Desire: A Day in the Country (1936)

DAY IN THE COUNTRY, A (1936)

To view A Day in the Country click here.

One of Jean Renoir’s most beloved films is one he wasn’t interested in finishing. While making A Day in the Country, Renoir was in pre-production on both The Lower Depths (1936) and Grand Illusion (1937). Once A Day in the Country ran into money problems he put it to the side, leaving it to be finished by his producer Pierre Braunberger. Shot in 1936, it wasn’t released until 1946 as a 40-minute short, whereupon it swiftly entered the pantheon. A suggestive slip of a movie, adapted from a Maupassant short story, it portrays the dueling desires of a bourgeois Parisian family and two country layabouts out for a bit of flirtatious sport. What transpires is beyond their respective imaginings, a transformative lust that lingers well beyond that afternoon under the summer sun.

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Life is Beautiful: La Chienne (1931)

CHIENNE, LA (1931)

To view La Chienne click here.

The characters in La Chienne (1931) do not learn or grow, but remain indelibly themselves. Each act of pettiness, adultery or murder is a logical extension of personality, fated in DNA.  It is the earliest of director Jean Renoir’s canonical works, bitterly funny and desperately sad, which unravels a love triangle in which all three members cling to unsustainable illusions. A mild-mannered cashier (Michel Simon) and brutish pimp (Georges Flamant) both project their dreams of escape onto a no-nonsense prostitute (Janie Marèse), who is unwilling to satisfy their divergent desires (the cashier asks for love, the pimp money – neither ask what she wants). None are capable of enough empathy to consider the other’s position, so they continue in mutual incomprehension, and on to frustration and violence. Renoir bookends the film with a puppet show, framing the trio as marionettes not in control of their destiny, tugged along by their natures. While this leads them to tragedy, it also provides them with a radical kind of freedom, the sloughing off of all control.  

This is the third part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. The first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate is here. The second entry on Nana is here. [...MORE]

Party Girl: Nana (1926)

Nana (1926) Directed by Jean Renoir Shown: Catherine Hessling

To view Nana click here.

Jean Renoir considered Nana (1926) to be “my first film worth talking about.” An ambitious adaptation of the Emile Zola novel, Nana (Catherine Hessling) is an actress of limited means adept at manipulating men’s hearts, failing as a stage star but lavishly succeeding as an actor in her own life (a theme Renoir would return to throughout his career). After his scrappy independent production The Whirlpool of Fate (1925) failed to get much distribution, Renoir went big, making Nana a million franc French-German co-production.  It is an enormous step up in scale, going from shooting around his childhood haunts in Whirlpool to juggling multiple locations around Europe, as well as the egos of his international cast. Still experimenting stylistically, Nana, like Whirlpool, has expressionist touches at the edges of a realist drama. This tension is centered in the performance of Hessling (Renoir’s wife, real name Andrée Heuschling). A devotee of Gloria Swanson, she is elaborately made up and gives a performance of grand gestures and herky jerky movement. Renoir admiringly compared her to a “marionette.” It works for the character – a woman not in charge of her own life – but for audiences used to more naturalistic acting, it faced ridicule. But Nana is no joke, but a bold experiment in which Renoir toys with performance and camera movement to convey the unsaid.

 This is the second part of a series covering the films of Jean Renoir, 16 of which are streaming on FilmStruck. You can find the first entry on The Whirlpool of Fate here.

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François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980)

LAST METRO, THE (1980)

To view The Last Metro click here.

François Truffaut was a nostalgic sentimentalist, someone who enjoyed the idea of telling stories without too much cinematic edge or experimentation getting in the way. If you’ve ever read about his relationship with Jean-Luc Godard, or watched the documentary Two in the Wave (2010), you know that Truffaut and Godard veered off in different directions after their early successes breaking through the barriers of French cinema in the late 1950s. Godard experimented more and more, overturning cinematic norms while Truffaut increasingly embraced them. But just because one embraces norms and decides to work within them, while another attempts to revolutionize cinema with each new release, doesn’t mean one is better or worse than the other. In the end, Truffaut was far more successful with the public and commercial success is often equated with artistic compromise. But hiding within Truffaut’s movies are insights about art and politics that are perhaps more meaningful, and hit their mark more accurately, precisely because Truffaut worked within the system, so to speak. One such example, and his last critically and commercially successful film, is 1980′s The Last Metro, a film both rewarding in its story of love and art amidst horror, and utterly frustrating in its standard melodramatic banalities.

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Birdshead Revisited: Judex (1963)

judex-franju-01-g.jpg

To view Judex click here.

The first time we see the magician, he is standing alone, legs spread slightly apart, a lifelike bird mask covering his head. Next to him, on a stone block, lies a lifeless white dove. He picks it up in one hand and holds it gently as he walks through the hallways of the mansion on his way to the ballroom where the gala is being held. Once there, among the other masked revelers, the dove comes to life and flies away. He has brought it back from the dead, or so it seems, and produces one after another to the delight of the guests. The  man in the mask, we suspect, is Judex, an avenger who has set out to get a rich banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), to pay back his victims or else. The actual magician portraying Judex is Channing Pollock and he didn’t speak a word of French. That didn’t matter to director Georges Franju, he just wanted a look. Besides, Judex wasn’t the lead anyway. [...MORE]

Sometimes a Movie is a Dance: In the Mood for Love (2000)

IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000)

To view In the Mood for Love click here.

There is a clamor in the apartment house as people come and go, eat dinner, play mahjong and discuss the day. The shots are tight. We see faces, bodies moving past us, jammed hallways. Then, everything stops. The clamor is gone. The soundtrack now plays only music, a music both deliberate and beautiful, and a woman gracefully walks up and down a flight of stairs to get noodles for dinner. Her neighbor, a man with whom she has a passing acquaintance follows close behind and does the same. Then, the clamor returns. As their relationship becomes deeper, and more expressive, the rhythm changes, the beats occurs at different intervals and the bodies move cautiously at times, frantically at others. Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 film, In the Mood for Love, may be the cinema’s best evocation yet of the cinema as dance.

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I Know I Am: Breaking the Waves (1996)

BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)

To view Breaking the Waves click here.

There are two moments near the beginning of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) that capture a little bit of what I love so much about his style of filmmaking, moments that make the film seem unrehearsed, almost as if it weren’t a narrative piece at all. The first is after Bess (Emily Watson) walks outside after meeting with the council of her church elders seeking permission to get married. She breathes in the air and then looks directly at the camera, smiling. The second occurs during the wedding of Bess and Jan (Stellan Skarsgård) as we see Bess coming down the aisle. She smiles shyly at everyone then looks right into the camera and sticks her tongue out. Both are fourth wall breaks but are done without irony or sarcasm, done not to wink at the audience but to leave the impression that you’re there, with Bess, in the moment, sharing her story. Lars von Trier makes movies that infuriate people and I admit, it took me some time to appreciate his nuances, but once I did, I found myself rewatching his works and rediscovering an emotional intimacy few other filmmakers accomplish.

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“Isn’t that enough?” The American Friend (1977)

AMERICAN FRIEND, THE (1977)

To view The American Friend click here.

Tom Ripley only ever wore a cowboy hat once. In Hamburg. And Wim Wenders loved it. Playing Tom Ripley, Dennis Hopper dons the hat as he roams about, confused and paranoid, running an art forgery scheme to make money off of ignorant investors. At one of those art auctions he’s introduced to a framer, Jonathan Zimmerman, played by Bruno Ganz, and gets the cold shoulder. Anyone who knows Tom Ripley knows that’s a mistake. Ripley is many things, from con man to sociopath, but he is, above all else, unstable. Tom Ripley never forgets a slight. That initiates a series of events that sets in motion Wenders’ 1977 thriller, The American Friend, based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game.

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A Deafening Silence

SILENCE DE LA MER, LE (1949)

To view Le Silence de la Mer, click here.

Jean-Pierre Melville directed Bob le flambeur (1956), Le Samouraï  (1967), L’ Arme des ombres (1969) and Le Cercle rouge (1970), all acclaimed works by an acclaimed director but his first effort from 1949, Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea), stands as one of the great directing debuts in movie history. It also stands as a controversial work, along with its source material, the novel of the same name written by Jean Brullers in occupied France under the pseudonym Vercors. The controversy has to do with the idea of the “good German,” or, more specifically, the “good Nazi officer,” an idea that rankled many at the time and still causes problems today, depending on how you look at it.

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You’re Invited to Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

MURIEL'S WEDDING (1994)

To view Muriel’s Wedding click here.

Last year, I took a look at the enduring (and sometimes unexpected) impact the music of ABBA, the wildly adored Swedish pop group, has had on the world of cinema. One of the key titles in that study was Muriel’s Wedding (1994), an Australian films from the Miramax-led art house wave that hit theaters during the grunge years. Now that you lucky dogs can watch it right here on Filmstruck as part of a “Starring Toni Collette” two-fer with another Miramax title, Cosi (1996), what better time could there be to take a closer look? [...MORE]

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