Last Year at Marienbad (1961) –Submitting to Another’s Interpretation

As I remarked in the introduction to my recent piece about Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad is one of a handful of works comprising the peak of the sensibility or movement known as European art house film. Great works may have followed in its wake, some may even continue to be made, but few films have managed to equal (let alone outstrip) Marienbad when it comes to sheer inventive panache. This was a film that did not so much bend the rules of cinematic story-telling as shatter them into a thousand beautiful pieces.

There are many critical paths into Marienbad, but the one I would like to focus on today involves the colliding sensibilities of the film’s writer and director:

The film’s director – Alain Resnais – may have begun his cinematic career as an actor but his reputation was built on the back of a documentary exploring the extent of France’s collaboration with the German war machine during World War II. Night and Fog served to confront the myth that the French people had spent the entirety of World War II actively resisting the German occupation. Far from spending their evenings blowing up ammunition dumps, many French people welcomed German occupation and their welcome even extended as far as helping the Nazis to exterminate France’s Jewish population. The myth of the citizen-resistance fighter was not only put about by French political elites eager to evade answering questions about their own wartime activities, it was also embraced by a French population wracked by feelings of guilt and shame. While themes of remembrance and forgetting may have gone on to dominate the rest of Resnais’ cinematic career, that career began with an examination of how memories can be manipulated by those with a vested interest in particular truths.

The film’s writer – Alain Robbe-Grillet – differed from most writers in so far as he trained as an agronomist with a particular interest in diseases of the banana. As someone whose perhaps more scientific than humanistic, Robbe-Grillet’s writing was famously devoid of humanity. Even when his work did feature conventional characters and narratives, the prose would invariably be affectless and profoundly wedded to the surface of objects. For example, consider the opening to his classic experimental short story “The Secret Room”:

 

The first thing to be seen is a red stain, of a deep, dark, shiny red, with almost black shadows. It is in the form of an irregular rosette, sharply outlined, extending in several directions in wide outflows of unequal length, dividing and dwindling afterward into single sinuous streaks. The whole stands out against a smooth, pale surface, round in shape, at once dull and pearly, a hemisphere joined by gentle curves to an expanse of the same pale color—white darkened by the shadowy quality of the place: a dungeon, a sunken room, or a cathedral—glowing with a diffused brilliance in the semidarkness.

 

There are two further things to say about this quotation: The first is that, despite appearing to be written in an objective or photo-realistic style, neither the room nor its contents ever existed. The room is a complete fiction that has been introduced into your head by the simple act of reading the above passage. The second thing to say about this quotation is that the red stain is blood dripping from the breast of a woman who has been murdered. Indeed, while Robbe-Grillet never killed or maimed anyone, his fantasy life is said to have revolved around the torture of young women. These fantasies would often inspire real actions undertaken as part of a long-term sadomasochistic relationship with another consenting adult. I mention this not to posthumously kink-shame Robbe-Grillet, but rather to position him as someone who would have been quite comfortable distinguishing between non-consensual sex and the performance of non-consent as part of an activity to which everyone involved would have willingly consented.

Last Year at Marienbad is a film about memory but also about consent and the extent to which our memories and actions can be shaped by other people.

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REVIEW –Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

FilmJuice have my review of Alain Resnais’ iconic art house drama Hiroshima Mon Amour. Historical distance tends to result in cultural moments losing a lot of their nuance. For example, when we look back at British punk, we often struggle to see beyond the Sex Pistols and even when we do manage to escape the event horizon of their fame, we tend to only see bands like Crass and X-Ray Spex. I have a theory that when the books are closed on post-War European cinema and its contemporary art house rump, people will agree that the cultural moment peaked with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and L’Avventura. Sure… great films came before and after (I’ve reviewed quite a few of them) but even fifty years later, European art house film struggles to be anywhere near as beautiful, shocking, and thought-provoking as those three films. Indeed, one of my recurring moans is that many of the directors working in contemporary European art house film are little more than tribute acts grinding through gestures and ideas introduced over half a century ago.

And yet, who can blame generations of film school graduates when those gestures and ideas contain so much power?

Hiroshima Mon Amour was Resnais’ first feature-length film and the road to directing narrative features was paved with short, confrontational documentaries including Night and Fog, his damning examination of French involvement in the Holocaust. As might be expected of a feted documentarian, Resnais’ first feature begins with a series of documentary gestures in which a woman describes visiting a museum about the bombing of Hiroshima while her Japanese lover repeatedly asserts that she saw nothing at Hiroshima. The steel in his voice and the intimation of trauma it suggests set the tone for a film about memory, emotion, and the urgent need to forget:

Were someone to make Hiroshima Mon Amour today, people would say that it was a film about trauma; the trauma inflicted upon the Japanese people by the American use of nuclear weapons and the trauma of being used as a scapegoat for the years your home town lived happily under German rule. Rather than differentiating between the wartime experiences of winners and losers, soldiers and civilians, Renais links the experiences of a Japanese soldier to the experiences of a French teenager and explores the effects of trauma upon memory and, by extension, the self. Though Renais would likely not have thought of his film in terms of modern ideas about psychological trauma, he intuitively understands the ways in which trauma can distance you from people who do not share your experiences. He also understands how traumatic events can demand a form of active and self-protective forgetfulness whereby the traumatised create new stories to tell about themselves. For example, the architect is only able to function because he chooses not to talk about the destruction of his home and family. When his lover tries to start a conversation about Hiroshima, his only response is to shut her down… “You saw nothing of Hiroshima”. Conversely, the actress is only able to function because she chooses not to fall in love so deeply as to be transported back to that day when she was shaved and thrown into a basement. She recognises the need to confront these feelings and move on with her life and yet she cannot… “You destroy me. You’re so good for me”.

I’ve long suspected that my tastes are turning more and more towards the abstract. I’ve spent so long thinking about books and films that I genuinely struggle with the carefully curated experiences offered by works with strong narratives and the need to lock audiences into a single unambiguous narrative. All too often, these works feel like theme park rides only without the excitement. Like many films influenced by the experimentalism of French modernism, Hiroshima Mon Amour turns its nose up at the tricks and traps of western story-telling and encourages us to think by providing us with a stream of unanswered questions and evocative images. Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of those films that perfectly suits my current needs and tastes… it is my bag, baby.

REVIEW — The Immortal Story (1968)

FilmJuice have my review of Orson Welles’ wonderfully lugubrious The Immortal Story, a low-budget adaptation of a Karen Blixen story.

Set in Macao, the film tells of a Scrooge-like figure who attempts to turn fantasy into reality by paying a soldier to sleep with an attractive woman in the hope of producing a child to whom he could leave his immeasurable wealth. Shot in and around Welles’ real-world home near Madrid, the film’s world is composed entirely of decaying buildings, empty streets and elaborately decorated rooms that look more like tombs than luxury apartments. Little over an hour long, the film cuts out virtually all exposition resulting in a plot that is almost completely impenetrable. However, given the sense of spiritual desolation that hangs over the entire film, I suspect The Immortal Story is about the creation of a fantasy that only serves to make people miserable by presenting them with their heart’s desire as well as the distance that separates them from that desire:

What Welles refuses to do is to spell out the point of the story which is that every one of these characters is just one step away from happiness: Clay is terribly alone and yet his house is suddenly full of people, Virginie has spent her life wanting to return to her childhood home and now she’s there, Paul spent a year dreaming of girls and now he has one, and Levinsky’s desire to be completely alone is what all of the others seem to detest the most about their own lives.

There’s a wonderfully geometrical precision about the unhappiness that flows through this film… everyone seems to want what makes everyone else miserable but rather than getting what they want, they get money. Just not enough money to get what they really want.

 

REVIEW — The Connection (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection (a.k.a. La French), a stylish crime thriller that could be described as the French side of The French Connection.

Setting aside the fact that this is a really well-made cat-and-mouse thriller set in an impeccably realised and beautifully shot vision of 1970s Marseilles, there are two really interesting things going on in this film that elevate it above your standard crime drama and into the intellectual stratosphere occupied by the likes of David Simon’s The Wire and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet.

 

First, the film is grounded in the character study of a local magistrate who is lured into an ineffectual War on Drugs by a combination of excitement and fame. Cleverly, the film portrays the magistrate’s early ‘successes’ as fantastic nights out in which everyone drinks champagne and gets laid. This is then related back to the fact that the magistrate in question (Jean Dujardin’s Pierre Michel) has a gambling problem, thereby raising the possibility that his commitment to the job might have less to do with results and more to do with addiction:

The film suggests that Michel’s pursuit of Zampa and the insane risks he takes as part of that pursuit are just an expression of his addictive personality: Where once Michel risked everything on a turn of the card, now he risks everything by playing hunches and violating civil rights. What is the War on Drugs if not an institutionalised addiction to headlines and excitement? Maybe the reason we continue to treat addicts like criminals is that you don’t build careers in law enforcement and politics by tending to the sick.

What I really liked about this film is that while it may start off as yet another right-wing law-enforcement fantasy about a rogue magistrate trying to take down a gang by cracking balls and bending laws, the film gradually segues into a brutal critique of the assumptions underpinning this very myth. Do car-chases and fist-fights actually keep the streets clean or do they merely serve as a distraction from the intractability of major social problems and the combination of corruption and neglect that feeds them?

Second, while the film is a fictionalised account of the real-world French Connection that supplied the American drugs trade with most of its illegal heroin throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the writer and director use these fictional elements as a springboard for naming names and pointing fingers at a French establishment that allowed organised crime to flourish in the hope that it would keep French ports free from communist elements:

Jimenez’s desire to confront France’s recent political past is reminiscent of Matthieu Kassovitz’s thoroughly excellent Rebellion, a film about how Jacques Chirac allowed police to massacre protesters in an effort to win over hard-right voters in a tightly-run election. Both films are powerful, necessary and a reminder that no comparable tradition exists in British film.

When British films critique British governments, it’s usually as part of a broader social realist tradition that shows the consequences of government action rather than the combination of incompetence and indifference that informed those decisions in the first place. I also wonder whether British film’s reluctance to go after the British establishment might not be a function of the fact that many British films are made with American audiences in mind using money handed out by British institutions.

I also wonder whether British directors might not see these types of stories as more televisual than cinematic based upon the fact that Britain used to have a tradition of producing one-off dramas and plays that criticised both British society and its government.The problem is that while British TV used to have a tradition of producing politicised plays and one-off dramas, the amount of drama on British TV has now declined to the point where there’s really not much room for unpopular opinions. Of course, the excellent Red Riding trilogy was produced for TV but that came out in 2009 and I struggle to think of anything even remotely like it that has appeared since.

Girlhood (2014) – The Economics of Identity

And so ends the trilogy of films that began the career of Celine Sciamma… Like many French directors, Sciamma began her career by considering childhood and young adulthood. Her debut feature Water Lillies tells of a young girl who falls head-over-heels in love with an older girl who, despite being flattered by the attention and eager to return the flirtation, is more interested in boys. Set amidst the sun-drenched modernism of suburban France, Water Lillies captures attention both thorough its minimalist stylings and its willingness to embrace the fluidity of human sexuality. Sciamma’s second film Tomboy is no less thematically ambitious. Set against a very similar background of summertime and concrete, the film follows a young person who uses the opportunity presented by a new town and a new group of friends to establish a male identity. While this identity is inevitably shut down by a mother who forces Laure to apologise for ‘passing herself off’ as Mikael, the film ends on an upbeat note by suggesting that friendship and even love can reach across the abyss of gender binaries. Sciamma’s third film finds her returning to sunshine and concrete as well as to questions of female identity but it also shows her ambition as a filmmaker as Girlhood addresses not only gender but race and social class as well.

I usually only mention stuff like film names and DVD covers when complaining about the film industry’s pathetic attempts to jump on band-wagons and market art house films as action movies. However, the decision to release Bande de Filles (literally ‘Gang of Girls’) under the English-language title Girlhood was an absolute stroke of genius… aside from the fact that the French word ‘bande’ carries significantly less racist baggage than the English word ‘gang’, renaming Bande de Filles as Girlhood sets up a natural dialogue between this small French film and Richard Linklater’s hugely-visible and over-rated Boyhood. In fact, the dialogue between the two films is what inspired me to review them both in the same week.

Despite an effort to slipstream the marketing spend of Boyhood’s awards campaign, Girlhood is actually a very different prospect: While Linklater’s film spans over a decade, Sciamma’s covers little more than a year in the life of a young black woman growing up in the suburbs of Paris. Where Linklater’s film sprawls over 160 minutes with neither character arcs nor themes to provide structure, Girlhood seems to cram all the questions of youth into a perfectly-formed 116 minutes. It would be both easy and accurate to state that Girlhood is merely a better made and more interesting film than Boyhood but doing so would do a grave injustice to Sciamma’s talent as Girlhood is an absolutely sensational film in its own right. This is what real cinema is all about.

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Stranger By The Lake (2013) — Places Made of People

It is now quite common to speak of a need for greater diversity in the media that we produce and consume, but where does this ‘diversity’ reside? Are we calling for a more representative creative class or media that speaks to the desires and interests of a more diverse population? Clearly, taking a monolithically straight, white and American cultural form such as the contemporary Superhero film and adding a few token non-whites and non-straights would do little to improve the situation. One diversity-container that frequently gets overlooked is the idea of ‘spaces’ and how those spaces help to shape experiences and build cultures. This is something of a pity as LGBT cinema does spaces better than almost any other form.

The unrivalled king of gay spaces is the French director Jacques Nolot. One-time lover of Roland Barthes and protégé of Andre Techine, Nolot has devoted his cinematic career to the marginal spaces around gay culture. His second film Glowing Eyes is set in a porn cinema and explores not only the fluid nature of the identities and relationships created by the space, but also the importance of such spaces as venues for experimentation and self-expression. While Glowing Eyes is all about a space that allows entrance to different forms of sexuality, his third film Before I Forget examines the end game and the almost post-apocalyptic spaces opened up by disease, death and the end of gay men’s lives. These is a lovely scene in Before I Forget where Nolot’s character lets himself into an old boyfriend’s house in order to secure something of value for all those years of companionship. What he finds is that the dead man’s family have swooped in to pick the place clean forming an unspoken case for gay marriage at least as powerful as the one buried in the subtext of Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. Structured like a thriller, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the lake is perhaps not quite as brave as Nolot’s thunderously un-commercial works but his desire to recreate and explore a gay space is no less fascinating.

 

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REVIEW — Les Combattants (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Thomas Cailley’s hugely engaging teen drama Les Combattants (a.k.a. Love at First Fight). Having received a standing ovation at Cannes, Cailley’s debut film went on to secure nine nominations and three wins at the French equivalent of the Oscars. Celebrated by French critics as nothing less than the future of French cinema, Les Combattants limped onto Anglo-American screens where it was marketed and reviewed as a romantic comedy (hence the stupid English-language title). Given that it is short on jokes and long on the kind of evocative, hands-off storytelling that is common in European drama and absent from the history of romantic comedy, the film received middling reviews from critics who seemed more interested in engaging with the press release than the nature of the film itself. According to Gary Goldstein at the LA Times:

There’s a better movie floating around the edges of the French import “Love at First Fight” than first-time feature director Thomas Cailley has allowed to surface. Though it’s billed as a romantic comedy, this quirky tale takes too many narrative U-turns that seem to dodge the genre’s more traditional (read: satisfying) tropes and dynamics.

There’s misprision and then there’s critical laziness. This is an example of the latter as Les Combattants is actually a fantastic meditation on Young Adult fiction and contemporary gender roles. You just need to make a bit of an effort in order to see it.

Les Combattants is built around two young adult protagonists: Kévin Azaïs‘ Arnaud whose lack of ambition and focus in no way seems to prevent his integration into a French society that is always pleased to see him. Everywhere he goes, Arnaud is offered jobs and opportunities for advancement despite the fact that the French economy is evidently still in tatters. Adèle Haenel plays Mathilde, a fiercely intelligent and incredibly driven young woman whose every attempt to secure an education or job is met with dismissive scorn. The fact that Arnaud’s white male privilege protects him from economic deprivation means that he is far better disposed to people and society than Mathilde, who spends the entire film having doors slammed in her face:

When Mathilde joins Arnaud’s family for dinner, the conversation naturally turns to the lack of jobs for young people and we see how the inequalities in French society have nurtured two very different reactions to the economic crisis: Embittered and unappreciated, Mathilde reaches the conclusion that society has nothing to offer her and so sets about preparing for its imminent demise; Pampered and protected, Arnaud has the luxury to consider a number of different career paths and so admits that he has never really thought about the collapse of Western civilisation.

Arnaud slowly falls in love with Mathilde and so decides to join her at a boot camp designed to help young adults preparing to join a parachute regiment. While Arnaud’s easy charm and happiness going with the flow mean that he fits right into a military environment, Mathilde solitary nature and intense disposition mean that the army falls out of love with Mathilde almost as quickly as Mathilde loses interest in the army. Eventually, things get so bad that Arnaud decides to abandon his shot at a military career and simply wanders off into the wilderness with Mathilde in tow.

As I explain in my review, I think that Cailley was wrong to have Arnaud discover his agency at the end of the film. I think that having Arnaud lead the pair out of danger undermines Mathilde’s character and turns Les Combattants from a film about a couple into a film about a young man. This misstep aside, I think this film has a lot of interesting things to say about gender. Particularly when you realise the similarities between Haenel’s intense survivalist Mathilde and the intensely self-reliant young women who feature in books like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling.

Les Combattants suggests that women have it considerably harder than men in the current economic climate. What makes Cailley’s analysis interesting is the suggestion that these inequalities might well have a knock-on effect of how the different genders perceive society. For example, Mathilde has grown intensely self-reliant because she no longer trusts society whereas Arnaud is happy to trust society and go with the flow because his experience is of people and institutions falling over themselves to offer him jobs and opportunities for advancement. The film’s ending strikes a false note because allowing Arnaud to save the day sends the message that Arnaud’s vision of society is somehow correct whereas Mathilde’s is paranoid and self-destructive. I disagree… I think Mathilde’s wariness is a rational response to an irrational world and I can’t help but wonder whether the immense popularity of YA among women might not be a direct response to their unequal treatment at the hands of society.

Interesting stuff aside, Les Combattants is one of the better looking films I have reviewed recently, so I thought I would share a few screen grabs:

 

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