Tag Archives: French film

Lady J (2018) Mademoiselle de Joncquières

“Haven’t you observed that love grows when the object of desire escapes us?”

Lady J, a French film set in the 18th century, opens at the vast, beautiful country estate of Madame de La Pommeraye (Cécile de France), a beautiful wealthy widow. She’s elegant, intelligent and very much at ease in her skin. She is courted by a practiced lothario, a man with a terrible reputation as a serial womanizer, Le Marquis des Arcis (Edouard Baer). He’s a classic seducer, smooth, disarming, and disingenuously claiming “I seduce no one, I am always the first to be seduced.” Madame de La Pommeraye has so far managed to keep the Marquis at a distance, mainly by not taking him seriously; she’s determined not to become another of his many discarded women. But he’s persistent, and eventually she succumbs to his charms which he adapts to his prey: in this case he uses the intellectual approach.
Lady JWhile the affair lasts longer than most of his dalliances, soon the marquis grows bored and finds excuses to leave. We can only imagine what this sexually rapacious scalawag is up to, but finally Madame de La Pommeraye, always a woman of calm reason, plays her cards first by pretending that she’s bored with the affair. With obvious relief, the Marquis confesses that he feels exactly the same way too, and so they part, friends.

You really have to laugh at the Marquis when he gives his version of events: how he’s such a victim of love. Well you could laugh if he didn’t careen around Europe looking for women to seduce and ruin.

Since the Marquis and Madame de La Pommeraye always shared an intellectual relationship, she continues to cultivate this friendship, encouraging his confidences and laughing at the silliness of the string of women who believed his promises of love, fidelity and possibly even marriage.

Under the facade of friendship, she stays in the Marquis’ life but claiming she’s striking a blow for all women, Madame de La Pommeraye plots revenge. She employs a woman (Natalia Dontcheva) who was deceived into a false marriage and who has had to resort to prostitution to make a living. In this life she is accompanied by her beautiful, very young daughter (Alice Isaaz). Madame de La employs the mother and daughter team to pose as reclusive, modest, strict religious women and then sets the daughter as bait in front of the marquis. Since this is a man who loves a challenge, (“the Marquis cannot resist what resists him”) he falls into an elaborate trap.

This tale of cold, merciless and carefully plotted revenge is elegantly filmed with a languid pace that belies the storm of passions that simmer beneath those gorgeous 18th century costumes. She’s warned by her loyal friend, Lucienne (Laure Calamy) not to take the revenge too far, but Madame de La Pommeraye, who has been badly wounded, enjoys watching the Marquis squirm and so the little charade continues…

The film’s main argument is that our actions have unpredictable consequences. After watching the film, I wondered why Madame de La Pommeraye tolerated the Marquis in the first place. Did she find his attention flattering? She knew exactly what he was; marriage wasn’t on the table, and the Marquis abandoned his promiscuous life style at least for a while, so were both characters seducers in their own fashion? If you enjoy the philosophical films of Eric Rohmer, then you should enjoy Lady J. Yes it’s about passion and sex and seduction (think Les liaisons Dangereuses), and it’s all elegantly done, scene by scene so that the piece seems to be a play rather than a film with a focus on the philosophical. The plot is based on a story from Jacques the Fatalist.

Directed by Emmanuel Mouret


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Love is My Profession (1958)

“You can’t explain happiness.”

Based on a Simenon novel, Love is My Profession (1958) aka En Cas de Malheur examines the power of sexuality and the issue of control through the obsessive relationship between a bourgeois French lawyer with a young girl. The young girl in question is Yvette, played by sulky kittenish Brigitte Bardot, a woman for whom morality isn’t exactly absent, but it is skewed. Normally, affluent middle-aged lawyer André Gobillot (Jean Gabin) wouldn’t cross paths with someone like Yvette, but Yvette seeks help and legal representation from Gobillot after she and her friend Noémie  (Annick Allières) attempt to knock off a jewelry shop, and Yvette ends up bashing the jeweler’s elderly wife over the head with a crowbar. After the robbery goes wrong, Yvette manages to run away to a bar where her sometime lover, student doctor, Gaston (Claude Magnier) works. Yvette gets the notion that she needs legal help and picks out Gobillot’s name from the phone book. Whether or not you think this is a stroke of luck or not may depend upon your romantic tendencies. 

Gobillot at first refuses to represent penniless Yvette until she raises her skirt and in an unforgettable scene reveals her lack of underwear and her garter belt. From this moment, Gobillot is a goner, and his personal and professional lives spiral out of control.He represents Yvette in court and by some clever, but unethical legal footwork, Gobillot manages to get his client free. Instead of Yvette walking back to her former life, Gobillot pays her bill at a hotel that’s all too conveniently close to the courthouse.  DVD covers often depict scenes far more salaciously than they actually are in the film, but this DVD cover is an exception. Bardot’s skirt is lifted higher in the film and you can see her garter belt and it’s also obvious that she’s not wearing underwear. Well the offer she makes to Gobillot is rather frank after all….

One of this marvelous film’s great characters is Madame Gobillot, played exquisitely by Edwige Feuillère. She’s not exactly a long-suffering wife, but she understands her husband better than he understands himself, so she’s one step ahead of his intentions when it comes to Yvette.

Gobillot begins an affair with Yvette, and although this should be a private matter, the illicit relationship has ramifications on everyone in Gobillot’s life. His wife initially accepts the affair as a silly passing interest, and she decides to tolerate it and keep the lines of communication open until Gobillot comes to his senses. Meanwhile Gobillot’s devoted old maid secretary, Bordenave (Madeleine Barbulée) is alternately shocked, concerned and titillated by Gobillot’s flagrantly erotic relationship with Yvette.

The complexities of the film’s characters add significantly to a tale that could be trite in the wrong hands. After all, the mid-life affair of a man of substance with a giddy, promiscuous blonde is hardly unexplored territory. While Gobillot’s relationship with Yvette is heavily sexual, there’s a large slice of the father-child dynamic at play. Gobillot treats Yvette rather as he would a naughty five-year-old, and this method works for the most part–even though her behaviour includes drug use and flagrant infidelity. For her part, self-confessed prostitute Yvette feels that she owes a debt to Gobillot, but their relationship extends beyond gratitude and also beyond the material security he showers her with.  Yvette’s sense of morality includes admitting infidelities to Gobillot, and he treats her like a child when she confesses or is upset–even holding a tissue while she blows her nose.

As the affair grows more serious, Madame Gobillot’s tolerance is stretched to breaking point, and in once great scene, Gobillot tells Bordenave that he’s giving his wife “real reasons to hate” and compares this to a “mercy killing.” While Madame Gobillot’s tolerance is a strategic move, her decision to allow her husband ‘freedom’ to indulge in this affair proves catastrophic. Freedom and possession also raises its head in Yvette’s relationships with Gobillot and Gaston. Both men want exclusive ownership–whereas Yvette seems happier with no constraints on her behaviour.

Love is My Profession was remade into the 1998 film In All Innocence (En Plein Coeur), and interestingly the original film is bleaker and its characters much more complex. It’s impossible to watch Love is My Profession without recalling Simenon’s life and his turbulent marriages. At one point while married to first wife, Tigy, he had a long-term affair with the maid, Boule, and when he and his wife travelled to America, his wife stipulated that the maid remain behind. However, when Simenon began an affair with Denyse, the woman who would become his second wife, his then current wife sent for the maid to join them. There’s a very odd scene in the film which includes Janine, the maid (Nicole Berger). Is it just me but is there some swinging going on there?

Love is My Profession is an entry into Caroline & Richard’s Foreign Film festival.


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Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962)

“I only remember loathing my husband even more than usual.”

Thérèse Desqueyroux, a 1962 black & white film from director Georges Franju, is based on the book by Francois Mauriac. The film begins with the acquittal of Thérèse Desqueyroux who’s been charged with the attempted murder of her husband, Bernard. We are not privy to the trial–instead the story picks up as Thérèse leaves the deserted Palais de Justice in the company of her lawyer. Thérèse’s father waits for them in the distance, and while an acquittal should be good news, Thérèse’s father doesn’t greet his daughter. Instead he shuffles her off in a chauffeur driven car admonishing her that she’s already damaged the family enough.

On the drive back to her home, Thérèse (Emmanuelle Riva) recalls the events that led to the accusation of attempted murder, and it’s a stroke of irony that the evidence of the intended victim, Bernard (Philippe Noiret), is the one thing that saves Thérèse from imprisonment. The film segues to Thérèse’s moody youth and idyllic days spent with her companion, Anne (Edith Scob). Anne is convent-educated, and Thérèse notes that Anne’s purity is “still largely down to ignorance. The Ladies at the Sacre Coeur placed 1000 veils between reality and their daughters.”

Thérèse, the richest girl in the area, then marries the very stodgy Bernard. One of the reasons for the marriage, Thérèse claims is “to have the joy” of Anne as a sister-in-law. People marry for worse reasons, but Thérèse’s passivity in the acceptance of her fate appears to play a part in the marriage which is welcomed by both families. Naturally the marriage is a disaster, and Thérèse grasps all of its ramifications only after the honeymoon which includes her husband’s “nocturnal inventions.” Thérèse  seems doomed to accept the boring life demanded of her by Bernard and his family, but this all changes when she meets the young man Anne loves, Jean (Sami Frey), someone with whom she can discuss Chekhov.

There’s an unexplored tantalizing undercurrent of lesbianism between Anne and Thérèse which would appear to be endorsed by Thérèse’s repulsive sexual experiences with Bernard. The plot doesn’t pursue this early hint, and ultimately Thérèse remains an enigma–even to herself . Just as Thérèse isn’t exactly sure why she married Bernard–a man who bores her to tears, neither is she clear why she tried to poison him.

The film emphasises the idea of hypocrisy–Bernard and Thérèse’s families are more concerned with appearances than anything else, so Thérèse is ‘freed’ from the legal consequences of her act only to face even worse condemnation at home. One scene however struck a false note. Thérèse returns home after the case is dismissed and teases herself with the possibility that Bernard would open his arms to her and ask no questions. That seems either impossibly naive (which Thérèse isn’t) or deranged. After all, what husband is going to accept a wife back at his side, in his bed as before, or even worse–cooking his food–when you’ve tried to off him by overdoing the arsenic?

While the book was published in 1927,  the film is set in the 60s. And the updating begs the question: why is an independently wealthy young woman corralled into marriage with a man she finds loathsome? Still in spite of that flaw, the film has aged well and Thérèse, whose main problem according to her in-laws is her intelligence,  is seen as a feminist heroine who is given no options–or at least considers no options–except marriage to a complete bore.  While marriage is seen by Thérèse” as a “refuge,” ultimately, as she’s absorbed into Bernard’s family, she loses all sense of identity and individuality.

Director Claude Miller has a remake in progress of the film which will star Audrey Tautou as Thérèse.

Thanks to www.bookaroundthecorner.wordpress.com for bringing this book to my attention in the first place.


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Crime d’Amour (2010)

I love watching Kristin Scott Thomas in French films. For one thing, she’s easier for me to understand than native French speakers, but apart from that, there’s just something about her; she’s so tightly wound, you know that when she does something nasty (A Handful of Dust) or unravels (Leaving), it’s going to be spectacular. This brings me to the 2010 film, Crime d’Amour (Love Crime) from director Alain Corneau.

The film begins as an exploration of the relationship between two women–icy executive Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her younger protegé, Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier). The two women work in the French office of a global corporation which is headquartered in New York. The film opens with a scene of the two women working late at night, but it’s not all work, and Christine’s moves are … how shall I say it … more than a bit inappropriate. This clever scene establishes the subtle power politics between boss and employee. The boss, Christine, in this case, has a certain leeway when it comes to her behaviour, and this leaves Isabelle in the position of being confused by the relationship. Is Christine crossing the line because she sees Isabelle as a protegé, is she trying to be friendly, or is there a sexual undercurrent underfoot? Before there’s an answer to that intriguing question, Philippe (Patrick Mille)– Christine’s homme du jour appears and breaks up the evening. Status wise, Philippe is another underling, and Christine’s choice of man seems to speak volumes of what she wants in a relationship.

On some level, Christine and Isabelle appear to be a study in contrasts. While Christine’s home is sumptuous, elegant and yet still colorfully comfortable, Isabelle’s home is sterile in its meticulous order. This attention to detail makes Isabelle a great employee, and that leads to Christine glibly putting her name on Isabelle’s work. This skullduggery may lead to a promotion for Christine to the New York office. Isabelle doesn’t seem to mind working under Christine’s shadow and allowing her boss to reap all the credit for her work. This changes, however, after Isabelle goes on a business trip with Patrick.

There’s one great moment (before Isabelle goes on that business trip) when Christine advises Isabelle to “do something” with her hair. Isabelle obediently releases her shoulder length blonde hair from a tight bun, and Christine tells her to put it back up. Ouch: the implication is that Isabelle looks bad no matter what she does to herself.

After Christine realises that Isabelle is no longer under her thumb and may jeopardise any potential promotion to New York, Christine begins punishing Isabelle through office confrontations. And Isabelle, the employee, must take these subtle insults or move on to another job, but as the film continues, the insults become more transparent and even more humiliating. Isabelle absorbs a certain amount of humiliation from Christine, and these actions appear to erode at the younger woman’s confidence.

The film moves from the treacherous quagmire of office politics to thriller, and while this is done seamlessly, it’s also a disappointment for this viewer. The film shows Christine’s cruel cat-and-mouse manoeuvres with Isabelle who takes it … up to a point. Crime d’Amour is an unusual film for its exploration of the unique, unfathomable and sometime torturous relationship between boss and employee. Outsiders initially notice nothing, and the tension between the two women is real and untenable, but when the film morphs to thriller, well, it becomes much more predictable and at times the plot stretches credibility. In spite of its faults, however, the film is still good entertainment, and it’s well worth catching.

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Someone I Loved (Je L’Aimais) 2009

“Dealing with a Frenchman in love is too dangerous.”

Someone I loved (Je L’Aimais) is based on the best-selling novel by Anna Gavalda. It’s the story of Pierre (Daniel Auteuil), who takes his daughter-in-law, Chloe (Florence Loiret Caille) and two small granddaughters to the family chalet to stay following a family crisis. Pierre’s son, Adrian, has abruptly dumped his wife and children, and Chloe who “never saw it coming” is so emotionally devastated, Pierre thinks it’s wise to take her away somewhere quiet for a few days until she stabilises.

When the film begins, we see a tear-stained Chloe as she and the children are hustled away by car to the remote chalet. She’s angry, she’s hurt and she’s confused. Once there, her children are glued to cartons while she tries to make sense of what happened. Pierre tries to engage her in several ways–at one point telling the story of his brother who went to Indochina after a broken love affair and then who later died of TB.  Then one night, Pierre is driven to tell the story of an affair he had years earlier….

Flashbacks via Pierre’s interrupted story-telling reveal just how 46-year-old Pierre, an affluent Paris businessmen, and director of his own company, met and fell in love with interpreter Mathilde (Marie-Josée Croze). Pierre admits that he was ambushed by his passion: “I didn’t know I was programmed to love like that,” he confides to Chloe.

Over the course of the affair, Pierre has to juggle family and career demands with the desire to be with Mathilde. Theirs is a long-term, passionate affair–potentially the most damaging variety. Scenes with Mathilde are juxtaposed with scenes of Pierre’s unhappy, argumentative family life. According to his status-conscious wife, Suzanne (Christiane Millet), Pierre is never “there” for the family. Interactions between Pierre and his  two teenage children rapidly devolve into shouting matches, while he’s nagged non-stop by his wife when he does put in an appearance. All the phases of the affair unfold: the ecstatic beginnings, the ‘what-about-us’ phase, and the final stage as the affair disintegrates. The film does a marvellous job of showing the heady sensation of the affair. Pierre’s time with Mathilde is an equivalent of being on holiday from his job and his responsibilities.

We know that Pierre didn’t leave his wife–that is evident in the film’s very first scene. But we don’t know the reasons behind his decision. While Pierre’s story of the affair consumes most of the film, there’s also Chloe’s reaction. As a woman on the losing end of an affair, will she have sympathy for Pierre? How will she feel about Pierre’s decision to remain with his family? As the wounded party in her marriage, she makes a unique audience for Pierre, and his story gives her incredible insight into the other half of adultery.

In some ways, Someone I Loved may sound like rather rote fare, but it isn’t. Like any marvellous French film, the sum total is greater than its parts. As Pierre tells his stories and reveals his regrets, he must confront some unpleasant truths about his character. At one point, he admits, painfully, that his choice was “atrocious,” yet at the same time, it’s fairly easy to draw the conclusion that there was no easy solution. Now in his 60s, would he have regretted making the ‘other’ choice?  Is his regret for staying with his wife simply because the unchosen path (“The Road Not Taken“) seems infinitely more desirable?

From director Zabou Breitman


Filed under Daniel Auteuil, France

The Sea Wall (2008)

A few years ago, the French film The Lover, based on the book by Marguarite Duras, made the cinema circuit. I loathed the film for its excessive romanticism. Yes I know millions loved it, but I didn’t.

So when I saw that another novel by Duras had been made into a film, I initially decided to avoid it. But then when I read that Isabelle Huppert had a leading role, I knew I would have to watch The Sea Wall (Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique). The film, set in 1931 Cambodia, is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name.

So here’s the set-up: A middle-aged widow (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two children, 20-year-old Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel) and 16-year-old Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).  The children have never been to France and yet they seem to lead lives of shipwrecked French set adrift in Cambodia. They speak French, and obviously the mother has tried to maintain some French cultural standards, but in many ways they’ve run wild. Joseph, whose teeth are rotting in his head, is a smuggler and spends nights hunting out in the jungle with a Cambodian he calls The Corporal (Vanthon Duong).

The first few scenes establish the family dynamic. They live in an impressively large but primitive hut and are waited on, colonial style, by servants. The mother is the driving force of the family unit, and Joseph is his mother’s favourite to be indulged as much as can be allowed when you’re dirt poor. He’s not at all an appealing character, and an early scene involving a horse highlights the sort of brutal pragmatism he’s inherited from his mother.

And what of the mother? We know that she’s lived in Cambodia for at least 20 years. Her husband was a minor bureaucrat of the French Empire. After scraping together every last penny she possessed, the mother, with relentless drive, bought a plot of 12 acres next to the sea, but now she fights to keep the family afloat. Each year the land is flooded by the sea and the rice crop destroyed. This is a marvellous role for Huppert as she plays a diminutive woman whose frail shell houses a formidable, relentless will. Yet in spite of this unbending, tireless and at times vicious determination, she visibly fades as her illness gains ground.

Although the land would appear to be less than desirable, clearly many people want to get their hands on it. Take away the flooding problem and the soil is rich. The mother is plagued by petty French bureaucrats who try to seize her land under any legal pretext they can dream up, and then there’s her fragile health. Her most formidable and seemingly unconquerable adversary, however, is nature. Huppert plays a single-minded intense character who refuses to bow to the law or to nature; eventually she conceives of a plan to build a sea wall to protect the crops.

The drama ramps up a few notches when Suzanne comes to the attention of Monsieur Jo (Randal Douc), the son of a millionaire. While Joseph is initially disgusted and humiliated by his mother’s matchmaking plans, he too gets the idea that Suzanne’s virginity is for sale. Suzanne, intoxicated with her new sexual power, alternately flirts and teases Monsieur Jo, driving him wild in the process.

The story is set against the backdrop of a bloody phase of Cambodia’s history. Natives are rounded up and used for free labour, and French bureaucrats grab the land from the natives and evict them from their huts.  The mother, bitter from her experience with French rule, incites the local farmers to fight back. I’ve read several negative reviews of the film including the comment that this is yet another anti-colonialism film (and do we really need another?)  I’d argue that since colonialism still exists today in a mutated form, politically the film is still relevant. To categorise the film as anti-colonial, however,  is far too simplistic. We see that there’s a hierarchy within colonialism and it’s not simply the natives vs. French. After all, the mother, who has arguably benefitted from colonialism has paid a terrible price for her displacement and she and her children are now stuck in Cambodia one step from homelessness and poverty. How would this family adjust if they returned to France?

The film ends with hints of the social disaster to come. If Joseph & Suzanne remained in Cambodia until their 60s, they would see the bloody rise of Pol Pot.

On another level the film is about the bonds and the distances between parent and child. The mother is aging and in ill-health, but she refuses to give up her dream of economic independence for her children. Her decision to invest in this Cambodian plantation has in effect dictated the lives that her children will lead. While she has relentlessly sacrificed to pursue her goal, both Joseph and Suzanne cannot wait to escape. Joseph has options (hunting, smuggling) and is free to leave more or less at will, but Suzanne’s escape is limited to her sexual function.

My DVD includes an interview with Cambodian director Rithy Panh, and Panh decsribes the Duras novel as “anticolonialist.” He also notes that the rich, fertile fields once owned by the Duras family are under cultivation today and are known as the Rice Fields of the White Woman.


Filed under Cambodia, France, Isabelle Huppert, Political/social films

A Girl Cut in Two (2007)

“Depraved to the bone.”

Shortly after beginning Claude Chabrol’s film A Girl Cut in Two (La Fille Coupee de Deux), I realised that this had to be a re-working of the love-triangle between eminent, middle-aged, married architect Stanford White, Gibson girl Evelyn Nesbit and deranged millionaire Harry K Thaw. There’s a tasty version of their story, set in the Gilded Age of a colourful New York. It’s a film called The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing reviewed here. If you watch the film, you’ll understand the title, and the film stars the gorgeous Joan Collins, young enough to carry off the innocence required in the role of the ingenue who’s seduced by a worldly rake.

Back to Claude Chabrol:

In A Girl Cut in Two, the three main characters are Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), the young effervescent weather girl on the local television station, seasoned (and kinky as it turns out) middle-aged married author Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Bereand) and the unbalanced heir to a pharmaceutical company, Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel). The film begins with Charles Saint-Denis and his wife, Dona (Valeria Cavalli) at their country home in Lyon when his literary agent Capucine (Mathilda May) arrives to help Charles promote his new book.

One look at the literary agent, and we know something is not quite right. This is an attractive older woman who dresses to publicise her rampant sexuality rather than her professionalism. In one scene, Capucine sunbathes in a swimsuit that barely captures her breasts, and she does this right next to Charles’s bikini-clad wife. As the plot spins out, however, it becomes clear that Charles is a bit of a swinger, and what’s more the missus knows and doesn’t care.

Poor little Gabrielle is woefully ill-prepared when she steps into Charles’s open marriage.  They talk one day at a book signing held in her mother’s (Maire Bunel) bookshop. Charles has previously spotted and noted Gabrielle, but it’s at the bookshop that he approaches this young girl. Also at the bookshop is Paul Gaudens, and he too makes a beeline for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle begins an affair with Charles, and soon she’s accompanying him on expeditions to collect rare and valuable erotica at auctions, and being “instructed” in the art of various kink. I should add that most of this is kept off-screen, and the fact that this is largely left to the imagination makes the tale darker.

Charles really is a revolting character. While Gabrielle imagines that she’s in an affair with an unhappily married man, in reality, she’s little more than a passing fad. While we don’t know exactly what Charles tells Gabrielle about his marriage and his wife, the actions he takes to extricate himself from the affair make it clear that he is deceiving her. He might waffle on about choice and liberation, but he’s extremely manipulative. Gabrielle suffers a breakdown of sorts, and then there’s good old Paul Gaudens waiting to pick up the pieces….

A Girl Cut In Two manages to exude a macabre flavour and this is achieved by not revealing everything that takes place and instead dropping veiled hints about some of the conduct that takes place behind closed doors. What, for example, is really going on when Gaudens is hustled out from the restaurant by his bodyguard? His mother instructs the bodyguard to take Gaudens to the car for cigars. Does the bodyguard shoot Gaudens up with a tranquilizer, or is Gaudens just locked in the car for punishment? These are the sorts of intriguing hints that Chabrol drops throughout the film.

In spite of the subject matter, no one gets very passionate here. It’s all conducted with a certain amount of restraint, and is consequently delivered as a morality tale as the film follows the Stanford White-Thaw-Nesbit triangle. The confrontations at the restaurant, the insane jealousy, the domineering mother, it’s all there. Gabrielle and Saint-Denis are updated 21st century versions of Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit, of course, but the loony spoilt millionaire with the equally loony mother cannot be disguised or even transcribed into another “type.”

For Chabrol fans, the film should not be missed, but the story can be faulted for the fashion in which it sails on the surface of its characters’ emotions. Gabrielle, for example, has choices that were unavailable to Evelyn Nesbit at the turn of the 20th century. But the film never explores Gabrielle’s decisions and instead avoids mining the psychology of its characters.


Filed under Claude Chabrol, France

Les Sanguinaires (1999)

“We’ll either die of cold or boredom.”

In the French film Les Sanguinaires, as the millennium approaches, Francois (Frederic Pierrot) the Paris-based owner of the Jetlag Travel agency plans a special ‘getaway,’ and he invites a group of friends to join him in what he promises to be a unique experience. While Paris is clogged with those who seek to celebrate the millennium,  Francois, his wife Catherine (Catherine Bauque) and their friends travel to one of the Sanguinaire islands located near Corsica. The plan is to sit-out the millennium and basically avoid it.

sanguinairesThings begin to go wrong almost immediately. Stephane (Jalil Lespert), the young man who runs the island’s lighthouse is supposed to be there to meet them and take them to their rented house. Although he does show up hours later, a grim mood begins to descend on the holiday makers as they realize that the island is so isolated, they are basically stranded. But it gets worse…when Stephane does show up with the food, everyone realizes that the lodgings are primitive and without heat. Although some of the adults and the small children try to put a happy spin onto the adventure, the teenagers, who already resent being ripped away from Paris, are appalled.

As the days wear on–without television, telephones or radio, the determination to have a good time stretches very thin. Tension mounts when Stephane begins to be very popular with the children and inadvertently the leadership role shifts from Francois to Stephane. Francois resents Stephane’s popularity, and as some of the adults begin to plan a New Year’s Eve party, Francois becomes increasingly more taciturn and depressed.

Les Sanguinaires is not Cantent’s strongest film. It’s a strange tale that begins as one man’s avoidance of the crass, commercialism of the millennium, and it’s entirely conceivable that a travel agent, who has spent the last few months planning other people’s holiday destinations for the millennium,  would cringe at the flamboyant celebrations and massive numbers of tourists who will descend on Paris for the event. So it makes sense that Francois would invent an alternate way to celebrate,  and that those plans would involve a quiet escape far from the crowds. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the island getaway isn’t so much an alternative as much as it’s Francois’ attempt to deny that the millennium is taking place.

After reading short descriptions of Les Sanguinaires, my impression was that it was some sort of feel good film about a bunch of aging yuppies who got together for chats and intimate exchanges as they wax on about the future of the planet, the wankerism of politics and embarrassing confessionals about their relationships. Les Sanguinaires is not a feel-good film; it’s a vaguely disturbing and unsettling tale. While the group struggle to put a brave face on the choice of destination, it becomes increasingly apparent that avoiding the millennium means a great deal more to Francois than anyone can possibly understand.

The film raises questions which are never addressed by the plot, and this contributes to the film’s overall disturbing mood. There’s an underlying menace throughout the film which is emphasized by the bleak island; will Francois go postal or will Stephane abandon this lot of spoiled Parisians who sometimes don’t treat him particularly well? Although Francois gathers a fair number of friends for this little get-together, most of the other characters seem to be there for decoration. There’s little time spent exploring the thoughts or reactions of the friends as the situation becomes increasingly more uncomfortable.  Since Francois is a travel agent, and cooking up bang-up holidays is his business, it seems plausible that his friends would have expected something a bit more exotic than this bleak, subsistence-level destination, but apart from a few significant looks, the friends remain mute on the subject–a little disgruntled bitching would not have been out of place.  Les Sanguinaires could have been a much better film, but that said, it’s not bad. The film’s underlying air of mystery and unresolved questions linger long after the credits roll.

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Summer Things (2002)

“It’s aggravated nymphomania.”

Holidays are about all about space. In our regular, non-holiday lives we create and occupy certain spaces on this planet that involve work, home, family, friends and responsibilities. Along with those issues comes the idea, weaved into various cultures, that we need breaks from the old routines, respite from the drudgery, and that renewal can be found by getting away from ‘it’ all and enjoying a new life on holiday. This holiday–it’s argued–gives a well-deserved and much needed breather from the stressful aspects of life. A little R&R and we’re refreshed and renewed–ready to jump back into the rat race. Well that’s the idea anyway, but as someone who spent many miserable holidays as a child of a constantly bickering married couple, as the saying goes: wherever you go, well there you are.

While some people escape successfully from their regular spaces (work & responsibilities) by creating an entirely new, idylllic and temporary life in a pleasant or exotic holiday environment, still others discover, the hard way, that taking their nearest and dearest off on holiday with them perpetuates the problems they had back at home. In fact, some families on holiday aggress on each other like rats in a tiny cage. Just recall the scene in European Vacation when the Griswold family are stuck for hours in a confined space, and note how quickly they get on each other’s nerves. Then again, some people on holiday are disinhibited by their new environments and get up to all sorts of things they wouldn’t dream of doing at home.

summer thingsSo this leads me to my interest in films which depict people unleashed on holiday. The French always depict this so well, and the films of Eric Rohmer often explore the things people get up to on their holidays, but in this instance, the film under review is Summer Things aka Embrassez Qui Vous Voudrez. The film is a very nasty, bitterly funny look at a bunch of people who go on holiday and discover…well…an assortment of things.

When the film begins, affluent couple Bertrand and Elizabeth Lannier (Jacques Dutronc & Charlotte Rampling) are planning their annual vacation at a swanky hotel. Their friends, Jerome (Denis Podalydes) and Veronique (Karin Viard) who have substantially less income, plan on joining them there, in spite of the fact they can ill afford this indulgence. On the brink of bankruptcy, Jerome doesn’t have the energy to tell Veronique and teenage son Loic (Gaspard Ulliel) they can’t afford to go, and so he hobbles together a vacation which includes a tiny little caravan a few miles away from the hotel. Veronique, who’s locked into a losing competition over material wealth with the Lanniers, is mainly an hysterical, accusatory mess, expecting Jerome to “fix” the problems have. He copes by salvaging meters and ignores impending disaster with hopes that their house will sell.

In the meantime, Elizabeth invites free-spirited Julie (Clotilde Courau) along for a free holiday. Since this means that she’ll bring along her neglected baby, Bertrand elects to stay home. He’d rather keep his space at home than trade it in for a holiday suite with his wife, Julie (his one-time lover) and her baby. While the Lanniers plan their holiday, their wild daughter, Emilie (Lou Doillon) elects to go to Chicago supposedly with a girlfriend.

An assortment of unpleasant, troubled people converge on the swanky Westminster hotel–there’s slimy lounge lizard Maxime (Vincent Elbaz) whose goal is to nail every woman in sight, and then there’s another married couple,  the violently jealous Jean Pierre (writer and director Michel Blanc) and Lulu (Carole Bouquet). Lulu’s idea is to get a bit of peace and quiet, but with Jean Pierre breathing down her neck, that proves to be impossible.  What ensues is a French domestic farce on a grand scale and involving multiple couples as they try and “enjoy” their holidays. What the couples discover is they really need a break from each other….

The film is fast-paced but perfectly timed, with pithy nasty comments flying through the air as couples bicker and friends lob snide, yet subtle barbs at one another. Veronique, for example, is horribly embarrassed when Elizabeth greets her bitchily commenting on Veronique’s well-worn clothes, but the comments are too subtle for Veronique to catch except to flag and underscore the difference in material wealth: “She got three weeks in Bali. I got pizza and a quickie in a car.”

For about 9/10 of the film, it’s wildly funny but fizzles right at the end. But if you like your comedy mean, nasty, and savagely funny, then there’s a good chance you’ll really enjoy Summer Things, but don’t expect ‘inspiring‘ or ‘uplifting’; this is human nature at its worst. That said, it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time.

I’ve included some of this film’s great lines:

“Drive this shit heap to a hotel.”

“Not easy living with a nympho.”

“Take your proposal and shove it. I’m like you. I get laid and move on.”

“I threw up and a tuna hit my balls.”

“I’d turn tricks, but I can’t afford a g-string.”

 “Just a quickie in the elevator. No big deal.”

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Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

“We’ll only be together in the headlines.”

Director Louis Malle was just 25 years old when his first non-documentary feature Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’echafaud) was released in June 1958. With two shorts and a documentary feature he co-directed with Jacques Costeau under his belt, Malle set out to make a commercial B-level movie in order to get funding for future films. The result is the suspenseful, perfectly crafted and beautifully photographed Elevator to the Gallows re-released in 2006 by Criterion. Based on the French pulp fiction novel by Noel Calef, and with the story set to a haunting Miles Davis score, this noir tale of adultery and murder is tempered by a chain of ill-fated events. No matter how slick a plan is, no matter how well it’s executed, it’s always the unexpected events, the things that you can’t plan for that ultimately trip up the murderer’s scheme.

elevatorThe film begins with a phone call between Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet). It’s a frantic phone call with more than an edge of desperation. The camera focuses on close ups of the mouths of these lovers as they pour their anguish and passion into the telephone. But aside from all the words of love, Florence and Julien are finalizing their plans to murder her husband, wealthy middle-aged arms dealer Simon Carala (Jean Wall).

It seems to be the perfect plan. Julien, who works for Carala, is a former paratrooper in the French Foreign Legion. He’s served in Indochina and Algeria, and his experiences have left him fit, bitter and more than capable of murder. Combined with the fact that he despises Carala for reaping fat profits from war, he also wants his boss’s wife, and so with the motive and justification, Julien now waits for the perfect opportunity. His proximity to Carala gives him that opportunity, but he needs an alibi.

Julien’s well mapped out plan depends on precision timing and easy access to Carala. Julien is supposedly working in his office with a secretary outside in the next room when he uses a grappling iron to climb up to Carala’s secured office. Here he murders Carala but stages the crime to look like a suicide. After positioning the body, he looks back at his work to check the details. As he looks at Carala’s corpse, a black cat–a portent of bad luck–passes in the background and walks along the railings of the high rise building. And this is the very last moment that events are in Julien’s control.

At this point in the film, the plot splinters into three segments–one segment follows Julien, another follows Florence as she wanders the streets of Paris, and another section of the plot follows the fate of two young Parisians who embark on a joyride that ends in murder. These components of the plot are then woven together to accentuate suspense and the idea that Julien and his lover, Florence are plagued with bad luck and ill-fated timing.

Elevator to the Gallows is an extremely clever, well-made film. Many crime films rely on coincidences that defy credibility, but Elevator to the Gallows is not formulaic and avoids coincidence by replacing it with sheer bad luck and ill-fated timing. The murder of Carala takes place efficiently and exactly as planned at the beginning of the film, but the scheme begins to unravel from the moment of Carala’s death. A plan is just a plan until a killer commits the irreversible act of murder, but once at the point of no return, a murderer has no choice but to try and repair a botched scheme. Julien’s decision to return to the crime scene is correct, but trying to repair the plan–once it’s gone awry–complicates matters, and the odds of Julien pulling off the murder successfully become slimmer as the night wears on. It’s a bitter irony that Julien’s sure-fire alibi will spring him from one murder scene but will land him firmly in another.

Florence is Julien’s partner in crime, yet interestingly, the film emphasizes Florence’s desperation and emotional fragility. These facets of her character are underscored by cinematographer Henri Decae’s naturalistic style. Accentuating her youth and vulnerability, the camera visualizes Florence as a delicate femme fatale shot in close-up, with her face without make up often filling the entire screen. As Florence wanders through the night looking for Julien, she’s wet and cold and takes shelter in a series of cafes where lone men sit and wait like predatory wolves. These camera techniques and plot devices place Florence in a sympathetic position of victim hood, and yet this is a woman who plots the murder of her husband and can’t wait to dash into her lover’s arms once the deed is done. This portrayal of Florence is in contrast to some of the greats in American noir that typically include a hard-edged dame whose plans to rid herself of the inconvenience of a husband do not include a lasting bond with the male tool who aids in the process (Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Jane Palmer in Too Late for Tears). While another infamous femme fatale, Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice appears to genuinely desire to be with hapless handyman Frank Chambers (John Garfield), there’s always the uncomfortable feeling that the lover she manipulates to set her free from the bonds of matrimony may very well just have been the first sap who walked through the door.

The camera also emphasizes space and distance–beginning with the film’s very first scene of the lovers who can connect only via telephone. Some of the most spectacular shots include the scene in which Julien drops a piece of lit paper down into the elevator shaft in an effort to judge the height of the stranded elevator car. Another brilliant scene involves Julien and two police interrogators as he is questioned in a room full of dark shadows and lit only by a single light bulb that dangles from the ceiling.

Anyone interested in noir or Jeanne Moreau, will find the film riveting. On top of that, the Criterion print looks great and is well worth the purchase.

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