My Night at Maud’s (1969)

nightatmaud's1I love the forum that is created in international cinema where all things can be debated and discussed without fear of what the audience will say. Hollywood caters to the audience and that more often than not means that thrills are given greater weight than substance. Eric Rohmer worked at Cahiers du Cinema alongside French New Wave visionaries like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, but he joined the game a little later than his colleagues with a different style. Rohmer took his pseudonym from director Erich von Stroheim and British novelist Sax Rohmer. He was a highly educated man and that comes out in his films.

My Night at Maud’s comes from the perspective of a man, who we have a sneaking suspicion might be a lot like Rohmer.  Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a reserved, highly religious, intelligent man. He attends mass on Sunday, bumps into an old school chum on the street, and willfully enters a discussion on all sorts of philosophical topics.

Whereas Godard interest himself in the lowly gangsters, the streetwalkers, or the lovers on the run, Rohmer’s character are in a completely different stratosphere. They are a higher slice of society, and it shows in what they spend there time philosophizing about. In fact, there’s a lot of discussion stemming from Pascal’s wager on whether or not it is beneficial to believe in God. Although he can be a bit of a clown, Vidal is also a philosophy professor and ready and willing to delve into such topics. He holds hypotheses on the meaning of life, and he’s considered where hope comes from. These are intelligent beings and deep thinkers, and by transference, they lead us to think. They drop by on Vidal’s friend Maud (Francoise Fabian), who is a divorcee, irreligious, and most certainly a free thinker. She’s also beautiful, and she likens there little late night convo to the salons of old as they gather around her bed to raise their conjectures.

nightatmaud's4I feel like I have known people like Jean-Louis, and I cannot help but like them. He’s a fairly resilient Christian, but not a perfect example mind you, and yet he feels far from a hypocrite. With his new dialogue partners, he speaks of his past love affairs and how they can exist with his religious convictions. Maud rather matter-of-factly labels him a “shame-faced Christian” and a “shame-faced Don Juan,” because he’s not fully committed or acknowledging of either. And yet she generally likes him a lot. He likes her company too and so they can continue talking in a genial manner. She pokes fun and ribs but never attacks. And she openly brings up numerous different ideas about Christianity. There are things that feel very human, but not very Christian to her. Maud asks if Christians are judged by their deeds? She assumes there is a bookkeeping aspect of Christianity where good deeds are weighted versus sin. Several times the rather obscure term of Jansenism is thrown around a bit in reference to the theology of Dutchman Cornelius Jansen. It surely is difficult to keep up we these folks at times, but it’s well worth it.

Maud has her own preconceived notions about religion, while Jean-Louis has some delusions about romance. He thinks he’ll meet a pretty blonde Catholic gal and fall in love. It sounds utterly preposterous and yet then he meets Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) after his night at Maud’s. She’s the perfect embodiment of everything he’s ever dreamed of in a romantic partner. They seem like a good pair, although she is still in school, they are intellectual equals with similar personal convictions.

nightatmaud's5Sure enough, 5 years down the line they are married with a young son. Jean-Louis has not seen Maud for many years now, but quite by chance they bump into each other on the beach. Both pick up where they left off as if no time has passed because it’s so easy for them to converse. Francoise is noticeably uncomfortable around Maud, but nothing more is said about it. Jean-Louis moves on and plays contentedly with his family on the beach. Maud heads back up the hill as cordial as ever. This is an ending that is made powerful in its subtleties above all else because Jean-Louis and the audience realize something about Francoise. Yet there is no need to voice those conclusions because all that matters to him is that he is happy.  It toes a soft line between romance and drama, instead resorting to a beautiful exchange of ideas. Noticeably, in Rohmer’s film, there is no score so the dialogue is elevated to the level of music. It fills the void using deep, introspective and personal forms of verbal expression.

4/5 Stars

The Conformist (1970)

conformist3 I had never seen anything from Bernardo Bertolucci, but a few of his other films that came to mind were Last Tango in Paris and 1900. I was expecting some mix of The Godfather and Le Samourai set in Italy during the 1930s. In all honesty, those were the meager reference point I was going into this film with. In some respects, it felt like my first time with The Leopard or The Battle of Algiers, because I thoroughly enjoyed the films, but the history and backstory really eluded me. Not knowing the ins and outs, what was fictitious or what was reality, I was forced to strip it down. So even if I could not track with everything, I could appreciate it as a piece of cinema trying to paint a picture of a certain time and place.

That’s what Bernardo Bertolucci and his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro do so well, and it turns The Conformist into a visual delight. It can stand on that merit alone, depicting gray facades that are only an outer shell for beautifully stylish interiors, flooded with light and infused with colors and textures. The drawing rooms are luxurious and Paris and Rome become the perfect backdrop for a world that vacillates between the bleak and the decadent. It’s the clean modernization of this fascist society intermingled with the ways of old. Storaro on his part, even makes leaves compelling and a man walking down the street becomes fascinating with dutch angles and contorted perspectives. That’s just the visual side of this film.

conformist1The Conformist, at its core, is a character study of one man, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is trying to find normalcy in a 1930s Italian world that is dictated by fascism. He’s a member of the secret police, who is assigned to knock off a political dissident seeking asylum in France. The target turns out to be one of his former professors so that in itself begins a personal conflict. There is a constant clashing of the state and duty with family and kinship. But within this main objective which drives the entire story and eventually takes Marcello from Rome to Paris, there is also a lot of personal baggage to be parsed through.

Although Marcello is pursuing the professor with his comrade Manganiello, a barrage of flashbacks cast some light on the rest of his life. It develops the framework for this man, what he does, and why he does it. His mother lives in their crumbling family mansion contenting herself with the companionship of her Japanese chauffeur “Tree.” Marcello’s father is locked away in an asylum. That is his family of origin and even going back to his childhood, he was traumatized and sexually abused. Now, in the present, he tries to conduct a normal lifestyle with his fiancee Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), but when he goes to confession on her prompting, we realize how hardened he has become. His family does not seem all that important to him and religion is little more than a social structure.

conformist5And when he finally travels to Paris with Giulia, to meet with his old professor and complete his objective, that task gets complicated when he sees Anna (Dominique Sanda). Whether they know each other from before or not is ambiguous, but what’s not ambiguous are his advances towards her. It’s another weird, twisted dynamic because she knows that he is a fascist, and Marcello knows he will soon enough have to kill her husband. His wife and Quadri’s wife get along quite well. There is no animosity there, just like there seems to be no visible animosity between Marcello and his former teacher.

Murder should not enter this equation just as adultery doesn’t seem logical. Marcello even has his doubts, but again relationships, love, and family all take a back seat to the cause, just as he takes a back seat and lets everything run their course. But he cannot maintain his perfect veneer forever. There has to be a breaking point somewhere and so there is. With the fall of Mussolini, no one wants a conformist and Marcello is stuck in this gray area.

In The Godfather, since they are in America, at least they have some corrupted notion of family and religious faith. They accept capitalism although they work outside of it at times. But in The Conformist, although Marcello likes the idea of family, he really does not desire it. He falls for another woman in lieu of his wife, and yet that woman is of little concern to him when it comes to the agenda of the state. He looks for normalcy and maybe he gets it in a sense, but underneath it lies so much pain, dirt, and corruption. Just look at Marcello. He’s a repressed, misogynistic, faithless, fascist conformist. We expect him to be like Le Samourai, and he can’t even pull a trigger with confidence. He’s a pitiful, messed-up man who has been riddled with fascism. It didn’t kill him, but it might as well have.

4.5/5 Stars

Three Colors: Red (1994)

 3a286-threecolorsred3Kieslowski’s films are mostly character driven and yet he often uses high drama to create a far more complex lens to observe his subjects. In Blue, the inciting incident was a deadly car accident. It seems only fitting that he would end this story with the catastrophic sinking of a ferry. He takes the same bleak, no-nonsense approach with little fanfare that he used before. It’s his way.

In fact Three Colors: Red as a whole is another simplistic film in plot, and yet the irony is that the film is chock full of complexity because its major point of interest is interpersonal relationships (as suggested by the intertwining phone lines shown early on). There is nothing more tangled and intricate about humanity than our relationships.

As such, this final installment is in many ways a story about love, romance, and friendship, and yet Kieslowski does not find it necessary to preach to us. He is better and more thoughtful than that, laying out the story for us to ponder and mull over. This is the story or better yet the parable he created.

Valentine (Irene Jacob) is a young student and model who is constantly an innocent and sympathetic figure with a pair of doe eyes. She is often shown in profile which continually reveals her youthful and even sullen beauty. She is even the somber poster girl of a gum campaign plastered around town. There’s a boyfriend in her life who she desires the affection of, and then there’s a brother who is hooked on drugs. In other words, life is far from rosy and secure.

One day she accidentally runs over a dog that she takes to the owner (Jean-Louis Trintignant,) who seems surprisingly unconcerned by the event. She does the only thing she can do with a clear conscious which is taking the dog to the vet and then taking care of it herself. Soon after, Valentine finds herself walking the dog by the old man’s house once more and she discovers what he does all day. It turns out he is a retired judge, and he spends his solitary existence eavesdropping on the conversations of others (including Valentine’s neighbor Auguste).

Later, through the grapevine, she finds out that a retired judge had a suit filed against him, and she rushes to his house to assure him she had no part. He already knows because he was the one who turned himself in.

Over the next days, Valentine begins to empathize more and more with Mr. Kern’s existence. As a former judge, he was forced to make decisions far more difficult than most. In fact, why do people follow laws? Is it out of goodness or purely self-serving? Is morality all relative? What really is good and bad, because how would we act in the other man’s shoes? By this point, we see Kern’s struggle a little better.

Finally, Valentine invites her new found friend to her last fashion show before she heads to England for a few weeks. It’s a touching moment when he pays her a visit after the show, but it also reveals the pain in the old man’s past. It may be a lucky guess but all we know is that Valentine figures him out. It just shows that you cannot judge others by first impressions.

So as it goes, Auguste’s life practically mirrors that of a younger Kern, and thus, so many parallels become evident. Aside from the obvious, I only figured it out after the film was done, but they are both judges, struggle in love and the like. At the end of the film when Kern sees the news about the ferry with Valentine and Auguste aboard, the only thing we know for sure is that there were seven survivors (guess who!). In a somewhat subtle way, the trilogy is connected and Kieslowski ends his tale on a fitting note. It freezes and just like that the career of one man was done for good. A couple years later he would already be gone. But he went out on top and Three Colors cemented his legacy. I always loved the color red the best. Here’s yet another reason why.

4.5/5 Stars