Monday, September 29, 2008

LE DOULOS - #447

Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani) only recently finished serving a four-year prison sentence. Since his release, he's been told repeatedly that he's not the man he was when he went inside. Observers apparently think he's lost some of his nerve. Maurice seems to accept this to a degree, but his motives for doing so--like everything in Le doulos--aren't exactly clear. Given that the first person we hear telling Maurice this, the middle-man fence Gilbert Varnove (Rene Lefevre), ends up on the wrong side of his gun--a gun Gilbert actually loaned to Maurice--one could assume the hood is going along with this lowered estimation in order to use it to his advantage. Given the hard times that are to follow, it's also possible everyone else is right, and Maurice is merely staying one step ahead of the reaper looking for that last big score.

Le doulos is a 1962 crime picture written and directed by hardboiled French master Jean-Pierre Melville. As we're informed at the beginning of the film, the phrase "le doulos" refers to a kind of hat. Specifically, it's a hat that is worn by a police informer, and so "doulos" has become slang for a stool pigeon. (An alternate title for the movie has been The Finger Man.) Though not as sturdy and high-minded as one of Melville's Eastern philosophy crime dramas (Le samourai, Le cercle rouge), Le doulos is a curvy double-cross caper that twists its tough-guy tropes into a yummy movie pretzel.

In a way, you could say that Maurice is the source of his own woes, as the chain reaction of screw-jobs begins when he shoots the unsuspecting Gilbert in cold blood. Our boy will later find out that he had good cause to take the crook out, as the good will Gilbert has been showing him since Maurice got out of prison might be payback for a bad turn Gilbert did him way back when, but at the time of the robbery, Maurice doesn't know that. He's quite literally annihilating the hand that's been feeding him, making off with a pile of hot jewels and $20,000 in cash, all of which he promptly hides for later. As it turns out, he's setting up another score for the following day where he and his buddy Remy (Philippe Nahon) are going to knock over the house of a rich couple who are on vacation. He's had his girlfriend Therese (Monique Hennessy) staking out the joint, and his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is loaning him the safe-cracking equipment. He's keeping mum to both Silien and their friend Jean (Philippe March) about the location of the heist, however, because he wants to take the fall on his own if something should go wrong.

He's also not sure if he can trust those guys. Therese doesn't care for Silien, but Silien thinks Jean might have a big mouth. Maurice tries to adopt an innocent-until-shown-otherwise attitude, but he can't escape that someone sold him out when the cops show up to foil the crime, leaving both Remy and the chief inspector dead and a bullet in Maurice's shoulder. He's pretty sure Silien is his man, and the cops, led by Captain Clain (Jean Deailly), are pretty well convinced of the same. They know where the robbery was, but the dead cop didn't tell anyone else who was supposed to be involved. They believe the surviving thief is a cop killer, and they want Silien to tell them who it was.

What follows is an ingenious cat and mouse game, though even more between Melville and his audience than between his characters. Silien sets up some elaborate plans that only he knows, and dead bodies are starting to show up without anyone claiming the kills. I don't know if Pierre Lesou's original novel was written to confound its audience the way the movie does, but Melville is extremely selective about what he shows us in Le doulos. Faces are regularly hidden in shadow and figures filmed only from behind so as to leave us constantly unsure of who we are seeing do what. For instance, Maurice only tells one person about his hidden stash of cash and jewels, but Melville doesn't reveal the identity of who goes to the secret spot to dig it up right away, choosing instead to tease us a little. His camera cleverly encourages us to "follow the hat," which would make us think that we know who is responsible, but with this many crossings and double-crossings, the truth gets obscured rather quickly. Melville is famous for his silences, and so much remains unsaid in Le doulos. The only person who regularly articulates what he is thinking is Maurice, and in a way he is our point-of-view character. Accepting that, it's logical storytelling that even when the camera leaves him to follow others, we are only made privy to the surface
motivations. All we can know is what we see, and even that is limited.

By the denouement, when all the pieces are laid out, I doubt anyone but the actual cartographers would be able to read the map, which is just as it should be. When you think of classic pictures of this type, from Hawks' Chandler adaptation The Big Sleep through to modern films like Miller's Crossing and the various David Mamet con man films, the best of the litter are always the ones that are impossible to follow without a flow chart. That's the fun of them, the constant guessing, the never knowing what lurks around the next narrative corner. Melville and cameraman Nicolas Hayer shoot Le doulos as a moody ballet of calculated posturing and occasional violent outbursts, using the classic film noir interplay of light and shadow as a visual metaphor for the dance between truth and lies that these thieves and thugs are engaged in.

From a performance standpoint, Serge Reggiani is both weaselly and fatigued, the by-then-veteran actor showing a lot of insight regarding what it means to be an older man playing a younger man's game. He was returning from movie jail himself (something discussed in the supplemental features), and perhaps he also sensed the Belmondo was about to steal the show, and he channeled some of that anxiety into the role. Belmondo plays the a gangster who is more on the ball, but with the youthful confidence that also made him so good two years prior in Classe tous risques. Unlike, say, his Breathless performance, where his tough-guy act is meant to be an act and is clear as such, Belmondo's portrayal of Silien walks a more perilous tightrope. For all the dastardly deeds he performs and as much as we see Silien as the bad guy, Belmondo manages to keep his natural charisma from being buried. We might recoil at his actions, but we can never quite hate the lug. His seductive eyes, his way with a smirk--he's the bad boy we love to hate and hate to love.

Which fits the tenor of Le doulos perfectly. As viewers, we never know which line to follow, but something in our make-up compels us to peer into the darkness. Melville provides us with plenty of murky shadows, and the more lurid the secrets inside them, the more he draws us in.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is a filmmaker's filmmaker. Long before I had ever seen any of his films--which, admittedly, had been none up until now--I had heard his name bandied about by other directors who admired him. Most notably, he was often referenced by Jim Jarmusch, including the quintessential U.S. indie auteur crafting a segment of his brilliant Night on Earth as a tribute to Kaurismäki. Watching the movies that make up the boxed set Aki Kaurismäki's Proletariat Trilogy - Eclipse Series 12, it's easy to see why. Jarmusch has spotted a kindred spirit in this sardonic European creator. His wry stories of regular people quietly floundering through life don't follow regular Hollywood story logic, and his detached filming style gives the impression of behavior observed rather than concocted. As the name the Proletariat Trilogy suggests, the films in this set, made between 1986 and 1990, focus mainly on working-class heroes, the garbage men and the factory workers who aren't in the mainstream and yet keep it flowing all the same.

Watching the first feature in this collection, Shadows in Paradise (Varjoja paratiisissa - 1986), I actually started to wonder if the appreciation goes both ways, as there are a few items of business in the film reminiscent of Jarmusch's 1984 breakthrough Stranger than Paradise. Of course, there is the title, but there is also a forced romance that only really gathers steam on an impromptu road trip, itself precipitated in part by illegal acts. On the way back from it, the female lead Ilona (Kati Outinen) even says her original intention was to run away to Florida, though she had heard there was nothing there but other Finns and "Donald Ducks." Jarmusch's vision of paradise was Florida, as well, and his two male protagonists could pass for Donald Ducks in some circles.

The problem with Florida as a promised land for Ilona is that she has enough of nothing at home, so why go all the way around the world to find more? The sad-eyed blonde caught the eye of the awkward Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) while working as a cashier at the grocery store. Nikander is a garbage man who seemingly dreams of something better. He takes an English course that sounds like it could be for potential hotel managers. His friend at work offers him the chance of a better life by jumping ship and joining the new garbage company he's going to open, but no sooner does the older man say he doesn't want to die driving a garbage truck than he has a heart attack while collecting the morning's trash. Opportunity lost for Nikander.

There is a desperation in Nikander's advances on Ilona that is both sad and comical. He truly doesn't know what to do around her, and their first date is cut short when he takes her out for bingo and comes off as a bore. Yet, when she loses her job and steals the company cash box, Nikander is the only person Ilona can think of to help her out. Before long, she's moved in with him, having nowhere else to go. It's a romance of convenience. Any tenderness that passes between them is at first begrudging. Yet, as time goes on, Ilona does begin to care, and when Nikander finally gets aggressive and starts asserting his feelings, he actually becomes the man she wanted him to be all along. Coming to an agreement on love doesn't immediately transform their lives--as Nikander describes it, using the American idiom, it's "small potatoes"--but yet they manage to find some kind of security in their humble existence.

Portraying characters such as these could so easily become cruel parody, but Kaurismäki is never making fun of his creations, even when he is enjoying a laugh at their expense. Nikander in particular bears the brunt of the director's comic tendencies. Prone to outbursts of macho anger, he's at times tossed into the street and whacked upside the head with a wooden plank, as ineffectual at violence as he is at love. Yet there is something in his grim, silent determination that makes the audience root for the schlub despite it all. Karuismäki does give his lovers a way out, yet one also can't help but think no one will likely even notice they are gone. They themselves are the shadows of paradise, the unseen ghosts that come and go without much impact.

One of the funniest elements of the Kaurismäki style is the deadpan delivery. Outside of Nikander's bursts of anger, there is very little modulation to the emotions in Shadows. Love and sadness are delivered with the same stony face, the same low manner of speaking. So, too, do the characters in Ariel (1988) deal with tragedy, romance, and even action and violence--eyes always straight ahead, jaw tight, as if any state of being is just as good as another.

Taisto (Turo Pajala) is another loveable loser, one whose bad luck has taken on the proportions of a cosmic joke. In Ariel, he loses his job when the hometown coal mine closes, his father commits suicide, and he is hit over the head with a bottle and has his entire savings stolen. And that's just in the first ten minutes! The one thing he has going for him is the convertible his father gave him as his inheritance, but even that doesn't work quite right, as Taisto doesn't know how to put the top down and has to drive through freezing snow sitting out in the open. The Cadillac does get him to the city, however, and in Helsinki he finds work as a day laborer and love after a fashion with a meter maid who is giving him a parking ticket. Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto) is a single mother working multiple jobs to keep afloat. Romance for these two, just like the couple in the previous movie, is more like a convenient arrangement. Taisto says he wouldn't mind spending the night, if it isn't too much trouble, and Irmeli agrees that he might as well come in since it's already dark anyway.

Of course, luck doesn't hold out for Taisto, and when he spots one of his muggers and tries to get his cash back, he ends up in jail himself. In a gesture of simple means but grand meaning, Taisto makes Irmeli a ring in the metal shop where he wiles away the hours and proposes to her on visiting day. There's a subtle irony in that the trapped man sees marriage as a sign of hope, whereas the free man often sees marriage as a trap. Working with his stolid roommate, Mikkonen (Pellonpää again), Taisto plots how to get out of jail and run off with the girl. Thus, midway through, Ariel becomes a prison break movie, and then a film about fugitives on the run. Mikkonen and Taisto deal with some bad dudes, raise some cash the dishonest way, and plot a course for Mexico. They are laughable as criminals. Taisto drops the money while fleeing a robbery, and Mikkonen's tough-guy act falls apart when his actual lack of fighting skills is revealed, but somehow they manage to get the job done.

The closing shots of Ariel feature the cruise ship that gives the film its title. It's the means of escape for Taisto and his bride, and it ties Ariel to Shadows in Paradise in that that film also ends with its lovers leaving on a cruise ship. There are two different kinds of honeymoons happening here, but the meaning is the same: for Kaurismäki, the only respite from where you are at is to get away from it. Sure, Nikander and Ilona may have to come back one day, and Taisto may run into the law anywhere along the way on his flight from injustice, but there is no chance of happiness if you don't at least try to get out of Dodge. It's the same advice Taisto's father gives him before killing himself, which in itself is another kind of escape. Given the grim determination that gets Taisto out of jail and onto the ocean blue, one might assume that he displays any other emotion sparingly in order to save his energy for when it counts.

As the new family departs, Kaurismäki plays a Finnish-language version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The performance of it sounds somewhat defiant, but also a tad bombastic, making it seem like a tongue-in-cheek choice, suggesting that Taisto's land of Oz is not quite the Technicolor dream of other movies. It fits right in with how Kaurismäki has used music throughout Ariel, establishing a kind of generation gap by juxtaposing more traditional ballads with American-inspired rock music. The plaintive crooners and the dour lyrics of the old songs underscore the romantic scenes in both Ariel and Shadows, exposing them for how anemic they really are, while the rock serves as the soundtrack for fighting back. Taisto and Mikkonen, for instance, blast their radio to distract the prison guard when they are escaping. Radios are also present everywhere in the movie, providing the working class with their one free and easily accessible source of entertainment.

The final film in Kaurismäki's trilogy, The Match Factory Girl (Tulitijjutehtaan tyttö - 1990), connects to the others through music, but otherwise breaks from convention in surprising and bold ways. In an early scene, its protagonist, Iris (a returning Kati Outinen), goes out to a dance and the crooner on stage sings a Finnish song about a better land far across the ocean, evoking memories of the endings of the two movies that preceded this one. From its very first scenes, however, Match Factory Girl is definitely different than what has come before. The black comedy has gotten so black, it's almost imperceptible. Kaurismäki's story of a lonely working-class girl is far more bleak than the other films it is packaged with.

Instead of showing men working with their hands, Match Factory Girl opens with an extended montage showing the many stages a matchstick goes through on an automated machine. Shot with a kind of visual poetry reminiscent of Louis Malle's automotive-plant documentary Human, Trop Humain, it creates an immediate disconnect: human hands are no longer involved in the actual production. At least not until the matches are cut, created, and boxed. Iris waits at the end to make sure the labels are affixed to the packaging properly. It's tedious, lonely work.

This isolation continues in her personal life, where she is disassociated from everyone around her. She lives with her mother (Elina Salo) and stepfather (Esko Nikkari), but it's not a loving family--she pays rent and cooks them dinner, and they ignore her by way of thanks. She goes out to that dance, but she sits by the wall, the only girl not invited out onto the floor. Outside of the television newscaster, there isn't even any spoken dialogue in the movie until fourteen minutes in when Iris orders a beer. Even after that, very little is said. Everyone is too caught up in themselves to communicate. The TV news that is constantly running at the apartment serves as commentary to show how small these lives are; the endless reports from Iran and the massacre at Tiananmen Square should tell them that there are bigger things than their inner turmoil, but it seems to pass right by.

Eventually, Iris does meet a man (Vesa Vierikko) who is interested in her, but his cold affections are a far cry from the romance novels Iris reads. Their one night of lovemaking ends for him when he leaves money by the bed (he is at least middle class, if not upper class, and it's a subtle comment on how his type view those "beneath him"), but it doesn't end for her until after she discovers she is pregnant. This brings consequences Iris did not expect, including getting kicked out of her house. Once again, Kaurismäki uses rock music to emphasize change, playing a version of "Brand New Cadillac," complete with the refrain "She ain't ever coming back," to show how Iris' life has irrevocably shifted. It's at this juncture that Match Factory Girl takes an unexpected twist into the macabre. The scenes of revenge that follow are played with such a poker face, one almost misses the dark comedy that is bubbling underneath. If not for the random action Iris takes in a bar, one might not notice at all how absurd it really is. The music even shifts again at the climax, Kaurismäki returning to his beloved crooners to give the last piece of Iris' plans a faux operatic tone.

Of all of Kaurismäki's steely characters, Iris is the saddest, and Kati Outinen portrays her as always on the brink of tears. The only time she does cry, ironically, is while watching a Marx Bros. movie! The quality of the performance is most apparent, though, in the subtle changes Outinen must show, both in the brief moments of bliss after the night of sex and then the turn Iris takes into contentment when she decides to right the wrongs done to her. In this, The Match Factory Girl is the most determinist entry of the Proletariat Trilogy: there is no escape outside, there is only the life you can make for yourself.

When it's all said and done, Aki Kaurismäki's Proletariat Trilogy - Eclipse Series 12 is a quirky tribute to the stoic persistence of the working class in the Baltic states. The odd character of these three films seems to not only reflect the outsider's perspective of their writer and director, but to be part and parcel with the disenfranchisement of its subjects and born of the cultural make-up of where they come from. Imbued with the randomness and often molasses-like pace of real life, Aki Kaurismäki uses film conventions like romance, prison breaks, and revenge plots only to subvert them to his own unique sensibility. There is pity to be found in the dramaturgy, but a gleeful empathy in the dark comedy. Definitely recommended.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Yasujiro Ozu's motion picture career spanned half a century. In that time, the Japanese master established a signature style, creating mildly paced stories about regular families that quietly explained how the bonds of blood and commonality of our day-to-day struggles were stronger than the divisions between generations and anything modern life could throw our way. Ozu had a strong sense of tradition, but after World War II, he also gradually accepted that Japan was evolving. In his later work, he looked for a balance between the past and the future, and in his final film, the fitting good-bye An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu found it.

Released in 1962, An Autumn Afternoon (Japanese title: Sanma No Aji) is primarily about the Hirayama family, but Ozu also takes the time to look at some of the lives in their extended circle. The head of the family, Shuhei Hirayama (Chishu Ryu), is a widower living with his only daughter, Michiko (Shima Iwashita), and his youngest son, Kazuo (Shinichiro Mikami). His eldest boy, Koichi (Keiji Sada), is married and living in his own apartment with his wife, Akiko (Mariko Okada). Hirayama is a war veteran, having captained a battleship, but he now works in a quiet office. When one of the ladies in his office announces that she is leaving to get married, it starts Hirayama thinking about his own daughter, who is in her early twenties, and if maybe she should get married, too. Coincidentally, his best friend Kawai (Nobuo Nakamura) has been thinking the same thing, and he has found a match he thinks would be perfect for Michiko.

At the same time, Hirayama's regular lunches with his school chums Kawai and Horie (Ryuji Kita) are now spilling over into a forty-year class reunion. It is attended by one of their teachers, an old man they had affectionately nicknamed "the Gourd" when they were children. The Gourd (Eijiro Tono) now runs a noodle shop, where he lives with his daughter. She never married so that she could take care of her father. Michiko has given the same excuse for not moving out on her own, and though Hirayama doesn't want to admit it, he sees a similar fate to the Gourd for them both if he doesn't let go of Michiko and get her to let go in return.

There is an overwhelming sense of nostalgia in An Autumn Afternoon. With Hirayama as the central character, Ozu creates a variety of scenarios that compel the character to look backward and contemplate where he is going. So, too, is the filmmaker looking back, surveying the cultural landscape he has traversed to get to this point. Co-written by Ozu and Kogo Noda, it's hard to think of a more effective summation of a career than this one. Though the subplot between the older students and their teacher will find its place as the main plotline in Akira Kurosawa's farewell, Madadayo, several decades later, I don't think Kurosawa managed the full scope of self-reflection that Ozu does. In Madadayo, Kurosawa fittingly paints himself as the teacher pondering how his lessons have affected a generation of students, whereas Ozu couldn't be anything but the father, less concerned with the impact he's had already and more worried about how to get out of everyone's way. (Given Ozu's regular ensemble of actors that he employed again and again, the notion of the director as a father figure coordinating a family doesn't seem all that that far-fetched.)

As a counterpoint to the perhaps more traditional situation where Michiko sacrifices her independent happiness to serve her father, the older son Koichi and his wife live a modern existence where they embrace more Western luxuries like golf clubs, vacuums, and refrigerators. They even eat ham and eggs, which isn't quite your average Japanese cuisine. Yet, it's also telling that they are completely dependent on Hirayama, having to borrow money from him in order to have these luxuries. The father doesn't mind, however, he feels that young people should go out and forge their own way, and he's more than happy to help. When Hirayama runs into a sailor who had been under his command in the war, that man (Daisuke Kato) wonders what life would have been like if Japan had won and were now influencing American youth to be more Japanese. Hirayama meekly responds that he thinks he feels it's best that Japan was not the victor. It's at least quieter this way. Change is all right by him.

Though, Hirayama is not entirely ready to be a full part of that change. His friend Horie has remarried, taking a much younger woman as his bride. He encourages Hirayama to do the same. (He also encourages him to take some kind of pills for male stamina. An early prototype for Viagra?!) Hirayama even indulges a mild crush on a bar hostess (Kyoko Kishida) that reminds him of his dead wife. He's very sweet when he talks about her, noting that they don't look the same when you look close, but really being far more romantic in that what he is treasuring is the essence of his companion and not just her physical appearance. He never does anything about these unrequited feelings, though perhaps he would have had Koichi been more supportive of them. As the older generation encourages the younger to move forward, it doesn't apparently cut both ways.

An Autumn Afternoon ends on a bittersweet note. I think a large part of the film's honesty comes from the fact that Ozu doesn't push his character into a complete, unreserved acceptance of how times have changed. I doubt he felt that way himself; instead, the wisdom of age had taught him that his time had passed. The first shots of the movie are of a factory and its smokestacks belching waste into the blue sky, an image of the industrial age. The final shots are of Hirayama sitting alone, a little drunk, on his daughter's wedding night, quietly drifting into sleep. You couldn't get a sharper contrast than those two pictures. It's a gentle reminder from an elder stateseman that even if we accept the new inventions of our modern age, we must never forget the human element.

It's also a farewell from a master filmmaker handing the baton to a new cinema (even if Ozu was preparing a new film when he died). With technology changing and the possibilities for cinema that lay just around the corner, Ozu's message seems prescient. No special effects can ever replicate what he has done as a director. It takes heart and soul to depict a story with heart and soul. An Autumn Afternoon has plenty of both, setting the standard even as its director stepped aside.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


This is the last of three new Criterion releases of Max Ophuls films from the 1950s, the other two being La ronde and Le plaisir.

Many consider Max Ophuls' 1953 film The Earrings of Madame de... to be his masterpiece, and with the film's concise storytelling and unguarded emotion, there is certainly a case to be made for this being true. Adapted from a short novel by Louise de Vilmorin, it is an expertly tailored film. Not a hair is out of place, no word of dialogue or frame of film is superfluous. A melodrama of manners, a comedy of passion, Madame de... is a delicately balanced study of infidelity and the cost of loving amongst the upper crust in France in the early 1900s.

The Comtesse Louise de..., played by Danielle Darrieux, Ophuls' frequent go-to actress in his late French period, is a spoiled wife of a respected General (Charles Boyer), to whom appearance and formality is everything. In order to avoid a scandal, Louise resorts to selling a pair of diamond earrings her husband gave her for their wedding so that she can quietly pay off the debt she has accumulated through her extravagant shopping. She then fakes their loss during a night out at the theatre, which she thinks will be a simple solution to explaining their disappearance. Unfortunately, her act is too convincing, and scandal erupts anyway. The story goes around that the earrings were stolen, and it becomes all the talk of the gossip rags.

Fearing what will happen if he tries to sell these hot rocks, the jeweler (Jean Debucourt), goes to the General and tells him what happened. Shocked by his wife's deceit, but also unwilling to raise a fuss, the General buys the earrings back. He then hands them off to his mistress, Lola (Lia Di Leo), who is leaving France for Turkey; presumably, the General will never have to see the earrings again.

Oh, how wrong he is! Like the proverbial bad penny, the earrings keep popping back up. An Italian ambassador, the Baron Fabrizio Donati (legendary Neorealist director Vittorio De Sica), buys the jewelry on his travels. As fate would have it, he is immediately smitten with Louise when he encounters her not once, but twice, on his way to his new post in France. Romantic feelings spring up between them, and in a twist worthy of O. Henry, the Baron gives Louise the earrings as a gift. Further lies are told to explain their reappearance, alerting the General to his wife's emotional wandering, and all manner of heck breaks loose.

Louise de Vilmorin's novel, simply titled Madame de... and helpfully included in this package by Criterion, is a wonderful little gem of a book. Her elegant prose lends a simplicity to the tale that makes its less than believable machinations come off as perfectly natural. The author spends a lot of time explaining and gently satirizing social convention and her characters' interior motivations for the actions they take in her tragically ironic drama. Unless he were willing to indulge in multiple voiceovers, Max Ophuls did not have the same option for his film version, and so he takes several steps to alter how the story works tonally in order to make it flow more smoothly as cinema

Despite changing the setting and the names and occupations of the characters, plot-wise, Ophuls changes very little, at least in the first two acts of the movie. His main changes come in the portrayals of the General and his wife, whose early behavior comes off as more comic than it did in the novel. Without the gravitas of the prose, their concerns with propriety and social standing seem silly. The General runs around the theatre looking for earrings that are not there, and then must gallantly explain himself to others. His deflection of a perceived insult, that he may have looked at a friend's wife accusatorially, is priceless. For her part, Louise is far more of a drama queen, feigning fainting spells and constantly insisting on her own honesty even as she's telling another lie. Ophuls could have just stamped "methinks the lady doth protest too much" on her forehead and been done with it. The director is clearly having some fun at the couple's expense. He even plays around with the literary conceit of not saying their last name, finding different ways to cut off its revelation. (In classic literature, to omit the names to protect the innocent was a regular convention that, in its odd way, lent the telling an air of truth. In de Vilmorin's book, the omission is represented by an emdash rather than an ellipsis. "Madame de—." Louise is also not given a first name in the novel, so Ophuls' choice clearly comes with a wink.)

Playing up the comedy in the first act gives Ophuls license to play up the melodrama in the second, toying with the sudsier elements of "women's pictures" in a sly manner that allows him to put his characters and his audience both on an emotional incline. With the random encounters between the lovers prior to their social introduction, Ophuls emphasizes fate even more than de Vilmorin, suggesting that it can be treacherous and that coincidence is actually cruelly arbitrary. As we slide toward the climax of The Earrings of Madame de..., the situation gradually grows more serious, the comedy becoming a full-blown tragedy. Here is where Ophuls makes his one major deviation from the original text, downplaying the fourth sale and resale of the earrings--the jeweler is one of the funniest characters in the novel, benefiting from the constant trading of the same diamonds--and changing how the love triangle resolves itself. The filmmaker had always been interested in the differences in how men and women react to romantic tension, and Madame de... is no different. de Vilmorin stresses the importance of honor in the decisions both the General and the Baron make, but Ophuls takes it a step further. He lays the groundwork early by establishing a greater connection between the Baron's function as an ambassador and the General's military position. (Though the story is set long before WWII, the film was made after, and lines about friends and enemies could be read as a nod to where history would eventually take France and Italy.) Peace talks break down, and the General uses his rival's pacifism as an excuse to challenge him to a duel, thus sparing himself the public humiliation of having to admit that this man has privately wooed his wife.

It's an interesting change because it takes the focus away from Louise and puts it on the male ego, whereas in the book she grows ill due to a broken heart and both men put aside their differences to honor her. Ophuls also lays a better groundwork for this with the fainting spells, which like the rest of his film, goes from being laughable to serious as the situation demands. When you think about it, that's also the nature of the flirtation of the Baron and Louise. The pleasure of conversation and innocent dances blossom into real love. The climactic duel makes sense within the context of Ophuls other work. He has always had a greater sympathy for his female characters than the male, and I would suggest that the theme that interested him most about Madame de... was the irony of how the men in Louise's life are perfectly capable of deceit--the General has Lola, the Baron is willing to commit adultery--but they demand total honesty from Louise. The General may say that he understands that everyone has secrets, but when he does so, he also insists that his wife dispense with hers. He never reveals his own affair and his own role in the travels of the earrings; neither does the Baron ever see the folly of putting his would-be mistress in the position of having to be duplicitous but then insisting that her duplicity be of a variety approved by him. It's no wonder Madame would become so fatigued!

As in all of his films, Ophuls displays a tremendous visual sense and a control over his camera in The Earrings of Madame de..., though I would argue that maybe he's toned his style down some in comparison to La ronde and Le plaisir, which preceded Madame de.... Perhaps he was inspired by De Sica to keep it more real, but there are less sweeping shots or extended takes that call attention to themselves due to their complexity. One notable exception is the beautiful montage of balls and galas, where one dance between the Baron and Louise keeps fading into another, weeks disappearing in seconds as they fall in love.

Part of this restraint, I think, is down to the nature of the movie's setting. The home of the General and Louise and the places they visit are so lavish, so ostentatious, to further glam them up with lots of cameraplay would be too much. Instead, Ophuls frames the shots in such a way that shows off the grand sets and places his actors so that when he cuts between them, his compositions show the divisions that prevent them from being more intimate. Look at the scene where the Baron visits Louise in her home just before she receives the earrings, the point where neither of them can deny their feelings any longer. Ophuls places a painting of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo between them, hearkening back to a quip about the infamous military leader that the General made earlier. He told Louise that Napoleon wasn't only wrong at Waterloo, but also when he said, "The only victory in love is to flee" (foreshadowing of what was to come). When both actors are in the shot, the painting is perfectly visible between them, suggesting a certain danger that should be avoided; when Ophuls cuts to their close-ups, Ophuls uses perspective shots to make it look like they are each right next to the art, suggesting that the distance is not so great, that the danger is closer than it appears. Compare it to the scene in the carriage later, when they are in each other's arms at last, and where they treat the earrings practically as a sexual fetish. There is no longer any space between.

Just how this danger ultimately plays out is partially left to the imagination. Though there is no margin for debate at the end of Louise de Vilmorin's novel, Ophuls ends his movie of Madame de... on an ambiguous note, making for one of the best "did they or didn't they?" endings in cinema. We will never know the exact outcome of the duel or how Louise came through it (though we can make pretty good guesses about both, and I admit, I may be wanting the conclusion to be more vague than it is). Even Louise's prayer at the cathedral is ambiguous. She prays for one of the men to survive the duel, but she never says which. The only thing Ophuls does make clear is the sacrifice she is willing to make, his final shot showing what she will give up in order to find some kind of happiness at last.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


This is the second of three new Criterion releases of Max Ophuls films from the 1950s, the other two being La ronde and The Earrings of Madame de....

Literary short stories aren't usually the stuff of film adaptations, but Max Ophuls' 1952 feature Le plaisir takes three stories by Guy de Maupassant and fashions them into a cinematic examination of the boundaries of pleasure, how men and women (but mostly men) seek it, and the consequences it can bring.

Even before I write about the script, however, I feel I must pause to appreciate the incredible camerawork in Le plaisir. Working with Christian Matras on the first two stories and Philippe Agostini on the third, Ophuls unmoors the camera eye and flings it into the action with a freedom of movement that is so stunning now, I can't imagine how it must have dazzled audiences in 1952. Ophuls is a cinematic storyteller in the same league as Orson Welles, refusing to stay locked down or merely approach his material from a conventional, straight-on vantage point. Though Le plaisir begins unassumingly with a black screen and the voice of Jean Servais impersonating de Maupassant as narrator, as soon as we step through that dark veil and into the setting of the first story, "The Mask," Ophuls is off and running. His camera zooms through the city streets to a ballroom in full swing, chasing a bizarre masked individual (Jean Galland) into the sweaty, spinning dance already in progress. Ophuls circles the group, following every kick, the dervish growing faster and more delirious, until the viewer and the dancer collapse from exhaustion.

I recall Scorsese once talking about how in his youth, the challenge was to make the camera move, because with old, bulky technology it wasn't that easy; today, when cameras are light and can go anywhere, the challenge is to keep still, to not utilize the tools available. Less skillful directors put their cameras in motion for no good reason, but not Ophuls. Despite the ostentation of that first shot, it's a considered choice, capturing the adrenalin and the abandon of the moment. Later, the de Maupassant narration will explain that the masked dancer, Ambroise, is at an intersection of pleasure and love. He loves to dance, to be amongst the young women, and so the old man wears his strange, immobile mask so they won't see how aged he is. If he can't breathe, he won't breathe, this is the sacrifice he makes to have what he wants. Just as his wife sacrifices her own pleasure to serve him, maintaining a greater love in that fashion. Her love pays the toll for his selfish desires.

Before we even know what's going on, we feel that rush, like the director has grabbed us by the ears and is pushing us through a wild ride. No less impressive and no less evocative is the way he takes us on another ride in the second tale, "The Tellier House." In the longest of the three segments, Ophuls adapts a story about the women working at a seaside whorehouse who one Saturday close up shop to go to the country to see their madam's niece christened. Thematically, the narrator explains, it's an example of pleasure meeting purity--these women who embody sexual gratification attend a sacred event, and their presence distorts the moral equilibrium the ritual rests upon.

When we first see the whorehouse, Ophuls doesn't take us through the doors. Instead, he keeps us outside while the de Maupassant prose explains the nature of the business in terms that the 1950s censors would be comfortable with. Perhaps it was these social mores that Ophuls had in mind when he decided to shoot the brothel entirely from the outside, or perhaps it's to create a sense of voyeurism in his audience that distances them from the pleasure even as he indicts them for their curiosity, but for whatever reason, the technique is amazing. The camera moves around the house, scaling up and down its walls, peering in windows, following characters from one to the next as they ascend and descend the stairs. The skill with which he defies gravity is reminiscent of the complicated tracking shots David Fincher has employed in his movies, particularly Panic Room--though Ophuls did it without the benefit of a computer. Just like the Fincher movie, where he takes you through these elaborate scans of the house to put us in an intimate, enclosed space with his characters, so too does Ophuls take us from this outside view to have us truly meet the prostitutes for the first time inside a cramped train car. A good writing trick is to begin with an exterior impression and then move into interior thought, and this pushing from the outside in is a good example of the same.

"The Tellier House" segment of La plaisir is further augmented by the participation of Jean Gabin. He plays Joseph Rivet, the father of the girl about to receive her sacrament. He becomes intoxicated with the perfume of the visiting women, and in particular, he falls for the flashy Madame Rosa (Danielle Darrieux). With her ever-present cigarette and prominent beauty mark, Rosa exudes a definite sexuality, but she's also very sensual. She seems more in tune with her surroundings and aware of social conventions. At the house, Rosa is more concerned with the child, whom she comforts in the night, than the father's randy advances. She even says that to let Joseph have his way on the eve of the religious ceremony would be bad luck. Naturally, he gets drunk and makes a fool of himself, and in both of these opening stories Ophuls shows that lusty men have problems corralling their urges. Ambroise puts on a stifling mask to go dancing, and Joseph acts like a schoolboy, chasing Rosa's train car trying to get one last look.

Even more humorous, though, are the men of the town when they discover the Tellier house is closed. Amongst the more brawny of their lot, the sailors who have just come into port, a fight breaks out, the men turning to violence when sexual release is no longer an option. The regular citizens of the area, ranging in class from a former mayor to a fisherman (everyone goes to Tellier's!), are less physical in their reactions, but the men all get snippy with each other, doling out the insults until every last one of them storms off in a huff.

There is also violence in the last story of Le plaisir, "The Model," but not in the same way, and in this case, where pleasure is intended to come up against death (albeit a moral one, as we are told), not limited to male aggression. If anything, what Jean the painter (Daniel Gelin) discovers this time around is that one's pleasure can be a suffocating trap, much like Ambroise's mask.

In this last segment, we begin with another formalistic trick involving the narrator. Jean Servais, still serving as Guy de Maupassant's voice, says he will now lend that voice to a character within the story, a friend of Jean's who witnesses the painter's unhealthy relationship. We see Servais on screen for the first time, now as this character, spinning his yarn for another friend. The narrator becomes a participant. He is inspired to speak by seeing Jean as an older man, to tell the tale of how they all came to be in the positions they are in now. He goes back to when the young artist was struggling to find his painterly voice, when he met a beautiful model named Josephine (Simone Simon). Believing she is his muse, he courts her, and the two begin to live together as a couple. He paints her night and day and soon finds success, but now his talent is locked in the frame with his images of her.

Jean and Josephine have spectacular arguments where they run through their home shouting and throwing things. Here, the camera follows them, tracking their violence, sometimes keeping a safe distance while breaking through the boundaries of interior walls, leaping over furniture to get closer to the scuffle, but also maintaining a safe distance. It's a precursor for a desperate act that Josephine will commit at the climax of the story, where she essentially becomes the camera and we follow her to her fate. The artistry of the shot renders it entirely believable, even as you catch your breath and wonder how Ophuls did it.

Perhaps that's the point, though, to use technique and style to make us aware of the pleasures of what we are watching. Just as the voyeuristic distance keeping us out of the whorehouse makes us even more conscious of the lusty goings-on, by astounding us with his visual mastery, Max Ophuls is fully immersing us in the thrills of moviegoing. From the very beginning, his de Maupassant even introduces himself as someone who may be sitting next to us in the dark, another member of the audience watching the dramas unfold. Of course, unlike the author's parables contained herein, I see no downside to my cinematic indulgences. For an hour and a half, I got to enjoy the thrills and let someone else endure the consequences. Just as Ambroise's wife pays the price for his pleasure, so too do all the characters of Le plaisir pony up for ours.

Unsurprisingly, some of the many extras on Criterion's Le plaisir DVD focus on Max Ophuls' camerawork, as well. The essay in the interior booklet is by writer Robin Wood and is called "Life is Movement," and the video introduction featuring filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine) tackles the topic almost immediately, talking about how the movement of the camera goes hand in hand with the downfall of the characters. Haynes is particularly interested in how the spectacle of cinema always has a downside in an Ophuls film, and the psychology informing how the director structures his more complicated shots.

Another good extra on Le plaisir is not about the fluidity of the camerawork, but it does broach the fluidity of the script. "From Script to Screen" is a video presentation by Jean-Pierre Berthome. He explains how the original script featured Guy de Maupassant as an actual character in a framing sequence, discussing the differences between the written word and film with an unnamed director. It also featured a different short story in place of "The Model," a piece called "Paul's Mistress," in which a man's lover is seduced by a roving band of lesbians. Berthome explains how delays in production gave Ophuls enough time to get cold feet and pick a less scandalous story to round out the picture. It certainly would have ended the movie on a different note, emphasizing a betrayal rather than the poetically ironic ending Ophuls settled on.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

LA RONDE - #443

This is the first of three new Criterion releases of Max Ophuls films from the 1950s, the other two being Le plaisir and The Earrings of Madame de....

The French term "la ronde" has multiple meanings. It can refer to a policeman's beat, the rounds he walks when protecting the peace. It's also a circle of dancers, moving in an unbroken ring. One can find both of these meanings in Max Ophuls' 1950 film La ronde, an adaptation of a play by Arthur Schnitzler. The original German title of the stage drama was Reigen, which also refers to dancing, and this circular collection of interconnected short stories has a structure not unlike a dance, with lovers switching partners at the start of every new tune.

The construction of La ronde is a sophisticated treat, deceptively light but full of purpose. Some might call the snippets of story Ophuls put together a smorgasbord of amuse bouche, of inconsequential pleasures that tantalize the taste buds but offer little nourishment. On their own, they don't seem like much. Put them all together, however, and there is quite a meal here, the appetizer sampler being more than enough dinner to satisfy. Set in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, each scene is built around a specific pair, and when one member of the pair--working in a girl, boy, girl, boy rhyme scheme--breaks away from his or her lover, he or she then moves on to the next, introducing the partner that will lead on to the next pair, and so on until we are back where we started. The prostitute meets the soldier, the soldier toys with the girl at the ball, the girl at the ball becomes the maid to a horny young rich boy, the horny young rich boy has an affair with a married woman, and so on up the social ladder until a snooty count stands up a vain actress to sleep with the same prostitute who earlier lured the lower-ranking soldier into the shadows for a quick affair.

Within these twirls and trade-offs, we see the consequences of social dalliances, examine questions of love and commitment, witness times good and bad, egos massaged and feelings bruised. It's romantic, but the romance of cynics, ending on a bittersweet note. Many of these lovers are seeking something they've lost in arms that look familiar but that belong to strangers. La ronde is the circular nostalgia of the heart. The emotionally crippled husband (Fernard Gravey) remarks that it's a wonder any man marries after the humiliation and defilement of his first encounter with a woman, but when we meet his fickle young mistress (Odette Joyeux), we can surmise that in reality he is still trying to recapture that first taste of youthful passion.

Amidst these ever-changing lovers is one constant, a narrator of sorts credited as meneur de jeu, or the ringmaster. Played by Anton Walbrook, he is the all-seeing embodiment of La ronde. He turns the wheel on the carousel, an added meaning to the circle of the story, going around and around, always passing the same landmarks. This merry-go-round is like a diorama of the greater story, its decorations matching up with the various characters, and its operation reflective of the success of the love affairs. If it speeds up, their progress does, too; if it breaks down, they can't perform. (Impotence jokes in 1950? Who'da thunk it?)

In following the stories, Walbrook is also the cop on his route. He cues the music to start each dance, or in some cases, he breaks the fourth wall and uses a director's clapboard to mark the scene. From the get-go, he busts the reality of his narrative, showing us the stage upon which the drama had once been performed and the movie set that has become its new venue. He appears within the story as a participant, playing a waiter and a servant, among other things, but at other times he talks directly to some of the women, crossing the bounds of time and fictional reality to let, say, the lovely but fragile Marie (Simone Simon) know that she will be okay, her bad treatment by Franz, the soldier (Serge Regiani), will not be the end of her. In one clever moment, this ringmaster is even shown cutting a strip of film, noting that a scandalous love scene between the actress (Isa Miranda) and the count (Gerard Philipe) has had to be censored.

The film-cutting sequence is not the only visually inventive moment of La ronde--and ironically, a major part of Ophuls cinematic style is not cutting the film, letting takes go long, covering whole sections of dialogue without chopping up the scene. Ophuls' sense of composition is wonderful, and he regularly frames his scenes in such a way to add another layer of symbolic meaning. When the cheating wife (Danielle Darrieux) is first entertaining the notion of having an affair with the rich boy (Daniel Gelin), Ophuls sits her opposite a bird cage, and he lights the room so that its shadow is projected on the wall behind her, showing the tenuous bonds of her self-imposed jail. In the next scene, when she's back with her husband, he shoots them in their separate beds, looking past a clock that takes up most of the foreground, emphasizing the time that they have been sentenced to serve, a union that is meant to last forever but that ultimately leads to them just treading water, watching the minutes pass. Time is quite important in the circle. The characters are always conscious of time, worried that it will run out before they get what they want, and twice two jilted lovers are told the same lie regarding how late the hour has grown.

I found the ringmaster's sympathy for all of his characters most fascinating. Though some do warrant more intervention than others and he reserves most of his empathy for the women he observes (he begins the film with kind words for the prostitute, played by the legendary Simone Signoret), he seems to feel sorry for all of them and their inability to satisfy the yearnings of their heart. The husband may have some laughable and even regrettable things to say when he speaks to his wife, but he's still pitiable as the cuckold, even moreso when his mistress also jilts him--for a poet (Jean-Louis Barrault), no less! The two most openly scheming lovers are the soldiers, both the haughty count and Franz, the more coarse soldier who first meets the prostitute and then breaks Marie's heart. When they pass in the final scene, however, the ringmaster seems pleased that the military men salute one another, but also sad that they are stuck in this routine, the demands of duty being another wall between them and true affection.

Though really a drama, Ophuls maintains the breezy style of musical theatre for La ronde, even having his meneur de jeu sing a couple of songs that set up the film and connect some of the scenes. (This character and his antics were, apparently, Ophuls' major addition to the play.) Heavy topics of the politics of love and sex are broached, but the film always maintains a light tone that is highly attractive. This style serves the greater point of the script, which is to say that we should allow life to continue on its path, enjoy ourselves, and accept what comes. We may desire more for ourselves, but who among us hasn't? It's the same as it ever was, and so it goes.

La ronde is the first of three 1950s movies from Max Ophuls currently being released by Criterion, and it establishes a specific trade dress for the packaging that is new for the production company. The movie is in a gatefold book that slides into a full-color outer slipcase. The interior of the book has a tray for the DVD and a pocket for the 16-page booklet that accompanies the disc. The booklet contains photos, cast and crew credits, a chapter listing, and a new essay by noted film critic Terrence Rafferty. The package artwork by David Downton, with design and menu work by Eric Skillman, hits the right balance of classical artistry and the airiness of Ophuls' work. Each DVD is beautiful unto itself, but as a trio, it's an excellent set. I'm surprised they were put out individually, actually, and not as a box.

Amongst the many supplements, three letters are reproduced as a text feature, showing Sir Laurence Olivier's request of Heinrich Schnitzler, son of playwright Arthur, to allow him to mount a stage production of the original play, Reigen. It's an informative piece about the troubled history of the 1903 play and why Schnitzler forbad any productions of it. This also includes explanation as to how Ophuls could make the film despite this request.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.