Alain Resnais: Gone Home to Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad. Photo Courtesy Rialto Pictures.I had originally planned to write a light-hearted post about Las Vegas to go with TCM’s airing of Ocean’s 11 until I heard about the death of Alain Resnais, one of the original French New Wave filmmakers. And, though I know my post will get lost in the many obits and tributes to Resnais, and a nod to old Las Vegas would likely have appealed to more readers, I wanted to write about the director who expanded my understanding of what film could be. Most film instructors and cinephiles remember seeing their first New Wave movie, usually at an age when they begin to check off the titles on that list of masterworks they intend to see. For many, it is a playful turn by Truffaut or an exercise in cool by Godard, but for me it was the cinema’s most enigmatic puzzle, Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.

I first saw Marienbad in a film class. I found it difficult to get my footing in the story, which seemed to circle around itself. It was like waking up from a dream to discover I was in another dream. At a large, luxurious hotel, a woman referred to as A is approached by a man called X, who claims that they had met last year at either Frederiksbad or Marienbad. At first, A, who is at the hotel with M, her current husband or lover, denies that she knows X. But, X continues to persuade, seduce, and influence A until she begins to believe that the two did have an affair last year at Marienbad. Is X lying to A for his own agenda, or has A suffered a trauma that has caused her memory to fail? Is M a cruel or supportive husband, and what is the meaning behind the game of sticks he constantly plays. Some of the scenes seem to be the thoughts and fears of the characters, but the real and the imaginary are not clearly distinguished. I was immediately pulled into the intrigue of the characters, haunted by the melancholy mood, impressed with the austere black-and-white cinematography, and challenged by the insanely ambiguous narrative. After class, my peers and I pondered the meaning of the movie; I knew that if I could only figure it out, I would understand the mysteries of a sophisticated adult world just out of reach to me. [...MORE]

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February 22, 2014
David Kalat
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Jean Renoir’s Less Grand Illusion

There’s a risk in peaking too early.  Just ask Jean Renoir—one of the greatest names in cinema history, whose prolific career was eclipsed by its first act.  Having made too many masterpieces as a young man, he set a bar he could never cross again.  And nowhere is that clearer than in 1962’s delightful The Elusive Corporal—lively, gorgeously photographed, briskly paced and full of memorable incidents, richly characterized, and fantastic on just about every level—except for not being The Grand Illusion.  As if being not quite as perfect as The Grand Illusion constitutes some kind of sin.  But there you have it, folks, a glorious film that would have made the career of almost anyone else, but forgotten and dismissed because it (gasp!) wasn’t a masterpiece.

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KEYWORDS: Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir, The Elusive Corporal
COMMENTS: 6
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December 7, 2013
David Kalat
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Unpure Chabrol

If you look up the word “self-indulgent” in the dictionary, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find that the definition is a TCM blogger who commits three entire weekly posts to a French director whose films are almost never even shown on the channel, and whose work is orthogonally situated to the tastes of the target audience.  Well, self-indulgent I may be, but there’s more to the story of Claude Chabrol than I managed to fit in the last two weeks.

I’ve mentioned that Chabrol is one of my favorite directors, but that alone isn’t quite justification to come back for thirds—the reason I’m still on a Chabrol kick is that this last piece of the story deals with the central questions of what constitutes artistry and authorship, in ways that matter far beyond any appreciation just of one man’s body of work (no matter how extraordinary that body of work may be).  This is about the endless stupid (and endlessly stupid) alleged schism between great movies and commercial pap.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol, Eurospy
COMMENTS: 4
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November 30, 2013
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol: a primer

For many, the term Nouvelle Vague is virtually synonymous with its twin axes, its most famous practitioners, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But if Truffaut and Godard were destined to become the famous names of the lot, Claude Chabrol was there first.

It was his 1958 film Le Beau Serge that launched the movement, and it was he who financed much of the early New Wave productions.  But it was not quite as perfect an inauguration to Chabrol’s own career, for reasons that were not immediately clear.

What was immediately clear was that the earth had moved. Le Beau Serge took home a prize at the 1958 Locarno film festival, but it was the picture’s popular and commercial success that truly spelled the start of something big.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol
COMMENTS: 4
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November 23, 2013
David Kalat
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Claude Chabrol – Beyond Criticism

A few years ago I made a poorly-thought-out attempt to pay tribute to Chabrol here in this blog, by (what was I thinking?) focusing on his worst film.  OK, so that didn’t work.  But I’m coming back to Chabrol, this week and for the next few as well, to try to give the man his due.  Tomorrow night, TCM is screening Chabrol’s first two features—and while both are terrific, they’re as different as chalk and cheese.

As far as I’m concerned, Claude Chabrol launched the French New Wave with Le Beau Serge—and then he went and ran off in a different direction away from the very movement he helped found.  For aficionados of the New Wave, here is a seminal work—for aficionados of Chabrol’s own unique brand of cinema, here is a frustratingly unfamiliar work.

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KEYWORDS: Claude Chabrol
COMMENTS: 4
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Diabolique vs. Scream of Fear

I was gonna call this week’s post “2 Girls, 1 Swimming Pool” but decided against it.  But inspired by TCM’s upcoming screening of one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (AKA Les Diaboliques), I’m taking the opportunity to celebrate the twisted artistry of this gloriously macabre picture–and taking stock of one of its many knock-offs.

Clouzot’s is a dark and cynical cinema, devoid of hope and happy endings.  Which is unsurprising, since that is an equally apt description of Clouzot himself.  “All his work has been surrounded by an air of scandal and affront,” writes Roy Armes, “and the shooting of all his films is conducted in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination.  His own urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his characters who seek outlets for their lust, hatred, and violence.”

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Someone is Bleeding: Les seins de glace (1974)

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Before Richard Matheson etched out a name for himself as a popular writer of horror and science fiction he dabbled in crime fiction and mysteries. His very first novel was a pulpy noir titled Someone is Bleeding (aka The Frigid Flame or The Untouchable Divorcee) and it features many of the genre’s typical tropes. But Matheson was anything but a typical writer and this psychosexual thriller contains some surprising twists and turns including an ending that would have been right at home in an Edgar Allen Poe story or an EC Comic book from the ‘50s. In fact, after enjoying all the brash and snappy dialogue exchanges in Matheson’s 1953 literary debut you half expect the Crypt Keeper to appear at the end with some kind of funny anecdote to lessen the horror of the book’s final chapter but there’s no simple escape from this grim story. Like many of Matheson’s best tales, Someone is Bleeding leaves readers with an unshakable sense of dread and despair. In Matheson’s imperfect world everyone and everything is suspect. No one is safe and nothing is sacred.

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Francois Truffaut – Friend, Teacher & Film Critic

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Throughout the month of July TCM is spotlighting the films of François Truffaut. Every Friday night viewers can tune in at 5PM PST or 8PM EST and expect to see a well-rounded selection of the French director’s films hosted by film critic David Edelstein.

I never met François Truffaut but I’ve long felt a sort of kinship with the man and his movies. 25 years ago I wept through my first screening of THE 400 BLOWS (aka Les quatre cents coups) and a few years later I was introduced to Truffaut’s film criticism when I stumbled across a beat-up & battered copy of The Films in My Life at a used bookshop. I eventually learned more about the director who helped usher in a New Wave of French cinema and today Truffaut and his films feel like old familiar friends that I’ve grown-up with and appreciate more with each passing year. But writing about them can be difficult because many of Truffaut’s films are tied to difficult and often painful experiences in my own life.

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Derelict Dancers: Gerard Depardieu vs. Roman Polanski

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I’m fond of mysteries that evolve through conversation and unravel in small spaces such as Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and Robert Hosseins DOUBLE AGENTS (1959). The claustrophobia they evoke seems directly linked to our primal fears and primitive suspicions. One of the most interesting films in this vein is Giuseppe Tornatore’s A PURE FORMALITY aka Una Pura Formalita (1994). I recently revisited this opaque thriller after almost 20 years and was surprised by how effective it still was. Even though I was well aware of the surprise twist ending I was mesmerized from start to finish thanks to Tornatore’s deft directing choices, Pascal Quignard’s brilliant dialogue and the masterful performances etched out by two powerhouses of European cinema; Gérard Depardieu and Roman Polanski.

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Fantomas Strikes Back

Having brought up Dr. Mabuse recently, naturally my thoughts also flit to Fantômas.  I had promised a while back that I would eventually address Andre Hunebelle’s 1960s Fantômas revival in this blog, and now seems the best time to live up to my word.  Along with last week’s visit to Dr. Mabusiana, I’m going to spend the next several weeks exploring the world of pulp mysteries on film—specifically how different filmmakers have approached the task of rendering in cinematic terms a corpus of literature that flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Hunebelle Fantômas films are not readily available for viewing.  It is the case that anyone with an Amazon account can obtain a DVD box set of the entire trilogy—but this import set will come without English subtitles and will only be playable in a region-free player, so it’ll alienate most casual American viewers.  With that in mind, I’m going to be fairly heavy on clips this week, so give you a good sense of what these three films are really like.  I’ve added subtitles to these clips from an online source of fan-created subtitles.  Given the awkward wording, I’m guessing by “fan-subbed” they really mean “ran the French script through Google Translate and performed no proof-reading at all.”

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