My first review of the year is of a film that is as intriguing as it is flawed and problematic. First released in 1992, Regis Wargnier’s Indochine can only be described as a piece of post-colonial Oscar-bait.
The “post-colonial” bit refers to the fact that Wargnier’s film followed the example set by David Lean’s A Passage to India and used France’s colonial history as an excuse to make a beautiful and nostalgic film about an exotic foreign land. Wargnier’s producers knew full well that nostalgic prestige productions tend to do disproportionately well at the Oscars and so Indochine was always a cynical exercise in bringing home the gold. Hence the term “post-colonial Oscarbait”.
However, while the idea of white people from former colonial powers making films about former colonies is always going to be problematic, I think that Indochine deserve some credit for not only siding with the oppressed but also presenting colonialism as a system that was both monstrous and politically unsustainable. My FilmJuice piece about the film can be found here:
Indochine is a beautifully made and well-performed film that handles a difficult subject in both a progressive and sympathetic manner. However, while the film’s production values and ambitions may scream quality, there is no escaping the fact that this was a film about colonialism made by white people for the consumption of other white people. The writers and director do try their best to get beyond this limitation but the decision to use the Vietnamese characters thematically rather than narratively means that the film retains a cool, detached, and ultimately frustrating viewpoint that denies its subjects agency when it should be seeking to understand their actions.
Re-reading my review, it strikes me that Indochine exemplifies many of the problems presented by cultural appropriation. Though many of the film’s narrative problems do stem from a decision to focus on the white characters rather than the Vietnamese characters, having a bunch of French people tell a story about Vietnamese people struggling to defeat French colonialism would arguably have been just as bad.
FilmJuice have my review of Francois Truffaut’s thoroughly excellent Day for Night, also known as Nuit Americaine in reference to the practice of recreating night on-screen by shifting the white balance and deliberately under-exposing the shot.
Despite not having seen this film in about twenty years, Day for Night was absolutely central to my discovery of art house film. I first discovered a love of film while my parents were getting divorced as my mother would take me to the video store and allow me to rent as many films as I wanted, regardless of their age-appropriateness. I took my love of film to the next level as a teenager when my GCSE English teacher started showing us films in an effort to make us think critically about texts. I rather enjoyed the process and so started going out of my way to rent unusual films and one of the films I stumbled upon quite early on was Day for Night, a film whose true brilliance I really only understand now that I’m able to spot all the jokes and references…
Day for Night is a film about film-making or rather the process of film production and how films are assembled by a combination of authorial vision, individual incompetence, collective brilliance and blind fucking luck:
Throughout the film, characters frequently ask themselves why they have chosen to work in the film industry and whether cinema can ever be more than a job and a way of making money. Though never addressed directly either in the plot or dialogue, Day for Night must be viewed as an answer to both of those questions as the film can be read as a picture of what Marxists refer to as non-alienated labour, which is to say work that offers spiritual and psychological succour as well as financial remuneration. Imagine a job that does more than just fill the pockets of wealthier people. Imagine a job that defines you as an individual and provides you both with a sense of purpose and a tangible connection to the people that surround you. Imagine a job that you look forward to doing because it tells you who you are, where you came from, and where you are headed tomorrow. Imagine a job that makes both yourself and the world a better place and you will understand how François Truffaut felt about being a filmmaker.
The film is full of lovely moments and great performances but the really famous bit is a montage sequence when everything on a seemingly disastrous and doomed production suddenly slots into place and — as Truffaut famously put it — cinema reigns:
FilmJuice have my review of Gerard Oury’s La Grande Vadrouille. Which, despite being one of the most insanely popular French films of all time, remains largely unappreciated by English-speaking audiences.
Set during World War II, the film involves a pair of bumbling Frenchmen being sucked into the resistance movement and deciding to help three allied Airmen escape into unoccupied France. As I explain in my review, this image of ordinary French people as ‘citoyens resistants’ was part of a concerted effort to re-write history by replacing the truth about French collaboration with a myth that restored pride to the French military, honour to the French political class, and self-respect to ordinary French citizens:
Though challenged in the wake of the May ‘68 riots through films such as Marcel Ophuls’ epic documentary The Sorrow and The Pity, the myth remains very much a part of contemporary French identity. The memories of occupation still hurt, the taint of collaboration is still present, and even though the generation of Frenchmen who fought the Second World War is now dying off, the need of the French people to protect themselves from the darker recesses of their shared history is still very much alive. It is kept alive by comforting and wonderful films like La Grande Vadrouille.
The question of French collaboration and the policies of the Vichy regime has been one of my favourite historical riffs since I first saw The Sorrow and The Pity. One of the strange things about having spent my entire Childhood in a French school is that I grew up with a very clear myth of Frenchness that stretched from the caves right up to the figure of the citizen resistance fighter. The Sorrow and the Pity really helped me to see beyond that propaganda and considerably darkened my vision of humanity.
This being said, it occurs to me that something really needs to be done about the British equivalent of the ‘Citoyen Resistant’ myth as British politics is shifting further and further to the right and this move to the right is being at least partially fuelled by this myth of Britain as a plucky little nation that managed to survive on its own outside of Europe. Indeed, one of the things I really like about the British TV series Peaky Blinders is that it portrays 1920s Britain as an ethnically diverse and deeply multicultural place where the Establishment either murdered its opponents or plied them with money in an effort to bring them into line. At a time when people like Winston Churchill are being lionised by fascist revanchistes, Peaky Blinders dares to present him as nothing more than an Edwardian supervillain.
*taps mic* Is this thing still on? Good.
FilmJuice have my review of Tom Geens’ excellent Couple in a Hole, a Anglo-French drama that set amidst the mountains and forests of South-Western France. While my critical career has not exactly been on the ascendant in recent years, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to write about films that hype forgot. In fairness, many of these films have been mediocre but every now and then, a film comes along that reminds me of why I love the medium of film and the dysfunctional artistic traditions that have grown up around it. Couple in a Hole is one of those films.
As political and economic crises make it harder and harder for young people to pursue their dreams, Western civilisation grows ever more obsessed with its own inevitable demise. Most manifest in young adult blockbusters like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, our apocalyptic fascination keeps drawing us back to stories in which the science and politics of catastrophe have been replaced with levels of emotional abstraction that speak to a yearning for absolute psychological simplicity. We don’t care whether the bombs rain down or the zombies rise up, we just want immerse ourselves in worlds where the stultifying complexity of late capitalism have been replaced with spaces where people can breathe and be themselves.
Just as TV’s The Walking Dead has spent the best part of a decade exploring the rise and fall of simple human societies and Mad Max: Fury Road imagined a radical break with patriarchal structures, films like 2015’s The Survivalist used the end of the world as an excuse to explore one man’s movement from solitude to community along with the interwoven bonds of love and trust required to make such a journey. These films are only about the end of the world in so far as they create fictional spaces where the nuances of capitalist emotional economics have been replaced with something that seems both more real and less realistic. Even outside of genre filmmaking, the end of the world has proved an enduring source of metaphorical imagery as in the case of Thomas Cailley’s brilliant debut Les Combattants where a couple need to immerse themselves in an apocalyptic landscape before they can move beyond embarrassment and confront the true nature of the feelings. Built along similar lines, Tom Geens’ second film Couple in a Hole also benefits from the lightest possible touch of the genre brush. Set in the forests of South-West France, this brilliantly acted and beautifully shot film uses apocalyptic imagery to explore the collapse of one life and the slow emergence of another.
You can read the rest of my review right HERE.
Couple in a Hole is a non-genre film that uses genre imagery and themes to explore characters and express emotional truths. In my review I pointed to Cailley’s excellent Les Combattants but another example of the form is Jeff Nichols’ superb Take Shelter starring Michael Shannon.
The combination of genre and non-genre elements rather reminds me of those genre short stories that use genre elements as a way of turning emotional states into metaphors and then making those metaphors concrete, the supreme example of the form being Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers” from back in 2013. For John and Karen, the death of their son felt like the end of the world and so their attempts to live with their grief take on a post-apocalyptic character.
The film is out on DVD in the UK this week and, by the looks of it, is also receiving a few screenings in indie cinemas. Seek it out, it is one of the best films I’ve seen in ages.
Historical narratives can sometimes be extraordinarily cruel. Consider, for example, the narrative that is frequently attached to the life of Jean-Luc Godard: An ambitious young film critic stepped behind the camera and began producing works of cinematic art that changed the way that people thought about film. Then, after several years of sustained brilliance, he delved too deeply and all of that brilliant extroversion changed into painfully self-absorbed introversion. Having recently watched and written about a number of Godard’s early films, I have some sympathy with this narrative and would certainly flag him as an artist who became so aware of the tools of artistic expression that he seemed to start finding it increasingly difficult to express himself with both honesty and spontaneity. Pretence, pretence… all is pretence.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with Quentin Tarantino and buy into the idea that Godard had disappeared up himself by the end of the 1960s, that narrative has followed the director for most of his career. Godard is not the only artist to become stuck in a particular historical moment but he has been more unlucky than most in that every film he produces winds up being seen as a painfully introspective work of cinematic deconstruction while every Woody Allen film is inevitably viewed as a heroic return to form.
Godard’s contemporary Alain Renais suffers from a different but not unrelated problem in that people tend to approach his work in terms of a narrative linking his first two features back to his early documentaries via the theme of memory. In fact, those are exactly the terms in which I wrote about both Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad. The weird thing about Resnais’ narrative is that it simply peters out after Marienbad. Godard is said to have disappeared up himself around the time of Pierrot le Fou but Resnais simply stopped being relevant.
One explanation for these narratives assuming the shape they did is that the New Wave ran its course and the critical consensus moved on. By the late 1960s, the collapse of the American studio system had allowed a generation of young filmmakers to seize the means of production and begin expressing themselves artistically and so people started writing about the American New Wave while the authors of the French New Wave were allowed to dip into semi-obscurity. While this back-of-a-fag-packet theory may or may not stand up to close scrutiny, it does raise an interesting question about why people lost interest in Godard when they did and why they seemed to lose interest in Resnais even sooner.
One explanation is that Resnais delved too far and too fast: Whereas most works of classical cinema contrive to offer their audiences a curated cultural experience in which the filmmakers introduce audiences to worlds and characters before telling them how to think and what to feel, art house directors like Resnais abandoned their curatorial role and encouraged audiences to articulate their own responses to the ideas and images placed on screen. Resnais took this deconstructive process a step further than most by stressing not only the artificiality of his characters and the pretence of plot but also the psychologically mediated nature of his settings. In effect, Resnais pushed the deconstructive process so far that he wound up offering his audiences a work of art that was just as unfathomable and unforgiving as the world itself, which can be viewed as a failure of the social contract linking audience to author.
This is an essay about Alain Resnais’ Muriel ou le Temps d’un Retour but it is also an essay about the relationship between artist and consumer.
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Earlier this year, Studiocanal began re-releasing the early films of the iconic art house director Jean-Luc Godard. Freshly restored and re-mastered, these re-releases not only kicked off a major restrospective of Godard’s work at London’s BFI but also began what would appear to be a rolling programme of high-definition home releases. FilmJuice have my extended review of the box set that began this programme of home releases, a beautifully-formed gem entitled Godard: The Essential Collection and includes:
- Breathless (A Bout de Souffle)
- A Woman is A Woman (Une Femme est Une Femme)
- Contempt (Le Mepris)
- Pierrot le Fou
While I would question the description of these five films as “essential” (there’s no Bande a Part for starters), this box set does provide an excellent starting point for anyone who would like to get to grips with Godard’s early work. If I had to provide you with something to bear in mind when watching Godard or reading my review it would be this observation:
Godard’s films speak of politics, modernity and the creation of cinematic art but they mostly speak of women and Godard’s failure to understand them.
On A Bout de Souffle…
While much has been made of the jump-cuts, non-sequiturs, and fourth-wall breaches that comprise the film’s style, none of these flourishes are anything less than organic. Just as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion would later chronicle the squalid living conditions faced by a generation of young women who had chosen to live and work outside of the parental home, Godard’s Breathless tries to capture what it felt like to be young and unsupported in 1950s Paris. It’s not just that Michel is forever failing to track down his friends or that people seem to drift in and out of bed without having a clear idea as to how they feel about each other, it’s that time expands and contracts around working days that never seem to disentangle themselves from coffee and flirting. O Lord the flirting.
On Une Femme est Une Femme…
Godard’s playful sound design continues once Angela arrives at work. We see her talking to colleagues, getting into costume and wandering around backstage at the strip club but the music and scoring never seem to line up with the images we see on screen. We see an old man playing an organ but we only hear the music when the shot cuts away and we’re trying to make out what the characters are saying to each other. After a few minutes of this trickery, Angela takes to the stage but the music drops out the minute she starts to sing. This results in an uncomfortable few minutes of poor singing as the camera swoops majestically around a sleazy strip joint full of men in dirty overcoats while beautiful Angela sings about being a woman. Angela’s song is entirely appropriate to a strip club as she sings neither of love nor of yearning but her own beauty and how she always says “Yes” because it doesn’t pay to be impolite with boys. This song combined with the absent score and the rough singing creates a tension between fantasy and reality: Angela’s work demands that she objectify herself but the fantasy is too imperfect to hold our attention… we cannot help but look beyond the beautiful woman to the cleverness of the sound editing or the movement of the camera.
On Le Mepris…
In Contempt, art is not something that exists separately from the private lives of people who create it. Artists breathe in reality, mix with their innermost thoughts, and exhale creations new. Left to his own devices, Michel might have been able to work out the sources of Camille’s anger but his need to manage this problem whilst dealing with the Lang/Prokosch impasse distorts and obscures his vision, he cannot see beyond the limits of his art and this has served to disconnect him from reality in much the same way as the characters in Breathless and A Woman is a Woman seeks refuge in old films when they know full well that reality is more complex. During their arguments, Camille urges Michel to ignore her complaints and take the job but Michel doesn’t know if he wants to be an ambitious, money-driven person and so he blames his own lack of decisiveness on his wife. There is literally nothing that Camille could have said to make Michel happy and therein lies the rub. The film concludes with some jaw-dropping footage of the isle of Capri where Michel tries to resign from the job and make a stand for artistic freedom but his words are hollow and insincere. He can’t even convince himself.
Alphaville may be a commentary on Godard’s Paris and the way that making your way in any big city requires you to adapt your expectations to that which the city is willing to provide, but it is also a far broader metaphorical representation of the ways in which political systems break, remake, and exclude those of us who fail to fit in. Living within Alphaville means accepting the logic of Alpha 60’s plans and accepting this logic means lowering your expectations to the point where they are already met, thereby ensuring that the residents of Alphaville can live as seductresses and gun-thugs without ever feeling a moment’s sadness or regret. Caution’s mission is to destroy Alpha 60 and so save those who are still capable of crying.
On Pierrot le Fou…
Despite its sun-drenched setting and musical interludes, Pierrot le Fou is easily the darkest film contained in this box set. Apparently, when Godard’s sister was shown the film, she became agitated as she saw in Ferdinand’s suicidal blockage an echo of Godard’s own problems understanding both his art and the women in his life. This reading of the film is compelling as Ferdinand’s decision to abandon a bourgeois existence and live on the margins of society in the hopes of writing a great novel recall not only Godard’s frustrations with artistic expression but also his decision to strike out and create a new cinematic vocabulary with this very film. Like his creator, Ferdinand moves from energetic set-piece to energetic set-piece only to realise that originality and energy are no guarantee of truth. The film ends with Ferdinand strapping a load of dynamite to his own head and blowing himself up and it is difficult to think of a more apt response to a film that spends nearly two hours producing more light than heat. Pierrot le Fou is tedious and hollow but the film’s self-awareness transforms tedium into tragedy.
FilmJuice have my review of Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery, an adaptation of that Posy Simmonds strip that ran in the Guardian a few years ago… Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary given a modern make-over and transported to a village in Normandy where an English couple have just moved in. But the cleverness of the source material extends way beyond its modern setting.
As I say in my review:
Simmonds’Gemma Bovery was an attempt to address the maleness of Flaubert’s gaze by drawing the audience’s attention to the way that men see women, the way that men read novels, and the way that these two processes can often feed into each other. Anne Fontaine’s French adaptation of a British comic connects admirably with the source material’s literary criticism but struggles to understand the substantive issues surrounding the ways in which straight men look at women.
This is a film about a French baker who becomes obsessed with the idea that an English woman named Gemma Bovery is in the process of reliving the plot of Flaubert’s novel. What works is the way that Fontaine keeps Gemma at arm’s length and encourages us to speculate as to what is going through her head. What does not work is that Fontaine seems surprisingly reluctant to acknowledge Gemma’s existence as anything other than a sex object. As I explain in my review, there are scenes intended to stress the fact that Gemma works damn hard to maintain a sexy public persona and that said work involves hours spent working out, denying herself food, and generally being profoundly unsexy.
This was a real wasted opportunity as it seems to make the exact same mistake as David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl in that the female character delivers a speech about how she can finally be herself after years of being the ‘cool girl’ only for the film to suggest that the character had no ‘real self’ beyond a desire to mould herself to male expectations and use those expectations to manipulate and consume men.
Both films acknowledge the ‘cool girl’ phenomenon and the extent to which women are forced to perform not just their femininity and sexuality, but also their earthy authenticity for the sake of men. However, it is one thing to acknowledge this phenomenon and quite another to critique it and Fontaine proves just as unwilling to critique the performance of femininity as Fincher.