Tag Archives: French cinema

Special Effects

Monsieur Oscar in his mocap suit

Film is dead? Has Hollywood murdered the moviesIs movie culture dead?” Whether eulogizing cinema or disputing these premature obituaries, a lot of film critics had death on their minds this year. So, it seems, did French filmmaker Leos Carax. Holy Motors (2012), his first feature in 13 years, is haunted by its own perceived obsolescence. Nipping at the film’s heels are some of the very same divides that have been plaguing cinephiles as of late: art film vs. blockbuster, story vs. spectacle, and especially celluloid vs. digital projection. But this is no mere epitaph. Morbid in its joy, joyous in its morbidity, Holy Motors is a meta-movie that teases apart its medium’s secrets. It intertwines film’s agonizing death with explosive resurrection.

The vehicle for Carax’s delirious vision is star Denis Lavant, who spends a series of vignettes (skits? modules?) shifting from one persona to another. Businessman, beggarwoman, sleazy hired killer: each metamorphosis is startlingly thorough, the only constants being Lavant’s homuncular stature and feral energy. For one episode, he becomes a rumpled middle-class breadwinner contending with a daughter on the verge of adolescence. For another, he’s Monsieur Merde, the crude imp into whom Carax channels all of his most nihilistic impulses. (Amusingly, Merde and the father both hold their cigarettes between the same fingers, but are otherwise totally dissimilar.) It’s at least a dozen performances in one, with the reality of Lavant’s “real” identity, Monsieur Oscar, impossible to pin down.

Oscar feels like a paper doll, or perhaps like some Platonic ideal of “human.” He’s infinitely malleable, putting on attitudes and relationships like we’d put on clothes. He’s essentially an actor, albeit one who refers to his performances as “appointments” and meets each of them via limo at a different Parisian locale; an actor with no obvious audience aside from us, the viewers. This is his job, and it’s killing him. Matching the film’s overarching exhaustion and ecstasy, Oscar throws himself body and soul into each assignment. He dances! Destroys! Plays the accordion! But in between, he drinks on an empty stomach and vents to his motherly driver, Céline. Underlying (perhaps fueling) Lavant’s theatrics is a river of pain. The pain of dishonesty; the pain of memory.

This is, of course, all a bitter allegory for filmmaking. Oscar’s outrageous and often physically impossible stunts—e.g. murdering and being murdered by his own doppelgänger—stand in for the massive expenditures and effort that the film industry pours into staging and recording complex illusions. His uncanny impersonation of an elderly, dying man consoling the tearful niece at his bedside foregrounds the way movies bend space and time, the way they simulate emotion so artfully you can’t tell it’s faked. Rarely have I seen a film so keenly aware of its own artifice and, what’s more, of the comfort that artifice gives us as moviegoers. Through one puckish joke after another, Holy Motors represents cinema as absurd yet necessary, dangerous yet therapeutic, beautiful yet deadly.

The most overt of these jokes is Oscar’s visit to a studio (pictured above) while clad in a motion capture body suit. He performs some acrobatics, fires a gun, then mimes sex with a similarly mocap-suited contortionist. By way of punchline, Carax pulls out the process’s final product: a pair of digitally rendered fantasy creatures fucking wildly. It’s a scathing burlesque of 21st century Hollywood as land of pixelated, lowest common denominator entertainment—and for all its satirical vulgarity, the segment’s still hugely gratifying, as kinetic and bizarre as anything else in the film. It’s cinema’s future, and palpable within it is the prick of nostalgia for an analog past.

Holy Motors spans the gulf between past and future. They’re both here, one giving way to the other. The film is a tragedy of loss and regret, of interpersonal connections formed and then torn asunder, of Paris’s warehouses and alleyways. “Who were we?” sings Kylie Minogue late in the film. “Who would we have become if we’d done if we’d done differently… back then?” (Similarly poignant is the song playing over Oscar’s final appointment, Gérard Manset’s backwards-looking “Revivre”—or in English, “relive.”) “No new beginnings,” concludes Kylie. No going back. The only option is forward out of death, to take solace in what Oscar calls “the beauty of the act,” to create something with beauty and passion, something like Holy Motors. To do your job.

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Jean Vigo: Prankster and Poet

French director Jean Vigo didn’t give a shit about refinement. His meager filmography bubbles over with excess, messiness, and experimentation. They’re films that speak to a life in the shadow of his murdered anarchist father, a life spent getting his hands dirty with cinema before dying at age 29. Compromise and weakness are altogether absent from Vigo’s work; in their place are brutality, tenderness, and “too much.” Now, thanks to Criterion’s The Complete Jean Vigo, it’s possible to watch the saga of his whole career in a scant three hours.

Here’s what you’ll find: youthful energy, a prelapsarian affection for the human body, resentment of authority figures, and an explosive, bawdy, political sense of humor. Vigo was pissed off, but never sullen. His first short film, 1930’s À propos de Nice, initially looks like a travelogue surveying the titular French resort town, showcasing its hotels, beaches, and bathing beauties. But through rhythmic editing, trick photography, and ironic counterpoint, Vigo and his photographer comrade Boris Kaufman get at the grotesque reality of Nice—what he identified as “the last gasps of a society in its death throes.”

In one of the film’s typically crass jokes, the camera settles on a young woman sitting along the boulevard. Through a series of dissolves, we see her wearing furs, stylish dresses, a string of pearls, and then nothing (well, except a pair of heels). It’s a parody of fashion, of “glamour” as a concept, with frontal nudity as its punchline. As if to top himself, Vigo ends the short with a detour into slow-motion upskirt photography. Juxtaposing this vulgarity with coastal recreation, À propos de Nice lampoons the then-prevalent “city symphony.” (As such, it also anticipates Georges Franju’s disturbing, Paris-set short Blood of the Beasts a good two decades later.)

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Link Dump: #41

Aww, look! Michel Piccoli, playing an old artist in Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, is petting a kitty! That’s so CUTE. Almost as cute as this week’s batch of adorable little links:

Search term of the week: “pragncy pussy.” That is some inventive misspelling. How girl get pragnt, anyway?

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The Past Decade in Horror, Part 2

By Ashley

About a week ago, Andreas posted his top 10 horror films of the past decade for The Montana Mancave Massacre and now it’s my turn up to bat. We spent quite a while discussing what we thought were the best horror films of the past ten years and then to narrow that list down even more while trying to avoid a lot of overlap between our lists. It wasn’t too hard: we’re both die-hard horror fans and love a lot of the same films but still have very specific tastes and things that appeal to us especially. So, without further babbling, here’s my list of the top 10 films from the past decade!

10. Grace (Paul Solet, 2009)

As I’ve shown time and time again, I am a sucker for pregnancy/infant/child related horror. Due to my own internalized fears about pregnancy and children, even the worst of this type of film could still chill me. Grace was an unexpected gem for me. After Madeline’s obsessive attempts to have a baby in a completely controlled environment fail, she gives birth to an undead baby who lives on Madeline’s blood. I thought it did well with the typical “evil baby, scary pregnancy” cliches. It could have gone in the direction of the It’s Alive remake and made the baby like a wild animal eating people’s throats out, but Grace offered up a much more subtle horror. We watch as this young, widowed mother literally lets herself be drained, physically and mentally, for the sake of her child.

9. The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

I was about 12 the first time I saw this movie and it seriously scared me; I slept with my light on for a few days afterward. As an adult, the film still chills me. Nicole Kidman gives a powerful, sometimes icy performance (which is kind of her thing but it really works here) as the long-suffering mother of two photosensitive children. I love The Others because it really is an old-fashioned haunted house story: large, dark shadowy manor, foggy woods, ghosts hiding behind curtains. Something else I love about it is how emotional the story and the characters are. I sometimes feel that horror films tend to shy away from tapping into the emotional potentials of the genre, as if being sad and being afraid are two mutually exclusive emotions. The twist ending may not pack that much of a surprising punch but what the climax lacks in creativity it makes up for in raw emotion.

8. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

Shaun of the Dead is one of the best zombie parodies ever. It manages to quite flawlessly mesh comedy, horror and romance. Shaun is so perfectly balanced: it never gets so cheeky in its self-awareness like some movies (cough *Zombieland* cough) that it renders the horror aspects of the film ineffective, and the romance doesn’t overwhelm the plot or feel shoehorned in. In any other slacker comedy, our loveable but lazy and ambitionless protagonist would learn to be more responsible and hardworking through a series of wacky events; in Shaun, he learns it through a series of wacky and terrifying events that involve beating zombies with a cricket bat, pretending to be the undead, and defending their very penetrable fortress of a pub.

7. Ils (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)

I love French horror and I love home invasion movies. Pretty simple. I live in mortal fear of someone not just breaking into my home, but fucking with me while they do it. Coming in and messing with a person’s home is such a violation; our homes are where we go to be safe and the idea of people entering it and making it dangerous is terrifying. This movie is often compared to The Strangers, which came out 2 years later, and in my opinion Ils is the superior film. Mostly because Ils is not fueled by an Idiot Plot; our two main characters don’t leave each other alone or get caught by the people invading their home because they make foolish mistakes. The only reason they (spoiler) get caught by their assailants is because they’re simply outnumbered. It’s so simple and so chilling.

6. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)

I want more movies like this movie. I am the audience for this movie. Slow and atmospheric, it builds quietly, bides its time, gives the audience little jolts of fear but for most of the film deprives us of any release in adrenaline. It just builds and builds and builds, winding the viewer up tight with expectation. It’s a pitch-perfect throwback to the horror of the late ’70s and ’80s; it emulates all we love about that era’s horror flicks while managing to be a superior film than most of them. It takes some of the best horror cliches—Satanists, babysitter, scary house in the middle of nowhere, satanic pregnancy—and turns them into something new. It’s a weird, satisfying blend of familiarity and modernity. And I still maintain that “Are you not the babysitter?” is one of the most chilling lines in recent horror cinema.

5. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

The Descent scared the ever-loving shit out of me even before we got to the scary, wall-climbing cave people: tight caves and crumbling rocks, claustrophobic sets, total darkness and total vulnerability and helplessness on the part of our characters. Scary shit, for sure. And then they get attacked by the creepy cave creatures. One of the things that sets it apart from other horror films is that not only is the cast entirely female, but most of them actually act like they like each other. You get the sense that these women are actually friends, not backbiting teenagers whose only defining characteristics are either “have boobs and die sexy” or “have boobs and be final girl” like we’re usually served up in typical horror. Even with Sarah and Juno, between whom there is a very palpable rift, you can sense that they’re at least trying to work things out. I have kind of a thing for bleak endings (some of my favorite movies include The Stepford Wives and Martyrs), so this movie, from start to finish, is right up my alley.

4. Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)

Some people don’t consider this a horror movie and I’ll admit that it’s definitely got a revenge plot going on rather than a straight-up horror narrative. But I feel like often times revenge films (and especially South Korean revenge films) have lots of horror aspects. And in any case, this movie scared me pretty intensely. The very premise is scary enough; kidnapped and trapped for 15 years, no idea why, your captors never talk to you or tell you anything. And then you’re let go, again no explanation. Beyond that, all-consuming revenge is a concept that deeply frightens me: all you exist for, all you want, your entire identity is wrapped up in revenge. And then, in the case of our protagonist Dae-su, to reach the end of your endeavors only to find it was all for naught, that this was the plan all along and, worst of all, that you’ve been fucking your daughter. I’d cut my tongue off too. And that ending. Does Mi-do have any idea who Dae-su is? Has Dae-su really forgotten the truth about who this woman is? Or is he so desperate for love and comfort that he’s willing to pretend he doesn’t know, just to keep the love of his lover-daughter? Creepy, disturbing, intensely unsettling stuff.

3. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

This is the only overlap between my and Andreas’s lists and it really can’t be avoided. Let The Right One In is undeniably one of the best, most powerful, beautiful films of this past decade, horror or otherwise. Since Andreas already discussed this film in his list I’ll keep this brief. Oskar and Eli are one of recent horror’s most deeply sweet and troubled couples. The quiet of this film is what gets me; it’s not full of screams and a pounding soundtrack. It’s so quiet that you can literally hear the snow falling in the opening scene. It’s such a full and complete quiet that when something terrifying does happen and someone gets their throat eaten or someone screams it’s like shattering glass. I could literally go on about this movie for days, so suffice it to say that I love Let the Right One In.

2. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)

Something else I love is the New French Extremity. I can’t explain why I love Martyrs so much. I saw it and didn’t sleep for about two days. Not because I was afraid but because the movie had affected me so deeply that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was this movie trying to say? What was it saying about women and violence and religion and mental illness? Why am I so drawn to a film that doesn’t have a single ounce of joy or hope? Because Martyrs is not an enjoyable film; it’s an endurance test from start to finish. I guess one of the reasons why I love it, why I’m drawn to it, why I consider it one of my all time favorite horror movies is because, other than being a deeply terrifying film, every time I watch it I spend days thinking. I like movies that make me think and this one does that in spades. Ultra-violence and incredibly unsatisfying ending aside, it’s an intensely intellectual film in that it encourages (and sometimes forces) people to think about what is happening.

1. Inside (Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, 2007)

Long time readers of this blog should already know that I am a big fan of this movie. I’ve written at length about it a few times. I’ve mentioned my deeply internalized fears of pregnancy and children and how that manifests itself as a deep fear and love of all horror movies involving pregnancy/infants/children.  Inside is everything I love about pregnancy horror: I love the way these horror films take the clichés about pregnant women and twist them through the codes of the genre, turning maternity into a horrifying perversion of itself. We all know the stereotypes about Mama Bears and snooty moms who bicker with each other and all that jazz. But once horror gets its hands on these ideas, bickering turns to terrifying stalking and bloody show downs and pregnancy turns into an all-out, no-holds-barred war. And frail little Sara’s hugely swollen, vulnerable body is the battleground.

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One Hour Mark: Claire’s Knee

By Andreas

I’ve long considered Claire’s Knee to be the visual high point of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Sure, it lacks the metaphysical intrigue of My Night with Maud, and it shares it gifted cinematographer Néstor Almendros (who won a well-deserved Oscar for Days of Heaven) with other beautiful Rohmer films like La Collectionneuse and Love in the Afternoon. But you can really feel the sun-kissed alpine setting of Claire’s Knee: the constant hum of wind, birds, and motorboats; the gentle motion of the trees and water. This place, like the film around it, is truly and palpably alive.

The image above, from 1:00:00 into Claire’s Knee, is from a rare shot that doesn’t showcase the stunning lakes and mountains of eastern France. Instead, it showcases all the film’s human youth and vivacity during a Bastille Day dance. On the far left is the romantic, fascinating Laura, dancing with the bearded, engaged protagonist Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy); on the right are Laura’s icy sister Claire and her boyfriend Gilles. Conveniently, this shot’s composition sums up the film’s real conflict: Jerome is alluring to Laura, but he’s obsessed with the unavailable Claire.

You may have noticed that the sisters are in their teens. This makes Jerome seem pretty creepy, yes, but it’s also part of the film’s strange charm. Jerome doesn’t want to possess or have sex with these much younger girls—he just wants to touch Claire’s knee. The moral dilemma is whether or not he should. It’s such an ethereal crisis to build a movie around, but Rohmer pulls it off. His films (including his last, 2007’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon) are lighter than air but never trifling or insignificant.

Whether or not to touch a knee may look like an absurd premise, but Claire’s Knee goes deeper: it’s about the underlying, often irrational desires that goad us on. It’s about Jerome’s moth-to-flame attraction to the luminous youth of these two sisters, and to the potentially immoral freedom he’ll never regain. As the song that’s playing comes to an end, Jerome says to Laura, “This isn’t a dance for me. I’m too old.” It’s not quite poignant, since he’s not actually old and is in the midst of playing all these selfish games, but it does get across what this scene (and to an extent, this film) is about. That is, Jerome’s fear of the mummification of marriage, and his incipient (symbolic) inability to dance.

It’s all in this frame, whose static top half is filled by the night sky and the colorful, carefully arranged lights, while the bottom pulsates with layers of bouncy, attractive party-goers. For Bastille Day, and for the summer, they’re alive. For now, at least, Jerome is too. Rohmer’s beautiful, nebulous films always have a built-in sense of mortality, with the knowledge that time will pass, flowers will wilt, looks will fade, and fiancés will get married. The sun rises, and my night with Maud is over. But tonight, we are beautiful—and tonight, we dance.

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Double Dose of Delphine Seyrig

On the left, we have the seductive, ageless Countess Elizabeth Báthory. On the right is Belgian housewife Jeanne Dielman, who’s somewhat less glamorous than the Countess as she peels potato after potato after potato. What do these women have in common, you may ask? Well, my friend, they’re both played by the great Delphine Seyrig, a Lebanon-born French actress who starred in countless art films throughout 1960s and ’70s. She worked repeatedly with Alain Resnais and Luis Buñuel; she was in William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1969) wearing a poofy red wig and Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin (1970) as Catherine Deneuve’s fairy godmother; she also directed a few movies of her own.

In short, she was a multitalented woman (and proud feminist) who worked almost nonstop for three decades before her death in 1990. You don’t hear Seyrig’s name bandied about much by cinephiles these days, which is a shame. Therefore, I’ve decided to bandy it about myself! Seyrig and her quiet mystique are at the center of the two very different films pictured above: Harry Kümel’s arty, nudity-filled vampire movie Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Chantal Akerman’s 3 1/2 hour experimental masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In both films, she plays laconic, enigmatic women, but still, you could hardly find more different roles than a bloodsucking aristocrat and a weary, working-class single mother.

Daughters of Darkness is almost all surface, with virtually no substance; thankfully, much of that surface is provided by the glittering, impeccably coiffed Seyrig, whose lipstick matches the blood that flows throughout the film. It reminds me of the work of Roger Vadim (who also made a lesbian vampire movie, Blood and Roses [1960]): pretty, sexy, a little weird, but totally empty-headed. The Countess Báthory follows the usual model of the beautiful, predatory lesbian vampire, as she gradually takes a newlywed couple under her wing and leads the wife in sucking the husband’s blood. And, as usual, she ends up as a burning corpse impaled on a tree branch. Such are the wages of fear.

Meanwhile, Jeanne Dielman is a patient, painstakingly shot document of three days in its title character’s life. Seyrig’s expression varies between a half-frown and a half-smile as she goes about her daily chores – brushing her hair, writing a letter, sending her adult son Sylvain off to school – but her emotions never quite breach the surface, and always remain tantalizingly ambiguous. Is she happy keeping her home clean? Does she hate the drudgery of her day-to-day existence? Despite its repetitive structure, it’s a masterfully dense film that requires far more discussion than I can give it here and now; incidentally, Jeanne also moonlights as a prostitute when her son’s not around, granting the film several additional layers of feminist subtext.

The substance of Jeanne Dielman is just the mundane, never-ending processes and rhythms of normal life, filmed in wearying detail. But through one geometrically composed long shot after another (several set-ups are repeated time and time again; the film doesn’t have so much as a single close-up), you achieve a greater awareness of the processes, the sheer time that they consume, and their emotional toll on Jeanne. (Even if Seyrig’s performance is minimalist practically to the point of being an automaton.) In Jeanne Dielman, the daily lives of women (and their cinematic representations) are joined to the techniques of avant-garde filmmaking, with bountiful if hard to watch results.

At the heart of all that, of course, is Delphine Seyrig. Her face and gestures reciprocate the camera’s patience; she goes about her day methodically, without a shred of movie star ego or exaggeration. In Daughters of Darkness, on the other hand, she brings in just the right level of exaggeration, playing the Countess as a decadent, glamorous, and graceful mass murderer. Yet she does it with surprising understatement – a giggle here, a kiss there. I’ll conclude with a single, beautiful image from the end of Jeanne Dielman, from just after Jeanne’s shocking final act. What is she thinking? What are her plans? All we know is what we see on Seyrig’s face.

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One Hour Mark: Mon Oncle

This is an image from 1:00:00 into Jacques Tati’s playful, faultlessly composed Mon Oncle (1958). It’s a kind-hearted comedy set in a Parisian suburb where modern homes coexist with ramshackle tenements, and where the hopelessly unfashionable Monsieur Hulot (Tati) must get along with his sister’s ultra-bourgeois family. Hulot may be the main character, but he’s not the film’s real focus; unlike, say, Chaplin’s comedies, Mon Oncle has no interest in extracting pathos through close-ups. Instead, Tati patiently observes Hulot’s environs – especially his sister’s gray, gadget-filled house of the future – and constructs subtle jokes along the margins of the frame. Through these wide shots, Tati invites the viewer into his colorful, unpredictable, and very funny world.

All of these traits and techniques are on display in the image above. That well-dressed little boy is Gérard Arpel, Hulot’s nephew and the “mon” of the film’s title. He’s been forced into a suit and tie so as to look refined for his mother’s garden party, but he has no intention of playing the part. He’s peering out into the street and whistling at an approaching guest; moments later, the guest (distracted by the whistling) bangs into a streetlamp. It’s a perfectly timed, childish joke – one that’s reprised at the end of the movie – and its punchline isn’t even explicitly shown, but rather manifested through the wiggle of the streetlamp and a loud “BANG” on the soundtrack.

Whereas many comedy directors feel compelled to hammer home the point of every joke, Tati gets more done by sparingly applying a few precise tools (i.e., a wide shot, judicious editing, sound effects). He takes his comedy seriously, and takes a similarly subtle approach to characterization. Tati shies away from psychologically profiling his characters, preferring to develop relationships and attitudes visually. (The content of the dialogue is almost irrelevant in his films, especially Playtime [1967].) For example, we get the sense that Gérard gravitates toward his bumbling uncle because he’s so alienated by his family’s pretentious, repressive lifestyle. He never says this (I mean, he’s 9), but it’s clear through his actions and the way he’s filmed relative to his parents and the house itself.

Just look at the image above: Gérard, the petite, curious troublemaker, stands in stark contrast to the flat, monolithic barrier in front of him. He’s creeping around its edges and peeking through its slats, counteracting the fence’s primary function, which is to separate the Arpel household from the outside world. Gérard, by virtue of being an energetic kid, can’t and won’t be fit into his family’s narrow constraints, whether social or architectural; this aligns him with his uncle, even if Hulot’s unsuitability for bourgeois life is more a matter of clumsiness than rebellion. Both characters contribute to the film’s overall critique of technological modernity, and I think Tati sympathizes with Gérard’s youthful mischief as well as his alter ego’s frustrations in the Arpels’ cutting-edge household.

This gets at one of Tati’s greatest strengths. Even though Mon Oncle is a gentle, deliberately paced study of a small-town community – with an eye for the absurdities of everyday life – it’s still an ideologically potent (and sharply insightful) film in ways that flow organically from the comedy. The contrast with Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) – a film I absolutely adore, which also exploits the comic properties of antagonistic machinery – grows more relevant here, because Chaplin inserts his political message directly into his Tramp’s melodramatic struggle. Tati, meanwhile, expresses it through the ironies and rhythms of day-to-day life. He doesn’t use a single language, but speaks through the sights and sounds of the sensory world.

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