In the Kingdom of G

In the film world of the 20th century, there were not too many animators who made the transition to live action feature film directing. Certainly Frank Tashlin was one of the most famous, going from Porky Pig and Daffy Duck cartoon shorts to manic pop culture comedies like The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Hollywood or Bust (1956). Another rare exception was George Pal, who became famous for his Puppetoon shorts for Paramount before establishing himself as a director of fantasy features such as Tom Thumb (1958) and The Time Machine (1960). It is far easier to name more contemporary filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Brad Bird,  all of whom graduated from cartoons to live-action features successfully. The above are all artists who worked in the commercial cinema but, if you are talking about art cinema, the list is much smaller and Polish animator Walerian Borowczyk should be in the top slot. Goto, Island of Love (1969, Polish title: Goto, I’ile d’amour), his feature film debut, is a fascinating achievement that successfully brings the avant-garde sensibilities of his animated shorts to a live action feature.

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Postcards from the Edge: Louis Malle in India

Unaccountably missing or overlooked on most reviewers’ top DVD releases of 2007 was a remarkable set from Eclipse (Criterion’s no frills, affordable editions division) – The Documentaries of Louis Malle. Among the 7 titles featured were the relatively obscure God’s Country [broadcast on PBS in 1986, but filmed in 1981], And the Pursuit of Happiness [1986, also made for television), Place de la republique [1974] featuring man-in-the-street interviews on a busy Parisian boulevard, Humain, trop humain [1974], a fascinating time capsule of French auto workers with industrial noise and Godard-like imagery and the 18 minute short Vive le tour [1962]. But the real highlights of the collection were Phantom India [1969], a 378 minute portrait of that nation that was distributed theatrically as a 7-episode series, and Calcutta [1969], which was filmed at the same time but released separately (It was nominated for a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival). To call both films an overwhelming experience is an understatement to say the least.

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A Marriage of Convenience?

Almost everyone has a good reason for why they want to get married but for Hugues, there is a very specific need. He wants to find a woman with a place of her own, preferably one with ample square footage that includes a sitting room and a large, walk-in closet. Love or companionship isn’t a main objective. Nor does he have any particular preferences concerning the woman’s appearance or personality as long as she is close to the same age. Strangely enough, Hugues finds the ideal candidate through the Duvernet Agency, a professional matchmaker. Jeanne is not only lovely and charming, if a bit elusive, and she has never been married before. Plus, she resides in a sprawling ground floor apartment once owned by an uncle. What could be better?  So begins 1970’s L’Alliance (also known as The Wedding Ring), an exceedingly peculiar tale that slowly lures the viewer down a rabbit hole.

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Season’s Greetings from Arnaud Desplechin

Misery loves company, and if you are anticipating a stressful holiday season due to an unavoidable reunion with family, in-laws or friends you’d rather not see – even if it is only a Zoom meeting – then you may find a kindred spirit among the dysfunctional gathering in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (French title: Un Conte de Noel).  

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Marching into the Great Unknown

Do you like knowing what to expect when you go to a movie? Some moviegoers like everything laid out neatly and wrapped up at the end with no ambiguity. But when the director’s intentions and directorial choices are never made obvious or explicit, it can result in a baffling but memorable viewing experience. Welcome to Serge Bozon’s La France (2007), which had been widely praised at various film festivals (it was nominated for two awards at the Cannes Film Festival), but never made much of an impact on U.S. film critics and moviegoers.     

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Clothes Make the Man

How much of your identity is reflected in the clothes you wear? For some, fashion is the truest form of self-expression. It is who you are…or who you want to be. Some of the greatest fashion designers of our time have stated as much while offering other reasons for why it is important. Alexander McQueen said, “Fashion should be a form of escapism, and not a form of imprisonment” and Coco Chanel once remarked, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” This is certainly something to mull over while watching Quentin Dupieux’s dark, twisted fable, Deerskin (French title: Le Daim, 2019), which isn’t really about fashion per se but self-expression, creativity and being different are clearly part of the film’s thematic interests.   Continue reading

Moving Target

French director/screenwriter Edouard Molinaro may not be a household name in America but practically everyone knows his international breakout hit, La Cage aux Folles, from 1978.  It spawned an equally successful sequel, La Cage aux Folles II (1980), but also became the basis for the smash Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles in 1984 and eventually was remade by director Mike Nichols as The Birdcage in 1996 with Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest. La Cage aux Folles was no fluke success and Molinaro was already renowned in France for his film comedies such as Male Hunt (1964) with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Oscar (1967) featuring Louis de Funes and the black farce A Pain in the…(1973), which was remade by Billy Wilder as Buddy Buddy (1981). None of this would lead you to believe that Molinaro launched his feature film career with several film noir-influenced thrillers and Un temoin dans la ville (English title: Witness in the City, 1959) is a near masterpiece, deserving to stand alongside Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958), Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1962).   Continue reading

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