of field is arranged where characters continuously 'pop up' in the different planes. Groups are framed in long shots. Dejeuner sur L'Herbe is almost bizarre in its referencing to the French New Wave and the Tradition of Quality. FNW is treated as a horizon running perpendicular to the tight-rope Renoir traverses toward it while the ToQ is set up as a gorge below which has a perverted inversion in its reflection as it to position itself in the clouds like Gods. Renoir seems to make a journey of this film - a personal journey toward his favored colleagues but with the knowledge that his alignment is bound to his past. "Every film is a confession" is a Vuillermoz quote well addressed in this film. The pan flautist is a famous Renoir motif and appropriately placed in Dejeuner where Renoir as auteur becomes a force of nature - he becomes the milieu (and perhaps always was). The picnickers seem indifferent to the Pan character's supernatural powers revealing a cynicism that has popped up many times with Renoir. "In every man a satyr sleeps" is no revelation, but a warning about the internal and external truths which become convoluted and disparate through the individual's attempts to manage them. It has been noted that Dejeuner lacks in subtlety. I believe that it was the intention as the film text is simply overdetermined in its self-reflexivity that the specular nature of the film cannot be ignored. The Damascus reference troubles me, while the Hitler-orator allusions and scooter ride seem all too obvious as components of an autobiography. This film is important for understanding Renoir as an auteur.
Cordelier and Regle
There is a quasi-prologue to introduce Cordelier, which goes a long way to connecting this TV-based production with other self-reflexive films Renoir made late in his career. Space is not explored or constructed in the same was as films like M. Lange or Regle while a lack of mobile framing maintains psychological identification with the characters. There is deep space, but not deep staging as the camera frames long corridors and archways but not groups of characters within the settings. There are situations where groups of townspeople move around together but it is a group held together tenuously and usually motivated by reactions to an event. The women in the building knew of Opale but found no reason to report his odd behavior underscoring that the milieu is very different from that of Lange, Illusion, Fonds or Regle. Some of the performances suffer from affectation which tends to diminish the impact of the Barrault roles. Dr. Cordelier has a moment while reading the newspaper where the audience is privy to an internal monologue - heightening the psychological dimensions of the narrative. There is some splattering of the famous Renoir stylistics when the doctor's party is thrown and later when the collective of workers attempt to stop Opale. Yet, soon after a flashback sequence puts things right back into the realm of the psychological (theatrical) as opposed to the social (realist). The themes of sexual perversion are somewhat muted (or perhaps they require a more 'European eye' to appreciate). The freedom that Cordelier experiences through subscribing to chaos has interesting political implications. In some manner, I feel that Cordelier is one of Renoir's more clearly political films. The narrative frame returns Renoir to the screen and the storyworld diegetic. The compulsion of the nature of humanity (quest of soul will be punished but will be freedom) echoes the true significance of a film like Regle - these films are connected philosophically, if not also thematically. Cordelier is well worth watching for the dynamic combination of Renoir and Barrault using the multiple camera shooting system. There is an even flow to the storytelling that renders the text engaging.
La règle du jeu (1939)
Take your Kracauerian paralysis and stick it in your ear
Regle exemplifies one of Renoir's stylistic systems - the famous one. For Braudy, it is the system concerned with realism (as opposed to theater). I tend to agree with the distinction, but also with some criticism against the thesis which objects to the formulation being either reductive or simply a misnomer. Closeups are two-shots, mobile framing and the long take constructs space unobtrusively, obstructions in the mise-en-scene support unobtrusive camera positioning, staging/blocking is uneven creating a natural arrangement, doorways and arches provide hints at offscreen space, little-to-no reframing or shot-reverse-shot prevents psychological identification and multiple characters get equal treatment through direction and the scenario on the whole. There are some interesting production notes for Regle, including that Renoir was about the last choice to play Octave (others like Michel Simon were unable to play the role) yet scenes like the car crash are auto-biographical for Renoir (the death of Pierre Champagne). Many apply a Kracauerian thesis to the significance of Regle and are wrong to do so. The film is less concerned with class politics and the "paralysis" of bourgeoisie to appreciate the threat of fascism as it is concerned with events on a micro level that are beyond the influence of the players connected to them. "Everyone has their reasons" is a concession and confession for Renoir who understands that people do what they can and what they must as they pass through life but that these disparate social actions cannot always be consolidated into an orderly and fair 'oneness'. This is the essence of comedy and tragedy for Renoir. "Everyone has their reasons" connects with Renoir's personal philosophy of the cork in the stream. Later (in Elena and her Men) the expression is retold as "everyone has their plans" underscoring that Renoir is flexible about his application of philosophy to human nature (hence equal development of two stylistic systems across his oeuvre). For Renoir, humans are compulsive creatures who wear masks to manage internal and external truths. The working class Schumacher is the most inept at managing his mask and also acts in the most reprehensible manner. His German surname is likely intentional as a comment on the rise of Nazi fascism, however, Renoir spares no social class in his critique of mismanagement of the self onto the social. The chaos that ensues is both comical and tragic. As Renoir asserted, the horizontal and vertical boundaries are illusory and will become obsolete as people realize that their internal truths are unique and external truths are false. The 'rules of the game' are that whoever you are, the management of a masked external self is imperative and at the same time false thus leading to compulsive behavior that cannot be calculated and whose results cannot be predicted. This is the gift and curse of life. Fortunately, we have more to be conscious of because of Renoir sharing this wisdom with all of us.
Elena et les hommes (1956)
Everyone has Their Plans...
Renoir introduces Elena as a "fantasy musical". The opening scene is in an artist's studio while a piano is practiced on. There is a superior use of depth of field but Bergman is the focal point (Renoir was quite smitten with her as evidenced by their years of personal communication). There are shades of Nana however that may have marred positive response to the film upon release. Bergman's character is not imbued with a clear motivation that brings everything around her into focus. It is simply her external self that is to be that which is focused upon. Well, that wasn't good enough in 1926 and nothing much had changed thirty years later. Is Bergman's Elena a symbol or a mere good luck charm? Hard to tell at first viewing. Again multiple cuts replace the long take and tableau construction of mise-en-scene replaces mobile framing. Elena is certainly not in the realm of 'realism' attributed to Regle. Point in case is when an old military jacket is commented as being tattered yet is clearly immaculate and freshly dry-cleaned at the other end of the studio minutes before. The immaculate mise-en-scene of the color "trilogy" is a psychologically-based construction and operates as a reflective process for the spectator to find pleasure in an unblemished vision. In effect, Renoir has shifted from letting a story tell itself through his direction to directing how the story is projected. "Everyone has their plans" replaces the old Renoir credo of "everyone has their reasons" and the distinction fits nicely with my own thesis about Renoir's two stylistic systems. In Carrefour, the camera investigates through the lattice work of a door window creating a layered space whereas in Elena an idle courter bangs in futility at a door with similar lattice but no great depth of field. For Faulkner, it is a conflict of private and public spheres at play where the woman's power is effected through performance. It seems unlikely that this theory plays out cleanly given Renoir's consistency with empowering female characters through a variety of means. The film has more significance and less entertainment value the more you know and understand of Renoir's oeuvre.
French Cancan (1955)
Oh the Gaminerie!
French Cancan is introduced as a "musical comedy" and lives up to the billing in some ways. That is to say that dance gets as much limelight as music, in fact given the final sequence it is dance which would best describe the film. Strange that Renoir wouldn't mark it out as such given his comments about the universality of dance after the production of The River and given the title of the film itself. The depth of field is again appropriated to layer the staging much like in theater. Mobile framing emulates the human spectator to events sooner than constructing space unobtrusively. The pan across the mob fight unravels before the viewer like a comic strip or emaki scroll. There is specular themes like in Golden Coach where Gabin's character asserts "artists are slaves". The film remains lighthearted and humorous and it is no surprise that of his most recent films, Cancan did the best at the box office (Arnoul is delicious in her role). Mise-en-scene is designed with expectations of a painterly aesthetic. A color is lavish to the point of tackiness. Gabin's character later states "we are at the service of the public" and implies that this is all that matters. Sarris comments that Gabin's character as impresario serves as an alter ego for Renoir and reminds us that it would be an "oversimplification to describe him as a humanist." I cannot disagree with Mr. Sarris on those points but as we all know, Renoir's oeuvre plunges even deeper into reflection, representation and meaning.
Le carrosse d'or (1952)
Where Gold Commands, Laughter Vanishes
Renoir brought a new authorial voice to his work with The Diary of a Chambermaid which carried over into the "trilogy" of Carosse D'Or, French CanCan and Elena. The trilogy therefore is a bit of a misnomer despite Diary admittedly being more transitional than the three color productions which soon followed. Renoir introduces Carosse as a "fantasy" in the "spanish style" and it was at this time in his life where he was ready to dedicate himself to theater. The opening shot is a fantastic reflective juxtaposition of the theater stage and the cinema screen. Deep staging is important to the mise-en-scene, but there is little long take mobile framing. One-shot closeups, pov and shot-reverse-shot create a sense of psychological identification. The polyvocal system is less logical than Grande Illusion and more at the service of Magnani (much in the same way that Goddard was the focal point of Diary). A montage of shots connected through dissolves as well as the static camera solidify a sense of tableau fitting appropriately with the specularity of the commedia dell'arte theme. The viceroy is Camilla's muse sooner than the typical inverse. He provides a sensitivity that reminds of Le Baron in Bas Fonds... and his fascinations are just as patronizing and unsettling. There is a voyeuristic theme within the specular structure which raises questions about the great depth of field relating to privilege as opposed to realism. Renoir would take a new look at this at the end of Cancan when Gabin rehearses the performance in his mind from backstage. The Golden Coach is very much a film these for Renoir as he plays out the most important elements of his personal philosophy - that of internal and external truths and the masks that people wear to manage their relationship and mode of expression. For a fun, light film there is a lot of powerful expression in Carosse D'Or.
Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936)
Quel Drole de Monde...
The Jacques Prevert-Jean Renoir teaming provides for an exciting tale of murder, mens rea, judgment and justice. The narrative frame introduces the story through straightforward exposition. Great depth of field and uneven staging/blocking of characters constructs a space unobtrusively in order to make room for the free interchange of political positions of everyday people. It is difficult to deny that M. Lange isn't a call for French citizens to become politicized, but one cannot overlook the contribution of Prevert to that end. Mobile framing is employed once Florelle's character introduces the past events that led her and M. Lange into the provincial regions. The mobile framing operates to connect lives that might otherwise require the conjuring of contrived connections by the audience. The fact is that these people live and work together - that is the essence of their connection, and for Prevert (and Renoir) such a connection is enough to create a demand for respect, dignity and autonomy. Batala throws a wrench in all that good stuff and provides the catalyst for politicization. Is murder condoned in this film or is it representative of the sacrifice that will be made to take up a firm political position? (a massive issue at the time of the Popular Front) M. Lange is all about context but in the most self-reflexive manner. Even the Arizona Jim storyline has a direct conversation operating within the French film industry at the time. M. Lange isn't anachronistic but for a contemporary audience, the concept of group responsibility has distorted and perverted into an amorphous hideous blob cranking up the volume of the latest tech trinket to drown out the screams of a Kitty Genovese in the alley below. This makes M. Lange a refreshing take on politics but a depressing one, given the contemporary spectator has the foreknowledge that WWII happened and that international corporate conglomeration (Batala's wet dream) has become so dominant that an Occupy Movement on Wall Street looks more like a corporate-sponsored Hoedown-cum-Pow-Wow... and just wait for the time management game version to be released on iPhone in the next three months. If M. Lange were real life in 2013 we can be sure that Batala "getting his" would mean getting the highest amount of profit participation and controlling the creative accounting end of things when the box office closes on the film's run. It is beautiful to see a world fighting for what is right. Prevert was unabashed in that regard. Renoir was fighting for something else - both more personal and universal. In a true Renoir film, Batala would have been a more complex character... likely something between King Louis in La Marseillaise and Dede in La Chienee. That is to say, his return would be announced and his escape would be ensured at the expense of some poor bugger's own life... in a kind of reprehensible accident. What does the 360 shot mean to me? I believe that it represents a political statement about the deferral of responsibility. The Lange and Batala roles are a clever reversal of the real issue... where do you stand against the threat of fascism that will soon begin stomping faces (which it did in abundance).