Les Cousins (1959): Chabrol Takes on Paris

Screenshot 2019-12-16 at 90447 PM.png

“A girl and an exam aren’t the end of the world.”

Most anyone can probably tell you Les Cousins is a fine companion piece to follow-up Le Beau Serge, and it’s true. It features much the same cast — specifically Jean-Claude Brially and Gerard Blane, in a kind of role reversal. However, instead of pervasive talk about Brialy’s health, this picture is occupied with their familial connection. Otherwise, the action has been transported from the rural onto the jazzy street corners of Paris.

Regardless, it doesn’t play like your typical or atypical Nouvelle Vague film, but that’s not to say it’s conventional. Instead, there’s a crispness to it and a composure to the filmmaking.  Truffaut arguably didn’t get there until The Soft Skin, and I don’t know if Godard ever aspired to that. What connects them truly is Cahiers du Cinema and the shared affinity for a new form to upend the preferred traditions of their contemporary French cinema.

Paul is a flamboyant prodigal who, with his goatee, might have been a beatnik if France was lucky to have the craze. They certainly have soiree and cafe culture, and he might as be their elder statesman because he’s not one to fritter his time away on anything so insignificant as studying.

The other primary player, Charles, is a square milquetoast with commendable tact, both proper and reticent, eyes often flooded with shy embarrassment. Whereas Brially gets to fill up every scene and fly all over the place with hyperbole and a clever line to enter and exit every conversation he throws himself into, Blain easily acquiesces to the story. Somehow the dynamic seems to favor Le Beau Serge and yet there is some mode of fascination to see the roles reversed in a new environment.

Because it’s true Paul’s flat is quite the bachelor pad, laden with a cluttering of artwork and frequented by the gregarious creep Clovis, a sly reprobate who likes a good party, a pretty face, and stirring up trouble. We get a mild suggestion of what might be afoot when a girl from last winter is mentioned to be on the way up. It’s very serious — very cryptic — but when Paul slips her the wad of money, and she slips out again rarely to be seen, it says more than enough.

But it’s quickly lost among the new stimuli and if we are to share the place of Charles, naivete clouds his perceptions. Taking to the streets in the real world as it were, Les Cousins momentarily taps into the New Wave’s invigorating on-location energy. Certainly, the jump cuts of Breathless happened on the streets of Paris, and here we have two fellows taking to the streets and sightseeing with a flurry of abandon.

Next on the agenda, Paul takes his cousin to the local hangout, what is jokingly referred to as “the bowels of hell.” Whatever it is, the tavern is a lively place frequented by people who all seem to know Paul on a friendly basis. The one who sticks out to Charles is Florence; he grows impetuous, immediately taken with the girl.

Between classes, he wanders into a bookstore where the proprietor bemoans the modern generation’s reading habits. They’ve given up Balzac and Dostoevsky for detective fiction and racier fare. Reading is relaxation and nothing more. He effectively acts as a barometer for Paul and his ilk.

That same evening, they hold quite the gathering effectively, playing as the complete antithesis to the humble dance thrown together in Le Beau Serge. This is livelier, full of bubbles, and glamour. Eventually, it devolves into a raucous affair driven by alcohol and the frisky amorousness in the air — a superficial portrait of the debauchery of the idle bourgeoisie. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is not too far off albeit with an influx of Parisian youthfulness.

The scenes of two lovers on the street are a gorgeous fixture within the picture, looking sleek and stylish in the patchwork of shadows and moonbeams. Again, it’s an obvious compliment, although it seems to set it apart from some of its Nouvelle Vague brethren.

Screenshot 2019-12-16 at 84938 PM

It’s the beginning of something we can’t quite judge right off. She’s somehow taken with the idea of trying to love him; this at least is genuine enough. Whether it’s his utter devotion — the lovestruck sincerity of his words — or some idealized vision of her own min,d we can’t be sure.

Her friends think it’s a lark and a laugh attempting to serve her with their idea of a reality check. After all, she’s a girl who’s slept around. Why try and play at something inauthentic to who she already is? She and Charles are not from the same walk of life nor the same standards — moral or otherwise. It’s the same old story and as an impressionable girl of 20, she seems to believe them easily enough.

Soon the two young men are warring for the affections of the same girl. Their arrangement is verging on a menage a trois, though they remain admittedly good-natured on the surface. One suspects heartbreak lies dormant. In the follow-up gathering, there’s something more tenuous in the air as Wagner’s “Valkyrie” begins to pick up.

Paul sombers up in a curious change in mood as the movie somehow switches gears. Even as the merriment commences outside, Charles castigates Florence for getting in the way of his studies. He spends the entire evening in the adjoining room feverishly attempting to work in preparation for his impending exam.  Based on my own proclivities, it’s easy to empathize with him and in this roundabout way, it has a pulse on much of the college experience.

However, the most curious of the melodramatic crescendos ramps up out of nothing. This darkly cynical undercurrent begins to exert itself rather insidiously, but it enters in too late to really gel with everything Chabrol has crafted thus far. It feels like an incongruity in its final act — the progression is illogical and at the same time too cleanly resolved. Florence all but dissolves from the story like a phantom as Paul listens to the empty chambers of his gun click, utterly dumbfounded. I’ve let something slip here, but I will leave you to consider the results.

Les Cousins plays as a weaker, less whizz-bang rendition of Jules et Jim, nor can it quite justify its ending. But at this earlier juncture, it feels as if Chabrol already has a better grasp of traditional filmmaking compared to his compatriots, while injecting the picture with mood and artistic flourishes that feel far from conventional. He’s tapping into some still-to-be-exploited reservoirs and even if it doesn’t quite land the finish, Les Cousins offers up something with prolonged interludes of intrigue. This would be a springboard for a prolific career ahead.

4/5 Stars

Le Beau Serge (1959): The New Wave Goes Provincial

Screenshot 2019-12-12 at 81146 PM.png

Claude Chabrol was looking to shoot his first film in Paris but for budgetary reasons, he decided to set his first picture in the village of Sardent where his mother grew up. Le Beau Serge could not occur in any other place.

True, the opening shots are universal. Francois (Jean-Claude Brialy) riding the bus into town, there to be met by his relations, or actually someone who turns out to be a childhood friend, the amicable baker Michel (Michel Creuze). He’s seems made for a sleepy, humble town such as this — content with the life he has around him.

That this might be the beginning of the New Wave in the rural countryside is a curious conclusion. Because it’s true Chabrol was one of the boys at Cahiers du Cinema, soon followed up the more well-remembered works of Truffaut and Godard.

However, it’s also a timeless tale you might see out of any year if you were to pick it out of a hat. Because coming from a small town or returning to a place you haven’t seen in some time are touchstones many of us resonate with. I’ve never dug very much into Claude Chabrol’s filmography aside from a couple stray diversions like Les Biches. But it’s some comfort starting at the beginning.

The title gives us some minor inclination. Even as Francois and then Michel are introduced initially, we know Serge (Gerard Blain) is a person of great interest, and it’s true he represents something elemental to the story. He is plagued by demons Michel will never know. When we first get a glimpse of him, he’s quite royally soused, and it catches Francois off guard. He knows him from a different time and is worried about his boyhood chum.

What becomes evident are the themes of duality due to the character foils Chabrol posits. The one point of criticism is how the picture gets carried away with the mood music as if in his youth the director’s not brave enough to be still; he still needs some pulse going through the story. Although perhaps we must temper this because although cinematically you can witness some of the same verve of Truffaut — the type of energy that would come to define the Nouvelle Vague — this movie is generally quite reserved.

Still, it does have these latent vigours of youth on its side ready to be tapped into. There are brief moments where Blain gives off the angst and bellicose of James Dean even as Brially plays his prim and proper counterpart, Francois, who has returned to his childhood town to reclaim his health. He’s sickly and the country air is meant to do him good. In fact, it seems like every 10 or 20 minutes someone is inquiring yet again about his well-being.

But he’s also the last person Serge wants to see in his ignominy. He’s married out of guilt, a drunk, and an utter nobody. Instead of Jim Stark’s desks, he takes a slug at granite walls, driven by this same reckless, at times feeble, animal magnetism.

Screenshot 2019-12-14 at 93527 PM

It’s curious to note Chabrol takes on religion more in the bent of Eric Rohmer even as Francois makes a visitation of the local priest (Claude Cerval) and begins an ongoing dialogue on the state of the local community.

They are themes replayed in the likes of Winter Light and Calvary where the man of the cloth bemoans the fact the adolescent generation, who are still around, no longer believe in anything — even themselves, as Francois interjects. It’s yet another lens to put on not only Serge but possibly Francois and then Marie (Bernadette Lafont).

She’s the town’s harlot, slinking around with a new boyfriend on any given Sunday and reconnecting with Francois on his return. But she too is humanized by the peripheral presence of her alcoholic old man Gomaoud.

Meanwhile, Serge totters through the cemetery spouting off garbled exposition except, this isn’t what immediately stands out; there’s something engaging about the whole scenario. Chabrol does well throughout the entire film to utilize the real, honest contours of the entire town in a seamless manner, and it’s in a moment like this where it really comes to bear. The same cemetery plays into a confrontation between Francois and Glomoud when he accosts the old man for his behavior.

The personal comes to a head at the local dance hall — the most humble of spaces plucked out of a simpler age. Francois and Serge end up fighting over a girl at a party with Serge expressing the violence we always knew him capable of. It almost feels like he has left his friend for dead, whether or not that’s entirely the case.

This might have been the end, with Francois leaving on the same bus dejected, going back to the city, never to see his pal again. Yet he refuses to leave for some inexplicable reason. Soon their world is ensconced in a layer of snow, making for a gorgeous final act. It’s nature’s way of suggesting — and Chabrol’s too — maybe our sins can be wiped away or at the very least forgotten.

Francois is paid a visit by the local priest entreating him to leave for the sake of his health. But he’s resolved to stay — to be an example — and hopefully help his old friend find his way somehow. It’s the idealism shining through again, believing he can help, that he can be an answer and a savior in some sense.

Once more we must attribute these feelings to the bull-headedness and the pride of youth. It can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s what makes Serge resent his friend, and it’s why his friend thinks Serge still needs him. His act of charitability involves extending a hand of support to Serge’s stoic and increasingly pregnant wife Yvonne (Michele Mertiz). Francois can’t be Serge’s ultimate savior and maybe a newborn child cannot right his life, but in a human sense, it’s still a sign of hope just like new-fallen snow.

By the time Le Beau Serge is over, it’s elementary enough to realize why it’s been overshadowed by the freneticism of Breathless or even the exuberance of 400 Blows and Jules et Jim. In its own way, it’s a fine entry onto the cinematic stage for Chabrol. While it offers youth, it also supplies a deep, even surprising, thoughtfulness.

4/5 Stars

Review: Jules and Jim (1962)

jules et jim 1.png

Jules and Jim breaks out of the gates with a frantic burst of energy giving off the effect of a comedic circus act or a whirling carousel and at times it functions as both. Champion of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut, at 29 years of age injects the film with this kind of frantic lifeblood tearing through the material and time with almost reckless abandon. If Breathless (1960) was not the title taken by one of its contemporaries, this picture could have just as easily taken the name.

You see, Truffaut takes Henri-Pierre’s Roche’s autobiographical novel, the work of an old man, and transforms it into a period piece shot by a young man. The distinctions reveal themselves in full force.

It’s a cinema of attraction with whips, tracks, freezes, jumps, and flies constituting a fluid adventure that’s given free reign to go in so many directions thanks to the versatile camerawork of Godard regular Raoul Coutard as well as connecting voice-over narration (provided by Michel Subor) and a score courtesy of George Delerue.

Still, as Truffaut lets us sink into his story things come more clearly into focus but never so they reach a point of complete clarity. He never dwells too long on a moment or an idea. Instead, choosing to move through the lives of his protagonists touching on so many moments and relationships and ideas. Thus, in one sense Jules and Jim never slogs but it also still functions as a fairly compelling work of historical drama covering a lot of terrain in a condensed amount of time. Some may find that off-putting others will welcome it as a refreshing permutation of the Hollywood status quo.

The year is 1912. An Austrian named Jules (Oskar Werner) and a Frenchman named Jim strike up a friendship that feels like the perfect representation of the deep lasting bond that can form between two individuals. They are young men with a great many of the same interests and a comparable outlook on life.

They’re always benevolent toward one another, they never fight, and they share a mutual satisfaction in the arts while diverting their time at the gymnasium, playing dominoes, and of course, in the company of women. From there one of the great cinematic friendships is forged for life. Though tested, not even a woman can tear their bond asunder…completely. At least not in the way we might expect.

It all begins when they become enamored with a statue, an opaque figure with a pleasant smiling face that captures them so much so that they must go and see it for themselves. But far more striking is the woman they meet back in France who embodies that same bewitching quality.

They meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) as they have met many other women in the past for tea or an afternoon of trivialities and conversation. Except Catherine is one of the few that stays with them. Of course, she is personified by none other than Jeanne Moreau that monumental beauty and one of the undisputed queens of the Nouvelle Vague alongside Anna Karina in Godard’s early works.

There’s a frisky and lithe vivacity that carries her through the film’s earliest scenes as she dons her disguise as Thomas frolicking through Paris in one of the most iconic and enduring sequences of the cinema. An overwhelmingly attractive abandon radiates out of her. Truffaut has set Moreau up as such with his narrative and she does the rest.

However, still, as the story continues to progress and she marries Jules and they make a life together with a daughter named Sabine, there are other qualities that come to the fore. Namely, her maturity with a hint of sophistication that still leaves space for that same carefree vigor continually coursing through her and garnering the undivided attention of the camera.

In the complete inverse of the film’s title, you find its true attraction and the figure who makes the whole story what it is.  Jules so aptly puts it that she’s “a force of nature that manifests itself in cataclysms.” She’s so very uninhibited.

Thus, Jules will love her for a lifetime and Jim will count her among his very closest companions but still, she is a complicated creature and perhaps Truffaut is playing out his own mesmerization and subsequent befuddlement with women. Catherine is an epitome of that. She has other lovers. She openly cavorts with Jim who wants to love her even as he wants to stay true to his best friend. She constantly does what is least expected but that goes with the territory of Truffaut’s invention.

As such, it is less of a conventional love triangle and more precisely a menage a trois as the French might say. This is not so much about dramatic conflict as it is tragically sad in the end. Because this is a film about friendship as much as it is love and it’s a dream friendship as much as it is a romantic fantasy. Maybe it’s possible for both to exist partially in the forms projected onscreen and yet Truffaut fills both with so much that we easily yearn for.

There’s the song “Le Tourbillon” that Moreau sings and it quite remarkably ties into this film. The words come from her lips gayly, describing a woman who could very much represent Catherine and then a lover who are both “Each blown their way by the whirlpool of days.” There’s not a better way describing the course of this film.

It’s consumed with so many interludes and subsequent shifts that are almost matter-of-fact from the breakout of the Great War to its ultimate resolution or the marriage of Jules to Catherine and her eventual affectionate advances toward Jim.

Within these segments, it occurs to me that the film hardly comes off like a drama. Still, there are moments of comedy and undoubted tinges of bitter tragedy. But what we’re left with is what Truffaut best described himself — a bit of a knowing paradox of tones.

“When humor can be made to alternate with melancholy, one has a success, but when the same things are funny and melancholic at the same time, it’s just wonderful.”

It is another of the great tragicomedies of cinema like a Citizen Kane (1941) or 8 1/2 (1963) but there’s no doubt that this is Truffaut’s own rendition and it remains the heart & soul of the Nouvelle Vague for its defining visuals that have ingrained themselves in the cultural landscape the world over.

4.5/5 Stars

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

shoot-the-piano-player-1

Shoot The Piano Player begins thrillingly with a car chase. The man being pursued flees down a street corner, his assailants disappear into the night, and he subsequently bounces off a streetlight like an idiot. The man who brings him back up on his feet proceeds to regale him with stories about how he met his wife before walking off, never to be seen again.

In fact, none of these characters are our main protagonists but it perfectly encapsulates the glories of Francois Truffaut’s stroke of genius in this early emblematic film of the New Wave.  It’s a petty crime story with a comical streak. The two tough guys aren’t tough guys at all but with their hats and pipes they look like a pair of Monsieur Hulot doppelgangers or something. That is until they pull out a gun. But even then, they’re hardly thugs.

Listed out as simple plot summary, it has certain flourishes fit for a Hitchcock thriller. A man on the run. Lurking criminals, kidnapping, murder, romance, humor, but there’s no doubt, even with this being only his second feature, that this is very much Truffaut.

It’s all a wonderful front for Truffaut’s own explorations. And the bottom line is not simply homage to film-noir and the Master of Suspense but more broadly all his fascinations of men, women, love, and everything that intrigues him about putting a mirror up to humanity–cinema itself. However, as the director long suggested, he preferred film to reality because he could orchestrate it, make it to his liking, with touches of humor and tragedy.

This pseudo-storyline starts with Charlie who placidly knocks out honky tonk for the public’s enjoyment. It’s hard to know if he’s content or simply biding his time. The latter seems more likely. Except when his big brother Chico busts into the joint with a couple of hoods on his tail, in some small way it brings everything rushing back on Charlie.

shoot-the-piano-player-2

It’s not much but the ensuing events have him wrapped up in his own bit of intrigue as he navigates his romantic inclinations and every other thing that is thrown his way.  A Hollywood reference point would certainly be Out of the Past and similarly sinks back into a flashback. But here it is used in a way that’s completely jarring, hardly convenient for those seeking comprehension. And Truffaut’s character utilizes voiceover as well but this is not the laconic, cynical speak of film-noir, instead the nervous inner monologue of a timid piano player.

His sometime bedmate and the housekeeper for his kid brother is Clarisse. Meanwhile, the waitress at his work Lena has his heart going pitter patter, not quite a Hitchcock blonde but a woman who is willing to get involved with his drama. But there was also another important woman in Charlie’s life: His wife.

It’s from these three women in their relationships with Charlie and all the other male characters that some very blatant realities become evident. There’s a conscious separation of the woman into parts whether it is her heart or her body. In one sense, the aforementioned women are strong characters. Meanwhile, the men are all fairly passive, their main outlets include objectifying, ogling, even ridiculing their female counterparts.

At least Charlie’s candid about it but he’s still part of the problem. In many ways, in looking at the women as the tragic figures often used by men as a cinematic object, Truffaut could very easily be wrestling with his own issues of love and romance. What does that actually mean? What causes people to marry? What causes them to love and fall out of love, break up and come back together or even commit themselves to death?

All that can be found within this film although it is obviously veiled by scenes masquerading as crime and comedy. The crowning joke of them all is really a kind of tragedy. Amid the strangest turn of events, Charlie or Edouard (as we now know he is called) is resigned to play behind his piano once more.

The final moments at the snowcapped cabin are madcap and still almost surreal with some stunning sequences captured vividly by iconic New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard. In breaking so cleanly with his initial effort of The 400 Blows, Truffaut simultaneously positioned himself as a very special filmmaker. He’s beholden to drama, comedy, crime, and romance, but most of all, he’s beholden to the magic of the silver screen.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Vivre sa Vie (1962)

vivre-sa-vieThe opening credits of Vivre sa Vie commence with the opening note “dedicated to B-movies” and indeed many of Jean-Luc Godard’s best films could make the same claim. They’re smalltime stories about little people living rather pathetic lives if you wish to be brutally honest. This isn’t Hollywood.

Opening titles aside, we meet our main characters from behind, their backs to the camera in the throes of a minor spat. It acts as the subject for the first of the director’s 12 tableaux that make up the film rather like chapters in a book following the life of our heroine Nana (Anna Karina). Next, comes pinball games, Nana’s occupation as a Record Shop attendant and other mundane moments.

The passage of time caused me to forget that Nana goes to a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her own life witnessed in the eyes of Joan–a heroine that she easily empathizes with for her own amount of suffering and pain. It’s difficult to decipher who Nana feels more connected to, Joan of Arc or the actress Maria Falconetti herself. Because the truth is, Nana too was trying to make it as an actress, even being featured in a film or a play or something or other. It didn’t work out.

As the story evolves, we gradually begin to see her plight more clearly. It comes slowly at first before fully establishing itself. She goes down the rabbit whole quite by chance, taking on a very different occupation. It’s pitiful really, she looks more like a frightened rabbit than a woman of the street.

Her aspirations of catching the eye of some director are instead channeled towards Raoul, the pimp who gets her started and shows her the ropes of the trade. In some ways, it feels like he owns her, and yet Nana still strives to lead her own life. One of the moments she gives the illusion of happiness is in all places a pool hall as the jukebox grooves away and she shimmies with it. But in this moment as with so many others, it seems as if she’s constantly under the gaze of men. She’s constantly trying to earn their affection and in some sense earn her own worth. Whether or not they give it is another matter and that’s the great tragedy of Nana’s life.

In some of the film’s final interludes, she finds time to wax philosophical with an old thinker on a number of topics from personal responsibility to issues of free will. He further asserts that the more one talks, the less the words mean. Perhaps Godard took that to mean form over dialogue.

At times it’s as if Godard’s camera is constantly on a swiveling axis or even a pendulum, focusing on a figure and swinging back and forth between it’s two subjects. No cuts are necessary and it’s oddly compelling.

Look at his work hastily here and it could be misinterpreted as shoddy and that could be but more likely is the fact that Godard was always thumbing his nose at convention. He was never beholden to classical Hollywood but he did have heroes. The likes of Sam Fuller, Fritz Lang, and Nicholas Ray. Men with their own aesthetics and Godard was forging his own path. Only someone like Godard would have the audacity of having us watch the entire transcription of a letter. Why? Because he wanted to.

Vivre sa Vie did not ignite the Nouvelle Vague but in many ways, it stoked the flames and Godard perhaps unwittingly gave nod to another landmark film from his compatriot Francois Truffaut, Jules et Jim, which finds its way up on a movie marquee.

Perhaps what’s easiest to take away from Godard’s work here with longtime collaborator Raoul Coutard is that he’s constantly messing with our classical cinematic sensibilities. The way he cuts (or doesn’t), the way he interrupts sound, the way he moves between intertitles and so on. It’s still his and it still disrupts the status quo that we are used to even as seasoned viewers of visual content.

For some, it can come off as tiresome, even pretentious but it’s undoubtedly Godard and highlighting the entire narrative is the quietly yet still evocative performance of Anna Karina. Her doe eyes speak volumes by themselves.  They truly were the power couple of the French New Wave. He being the audacious artist, she his inspired muse. However, it begs the question, if there is any stock in the parallelism between film and reality. Nana/Anna being controlled by the men in her life or was it truly her life to live?

4.5/5 Stars

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

cleo-from-5-to-7It’s a joy to watch Agnes Varda dance. Or, more precisely, it’s a joy to watch her camera dance. Because that’s exactly what it does. Her film opens in color, catching our attention, vibrant and alive as the credits roll and a young woman (Corinne Marchand) gets her fortune read by an old lady. She’s worried about her fate. We can gather that much and this is her way of coping. Superstition and tarot cards but she’s trying and the results are not quite to her fancy.

And from that point on Varda’s camera continues to move dynamically but her film quickly turns to black and white as if to say something. Our main heroine, this young, attractive singer named Cleo has sunk into a sense of despondency. For the next two hours, she must wait it out to hear the news from her doctor. The news being whether or not she has been stricken with cancer. And if cancer then recovery or even….death. This is her existential crisis.

In the following moments, the camera falls back as an observer even donning her point of view from time to time and that’s the true enjoyment of this film. There are stakes laid out right from beginning and those remain in the back of our minds but it’s really about how we get there. How she gets there.

Cleo walks the streets of Paris browsing shop windows for hats, taking cab rides through the city, patronizing local establishments, resting at her flat with her assistant, and even calling on friends.

It becomes obvious that Cleo needs other people in her life whether she knows it or not. There’s an importance in solititude when she gets to examine the passing world and take in the serenity of running water in a park on a peaceful afternoon. But it’s the people that bring some color to her life. True, she does note that everyone spoils me, no one loves me, undoubtedly bemoaning the quick house call by her lover, the doting of her houskeeper, and the comical buffoonery of her pianist and lyricist duo.

But she also calls on her friend Dorothee who models by day in a sculptor’s studio taking in the bustling Parisian streets with all sorts of people but more importantly time for all sorts of conversation both superficial and sincere. They visit the local cinema and are treated to a silent comedy short (starring Nouvelle Vague power couple Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina). As the girl’s boyfriend rightly ascertains comedy is good for the soul. It can help alleviate a world of hurt.

Cleo’s final confidante comes quite by chance. A soldier on leave from Algeria as it turns out. He’s at first forward, then didactic, and finally utterly sincere. He’s perhaps just the type of person Cleo was looking for without even realizing it — someone who is perfectly obliging with conversation when she feels completely taciturn. Theirs is a quick friendship as he agrees to go with her to the hospital for the impending news and she, in turn, looks to see him off to the train station as he goes back from whence he came.

And does the film’s conclusion suffice? Not particularly. It’s abrupt and unsatisfying after all that prolonged wait but curiously Cleo seems at peace. Perhaps that is enough. What this film does impeccably is capture a moment as if it was pure and true and utterly authentic. It takes real world issues and a real world setting, synthesizing them into a fictional storyline that still functions as the every day would.

This is the world of the Cold War, war in Algeria, Edith Piaf in the hospital, Elmer Gantry, Bridget Bardot, and French pop music. It’s all melded together, bits and pieces, and moments and ideas and snapshots into a thoroughly engaging piece that becomes a sort of rumination on life and death and all those things that complicate living. If it all sounds like a jumbled mess of words it is and instead of trying to comprehend it by any amount of diction you should do yourself an immense favor and see Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 for yourself. If you are disappointed then I am truly sorry for you. Because it’s a wonderful film.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Breathless (1960)

breathless2Breathless is such a fresh, smooth piece of cinema that feels as cool now as it was back then. The transcontinental French vibe paired with the revolutionary production is strangely still appealing. It does so many things with such style that is always unique but never quite off-putting. Not to mention the score which is playful in an elegant sort of way. The film has an array of quick cuts, it’s discontinuous, abrupt, and it literally jumps between images. Actions, like shooting a cop or sitting in a room with a girl, become more interesting than we could ever give them credit for.

Godard is known for saying that all you need for a film is a girl and a gun and that’s basically all Breathless is. Michel (Jean-Pierre Belmondo) is a low down, no good hood who also happens to be quite funny at times. He shoots a cop for no good reason and after that, the police are after him on the streets of Paris.

breathless5He’s also broke and all his buddies are either unavailable or in some trouble of their own. He swipes money from one girl and rendezvous with his latest fling, the aspiring American journalist Patricia (Jean Seberg). They do very little except drive around the city or lounge around her room. In one memorable shot, jump cuts piece together scenes of the back of Patricia’s head as she sits in the passenger seat observing the world around her pass by.

Michel, on his part, seems only to want sex and yet he says he’s never loved a girl before. He’s continually drawn to Patricia, and he never can quite pull himself away.

She, meanwhile, has another man with an eye on her, and she hopes to propel her fledgling journalism career. Her one assignment happens to be interviewing the highly philosophical and somewhat pompous Mr. Parvulesco (Jean-Pierre Melville).

breathless10The billboards around town even foreshadow the impending doom of Michel. Patricia later learns from the police that her lover is wanted for murder, and she must decide what to do about it. In a memorable scene, Patricia is shown pacing around the room in a wide circle. In the end, she does turn in the hood to prove to herself that she doesn’t truly love him.

Michel looks utterly pitiful, like a wounded deer after he gets winged by the police and collapses in the middle of a quiet avenue. Patricia stares straight at the camera giving the queerest of looks as Michel breathes his last. If you wanted narrative clarity you’re definitely looking in the wrong place.

breathless9In some ways, Jean Seberg’s iconic look reminds me a young Audrey Hepburn another gamine glamour girl. The photography of Seberg is iconic from the reflection in her sunglasses to her donning Michel’s hat. Breathless proves film is not just entertainment, but it can also be lastingly stylish. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it still seems to work after over 50 years. Honestly, when I was starting out, Breathless helped open up all of European cinema to me and for that, I am indebted to Godard and The French New Wave.

4.5/5 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

Lola (1961)

Lola1961As the debut of Jacques Demy, Lola has some qualities that, for lack of a better term, are very un-Demy. First off, he was a member of the French New Wave period of filmmakers and yet he resigned himself to making mostly musicals, taking inspiration from Hollywood and setting them in his own unique world. He was not concerned with the experimenting or political undertones of many of his peers. However, this is probably the most typical looking of his work and thus a jumping off point for the rest of his career.

Not quite as elegant in camera movements as Max Ophul’s work which received a nod, Lola still has a pleasing sleek visual style representative of the French New Wave. Its silky smooth, black and white cinematography courtesy of Raoul Coutard (Breathless), however, makes the film look more like something from Godard.

Lola is what Demy himself coined “a musical without music,” I suppose because it lacks the signature singing of his later films, but keeps the music and some of the other elements. Demy’s film also has a sense of cinematic realism with characters crossing paths with one another in various coincidental moments. It may be highly unbelievable in its plotting and yet it works within the Demy world of romance and fatalism which he would often revisit later on.

lola3This film follows a cabaret singer named Lola (Anouk Aimee) in a small seaside village called Nantes. She has a young son and a lover who she has long waited for. In the meantime, childhood friend Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) trudges on with his life without much drive. He is a befriended by a lady and her daughter Cecile at the local bookstore where they strike up a quick friendship. Then, by chance Cassard runs into to Lola, or Cecile as he used to know her when they were children. It’s been many years and although she has been getting together with an American sailor (Alan Scott) named Frankie, she is excited to go out for an evening with Roland. However, in another interesting meeting young Cecile runs into Frankie while buying a comic book and they have some fun together.

lola6In the end, Lola tells Roland that she will never truly love him and they must remain friends. It’s a bitter time for Roland as he decides to leave like he was originally planning. Finally, Michel returns and Lola is reunited with her love. It’s another bittersweet tale of love from the mind of Jacques Demy. Whimsical, poignant, and wistful too. That’s not the last we will see of Roland, though his luck doesn’t get much better (Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and  Lola returns too (Model Shop). Now only to go back and watch The Blue Angel (1930) from von Sternberg and Lola (1981) by Fassbinder which both bookend this work by Demy also chronicling a cabaret singer. There’s a lot of history here still to be seen and Jacques Demy is a worthy addition to the lineage even if this is not his best film.

4/5 Stars

Jules et Jim (1962)

Jules et Jim (1962)Directed by Francois Truffaut, this film begins before WWI with two friends, the timid Austrian writer Jules and the more outgoing Frenchman Jim. Both men become enchanted by a statue that a friend had seen and soon Jules meets the free spirited Catherine after being with several women before her. Although he begins a relationship with Catherine, she soon casts her spell on both of them causing them to have a very close relationship. 
Just before the Great War begins Jules and Catherine are married but when the fighting starts the two men are on opposite sides. Fortunately, they both come out of the war and Jim comes to stay with his friends in their mountain home. Now they have a daughter but their marriage is difficult because Catherine has had several affairs. She begins to flirt with Jim and Jules gives his blessing hoping Catherine will still be present in his life. 
Catherine and Jim end up separating however when they struggle to have a child. Later, they reconnect in Paris but Jim resolves to marry another girl much to Catherine’s jealousy. They meet one last time and Catherine goes on a drive with Jim that ends fatally. Jules is left to grieve for his best friend and his true love.
It is interesting how Catherine is really the main character here despite the title suggesting otherwise. Jeanne Moreau does not seem like your typical beauty either and yet Truffaut makes her character truly special. If you want to become acquainted with Truffaut and the style of French New Wave this one of the films you need to go to. The 400 Blows first, Jules and Jim soon after. 
4/5 Stars