Monday 30 March 2020

A plague diary - a week's self-isolation viewing - Borzage, Farrow, Perry, Reed, Sale, Heisler, Mu, Sturges (J), Ulmer and Visconti

Random viewing in a week of the plague

Living on Velvet – (Frank Borzage, USA, 1935)

The always alluring Kay Francis hooks up with shell-shocked aviator George Brent and they go through domestic tribulations. Odd movie looking perpetually on the bright side.

Men in Exile – (John Farrow, USA, 1937). 

Barely an hour long, starring unknowns, in fact never to be knowns. Boy does this have some confusing politics. You’d think for Hollywood the good guys would be the professed liberals seeking to introduce democracy into a military dictatorship somewhere in the Caribbean that looks a whole lot like Cuba. Nuh. The dictator is after them for gun-running.  He turns out to be such a nice guy that the “hero”,  a cab-driver on the run after being inadvertently involved in a bank robbery, asks the same military dictator to be best man at his wedding to the inn-keeper’s daughter. Who thought that one up.

Rancho Deluxe (Frank Perry, USA, 1974)

The first from a western box set. The young Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston (as a ‘part’ Native American) are down on their luck cattle rustlers running afoul of local authorities. Thomas McGuane’s original script goes for heavy whimsy, some gross out characters and a general feelgood nature. Only rich rancher Clifton James comes out badly. The women in the movie, mostly secondary to the goings on, display voracious sexual appetites. The men are much more coy apart from a discreetly shot four in a bed scene with the leads and a pair of sisters.

Confucius (Fei Mu, China, 1940)

Legendary ‘lost’ Chinese film which finally came to light in the early 2000s and was then restored by the Hong Kong Film Archive. Not complete. There are two passages where the sound hasn’t been recovered. Good extras which explain the retrieval and restoration process and provide some memories of Fei Mu’s participants and relatives. An expert advised me you have to remember that it was made under wartime conditions (in "Orphan-Island" Shanghai), when the Japanese had seized the Chinese part of the city but not yet the foreign concessions.  (They were seized after the attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941.)  It's not as achieved as his post-war Spring in a Small Town, but it's daringly 'experimental' for its moment, and quite unlike other films made in Shanghai in the same period.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, UK, 1949)

The only copy in the household is an old very early DVD, probably a bootleg edition, issued by the now hopefully disappeared Avenue One. Acfross the top of the box are the words “Digitally Remastered from original 35mm print”. To which you can only say “Total Bullshit”. These companies got away with claims that in other trades would have them had up. Still the film always works some magic and forgotten scenes bounce back brilliantly.

Let’s Make It Legal (Richard Sale, USA, 1951)

Claudette Colbert plays a grandmother who has finally got shot of her irresponsible husband Macdonald Carey. He’s a gambling addict. On the day the divorce is to become final she is once again charmed off her feet by former rival boyfriend Zachary Scott. Robert Wagner and Barbara Bates live with Claudette, along with their baby. In the end…guess what… The film is in a box set of Marilyn Monroe titles. MM plays a floozy who has latched onto Carey but wants an invitation to meet the fabulously wealthy Scott. She has a few scenes and some good lines. They may have been written by co-scriptwriter and longtime genius I A L Diamond. 

Along Came Jones (Stuart Heisler, USA, 1945)

Produced by and starring Gary Cooper. He plays Melody Jones a cowpoke who drifts into town and gets confused with a feared bad guy Monte Jarratt (Dan Duryea). Loretta Young, looking gorgeous, is Monte’s girlfriend but you know where this is heading. It’s rather funny at times and there are more plot twists and character reversals in Nunnally Johnson’s script than you can count. Melody’s inability to hit the side of a barn with his six-shooter is a good running gag. Part of a box set of westerns which also includes… da dum

The Hallelujah Trail (John Sturges, USA, 1965)

Two and a half hours including black screen intro music, an intermission card and more playout music over black screen, the bloat shows in this attempt at a comic extravaganza. Notable now for the parts played by Hollywood liberals like Burt Lancaster and others in a story involving some of the crudest racism ever towards Native Americans.

Naked Venus (Ove B Sehtstedht, USA, 1959)

What, who. On a backchannels USB stick otherwise devoted to the work of Edgar G Ulmer, comes this paean to the nudist movement with slabs of footage, perhaps twenty minutes in all, devoted to such activities as swimming, sunbathing, volleyball, archery and just walking around. It’s all related to the tactics employed by a party to divorce proceedings. The defendant/practising nudist has as her lawyer Ariane Arden, otherwise known as Ariane Ulmer. IMDb gives the game away by saying that the director’s name was a pseudonym for Edgar G Ulmer, demonstrating, it would seem, if nothing else that even Edgar had films he was ashamed of in his filmography. Ariane’s acting and delivery of her lines is actually infinitely superior to everyone except the hugely obese actor playing the judge in the divorce case.

The Leopard (Luchino Viconti, Italy/France, 1963)

Disappointment at the cancellation of the Cinema Reborn screening of the Scorsese/Armani million buck restoration led to this one being fished off the shelves. The version was released in Italy way way back, the first appearance of an alleged  ‘Versione Restaurata’. The copy runs to 177 minutes, some eight minutes less than the Scorsese/Armani edition to be shown at the Randwick Ritz and Elsternwick Classic. It’s an Italian edition with a second disc full of unsubtitled extras. The actual film comes  with some very crappy subtitling. The colours are washed out in many places and I see from the sticker it cost me $Eu30.90. It was issued by Medusa. Notwithstanding the lack of completeness, the crappy colours and the laughable subtitles, once again the film reduced me to tears from the get go.

Sunday 29 March 2020

On YouTube - Barrie Pattison discovers SEOUL STATION (Sang-ho Yeon, South Korea, 2016)

I was Googling Anna Mae Wong when - don’t ask - I came on animator Sang-ho Yeon’s 2016 Seoulyeok / Seoul Station  in a beautiful YouTube copy - sharp, saturated, stereo, below frame English subtitles - the whole calamity. 

I had heard about this as the parallel animated production to the director’s celebratedlive action debut, zombie movie Busanhaeng/Train to Busan which broke South Korean attendance records. and we can spot the pile up of running monsters in both. Busanhaeng got isolated runs here and had a free to air TV showing a few weeks back. I enjoyed it but on balance I like the toon better despite it’s quite crude style of drawing. The story is that they weren’t game to run it till Busanhaeng’s success.

Director Sang-ho Yeon’s had notched up a few feature cartoon hits previously. Echoing the grim live action of Oldeuboi/Old Boy or Chugyeogja/The Chaser which preceded them, his Studio Dadashow’s 2011  Dwae-ji-ui wang/The King of Pigs and 2013 Saibi/The Fake, had more connection with those  bleak depictions of Korean life than they did with Pixar or Dreamworks.

Seoulyeok is pretty severe even by the standards of Asian horror which it draws on. The set up-plays at Seoul Central Rail Station which is closing down for the night. A homeless man stained with black blood proves intimidating for the young would-be helpers but one of the station hangers-on tries to get the staff to take an interest. All they find is a black pool of blood where the man’s dying body had been.

Parallel with this, a teen age girl voiced by Eun-kyung Shim, who has a spot as a girl runaway in Busanhaeng, looks like being thrown out of her rat hole flat for non payment. (“The bar job only made my debts grow”) She has found that her pimp boy friend is offering her in a Net advt. placed at the local cyber cafe. Her poverty and family problems are forgotten when she finds herself banded up with the derelicts who sleep at the station, pursued by ravenous zombies and rushing to take shelter in its police station cell with an infected officer whose side arm is rapidly reduced to two unused rounds, as the undead claw at them through the bars.

This is just the start of a night which includes being trapped under a door grill, attempted escape through the Metro tunnels, the boy friend and her father, who has been alerted by the net posting, unable to locate her after their own escapes, taking refuge with survivors in front of the police station only to find the authorities are as hostile as the monsters and final cynical twists that contrast their plight with the lush model apartments they attempt to shelter in.

The film has the unexpected element of playing out the action among the disadvantaged - unemployed youth, the homeless, an Anti-Communist unable to understand why a lifetime of work is not being respected by the authorities’ massed forces. One scene has the concerned police commander calling his men off the agro father who has attacked him, regognising the man’s situation.

...and of course lots of ravaged ghouls going for the throats of stray pedestrians, definitely the stuff of nightmares. It gave me one. The last time that happened was from watching Why We Fight  - Divide & Conquer half century back. It’s not to hard to see the film as embodying the paranoia of the moment.

Seoulyeok is conspicuous by any standard. Whether it is too vivid for main stream distribution is speculative. After the triumph of Parasite you would have expected some enterprising distributor to peddle a Sang-ho Yeon retrospective but of course that didn’t happen. What we got was extra sessions of Parasite.

So there it is at the press of a button.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

On Italian Blu-ray - Rod Bishop unearths Roman Polanski's AN OFFICER AND A SPY (J'ACCUSE, France/Italy, 2019

L’affaire Dreyfus et L’affaire Polanski  
Editor’s Note: Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy has not been released in any major English-speaking market. However, the film has been released on Blu-ray in some European countries. The Italian edition has three subtitled versions in French, Italian, English on offer. There are no known plans to release the film or for it to screen at any film festival in Australia. The film is apparently also starting to appear on  various so-called 'back channel' sites.
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After 42 years avoiding extradition, world cinema’s most famous fugitive director may well have made his most controversial film. 
Not for its subject matter – although that is undeniably the case in France – but because he is now #MeToo Roman Polanski (or in France #DenounceYourPig) while still being feted by many in the international industry.
Some months ago, American journalist and author John R MacArthur received an invitation to a “secret screening” of Polanski’s latest, An Officer and a Spy
“I boarded public transportation to a clandestine destination, somewhere in England…I looked over my shoulder several times to see if anyone was watching me…My emotional reflexes still echo the trip I took to Prague in 1983 to meet dissident writers during which I was followed. But why all the cloak-and-dagger dramatics now? Why can’t I reveal where I went?”
An Officer and a Spyis the third collaboration between novelist Robert Harris and Roman Polanski and tells of the Dreyfus Affair, one of French history’s most notorious political scandals.
First footage from the film was screened at a special “buyer’s” event at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Unnamed distributors from the USA ignored the screening. “No interest”. “It’s just not possible to release the film in the US right now”. But Howard Cohen of Roadside Attractions did say: “People have been releasing his films for years. Now, we are looking at it through a different lens, with good reason. We have to search our souls if it’s the right thing to do.
This didn’t stop distributers in Japan, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Israel, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Poland, all of whom stumped up for deals with the Paris-based sales company Playtime. Missing, however, are the English-speaking markets.
The film then premiered in September at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. The President of the Jury, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (La CiénagaZama) said:
I don’t separate the man from the art. I think that important aspects of the work emerge in the man…a man who commits a crime of this size who is then condemned, and the victim considers herself satisfied with the compensation is difficult for me to judge. It is difficult to define what is the right approach we have to take with people who have committed certain acts and were judged for them. I think these questions are part of the debate in our times.”
Martel also publicly announced she would not attend a Festival gala dinner to celebrate the film so as to avoid offending victims of sexual assault. The producers countered by threatening to withdraw An Officer and a Spy from the festival. Martel again:
According to some reports after today’s press conference, I believe my words were deeply misunderstood. Since I don’t separate the work from the author and I have recognized a lot of humanity in Polanski’s previous films, I am not opposed to the presence of the film in the competition. I don’t have any prejudice towards it…If I had any prejudice, I would have resigned my duty as president of the jury.”
The film won the Grand Jury Prize (Silver Lion), Venice’s second most prestigious accolade.
Five days before the French theatrical release last November, the actress-model-photographer Valentine Monnier accused Polanski in Le Parisienof violently raping her at the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad in 1975. Apparently Le Parisien confirmed the incident with Monnier’s boyfriend at the time as well as a close friend and family members.
(There have been at least five other accusations: Polanski’s conviction for “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor”, 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in 1977; a British actress Charlotte Lewis who accused Polanski of sexually abusing her in 1983 when she was 16; a woman known only as “Robin M” who alleges rape when she was 16 in 1973; actress Renate Langer who alleges he raped her twice in 1972 when she was 15 years-old; and artist Marianne Barnard who says she was sexually abused by Polanski as a 10-year-old in 1972).
France’s Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa declared she would not see the film, as did President Macron’s spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye. The Culture Minister declared a work of art “does not excuse the possible mistakes of its author. Talent is not a mitigating circumstance; genius, not a guarantee of impunity.”
On the first weekend in France, 386,000 tickets were sold on 545 screens. Protesters invaded or blocked cinemas and the film was cancelled in some venues. To date, the film has grossed nearly $US12 million in France.
Next came the César nominations. An Officer and a Spy received 12 of them in virtually every eligible category. The Hollywood Reporterquoted an open letter to the French press: “12 César nominations for Roman Polanski’s J’Accuse [the French title]. 12, like the number of women who accuse him of pedo-criminal rape.
Polanski decided not to attend the César awards ceremony, releasing a statement that read, in part: “We know how this evening will unfold already. Activists are already threatening me with a public lynching, with some saying they are going to protest outside.” 
An Officer and a Spywon three Césars for Best Adaptation, Best Costume Design and Best Director. Nobody accepted the award for Polanski. Few clapped the announcement and writer-director Celine Sciamma and actress Adéle Haenel (who has accused director Christophe Ruggia of abusing her as a 12-year-old) reportedly “walked out in disgust”.
Organisers of the Césars, the Académy des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma, came under fire for the nominations and awards to Polanski and for a letter in Le Monde from 400 filmmakers calling the Académy’s leadership dysfunctional and “a vestige of an era we would like to be over, that of an elitist and closed system.”
In response, the Académy’s entire Board of Directors resigned.
But back to where we left John R MacArthur in The Spectator,attending his “secret screening” of the film in the UK:
“…in the darkened screening room, I got a sample of the contraband. I know the Dreyfus story well, especially from Robert Harris’s historically accurate novel on which the film is based. I wondered how Polanski could improve on Harris’s excellent work, although I realise that novels and films are different species of storytelling. From the breathtaking opening scene…you know that a talented director can do certain things with actors and a camera that we scriveners can’t achieve in words...
…An Officer and a Spy is untouchable in the Anglo-Saxon world. For now, it seems quite likely that the movie will not be shown in the United Kingdom, either in movie theatres or on television. Nor will it illuminate screens in the United States. Polanski, in the parlance of Twitter culture, has been cancelled…”
An Officer and a Spy has been released in 22 countries. Not one of them is English-speaking.

Friday 20 March 2020

Alliance Française French Film Festival - Barrie Pattison bids adieu to cinema in the time of plague

So I sat through the last film the Chauvel ran on Wednesday night before Palace closed it, and all their other Cinemas. They did go to some effort to do the right thing at a time when they must be taking a bath, with Melbourne office staff going all out to refund advance sales. I walked away with the price of the last places on my ten pass returned.

That same night I was notified that the Sydney Film Festival is called off for the first time ever – sensible, as the chilly State was always a breeding ground for winter flu. Event Cinemas are rolling on with special measures in place.

The bulk of U.S. movie theaters have closed along with all those in France and Italy - and probably a whole lot of other places. Curiously the remaining US Drive-Ins are having a surprise boom. I did like Trumpy saying events justified his demand for a border wall where commentators immediately pointed out it would have closed the ‘States off from Mexico which has ten cases of corona virus while the U.S. has thousands. His wall would have done a great job of protecting Mexico.

It occurs to me that that the Chauvel showing of Deux Moi may be the last theatrical screening I get to, a chilling prospect when I was still on a high from having sat damp eyed through the new 2K of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the theater screen, my first viewing in fifty years and an extraordinary demonstration of the power of real cinema, even if there were only eight people there to experience it. Avoid crowds - go to the movies! 

The Hollywood companies are experimenting with sending their product straight to streaming - at a time when the closure of live sports coverage, the big draw card of free to air TV is putting that at risk. The other side of the virus outbreak is likely to see a different industry - maybe a different world - and there’s no guarantee I’ll be around to experience it.

In the French Film Festival Deux Moi itself is a nice piece, offering director Cédric (L'auberge espagnole) Klapsisch’s thing of slightness combined with substance.

Hypermarket employee Francis Civil is wracked by guilt (it gives him nightmares of being robot delivered in a cardboard box) when automation puts his fellow workers on the street while he’s transferred to a call center. There he pairs with the appealing black girl operator Eye Haidara who stalls customers with her machine voice impression but proves to have issues of her own, rating men like fast food.

Living only a few yards away in the next apartment block to Civil, also facing the rail tracks and having the outline of Sacré Coeur on the sky line, is his Ce qui nous lie/Back to Burgundy  co-star, research chemist, the adorable Ana Giradot. After the break up with her football fan boyfriend triggers daddy issues, she’s urged unsuccessfully into Tinder dating by her chums. The leads find themselves trying to resolve their personal problems with Psis. Enter therapists François Berléand and Camille Cottin, who prove to be associates out of working hours.

Civil’s so winning white kitten strays into area where Giradot adopts it. They both buy pet food from Simon Abkarian’s Marché Bahir Oriental.  We get Civil listening to her singing like Valerian Inkijinov with his unseen neighbor in Tête d’un home and the film keeps on setting up almost meetings recalling the structure of the 1974 Lelouch Toute une vie/And Now My Love. Very French.

By the time we get to their parallel family reconciliations - Civil in the snow country getting his to accept the death of his young sister and Giradot having aced her presentation to the board, ‘phoning her estranged mother in Amiens, the piece has become so involving that we accept the schematic.

Round this out with retiring Berléand haunted by the montage of the lips of his patients speaking their obsessions and Cottin’s sampler-worthy “No love is possible until you love yourself a little.”

Uniformly winning characters, best muted colour and effective choice of unfamiliar Paris locations.

I was less enthused by Christophe (Dans Paris) Honoré’s  Chambre 212Room 21/On a Magical Night which kicks off with forties-ish Chiara Mastroianni refusing to be a Feydeau character and emerging topless from the closet in her young lover Harrison Arevalo’s student flat as he makes out with his Asian girl fiancée Clara Choï.

Mastroianni wanders through the streets greeted by a succession of younger men. Husband musician-actor Benjamin Biolay learns about all this from her mobile which he indignantly flings into the family wash - unreasonably the film suggests. After their argument she moves across the road in designer Stéphane Taillasson’s giant studio decor, to a hotel room where she can see into their flat over the Montparnasse seven screen complex opposite. We spend the picture trying to recognise the display posters - Kiss Me Deadly included.

Through the night she is visited by corporeal versions of her past associations including Vincent Lacoste, twenty-year-old version of the husband and Camille Cottin again, who they desperately try to make glamorous though she’s only prepared to get down to her scanties while Mastroianni and Lacoste go the full Monty. Cottin plays the piano teacher lover Chiara won him away from and she and Lacoste are quite happy to reconnect. She brings the twelve-year-old son they would have had if they stayed together which understandably intrigues Lacoste but this turns into a life sized doll when things look as if Chiara will end up back with the husband. Doors open to reveal mum Marie-Christine Adam and granny Claire Johnston-Cauldwell and a squad of Mastroianni’s shirtless young lovers. Lacoste punches out her cousin whom he felt should have known better.

Things work out next morning in the snow on the street below in front of the Rosebud (!) Cafe. The piece has a kind of big budget studiofied Demy look but a totally different feel. All up, it’s a bit tacky.

I wasn’t all that gone on Le bonheur des uns/A Friendly Tale either though it was made by Daniel Cohen whose Benoît Poelvorde Les Deux Mondes is a fabulous, overlooked piece.

The new film is a name star adaptation inadequately removed from a theater original by staging some of its dialogue in Metro trains, book signings and having the leads bike past the Arc de Triomphe. Though she gets last billing of the four heavy hitter principals, along with Vincent Cassel (again), Bérénice Bejo (again) and Francois Damiens (again), it’s Florence Foresti whose stand-up routines the piece is scaled to. Her “woman in blue” scene where she mimes through the cafe window to passers-by is vintage.

The film has got a glossy, living well texture. Two couples spend their time together but their camaraderie is shattered when, to everyone’s surprise, the novel which Bejo writes becomes a runaway best seller. Her metallurgist husband Cassel (in glasses trying an unsuccessful change of image) can’t adjust even though the royalties get him his dream motor bike. Damiens is spurred to try Alexandrine poetry, bonsai tree culture, Carrara marble sculpture, (considering turning his half complete horse into a likeness of wife Foresti) and epicure cuisine, arriving at dinner parties with Tupperware desert. Foresti finally finds her thing finishing a Paris marathon only an hour sixteen behind the winners.

If all this sounds lame you’d be right. It’s a pity to see people with the talent of this lot punching below their weight. Learning we were getting a world premiere here should have alerted me. It used to be called trying it on the dog.

Yes, I am sorry not to watch the rest - lots of Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve along with the unknowns. We can only wonder if we'll see them again.

Tuesday 17 March 2020

On Blu-ray - David Hare welcomes the Arrow (UK) edition of Henri-Georges Clouzot's MANON (France, 1949)

It was as long ago as 1731 when the French writer, Abbé Prevost published his high class potboiler, “Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux, et de Manon Lescaut”. The novel was perhaps the very first example of the “noble gentleman” coming undone by a “woman of passion”, or even a predecessor to the Femme Fatale, to put as non-judgmental a spin on the material as possible. It would be another century and the flowering of the Romantic era in literature and art before this sub-genre of picaresque romantic tragedy grew legs, starting with the English (who else) and Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” among other great billowing novels. 
By the twentieth century the material had proved irresistible to composers, writers and filmmakers. There are no less than three operatic versions of Manon, the first by Daniel Auber in 1856, the second, and perhaps the most beloved of opera cognoscenti, Massenet’s great operetta of 1884, and Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” of 1893. 
Arthur Robison made a silent film version of the novel in 1926 with Lya de Putti in the lead. Carmine Gallone also made a movie in 1940 at Cinecitta which I have never seen. And most notably the great Henri-Georges Clouzot who made this Manon, with an adaptation substantially written by himself released in 1949.
Manon is the fourth of Clouzot’s feature movies, coming shortly after his masterpiece, Quai des Orfèvres. In it he seizes the opportunities for hugely broadened geographical, character and narrative scope, all of it enabling an extraordinarily caustic portrayal of the venality of the French collaborators and other “friendly followers” during the war and Occupation, and the even more appalling complicit hypocrisy of the self-anointed “Free French” after the war who spent the next decade settling scores, pointing the finger and condemning thousands of bystanders to undeserved reprisal. 
This is core, central Clouzotian pessimism and it is a sight to see and hear. As if this was not enough of a hothouse of emotional architecture, he writes a final (fifth) act for Manon, replacing the novel’s original New Orleans setting with what was then still Palestine, in which the lovers fleeing the horrors of wartime and postwar France join a group of Jews who have also sought transportation from European hell to the “Promised Land’. Palestine itself sets the stage for one of the most incredible climaxes, 25 minutes long in French movies, of l’amour fou
The last act belongs in a class of its own, while sharing so much with the Liebestod finale of Vidor’s Duel in the Sun and several other movies. But Clouzot’s visual setting is unique in cinema – an essentially wide open desert, with the promised mirage of safety never really within its grasp, and a shock mass murder, which in itself speaks to the appalling politics that the British and French were playing with both the Palestinians and the Zionist Jews who were fighting for a place in the Middle East. 
The catastrophe which envelopes the picture ends with one of the most extraordinarily moving images in Clouzot’s work. Manon, now dead from a bullet is seized and carried like a slab of meat by her lover des Grieux across the remaining dunes until he too dies after burying her body in the sand up to her face. In the final three shots he talks to her and kisses her, like a madman and relinquishes his own life to the glory of their long fatal passion. This climactic scene looks nothing less than Bunuelian, as much as Clouzot, at this point of intensity. 
Indeed watching the movie I found myself both astonished and moved by the staging and playing to very much the same degree as watching the climax of Bunuel’s sublime 1954 melodrama based on “Wuthering Heights", Abismos de Pasion, in which Alejandro played by Jorge Mistral hurls himself into Catalina’s grave to follow her into death. It’s very hard not to believe Don Luis had not seen Clouzot’s great film and burnt the final liberation of that movie into his own mind. 
The supporting cast includes the wonderful Serge Reggiani, and the male and female leads were cast for their amazing looks, and considerable skill in responding to Clouzot’s directorial whip. Des Grieux is played by Michel Auclair who had already begun a career playing romantic leads in French postwar movies. He was, dare I say one of the hottest looking men of any nationality to grace a screen but he subdues his machismo into tonal range and incredibly refined delivery. Fans may remember him with affection for his Professeur Flostre in Donen’s Funny Face. Auclair also displays enormous physicality, in the final shots of him dragging Manon’s body across miles of sand dunes in long takes. For Manon herself Clouzot set up a “contest” to find the ideal newcomer for the part. He found her, and how, in the form of 20 year old Cécile Aubry. She next made The Black Rose for Hathaway the following year but little else. She was and is a gift to cinema for this movie alone. 
Manon is something of a shock even to hardened Francophiles, like myself who only remember it from pretty unwatchable bootlegs over the years. The new 2K restoration has been brought over by Arrow with English subs and is an essential disc. This label, along with the Powerhouse duo is doing all the hard yakka Criterion should be doing but doesn’t any more.

Monday 16 March 2020

The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival - Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison comes up with recommendations and warnings.

It’s that time of the year again as Palace fill up their venues with big ticket frog film and I spend too much on ten passes muttering darkly when a choice turns out to be something I would have known better about if all the reviews weren’t Portuguese.

They hit the ground running when  Nakache & Toledano (Les UntouchablesSamba C'est La Vie) score a personal best with Hors normes  an account of French unregistered last resort shelters for autistic kids, facing overcrowding, underfunding and constant stress. Vincent Cassel, the most menacing Frenchman ever, heads up the carers giving a totally winning lead performance and generously sharing top billing with Reda Kateb, previously noted mainly as the lead in a Django Reinhardt biography.

Cassel is the center of a number of linked plots - a self-harming boy is allocated to a new trainee who they berate for being late when he gives the excuse that the Metro line was disrupted, only to find that one of their other kids had indulged his fixation with the emergency stop button causing the chaos. Helene Vincent (La vie est un long fleuve tranquil)  as the boy’s desperate mother keeps baking pineapple cake for Vincent when she’s not discussing turning on the gas. His Jewish associates find appealing “Shidduh” blind dates whom he upsets even when they take away his constantly ringing mobile. Kateb’s interest picks up when he sees one. A Jewish fellow worker is put out when Cassel takes an interest in the black aunt of one of the kids.  The company’s accountant is in despair and demands one thing - that Vince stops saying “We’ll find a way.” 

The piece is full of convincingly spontaneous interaction scenes like the competition between the two shelters where the staff play for french fries won by spelling out the organisations they know from their initials. One of the participant eats the stakes. However, it can snap into full feature production value drama mode as when the trainee screws up, off phoning the therapist he’s taken an interest in, only to find the hotel microwave crashing onto the street beside him and his charge run off - his path indicated by the caterer whose creme brulés the kid had spoiled earlier, starting a hectic chase and a merciless dressing down. This happens as the Government Inspectors are considering closing his La Voie des Justes down with Vince spreading out the photos of their charges who will face unthinkable confinements if they fold.

The uniform excellence of the performances makes the real autistic kids indistinguishable from the Comédie Française recruits. Throw in the Turbulences ballet finale and a nice last gag.

Hors normes has got to finish first in the disadvantaged kids movie stakes. Think  Delannoy’s  Chiens perdus sans collier, Cassavetes’A Child Is Waiting, the Farrellys’ The Ringer or Javier Fesser’s Spanish Campeones/Champions. In a conventional hospital they even “Get the mat” for a drill we saw in back in1967 with Warrendale. Intriguingly these films become more hopeful as the list progresses.

Films about the group are a largely French phenomenon - people who chose to spend their time together over the years. You can see them starting in items like Duvivier’s  1931 Cinq Gentlemen Maudits/ Moon Over Morocco  or 1936 La Belle équipe, already different to celebrated Howard Hawks comrade movies like Ceiling Zero, Only Angels Have Wings or Red Line 7000. Claude Sautet does one of those in Classe tous risques (1960) before he makes the ultimate group movie Vincent, François, Paul et les autres in 1974and they’ve been trying to get it right ever sinceActor Guillaume Cantet joined in with his also all-star Les Petit Mouchoirs (2010) which I didn’t altogether buy.

Well M. Cantet and his celebrity cast are back again with Nous finirons ensemble which picks up the first film’s characters ten years later. François Cluzet is cleaning up his neglected coastal chalet when the gang arrive unexpectedly to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. Turns out there’s bad blood between him and Gilles Lellouche after their last meeting.  A few have produced children who sit about texting bored with the whole thing. Benoît Magimel has left Pascale Arbillot and brought a boyfriend. Laurent Lafitte finds himself as sidekick on Lellouche’s payroll  while “bad Mary Poppins” Tatiana Gousseff  pushes a pram in the background of their interaction. Marion Cotillard, hair-blonded, manages to get attention with every appearance.

Turns out that Cluzet has split with wife Valérie Bonneton (following a disaster in that Trocadero affair) and is turning the place over to her, losing “Ma femme, ma maison et mes potes.” He has the comfort of new squeeze Clémentine Baert. After a bit of raised voice dialogue they all move down the road reconciled but uneasy. When Bonneton shows up there’s the usual friction but neighbor Jose Garcia shows an interest in her, changing the dynamic.

This is a very long movie (134 min. ) and it looks as if it will outstay its welcome even with nice touches like the baby fingering Lellouche’s face, a surprising dialogue about cancer or the ensemble doing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” and the outing to the strobe light disco but a boating disaster (didn’t we see that in Palm Beach last year?) snaps all the threads back together with a superior action scene where Joël Dupuch comes into his own.

A film like this needs all the charm the participants can muster and some of the best talent in French movies delivers with plenty to spare. They even manage a Jean Dujardin walk-on. It’s interesting to see how the performers and indeed the director have matured over a decade.

Michel Hazanavicius is having a rough trot Following his humungous success with L’Artiste he hasn’t set a foot right. His serious remake of the Zinnemann The Search bombed and no one was all that enchanted with his Godard mon amour either, so it would have been nice to enthuse about his new Le Prince oublié/The Lost Prince.

The film is an ambitious undertaking with lavish fantasy settings and effects, a great cast and an interesting idea. Unfortunately, it doesn’t jell into the kind of Wizard of Oz hit they obviously hoped for.

Single parent Omar Sy (nice to see him speaking perfect English in the new Call of the Wild) finds that, as his daughter Sarah Gaye becomes a teenager, he is marginalised in her life and in the bedtime stories he used to tell her, where he appeared as The Prince who rescues her from candy land perils by waving red swim flippers. His place is taken by Néotis Ronzon the so blonde boy in her school class. The gold crown over Omar’s door crashes and Ronzon shows up on the shooting stage where the fantasies are fabricated with his cap sliced into a coronet.

Unrecognisable François Damiens' El Farto the black-wearing heavy in the dreams, guides Omar on a doomed attempt to kidnap the new prince and cast him into the pit of oblivion with the fast fading Oubliés, see-through toy characters who once inhabited the girl’s dreams. Neighbor (she always carries round her door in the limbo setting) the winning Bérénice Bejo provides some comfort and when Gaye runs off to the misrepresented birthday party they have to band together with the new prince to save the day.

Despite Sy’s indestructible charm, some of his actions are embarrassing as much for the audience as the characters. The design aspect has its moments. The knitted elephant is a winner but there are off putting deja vus - the walking inflatable with the goldfish inside like Japanime Kimi to, nami ni noretara/Ride YourWave and the ending repeating the last of the Toy Story films.

Considerably further down the scale of ambition we get Mélanie Auffret’s  Roxane, a misjudged try for Ealing-style local charm which lacks the film skill to execute its comic vision.

Poultry farmer Guillaume de Tonquédec reads “Cyrano de Bergerac” with his pet hen Roxane, to his free range fowls. He tells us they really like the balcony scene. However, at the farmers’ meeting the wholesaler says that he’s going to cancel all the contracts except thousand hen operator Michel Jonasz whose economies of scale make it commercially viable to take his eggs all the distance to the super markets.

De Tonquédec  hits on the notion of putting his readings on the net in the hope of building “buzz” to dramatise his plight. Wife Léa Drucker is already showing the hen shed to a young farmer and his pregnant wife who plan to dismantle it and set it up on their property.

To class up his work De Tonquédec’ recruits English B&B lady Kate Duchêne, who used to teach French literature, to coach him in diction and background reading - Moliere, Guitry’s “Debureau”. His brother in law wants to get with the program and offers chook porn.

The film wants us to like everyone but it’s not sufficiently involving for that. They can’t establish any connection between the classic texts and the on screen situation and amiable de Tonquédec isn’t imposing enough to get impact from his performances in the picturesque Bretagne countryside.

On Sprocketed Sources blog I’ve already enthused about Hirondelles de Kabul and Zombi Child and maybe less so Mystère de Henri Pick and Roubaix une lumière. Seeing Demy’s Peau d’ane at twenty year intervals just increases its nostalgia value even if the new stereo digital transfer does make the second generation film for the effects more obvious.

Wednesday 11 March 2020

On DVD - David Hare revels in TARZAN AND HIS MATE (Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway, James McKay, USA, 1934)

The movie paradise that is Tarzan and his Mate, released in 1934 after much to-ing and fro-ing between directors Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway and James McKay, who is credited as "animal director" but whom Maureen O'Sullivan recalled as the major physical director on set. Click on any image for a slideshow.
Still, so much of the picture belongs to GIbbons, with extraordinarily beautiful art direction that embodies in a sublime way the very best precode Metro, (on the cusp of the repulsive Louis B) in brilliant comparison to its key inspiration at RKO, in the 1933 King Kong, and the visual "primitive" world of co-director Merian Cooper with Willis O'Brien.

Gibbons' mise-en scene in Tarzan is in fact incomparable, and ably heightened by the ample Code-baiting nudity.               
Gibbons creates incredible artifice all through the picture including papier mache tusks and skeletons that define the Elephant burial ground which is the spiritual home of the story, with rear projection and mattes filling in layers of delirious dream landscape in which the actors are enhanced to mythic visual status.
Best of all a world just before the Production Code stomped all over Hollywood and sex which in its rawest, uncompromising state was here celebrated in a picture enjoyed by men, women and children through a post Freudian fantasy in which nature and humanity at its best meet in flawless harmony. 
It's a real joy to watch this stuff again when the world around you is getting uglier than usual. The screens are from the old six picture Warner DVD compilation.