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Jean-Louis Trintignant

Videophiled Landmarks: ‘The Conformist’ restored and reinvigorated

ConformistThe Conformist (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD) opens in the deep blue of dawn, an intense, vibrant azure with a hint of ultramarine that blankets the city like an ocean. Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a petty bourgeois Italian who just wants to disappear into the fabric of his society, specifically Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, has volunteered to be an informant for the Secret Police. He doesn’t believe in the Fascism, he just wants to belong, and under the glow of this overwhelming blue he heads off to oversee the political assassination he has been called to facilitate. This is the temperature of his dispassionate nature, the calm of conformity that he desires, but even under this comforting ocean of reassurance, he remains anxious and out of place, a pretender to this society who wears his convictions like a suit. It’s all about appearance.

I focus on this blue because until now, it has never enveloped me so as I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). I’ve seen the film on 16mm college prints, on 35mm revival prints, and on Paramount’s DVD from a decade ago, but this restoration brings out Vittorio Storaro’s colors with a richness and a depth I’ve never seen before. For the first time those hues have reached through the screen and into my experience.

Color is central to the experience of The Conformist, pushed to intensities beyond what we could call natural yet nothing so actively artificial as the great MGM Technicolor musicals or as symbolically loaded as Antonioni’s Red Desert. It’s not some much unreal as hyper-real, a subjective reality as seen through the eyes of Marcello, a man seeking comfort in conformism and compromise. Those blue filters create a deep blue ocean of a sky, a perpetual twilight that is at once calming and unsettling. If it represents Marcello’s ideal state of stasis, it threatens to drown him as much as comfort him, and its chilly atmosphere suggests his amoral compromise. He may desire Anna (Dominique Sanda), the young wife of his former professor, but it sure isn’t love, and he’s quick to shut off any human connection to her when his mission as an agent / informer for the Secret Police comes to fruition. He has no love for his own beautiful, shallow, and silly petite bourgeois wife Guilia (Stefania Sandrelli), who is “all bed and kitchen,” he tells his best friend, a blind radio personality who spouts Fascist propaganda on a daily basis.

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Blu-ray: ‘Trans-Europ-Express’

Alain Robbe-Grillet is best known as an experiment novelist in the nouvelle roman movement of the fifties and as the screenwriter of Alain Resnais’ elegant yet conceptually daring French nouvelle vague landmark Last Year at Marienbad. But Robbe-Grillet was also a filmmaker in his own right. He directed ten features in a career that spanned over 40 years. Until this year, only two of those films had been released on disc in the U.S.: the 1983 La Belle Captive (from the now defunct Koch Lorber label) and his final feature Gradiva (from Mondo Macabro). Now Kino Lorber, in partnership with the British label Redemption, has announced a slate of six Robbe-Grillet films for release on Blu-ray and DVD. Trans-Europ-Express is one of the first releases from this collection.

A lighthearted play with spy movies, erotica, and storytelling from 1967, Trans-Europ-Express is the director’s second directorial effort and his most popular success and audience-friendly production. It opens on a trio of movie folk–a director (played by Robbe-Grillet himself), a producer (actual film producer Paul Louyet), and a secretary / script supervisor (Catherine Robbe-Grillet–you get the idea)–boarding a train (the Trans-Europ-Express, naturally) and brainstorming a story for a film about drug trafficking between Paris and Antwerp. When the actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (fresh from furtively picking up a bondage magazine at the station newsstand) briefly ducks into their cabin, he’s recognized by the filmmakers and quickly cast as their main character, Elias, a smuggler involved in a big score with a shady criminal. Their sketchy, silly little plot (initially illustrated in a gag sequence right out of a silent movie parody) suddenly gets a face and a grounding. As much as a film that is constantly rewritten and revised can be said to be grounded.

Think of it as Robbe-Grillet’s Breathless, a pulp story refracted through the director’s own distinctive take on narrative deconstruction and sexual perversity.

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Review: ‘Le Secret’

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Le Secret bears a 1974 copyright and yet it seems much more dated than that. The films of Costa-Gavras notwithstanding, political paranoia thrillers feel so endemically American that this rather nondescript French movie comes across mostly as a by-the-numbers emulation of the U.S. model—just as contemporary French films noirs recall not such honorable homegrown predecessors as Carné–Prévert and Clouzot but rather the classic American noirs of the Forties and Fifties. This guy, Jean-Louis Trintignant, throttles a guard and escapes from this semi-medieval dungeon somewhere in the French night—a half-hour’s drive from Paris, as he and we learn. “They” had been slipping him the old Chinese water torture there, he tells a handily available ladyfriend of short-term acquaintance, because he accidentally learned a secret “they” can’t afford to have anyone know; and now “they,” of course, will be looking for him. OK. By means not narratively disclosed, Trintignant quits Paris and turns up in some woodsy terrain where he hopes to go to ground in a certain shed. Said shed having burned down—or so he is told by a jovial Philippe Noiret he encounters on a hillside—he accepts the shelter of Noiret’s own bucolic retreat for the night, and several ensuing days. The problem posed to Noiret and wife Marlène Jobert, as well as to the audience: is he a paranoiac or just someone who damn well is being persecuted? In either case, which way do they jump next?

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Blu-ray: ‘Il Sorpasso’

Vittorio Gassman is a force of nature in Dino Risi’s 1962 road movie Il Soprasso, an odd couple odyssey that begins on a whim and drives off into one long detour from the staid, serious, self-repressed life of a bookish law student. Gassman’s Bruno roars into the film, screeching his Lancia Aurelia convertible through the all but deserted streets of Rome, which is practically shut down for the summer holiday, searching for cigarettes and a pay phone while Riz Ortolani’s jazzy score bounces through the background. It’s all high spirits and impulse behavior and this swinging bachelor seems destined to pull the shy, suspicious Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) from his apartment, where he’s cramming for finals, and out into the world. What begins as a quick drive to a bar for a drink turns into a road movie that carries them through a couple of days bouncing from one restaurant to another and finally landing at the shore for a sunny beach escape.

Director Dino Risi was a prolific and popular director and one of the masters of the commedia all’italiana, the witty, earthy comedies and social satires that were hugely popular in Italy but overshadowed internationally by the “serious” works of Antonioni, Visconti, Fellini and others. Il Sorpasso was his breakthrough film, a lively road movie and a deft character piece. The title Il Soprasso is an Italian term for passing cars on the road, a defining action in the film as speed demon Bruno constantly overtakes cars on the highway like it was a road race. It was released in the U.S. under the title The Easy Life, which works too, but the original title is about rushing to the next thing, to living in the fast lane and rushing past the crowd.

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‘Amour’: True love

Austrian director Michael Haneke has often been accused of casting a cold, even sadistic, eye on the characters who suffer through cruelly uncompromising films like Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Caché, and The White Ribbon. That detached, clinical style, demanding, above all, that we watch and be implicated in what happens on-screen, informs Amour as well. What’s new is Haneke’s ineffable tenderness toward iconic actors Jean-Louis Trintignant, 82, and Emmanuelle Riva, 85, as their characters succumb to age, illness and death. A lesser director might descend to melodrama, cliché, bathos, Lifetime TV sentimentality, Big Scenes to sex up this kind of unglamorous subject matter. Haneke remains scrupulous and austere: emotionally, morally, aesthetically. A relentless and shattering masterwork, Amour breaks heart but satisfies soul.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in ‘Amour’

A cultivated Parisian couple in their twilight years, Anne and Georges have “always coped,” as Dad later tells a concerned but useless daughter (Isabelle Huppert). Former music teachers, they attend a concert by an outstanding protégé; a grand piano has pride of place in their cozy living room, filled with a lifetime of books, photographs, recorded music. When they return to their apartment after the concert, we watch the two move through familiar spaces, chatting in that companionable, half-heard way people do when they’ve lived together for years and years, “Did I mention that you look pretty tonight?” Georges inquires.

The familiar movie faces are eroded by age, but lost beauty lies just beneath the ruined flesh: Riva illuminating Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Trintignant Judas-ing the woman he loves in The Conformist. Both actors show their new masks to the camera sans embarrassment or apology. Intelligence, integrity and a striking sense of character present and accounted for dominate.

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MOD Movies: Jean-Louis Trintignant is ‘The Outside Man’

The Outside Man (MGM Limited Edition Collection) is out-of-town contract killer Lucien Bellon (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a Paris gunman hired to take out a Los Angeles mob boss, which he does with no fuss or loose ends. Or so he thinks, until he realizes that he’s considered a loose end when a local hitman (Roy Scheider in a largely unspoken performance) targets him as he prepares to leave the country.

Though set and shot in Los Angeles, with a largely American cast (including Ann-Margret as the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold who helps Lucien out, Angie Dickinson, John Hillerman, Alex Rocco, Talia Shire, and Georgia Engel) and a distinctive score with funky soul guitar and wah-wah pedal, this gangster movie turned cat-and-mouse thriller is a French production with a European sensibility shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

Director Jacques Deray may not be the best French crime movie filmmaker of his era but he has way of taking his time and methodically playing out his situations. He isn’t so much interested in action as atmosphere and his portrait of American culture gives the crime movie conventions a distinctive sensibility. Deray and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière are fascinated with the urban landscape of Tower Records and hamburger joints and busy streets, and the perspective is as much from their perspective as it is of the Paris hitman abroad. Lucien runs across hippie hookers and a Jesus freak hitchhiker, checks the news on coin-operated TVs in the bus station, and takes refuge with a single mother and her bratty son (a very young Jackie Earle Haley), where they watch “Star Trek” reruns over dinner.

The script is clever and woven through with witty asides and blasts of dark humor, and if it never really tense or suspenseful, it features a superb cast (including Michel Constantin as Trintignant’s Paris connection, who flies in to help settle the score), some very clever set pieces, and a great look at American urban culture from a European perspective. And the obligatory third act payback, a matter of honor and obligation doomed to mutual destruction, is both perfectly American and utterly French. Some gangster movie conventions are universal.

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, from AmazonScreen Archives Entertainment,Critics’ Choice VideoClassic Movies NowWarner Archive, and other web retailers.

Review: It’s Raining in Santiago

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

A Franco-Bulgarian coproduction with Bulgaria standing in for Chilean locations, It’s Raining in Santiago seeks to reenact key events in the September 11, 1973, overthrow of the Allende regime, at the same time filling in crucial background from the time of Allende’s election as president several years before and, finally, taking a few glimpses at post-Allende Chile. Helvio Soto’s primary model is conspicuously, and understandably, Costa-Gavras. Like Costa-Gavras, Soto does not shrink from exploiting the turn-on value of high-octane melodramatic narrative in the interest of leftwing point-making. Like him, too, he keeps his camera, his cast, or both in motion as much as possible, knowing that at some primal, Panofskyan level this is satisfying to the moviewatcher who might otherwise be indisposed to sit still for either detailed exposition or political editorializing. His correct-minded good guys—notably Laurent Terzieff as a French correspondent, Ricardo Cucciolla (Vanzetti of Sacco and) as a Chilean newscaster turned presidential adviser, Maurice Garrel (the gaunt guerrilla veteran of Chabrol’s Nada) as a proletarian Allende man, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as a socialist senator—are uncomplicatedly swell, sensitive, family-, friend- and music-loving folks; the leftist students have long hair but are clearly very well-washed; the militarist/bourgeois/corporate bad guys display not a glimmer of wit, originality, or subtlety (let alone the troublingly appealing ambiguity of Yves Montand’s pig-in-the-terrorist-poke in State of Siege, or even Marcel Bozzuffi’s dopey enthusiasm as the homosexual hitman in Z). Hence, even as “a John Wayne entertainment for the Left” (Costa-Gavras’ phrase), It’s Raining in Santiago soon begins to pall.

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Antonioni’s Red Desert and Cavalier’s Le Combat dans l’ile – DVDs of the Week

Monica Vitti and Richard Harris in the modern landscape

Red Desert (Criterion)

The color debut of Michelangelo Antonioni continues his exploration into the cinema of alienation with a new dimension. And it’s not just the expanded palette, which he paints in the colors of waste. This drama of dislocation and neurosis is set against an industrial landscape where the rivers are choked black and oily with pollution, the barren lots around factories are dead, gray graveyards of junk and ash and waste, the horizon is made up of smokestacks belching smoke and flames and even the parks hiss smoke from pipes running under the sod.

Giuliana (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s great muse) navigates this world tenuously, a fragile woman in a world where the detritus of industry has almost eradicated the natural world. Richard Harris (his voice dubbed into Italian) is a visiting corporate recruiter who becomes infatuated with the beautiful but nervous wife of his colleague. There’s a flirtation of sorts, but it’s as emotionally smothered as the industrial world around them.

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