Sunday 17 April 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Shaun Heenan retrieves (from Fandor) three French classics from the early 60s.

Serious Young Cinephile Shaun Heenan currently lives at South West Rocks in northern New South Wales. This is his twentieth post on the Film Alert site. He does reviews and reports discovering cinema old and new. His other posts can be found by clicking the links on the side of the site or by using the search engine. More to come....'

Yet again this week I watched from the weekly themed Criterion Collection films at Fandor. I’m not actually going to say what the theme was this time, since it goes some way towards spoiling the plot of every one of the films, but you may very well recognise the trend. It was a complete coincidence that I ended up watching two Palme d’Or winners right after the announcement of this year’s competition, but I’m looking forward to catching up with the new batch over the next two years or so, as they slowly, slowly, slowly make their way into distribution channels.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, France/West Germany, 1964) is an incredibly beautiful film. It’s beautiful to look at, filled with pinks and blues so bright they set the film apart visually from other films of the era. It’s beautiful to listen to, taking the form of a sung-through musical, with even snippets of everyday conversation becoming surprising and creative. Most of all, though, it’s beautiful to experience, using its non-standard format to draw us in and keep us paying attention while it tells a powerful love story, which twists and turns along with the characters’ lives before reaching a reflective conclusion - quiet, but emotionally overwhelming. I could not speak for several minutes after the film finished.

The romance between the teenage Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and a young mechanic named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is truly engaging, thanks to two great performances. Anne Vernon is also impressive as Geneviève’s meddling mother, who thinks her daughter would be better off with an international jewelry salesman. Much of the dialogue between mother and daughter would take place as a screaming fight in any other film, but here the anger and sadness flow behind the vivid colours and the calm singing, which just gives them more opportunity to sink in. It’s a wonderful story, and the format helps to prove there is always a more interesting way to shoot even a simple scene. I am not at all surprised this won the main prize at Cannes. It’s the best movie I’ve seen for months.

I’m sorry to report that I was less enthusiastic about Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, France, 1962), despite its status as a classic. The film uses droll narration to lead us through the tale of a long-lasting friendship between Jules (Oskar Werner) - an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre) – a Frenchman. Choosing an example from modern cinema, the narrator reminded me a little of that in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001). The pair are inseparable, and seem unusually slow to jealousy, even when they both fall in love with the same woman. She is Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), fun-loving and joyful in her youth, but less contented with her life after the boys return from opposite sides of the First World War.
The film’s playful tone and unique editing style make it stand out, and it’s easy to see why it was such an important part of the French New Wave. Watching it today, however, the film’s apparent hatred of women was a real problem for me. Catherine becomes a destructive force in the film’s back half, selfish and disloyal in a way which feels out of step with the character we’ve come to know. Most of the other women in the film are portrayed as idiots. In one case, a man at a bar says of his girlfriend, “there’s nothing in [her head],” and knocks on her forehead to prove it, as she stares smiling back at him. Maybe I’m misreading this, since I am not yet greatly familiar with Truffaut, but it felt really ugly to me, and consistently so, which stopped me from enjoying the movie as much as I hoped to.

I closed out the week with a second Palme d’Or winner in the form of Black Orpheus (Marcel Camus, Brazil/France/Italy, 1959). This is one of many famous film retellings of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, though it has been reinterpreted to take place in a modern Brazilian favela during Carnaval. It’s an unusual film, full of energy, delivered mostly through the many (very) extended dance sequences. The characters retain their Greek names, and it is even implied that they are the original heroes from myth, reborn to allow the story to play out again. In short, Orpheus loves Eurydice despite his engagement to another woman, who becomes only one of several forces working to keep our leads from a happy ending.

Since the story is adapted from a Greek tragedy, there is great sadness in the inevitability here, as the characters trudge towards the final act they know is coming. They’ve done it all before, but they can’t help themselves. They act as history dictates. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The film is filled with great, charismatic supporting characters, lively music and appropriately gaudy costumes. Orpheus’ Carnaval costume is a golden string vest which looks suspiciously like Greek armour, which is a great touch. The film won the Palme d’Or unanimously in a strong year. The other nominees included Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. I don’t like it quite as much as either of those films, but I definitely enjoyed it.

 Next week’s Fandor films are a collection of silents, but as luck would have it, I’ve already seen nearly all of them. There is an Ozu film in there that I’m looking forward to watching, but apart from that I plan to look elsewhere for films to write about.

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