Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Film Reviews

A Sunday in the Country

[Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle)]

Bertrand Tavernier’s achingly beautiful A Sunday in the Country records one bittersweet day in the turn-of-the-century life of Monsieur Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux), a 76-year-old painter in pastoral retirement. It’s Indian summer, that lavishly spendthrift season poised at the edge of winter. Edouard and Irène, the old man’s offspring, pay him a visit. An uneventful day, really, punctuated by little pleasures, small-scale estrangements and reunions a family gathering is always sure to promote. Still, in the privileged time-warp of this particular Sunday in the country, M. Ladmiral meets himself coming and going, from playful child to played-out graybeard. Every frame of the film mirrors a life’s promises and foreclosures.

Tavernier begins with an evocative prologue, uninsistently establishing the visual and spiritual dialectic that ultimately sums up a man and his art. While the screen’s still a black background for credits, we hear childish voices singing. Once in a while, a mildly remonstrating adult interrupts, bringing their spontaneity to heel. Then, an exasperated, maternal query: “When will you stop asking so much of life, Irène?” Black screen gives way to the film’s first image, window-framed: an exquisite Monet landscape of trees banked beyond a lawn, leaves and grass shimmering in liquid light. The camera passes through the open window so that the outdoor scene seems to become accidental art, uncomposed—but still held within the film’s own painterly frame of reference.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Film Noir, Film Reviews

Coup de Torchon

[Original published in The Weekly (Seattle), July 13, 1983]

It’s 1938 in the French-African village of Bourkassa and Lucien Cordier, the one-man local constabulary, can’t get no respect. The lone inhabitant of the jail, an ancient black trustee who once poisoned his wife, must have been incarcerated long before Lucien’s time, because Lucien never arrests anybody. Let one of the locals start getting rowdy and Lucien, if he can’t run the other way, does his damnedest to look the other way. Small wonder that the principal resident predators, a pair of bored pimps, don’t hesitate to make public sport of him, or that his immediate superior, a half-day’s train journey removed, treats him the same way. Lucien fares little better in his own home: his wife Huguette refuses to sleep with him out of general disgust and also because she’s busy carrying on with a live-in lout named Nono, who may or may not be her brother. All in all, Lucien Cordier is a congenital, if affable, loser.

He’s such a loser that when he finally, grandly announces “a decision,” it’s that “I decided I don’t know what to do.” This decision is imparted to his big-town superior, Marcel, who has his usual fun scrambling Lucien’s already-dim wits and booting his ass. Somewhere in the course of this lazy-afternoon exercise, Marcel carelessly gifts Lucien with An Idea: if you’re kicked, kick back twice as hard. Serenely bearing what he takes as carte blanche for retribution, Lucien climbs back on the train, returns to Bourkassa, and straightaway shoots down the pimps.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Richard T. Jameson, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: Les Destinées sentimentales

[Written for Mr. Showbiz]

Three hours long and a far cry from his ultramodern chronicles of disenchantment, Olivier Assayas’s Les Destinées sentimentales ranges from the winter of 1900 to springtime some thirty years later. In so doing, the film recalls a genre that was in vogue around the time its own story ends — during the Depression, when cine-sagas of families weathering the seasons and storms of history somehow reassured audiences that “we’ll get through this one too.”

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Robert Horton, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: Pola X

[Written for Film.com]

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.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Bruce Reid

2000 Eyes: Time Regained

[Written for The Stranger]

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.

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Posted in: 2000 Eyes, by Sean Axmaker, Film Reviews

2000 Eyes: Time Regained

[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]

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.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, streaming, Television

Review: Das Boot (2019)

Das Boot shares the same title as Wolfgang Petersen’s 1981 film (and is technically a sequel), but familiarity with the original is unnecessary to start the series. Also based on the novel Das Boot by Lothar-Günther Buchheim as well its sequel Die Festung, the 2019 series is set in late 1942, nine months after the film’s finale, with a new crew, a new mission, and a new vessel.

Klaus Hoffmann (Rick Okon), a young, inexperienced officer with a military hero father, is promoted to captain of U-162, much to the resentment of First Watch officer Karl Tennstedt (August Wittgenstein) and a crew loyal to the veteran officer.

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Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

DVD: ‘Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France’ on Eclipse

Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France (Eclipse, DVD)

Confession time: I had never seen a film by French director Claude Autant-Lara before this set and frankly had no concept of his reputation beyond the distaste that the critics-turned-filmmakers of the La Nouvelle Vague held for his work. He was the tradition of quality that they rebelled against.

Eclipse Series 45

A little background on Claude Autant-Lara. He worked in the French film industry for almost twenty years as an art director, costume designer, and director before making Le mariage de Chiffon (1942), his first commercial success as a filmmaker in his own right. That it was made during the German occupation of France (and the French film industry) in World War II makes it all the more intriguing: under the strictures of Germany’s oversight of filmmaking in France, Autant-Lara found a story that passed German censors and appealed to a demoralized French population, and he revealed a style and sensibility that celebrated the French character. That quality is found in all four films in Claude Autant-Lara: Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France, a collection of three comedies and one tragic drama all starring Odette Joyeux and set in more innocent times past (historical picture were easier to pass by German censors).

Set in turn-of-the-century France, Le mariage de Chiffon stars Joyeux as the 16-year-old Corysande, who prefers the nickname Chiffon, much to the dismay of her society mother who would see her behave like a proper young lady of wealth and position. Chiffon isn’t quite a tomboy but she is much more interested in hanging around the airfield where her beloved Uncle Marc (Jacques Dumesnil), the brother of her stepfather, has devoted his fortune to getting the first airplane in France airborne. Marc is an idealist, called “mad” in the village for his experiments but championed by Chiffon, who dreams as big as Marc does. When Chiffon discovers that the effort has bankrupted him on the eve of his first success, she accepts the marriage proposal of an elderly Colonel (André Luguet), a charming old fellow who is smitten with the young Chiffon from the moment he first sees her searching for a missing shoe in the street.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: French classics ‘The Love of a Woman’ and ‘Spotlight on a Murderer’ from Arrow

Jean Grémillon was one of the great French film directors of the golden age with a career that spanned from the end of the silent era through the late 1950s, but is one of the least known to American audiences and very few of his films are available in the U.S. (in fact, the only previous releases I’m aware of are three films on the Eclipse set Jean Gremillon During the Occupation). The Love of a Woman (France, 1953), his final feature, confronts a modern theme in the rural, conservative culture of an island community of sailors off the coast of France.

Arrow Academy

Micheline Presle is the new community doctor, a single, relatively young woman who must prove herself to a population suspicious of outsiders and a culture steeped in chauvinism. Massimo Girotti is an Italian engineer working on the island who challenges the provincial attitudes as he romances the doctor, but too is trapped in traditional views of marriage and forces her to choose: love or career. It takes on themes that were also being grappled with in American cinema after the war with a sympathetic portrait of women professionals in a culture that constantly challenges them to prove themselves and demands they sacrifice career for marriage. The choice is put into focus when the retiring schoolteacher, the doctor’s only real friend on the island, contemplates retirement as a spinster.

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Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Blu-ray: Sacha Guitry’s ‘La Poison’ on Criterion

Actor, director, and playwright Sacha Guitry was a giant of French cinema as writer, director, and star of a series of witty and inventive movies from the 1930s through the 1950s. For his weirdly exuberant black comedy La Poison (1951) he gives the lead to the great Michel Simon, who plays a gruff bear of a gardener who has come to hate his wife of 30 years and plots her murder while she (Germaine Reuver) plots his. When he hears a radio interview with a lawyer (Jacques Varennes) celebrating his hundredth successful acquittal, he uses the lawyer to (unwittingly) guide him through the perfect murder. Perfection here is a matter of degree, of course. He doesn’t mind being caught. He just wants to remain free to enjoy his life as a merry widower.

The Criterion Collection

Guitry’s cinematic invention is less visual than narrative. He has a flair of creative storytelling and verbal dexterity and most of his films are energized by his presence in the leading role. While Guitry is not the in film itself, he personally introduces the cast and crew like a master of ceremonies in the memorable credit sequence, then steps back and lets his witty dialogue and creative storytelling techniques speak for him. The radio broadcasts commentary and counterpoint to their wordless meals together, for instance, an effusively romantic song as their body language suggests suppressed violent impulses followed by a radio play of bickering spouses voicing their internalized feelings.

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