Tristana (1970)

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In the Hebrew Pentateuch, the Levitical law lays out a framework of precepts quite clearly that the people were meant to follow. One iteration can be paraphrased like so: If a man marries both a woman and her mother it is perversion. There must be no wickedness among you.

Doing a once over of the Spanish elite Don Lope (Fernando Rey), we see in him a man who came out of nobility and nevertheless lives a fairly humble life for the very fact that he’s never held a day job. He’s upper class by title and pretense only. Subsequently, his moral makeup is very much the same as he nobly provides a home for an orphaned ingenue (Catherine Deneuve).

Like his status, it is nearly all for show. It’s under the pretense of charity and the guise of a gentleman that he takes in the young Tristana, still in mourning following her dear mother’s death. Don Lope touts himself as a gallant defender of the weak and undoubtedly sees himself as a dying breed of man. Still, as his devoted housekeeper, Saturna remarks, when it comes to women he’s got horns and a tail. It’s hardly a secret.

We note the times in Spain during the 1920s or 30s. It is an irreligious generation as reflected in the deterioration and lack of importance placed in the church bell tower which used to be crucial to the daily rhythms of people’s lives. Now they’re too distracted by other pleasures.

Don Lope for one, does not concern himself with issues of money. Haggling is of great distaste to him. Instead in the quiet corridors of some great cathedral, he asks Tristana for a clandestine kiss. It’s the root of his perverse desires. Afterward, he makes troubling statements like, I’m your father and your husband and he seems to wholeheartedly believe them.

So despite the presence of Deneuve, in some respect, the narrative is more akin to Viridiana (1961) than Belle de Jour (1967) with Rey once more involved in a romantic tryst where he seems to be the main proponent of the relationship.

His spiritual beliefs come down to a few basic points including the assertion that Jesus was the first socialist and that the real priests are the men who look after the weak, fighting against hypocrisy and the powerful. He’s not altogether wrong but the words prove ironic coming from his lips. Because we know full well his own seemingly incongruent behaviors.

Still, it’s too true that we can equally criticize the advice of the local priest. However benevolent he might be, his words to Tristana stands in the face of what seems to be inherently right. He knows full well what Don Lope has done and yet he does next to nothing to protect the girl. All he can entreat her is to stay with him because he seems to have changed and treats her well enough.  That is all.

Fernando Rey’s character is obviously problematic to grapple with even if the performance itself is of merit. Because he’s this baffling mixture of old-fashioned values which give the pretense of respectability and honor. He’s not outrightly despicable, masking his indiscretions well. Perhaps because in his own mind’s eye these are hardly sins at all.

In realizing this we’ve come to what’s most problematic about him. Because he’s created his own code, in a sense, since there is no universal moral code that he falls back on. He is a strict adherent to moral relativism. You see, usually religious people, people who grew up in faith have something to check themselves with — Levitical law for instance.

Far from being legalistic, grace was in theory supposed to accord adherents the ability to forgive others but also be forgiven and live in complete freedom if they were penitent. But Don Lope can’t be troubled with religiosity, the commandments, and dos and don’ts of the church are all he sees. They seem so restrictive. Undoubtedly because most of the people living by them misinterpret their intentions and as a result carry on repressed even harshly ascetic existences. And yet in disregarding the same, Don Lope’s own “morals” cause him to step over accepted boundaries.

Thus, his relationship with Tristana from the day he betrays her innocence is forever tainted. And there is no grace there and no sense of repentance as if he actually did nothing wrong, and so he doesn’t really change. It only serves in making his victim more bitter by the hour.

Rey’s performance might be the most crucial but being partial to Catherine Deneuve there’s no question that her transformation from a young grieving woman of such pure naivete is striking. Because she’s so innocent only to become tarnished by Don Lope’s behavior. She’s a far cry from the woman she arrived in his home as — both physically and mentally. It’s taken its toll.

She is plagued by morbid dreams but Bunuel has gotten a great deal more subtle with his surrealist diversions skillfully weaving them into the framework of reality with seamless aptitude. There are individual moments that you don’t realize are actually dream-like until the bubble has burst and you’re out of them.

So the film utilizes a fairly straightforward narrative for Bunuel but that must be taken with a grain of salt. Because it’s contorted along the same lines of subversion and social norms that the Spanish director is usually fond of lambasting with his typical iconoclastic verve. It’s not always blatant in this picture but still evident.

Ultimately it becomes a story of revenge as Tristana finds love with another man (Franco Nero) and yet still feels trapped by Lope. As a result, her heart grows hard and full of resentment toward the old man who ruined her. To return the favor, she is all but ready to ruin him. It’s a lovely sentiment.

In reading some over the career of Luis Bunuel I’ve realized the correlation between him and Alfred Hitchcock in a couple areas. First, they were very much visual filmmakers who knew what they were shooting before they ever got on set. The movie was already inside their heads and made. They simply needed to use the actors and equipment at their disposal to get it done.

Furthermore, thematically since they both had a Catholic background and a slightly sardonic wit, you often see touches of those sensibilities throughout their pictures. Hitchcock in the likes of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), also considered themes of sexual obsession and deep-seated vices which Bunuel held a similar preoccupation with. I’ve always held a preference for “The Master of Suspense” but I must still pay my deference to the latter as a tirelessly inventive filmmaker who proved to have remarkable longevity.

4/5 Stars

A Christmas Tale (2008)

achristmastaleposterThe initial inclination for seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s sprawling family drama was the presence of the estimable Catherine Deneuve. And she’s truly wonderful giving a shining, nuanced performance that makes the audience respect her, sympathize with her, and even dislike her a little bit. But the same goes for her entire family. The best word to describe them is messy. Dysfunctional is too sterile. Messy fits what they are. If you think your family is bad around the holidays, the Vuillards have a lot of their own issues to cull through.

The inciting incident sends a shock wave through their already crumbling family unit. Their matriarch has been diagnosed with bone marrow cancer and must make the difficult decision of whether or not to risk treatment or go without. But Deneuve carries herself with that same quietly assured beauty that she’s had even since the days of Umbrellas of Cherbourg. In this capacity, she makes A Christmas Tale, far from a tearful, sobfest. She’s strong, distant, and you might even venture to say fearless.

And because of her strength, this story is not only about her own plight – it’s easy to downplay it because she is so resilient – but it frames the rest of the interconnecting relationships. It began when her first son passed away. The children who followed included Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) who became the oldest and grew up to be a successful playwright. Junon’s middle child Henri (Mathieu Amalric) can best be described as the black sheep while the youngest, Ivan, was caught in the midst of the familial turmoil.

Because the issues go back at least five years before Junon gets her life-altering news. It was five years ago that Elizabeth paid Henri’s way out of an extended prison sentence (for a reason that is never explained) with the stipulation that she never has to see her brother again. Not at family gatherings, not for anything. And she gets her way for a time.

But with Junon’s news she and her husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) realize this is a crucial time to get their family back together because, above all, their matriarch needs a donor and due to her unique genetic makeup, a family member is her best bet.

Underlying these overt issues are numerous tensions that go beyond sibling grudges and sickness. Elizabeth’s own relationships have been fraught with unhappiness and her son Paul has been struggling through a bout of depression. Ivan and his wife (Chiarra Mastroianni) are seemingly happy with two young boys of her own. But old secrets about unrequited love get dredged up and Sylvia is looking for answers of her own. Although it’s a side note, it’s striking that Chiarra Mastroianni is Deneuve’s real-life daughter and in her eyes, I see the spitting image of her father, the icon, Marcello Mastroianni.

There’s also a lot of truth and honesty buried within A Christma Tale and in most competitions, it would win for the most melancholy of yuletide offerings. However, it’s important to note that its darkness is balanced out with romance, comedy, and a decent dose of apathy as well.

Still, the most troubling thing about A Christmas Tale is not the fact that it is extremely transparent, but the reality that the themes of Christmas have no bearing on its plot. We leave these characters different than they were before but whether they are better for it is up for debate.

The sentimentality of a It’s Wonderful Life crescendo would be overdone and fake in this context but some sort of reevaluation still seems necessary. Because without faith in anything — faith in their family is ludicrous — their world looks utterly hopeless. The two little grandsons wait in front of the nativity staying up to get a glimpse at Jesus (perhaps mistaken for Santa Claus) and their father calmly states they should go to bed because he’s never existed anyways. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding such beliefs.

Even the fact that Junon and her grown son Henri attend midnight mass is an interesting development. But during this season emblematic of hope and joy, it seems like the Vuillard’s can have very little of either one. Henri can be his mother’s savior for a time by extending her life for 1.7 years or whatever the probabilities suggest. But then what?

It’s this reason and not the family drama that ultimately makes A Christmas Tale a downer holiday story. Its denouement feels rather like a dead end more than fresh beginnings. Because Nietzche and coin flips are not the most satisfying ways to decipher the incomprehensibility of life – especially with death looming large during the holidays.

But that’s only one man’s opinion. That’s not to downplay all that is candid about this film in any way. If you are intrigued by the interpersonal relationships and entanglements of a family  — may be a lot like yours and mine — this film is an elightening exposé.

3.5/5 Stars

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 21-25

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One of the reasons film is so engaging and fascinating is the discussion that it evokes from all people. Every person, no matter their age or knowledge, can have their own subjective opinion on a film and why they liked it, or better yet why they hated it so much that they wanted to throw up.

But I’m going to cut the discussion short and put my cinematic life on the line by being completely vulnerable with some of my admittedly subjective picks for my favorite movies. Any agreement is highly encouraged. All dissenting opinions will be disregarded without a thought. Enjoy #21-#25 in this ongoing series:

21. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)

This first title was love at first sight. All the things I love about a great comedy. Completely lacking sophistication and full of hilarious insanity. Also, Mad…World has arguably the greatest ensemble every assembled for one film. Everyone shows up for the party and it’s wonderful. Jonathan Winters was my favorite discovery from this film because he truly was a comic gem of a man.

22. Some Like it Hot (1959)

Jack Lemmon will always and forever be one of my favorite actors. Maybe it’s because he reminds me of my Grandpa because my Grandpa is a funny man. But that’s neither here nor there. Some Like it Hot stems from the genius of Billy Wilder, always ready with a funny storyline (two cross-dressing musicians fleeing Chicago gangsters) and a rapier wit. Of course, there’s Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe too, and the Hotel Del Coronado makes a memorable appearance filling in for Florida. Boy, oh boy, am I a boy!

23. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

Now this one might seem kind of random. But I quickly fell in love with the fateful whimsy of Jacques Demy. His love of American musicals is evident with the casting of both Gene Kelly and George Chakiris, but this is also undeniably a French production starring sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac. Michel Legrand’s music is surprisingly catchy and the fact that the film’s exposition is all given through song intrigued me from the beginning.

24. Laura

Film-Noir became a favorite genre, movement, style (whatever you want to call it) early on and Laura was one of the reasons why. I think I was smitten with Laura (Gene Tierney) much like our protagonists, and the film’s core mystery was gripping in more ways than one. David Raksin’s haunting score adds yet another layer to the drama as does Otto Preminger’s direction through the film’s interiors.

25. To Kill a Mockingbird

By now Harper Lee’s novel and Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch are almost intertwined in my mind, so much so, it becomes difficult to separate the two. And since I loved the book growing up, it’s only fitting that the film adaption would also hold a special place. Its set of sentiment and moral uprightness is hard for me to disregard, even when I’m at my most cynical. Mary Badham does a wonderful job as does Brock Peters — the perfect foils for Peck’s monumental portrayal.

Catherine Deneuve as Geneviève Emery

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I still maintain Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly are my two favorite actresses respectively. That started early on thanks to films like Roman Holiday and Rear Window and quickly blossomed even more following subsequent film viewings. But it’s important to note that both of these actresses came out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Both actresses were English language stars. And both are, sadly, no longer with us.

In all honesty, I cannot quite remember the first time I ever saw Catherine Deneuve, whether it was Belle De Jour, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Repulsion or somewhere else. However, seeing this 19 year old girl, so serenely and quietly beautiful in Umbrellas of Cherbourg, certainly left an impression on me during my own teen years.

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While Jacques Demy’s whimsical operatic love story of fate charmed me, it was Deneuve who was an emblem of this film. The fact that Geneviève was herself wrapped in a glorious love affair that slowly became tragic, only made her more beautiful in her solemnity. Her piercing eyes. The loneliness that dwells deep within her. The tears slowly trickling down her cheeks. It only enhances her eternal grace — seeing her so melancholy and distant.

Also, it probably helped, ironically, that I don’t speak French. It is yet another barrier between me and this character of Geneviève. I cannot fully understand her plight, because I cannot even completely comprehend the language that she speaks, as melodic as it may be. The heart-wrenching melodies of Michel Legrand as well as Umbrella’s vibrant palette of colors are equally evocative. It’s no fluke that Deneuve bursts onto the scene right here. Everything is going for her with Jacques Demy at the epoch of his creative powers.

And the fun of this particular story is that Catherine Deneuve is still with us and still making a good many movies. Admittedly, I haven’t seen many of her newer roles after The Last Metro (1980), but I’ll get around to them someday. It was fun to find a star of a bygone era, who did not die 20 years before I was even born and for that Deneuve was a welcomed discovery. She continues to fascinate audiences, not least among them me.

I still am partial to Audrey and Grace, but I would say unequivocally that Catherine Deneuve comes in a close third. How can you not be won over by Umbrellas of Cherbourg, an extraordinary debut from a phenomenal body of work?

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The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

rochefort1If the Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a piercing operatic drama, The Young Girls of Rochefort is pure, unadulterated escapism at its finest. 

Directed by Jacques Demy and starring an ensemble cast including Catherine Deneuve, Francois Dorleac, Gene Kelly, Michel Piccoli, Gerochefort9orge Chakiris, Grover Paul, and Danielle Darrieux, this is a whimsical French musical that has no equal. 

The film opens with a group of performers coming into the town of Rochefort to get ready for a big outdoor show. They become acquainted with the local hangout that includes a kindly matron (Darrieux) and many locals including an idealistic artist and sailor who is searching for his ideal lover. Nearby her two adult twin daughters hold piano and ballet lessons as they too get their little prodigies ready for the big show. Delphine (Deneuve) is fed up with her suitor and desires a new love, while Solange (Dorleac) on her part hopes to advance her career as a pianist. She goes to the proprietor of a local music store to see if he can introduce her to a prestigious American Friend.

A great deal of dramatic irony sets in and the plot is constantly moved forward through song. Yvonne at the café is still depressed over a split with a lover 10 years prior, because he had an unfortunate name. Solange has a chance encounter while stopping to pick up her kid brother Booboo, and Delphine becomes curious about an artist who painted a portrait that looks strikingly like her. All of these events reach their apex on the Sunday of the big performance, and in need of some performer, the carnies enlist the help of the twins. They are a huge success and things wind down.

The nextrochefort4 morning the performers get ready to leave for Paris and the girls decide to follow suit. However, Solange has another encounter that changes her plans and then Yvonne is united with her love. That leaves only Delphine to go with the boys to Paris, but not to worry, she would be united with her painter soon enough.

The light and very French-sounding tunes are hard not to like, but that is only the very beginning. Demy pays homage to Hollywood musicals of old going so far as casting Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain) and George Chakiris (West Side Story) in his film. He undoubtedly owes a debt to Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen with some striking moments reminiscent of An American in Paris (1951). It makes sense. Demy uses the pastels and costumes of a Hollywood musical extravaganza while also including dashes of French style.

Rocrochefort2hefort takes place in a real location, but it truly is a fantasy world that the characters inhabit, full of perpetual dancing and dialogue that is delivered through song. The real-life sisters do a wonderful job in this film and there is something reassuring about seeing Gene Kelly. Rather like an old friend who gives comfort in a whimsical, but altogether new experience. The story arc of dashed, renewed, and ultimately new found love allows Demy to once more explore the issues of fate and chance that always seem to enchant him.  His partnership with Michel Legrand is once again bountiful including the enduringly memorable “Chanson Des Jumelles,” an infectiously bouncy, trumpet-laden number performed by the sisters.

There’s nothing much else for me to say except The Young Girls of Rochefort is one of those under-appreciated gems that is thoroughly enjoyable and chock full of all sorts of fun. It delivers a serving of something with a familiar flavor while giving it a little extra panache. It’s about as playful and fluffy as you can get which in this case is not a bad thing at all. 

4.5/5 Stars

Donkey Skin (1970)

donkeyskin1Donkey Skin takes the unique world of Jacques Demy and steps it up a couple of notches. The story is based off a fairy tale and brims with all the necessary trappings accented by the French director’s own flourishes.

Once again the music is supplied by Michel Legrand and the songs are a mix of playfully fun and sometimes solemn songs that help dictate the path the story takes. As far as the tale itself goes, it revolves around a beautiful princess who sends herself into a forced exile wearing a donkey skin. It all sounds rather odd, but she is given the idea from her fairy godmother, in order to keep her father from marrying the princess.

The world is a fanciful array of gaudy fake interiors, blue people, red horses, a treasure-dropping donkey, oddly-masked creatures, a talking parrot, princesses, princes, and some rather alarming potential incest. This is no Disney endeavor by any means and its bright colors often call to mind Hippy culture.

donkeyskin2Into this land, the princess flees covered in her donkey skin and takes on the lowly role of a scullery maid where she is belittled and looked down upon. However, a glum young prince happens upon her in all her beauty and wants nothing more than to marry her. In fact, he plays sick just so he can be with his gorgeous vision. Instead of Cinderella’s slipper, this story deals with a ring which is only to fit the finger of his true love. A whole to do is made out of it with people coming from far and wide. However, the prince already knows who he wishes to wear it, after all, it came in a cake that Donkey Skin baked for him.

In the end, this fairy tale receives the happy denouement that is expected with plenty of riches and love for all. The film used simple but nonetheless mesmerizing special effects that add a touch of magic to this tale. It also gets bookended by some obligatory narration concluding an enchanting fairy story fit for children, mothers, grandmas and anyone else who is willing to partake. Although not as memorable as his earlier musicals, it seems that Donkey Skin sees Jacques Demy at his fully realized creative powers in a way that is uniquely his and fits with many of the trademarks he developed earlier. Furthermore, Catherine Deneuve proved that she is beautiful even wearing a donkey skin hoodie. It’s hard to say no to a movie with her in it, no matter the topic.

3.5/5 Stars

Bay of Angels (1963)

bayof3Bay of Angels is quite different than anything else I have seen by Jacques Demy. Similar to Lola (1961) it is shot in starkly beautiful black and white and it has a kind of love story, but it lacks the music or general whimsy that often characterized Demy’s later works.

This film finds its subject matter in gambling, and it follows one woman’s obsession and another man’s growing interest in roulette. At first, Jean is a rather bored young bank employee, who is coaxed by a colleague bayof2to take up gambling. Initially, he is skeptical, looking down at the pastime as a frivolous waste of time and money, after all, he is a sensible young man. However, he parts with the sensibilities that his father would have for him and instead take a few weeks of vacation to spend some time in the casinos of Nice and Monte Carlo.

Soon he gets bitten by the gambling bug and he’s hooked. He finds an equally enthused companion in Jackie (Jeanne Moreau), who has had a far longer history with roulette. Jean falls for her very quickly and Jackie holds onto him like her good luck charm. Their many days spent in the casinos are constantly fluctuating roller coasters of luck. Once gambler’s fallacy has taken hold it’s hard to kick the habit, and Jackie constantly blows her money. If not at the wheels, it gets spent on fine dining and clothes. She has no restraint when it comes to spending and Jean indulges her willfully. It gets so bad that Jean begins to get as reckless as his companion, and he cannot bear to leave her, although she really does have a problem.

bayof4The formally reserved persona of Jean becomes violent and passionate for Jackie’s affection, but she’s not quite as ready to give it out. The ending felt a bit forced, but yet again Demy delivers a story that is riddled with feelings of love and passion.

It is an interesting observation that his male characters pale in comparison with his female leads ranging from Anouk Aimee, Jeanne Moreau, and Catherine Deneuve. These ladies who are always the object of affection, steal the screen with their mesmerizing performances. In fact, Claude Mann has a rather slumping posture, a glum face, and not particularly good looks. Thus, in contrast, Jeanne Moreau looks like an especially alluring beauty, who seems at home in gaudy gambling houses billowing with smoke or seaside promenades.

Bay of Angels is supposedly the place that brings the pair luck, but the reality is that this film is all about chance. Not fate so much as Demy usually explores, but a topic that is still somewhat similar. It is also a film that makes me never want to play roulette. I do not want the mundane lifestyle of Jean, but I would like to find my excitement somewhere else. I suppose that’s what made Moreau’s character so fascinating because her obsession was so great and yet she simply accepted it and thought little of it. But it drove her life.

We’re partners in a game. Let’s leave it at that.” ~ Jackie

4/5 Stars