The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013): Takahata’s Swan Song

The_Tale_of_the_Princess_Kaguya_(poster).jpgDuring the period of time I lived in Japan, I became acquainted with the works of Isao Takahata, and by that I mean I watched both Grave of The Fireflies (1988) and Only Yesterday (1991). This was all that was required because these two films on their own left a profound impact on me.

While Hayao Miyazaki is, rightfully so, the benevolent poster boy of Ghibli Studios, you might say Takahata was, in his own way, a visionary and the hidden engine behind the company. He was rarely as prolific as his counterpart, but the films he left behind are thoughtful masterpieces — even more pensive in nature — while arguably boasting headier themes. In fact, you might say the partnership between the two directors exerted an influence on Miyakazi’s films specifically.

While living in Tokyo, the news Miyazaki would come out retirement had the world in a tizzy of excitement. About a year later his colleague would pass away, and I’m not sure as many folks were aware, but those who’ve admired his films took note and quietly pondered the glorious oeuvre he left behind.

Today I can finally say Tale of Princess Kagura is more than worthy of joining the company of his best films, sharing his usual affinities while bursting forth with an altogether new leaf — a lifetime in the making. Whether it’s serendipity or not, it seems like an impeccable summation of the director’s work, still so vibrant and serenely mesmerizing at this, the tail end of his career.

In full transparency, as someone who knew next to nothing about The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter (this film’s ancient inspiration), it’s easy to come at the material a bit wary. But soon enough, this guardedness begins to fade away. Because like any of the great tales — Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm, The Odyssey, even Biblical parables — this story is equally built out of the archetypes of humanity. In some way, it speaks to universal themes we can imbibe on some deeper human level.

The initial jumping-off point is unfamiliar and yet it bears some resemblance to what we might know somewhere deep down in our being. Because on one auspicious day, the Woodcutter happens to cut down a bamboo shoot and when it breaks open, with radiant light, a tiny creature is birthed into the world; he christens her a princess sent from the heavens.

So he and his wife act accordingly, taking this small yet significant creature as their own to raise up so that she might one day earn a status far beyond their humble origins. It begins as a story about how Providence can smile down upon the most unremarkable of souls.

The Woodcutter is a doddering man even hilariously so, devoted as he is to his new daughter. Whereas his wife is more tranquil and a comforting maternal figure. As their new daughter is taken in, she rapidly grows by the moment, earning the name “Bamboo Shoot” from the local pack of children, although her father is adamant she’s a princess, and he resolves to do everything in his power to make this vision a reality.

It’s in these earliest interludes, set in the meadows and forests of God’s green earth, where we realize what a hallowed place nature will hold in this story as the words of a ubiquitous tune about “birds, bugs, beasts, trees, etc.” keeps on being repeated — a song that feels as old as time.

While The Tale of Princess Kagura is about so much and it’s lengthy, especially for a hand-drawn piece of animation, there’s something very primordial about it — again, going back to the base tenets of our very existence and our collective consciousness.

The child joins the company of a strapping woodsman named Sutemaru who is admired by all the youth, despite his own common origins. Our heroine shares their mutual affection for him.

Meanwhile, her father continually invests in the life he’s vowed to give her — sending her to the city, setting her up under the tutelage of an eminent woman of etiquette, and promoting her to all the surrounding nobles. Kagura is bestowed with the blessed new name, and her renown grows.

However, this is the juncture where her old life — one of humble means, communing with nature, and Sutemaru — ceases to exist as it formerly did. She must try and acclimate to a new life at first glorious, then constricting, and ultimately devastating.

She’s pursued by five prominent suitors, all vowing to bring her glorious treasures to consummate their love. Instead of taking their proposals subserviently, she boldly asks for them to prove not only their resolve but their true affections. There’s something utterly modern about this young woman navigating her way in a world dominated by men. Where she willfully challenges convention as dictated by traditional patriarchy with the ultimate symbol being the emperor, a man accustomed to getting whatever he so desires.

The story readily evokes numerous elements of Japanese culture, and they inform the folklore, whether unfurling scroll paintings, virtuoso koto-playing, and the antiquated customs of nobility. But Takahata’s film works on an even more basic level.

Beyond all else, at it’s very best, The Tale of Princess Kagura is blessed with breathtaking visuals, making full use of the format. Mystifying developments are brought to the screen with a matter-of-fact immediacy we come to accept. It’s the kind of film where you must let it happen to you. If you relinquish your doubts and come to accept everything generously, you stand to be rewarded. Only then are you allowed to revel in its intricacies, simplicities, and the marvels it puts forth in any number of ways.

The palette breaks with so much of what we’ve come to expect from animation, both the western status quo with the proliferation of computer-driven images and also Japan’s own distinct stylings. It’s the epitome of sartorial splendor and in an era where animation — both western and eastern — is easily earmarked and pigeon-holed,  it’s very rare to view something so singular. In fact, it’s an unassuming revelation in terms of harnessing the art form in an altogether definitive manner.

It’s bold in its willingness to be spare, recalling the impressionistic recollections featured in Only Yesterday. And yet the style readily evolves, waxing and waning amid the seasons, the changing plot points, and subsequent emotions that overtake our heroine.

The watercolor-like sensibilities and bursts of colors demand a fearlessness when it comes to using white space and minimalism. Because what it really does is continuously impress upon us a particular mood, a feeling, or sensation.

I am reminded of one scene that totally overtook me as the Princess zoomed off into the night as a blur of charcoal and color, the score hitting staccato notes to capture the pace in which she darts off into the night — grieved and agonized by the current world she’s being subjected too.

Then there’s the other moment amid the cherry blossoms that feels like swirling, whirling euphoria under the falling pink petals. For an instant, we get lost up in the moment with our heroine. And because this is a Takahata movie, there has to be an element of this mystical realism where the film’s world and the medium of animation afford this fusing of the every day with the supernatural. Sure enough, it comes with the same magical flourishes we would come to expect from Ghibli. We watch our protagonists soar through the air with a visceral abandon personifying their overflowing joy.

Later, we are caught up in the awe of an ethereal decension bringing the gods down to us on a cloud from the luminous moon above. This is what we come to expect from Ghibli — this swelling exhilaration — although each moment feels fresh as if seen with new eyes.

However, and this is no slight on Miyazaki whatsoever, it feels like Takahata has a greater stake in depicting both the somberness and the elation. He reminds us sometimes it takes one to bring out the other. But in the end, as he suggests time and time again in his story, it’s all part of this cycle. It’s the tale of nature and life — the birds, the bugs, and all the creatures. That includes us.

The film subtly evokes Buddhist, perhaps even some Shinto traditions — this inbred environmentalism — and the relationship between humanity and nature. Though we might see the same themes echoed in many slightly different forms. There is the Christian mandate to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

There were later generations of Romanticists kicking against the goads of the Industrial Revolution, looking to salvage nature from the soot-filled pyres of modernity. Then the Transcendentalists who called for finding meaning in the solitude of nature while also finding a spiritual presence in all things. Even now there is the ever-current fight in the war against climate change, in spite of a sea of skeptics.

Thus, if we do this admittedly cursory run-through of history, it reminds us this is not really a matter of Eastern vs. Western thought at all. Surely, there are differences, but our struggles, questions, and hopes are not totally dissimilar. They are wrapped up right there in our elemental narratives. Isao Takahata gifted us with one final revelation executed with his usual care and thoughtfulness. It’s a delight to proclaim it good. It’s even better to say it’s not just for Anime aficionados. I want to believe it’s for everyone who will give it a chance.

4.5/5 Stars

When a Women Ascends The Stairs (1960): A Prescient Portrait of Japan

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A version of this review was first published in Film Inquiry

If director Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds is a film about making peace with the war years, then When a Woman Who Ascends The Stairs is a far more forward-thinking endeavor. In fact, I would say it’s a near-prescient portrait of where Japan has ventured now over 60 years onward.

One lady comments you can still see the old Tokyo but it’s obvious — even the classy scoring and the generally sleek compositions suggest as much — modern society is upon us in full force.

It’s the 1960s built on the bedrock of a post-war economy. In a highly fashionable area like Ginza — renowned even today for its shopping and glamour — the western influence is undeniable. Most of the film doesn’t take place on the main streets, however, but in the back alcoves in the lines of bars hidden away. Even here the American influence is felt with many of the bar names deriving from English.

What’s presented is a different type of life, even as it presents its own fashionable conception of the world.  Mama-san (Hideko Takamine), as she is known by all, is one of the women living in this world. She is a kind of hostess. If it’s a euphemism or not, I can’t entirely say.

Still, her entire existence can be summed up by one early shot. The daunting stairs winding up in front of her toward her work. In a practical sense, they lead up to the bar she frequents every evening dutifully, but Naruse’s shot comes to represent something far more.

I’m not sure if we could call it the stairs toward the glass ceiling exactly, but it is true she enters a new world when she steps into work every day. She must fortify herself. She has an untenable veneer built up over the years.

It braces her to be the perfect hostess to all, balancing her customers’ entreaties and come-ons with the utmost ease and floating from each conversation with impeccable tact. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, she works with her longtime manager and bill collector (Tatsuya Nakadai) trying to eke by paying off the creditors they must rent from.

It’s never a sustainable life. Trying to keep customers happy while getting by on only the smallest of margins. Even a regular, named Minaboe, has started frequenting another place. His absence hurts her business. Thankfully, there is other clientele to work on and so she does her best to keep them happy while never quite acquiescing to their wishes. For 5 years in this tawdry business, she’s kept strong in this regard.

Because this is a film all about sex really, though we never see it outright. And if it is about sex, then it’s only as a commodity, a tool, a bargaining chip to be used. Despite being a story about women giving companionship to men on their business trips and away from their wives, for the longest time, no notion of actual love is developed. This should not catch us by surprise.

It is business first. Mama-san is expected to supply small talk and the girls that work under her flirt with the patrons over drinks. But as Keiko later admits, when she returns to her humbler roots, it’s all a created fabrication. They wear kimonos, buy perfume, and pay for taxis and apartments they can barely afford, way above their paygrade just so they can maintain the fantasy for their obliging audience. Meanwhile, there’s another side, a lot more disheartening and downright heartbreaking.

It’s the undercurrent of Tokyo if you wander into the red district or happen to step outside the confines of the beautifully cultivated exterior. It’s not a lie — all the things in front — but there is so much more to contend with. Love hotels, geishas, and hordes of hostesses to go with them. What do they beget? Among many things suicide, loneliness, and helplessness.

If there is any other film I found myself cycling back to it was actually Imitation of Life, directed by the master of luscious American melodrama Douglas Sirk. It also was about a strong single woman trying to make her way in a world all but dominated by men. If it was true in America, it was even more so in an albeit modernized Japan.

Hideko Takamine faces much of the same struggles as Lana Turner in the movie from a year prior when it comes to her own dreams — in this case, gathering enough funds to open her own bar. The only way to get ahead seems to be settling and giving in to the constant implicit or explicit demands of men. Because they hold the power. Society has certain set expectations. So they must play the game or live a life like hamsters on a wheel, in a constantly spinning wheel of survival.

Turner’s life is equally complicated by her relationship or lack thereof with her daughter (Sandra Dee). But in a manner indicative of Japanese culture, Reiko must deal with a nagging mother and a timid brother who are constantly dependent on her for money. It’s the tug and war between familial duty and what she aspires to.

It starts being a film about love once Mama-san finally relents and opens herself up to be hurt. She’s finally human and loves, and the scenes that evolve out of this development are the film’s most devastating. What makes them even more impactful is how they just keep building off one another, scene after scene. There is no relief in this barrage of pain, rejection, and heartbreak that our heroine is taxed with.

There was a certain continuity created between Hideko Takamine and Masayuki Mori thanks to their work together in Floating Clouds and yet the relationships go still further. She’s proposed to and berated and lied to and loved. And yet at the end of the day, she must put a cap on her emotions and saunter up those same solitary steps and put on the genteel facade expected of her. The final action, the smile on the face, and then the token salutation, a last touch of irony.

Even with its touches of humor, in an expression or a line of dialogue, it’s nowhere close to the campy, technicolor crescendo Sirk cooked up for Imitation of Life. But as Sirk was capable of dissecting American life, I would wager Naruse is equally perceptive and adept when it comes to Japan.

Satire and sarcasm infused in drama do not function in the same manner in Japan. In its place, Naruse commits irrevocably to his story and consequently provides another moving examination of his culture. It has a lot to say about a Japan that still seems to exist to this very day in ever-evolving forms.  Loneliness, suicide, and patriarchal ways are not just specters out of the past; they are alive and well to this day.

My last thought is only this. Setsuko Hara was the first Japanese actress I truly recognized across a body of the work; she was a luminary personality, and Hideko Takamine might be right below her, proving herself to be incomparable in her own right.

The performance she gives her yet again is so potent with the range and verisimilitude to all but carry the picture. She’s spellbinding, beautiful, and simultaneously breaks our hearts with the depth of her vulnerability. I won’t be forgetting it any time soon. Because in one go she effectively represents an entire subset of human beings and imbues them with unmistakable pathos.

4.5/5 Stars

Departures (2008): Agents for The Dead

Okuribito_(2008)One could choose any number of labels to attempt categorizing Departures. It’s a film indebted to the rapturous compositions of the past. It shares elements akin to any police procedural ever made or for that matter, the veterinary antics from a British gem like All Creatures Great and Small.

They are admittedly disparate reference points, but they seem fitting given Departures subject matter. No, not a travel agency as our main character Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) supposes.

The job title of NK Agent, picked out of the local ad section, relates to something entirely different. They take care of the dear departed — that is — they work with dead bodies.  There’s the aloof veteran trained in all facets of the trade and the young newcomer aching to prove himself.

Each case brings with it, its own unique complications. It’s not a common art nor one that is held in much regard. But as the film explores over time, it plays a crucial role in a society that must grapple with death and bid adieu to loved ones like everyone else.

In his former life, Kobayashi had a position of repute. The Greeks might have liked him. He didn’t denigrate himself with toil and sweat as much as the common man. He was an artist; a cellist to be exact, and he brings joy to the masses and swelling pride to his devoted wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue). The only problem is no one is showing up to their concerts and so the orchestra is unceremoniously dissolved.

In keeping with spousal protocol, Mika stays supportive and suggests they move to his old family home in the country where they might live for free as he figures his affairs out. But as one who is even only minorly familiar with Japanese culture, there is an inkling something else dwells hidden from view — just waiting to reveal itself.

Daigo answers a job description on a whim and finds himself greeted by the quizzical secretary (Kimiko Yo) and a boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who has an unorthodox manner of doing business, especially in such a highly methodical, procedure-heavy culture like Japan.

Needless to say, the new hopeful sits down for about two seconds and comes home with the job and his first bonus. It’s a hilarious initial interaction setting their relationship in stark relief. We like his workplace for how very unique it is. Because these people feel like they might easily be punchlines and nothing more, and yet we grow to appreciate them even as Kobayashi remains our protagonist.

This is what Departures is able to manage. It’s drama but never squeamish about utilizing comedy. Take, for instance, the moment he’s called on to play a cadaver in his senpai’s sponsor spot or when he throws up in the presence of a particularly grizzly undertaking. In the aftermath, some schoolgirls comment on the rancid smell on the bus leading him to take an expedient trip to the local bathhouse to clean up.

But in contrast, Departures is full of all kinds of emotion and soft strings of pathos, whether hyper-realized or not. In between the lines are complications and relationships wrought with both warmth and the tension of lives shaped by regret. The best moments are unspoken, reflected by totems or actions. The handling of a weathered stone, the heart-rending notes of a cello, and certainly the ceremonial burying of bodies.

Even the moment where Daigo must fess up and tell his wife what he’s really been up to, it tears her apart; she’s so very ashamed that he would take part in something so defiling. It bores into the heart of this narrative.

Because to its very essence, the movie not only puts words to a very archaic Japanese art no one wants to acknowledge, it also supplies a space in which to grapple with death and how we grieve — how we let our loved ones go into the great beyond.

Since the dawn of man, it has been a prevalent theme throughout the ballads and religious convictions of mankind, whatever the background. Even a basic deist like Ben Franklin noted that the only things we may count on are “death and taxes.”

Egyptians were embalmed for a future afterlife with relics now found in the British Museum for us all to fawn over. Norse heroes dreamed of Vahala, a place to glory over their valorous feats with their countrymen.

Christians believe in not simply an afterlife but a new heaven and new earth where this current world, with all its flaws, will pass away. On a cursory level, varying strains of Buddhism and Hinduism often delve into issues of rebirth in further pursuit of nirvana or enlightenment.

For Japan, in particular, death is so closely tied to family. Rather like Latin culture, there is this extension of the family unit reaching out into the great unknown where saying goodbye and keeping constant communications with dead ancestors is a part of culture, albeit a dying art.

Taking stock of these themes, it makes sense many have decried the film for its sentimentalities. Yes, there are touches of the saccharine, but what resonated with me most was something else. When it counted most, Departures managed to be a delicate drama in a manner suited to Japanese society where quiet strength is prized and benign tranquility highly sought.

And if you guess the plot points — not an altogether difficult task — it means very little to me. Because for many meaningful movies, these narrative elements are only employed to hang your hat on. What really matters are the characters, the emotions they exude, and whether or not they can reach out to the audience and induce a reaction.

Departures was such a film for me. One of the miracles of life is finding some semblance of humor in the darkest, saddest parts. Death is undoubtedly one of these. However, it begins with coming to peace with the future. Knowing that we were made for something more than this world of ours. We are not destined to be creatures of death, but creatures of life. Of course, that’s only one man’s opinion. We all deal with departures differently.

4/5 Stars

Whisper of The Heart (1995): Take Me Home Concrete Road

Whisper_of_the_Heart_(Movie_Poster).jpgWhisper of The Heart is wholeheartedly a Japanese anime and yet learning John Denver’s “Country Roads” holds a relatively substantial place in the plotline might catch some off guard. After all, as the metropolitan imagery establishes our setting, we hear a version of the song playing against the bevy of passersby, cars, and convenience stores.

Director Yoshifumi Kondō boasts animation both simple and clean yet ever so attractive for those very same reasons. It positively glows with nostalgic yellow hues and employs anime’s preoccupations with the most intricate details — moths drawn to a light being just one prime example.

When I lived in Japan, I became fascinated by foreign music and how it gained a foothold in the country. You only have to look to jazz, The Ventures, The Carpenters, or Mariah Carey to see how deep their imprint is on the collective culture. The same goes for John Denver who made tours of Japan on several occasions.

But whereas musicians often become icons, sometimes Japan cultivates an environment where nuggets of culture can take on a life of their own. This theme serves as a perfect breeding ground for Ghibli’s classic coming of age story.

Shizuku is, at her heart, a spunky and feisty heroine with the kinds of hope and aspirations that often seem buried in a very restrained culture like Japan. In her middle school existence, an unknown person named Amasawa becomes an almost mythic figure in her life as they have checked out all the books she’s so voraciously eaten up in her nascent but ambitious literary odyssey.

They look to be a kindred spirit. It takes a fortuitous meeting with a commuting cat on the JR line to sustain her adventure. The disaffected animal leads her to a Secret Garden of sorts. This one is not found in nature but in the home of a delightful old man.

Because Whisper of The Heart is full of the blushing love of adolescence in its many tangles found throughout the student body. It’s no different in Japan, at least on the emotional level, or for that matter, the utter denseness of the male sex.

But it’s also a very particular world where dwarves and fairies can coexist with the mundane elements of everyday life. Shizuku comes to realize this when she reaches the end of her adventure — the peculiar second-hand shop cluttered with clocks, violins, and shiny doodads of all shapes and sizes. It’s run by a genteel proprietor who also happens to relate to her not so fictitious phantom: Amasawa.

This looks to be the working of Hayao Miyazaki behind the scenes because no matter how mundane we might perceive the world to be, he’s always allowing for bits of magic to seep in and liven up our existences. Implicitly, he always seems to be suggesting we need the richness of our imagination girded around us to make the most out of life.

He also employs the most amicable cultural appropriation, turning Denver’s down-home “Country Roads” into a lively, bright-eyed violin jam session in a Tokyo back parlor. It’s the strangest incarnation of the song I could have ever imagined and yet somehow it manages to be apropos. I only need to remember pop instrumentals of “Daydream Believer” during my former days frequenting 7-Eleven’s in Tokyo. It fits the aesthetic.

But back to Shizuku. Her newfound companion dreams of being a Violin maker and going off to apprentice in Italy. Not to be outdone, she wants to write stories. She’s charged with empowerment and then the subsequent doubts ambushing anyone who’s ever endeavored for such a thing. I am reminded of the artistic encouragement churned up by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that blessed the world over with two of the most formidable fantasy worlds: Middle Earth and Narnia.

Because we need people who will gladly court our ideas, gives us encouragement, and supply even the brief inkling that our passing daydreams are not complete balderdash. If they provide enjoyment or engage with beauty or goodness for just one person, perhaps even this makes them entirely worthwhile.

The sagely old man charges Shizuku that craftsmanship of any kind is never perfect. But we must begin. We need to start somewhere. To pilfer the film’s own metaphor, we are all unburnished stones waiting to be polished to the point of perfection. There’s the necessity of time and effort to make it work. The diamond must be pulverized. The brass burnished. The grain sent through the thresher. 

Again, Miyazaki’s imprint is all over the picture because he is always and forever the spinner of benevolent fairy tales paired with creative inspiration. His avid imagination never ceases to mesmerize. Surely there are lots of magical beings, soaring through the air, lands full of castles and kings, and yet the seat of it all is found in the revelation these very things can exist in our everyday reality. They need not be distant. Far off lands can come to meet us, be it through books or writing, music, or people with memories that extend far beyond what we see and know.

It’s easy for me to laud Whisper of The Heart for being timeless. Yes, we see word processors, a dearth of cell phones, more antiquated train services, and yet so much of the interactions, the yearnings, and the derivations are universal.

I must turn my attention only to the sound of cicadas, the warning bell near the train tracks, or the clink of a mailbox at the front door. They are so basic, so unextraordinary, and yet they sound so familiar. To my ears, they remain almost comforting. Because this movie is comfort food, whether you fancy udon or steak and potatoes.

Full of warmth. Love. Longing. Passion. Miyazaki and Ghibli have captivated the world over with such sensations. Yoshifumi Kondō more than proved himself capable of eliciting this same type of wonder. It’s only a shame he was not able to give us more films. But there only needs to be one solitary act of creation to leave an impression. Whisper of The Heart is an unassuming monument to his career.

4/5 Stars

Quai Des Orfevres (1947): Directed by Henry-Georges Clouzot

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Unearthing Quai Des Orfevres is a glorious discovery of post-war French cinema. Because Henry-Georges Clouzot is always a man I heedlessly clump together with Jacques Becker when it comes to French film history. Not because of an immediate connection but, on the contrary, it’s the very thinnest of labels.

They both have a handful of superior films to their names and yet never seem to reach the full-fledged prominence of some of their countrymen as far as their bodies of work are concerned. If we want to oversimplify the situation we have Jean Renoir on one side and then the youthful revolution of the Nouvelle Vague with the dawning of the 60s thereafter.

And yet, to acknowledge Clouzot was considered by Alfred Hitchcock himself as a true rival for the title of “The Master of Suspense” seems a heady admission. On the laurels of Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques alone, there is some merit in the conversation. Most agree Psycho was a reaction to the latter film (since Hitch could not get the rights).

One area Clouzot can claim primacy over Hitch is the fact he personally wrote most, if not all, of the screenplays he directed. Quai Des Orfevres benefits as much from his writing as anything, yet another robust entry to his filmography. Though it came to fruition only after a substantial ban from the French film ministry.

That is a story worth dissecting on its own because his previous picture, made in occupied France, was all but bankrolled by the Third Reich. You can imagine that this didn’t sit well with people. It’s a fitting anecdote for the very reason that the war no doubt affected his characters as much as it affected him.

The France featured here is not quite the post-war Vienna of The Third Man, but it’s merely a hop, skip, and a jump away. For that matter, it evokes a bit of Carol Reed’s world from Odd Man Out too.

In this case, Clouzot’s focused on a group of performers at some shoddy theater house. It’s hardly glamorous entertainment, but for all those involved, at least it’s a meager living. If nothing else, they look after their own.

Right in the thick of it is vivacious stage talent Jenny Lamour  (Suzy Delair) and her balding husband, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier), who can constantly be found accompanying her on the piano. Between her shameless flaunting and flirting and his burning jealousy, it proves to be a highly volatile cocktail.

The conflicts, in this case, are not political or instigated by human avarice. They are of a more personal nature, between a husband and wife in turmoil. We do not know their history, but if the scenes around them are any sign, they are coming off hardship, with the war being indicative of their entire life together.

A local photographer, named Dora (the glamourous Simone Renant), who has some business with Jenny, is also paid a visit by a hunched, beady-eyed creep who happens to have quite the portfolio of financial holdings; it’s the only reason any girls give him the time of day. In this instance, he brings a pretty young thing to pose for him.

In some twisted way, it’s mutually beneficial. They want his influence and he wants pretty girls to dominate. One bystander notes, if Brignon (stage actor Charles Dullin in his final performance) were poor, he would have been in prison long ago.

Despite the generally disquieting nature of these themes, it’s even more sobering to admit, somehow it still remains timely as a portrait of men in power using their capital to lord it over the opposite sex. There is social repugnance, but they label him a “dirty old man” and leave it at that.

What’s more, Jenny Lamour is going to see him; it’s good for her career. Maurice despises the smutty scuzzball and with his anger justified for once, he goes to confront him at his hotel room; the staff and manager catch the tail-end of his outburst.

This only matters in reference to the film’s crucial inciting incident. Brignon is murdered one evening. It’s not unfamiliar or unexpected. Still, keeping the details murky for those unfamiliar with the story is in the best interest of all. But, needless to say, law enforcement gets involved when the body is found — his apartment in disarray.

This, of course, cuts out a large swath of the story. Because it is not a mystery. This is a character study. The man who winds up drawing out the performances and reactions from everyone else happens to be the curious Inspector Antoine (Louis Jourvet). It’s true colorful detectives are a mainstay of the police procedural with Columbo, courtesy of Peter Falk or even Alistair Sim’s Inspector Cockril, from Green for Danger, springing to mind.

In fact, in the preliminary stages, the inspector can be found poking around the musical hall, not unlike a Columbo — unassuming and out of place — and trying to decipher what he has to work with.

Later, in his office, he helpfully summarizes a deposition for Mr. Martineau to save the man time (He’s the most obvious suspect if it’s not apparent already). Bringing in the rest of his person’s of interest takes up the remaining daylight. It’s only a matter of time before a resolution is met. The Inspector’s generally insouciant when it comes to the daily grind, though he’s deceptively astute when it counts most.

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To reiterate, the story is not necessarily about the tautness of the plotting. There are too many questions. Not enough answers to loose ends. How does Jenny remain so even-keeled while her husband is the one sweating it? The alibi Maurice makes up is so flimsy. His case lines up so serendipitously with a bank robber who stole his car the same night. Why does Dora involve herself? But all these details are almost beside the point.

We know the perpetrator almost before the case has started — we think — and at any rate, it’s before the inspector comes on the scene. To evoke Columbo again, this is not so much a mystery as much as it is a “How’s he gonna catch them.” But in this version, it’s not an elementary case of fun and games.

Rather, a statement is being made on the state of law and order. Where the police search after a murderer of a despicable man because it is there job. Because these are the working-class folks. Criminals, in one sense of the word, yes, but also victims in another.

The characters and their dynamics become the seat of all the intrigue. The decisions they make. The logic they use. What they choose to disclose and hide from one another. Jenny, Maurice, Dora, they all are involved, but it’s more complicated than surface-level perceptions might suggest.

Even Inspector Antoine, the film’s most splendid creation, as realized by Jouvet, is given the benefit of a personal history outside the context of the film. His beloved son, from his time abroad in the French colonies, is the love of his life. The case almost seems like an unwanted distraction from what he’d really like to be doing. It’s this insightful brand of humanity found within most of the characters transforming Quai Des Orfevres into a truly singular take on the conventional crime thriller. The final shots sum up these ideas in succinct terms.

4/5 Stars

Bob Le Flambeur (1956): Melville’s Noir Heist

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“Montmartre is both heaven and…hell.” 

While Melville would continue to cultivate his own unique canvass and pulp sensibilities, Bob Le Flambeur, as a slightly earlier work, shows its deep abiding debt to the American noir cycle. Because it was at this juncture in time where analogous crime pictures like Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing were still being churned out in the States.

Bob The Gambler must fit into this same conversation with how it instantly calls on voiceover and submerges itself in the throes of darkness as its constant palette of choice. Melville’s yet to have a Jean-Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon to hang his hat on, as it were (the latter actor was turned down for an early role). Still, he does have Bob (Roger Duchesne), more than meeting the prerequisites of a noirish hero.

He’s silver-haired with piercing eyes. His dress is nice, impressive, but not altogether flashy. Someone says of him, “Both young and old and already a legend.” Even as the voiceover draws us into the world — and the landscape in itself becomes not only a metaphor but a character — we meet a dame too, all before getting to the focus of our story.

Exteriors at times feel harsh and dilapidated. Trash collects in the gutters of the streets, and no one’s doing the city any favors, dumping their refuse wherever they please. At times, interiors, like a gambling joint or a kitchen, are so spare they play as a unique aesthetic all their own. Bob’s home is full of paintings and paisley wallpaper designs. The eye strays to the tiling, which along with the wallpaper, aid in creating this satisfying geometry of checkerboards, shapes, and patterns filling out the film.

Bob is forever the focal point guiding the movie’s progressions. In one scene he’s ready to shell out money to those in need, but he has his own code — he’s no fan of pimps — and since the cops are looking to run one in, he’ll willingly leave Marc to the police dogs.

For someone with such enterprises and acquaintances, Bob still manages an oddly amicable relationship with the police chief. He’s gone straight for 20 years, after a famed bank job he was forced to pay penance for. He’s done his time and reformed. His noble side has come out on more than one occasion.

But this is Bob The Gambler and so a bit of card play, roulette, and chance should be a part of it. Certainly, Bob more than lives up his name, always winning big on the horses only to lose it the same evening on something else. The capricious nature of it all somehow entices him.

When he hears from a buddy that the local gambling house is full up on cash, he makes a near-instantaneous decision. He’s going to rob it. It seems such a drastic way to end 20 years living under the law, and there’s no real inclination of why he decides this. It’s somewhere in between the lines there, and Melville has left us to figure it out. All we know is he is resolved to do it.

Simultaneously, he moves on with the planning measures. All the paces. The inside man. The financier. Layouts, schematics, gathering the crew together. Each is a single step in this methodical process. Bob proves himself to be no slouch when it comes to the details.  An abandoned junkyard becomes his chessboard to lay out all the pieces in real-time, helping all his crew visualize their parts.

However, despite such intricate planning, it only takes one chink in the armor to ruin it. She’s a young woman — only a girl really — and Bob feels somehow responsible for her. He doesn’t want to see her get harmed and, subsequently, hardened by a life walking the streets.

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He treats her well, gives her money, even lodging in his apartment, and he expects no favors in return. After all, it is his young colleague Paulo who is madly in love with her. It’s this that causes him to run off his mouth. He wants to impress her and keep her for his own. Little does he know there are others. She’s not tied down by any stretch of the imagination, and her feminine wiles find her moving up the totem pole, from cigarette girl to hostess to a floor show main attraction.

Meanwhile, the squirrely croupier who has vowed to be their ticket on the inside has a prying wife who catches wind of the scheme. At first, it appears she might be one of the moralistic types, but it becomes apparent she’s even more of an opportunist than him. She wants more of the cut and so if we can go out on a slight limb, she is our second femme fatale.

The police commissioner receives his tip and readies his men, that is if the information is in fact true. Bob seems all but oblivious to these details. True enough, he learns the girl let the word slip, and he gives her a going over. And yet, according to plan, he gets into his tux and heads to the casino. There are only two options: either it works or it doesn’t.

There’s not a gunshot until well into an hour of the picture. When it comes is not important; simply knowing it does is something. No question there’s a weight to the action because when you’re waiting for a gun to go off, instead of having them blasting every few minutes, the impact is more apparent. It punctuates the action.

Fully cognizant of the tension wrapped up in the heist, Melville cuts between faces waiting in cars or sitting in bedrooms — all a part of this plot in some way, shape, or form — and Bob still keeps on gambling at the roulette wheel.  Gambling becomes not just a distraction for us but for Bob as well. Surely, he cannot have forgotten? Is it possible? I’m not sure. One could hazard a guess; it becomes his undoing, but hardly in the way that you might initially expect.

The tragedy in the final moments of Bob Le Flambeur is a different strain verging on the height of comic irony. It might easily elicit a chuckle from a few for the sheer chance of it all. It’s a textbook example of how a heist can go utterly wrong and somehow come out right in another way. When I say textbook example, it might actually be the only one just like this, and this is the film’s final trick. It’s indelible in its own right.

Melville came into the gangster genre with deep reservoirs of understanding and his own applied sense of understated style. Just as he stole and borrowed from others, he would, in turn, become the influence for the generations to come — not least among them the Godards and Truffauts of the world. For the time being, he lived with minor acclaim, but the film community would learn his name soon enough. Although, even that, he borrowed from another man.

4/5 Stars

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954): Gabin’s Aging Gangster

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On only two occasions have I had the pleasure of watching a Jacques Becker film, and I hold him in the highest esteem even based on this admittedly meager sample size. It seems a fitting observation to acknowledge how closely he was tied to one of France’s foremost titans, Jean Renoir, serving as his assistant director on a number of his projects including A Day in The Country and The Grand Illusion. 

The overt connections between the so-called poetic realism of Renoir and brethren like Marcel Carne seem intuitive, not merely in visual style and content, but going so far as casting some of the same actors — in this case, a Renoir regular like Jean Gabin.

While completely seamless transitions are hard to come by, it’s not all too difficult to go from Renoir to Becker and see how his work bleeds into the crime pictures of Jean-Pierre Melville and then the Nouvelle Vague and so on and so forth. If nothing else, it is a tangible reminder that all cinematic artifacts find their roots in ancestors. Nothing exists on its own completely outside the undue influence of others. As it should be.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, translated to “Hands Off The Loot” in English, rarely gives much pretense of being a crime picture. Sure the people within its interiors are criminal types; it’s easy enough to decipher just watching and listening, but this is a film reminding us how mundane even their lives can be.

If there is anything half resembling a prototypical inciting incident it would be the brief moment when the veteran gangster, Max (Gabin), scans the newspaper to note a cache of gold bars have been stolen in Orly. Nothing is said of it but the implications are obvious, and Becker’s movie is made up of such moments.

The director never telegraphs anything to the audience, remaining content to examine scenes, playing around with seemingly trivial or unimportant details, and letting his story rely on such details for its enjoyment. The trick in the initial scenes is the feeling we are driving toward some inevitable end while Becker is content to coast along. As a Hollywood-bred audience, we wait a bit impatiently for the next beat to rev up the action, but the real game is right in front of us the whole time.

In his own way, Jean Gabin has the weight of a Brando or a Jimmy Cagney. He can be “The Godfather,” and we believe it, and yet there is something amiable dancing in his eyes this time around. Of course, he’s nothing like those other men — never unhinged and always settled in his surroundings — but he brings the same boldness of being.

When he’s in a room with others we want to watch him and see what he will do. There is an instant gravitational pull toward him. He can carry these moments like the greats. It’s not to say he can’t be violent, even brutal. Burning like hot coals at times. Slapping people around. Still, he’s always measured.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi opens as a series of scenes (like most movies) where we go from a restaurant to a car to a club. Two gangsters, including Max and his cohort Riton, are spending time with their pleasant female company (Jeanne Moreau and Dora Doll) — it’s the customary social life of people in their business — they have to make the rounds and keep up appearances.

We are privy to this as an audience and maybe we are waiting for something to happen in the conventional sense. There’s a conference in a backroom were Max pays his respects to a couple of work associates, one a thuggish gangster Angelo (Lino Ventura), the other a bespectacled nightclub owner Pierrot (Paul Frankeur). In another accompanying sequence, he walks in on Angelo with his partner’s girl Josy. Still, he doesn’t do anything rash. He takes it in stride as Josy defends her decisions. In a movie where a plethora of lovely ladies (including Miss America Marilyn Buferd) exist as eye candy, Moreau manages a few defiant acts of rebellion.

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We follow Max home only for him to be tailed by a shady ambulance with two “physicians” looking to take him in. He nonchalantly walks up to his flat, pulls his gun out of a drawer, and wards them off with his piece, darting off into the night to pay a visit to his accomplice Riton (dour-eyed Rene Dary). Call it action if you will, but it’s all a bit discombobulating, never smooth or modulated. This in itself speaks to something. Nothing is written out on a billboard for us. We have to infer and do the work on our own. Becker is content with this arrangement.

Finally, Max and Riton are sitting around a table once again, crunching on food disconsolately. Why are they so bleak? It barely seems as anything has happened to them. Perhaps this is the point. We realize for the first time their discontentment with the life of crime. They are old, at least for such a young man’s racket. They’ve seen it all and as Max says, they’re fed up with it all. More than any amount of danger, it’s a nuisance staying ahead of the pack.

As with any such person, whether thief, gangster, gunslinger, or outlaw, it becomes very difficult to run away from a lifestyle once you’ve been marked by it. The world you initially chose reciprocates by choosing you, and it always has a habit of catching up with you.

For now, they watch and wait. Never before have I witnessed a robber gargling as he gets ready to bed down in his pajamas or later on reaching into the cupboard to pull out the bedclothes. It’s practical, but surely, this is not kosher. Unwritten rules say cinema is life with the boring bits cut out. Becker is brazen enough to make a gangster picture with the dull bits stitched back in. In his own creative patchwork, they inform his characters.

We’ve all but forgotten about their payload. That is until Max pays a visit to his uncle, who also happens to be his shady dumping ground. Haggling over hot money has even lost its luster. It takes all the fun out of having wealth.

Most importantly, we are reminded Max is human. It’s what previous generations — namely the Greeks — would have termed hamartia. This is his fatal flaw. For us, it simply makes him more relatable. He’s a sentimentalist — no longer The Godfather figure. He is fallible. His weakness has been ousted. Surely these themes slowly progressing through the story are not unfamiliar ones about aging and friendship in a dirty business. But they have their own crucial perspective — an individual point of view.

One of the most gripping scenes occurs in a cellar. They’re shoving a young kid down the steps for spying, ready to work him over. He gets a few smacks. In such a banal world it feels all the more terrifying, clamped in our faces with glowing close-ups. There’s little in the form of action up to this point, aside from the film’s fairly explosive climax, as a kidnapping triggers a mini gang war.

Again, Becker appears more interested in the outcomes than the actual events. What is leftover would normally be termed superfluous scenes, but once more, they hold true to the essence of the characters. The ending gives way to these curious moments with Max back around a lunch table with a beautiful woman, on the phone, and hearing some sad news. The melancholy sets in. It all matters. Some might argue there is no movie at all. For me, there’s no movie without Gabin.

4/5 Stars

Story of The Last Chrysanthemum (1939): A Traditional Japanese Epic

The_Story_of_the_Last_Chrysanthemum.jpgAkira Kurosawa is obviously known for samurai pictures — the famed chambara genre  — and Yasjiro Ozu is most sedulous when it comes to the relational bonds between parents and children in Japanese society. However, in some sense, of the so-called “Big-Three,” it is Kenji Mizoguchi who is most obviously attached to the Japanese tradition. I mean this in the way his visual style fluidly mirrors the range of Japanese arts.

The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a fascinating portrait because as with any early picture from a forthcoming master, it bears some of the marks that would come to define his career at its most sublime. Due to its availability, the subject matter, and the cinematography, it’s quite seamless to arrive at this extrapolation. Because this is a story set in the past and borrowing liberally from kabuki culture.

It’s also convenient to liken many of the uninterrupted takes to a constantly unfurling scroll. The art form obviously has deep roots in Japanese culture and Mizoguchi uses his camera in a similar manner to capture actions. The setups feel complex, especially for the day and age. Even with a print that proved less than stellar, there’s no ignoring the meticulous nature of the shots marked by invention and a highly novel mise-en-scene.

The beauty of these observations is that the director would only continue to evolve and mature with time. Staying away from close-ups means there’s this continual conveyance of a certain amount of distance. It’s not necessarily about not having an intimate relationship with the material, instead, it feels much more like we are given license to take in everything. We are given a very concrete position as a viewer ruminating in a piece of art.

I think of Ozu as being a master interior filmmaker. Much of the same might be said of his contemporary, though their methods are different. There is, of course, the prominent use of dolly shots you would never find in the other’s work. There is also a fluidity and a movement to Mizoguchi’s work, which nevertheless, should never be confused with the dynamicism of Kurosawa. It stands on its own individuality.

At the center of our story is a young stage performer named Kikunosuke, who is the adopted son of a famed actor and a hopeless performer hardly worthy of the family name. Everyone criticizes him behind his back: geishas, fellow actors, even his own father.

What’s worse, few are willing to give him the truth, instead offering him empty encouragement and stroking his ego. In fact, he’s only popular because of his bloodline; all the naysayers contemptuously note he’s riding on the coattails of his father’s glory. As a result, they’re either jealous of his good fortune or intent on using him to get ahead.

It frustrates him, rightfully so, and he wants to leave them all behind. Except there is one individual who is different: a young woman. Fittingly, Mizoguchi uses a fascinating shot to introduce their relationship. The woman stands, holding her charge, an infant child in her arms. They cross paths and begin to walk with one another. However, it’s the most curious perspective almost as we are in a trench following along as the man and woman have a normal walk-and-talk.

Otoku is the only person who will tell it to him straight and even this is indirect — merely hinted at. In English, we might call her a church mouse, the subservient one who is subsequently the only character bearing any sense. She goes ever further in her bashful yet concerted effort to encourage him. One day he might be something. It’s alright to enjoy the pleasures of life, but he is an artist and he should appreciate and hone his art.

Her behavior is scandalous in others’ eyes. Her indiscretions are deemed impertinent as she has forgotten her place in a rigid society. The young woman is subsequently dismissed from her post leaving the young master stricken with anxiety.

In fact, he does everything in his power to track her down, and he does. The striking part is how he is all but ready to renounce his family name, which in any culture is the ultimate insult, but in Japan, it’s even harsher. Family is everything. The fact he is adopted is a lingering embarrassment. He resolves to make his own way.

Life begins anew on the road, kicking around in another theater, then a traveling troupe. 4 years are cruelly lost with a title card transition. The road has been a hard taskmaster making the man resentful and callous. His wife now is still a genial spirit, but he is struggling to love her as he did before. All he has is bitterness, thanks to a constricting life he cannot break out of.

However, he receives one final chance at redemption, thanks to the behind door pleading of his faithful wife. She’s so devoted to him and his career, in fact, she’s prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Analogous themes can be gleaned from the likes of Ozu and Naruse, but there’s no neglecting how central they seem to Mizoguchi’s entire oeuvre. There is no way to ignore their primacy throughout.

Kabuki is rarely shown in full motion — the behind the scenes drama is more pertinent — and when it is shown, in the climactic performance, it lacks gravitas. It is one of the few moments Last Chrysanthemums’ length does seem to catch up with it. However, in admitting my own inadequacies, this could admittedly speak more to my ignorance of kabuki than the actual merit of the sequences.

What strikes me is the overt implications. Kikunosuke is finally the success he always hoped to be. And yet, without his guiding light, success means nothing. Even as there is this implied sense of sacrifice for the sake of loved ones, one is bound to ask, at what cost?

Only two years after Stella Dallas, we have much the same weight in a sacrificial relationship. This one feels even more scalding given Japan’s deep traditions of submission and subjugation of women. 

At a substantial 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Story of The Last Chrysanthemum is a lugubrious epic but artfully done on all accounts. I look forward to seeing a better print in the future because the masters deserve only the best treatment. There’s no question Mizoguchi deserves such distinction.

4/5 Stars

Alphaville (1965) and Godard The Humanist?

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“That’s always how it is. You never understand anything and, in the end, it kills you.”

As a simple rule of thumb — a heuristic if you will — you can learn much about a person based on what camp they fall into when it comes to the Nouvelle Vague. For simplicity’s sake, let’s suggests we have Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and “Other” (We’ll unfairly stuff Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette, The Left Bank, and all the rest here).

Many probably wouldn’t need this scenario. All it takes is a one-word, guttural response: “Godard” or “Truffaut” For me, it’s Truffaut. It’s as if the wavelength he operates on so often connects with me. Whereas with Godard it’s always more a matter of admiration for his prolific creative powers and the intellect buried in each of his projects. I appreciate him from an analytical distance.

From the outset, Alphaville epitomizes the dichotomy of Godard: both the brilliance and what can make him utterly maddening at times. He’s the perpetual visionary iconoclast and artistic maverick like few others before or after (and he’s still at it!).

We’re met with a blinking light, like an interrogation lamp, shining down on the audience. The opening voiceover relates, “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by spoken word. Legend remolds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.” This is our introduction to the computerized brain and technological chimera: Alpha 60.

Godard’s protagonist functions a bit like a world-wearied Buster Keaton in his later years. Lines covering his stone face are perfect for suggesting that he’s seen the world. This alone makes him sufficient, but expatriate Eddy Considine was also known in France for his long connection with the serialized crime detective Lemmy Caution. Here he is tasked with missions, but as should be expected with noir storytelling, each successive leg feels more befuddling than the last.

Godard took Caution to the extreme, totally untethered out in his devised limbo of clunky Parisian sci-fi. It’s the profundity of taking the labels of the future (my labels, not his) and making them feel mundane, like the contemporary moment. Still, it’s hardly a stretch to call Alphaville a forerunner to HAL,  Blade Runner, or even Altman’s Long Goodbye, a film where you have a dissonance between worlds and time frames.

There is one moment when the all-knowing voice says something to the effect that there is never the past or the future. There is only the present — where we can exist right now. So, really, there is not an issue of incongruity because everything we see is accepted as it is, functioning in this landscape as one.

Godard, working with his famed collaborator Raoul Coutard, initially doesn’t even bother with chiaroscuro, but instead an utterly binary palette. Horizontal slats of darkness above strips of light or vice versa. A cigarette and gun in Caution’s hand are both visible, while his entire face is literally pitch black.

Getting to Alphaville and a hotel in the heart of this metropolis is a trip. The lobby feels conventional enough. This is a mere extension of the Parisian landscape. And yet he gets led to his room by a lady who looks suspiciously like a lady of a night (especially when her clothes start coming off), and Godard adds another lovely non-sequitur when a thug all of the sudden materializes in the bathroom leading to a stylized struggle.

Our tough guy runs for his gun on the bed and shots ring out through the room. He makes the agitated but lucid observation moments later, “Everything weird is normal” in this town. He’s never been more correct.

We get a suggestion of what Godard is playing with — the conventions and ideas he wants to tinker around with — as both an artistic and intellectual exercise. Beatrice, the first of several femme fatales, we find out, is a level-three seductress. It’s all too apparent the misogynism has not evaporated in this alternate world.

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Anna Karina appears next as the daughter of a high-ranking official with intimate knowledge of Alpha 60. Caution christens her a “pretty sphinx,” and she is an unsuspecting product of the disconcerting sci-fi dystopia that has overtaken society. Ironically, it comes packaged a lot like Paris in the 1960s run by capitalists.

As far as gadgets go, Caution employs a portable lighter-intercom slightly less ostentatious than Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. There are government-sanctioned executions for those showing sentimentality, where the festivities are made into a bit of a water aerobics showcase. Another popular form of entertainment is theater executions — the electric chair in more diverting circumstances.

Logic is law. Tears and love are among those things outlawed. No one comprehends what “conscience” means anymore. I even made the initial assumption the books in the hotel rooms were Gideon Bibles. However, it turns out, “The Bible” is not theological but linguistic, in the form of a dictionary, as delivered by Jean-Pierre Leaud in a blink of a cameo. When words get eradicated from the cultural lexicon new editions are published and disseminated to the public.

As the tenets of society get more and more perplexing, Caution’s mission begins to spiral into chaos, toward the final destruction of the mechanical beast. Godard chops up cinematic reality with disruptive negative images that do feel otherworldly. There are car chases, murders, and corpses of those asphyxiated splayed on the floor. It seems Alphaville really is crumbling from the inside out.

The movie itself is full of these deconstructions, clever amalgams of Godard’s cultural proclivities, and his own personal wizardry. But if we are to fall back on my totally unessential litmus test, he rarely touches me to the degree Truffaut is capable of. There’s never the same laughter or warmth emanating from his characters.

Yes, in Breathless (1960) and Vivre sa Vie (1962) they come the closest and there are extended periods that speak to me, momentarily touching my heart and my soul, if I can be so transparent. But at a certain point, they end because Godard is not in the business of humanity as much as he is in the business of the mechanisms of cinema itself. He is the great artist. Truffaut the great humanist. In turn, each affinity made them into two of the most passionate filmmakers the world has ever known.

Both very avid, opinionated, obsessive cineastes. It even drove a wedge between them in later years after their catalytic collaborations in the early 60s. It’s not all that unsurprising. Arguably their most similar films conceptually, are vastly different in both vision and execution.

Consider Contempt (1963) and Day for Night (1973) or even Shoot The Piano Player (1961) and Alphaville (1965). The first pair act as two entirely singular odes to the art of filmmaking. The latter two are indebted to the glories of film noir and other cheap genre fare.

But again, it feels like Truffaut is far more capable of humanity. You never get the same sense of transparency from Godard. There is even a feeling he relishes his status as this cryptic figure — a reputation, I might add, he has maintained for most of his career.

And yet even Godard, with all his enigmatic stylings, can continually surprise me like so many others. This is his ability to morph with the times and take on new forms like a Bob Dylan — to make a flawed musical comparison. For me, it was the final line of his movie — all but forcing me to eat my words — forcing me to feel empathy.

Natascha remembers how to say “I love you” as they drive away from the hysteria of Alphaville back to the Outer Countries. For Godard, this is a heady statement, the height of sentimentality even. It’s unexpected but fitting, his constant muse throughout the 60s, Anna Karina, emblematic of his most fertile creative period, it’s her words that ultimately define Alphaville. I love you. Maybe Godard is a humanist after all. At the very least, Karina in all her affection helps to humanize him.

4/5 Stars

Note: Since writing this piece, Anna Karina passed away on December 14th, 2019. R.I.P. to a legend. 

Port of Shadows (1938) and The Face of Jean Gabin

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“Like the movies. I see you. I like you. Love at first sight.” – Jean Gabin

Jean Gabin has one of the great visages of the cinema. But in making such a statement you immediately run the risk of giving the wrong impression. To actually see him on the big screen is to know what I mean. He is not classically handsome in the Hollywood sense, fitting somewhere in between Spencer Tracy, Bogart, and Fonda when Hank had a chip on his shoulder. And yet set off in black and white as Gabin always was during his most prolific periods, there is something unmistakable about his face.

It is worn with the grooves, contours, and the residual sadness that come with life. He gives the impression of seeing the world, having his heart ripped out, being battered and bruised, while still choosing to press on anyway. You could say he has the entire French experience of the early 20th century on his brow. He’s simultaneously a projection of their best self in the face of hardship.

Historically, the cultural mood and the looming world war to come were ill-omens, as far as the release of the film was concerned. It was far too portentous to be met without some amount of resistance

In Port of Shadows, Gabin fittingly plays a jaded soldier who catches a lift to the nearby port town of Le Havre. In an opening act of clemency, he keeps his truck-driving benefactor from quashing a mutt masked by the billows of fog. It’s an instant flag. We know this man. His emotions are not obvious, but they are there; he concerns himself with the well-being of others. There is a heart under there somewhere. Scene after scene his constant companion is the runty little dog, a continual reminder of who he is as a man.

Along with setting up its star, we soon learn director Marcel Carne cares about his characters and takes care of them. Not that the environments are unimportant. Between the pitch darkness of the highway or the smoky and garish interiors of the club, there’s atmosphere aplenty. But Carne is focused on his players; their faces and distinct movements, allowing them to be focal points of scenes in a generally clean, uninterrupted fashion.

Between the instantly palpable world and the menagerie of players cycling in and out, Port of Shadows cannot help but feel like a prototype for everything from Casablanca to the entire film noir movement with its smoky brand of realism.

I don’t know much about the time frame of when the picture takes place. In all honesty, I’m not all that concerned with that so much because instantly you are pulled into a world’s depth of field with its shadow and fascinating figures. There’s a compulsion to fall into the story and be as fully involved as possible.

He’s in town, flat broke, and there’s an unspoken understanding he’s not looking to get noticed by the local gendarmerie — most obviously a deserter. This is one of those picturesque places where you can fall in with drunken vagabonds and find yourself on the receiving end of neighborliness.

As is, everyone who is down-and-out or in trouble seems to go to Panama’s, though it serves as little more than an old shack with a couple of rooms.  A sorry excuse for a hangout and yet it has far more life than the fancy club in town. It’s the people there who truly make it worthwhile.

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Jean (Gabin) is given a meal by the ragged proprietor, gets some fancy talk from an amiable artist, before meeting the most important person: Nelly (Michele Morgan). She’s young but precocious, mature beyond her years. The same might be said of Morgan who assuredly holds her own against all her male costars. She’s thoroughly outnumbered yet she handles it poise.

It’s a testament to the strength and varied colorfulness of the characters that the illustrious Michel Simon almost becomes of less interest as Nelly’s despicable godfather, especially compared to the peculiar sots he was tasked with portraying in Boudu and L’Atalante. His big scenes come near the end of the picture anyway.

Mostly this is a love story. In a rare moment of self-reflexity, Jean mentions how theirs is a movie romance. It’s this heightened sense of romantic reality. If we put it up against anything we experientially know to be true, it’s poppycock, but between the eyes and embraces of Morgan and Gabin, it just feels right.

We also learn more about Jean. Not only is he capable of deep measures of love, but he has no tolerance for lowlifes and scum — those lacking a sense of honor or principle. You have it out with a man face-to-face with fists, not from behind. One of his main targets is the local gangster Lucien who is nothing more than an arrogant rich kid with too much time on his hands. He wants his hands on Nelly. Jean is having none of it. He cuts directly through the artifice, slapping him around for his impudence.

The story comes to a head on the docks and again, of all places, at the bumper cars in the middle of a carnival. You do not mess around with Jean Gabin when a girl is involved. This could be the movie’s ending; the romance would be the euphoric and the hero would remain triumphant. However, it is a movie and so a greater, darker, more wistful avenue of drama is in order.

Because Jean knows he is not safe, though he has gratefully taken another man’s identity. It is better for him to leave on the latest vessel shipping out to Venezuela the following day. His love for Nelly is great, but there is a need to move on, to let her be while also keeping her away from the trouble that would come from knowing him. He does the selfish or heroic thing (depending on how you look at it), in cinematic terms, and he doesn’t tell her. He holds off as long as possible.

One fine sequence is at the waterfront bar with kegs of alcohol lodged right outside the door. There’s a conversation at the bar between the bartender and an old acquaintance we’ve already met. At a distant table, our protagonist, with his new identity bequeathed him by the philosophizing painter, charts his course for Venezuela aboard the freighter now sitting in the harbor.

These seem like mundane enough scenarios, but instead of a normal cut, Carne rides an extra with his camera, acting like the seamless segue between the two conversations. It’s a classy and efficient way to keep the scenarios fluid even in a seemingly sedentary state.

These lulls lead up to what can only be seen as the film’s inevitable tragedy. Like the most sublime expressions of cinema, Port of Shadows is a visceral, emotive experience capable of so many things. It’s a piece of art: humorous, tragic, brooding, and searingly romantic. In short, a sheer pleasure to take part in.

4.5/5 Stars