Thursday, August 27, 2015

La Machine

1977, France, directed by Paul Vecchiali

On the strength of this film Vecchiali clearly requires further investigation -- he seems essentially unknown in the English-speaking world and I found only the barest of references to him in most academic works. Despite certain key tonal differences, this would make an interesting double bill with Slap the Monster on Page One -- two 1970s films exploring the role of the media in criminal cases. The media has an especially complex role in Vecchiali's film given its simultaneous reflection of the story and desire to sell it, but also as an important vector of the debate on capital punishment, circulating ideas in a sometimes serious-minded way that provides a marked contrast to its treatment of the individual crime. 

It was only afterwards that I discovered how closely the circumstances of the case paralleled those of a highly controversial death penalty case in 1975, that of the execution of Christian Ranucci -- a case controversial enough that Giscard is still questioned about it occasionally today. Many of the details in La Machine were quite similar, though the film never raised doubts about the subject's guilt. As it happened, the final French execution took place the same week the film was released in 1977, although the death penalty was not actually banned until 1981. 

Formally, the film is quite fascinating, using a great deal of realistic footage -- some of the sequences of journalists/interviews/vox pops go on for strikingly long periods, but then are contrasted with much more obviously artificial sequences, like the barroom scene that comes across like a scene from a play, the barflies artlessly moving from one spot to another as the camera pans back and forth outside the windows, before the characters unexpectedly break into song, a wonderfully destablizing moment.


1980, France, directed by Maurice Pialat

A film that follows very much in the steps of its predecessor, Passe ton bac d'abord. While the social milieu is different -- a combination of characters drawn from both slightly lower and slightly higher tranches than the earlier film, with the socio-economic specificity of Paris also added in -- there's a great deal of continuity between the late-adolescent mistreatment of friends and lovers and the adult version of the same thing in Loulou. There's also a continued sense of a terrifically depressing drift in the France of the Giscard era, despite the often positive social liberalization of French life in that period. Not for the first time, I have the sense that Mitterrand's 1981 election was as much as anything a desire to move on from the grey decade of the 1970s, during which it became increasingly difficult to take seriously the promises of French social life. From such unpromising social turf you often get wonderfully interesting films, of course. It was an exquisite pleasure to see Jacqueline Dufranne as Depardieu's mother here: she was both wonderful and heart-breaking as the mother/foster-mother in La Maison des bois, one of the warmest and, as that film progressed, most distressing performances I've seen. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Que la bête meure

1969, France, directed by Claude Chabrol

Very impressive, with an especially strong Chabrolian signature -- a blend of suspense, clear-eyed moral inquiry, and merciless dissection of the bourgeoisie, or, perhaps even more to the point, of the aspiring bourgeoisie. The apéritif scene before Jean Yanne makes his first appearance is absolutely exquisite in its sense of life-sapping awkwardness, the camera constantly probing the gathering, and the whole thing capped with a wonderful, lacerating shot of the mother, her face alight as her dreadful son arrives home. Jean Yanne really did play some awful people in the late 1960s/early 1970s; you can understand why he might have elected to go in a rather lighter direction later on. Yanne's character is also an extremely recognizable French type -- not necessarily in the outer reaches of his behaviour, but the kind of guy who truly believes he knows everything and dismisses those around them, even those who are his ostensible friends (the muttered asides about the absent boat-builder, for instance). 

Les Doigts dans la tête

1974, France, directed by Jacques Doillon

A film that would pair well very with Pialat's Passe ton bac d'abord, as a Paris-set examination of the lives of young French people in a decade of increasing crisis and ennui to match Pialat's provincial picture. As you might expect for a film set in France in 1974, it is a film very much concerned with worker-employer relations, though having the key conflict between a baker and his employee (rather than, say, between a factory boss and his many underlings) lends the examination of labour issues an extra degree of interest, not least because small business owners have often otherwise been valorised in French cinema (especially in provincial contexts). It's also an unsentimental, sometimes quite warm, occasionally even funny, examination of the way that young people interact and try to negotiate their relationships with one another. 

Sunday, August 09, 2015


2015, US, directed by Judd Apatow

Friday, August 07, 2015

Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation

2015, US, directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Knack... and How to Get It

1965, UK, directed by Richard Lester

Watched in the interests of enjoying David Cairns's impromptu Film Club in spoiler-free mode, although plot is hardly the prime driver for the film, so unusual in terms of British filmmaking of the period. Perhaps it's the young-ish cast, but it put me very much in mind of the zest and experimental spirit of a Godard picture from roughly the same timeframe, including on the visual level (the cinematography is frequently gorgeous, while there's a beguiling what-might-happen-next aspect to the overall tone). Like most people of my age group, I first encountered Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer in the sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, so the mere idea that he had an earlier -- and entirely respectable -- existence comes as a continued revelation. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

La Chambre bleue

2014, France, directed by Mathieu Amalric

A very nice latter-day Simenon film, with one of the writer's great virtues, brevity, intact -- not always something that survives in other filmed adaptations, including by Chabrol, often such an economical filmmaker. It's also an interesting study in adaptation: for the most part it is exceptionally faithful to the book, both in tone (Amalric's flat responses to the questioning, almost resigned to his fate) and plotting. 

Still, there are intriguing changes: I don't think there's any suggestion that Amalric's character routinely indulges in extra-marital affairs whereas in the book his brother owns the hotel where he plans his assignations, adding a level of perfidy. Amalric also changes the profession of his lover: she is a pharmacist rather than a shopkeeper, which makes her access to poison easier to explain but then makes her delivery of the fatal dose rather more cumbersome. The cross-cutting between quite intense depictions of the affair and the dry legal follow-up is also very much from the book, which has a very frank tone taking advantage of increased permissiveness in the 1960s. And then there are, of course, the choices that are unique to the film -- the sun-dappled holiday accompanied by foreboding music that wouldn't be out of place in a Hitchcock picture. 

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Les Godelureaux

1961, France, directed by Claude Chabrol

Surely one of the strangest films to emerge from the nouvelle vague period, and probably the most Godard-ian of Chabrol's films (it's hard not to see its influence, in turn, on Bande à part, though there's nothing quite as glorious as that film's dance sequence). The film is a gleeful and sometimes literal destruction of bourgeois life and yet I couldn't help but also detect an affirmation of the likelihood that the same values will win out in the end -- a kind of foreshadowing of the performative aspects of 1968 as well as the surprisingly conventional aftermathe. There's a plotline -- Jean-Claude Brialy enacting a bizarre form of revenge after a joke is played on by a bunch of St-German larksters -- but that's secondary to the set pieces, most notably the central, quite extraordinary bacchanalia that results in the more-or-less consequence-free destruction of a stately home. The film is very much of its time in terms of its response to the early years of the nouvelle vague, and also a film of Paris, with great period views of the city. 


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States