Monday, 21 April 2014

Postcard from Perth 21

Spare Parts in Merredin/Hachiko

The weekend before Easter I was employed with a fellow-actor on a one-day residency in Merredin with Spare Parts Puppet Theatre. Disclaimer: I’m a company associate with Spare Parts. In practice this means I’ve been employed by them twice before: once to write a puppet-play some years ago; and more recently as an actor. As readers of these Postcards might have deduced by now, Perth is a small place, and I’m ‘associated’ one way or another with most of the theatre companies here. Normally I don’t write about shows or projects I’m actually involved with; the Merredin residency is a special case.

Strapped into our little hire car crammed with props (including a giant plaster tea-cup filled with decorative ears of wheat), my companion and I threaded our way out of Fremantle to the Roe Highway, into the grim tangle of roadworks currently being extended through the outer eastern suburbs, and finally headed out onto the Great Eastern Highway through the hills and into the plains beyond.  We were accompanied for much of the way by the famous C.Y. O’Connor pipeline carrying water from the hills to the Kalgoorlie: an emblematic local-historical engineering achievement – or folly, depending on your POV – that symbolizes much about WA’s pioneering spirit and/or provincial petty-mindedness. O’Connor killed himself in 1902 before the scheme was finally completed, after protracted delays and defamatory criticism by local politicians and the press. One of my favourite public artworks in Perth is the bronze statue by Tony Jones of O’Connor riding his horse into the sea at O’Connor Beach just south of Fremantle. Often half-submerged by the tide, and with their heads and shoulders tinged with verdigris, the horse strains out to sea while the rider turns and looks back towards Fremantle Harbour (which O’Connor also designed). I often walk past on the path above the dunes, and occasionally sit on the sand or even swim out there. 

The thick pipeline that runs for over 500ks above ground beside the highway is a little less poetic or inspiring. The landscape on either side is mostly cleared of trees (and blighted by salinity) apart from the occasional salmon gum gleaming orange-pink by the roadside. It’s on trips like this that you really get a sense of Perth’s remoteness from the rest of the nation – and its proximity to the vast desert inland of the continent.

Merredin is a small town of about 3000 people in the central Wheatbelt, which lies between the Perth hills and the goldfields. Two-thirds of the state’s wheat and half its sheep are farmed here. Merredin itself is about 250k’s due east of Perth, or about halfway to Kalgoorlie. The land around produces about 40% of the wheat from the region, and the town handles around a million tonnes a year, stored in unimaginably huge silos just west of town.

We stayed in demountable cabins at the Merredin Caravan Park, dined at the Commercial Hotel on the main street (I couldn’t go past the green chicken curry two nights in a row) and lunched at the excellent local bakery a few doors down. The site for the residency itself was the showgrounds at the recreation centre down the road just north of town.

In reality it was hardly a residency: half a day’s drive and a few hours’ set-up for an all-day installation at the Agricultural Show on the Saturday, and drive home again on the Sunday. The install was for a puppet-show called Farm, which Spare Parts are staging later this year – including a few days in Merredin at the Cummins Theatre  (originally the late-Victorian Tivoli Theatre in Coolgardie before it was dismantled and relocated by rail to Merredin in the 1920s for reasons I couldn’t ascertain or imagine). The last touring show there a few weeks back was the perennial Puppetry of the Penis (a one-night stand); coming up in a month’s time was Tom Burlinson in Simply Sinatra (also one night only). Otherwise it was a long time between drinks at the Cummins Theatre.

Farm is being written by Ian Sinclair and based on stories by local residents and schoolkids; Spare Parts did a two-week research residency in Merredin late last year. The project is partnered by Collgar Wind Farm, about 20ks south-east of town and the biggest wind farm in the state – indeed the southern hemisphere, according to their website. Our mission on this trip was to set up a giant human-body-shaped mound of dirt on trestle tables inside the rec centre, and invite passers-by at the show to choose an object from a collection of junk which we’d brought with us and displayed on two more trestle tables. They would then place the object somewhere on the body-farm, together with a story or memory, which they were invited to write out on a piece of card and attach to the object with a piece of string. What could possibly go wrong?

Actually the mound of dirt turned out to be a few bags of sand when we rocked up at the Two Dogs Hardware Store (unmissable with its two giant inflatable dogs on the roof) on the Friday afternoon. Undaunted, we set off for the showgrounds, set up our tables between two local school stalls, spread out some garbage bags to retain the sand, arranged a length of rope in the outline of a body and filled it the sand. Satisfied with our achievements, we retired to the Commercial Hotel, which featured an enormous (and deserted) dance floor, dominated by a huge music-video screen. As we arrived, a group of locals were arguing over what to play next: ‘Aw, Hainsey’s on the juke box again! What’s the bet he plays “Black Betty”? Hainsey! How about some Shania?’ I decided tonight was not the night to join Hainsey on the dance floor for ‘I Feel Like A Woman’, and wondered what surprises tomorrow might bring.

Against all expectations however the next day went off like the showground fireworks that erupted later that night. By noon our sand-farm was crammed with inventively utilized objects and pithy stories, which we promised to photograph and post on the Spare Parts Facebook page (and some of which I include below).

Overall, I was struck by people’s sense of place, pride and community – kids and elders alike – and my own sense that the land itself seemed to generate stories for those who grew up or still lived there. Encounters with snakes; getting lost; running out of water; dealing with kangaroos; favourite domestic or farm animals, farm tools or machinery; long-term relationships with neighbours, or with parents and grandparents still living on the land, or nearby in town – I couldn’t imagine similar (if any) stories coming so readily to city-dwellers. Conversely, a bunch of stories came from a family of African visitors who’d grown up on a farm in Zimbabwe.

By the end of the day, our body-farm was completely mapped and covered by stories almost to overflowing: tales of the corporeal, so to speak, forming an incorporeal body-double of events (to use the language of Deleuze in his Logic of Sense). Enough material, in fact, for a dozen shows – if not the basis for an annual event – or at least, a virtual spin-off on the internet and a remounted foyer installation for the theatre season. Food for thought, too, about future directions for artistic and community residencies; collaborations between city-based producers and regional presenters; and perhaps the intrinsic relationship between story, place and (in every sense) ‘country’.


Following my trip to Merredin, I went to see the current school holiday season of Hachiko at Spare Parts. Like Farm it’s written by Ian Sinclair and directed by Spare Parts artistic director Philip Mitchell; in fact it’s a remount of a show that was originally staged in 2012, and based on the true story of a dog who faithfully went to Shibuyu train station in Tokyo each day to wait for his master for nine years after the latter had died. The story and staging are beautifully simple, sweet and sad, and elegantly leavened with wit by the writer, director and two performers, Jessica Harlond-Kenny and St John Cowcher – both of whom (like Ian) have emerged through the company’s in-house puppetry training program First Hand, and are also independent artist in their own right (Jess has her own company, and Ian and St John are both members of Wet Weather Ensemble, who produced last year’s standout avant-garde dream-play Bird Boy). Set, props and puppets are all largely made of cardboard, which adds to the delicacy, imaginativeness and hands-on aesthetic of the show.

My reservation (as often with puppetry) was with the overall pace; it’s as if there’s something about the form which continually risks getting bogged down by its own materiality – and conversely lacks sufficient dramatic or narrative events (in the Deleuzian sense of the term). No matter how lively the performers, it just takes so damn long to get those puppets and objects on and off the stage, arrange them in position, animate them and move them around! This wasn’t helped by a wordy if eloquent script, which at times doubled up on the action, or told us things we could have been shown instead. In fact, on the whole I found myself wanting less dialogue and more puppetry. I also struggled at times with Lee Buddle’s charming but generic (and virtually continuous) soundtrack, which didn’t leave the audience (or the performers) much emotional space to interpret or feel things for themselves. Perhaps what seem to me excesses of staging, text and music are deliberately intended to facilitate understanding by younger audiences. I wonder though if streamlining things mightn’t enable them to engage more deeply, as well as allowing for greater dynamics in terms of pace and mood.

Nonetheless, Hachiko is a delightful and moving show, delivered with great artistry; and the performance I saw kept a large audience of young, old and disabled (and even actor-critics) highly diverted and entertained.

Spare Parts is a unique theatre company (at least in Perth) in terms of its specific art-form focus, its in-house training program, its repertoire-approach to remounting work, its breadth of audience, and (not least) its charming if slightly ramshackle home venue (one of the only companies in Perth that has one – and one of the last arts companies left standing in Fremantle). Philip is an artistic director with a strong philosophy about his art-form and its underlying connection with the psychology of emotional intelligence; and Ian Sinclair is a writer and theatre-maker with a unique poetic vision of his own.


This season of Hachiko runs until April 26; Farm has its first public season at Spare Parts from September 29 to October 11.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Postcard from Perth 20

John Curtin Gallery: Paramodelic-Graffiti/The Tenth Sentiment

Perth is shifting into autumn, temperatures are mercifully starting to drop and the last vestiges of the Perth Festival Visual Arts program are finally winding down.

Last week I drove out to the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University to see two works by Japanese artists that are still showing as part of the Festival: Paramodelic-Graffiti by Yasuhiko Hayashi and Yusuke Nakano, collectively known as Paramodel, and The Tenth Sentiment by Ryota Kuwakubo.

Curtin has a great reputation as one the best-equipped university galleries in the country, collaborating with national and international artists and curators. However it’s located on the main campus out at Bentley, which is about 10k’s south-east of central Perth or 20k’s east of Fremantle, and pretty remote in terms of access by public transport. It took me about half an hour to drive there from Freo, heading down the Kwinana Freeway and across the Canning River. Once I left the freeway I turned off the radio and let the soothing robotic voice of Google Maps guide me past long stretches of recently developed cookie-cutter housing estates, sports ovals and golf courses, before finally turning into the immense main car park surrounded by the university’s signature red-brick campus buildings.

This journey turned out to be an apposite approach to Paramodel’s work in particular. According to the program, the word is a contraction of the words ‘model’ and ‘paradise’, and refers directly to the Japanese term puramoderu, which means ‘plastic model’. Paramodelic-Graffiti is a computer-designed installation of mass-produced blue plastic toy train tracks, orange toy trucks, diggers, cranes and earth-moving equipment, and miniature toy animals (domestic and wild, native and introduced, but all found in Australia), interspersed with ‘mountains’ of chiselled white plastic foam, ‘fields’ of black synthetic carpeting and ‘lakes’ of blue foam rubber or reflective gold and silver paper. The installation spreads across the floor, walls and ceiling of two connecting rooms in the gallery.

The program describes the work of Paramodel as ‘playful’, ‘exuberant’ and ‘fun’, but I have to admit I found the whole thing hideous and disturbing. In a strange way it reminded me of being inside the maw of a spaceship: a totally mass-produced Matrix-environment in which I’d been swallowed like Jonah by a blue-and-white whale – or perhaps Ninevah itself. The most interesting thing in the exhibition for me (and I know this is becoming a recurring theme in these Postcards) was a video screen at the end of the journey featuring time-lapse footage of the work being installed: a team of people crawling around on their hands and knees or climbing up and down ladders and gradually covering every inch of the floor, walls and ceilings with a kind of spreading blue-and-white plastic cancer (which viewed benignly almost resembled the blue-and-white patterns of traditional Japanese or Chinese porcelain). Some of the mass-produced toy animals were for sale at the counter. I was reminded of Cai Guo Qiang’s collection of life-sized ‘toy’ animals gathered around an artificial pond currently at GOMA in Brisbane – and once again of childhood visits to the zoo.

Emerging from the brightly lit world of Paramodelic-Graffiti I followed a designated path through the gallery into the dark womb-like room housing The Tent Sentiment. The only illumination comes from the headlight of a slowly moving miniature train as it twists and snakes along a track laid carefully across the floor.

Railways feature heavily in this year’s Perth Festival Visual Art program, taking into account I Think I Can as well as the two works under review. For me there’s a pre-post-industrial nostalgia and even innocence about trains; they’re my preferred mode of transport, whether commuting from Freo to Perth, getting around Melbourne or travelling overseas, especially in Europe. It’s a combination of logical factors like economy, efficiency and sustainability; aesthetic considerations like interior quietness, smoothness of movement and the way landscapes slide past windows; and more personal and emotional associations and memories that this is neither the time nor the place either to share or analyse.

In any case, the train in The Tenth Sentiment is a little beauty. It passes through a landscape of domestic found objects arranged on the floor in clusters, including fields of miniature toy people, stacked sugar cubes, inverted clothes pegs linked by lines of thread, wire-mesh waste-paper baskets, colanders with holes cut in, or lengths of cardboard tubing with their ends cut into irregular splinters. Lit by the headlight of the train, these throw gigantic moving and shape-shifting shadows across the walls, becoming crowds of people, high-rise buildings (or perhaps gravestones), electricity pylons, strange abstract grids and patterns – and most thrillingly (for me anyway) a climactic sequence with fingers or beams of darkness extending outwards corona-like across the walls  (which recaptured some of the delirious awe I felt when I first saw the last half-hour or so of 2001 at an unseemly age around 1970).

In fact The Tenth Sentiment is a kind of mobile shadow-panorama that recalls the famous magic lanterns and dioramas from the prehistory of cinema. Alternatively it could be seen as a minimalist work of shadow-animation or puppet-theatre. The difference in this case is of course that here it’s the light-source, ersatz-camera or projector that becomes the main (and only moving) character, so that our enchanted attention is continually thrown back from the images on the walls (or even the objects on the floor) to the medium itself as an ensemble or apparatus. As such it’s a beautiful example of Lyotard’s dispositif pulsionel or Deleuze and Guattari’s machine désirante – with all the psychological, unconscious and erotic connotations these terms imply. But perhaps the most obvious philosophical precursor looming behind The Tenth Sentiment is the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. As such, it’s a deceptively metaphysical work, in the sense that it questions the nature of reality, and proposes a dimension beyond the material world of nature or artifice – a dimension which might be called imaginary, virtual, metaphysical or even supernatural.

Regardless, the special charm and power of The Tenth Sentiment lies in the fact that it’s so ingeniously simple in terms of conception, materials and execution. The technology is hand-made and the workings are open to inspection. This produces a delightful double-consciousness, which is akin to the pleasures of reverie, seeing shapes in flames or clouds, being under mild hypnosis or having lucid dreams. Most importantly, you feel like you’re participating in, actively contributing to, and to some extend even choosing what you see.

For me, the journey of the train itself provided its own additional narrative – most dramatically at the end of the piece, when the train reversed itself at high speed past all the landmarks, throwing their shadows back on the walls once more in a convulsive and inverted last dance: a kind of accelerated final sequence before awakening – or dying. This sensation continued long after I left the gallery and drove home back through the existential wasteland of South Perth.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Postcard from Perth 19

Reviews and Reflections from WA

French Film Festival 2014

France can duly lay claim to being the birthplace of cinema, and with the possible exception of the United States no country has contributed more, artistically or technically (if not commercially), to what the pioneering inter-war Parisian film theorist Canudo first called ‘the sixth (later “seventh”) art’ – synthesizing the spatial arts of painting, sculpture and architecture with the temporal arts of music and poetry (to which he later added dance) as defined by Hegel. 

The early history of French and world cinema are synonymous: from Daguerre’s dual inventions of the daguerreotype and the diorama (the origins respectively of photography and the cinema) to the first films by the Lumière Brothers and Meliés (who respectively extended Daguerre’s innovations into the parallel and sometimes rival traditions of documentary realism and fictional fantasy) followed by the first large-scale international film studios, producers and distributors Pathé and Gaumont (many of whose early films were made by the first woman director, Alice Guy). This history reflects the dual fascination of the cinematic spectacle: the miraculous reproduction or simulation of the real, and awe at the technology of the medium together with the industry it supports. As such it prefigures the dual fascination of the internet in our own century.

The historical affinity between France and cinema is as much due to cultural tradition as it is to the mechanics of state subsidy and protection, all of which today continue to see French films retain a 40% share of local box-office. In fact, French language, literature and art have taken pains to define and defend their cultural identity since the 17th Century via the Academies. The subsequent development of French cinema is distinctively linked to native artistic, intellectual and in particular literary traditions and movements: from popular early low-life crime melodramas to later high-class historical and literary spectacles and theatrical adaptations; not to mention the influence of surrealism on the psychological experiments of a ‘pure cinema’ in the 1920s and 30s; the influence of Symbolism and Impressionism on the ‘poetic realism’ of the 30s and 40s; and the later impact of Marxism, existentialism and structuralism on the French New Wave of the 60s.

All of this makes French cinema a unique lodestar for the cinephile. So as an unapologetic member of the species, I try to make an annual date with the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival – which, like the Lavazza Italian Film Festival, is hosted in Perth by Luna Palace Cinemas at the Paradiso in Northbridge, the Windsor in Claremont and Luna on SX in Fremantle. My personal favorite is the Paradiso – marginally more comfortable than the charming but wonky art deco Windsor, and generally less crowded than the SX. There’s even a discount dinner for ticket holders at the slightly tacky Oliver’s Restaurant next door to the cinema, where from one of the sidewalk tables over a glass of red and a plate of chef’s special calves’ liver and bacon you can watch Northbridge wildlife go by on a balmy Perth night in early autumn.

If this year’s festival boasted nothing as tantalizing as 90-year-old New Wave master Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nuthin’ Yet or Olivier Assayas’s revolutionary memoir After May (my highlights from 2013), I nevertheless bought a five-film discount pass (plus a couple of extras) and picked my favourites – bypassing the opening night disability/triathlon tearjerker The Finishers and closing night classic Mon Oncle.

I kicked off with Roman Polanski’s most recent film Venus in Fur, a screen-adaptation of American playwright David Ives’s New York stage-hit – which in turn is based on the nineteenth-century semi-autobiographical novella Venus in Furs by Austrian writer Sacher-Masoch (whose name also provided the source for the clinical term ‘masochism’). The novella describes a perverse relationship between a Galician nobleman and his dominatrix; the play updates this to a contemporary real-time encounter between an American director/playwright and a female actor who is auditioning for the role of Wanda in his stage-adaptation of the novella. If the latter is a classic depiction of power in sexual and class relations, the play mixes in a contemporary critique of artistic and gender politics – the latter with the aid of liberal references to The Bacchae (which provides the sub-text of the adaptation, and which in a sense it gradually transforms into).

So far Venus in Fur barely qualifies as either French or a film, although French cinema has long sustained itself economically through international and cross-platform co-productions. In this case, the production and most of the crew are French, with the notable exception of Polanski’s Polish compatriot and cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who shot the director’s visually astonishing The Pianist as well his other recent theatrical adaptation Carnage (based on Yazmina Reza’s play). The setting is transplanted to a theatre in Paris, and of course Polanksi now lives in exile in France for sexual misdemeanors of his own – which makes the film a potent semi-autobiographical statement in its own right. Most significantly though, its cast of two are both French: the wonderful Mathieu Amalric and an appropriately mesmerizing Emmanuelle Seigner, who also happens to be Polanski’s wife. As such Venus in Fur is typical of Polanski’s great series of claustrophobic studies in the interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics of paranoia: Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, Rosemary’s Baby, Fearless Vampire Killers, Macbeth, Chinatown and The Tenant. If it’s not on the same level of intensity as these (and indeed arguably none of his films have been since the scandal of his arrest and flight) it’s still a work of wonderful artistry, especially from its two stars. It also unmistakably belongs to the venerable French tradition of cinematic love-letters to theatre that harks back to Les Enfants du Paradis and includes The Last Metro and You Aint’ Seen Nuthin’ Yet (all of which were screened at last year’s Festival).

The same is true of the next two films I saw. My Myself and Mum is written, directed and starring Guillaume Gallienne in an adaptation from his own one-man stage show. In a delightful trompe l’oeil performance (and use of cinema trickery) he plays himself and his mother in a series of scenes (narrated by him in voiceover) documenting their relationship and its consequences for his own sense of gender and sexual identity. It’s very funny, albeit in an Almadovar-lite kind of way, and if the transition from theatre to film is less seamless than in the case of Venus in Fur, it shares with the latter a certain camp clumsiness that’s in some ways more appropriate and effective than in the Polanski film. In particular the cinematic/theatrical double-denouement of Galliene’s film is unexpectedly touching – and in its own way more subversive than the apparently familiar queer-theatre trope that precedes it led me to expect. It’s certainly more effective than the self-consciously Bacchic climax of Venus in Fur, which might have worked onstage, but on film felt contrived and consequently fell flat. Suffice to say that the resolution (if you can call it that) of My Myself and Mum questions what it means to be either a man or gay. It also gives a whole new meaning to the notion of being hung like a horse. The screening I saw was incidentally and inexplicably the only one I attended that was unexpectedly overrun by hundreds of French people (who knew there were so many in Perth?) who seemed to be having a whale of a time – or as the French say, ‘amused themselves like maniacs’ (s’amusaient comme les fous – or perhaps comme les folles, in deference to another much-loved French international cult camp comic hit of the late 70s).

The third ‘theatre’ film I saw was perhaps the most impressive: Our Heroes Died Tonight, the debut feature by writer-director David Perrault. It’s the story of two returned soldiers from the Algerian War in the early 60s who become professional wrestling antagonists, exchange masked identities in the ring and ultimately fall foul of the sadistic criminal underworld that surrounds and underlies the artificially light-drenched arena of wrestling itself. Shot in lyrical black-and-white and using dreamlike slow-motion sequences and soundscapes, it’s a stylistic homage not just to the French New Wave films of the 60s but to the great Hollywood noir boxing-and-corruption movies of the 40s and 50s that preceded them, from Robert Wise’s The Set-Up to Mark Robson’s The Harder They Fall – movies which in turn inspired John Huston’s underrated 70s neo-noir Fat City and Scorsese’s towering 80s black-and-white retro homage Raging Bull.

Unlike these films however the theme and content of violence in Our Heroes refers beyond sport not just to the psychology of crime or masculinity (though it does that too) but to a specific moment in history and politics. This focus on political as opposed to psychological content indicates a signal distinction between French cinema and its American counterpart. In particular the black or white masks and capes worn by the two wrestlers (together with their clichéd personas as ‘The Butcher’ and ‘The Specter’) give expression to a moralizing ideology of nationalism and race in the context of French colonialism, together with associated feelings of guilt, fear of revenge and anger at the political manipulation and corruption that underlies the public version of events. The implied theoretical reference point is Roland Barthes’s great essay ‘The World of Wrestling’, which analyzes the uniquely theatrical spectacle of wrestling as opposed to other less artificial combat sports like boxing or judo.

This brings us back to the French theatrical cinematic lineage of Our Heroes, and in particular to a tradition of ‘poetic realism’ the most famous embodiment of which is Marcel Carnés’s monumental Children of Paradise – another black-and-white homage to a bygone era (the Parisian theatrical demi-monde of the 1840s) made a century later during the German occupation and serving as a more subtle allegory for survival amid the compromises and corruption of the times than Our Heroes (or indeed Truffaut’s Last Metro). In comparison with both, Perrault’s debut seems perhaps inevitably a little obvious and heavy-handed. Nevertheless, it features two excellent lead performances from a gentle Denis Ménochet and an intense Jean-Pierre Martins, and ravishing black-and-white cinematography by Christophe Duchange – especially during a climactic showdown in a burning wax museum worthy of Orson Welles at his most phantasmagoric.

The next two films I saw could also be described as noir in terms of plot and mood, but are both less theatrical or overtly political than Our Heroes. 11.6 is a crime thriller directed by Philippe Godeau in the cool style of Michael Mann’s Heat (including the latter’s characteristic use of blue and green filters and  consistently gripping restraint in terms of pacing and performances). Based on the true story of the biggest single-handed heist in history not involving firearms, it stars Francois Cluzet as Toni Musulin, a security van driver who in 2009 stole 11.6 million euros that he was supposed to be delivering to a bank. Godeau’s film is a subtly observed psychological study focused on a flawlessly compressed performance by Cluzet, who never leaves the screen. The politics here is implicit: Musulin tacitly dominates his fellow male employees on the basis of his supposedly superior wisdom, maturity, physique or skin colour, and is passive-aggressive with his long-suffering girlfriend, but is humiliated by his employers, who treat him with scarcely disguised contempt. Meanwhile unmentioned in the background is the global financial crisis in which European governments rewarded banks and the wealthy for their irresponsibility, and punished their working-class clients and populations with crippling austerity.

Going Away (Un beau dimanche – ‘one fine Sunday’) is another moody character-driven noir, directed by actress Nicole Garcia (who has worked with New Wave auteurs like Resnais and Rivette as well as others like Meville and Tavernier) and featuring charismatic lead performances by Pierre Rochefort as a prodigal-son-turned-itinerant-schoolteacher; Louise Bourgoin as a strong-minded waitress and single mum with whom he forms a relationship, but who turns out to be in hock with the local mob; and Mathias Brezot as her son (and his pupil and charge for the weekend). The first half of the film is set near her workplace on the coast in the south of France and builds strongly; but the second half loses tension once we shift to his wealthy family home, despite the commanding presence of French 70s art-house icon Dominique Sanda as his mother. In brief, the film is all dressed up with nowhere to go: it begins as a thriller but ends as a meandering indie-romo-road-movie with an unlikely happy ending. Still, it’s beautifully shot and acted, Garcia has an original vision, and seeing Sanda after so many years was worth the price of admission alone. 

Superficially both these films are more typically American than French in their cinematic and psychological language. In truth both rely more on action and mise-en-scene than dialogue in terms of storytelling. However there are important French precursors here too. In the case of 11.6 the obvious debt is to 1950s down-and-dirty noir heist thrillers like Rififi (directed by blacklisted American Jules Dassin) and Georges Clouzot’s masterly Wages of Fear – both of which famously feature long scenes of nail-biting suspense in near-silence or at least virtually devoid of dialogue (and both of which were not coincidentally big international hits). Going Away with its interest in class and family rivalries owes more to the thrillers of New Wave ‘godfather’ Claude Chabrol (who was in turn inspired by Hitchcock and the English country-house thrillers of Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith) – but pulls its punches in comparison with their ruthless unsentimentality and inescapable convergence on murder.

Finally I indulged in two early New Wave classics from this year’s festival tribute to Francois Truffaut: The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules et Jim (1962), neither of which I’d seen before on the big screen. In both cases I was blown away by their raw beauty, kinetic energy and sheer joy of cinema, including extensive use of location and found footage, mobile and hand-held camera-work, jump-cuts and freeze frames. Both movies spearheaded a movement of film lovers-turned-directors who took inspiration from American film-makers they termed auteurs; in turn they inspired a new wave of American movies in the late 60s and 70s that came to be called The New Hollywood, and that likewise dealt with social outsiders and bohemians in their own freewheeling cinematic style.

To be honest, I find Truffaut’s later films a little sentimental in comparison with his more steadfastly hard-core New Wave colleagues like Godard or Resnais, and this quality is already nascent in his earlier masterpieces – in particular during the first half of both films, which in both cases takes place in Paris and seems drunk with the experience of capturing the city cinematically en plein air. They both change gear however in the second half, when Gallic charm and insouciance give way to something more serious, heartfelt, harsh and even bitter. The miscreant 12-year-old hero of 400 Blows (in French, faire les quatre-cent coup means ‘raising hell’, and the original American title was Wild Oats) is sent away from Paris by his parents to a juvenile prison-school near the sea. He finally escapes and runs away, in an exhilarating long take that ends with him running towards the sea and then turning back for a last defiant look into the camera. In a similar vein, the happy triangle of Jules, Jim and Catherine in belle époque Paris is interrupted by savagely blown-up newsreel footage from the First World War – after which the film shifts its principal location to Jules and Catherine’s post-war home in Austria, where the triangle resumes with devastating results. In the final act they return piecemeal to Paris, but things spiral further downhill and the film ends abruptly in tragedy.

I saw Jules et Jim with two dear friends who hadn’t seen it before, and we were all three transported by it. I’d always identified with Viennese actor (and pacifist) Oskar Werner’s Jules, but seeing it again I was also struck by how much Jeanne Moreau’s freewheeling Catherine was a role model for one of my daughters, in some ways anticipating Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall (not least in their matching propensity for oversized cardigans). When I caught up with my daughter the next day, she was flattered by the comparison and told me that J&J was indeed one of her favourite films (as is AH). She also sagely observed that in her view Jules is really in love with Jim, with Catherine as go-between. I quickly agreed, privately reflecting that this cast a whole new light on every triangle I’ve ever been involved with. Non, mais vraiment…


The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival finished in Perth on Sunday night after seasons in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane. It finishes in Adelaide tonight, with a final season in Byron Bay from 24 to 28 April.