The Soft Skin (1964)

the-soft-skin-1There might be an initial predilection to call The Soft Skin Francois Truffaut’s most conventional film to date, but for me, it shows at this fairly early point in his career he seems to have grasped the main tenets of traditional filmmaking. Because his first films are full of life, energy, and idiosyncratic verve that easily charm their audience but here we see a film that in most ways looks like other classic works, well constructed and still quite engaging. Because within this very framework Truffaut is able to play around with issues that in themselves are still quite compelling. Love, intimacy, infidelity, and the like. Even with familiar names like Truffaut and Raoul Coutard, it feels very un-Nouvelle Vague. And that’s okay.

We often expect comedy from Truffaut as he shows in many of his other films but here everything is fairly reserved and understated dictated by our gentlemanly protagonist Pierre (Jean Desailly) and accentuated by most everyone else. They are not inserted into the story line to make light of issues but to actually grapple with these real life circumstances in ways that feel quite candid in their humanness.

Furthermore, Truffaut’s films are often, cinematically speaking, very self-aware but aside from a brief foray into a documentary on Andre Gide, our characters seem very much absorbed in their own world with the problems at hand and Truffaut seems to realize that. As audience members, we too become implicit accomplices to this tryst and that’s where the story comes into being.

Pierre is a managing editor of a prominent publication with a lovely wife and sweet little girl. He’s well off and travels across France in high demand at lectures and cultural galas. People want his autograph.

But in a moment he meets someone. Truffaut allows them to interact and pass each other by without anything happening. That’s the key. As I imagine it is with real life, moments go by and it’s in those passing moments that things begin to unfold. Pierre is taken by the stewardess (Francoise Dorleac) he now sees in the elevator and then invites her for a drink awkwardly. It begins there. He’s clumsy about it but his respectability and candidness probably attract the girl.

The title, of course, implies the very physical nature at the core of an affair. It’s the touch, the feel, the intimacy that is longed for. But it runs awry because that very thing that is craved becomes muddied by deception and infidelity that threatens to tear relationships apart. Not just with spouses and friends but the very people who are caught up in the throes of the affair. There’s the necessity to keep them hidden, skip out on them at a moment’s notice so as to not raise suspicion.

Everything is clouded and nothing is pleasurable anymore. There’s a moral repugnance that often goes with the territory. Of course, the one individual that we might do well to feel the sorriest for is the one we rarely see, the third party who is deceived, in this case, Pierre’s wife.

Still, Pierre is so sincere and Nicole much the same that it’s somehow easy to feel sorry for them as well as Franca. As Nicole notes to Pierre, “you made a real mess of things” partially because he’s having trouble leaving his wife after 15 years and he still wishes to see his little girl Sabine every day. He’s not much good at the whole affair business. Whether it’s leaving his wife or staying with the girl he’s found.

Perhaps the most poignant scene comes with Nicole on the balcony confiding in Pierre because we understand what she’s trying to hint at. And we don’t see Pierre but you can guess where his thoughts are at that very moment. In not so many words she is saying this thing they have won’t work anymore and that’s the end of it — at least in the way he envisioned it all, with marriage, a home, etc. It cannot exist.

And of course he has no recourse but to return to his wife and beg her forgiveness and it seems like a road worth the risk but in his unassertiveness, Pierre puts it off just long enough for it to be too late. There’s no getting it back. Because infidelity, no matter the strain, can be thoroughly insidious undermining trust and planting seeds of doubt and bitterness. That is rocky soil to maintain a relationship on and in cases like this, it can only end in tragedy. It’s true that The Soft Skin blows us out of the water in the end but what makes us stay is the great care it takes in getting there.

4/5 Stars

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

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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.

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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

Weekend (1967)

weekend1One of Jean-Luc Godard’s strengths is his capability of feigning pretentiousness, while still simultaneously articulating humor. His film opens with its first of many inter-titles, “A film adrift in the cosmos,” followed by the equally poignant “A film found in a dump.”

Our protagonists Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corrinne (Mireille Darc) are hardly protagonists at all, but curmudgeon bourgeoisie couple both caught up in affairs and preparing to out into the country in order to acquire Corinne’s rightful inheritance from her dying father. But this is never a character study and the actual arrival at the home of her parents is of little consequence. It’s another occurrence in a long string of events that Godard plays at with acerbic wit.

We are constantly reminded that this is an age of sexual revolution and political unrest–the class struggle against the tyranny of the powers that. In foreshadowing the events of the 68ers or even putting a finger to the social unrest, Godard is not alone. It’s how he does it that should be of note.

Weekend quickly becomes a discordant cacophony of sound and image that immaculately illustrates the dissonance of the decade.  Rather like a Tati film, Godard uses color prolifically, but it’s hardly as innocent as the former. The colors show the pools of blood and piles of wreckage scattered across the land–In one instance inane and another horrifying.

It’s the emblematic film of the modern age of noise pollution where Godard practically tortures us with the sound of car horns. Constantly adding to the general din. Not to mention the universal, ubiquitous road rage that overtakes everyone and leads to heavy carnage. Some seen, some unseen. Meanwhile, actors or real-life historical figures–the distinction is difficult–including St. Just (Jean-Pierre Leaud) wander the wasteland spouting off inconsequential rubbish in anachronistic garb.

weekend2Conflagrations engulf cars and human bodies while above the din comes the piercing screams of a woman bemoaning the loss of her Hermes handbag. We cannot take this anyway but humorous because it once again is yet another moment of utter insanity.

The French countryside becomes the perfect locale for an apocalypse mixed with a modern coup de’tait. There’s a call to arms for guerrilla tactics–a new French Revolution. Still, Roland and Corinne frantically hurtle towards their destination of Oinville. Their actions there are far from unexpected highlighting the baseness running through the entire film.

Once again it feels of little consequence that the pair is captured by a band of cannibalistic, free-loving revolutionaries. Cracking eggs on lifeless bodies and painting on naked ones. It’s pretty strange. Godard slips in a bit of love of the cinema as their call names include Battleship Potemkin, The Searchers, and Johnny Guitar. But there’s little point to it, only another pointless attribute in this narrative of volatile absurdity. But in that respect, Godard has hit his point home, by spurning convention as always and supercharging his film with political chops. It drags a bit in the second half, but he salvages it with the utter insanity of it all.

Furthermore, Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard are absolutely fabulous at utilization tracking shots to the nth degree in several instances, namely with the initial traffic jam extending for what feels like eons and then camera cycling through the town as the music plays in the background and our two travelers wait for their next ride. Let’s not forget the final moments of Weekend either, where Corinne has been transformed into a fellow commune member feasting on a scrumptious piece of meat with a fellow hippie. Her husband was not so lucky. There’s little to no need to say what happened to him.

4/5 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

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