Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Quai des Orfèvres (France 1947)

Dora photographs Jenny in Quai des Orfèvres

I picked this up in a bargain bin of DVDs -- pleased with myself because I'd been wanting to watch it for a while. Later I was deflated when I noticed that a trio of Henri-Georges Clouzot's most famous films (this one plus Le Corbeau and Le Salaire de la peur) were on offer at a better overall price in an online store. C'est la vie! But I wasn't disappointed by my purchase, even though it was a dodgy DVD that kept crashing during the opening menus. Optimum are to be applauded for releasing French classical cinema, but they don't offer much in the way of extras -- only a trailer on this DVD.

Quai des Orfèvres came to my attention after I'd watched 36, Quai des Orfèvres (France 2004) the policier starring Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu. Several commentators made reference to the earlier film and some suggested that the newer film was a remake. The title of both refers to the address of the headquarters of the most important French police organisations – something like the equivalent of '(New) Scotland Yard' in the UK. However, the title is the only direct link between the two films and the title of the earlier film is not particularly revealing since although the narrative does feature a lengthy interrogation at police headquarters, it is primarily a film noir melodrama.

Clouzot has suffered in retrospect from his decision in 1942 to work for the German 'front' studio Continental during the Occupation. One of the films he made then, Le Corbeau (The Raven) was named as 'propagandist' and Clouzot was denounced as a collaborationist. I saw the film a couple of years ago during the Leeds Film Quarter experiment and it is clear now that the film was much more ambiguous (it concerns a flurry of poison pen letters that gradually undermine a small town community).

A useful essay by Fiona Watson on the Senses of Cinema site gives a clue to Clouzot's influences and importance as a filmmaker. She tells us that Clouzot began working for Ufa at Babelsburg in 1932 dubbing films and this was where he developed an interest in the work of Fritz Lang. Later it became clear that whilst Clouzot had learned much from Lang, his competitor in the 1950s would be Hitchcock and the two would vie for the title of 'Master of Suspense'. Many of the American reviewers of those Clouzot films available as subtitled DVDs begin with the Hitchcock comparison, but this might not be the best place to start with Quai des Orfèvres.

My own interest in French films of the late 1940s and early 1950s has always been fuelled by a desire to test out the criticisms contained in the polemics by Truffaut and the other Cahiers writers. Was the French 'Quality Cinema' of the period as hidebound and stuffy -- 'le cinéma du papa' -- as they maintained? Watson points out that Truffaut was obsessed with Le Corbeau as a teenager, memorising whole chunks of dialogue and I did start thinking about one aspect of Truffaut's own work -- his interest in French popular culture -- as I watched Quai des Orfèvres.

The film focuses on an unusual ménage à trois. Maurice is a trained musician reduced to working as an accompanist. At the same time, his rather dim but attractive young wife, 'Jenny Lamour', is beginning to gain attention as a chanteuse. The couple live in a flat and below them isthe studio of a 'glamour photographer', Dora, who is in love with Jenny. When Jenny accidentally kills an ageing lecher (who sends young women to be photographed in 'erotic poses' by Dora) the other two both become involved in trying to avert Jenny's arrest. Although Dora is not an 'out' lesbian, the inference is clear and I was reminded of the representation of the lesbian relationship in Rossellini's Rome Open City, which must have shocked American audiences around the same time as Quai des Orfèvres was released in France.

As well as the music hall scenes of the chanteuse and the glamour photography shoots, the film also offers the auditioning rooms of a showbiz agent and the backstage of a circus in its overall representation of Parisian popular culture. The second half of the film involves the investigation of the death by an eccentric (but effective) police inspector. There is an intriguing mixture of comedy, suspense and detail of procedure in the investigation and the presence of a pack of hungry newshounds made me think of His Girl Friday. The other factor in this mixture of emotions is that the later action takes place in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve and as if to emphasise a Dickens connection, the inspector's adopted son (an African boy from the Inspector's time in the army) turns up at the police station almost like Tiny Tim. This delirious concoction is beautifully staged and photographed, echoing both pre-war French and Langian noirs and also the similar noir melodramas being produced in both the US and the UK in the late 1940s. In this respect it confirms the Cahiers view of 'quality cinema' -- it's also based on a 1942 novel. What it lacks in comparison to some of the American and British films is the new sense of 'street realism' that was introduced around this time.

The critic who really despised Clouzot was Jacques Rivette who described him as "sickening", whereas Godard merely rated Clouzot as not as interesting a filmmaker as Roger Vadim. Clouzot's crime was, like Réné Clément and Claude Autant-Lara, to be interested only in 'style' and to disavow 'social cinema'. Sometimes, the New Wave critics do seem very precious and it seems to me that a film like Quai des Orfèvres is stylish, entertaining and, if not a comment on the 'reality' of its period, at least populated with interesting and richly detailed characters.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Yella (Germany 2007)

Nina Hoss as Yella

I missed Christian Petzold's appearance at the Bradford Film Festival earlier this year, so it was good to catch up with his latest release, Yella on DVD. Yella is an intriguing film that creates a metaphor about both a sense of East Germans looking for an escape to a better future and a sense of the empty and soulless capitalism of the West, represented here by the glass-walled offices rented by venture capital companies on the Autobahne outside major cities.

The striking Nina Hoss plays a young woman who leaves her abusive husband in the East seeking a new job on the other side of the Elbe. What she finds is a situation in which another version of her husband -- a more successful and organised venture capitalist -- properly appreciates her skills as an accountant. Or does she? The film has a twist. It was recommended to me as rather like Kim Ki-duk's 3-Iron and, surprisingly perhaps, I can see the connection. The twist will no doubt anger some audiences -- perhaps it will be thought obvious, perhaps it will be taken to be wilfully obscure. Either way, it works for me and I found the film to be a much more interesting account of East and West than the more hyped films such as The Lives of Others. Yella is beautifully filmed and carefully and intelligently directed. The DVD release by Artificial Eye (Region 2) has interviews with both Petzold and Hoss that are revealing of the methods used. I hope more of Petzold's films are released in the UK.

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Sally Hawkins is Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky

I decided to see the latest Mike Leigh film in the cinema because (a) it focuses on a primary school teacher in North London (a job that means quite a lot in our household) and (b) it won the major prize in Berlin and was widely touted as being 'upbeat'.

The screening at Leeds Vue, The Light was interrupted by a fire alarm, but the cinema management handled the ensuing melee quite well and it didn't spoil the film for us (complimentary tickets was a nice idea too).

Overall, I thought the film was, as usual, impressive as a production with direction, cinematography and acting of the highest standard, but 'upbeat'? -- hardly. I do wonder what people remember about Leigh when they make these kinds of judgments. I've missed some of Leigh's later films (Naked, Career Girls etc.) but I've seen the rest, including all the TV plays. Happy-Go-Lucky for me is absolutely in the mainstream of Leigh's work. The central character is complex and interesting, but although I warmed to her as a good classroom teacher, I'm sure she would drive me mad in a few weeks. Some of the other characterisations are excellent. I liked the housemate, the school headteacher and a wonderful flamenco dance teacher.

The crunch in Leigh's films comes with the creation of characters and situations which are essentially 'real' – we've all met these people and we've been in situations like this. But Leigh then pushes both characterisation and situation that little bit further. Here the typical situation is the lead character Poppy's family argument with her two sisters, one a controlling conformist, the other a more 'out of it' student. But this is only a sub-plot next to Poppy's main confrontation with her increasingly intolerant driving instructor. This has great potential and I can see that Leigh could be argued to deliver a justified pay-off that is certainly not conventional. My problem is that this involves yet another working-class character in a Mike Leigh film who is portrayed as a grotesque. It's a sterling performance by Eddie Marsan (excellent in Vera Drake) but like The Office and other comedies of embarrassment, it's very difficult to watch. For me, that extra push makes it difficult to accept the disturbance that Leigh engenders in the relationship -- I can't engage at the very moment Leigh makes his point.

I'm quite happy to accept that the fault is mine in having too rosy a view of the world, but I consistently find Leigh too cruel in his depictions. I'm also less interested in his stories because I can't recognise any coherent political perspective. The Leigh film that remains enjoyable for me is Topsy Turvy, the Gilbert & Sullivan biopic. I want to enjoy all the skill and artistry, so I hope Mike Leigh comes up with a different kind of narrative soon.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Telegu Film

A Telegu language film, Jalsa, appeared in this week's Screen International "International Box Office Chart" at No 22 with a release on 454 screens across seven territories for a total of $4.6 million. I'm interested to see these figures which challenge the too common view outside India that only Hindi films matter in Indian Cinema. I also came across an old (1980) copy of the Guinness Book of Film Facts which had an entry on the long lists of Indian languages in which films have been made and which confirmed Tamil and Telegu as the languages with most productions in that year.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Le Voyage du ballon rouge (France/Taiwan 2007)

Fang Song and Simon Iteau in Le Voyage du ballon rouge

I saw this in the cosy and comfortable seating of the Old Town Hall, Gateshead -- the temporary home of Tyneside Cinema -- at the end of a very hard day. As a result, I found it hard to concentrate on a film which requires proper attention. But I struggled on with determination because the film had been recommended. I'm glad I did because I enjoyed the experience -- although at the end I wasn't sure I'd understood everything. Fortunately, a group of young Chinese behind me were talking after the screening and I picked up some ideas and later I trawled a few websites. Gradually it started to make sense.

There isn't a lot of plot. A single mother, Suzanne (Juliet Binoche) lives in a two story apartment in Paris with her young son. She advertises for a childminder so that she can work as the narrator on a Chinese puppet show. The childminder turns out to be a film student from Beijing, the quiet and implacable Song, who seems to be creating her own version of the classic children's film Le ballon rouge (France 1956). Song helps Suzanne with some translating and also with the transfer of some home movies to a digital format. Other than that there are some journeys around Paris and Suzanne falls out with her lodger, an old friend of her (estranged ?) husband's who lives in the downstairs rooms.

I guess what kept my interest was the contrast between the quiet Song and her charge, Simon, and the much noisier Suzanne and also a sense of mystery about exactly what was going on. There was a very slight sense of the menace of Hidden in the scenes both in the apartment and around Paris. Does the boy actually see a red balloon? Is it following him? I'm not sure if I've ever seen the original film -- perhaps it has some of this mystery?

Because it is Hou Hsaio-hsien, a disciple of Ozu Yasujiro, the film invites the audience to spot Ozu traits. I can report that there are several train trips which I enjoyed and that it is possible to summon up some Ozu like compositions in the tiny apartment. Unlike the minimalist style of Japanese interiors, however, Suzanne's apartment is cluttered and cramped with piles of books and eventually the piano from downstairs. Most of the time the camera remains static, focused on the table which seems to be at the centre of the life of the room. After a while, I began to think about Michael Snow's famous avant garde film Wavelength (in which the camera very slowly zooms/tracks in towards a photograph on the wall of a warehouse floor). I became fascinated with the detail of the room and the small movements of characters in it.

I've looked at several websites and blogs on the film and they point towards other familiar traits from Hou such as the cultural differences between China and France -- the Chinese film student attempts to recreate a French film, the French actor narrates a Chinese puppet play etc. There is also a sense of history with the past (the original film, the family's history on film) bleeding into the present. Many critics and audiences have apparently been bored rigid and some are outraged by being seduced into seeing an 'art film' like this. I found it restful and intriguing.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Princesas (Spain 2005)

Candela Peña (left) and Micaela Nevárez in Princesas

I really enjoyed this film. I didn't know too much beforehand, but I was immediately drawn into the world of the central character, Caye. The film works simply as a character study of a lonely woman and the friendship she makes with another prostitute, from the Dominican Republic. At times it might be a thriller, a (family) melodrama or a romance, yet none of the potential genre narratives are carried through. Instead, we are given the chance to engage with a character who is naive at best, sometimes pathetic, but also resourceful and open to new ideas and relationships. As I watched the film, I thought again how easy it is to 'see' film acting only when it is a highly visible construction of an unusual character. Candela Peña's performance as Caye is as skilful in bringing to life a 'ordinary' character as any barnstorming performance that wins an Oscar. Fortunately, Spanish critics recognised Peña's achievement and she won several awards at home.

My main query is to why it took two years for this excellent film to get UK distribution. I missed the previous release by director Fernando León de Aranoa, Mondays in the Sun with Javier Bardem and now I'm keen to catch up with it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

I was shocked when Anthony Minghella's death was announced last week. He was far too young and it must have been dreadful for those around him. There have been tributes from all sides of the UK and international film, theatre and oprea communities. He obviously helped a lot of people in the industry and was highly respected. I wasn't that interested in his films which I assumed to be in the 'international Miramax mode' and the only one I saw in a cinema was Cold Mountain, which after a fantastic opening battle scene I found quite literally cold and ultimately disappointing. As a result I approached the film pilot of the projected TV series of The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency with some trepidation.

I was further taken aback to discover Richard Curtis was a co-exec producer and co-writer. His presence usually puts me off completely, but I'd heard great things of the novels that were the series' inspiration and I was intrigued by how Botswana would look on film. The cinematography in the film pilot was by Seamus McGarvey and it was very beautiful -- far too beautiful really. The opening sequences had numerous crane/cherrypicker shots that might have graced a mainstream Hollywood feature. Unfortunately, the novels (I'm told) are small scale, gentle tales that don't need the epic treatment.

I have no problem with the BBC screening a series set in Africa (in a Sunday night 'comfy telly' slot, just like ITV) and I have no problem with Africa being represented by a gentle comedic series – I readily accept that it's important to have alternative representations of African stories -- they don't all have to be about civil war, refugees and famine. But . . .

I do have problems with this series. I only lasted for less than half the running time and found something better to do. The opening was slow for no apparent reason. It looked like a one hour idea was being spun out over 100 mins or so. The beauty of the cinematography then began to look likeit was offering an alternative to the slow story. But my main concern is that the film isn't really an 'alternative' to the other representations of Southern Africa. In fact it follows the usual British/American strategy of shipping in actors from the US and UK as well as writers, director, producer etc plus some heads of department. The heavy promotion of the film suggested 'local' sourcing of other crew, but as far as I could work out, this meant South African crew members alongside a couple of South African actors. Great play was made of being unable to find an African actor to play the lead role. I interpret this to mean that no African actor was considered suitable for a UK/US audience – I'm sure there are Zimbabwean women who could have played the character, or even South Africans. It wouldn't be so bad if the BBC (or other UK channels) were prepared to put some money into African film production in Anglophone countries in the way that the French do in Francophone countries -- or at least show some African film product.

South Africa is potentially the major source of African 'films' (ignoring for the moment the hundreds of video films being produced in Nigeria and Ghana) but as yet the South African industry has remained in thrall to Hollywood. I guess it was too much to expect the Weinsteins and HBO to do anything very different with The No1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Uwasa no onna (Japan 1954)

Mother (Tanaka Kinuyo) and daughter (Kuga Mishiko) in conflict.

In one of my fantasies, I learn how to manage time so well that I am able to work my way through all the available films of the directors I love. In reality, this means being decisive now and again and buying a DVD which might get watched.

Mizoguchi Kenji is my sentimental favourite amongst the Japanese and I was delighted to discover that Masters of Cinema are releasing a series of double DVD packs of his films. Of course, this means that I will probably have to buy films that I have already got (or rent the films separately). However, in the case of Uwasa no onna it has been paired with Chikamatsu monogatari, which I think I did see many years ago, but certainly haven't got.

Uwasa no onna is an untranslatable title that has sometimes been rendered as 'Woman of Rumour' or 'Woman in the rumour' – summoning up a common Mizoguchi theme of the lives of women in the context of restrictive social mores. This is one of Mizoguchi's contemporary set films (although most of it takes place in the 'pleasure' district of Kyoto, where many of the women are employed as geisha). It's a melodrama based on a triangle of mother, daughter and young male doctor. The great Tanaka Kinuyo plays the mother, a widow who has invested in a geisha house. Her daughter returns from Tokyo after a failed suicide and is shown as shamed by her mother's profession. The doctor who comes to visit her is the 'house doctor' in whom the mother has more than a professional interest.

The DVD carries a Tony Rayns introduction in which spends most of the time discussing how Mizoguchi didn't wish to make the film which was forced on him by his studio Daiei and how it was the last film he made with Tanaka, with whom he fell out when she became a successful director herself (the first significant female director in Japan). The introduction is both tantalising and frustrating. Rayns reminds us that Mizoguchi himself knew about the world of the pleasure houses (i.e. brothels) both from personal experience (common and acceptable for middle-class Japanese men of his era) and from his research for several other films which explored the same milieu. In this sense, it is clear why Daiei thought that this was a suitable property. It was written by Yoda Yoshikata, Mizoguchi's long-term collaborator and Narusawa Masashige, who would go on to be a major collaborator, so something was wrong if Mizoguchi turned away from the script. Rayns suggests that he was simply tired after winning three successive prizes at Venice or disdainful of what was clearly a straightforward genre piece. Daiei's motives become clear in the trailer included on the DVD which announces a 'dramatic epic' with all the sumptuousness of the geisha world. These now seem rather ridiculous claims for what turned out to be an 84 min film with relatively little visual splendour and none of the bravura camerawork that graces a film like Sansho Dayu from the same year.

But this lack of epic scale doesn't detract from my pleasure in watching the film. What I see is the competent genre work of a team of highly skilled filmmakers and performers. Most of all it makes me wonder about how films like this were seen in Japan in the 1950s. Presumably, this would have been half of a double bill in an upmarket cinema in Tokyo or Osaka. What would it have shown with? Were cinemas at this time controlled by the studios themselves? As one of the newer, smaller studios did Daiei have access to their own cinemas or did they have to rely on their larger competitors for bookings? An interesting brief history of Daiei by Greg Shoemaker answers some of these questions, but raises further seeming contradictions -- writing in a fantasy magazine, Shoemaker is more interested in the science fiction and exploitation films which Daiei were making in the same period. Mizoguchi's more artistic work was an important part of Daiei's attempts to produce commercially successful period films that would appeal to foreign markets (hence the festival screenings). The more generically inclined period films would then become reliable commercial earners at home in the later 1950s and early 1960s. But though I love Mizoguchi's period films, I find his contemporary films equally interesting. My question remains. Who were the audiences who got to see what appear now to be small genre pictures for older middle class audiences – in the 1950s perhaps the equivalent of audiences who enjoyed Douglas Sirk's melodramas?

The obvious thing to do is to compare Mizoguchi's contemporary films with those of Ozu and Naruse -- something increasingly possible now that the DVDs are appearing. Mizoguchi seems to me the more painterly (he was a trained painter I think), less realist but perhaps more concerned overall with ideas of art and society. I think three representations will remain with me from the film. First, the daughter (played by Kuga Mishiko) reminds me so much of Audrey Hepburn and is wonderfully fresh and modern in a mise en scène which is otherwise so traditional. Secondly, Mizoguchi offers us the contrast of the stage life and 'real life' with performances of both kabuki and noh plays (the latter being relatively rare in contemporary set films). Finally (and another Mizoguchi trait) is the sense of community shown by the girls in the house who effectively introduce us to all sides of the courtesan's life.

A note on the DVD: these are direct transfers from Daiei masters and surprisingly for UK DVDs they are NTSC discs. My DVD player/TV set can cope, but the image is never as good as PAL and appears here as rather lacking in contrast. It works fine on my Mac, though here the primitive sound quality is more evident. The DVD twin pack also has a small 56 page booklet, most of which deals with Chikamatsu monogatari, but there is a short extract from Keiko McDonald's out of print book on Mizoguchi. I found this useful in thinking about the mise en scène of the geisha house itself with the contrast between the cramped quarters of the girls and the more lavish use of space (so precious in Japanese buildings) in the mother's and daughter's rooms. No mention of Mizoguchi's reluctance here but McDonald does note, the Western style of camera work and editing and she concludes that Mizoguchi was, in terms of social critique, adopting an attitude of detachment and of "showing us how it is".

The final page of the booklet is something to cheer every cinephile – a set of instructions about how to watch a film in Academy ratio on a modern TV set, complete with illustrations showing how the image will be distorted or cropped on widescreen TVs set to 'fill the screen' defaults. What an excellent idea -- all DVDs should carry this!