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.

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