Herman Melville’s novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities, was widely reviled when it was published, just as Leos Carax’s film of Pierre has been generally maligned. Melville’s book came along in the wide wake of a little thing called Moby-Dick, and even if it had not, it’s a very strange novel—seemingly a put-on of a certain kind of fruity romantic tale, but stretched past the point of parody. It’s weird, but interesting-weird.
Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time, if you prefer the more accurate but, to me, less seductively euphonious title that’s been gaining currency of late) would certainly seem to stand out at the head of that notorious literary genre known as the “unfilmable novel.” It’s already defeated, in whole or part, two fine artists: Volker Schlöndorff, who made Swann’s Way,an admittedly well-acted but tepid and overly respectful chamber film; and Harold Pinter, whose clever but attenuated Proust Screenplay only made me grateful that funding never came through to realize the project.
How strange that two of the movies I’ve liked best and been most surprised by at Cannes 2000 should turn out to be mutant forms of the musical. The Coens’ song-filled O Brother, Where Art Thou? taps into the power of mythic storytelling, the kind of exhilarating power that drives journeys from Homer’s Odyssey to Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’sTravels — both sources for O Brother’s down-and-dirty musical drift through an economically depressed America teetering on a future we’ve come, for better and worse, to live in.
The great pleasure of Cannes is having no idea what you’re going to see, and knowing that you’re about to be one of the first in the world to see it. When the picture turns out to be absolutely extraordinary — a stylistically exhilarating vision that also sweeps up the entire 2,400-strong audience in the Salle Lumière in its emotional embrace — one’s first impulse is to wish the same experience for audiences around the world. In short, you don’t want to tell anybody about it, don’t want to foreclose their pleasure of discovery in any way. You just want to say, “When you have the chance, go!”
Time Regained, adapted by Chilean director Raul Ruiz from the final volume of Marcel Proust’s epic Remembrances of Things Past, is about the texture of memory. Set in the first decades of the 20th century, in the salon society of the Paris élite, the film begins with the aging narrator (a not-so-thinly veiled Marcel Proust, played by lookalike actor Marcello Mazzarella but voiced by Patrice Chereau) dictating his final novel from a sickbed: “Then one day, everything changes.”
That phrase describes the film nicely: nothing is fixed, everything is in flux. In this opening scene the camera glides through the bric-a-brac of his bedroom, which themselves take slow flight in a dance with the camera as the room expands and shrinks wildly from shot to shot. Far from mere cinematic acrobatics, this sets the stage for an exploration of the fabric of memory from a director whose films have traditionally reverberated with the tensions between reality, dreams, and perspective.
[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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
The camera trucks slowly left, unobtrusively, almost cautiously, as if to move out of Tristana’s way as she and Saturna approach the group of boys. It cranes above the soccer skirmish to view the scene from a dominating remove, observing the ritual conflict—a game like any other, designed to formalize the release of aggressions. Handheld, the camera mingles abruptly with running feet, tangles with the action. Then it isolates the spontaneous but intentional violation of the rules and its unregenerate perpetrator. And finally, the camera seeks out and frames Tristana and Saturno as they share a wordless but evocative moment of mutual appreciation.
As evidenced by the success of radio’s Serial and TV’s The Jinx (like anybody consumes things on radio or TV any more, amirite?), our collective taste for true-crime stories remains boundless. If murder is on the menu, so much the better. Which means that veteran filmmaker André Téchiné (The Girl on the Train) ought to have a foolproof picture with this dramatization of a tantalizing real-life mystery. The case is better known in Europe than in the U.S., but that shouldn’t matter much—and like The Jinx, it involves wealth, decades of unanswered questions, and a missing woman who is yet to be found.
Thing is, Téchiné’s approach feels designed to smother the breathless melodrama of Serial and The Jinx.
Vice & Virtue(Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD) is the titillating title that Roger Vadim gave to his 1963 take on two Marquis de Sade stories, “Justine” and “Juliette,” which he reframed as a morality play set in Nazi-occupied France. Annie Girardot and Catherine Deneuve star as sisters representing diametrically opposed responses to the occupation. Girardot’s Juliette, aka “le vice,” turns collaborator and becomes the willing mistress to a ruthless and equally opportunistic SS colonel (Robert Hossein), while the idealistic young Justine, aka “le vertu,” defies the Nazis and is sent to “The Commandery,” the brothel clubhouse of a particularly sadistic brotherhood of officers in a country castle. Vadim revels in decadence and suggestions of sadism and sexual enslavement, attempting a kind of arthouse version of sexploitation by way of high melodrama and gothic horror, but it’s a weird confusion of bland elegance and tastelessness, a perverse fairy tale of innocence under assault and corruption punished in the end. It was the first major role for Deneuve but her part is small next to the power games and sensual distractions of her high-living sister and her calculating lover. They’re a natural couple with no allegiance to anything but their own power and pleasure.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
Jacques Demy’s best films—Lola, TheYoungGirlsofRochefort—wave the silk scarf of an absurd romanticism so expertly over the abrasive realities of The World We Live In—unwanted pregnancies, painful, irrational separations, grotesquely violent death—that our appreciation of both textures is deeply enhanced in the delirious cinematic process. DonkeySkin, his 1970 retelling of the Perreault fairy tale, almost entirely lacks this sense of imaginative play and stylistic chance-taking. As such, it makes for a pre-afternoon-nap children’s story more elaborately visualized than most, but serves little other purpose.