The Holy Bray

The title character of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) is a donkey who goes through a series of owners in his sad life as a beast of burden.

Films about animals or featuring them as the main protagonists are usually the province of Walt Disney and other family friendly productions such as Benji (1974) and March of the Penguins (2005). Other than the horror genre, though, there have been relatively few departures from the usual formulaic approach to this type of movie with Jerome Bolvin’s dark satire Baxter (1989) and the ethnographic Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) being two of the rare exceptions. Yet nothing can really compare with Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson, which stands alone as a profound and singular achievement in this category.   Continue reading

Two Cats and a Mouse

When a movie is released under various titles it usually means there are problems. It could be confusion over how to market it or a simple case of a movie that doesn’t fit clearly into any designated genre or maybe it’s a star-driven, major studio release that’s too quirky for the average moviegoer but yields enough curiosity value to inspire various promotional approaches to finding the right audience. All of these could apply to Joy House (1964), an international production based on a pulp fiction paperback by American author Day Keene and filmed on the Riviera near Nice. It stars English-speaking (Lola Albright, Jane Fonda, Sorrell Booke, George Gaynes of Tootsie fame) and French-speaking actors (Alain Delon, Andre Oumansky, Annette Poivre, Marc Mazza) and is also known as The Love Cage and Les Felins (the original French title). Joy House was not a popular success at the time (most critics were unkind in their coverage) but it is a favorite film of mine, flaws and all.   Continue reading

The Naked Lens of Philippe Garrel

Jean Seberg is the main focus of Philippe Garrel’s Les Hautes Solitudes (1974).

In 1974 very few people outside of France knew anything about Philippe Garrel, an experimental filmmaker who had first attracted attention in Parisian film circles with his 1964 fifteen minute short, Les Enfants Desaccordes (1964). Decidedly non-commercial, Garrel’s abstract, often autobiographical ruminations on disenfranchised youth and the vagaries of romantic love appealed to a fringe group of European cinephiles. But Les Hautes Solitudes, which was first screened in Paris in December 1974, raised Garrel’s profile considerably due to the film’s cast which included model/actress/singer Nico (formerly of The Velvet Underground) and current companion of Garrel, French stage and screen star Laurent Terzieff, the stunning Tina Aumont (daughter of Maria Montez and Jean-Pierre Aumont and, most notably, American actress Jean Seberg, who had reinvented her screen career in France with Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960). Continue reading

In the Shadows of the OAS

L'Insoumis (1964)L’insoumis (1964) aka The Unvanquished is a relatively unknown but deeply compelling and haunting French film from director Alain Cavalier that aired several years ago on TCM in an English language version titled Have I the Right to Kill? (It was originally distributed by MGM in the U.S.) Shot in glorious black and white by master cinematographer Claude Renoir, the film plays like a politically-charged film noir and it could easily be the best of Alain Delon’s early performances. In the other key role, Lea Massari, the beautiful Italian actress who is best known as the warm, charismatic mother in Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971), has rarely been more appealing.  Continue reading

Truckin’ With Jean Gabin

Jean Gabin plays a world weary trunk driver in Henri Verneuil's Des gens sans importance (1956, aka People of No Importance).

Jean Gabin plays a world weary trunk driver in Henri Verneuil’s Des gens sans importance (1956, aka People of No Importance).

One of the great stars of French cinema, Jean Gabin was also an unofficial film culture ambassador for his country whose career can be divided into five distinct phases; the first would be a brief stint in silent films and playing secondary roles in the first French “talkies” and the second would be as a ruggedly handsome, melancholy anti-hero and acclaimed actor who reached a career peak in the late thirties with Port of Shadows (1938), La Bete Humaine (1938), and Le Jour se Leve (1939). The third phase, the years between 1939 and 1953, are generally considered a fallow period in which he attempted an unsuccessful bid for Hollywood stardom and experienced equal disappointments in the French film industry.   Continue reading

Le Joli Mai and more at the Virginia Film Festival (VFF), 2013

Virginia Film Festival 2013 posterNow in its 26th year, the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville might not enjoy the high profile of Sundance or Telluride but that’s actually to its credit. While the latter festivals continue to introduce important new filmmakers and work to audiences, the media attention and crowds they attract can often be exhausting and even competitive for attendees trying to get into a select screening. That is not yet the case with VFF which continues to take a relaxed, laid back approach to film festivals despite an ambitious schedule of almost 100 screenings. Very rarely do you have to contend with long lines or sold-out shows. Nor do you often encounter the entertainment press getting priority treatment or trying to impress you with celebrity name-dropping in cellphone conversations that you can’t avoid at other major film industry events.    Continue reading