Personal Moral Codes

MY NIGHT AT MAUD'S (1969)

To view My Night at Maud’s click here.

Éric Rohmer, “the most durable film-maker of the French New Wave”, according to his obituary in The Daily Telegraph, established international prominence when My Night at Maud’s (1969) was nominated for two Academy Awards. My Night at Maud’s is being screened on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck as part of a Blue Christmas theme that invites viewers to “Have a holly, jolly, melancholy, festive season.” With this in mind a black-and-white feature mulling religious and moral questions set in the industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand certainly fits the bill. Rohmer was a champion for authenticity. This means if he was going to film a church mass, it would be a real church mass being delivered to the faithful. If music is heard, it had a diegetic source onscreen and reason to exist. If locations were alluded to, those actual locations were used. And if the story takes place on Christmas Eve, then the film itself had to be shot on Christmas Eve too. This last point is the reason the film was delayed for a year, and may have also contributed to the reason My Night at Maud’s is known for being the third within his Six Moral Tales series, albeit the fourth in order of release.

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Going Out with a Bang: That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

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To view That Obscure Object of Desire click here.

Somehow it seems utterly appropriate that Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel released their cinematic swan songs only a year apart. That might sound strange on the surface, but these two men had earned reputations as the greatest of all cinematic manipulators who traded in subverting their audience’s expectations at every turn.

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Treasures Left Behind

THE GLEANERS AND I, (aka LES GLANEURS ET LA GLANEUSE), director Agnes Varda, 2000. ©Zeitgeist Films/

As of late a lot of my friends are purging themselves of records, books, movies and more. I’ve been the happy recipient of these spoils and, as best I can, I have been trying to give these items a good home. Something in this act reminds me of The Gleaners and I (2000) – a documentary by Agnès Varda about people who make their living sifting through that which has been discarded by others. Varda, who made her first film at the age of 26 (La Pointe Courte, 1955) and whose work was essential to the French New Wave, was the first woman to receive an honorary Palme d’or two years ago. Her work is infused with a deep intellect that is kind, ruminative and open to experimentation.

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Keep an Eye Out for The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (1972)

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For reasons known only to the movie gods, Hollywood embarked on a decades-long love affair with the idea of grabbing the rights to successful French-language comedies and remaking them for American audiences, most often with all the quirkiness and local flavor completely sanded away in the process. There were enough hits peppered in this wave to make it profitable for a while; heck, Touchstone almost had a cottage industry with it thanks to 3 Men and a Baby (1987) and its sequel, based more or less on Coline Serreau’s Three Men and a Cradle (1985) but with a ridiculous crime subplot thrown in, and to a much lesser extent, My Father the Hero (1994), a retooling of Gérard Lauzier’s Mon père, ce héros (1991). Then we have the odd case of Yves Robert’s The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Le grand blond avec une chaussure noir) (1972), a wildly successful star vehicle for French comic actor Pierre Richard that turned into The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), an early showcase for Tom Hanks just after his star-making turns in Splash and Bachelor Party in 1984. The American version actually isn’t too bad on its own terms, but it really can’t hold a shaky violin bow compared to the original.

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Coup d’etat: The Embassy (1973)

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There is a coup d’etat in an unnamed country, and a group of dissenting artists and intellectuals pour into an embassy, seeking asylum. Chris Marker’s The Embassy (1973) is a provocative short film, shot on Super8, that manages to conjure an entire fascist state out of twenty minutes of footage of a few apartment rooms. It was made as a reaction to the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, though the surprising location of the film is obscured until the final two shots. For the majority of the runtime you are in an unknown space, disoriented and thrust into internecine battles of the political left, still bickering as a country falls around them. Information is doled out solely by the narrator/filmmaker, who is inside the embassy shooting home movies of the panic within. The camera is handheld and mostly kept at a distance, it never gets inside arguments but circles outside them, hearing snippets but never the heart of the matter. But when facts do start trickling in, like how the new military government is executing dissidents at the nearby soccer stadium, ideological battles give way to plans for survival. The Embassy is streaming on FilmStruck in the Directed by Chris Marker theme, which collects 23 of his remarkable shorts and features.

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My Melancholy Valentine: Dans Paris (2006)

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Love is complicated. Some see it as a priceless gift or blessing while others describe it as an unshakeable disease. It can be comforting, enriching, elevating, thrilling and divine. It can also be messy, unruly, feral, ferocious and cruel, particularly if you are suffering from acute depression. In Dans Paris aka In Paris (2006), French filmmaker Christophe Honoré (Ma mère aka My Mother [2004], Les chansons d’amour aka Love Songs [2006], Les Bien-Aimés aka Beloved [2011]) introduces us to a family in the throes of a profound depression although this fact is kept hidden from viewers throughout most of the film’s 90-minute runtime. Instead of focusing on the hows, whys and what fors of the situation, Honoré shows us how each family member is trying to cope and for better or worse, their drug of choice is love. With Valentine’s Day looming on the horizon, I thought it would be a good time to revisit Dans Paris, one of my favorite French films of the past 20 years, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck. Honoré’s delightful, difficult and bittersweet romantic drama is part of their holiday appropriate “City of Love” theme featuring films set in Paris, a city that’s mere name conjures up scenes of romance and passion.

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Le Bonheur (1965): Find Your Happy Place

BONHEUR, LE (1966)

Do you have a film you love even though you can’t point to a specific reason why? A title that just seems to envelop you from the opening frames and keeps you enthralled without doing anything showy? One example I like to point to is Le Bonheur (1965), a superb pastoral drama that puts the story of domestic instability against a backdrop of some of the most eye-popping colors you’ve ever seen. [...MORE]

The Eyes Have It

EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960)

As we head into February, the month most closely associated with love in all its guises, it’s always good to remind yourself that too much emotional attachment can be a dangerous thing. If you really want to throw a curve ball into your pre-Valentine’s viewing schedule, allow me to direct your attention to one of the most twisted father-daughter relationships ever put on film: Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage) (1960), now the most famous film from the great Georges Franju and the gold standard by which other French horror films are measured.

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On Film Noir, Poetic Realism and “The Myth of Gabin”

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If you are a fan of film noir, and who isn’t, I suggest checking out the French film movement from the 1930s known as Poetic Realism. Noir fanatics are attracted to the genre’s dark romanticism with its haunting fatalism, melancholy mood and doomed characters—conventions shared with Poetic Realism. Until the end of February, FilmStruck is streaming seven films under the theme French Poetic Realism, including three featuring Jean Gabin. Gabin has been compared to Humphrey Bogart, not because they resemble each other, or employ similar acting styles, but because both became icons of the silver screen. In France, Gabin in his working-class cloth cap is an icon representing Poetic Realism, while Bogart in his fedora and trench coat is the face of film noir.

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Culture Shock: La Cérémonie (1995)

LA CEREMONIE, Sandrine Bonnaire, 1995, © New Yorker/courtesy Everett Collection

If you’ve never seen a Claude Chabrol movie, you’re missing out. If you’ve heard he’s the French Hitchcock, you’re not getting even half the picture. And if you didn’t realize his 1995 movie, La Cérémonie, is one of the most profound statements on class warfare, mental illness and violence, go see it now. It’s not only the best movie I saw in 1995, it contains the best performance of the year by anyone I saw, male or female, in Isabelle Huppert as a cold, angry and morally stilted sociopath who unwittingly creates the means of her own demise.

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