[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]
Claude Chabrol’s self-consciously amused but ominous portrayals of the foibles of les petits bourgeois, aside from reminding us of the director’s acute filmic awareness indicate an atmosphere which borders on a kind of noir fantasy. Like Luis Buñuel (especially in his later films), Chabrol is ambiguous in the concessions he makes to reality. He may look, sometimes very closely, at real things—setting many of his scenes in a natural environment, even taking from a true account in a French newspaper his story of a man who murders his wife and his lover’s husband (not that there is anything unfamiliar about that tale)—but there is seldom anything “natural” about what we see. The sun is blindingly bright in some of the exteriors; the white mist on a lake behind Pierre and Lucienne flattens the space within the frame, as though they were standing in front of a blank canvas.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
“Sometimes dreams are really…”
One way or another, all the really big guys make movies about themselves making movies. Luis Buñuel may be caught most conspicuously doing so at the beginning of his career, in UnChienandalou, and at what must be temporarily accounted the end of his career, LeCharmediscretde labourgeoisie, until Le FantômedelaLiberté gets here or until Buñuel really does stop making films, as he’s been threatening to do for about a decade now. Unlike most of its sophomoric contemporaries, UnChienandalou operates as a most lucid disquisition on a kind of formal logic peculiarly available to the cinema. The recurrent patterns of diagonal design (the pattern in Buñuel’s tie, the lines on the lid of the cyclist’s box and the wrapping paper inside) and diagonal movement (the stropping of the razor, the woman’s arrangement of untenanted garments on the bed) attest to the possibility of formal integrity without reference to any conventional, mundane logic. The succession of visually similar forms (a hole in the hand, a tuft of underarm hair, a sea urchin, a head glimpsed in a god’s-eye-view iris-shot) provides its own poetic justification, and a sinister shot-pairing (clouds cut across moon, razor cuts across eye) testifies to the power of editorial progression! A woman “hears” and reacts to the approach of a cyclist whose only sensory signal has been to enter and pass out of a right-angle frame of a street scene disposed between two shots of her looking at a book in a room somewhere: shot juxtaposition creates its own acceptable narrative logic. And that room she sits in, having been established in a conventional full shot at the beginning, can be broken up by camera angling and restructured by montage so that its window looks down on both a city street and a desolate beach, and its door opens on a stairway, the seashore, or the mirror duplication of the selfsame room, depending on where the narrative chooses to go next. Truly, Buñuel opens not only the girl’s but also his and our eyes to a new kind of vision.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
Belledejour is a circular film, curving its way surely and urbanely through fantasy, memory, and whatever reality one can distill from Buñuel’s surrealist solution. Probably the first bone of contention among critics of the film is how much reality, how much fantasy, and where each sector is located in this suave Buñuelian landscape. Depending on the reading, Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine/Belle de jour may have fantasized the whole of the film with no anchors in reality, she may be engaged in an act of exorcism which finally leads her to a kind of normality, or she may have ultimately ruptured the fragile barriers between her conscious life and the world that shapes itself out of the darkness behind her brain. Whether Buñuel is hypnotist or mesmerizer is moot; whether he has plunged his heroine into the darkness of insanity or caused a sunrise, a coming to terms with reality, is also open to question. Considering the bland banality of Séverine’s “reality,” itself a kind of madness which Buñuel has never ceased to send up with a discreet but nonetheless devastating charm, can acceptance of such a life be considered enlightenment? Her fantasies may be kinky but they’re certainly more fun, more richly devised and experienced, than anything that home, hearth, and hubby can provide. Perhaps what Buñuel has mesmerized Séverine (and us) into is a serenely crazy delight with the complete dissolution of distinctions like reality and fantasy into a rich warm soup blended of both. Buñuel knows what kind of spell movies may cast, and that we as viewers are not unlike Mme. Anaïs’ clients who buy the opportunity to frame and move and light their most private, cherished fantasies. Like Séverine, we turn from the peephole and exclaim in righteous disgust, “How can anyone sink so low!,” a half-smile of perverse fascination playing about our lips. We should not feel diminished for all that, for Buñuel’s discreet and amiable charm is all-encompassing; he subjects no one’s fetish to contempt, only to the goodnatured amusement of an old roué who is surprised by nothing, but is endlessly delighted with the conventions of bourgeois perversity. Consequently, we do not move from scene to scene in Belle de jour impelled by a sense of urgency that Séverine “get well” or go crazy with a vengeance; rather, we are satisfied with permission to participate in the picaresque sexual adventures she either fantasizes or realizes in her pilgrimage from neurotic innocence through exotic sin to that ambiguous endgame played within her mind.
The Essential Jacques Demy(Criterion, Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format set) collects six features and a few early shorts from the Nouvelle Vague‘s sadder-but-wiser romantic. It’s not my intention to rate him against the movement’s most famous filmmakers – Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Varda – but just to find his place among them. Like so many of his fellow directors, Rivette loved American movies, especially musicals, but his taste for American musicals and candy-colored romance was balanced with a bittersweet sensibility. For all the energizing music and dreamy love affairs, his romances more often than not don’t really get happy endings.
Criterion’s 13-disc set, one of their last to come out in the Blu-Ray+DVD Dual-Format, picks six of his defining films from his 1961 debut to his 1982 Une Chambre en Ville, which makes its American home video debut in this set, all transferred from restored and remastered HD editions.
Lola (1961) is a bittersweet musical without the music, lovingly shot in Demy’s hometown of Nantes in black and white CinemaScope by Nouvelle Vague master Raoul Coutard, and set to a lovely score by Michel Legrand. Anouk Aimee, whose appearance in lacy tights, boa, and top hat made her an eternal pin-up dream, is a single mother looking for the father of her child in the port towns of Nantes. As in so many of his films, Demy reveals himself as both eager romantic and sadder-but-wiser realist, and for all the dashed dreams of the film it still manages to have its swoony romantic fantasy come true.
In the opening scenes of You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, a roll call of France’s most celebrated actors of stage and screen from the past four decades are contacted with the sad news of the passing of a playwright, the author of an updated reworking of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The playwright, Antoine d’Anthac, is fictional, the creation of real-life French playwright Jean Anouilh in the play Cher Antoine ou l’amour rate, which director / co-screenwriter Alain Resnais drafts to stand in for Anouilh as the author of his play Eurydice. The actors are real – among them Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma, Anne Consigny, Hippolyte Girardot, Michel Piccoli, and Lambert Wilson – playing fictionalized versions of themselves. In this incarnation, they have all appeared in productions of Eurydice on the Paris stage and have been invited to the playwright’s country mansion for his wake, which in this case is a posthumous request to watch a fresh interpretation performed by a young company to judge whether they are worthy of staging a new production.
You could call it a film within a play, or a play within a film, but neither really captures the Russian nesting doll quality of the deft merging and doubling of the two arts. I see it as living theater meeting the cinematic imagination of Alain Resnais, who wraps Anouilh’s two plays around one another for a new creation.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
Vincent is losing his mistress, his factory and his health. In the dark night of the bourgeois soul he goes to see the wife he’s already lost because of the mistress. Embarrassed by his needs, discomfited by the sudden knowledge that another man has just left his wife’s bed, he tries on an expansive gesture in her small apartment—and knocks over a vase of straw flowers. Yves Montand is the miraculous kind of actor who can reach over, restore the flowers, and cap the action with a look and wave that encompass “You know me!”, “You would have that kind of thing in your apartment,” ”I’m really up that well-known tributary,” and “There! good as new!” It’s scarcely an isolated actor’s-moment in Vincent, François, Paul et les autres; Montand and his co-players serve up many. One of the best-acted scenes of 1976 is likely to remain the café interview, a bit later in the film, between Montand and wife Stéphane Audran: he indicating by cautious, hopeful indirection that he’s at liberty, the young mistress is gone, he no longer worries about being a man of affairs in any sense, and maybe they could give it another try; she understanding from the first, supremely considerate of his feelings and vulnerability, but aware that life has moved on and so have they, that she must answer other imperatives now.
“I’d like everything to be perfect,” moons young husband Pierre (Jean Sorel) to his beautiful wife Séverine (Catherine Deneuve), trotting down a country road in a horse-drawn carriage in the opening of Belle de Jour. “If only you weren’t so cold.” Her apology doesn’t merely fall on deaf ears, it inflames him to sadistic sexual retribution, like something out of a Victorian melodrama by way of the Marquis de Sade. She’s hauled out of the carriage by the two drivers, dragged through the woods, bound and gagged, stripped and whipped, and finally ravished by the servants, at which point her expression changes from the wide-eyed stage terror of innocence abused to the surrender to physical ecstasy.
“What are you thinking about, Séverine?,” asks the same voice, now offscreen and, in a sense, in another movie. “I was thinking about you,” she answers with a sweet but aloof smile, sitting in bed in their city apartment like a porcelain princess while her doting husband readies himself for bed. But the spell is broken and the reverie over. The fantasies of her imagination do not cross over into her real life, where she sleeps alone in a single bed by her choice, the frigid wife of the opening seconds once again. He inches in for a romantic overture and she once again rebuffs him. A year after marriage, she’s still unable to give herself to her husband, a cultured, proper virgin with lurid sexual fantasies behind her physical coldness.
Luis Bunuel’s cheerfully brazen satire of sexual repression, social decorum, and erotic fantasies is in the running for Bunuel’s kinkiest film, and that’s saying a lot. You could say that Belle de Jour stars two Catherine Deneuves: the dreamy, romantic young innocent of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and the uptight, anxious sexual repressive of Repulsion (1965). Buñuel didn’t cast the actress — she was pushed on the director by the producers, Raymond and Robert Hakim, and Deneuve had the impression that he took her with some reluctance — but he uses that cool, aloof Deneuve quality as a defining quality of Séverine, the beautiful young wife of a gallant but often absent (emotionally as well as physically) husband. On the surface she’s the picture-perfect bourgeois wife of a respected young surgeon with an almost reflexive disapproval of every break with respectability and dignity she sees or hears about, especially when it comes to Pierre’s friend Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), a “rich and bored” provocateur and gleeful chauvinist who doesn’t let Séverine’s disdain prevent him from constantly propositioning her. Yet she escapes her own resistance to physical contact with her husband through similar fantasies and finally follows them to a real-life Paris bordello hidden away in an urban apartment, where she signs up for an afternoon shift (thus her working name: Belle de Jour).