There are precious few films about childhood. Many aim for an audience of children, but most look down upon them in their assumption that they will eat up any and all immature entertainment simply because it is handed to them. It is the rare film that tries to peel back the layers behind childhood and to give us a look at what growing up entails. Because it is difficult to focus on children in film without rendering them types, either immature simpletons who do not understand the world or wise-beyond-their-years precocious types who “know” better than the adults around them, it is rarer that a film succeeds at presenting childhood with a quiet sigh, knowing a certain maturity without ever losing itself in the adult desire to judge and moralize to children. There have been a number of great films about childhood, but none stand taller than Francois Truffaut’s debut film, the work that kicked off perhaps the most important movement in film history, the French New Wave: The 400 Blows. Continue reading
That Alain Guiraudie’s 2013 film Stranger by the Lake (French: L’Inconnu du lac) has been taken up by some as an erotic thriller in many circles is a most curious designation. Sure, there’s a surfeit of nudity in the film and the entirety of its emotional arc hinges on the relationship between sex and death (the defining characteristic of erotic thrills), but it is not the least bit erotic. Furthermore, it does not for a second pretend to be erotic (in contrast to many erotic thrillers are not erotic out of failure of execution even when they intend to be so).
In fact, every shot of the film, from the first angular image until the very conclusion, works as a study in detachment, so much so that the film borders on suffocation. It finds a certain unison between clinical examination of human distance and Hitchcock at his most malevolent and monomaniacal, but its dark heart is heavily filtered through a highly unmoving sense of frigid inhumanity. Now, I and many of my critical compatriots happen to think very highly of detached studies of inhumanity filtered through the eyes of a pitch-black thriller, but if you are looking for anything the least bit lively and humane, you will not find it here.
Eyes Without a Face (French: Les Yeux Sans Visage) is technically a French-Italian co-production, but it was made by a predominantly French crew, by a French director, and is told in French. Plus, if we want to talk the style and feel of French vs. Italian horror, Eyes Without a Face is about as far on the French side as humanly possible. So, you know, deal with it.
In the annals of time, 1960 might just go down as the greatest year ever for horror filmmaking. We have the obvious game-changing genre classics like Psycho and Peeping Tom from the English speaking world (poetic that those two harrowing critiques of the directorial gaze came to fruition in the same year) and the Italian film industry bursting forth from the womb with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. The ’60s were also the greatest decade for Japanese horror, and Nobuo Nakagawa’s1960 release Jigoku saw that trend kick off in ultra-fine style. In the midst of this, a film had to be something special to hold its own, and perhaps one of the most special horror releases of all is Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a work of horror wholly at odds with the norms of the genre.
Franju’s classically-trained but down-to-earth style is intoxicating, intentionally treating the material with the soft delicate hand of a piano player prone to liberating fits of more chaotic frenzy. He proves able to switch on a dime, creating a film at once modern for 1960 and elegantly timeless. Moments of carnage ring out, but its the thoughtful finishing-school haze that evokes Lewtonesque minimalism and Victorian era dreaminess that sweeps over the film and sticks in the memory the longest. Other than Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, Eyes Without a Face may just be the most impressionistic horror film ever released.
Edited in April 2016
Jacques Tati’s Playtime is the sort of ambidextrous work that grants a reviewer the blessing and curse of confronting opening lines from all angles. One might look to the evolution of Tati’s carnivalesque visionary depiction of modern society over the course of twenty years of filmmaking. Or the fact that this 1967 feature, his magnum opus in more ways than one, almost bankrupt him and went six times over budget as the famously meticulous Tati spent months upon months refilming sequences with psychotic perfectionism. Then we find the brilliantly twitchy physical comedy in the film. And the warped classicisim of the imagery and sound design that distorts and reinvents not only modernity but our place as fleshy individuals in the world. Then there’s the commendable commitment to throwing narrative cinema by the wayside in favor of Tati’s vision of space and place as human savior and human assassin, depending, of course, upon how we interact with the world around us. Continue reading
Ernest and Celestine
Ernest and Celestline is a children’s film, and damn proud of it. Light, frothy, and bolstered by the elegant simplicity of a storybook brought to life by watercolor and sketchbook, it has absolutely no airs, and yet it exists with its head in the clouds. The story is note-perfect in its simplicity: a bear, Ernest, and a mouse, Celestine, are both outcasts – Ernest a poor loner who lives on the outskirts of his society and Celestine a young, seemingly orphaned dreamer who dares to interpret bears through a lens of whimsy rather than fear. The two meet up and form a friendship, become a furry, feral Bonnie and Clyde, and discover a home in the process. Continue reading
Leos Carax took 15 years to make his next film, but he fashioned one of the decade’s most alert contributions to the history of cinema in the process, fundamentally tackling the idea of fiction entertainment and providing the most damaging, cantankerous commentary on the perils of acting and voyeurism you’re likely to find this side of the 21st century.
This inscrutable, willfully difficult monstrosity begins with an old man (Denis Lavant) waking up in his archly stuffy, bourgeois home to ride a limo to work. Well, presumably to work. Well, it is to work, but that’s besides the point. His driver (Edith Scob) informs him he has nine appointments for the day, and with tepidness he skulks right in. Then he scrapes on some makeup with precision and vigor, pulls off his hair, and the fun begins. His first stop involves a motion capture hootenanny, Lavant dressed to the nines in lightbulb sensors and a fellow, female, participant doing a dance with him that alloys the sensual and the robotic. From there he’s a monster, decked out like the Lucky Charms guy gone bad and cheekily beckoned forth by Akira Ikafube’s original Godzilla theme. Continue reading
Update late 2018: Europe in its abyssal, post-WWII ruination became the subject of so many films, and so many prismatic interpretations of film. From Europe demolished and rebuilt through cinema’s moral humanism and deceptive collectivity in Bicycle Thieves to Europe rotted out as an expressionistic image of America’s disingenuous attitude toward Europe as a canvas for its own self-making in The Third Man to a Europe that both can and cannot be remembered at all in Night and Fog, post-war Europe poses many reflections and wears many faces. But WWII in cinema from the years leading up to the war tends to be read teleologically, as a slow shoring up of the known future of WWII. Critics think through, for instance, Fritz Lang’s Weimar cinema as a prophecy of Nazism and Europe’s guaranteed future moral demolition, a revelation of an impending truth many Westerners were unable to notice beforehand, no other possibilities emerging beyond the gradual rise of fascism.
But not so for Renoir. In The Rules of the Game, futurity remains a precious contingency, every single character’s moral fate hanging in a balance they often don’t realize, inclining toward a war they may not see but which Renoir is unwilling to cynically commit to. He reserves his characters’ futures, preferring not to stretch his humans across time as icons of undying, static types but, rather, to see them all as living, breathing humans. They are not crystallized as metaphors but, rather, rhyme with and intimate a larger social canvas through their particularity, not their generality. A deeply humanist film, Renoir’s work is truly empathic, which necessitates the hard work of tracing the imaginative lives of each character and their own internal cross-currents, their ideological conflicts, their crises of consciousness, and the shifting planes of sight and sound in the world which animate possibilities of connection and understanding for characters who suddenly and tragically fail to fulfill these opportunities through no evil of their own. Renoir’s film, with no villains and no heroes, is an indelible portrait of the public images we cast of ourselves, and the shadow worlds – of ourselves, of others, of the possibility of connection, of other potential futures – which those social images sometimes expose, and more often than not occlude.
Although it may seem less biting today, Jean Renoir’s seminal La Regle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game) remains one of the most controversial films ever released. It was at one point ruthlessly censored in just about every way possible in France except an outright ban. On one level, one can imagine the understanding behind its danger. The film is undeniably pointed in its critique of French social aristocracy. But it’s also shocking in how pure and light on its toes it feels today – the narrative, boiled down, is a rather simple affair of aristocrats cheating on one another and struggling to establish love and truth in their identities. This is the narrative of many a film, and on the surface, the film feigns a similar tone to many other films bearing the same subject: cheerful quirk and light mockery. Continue reading