Monday, August 27, 2012


Love on the Run could have just as easily been called "Coming Home to Roost," but the film's title is not merely meant to be descriptive of this, the final entry in Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, but of the entire cycle of films. Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is always running. Away from one relationship--be it his mother, his girlfriend, or his wife--and toward another.

The meaning becomes clear early on when Antoine is spied sprinting from the courthouse by his one-time object of affection, Colette (co-writer Marie-France Pisier). He has just finalized his divorce to Christine (Claude Jade), and Antoine is running to get to work. The destination is immaterial, however; as Colette says, same old Antoine, always on the run.

Truffaut apparently declared Love on the Run a mistake, and he even said he knew it was a bad idea even while they were shooting it. He couldn't have been more wrong, not at any time. Love on the Run is a supremely satisfying conclusion to the cinematic life of the director's most famous avatar. It is a culmination of all the romantic yearnings he has been feeling since The 400 Blows [review], and an affirmation of the classic cinema that informed a young Antoine and inspired his author.

In this film, released in 1979, nearly a decade after Bed and Board [review] (though the film intimates it's only been three years), Antoine has finally left Christine and is carrying on an affair with a young girl who works in a record shop. Sabine (Dorothée) is a happy-go-lucky kind of girl, not afraid to tell Antoine what she wants. Which is good, since he is a figure in transition and needs some direction. He has published the novel we saw him laboring over in Bed and Board, but he still works at a printing press to make ends meet. The divorce has been a long time coming, and the pair still share a child. The paperwork and judge's approval doesn't really make it feel like time is closing.

This sense of emotional upheaval is only exacerbated by the return of Colette, the girl who preceded Christine (see my review of Antoine and Colette and Stolen Kisses for that history). She is a lawyer now and single, as well. She is dating the owner of a bookstore (Daniel Mesguich). She also has her own troubles. She and Antoine share old times while on a clandestine train ride. Truffaut cuts in lengthy scenes of the other Doinel films, as well as incorporating some material from Day for NightLove on the Run is a cinematic clip show, a review of all that has come before. We see the pieces of Antoine's past laid out like a romantic puzzle, complete with memories added by both Colette and Christine. It has an analogue in the here-and-now puzzle Antoine has been trying to put together: he found Sabine because of a torn-up photograph. The identity of the mystery girl that he reassembled demanded to be answered. Is it fate that has brought all these people together? Has all that has happened truly been to push Antoine toward Sabine?

Well, the answer is probably obvious, but I will leave that to you. I will say that at the heart of every cynic lies a romantic, and Truffaut has perfectly captured the doubts and fears of those of us who want to believe in true love and found a way to give us the emotional thrill we were hoping for but would never accept outright. My affection for Antoine swelled in this one. He is even more single-minded and pedantic than ever, but Léaud makes his lecturing charming. "My finger is raised, so let me tell you a thing or two about love."

I wish the end to my own story, the one that led to this project and was described way back in my write-up of The 400 Blows, had as interesting a conclusion. Or even one as meaningful. I've strived for similar synergy in my fiction. My novel The Everlasting could just as easily borrow the title from Antoine Doinel's, Les salades des l'amour, or Love and Other Troubles. The cover depicts my own version of Antoine's central problem: there's a girl in front of him, so why is he looking somewhere else.

But no, like Antoine, my life is not as interesting as my fiction, so when I write novels, embellishment is required. There is no such embellishment here, except for unintentional tricks of memory or the vagaries of perception.

Back in the summer of 2007, the girl from the video store whom I had nicknamed Truffaut was back in Portland on a break from school. I had stopped working at the store, but I had run into her at her summer job at a restaurant and we caught up on things. Since I was reviewing films, I suggested she should maybe come to a screening with me. The next one was Steve Buscemi's remake of Theo van Gogh's Interview. It was in the middle of the day. We met at the theater, and we both dressed nice. So far so good.

The film was decent [you can read my review], and afterward we decamped to the bar next door to have some drinks and talk about it. We spent a good amount of time chatting. It was fun. I was smitten. In the interest of full disclosure, I probably had a beverage too many, but I was nervous and I wasn't used to drinking during the day. This was a major factor in me not trying to kiss her when I walked her home. I knew there was maybe another fellow in the picture, and I had decided I didn't care if there was, but that probably compounded what I believe to be my mistake. If I had made a move then and there, maybe I'd have done the damage needed to replace him. The problem was, being a little tipsy, I wasn't feeling physically confident, and I felt a bad or fumbling kiss would be worse than none at all, so I didn't take my shot. I did, however, suggest we meet the following Friday when she got off work. Truffaut agreed. I was to get in touch that day and firm up plans.

Friday came, and when I called, I got voicemail. I can't recall if I did a follow-up call or a text, but no answer ever came. I knew Truffaut was leaving on an end-of-summer getaway in a manner of days. There wasn't much of a window.

While she was away in whatever tropical paradise she had scheduled an escape to, Michelangelo Antonioni died. He was someone we had discussed. I texted her and said, "Michelangelo Antonioni died, and you're on a beach somewhere. How is that fair?" Or something to that effect. I may have added myself into it. "You're there, and I'm not."

That was it. It was the last communication between either of us. Not unlike some of Antoine's angry letters to Colette and Christine, I might add.

Though, the story has a last anecdote, its Stolen Kisses moment, a brief encounter after time had passed. I went out to the movies with another girl, a friend of mine who is quite lovely. It was a winter afternoon,  and as we were leaving the theater, Truffaut and some other guy were heading in. We said "hi," and when she was past, my friend asked who she was. I told her. My friend had been aware of the summer fumblings, and so for her she finally got to put a face on the stories. Even though my outing that chilly day was not a romantic one, Truffaut did not know that, and I hope there was some small pang of jealousy, a brief rivalry, a nagging doubt that she had made a mistake and was with the wrong guy.

"Because let's face it...wasn't she?" he typed, but then realized there was no dignified way to add a wink to this without resorting to an emoticon, so he decided for something far more self-reflexive instead. Wherever he is, Antoine Doinel probably approves.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


"I carry a broken heart in every knuckle."

Norman Mailer has always been a larger-than-life literary figure, one whose gargantuan personality regularly precedes and often supersedes the quality and passion of his prose. He's one of those authors that most people know by name, but whom they maybe have never read. His outlandish behavior and public spats regularly put him at the center of controversy, as did the wildly varied success of his writing. Whether a book of his was loved or loathed, he at least usually went for it with an admirable level of gusto.

So it makes a certain kind of sense that the author would gravitate to a medium where he could put himself front and center in every sense of the word. At the tail end of the 1950s, Mailer could see the status of the Great American Novel declining as other entertainments took over. He started peeking in on the New York cinematic circles, visiting the Actor's Studio and embracing "The Method." This coming together practically seems like an inevitable meeting of the minds. He was an author who often lived his writing, or at least the persona concocted as a byproduct of the prose; as an actor and filmmaker, he would live those stories, too. The timing is also hard to ignore. As Mailer was turning to movies, Truffaut and Godard and their peers in the Nouvelle Vague were altering the art form in exciting, innovative ways, freeing it from the studio-bound grandiosity of Golden Age Hollywood. John Cassavetes was doing the same on Mailer's home turf, blazing a trail for independent cinema and achieving pioneer status.

By the late 1960s, Mailer was ready to pick up a camera himself, and in three years, he starred in and directed three films, collected here as Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer, part of Criterion's Eclipse series. It's Cassavetes that these efforts most resemble--the high-wire act of improvisation, the rawness of the portrayals, the formless construction. While Mailer's first effort Wild 90 (1967; 81 mins.)
was reportedly a response to Andy Warhol's films (which Mailer found dull), it more recalls Cassavetes' Faces in its limited space and how it depicts a collection of drunks whose party has gone wrong.

Unfortunately, even when taken as an amateur's debut, Wild 90 is really bad. For most others, it would be a career ender, not a starter. Mailer shot the film over two days. It mostly just features himself and his two friends and collaborators, Buzz Farbar and Mickey Knox, playacting as gangsters holed up in a New York apartment. The set-up borrows equally from Sartre and Beckett. These three fellows are locked down, under threat of death if they leave. Yet, suspicious colleagues, hookers, and police come and go throughout the film. They are all aware that danger lies outside the building's walls--Mickey's character, 20 Years, is convinced snipers lurk in the high rise across the street--but no solutions are offered.

Wild 90 is essentially the three hoods sitting around a table drinking and carping at each other. Since there is no script, there is also little direction to the conversation. There's a lot of repetition, a lot of posturing, and not much of real substance. Mailer is embarrassing as the heaviest heavy, whom, in a self-aggrandizing move, he has named Prince. The auteur's "performance" consists of him mumbling, grunting, and swearing. It's mostly incomprehensible. At times, you can see Mailer using his ranting to "direct" the others, bullying them in the way he wants to go, though never ending up anyplace all that interesting. Wild 90 is a crudely made picture, shot in a small space on black-and-white film by D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back [review]), who also appears on screen as one of the cops. The only sequence that comes to anything is when Beverley Bentley (a.k.a. the fourth Mrs. Mailer in real life), playing Prince's girlfriend, provides a challenge to the men's self-satisfaction. Here the nakedness of the production works, but largely because Bentley proves a commanding actress who can anchor and defy all the male egos. Naturally, it doesn't last, with Mailer ending Wild 90 by turning the spotlight back on himself to address the audience directly. I am not sure whom I am more mortified for: myself for having seen this movie, or Norman Mailer for having made it.

Tellingly, Mailer's second movie, Beyond the Law (1968; 98 mins.), ends in much the same way. Mailer looks directly into the camera, says his parting words, and freeze frames. It's a disheartening miscalculation because up until the last 20 minutes or so when he puts on his drunk act again, Beyond the Law was not about Norman Mailer. It was about people, their shared job, and the lifestyle existing around it. For the bulk of it, the director manages to restrain the love he has for hearing himself ramble and lets the movie be an independent creature.

Beyond the Law has two settings: an inner-city police station and the neighboring bar where the cops go to drink. Farbar and Knox return as Rocco Gibraltar and Mickey Berk, two police officers who, at the start of the picture, end their shift by going to the pub to meet two blind dates (Mary Wilson Price and a young Marsha Mason). To impress the ladies, they start telling them about their crazy day and their bullish lieutenant, Francis Xavier Pope (Mailer). The film cuts back and forth between the bar and the station, where we watch the cops grill the day's suspects over their various crimes. Mailer and editors Jan Welt and Lana Jokel, move freely between the different Q&A sessions, blending them together, erasing any sense of linear time. The most striking scenarios involve a man who murdered his wife (Edward Bonnetti), an older gentleman arrested for soliciting (Peter Rosoff), and two hippie bikers who aren't taking any guff.

One of the bikers is played by Rip Torn (The Man Who Fell to Earth [review], The Larry Sanders Show [review]), who delivers a coarse, musky performance. Also notable is an appearance by writer George Plimpton, who is quite effective here as the Mayor. He is stopping by the precinct to question charges of unfair behavior and examine Pope's methods. The frank and unscripted manner in which the cops and the crooks interact transcends most similar genre pictures, and unlike Wild 80, actually generates a potent sense of realism. It also helps that Mailer chooses to explore material that mainstream pictures would never touch--homosexuality, sadomasochism, and pedophilia--amongst the more expected criminal behavior.

Beyond the Law's best sequence, however, occurs at the pivotal 3/4 mark, shortly after Pope gets off duty and joins the others at the bar. He is also met by his wife (Beverly Bentley again). The montage jumps between different conversations. The blind dates in the bathroom talking about the men; the men at the table talking about the ladies; and Pope getting some heavy news dropped on him. The contrast between the different points of view is remarkable, with the characters revealing themselves in the way they dish on each other. For all the self-serving fumbling in Wild 90, it didn't take Mailer long to move on from that and start figuring this cinema thing out. The result is still a bit lopsided--it's hard to understand a lot of what is being said, and the movie grinds on a little too long--but Beyond the Law fits in nicely with an emerging American cinema that would come to fruition in the next decade. (1968 was also the year of Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door?, which also owes a huge debt to Cassavetes but that is ultimately more successful in realizing its aspirational cinema verité.)

The synthesis of Mailer's art-imitates-life philosophy came with Maidstone (1970; 105 min.), an ambitious failure that attempts to create a nexus for all the chaos that marked the ragged end of 1960s America. The conflicting pursuits of personal freedoms and social responsibility come together in the figure of Norman T. Kingsley, an arthouse pornographer who has decided to run for President. This Mailer avatar has decamped to the Hamptons to make his version of a Bunuel film, a story about a whorehouse that services female clientele. While Kingsley is casting the bodies for his feature, serious minds are gathering in his home to discuss his viability as a candidate and ponder whether interests would be better served by turning the wild man into a martyr. One source of concern is Kingsley's amorphous political views; another is his entourage, a loose collection of rebels called the Cashbox, fronted by his brother Rey (Rip Torn). On hand for the weekend are also African American radicals, supervising as Kingsley has a rap session with inner-city youth. That sequence in particular harnesses the power of the unrehearsed, as the teens grill Kingsley (and really Mailer) about what he knows about being poor. He sells them a line, but openly. He admits it's a line.

The first hour or so of Maidstone is kind of great. The faux-documentary style really works, establishing a credible false reality that aids in creating an air of distrust around Kingsley. Is he a fake, or is he a real fake? He goes from group to group, claiming to be an independent entity, but yet also kind of telling them what they want to hear. The hedonistic party that is the film within the film scrapes against the serious politics.

Just past the halfway mark, Maidstone completely falls apart. Mailer attempts to harness the aforementioned chaos and control it, and it ends up beating him to a pulp. This quick-cut descent is a self-serious mess, a poor man's surrealism and smarmy psychedelia. The director can't quite wrestle his way out of it, and the lack of a clear story, the key to his improvisational experiment, bites him on the ass. Once again, he basically throws in the towel and simply removes the scrim. The morning after is an apparently real cast and crew meeting where the roles are dropped and everyone talks as themselves, dissecting how they "feel" about the five-days they've spent shooting. It's hard to say when breaking the fourth wall in this way became so ho-hum, maybe it was still invigorating in 1970; now it's a snooze at best, a cheat at worst.

Surprisingly, Maidstone gets a little of its fire back in the last 15 minutes. Despite what I just said about the cast meeting that upends the rickety narrative, I think the actual story here might be the behind-the-scenes tale: what happened beyond the range of the cameras instead of what Mailer and his crew actually captured on film. If we take this last sequence as fact, Rip Torn ambushes Mailer and they get into a very real fight, with Torn insisting he's giving Norman what he wants--a true end to Maidstone--and Norman calling the actor a traitor. Questions of the authenticity of the whole Norman Mailer construct are raised, ones that the movie leaves dangling. It's a pretty self-aware and gutsy choice for an artist who has spent so much time and effort building himself up in the way Mailer has, because Rip Torn makes the more convincing argument.

Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer, the 35th entry in the Eclipse series, is a trio of films more interesting for what they represent than how they actually turned out. I give Norman Mailer credit for going at moviemaking whole hog, even if he does end up proving he should have stuck to prose. (It would be another 14 years before he was able to make another film, and by all accounts Tough Guys Don't Dance is another turkey.) His experiments at improvisation were intended to get at some unfettered truth, and at times, particularly in Beyond the Law and Maidstone, that actually happens. Unfortunately, in both cases, once Mailer has the truth in his hands, he doesn't know what to do with it. You can run with a ball as long as your lungs allow, but unless you figure out where the goal posts are, it's not really worth it. 

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

Sunday, August 19, 2012

LA PROMESSE (Blu-Ray) - #620

Whenever self-important reviewers such as myself complain about the preponderance of blockbusters and their dominance over ticket sales at multiplexes, it's because there are films like La promesse that, with a tiny budget and a persistence of vision, communicate so much more that most massive special effects spectacles ever could. It's not really a proposition of either/or--I like both sides of this coin--but if I had to choose one or the other, I'd always call for “heads.” Simple tales of humanity are far more meaningful and far more deserving of our dollars and our praise.

La promesse is the 1996 effort of Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and it's largely credited as the movie that brought these talented filmmakers to the attention of the rest of the world. La promesse stars a young Jérémie Renier, a Dardenne regular. Like Jean-Pierre Léaud in Francois Truffaut's films, Renier has literally grown up over the course of the Dardenne oeuvre. Here he plays Igor, a confident and cagey young crook who is, at least at the start of the picture, engaged in two apprenticeships. One is with the increasingly frustrated mechanic (Frédérique Bodson) who has given the kid a job, and the other is with the boy's father, Roger (Olivier Gourmet), a hustler who is making bank smuggling immigrants into Belgium and then putting them to work on his construction sites while simultaneously siphoning off their wages for outrageous rental fees and other necessary gray-market aid. Roger isn't a completely bad guy. He loves his son and is ostensibly doing all of this to buy a house where they can live, but he is blind to the toll his actions take. Not just on the immigrants, but on Igor, who is being robbed of a regular adolescence and also of better opportunities for his adult future by learning the family business at the expense of a legitimate education.

Igor's life starts to pivot with the arrival of Assita (Assita Ouédraogo) and her baby. She has come from Africa to join her husband and the child's father, Hamidou (Rasmane Ouédraogo), who has already been working for Roger for a little while and is in debt both to him and to the gangsters he gambles with. Igor gets along with Hamidou, and he takes a liking to Assita, who is headstrong and clings to the culture and religion she brought with her. When Hamidou is injured in a construction accident, he makes Igor promise to look after his family. The boy takes this debt seriously, though his father sees things differently. If anyone finds out Hamidou is dead, it will mean serious consequences for him and Igor both, and Assita is the only one likely to wonder where the man has gone.

It's from such a fragile construct that great things emerge. La promesse is not heavy on traditional plot. This isn't a potboiler or any other sort of predictable crime film, even if criminal behavior is at its narrative center. Rather, the positioning of these characters, who they are and what they do, provides the seeds for the greater story to grow. La promesse is a film about how people get along and how they react to unexpected circumstances. More importantly, it's a story about how one boy comes to recognize his own conscience and develop his own ethical code in the face of some heavy opposition.

Jérémie Renier was born to be in front of a movie camera. His presence on screen is unaffected and natural in the most convincing and compelling sense. His performance has none of the woodenness that sometimes emerges when Neorealist directors cast non-actors or indie filmmakers work with amateurish newcomers. There isn't a moment of La promesse that comes off as rehearsed or scripted; the Dardennes elicit a true illusion of spontaneity from all of their performers. Olivier Gourmet is particularly effective as the father. He seems to always be one step behind what is happening, caught up in his own efforts to be one step ahead. The climactic scene between Roger and Igor is heartbreaking, frustrating, and dangerous. Like the boy, we are almost sucked in by the man's defenses, even though our gut tells us he'll do whatever it takes to survive.

Much of the spontaneous feel of La promesse is down to how the movie is shot. The Dardenne Bros., alongside director of photography Alain Marcoen and camera operator Benoît Dervaux, favor a more stealthy aesthetic. They don't plan big, elaborate shots or frame any of their scenes in ways that call attention to the construction; rather, they prefer more intimate, fly-on-the-wall positioning. Following the characters, tracking their reactions, staying with their faces--this is the visual power of La promesse. There are no self-conscious handheld jitters, nothing here that would put La promesse in the faux documentary genre or that precedes the jiggling, probing zooms of mumblecore, and even so, it plays as a movie that was captured off-the-cuff, as things were happening, all the same.

The suspense of La promesse is not really in seeing how Assita and her baby get along, though as audience members we certainly become invested in their journey; rather, the pins and needles come from wondering how much of himself Igor will compromise. Will he or won't he go all the way and tell the full truth? The Dardennes are careful not to telegraph the conclusion, letting the throughline stretch all the way to the final scene. And then when it comes, they let the movie close on just the right note. The small action of the individual may have big meaning, but the ripples it causes may also be imperceptible. The fact is, life rarely stops, not even in the most tragic of times. Regardless of the moral justifications or the peace that may come from sharing difficult truths, the earth does not shatter, nor do the people exposing the lies or those receiving the knowledge. You take one breath, and then you take another, and so it goes.

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

Sunday, August 12, 2012


It's in the third Antoine Doinel film, 1970's Bed and Board, that Francois Truffaut's series of films becomes a series proper. Now there is a set style and tone, the happenings vacillating between romantic drama and whimsical comedy, the loose narrative only reflecting traditional plot structure in an overarching sense. In relating the life of Antoine Doinel, small moments are equal to the big changes any individual encounters in his or her worldly progress.

Since Stolen Kisses [review], Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his girlfriend Christine (Claude Jade) have gotten married. They live in an apartment in an active building full of colorful characters--the opera singer and his Italian wife, the shut-in, the alleged strangler. There is a bar in the bottom story, and Antoine works in the courtyard, dying flowers for the shop around the corner. While he changes white carnations to red, Christine gives violin lessons upstairs. They are happy, existing is easy to do.

Truffaut and co-writers Bernard Rivon and Claude de Givray could have easily built Bed and Board into a multi-level comedy based out of this one building. The initial banter between the residents is light and airy, and the personalities are distinct enough to make each person interesting unto his or herself. As the movie progresses, however, these folks turn out to be merely colorful window dressing, the kind of distractions that provide a backdrop for newlywed life, but that soon get supplanted by more serious concerns. Growing up is about letting go of the frivolity and embracing serious responsibility.

In this case, when Antoine's ambition exceeds the limits of the flower stand, he gets a new job working for an American company specializing in hydraulics. His duty is to run the remote control boats that demonstrate the product. (I initially thought the scene of him at the miniature harbor looked like something out of the modern home demonstration in Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle; amusingly, a Tati lookalike shows up mid-movie for an all-too-brief Monsieur Hulot-esque cameo.) Not long after, Christine gets pregnant, and nine months later, the couple has a son. It's around this time that Antoine also takes a mistress, a Japanese woman he meets at work. Kyoto (Mademoiselle Hiroko) represents the new and the different, the kind of romantic adventure that Antoine would have pursued as a kid. When he is caught by Christine, his defense is that Kyoko is not another woman, she is “another world.” Indeed, the portrayal of this woman is rather shallow, she is like a cartoon of what Westerners imagined Japanese women to be. It's a surprisingly faulty facet of Bed and Board. Ironically, Truffaut appears as naïve about Kyoko's culture as his hero, and it bites both of them on the ass.

There is a randomness to Bed and Board that makes it come off as a less serious effort than its predecessors. The Doinel movies seem to be growing increasingly fanciful, almost as if Truffaut was taking on Jean-Luc Godard's penchant for jokey digressions right at the time his former colleague was abandoning “non-serious” cinema. How else does one explain the appearance by Hulot, or the animated flowers that spit out Kyoko's written messages when they bloom? Or Christine's geisha outfit? There's even a little self-reflexive humor. The faux strangler (Claude Véga) turns out to be a comedian, and the whole building sees him on TV doing an impression of Delphine Seyrig, quoting not just Last Year at Marienbad [review], but much to Antoine's horror, the bedroom talk from Stolen Kisses. Previous indiscretions are coming home to roost.

It's hard to say what someone just happening on Bed and Board randomly would make of it. While The 400 Blows [review] and Stolen Kisses can stand on their own independently of the other Doinel films, Bed and Board is nowhere near existing in a vacuum. There is an assumption that you know who Antoine is, and though Truffaut could have easily made a stand-alone film that relates the newly married experience in much the same way Stolen Kisses conveyed the travails of dating and early adulthood, he does less to establish Antoine and Christine as characters separate from what came before. This is a chapter for the initiated only, and is without a doubt lesser for it.

Nevertheless, the film's greatest success really is in how it portrays the ups and downs of being newlyweds. Antoine's growing pains are easy to identify with, though his screw-ups are all the more frustrating for seeing how loving he and Christine are, and how happy they are together, prior to having their son. It's not that Antoine is losing anything, it's just that he's having a hard time letting go, of shutting himself off to past freedoms in order to embrace all that lays before him.

Taking that into consideration, the way Truffaut straddles the fence between the serious relationship drama and the more reckless comedy makes more sense. Bed and Board represents the same transition. It's as if the whole series is maturing before our eyes, and the material is just getting real as we come to our conclusion. (Fittingly, Kyoko  is also finally getting real, or at least getting the last word, expressing a farewell sentiment that isn't an Asian cliché.) Thus, the absence of plot makes room for a true character arc, as Antoine Doinel stops acting like an irresponsible college kid and starts to be a man.

Though, with one more movie to go, it remains to be seen if he can actually hold it together.

Friday, August 3, 2012


My reviews of non-Criterion movies in July.


The Amazing Spider-Man, the improbable relaunch that could.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, a noble effort with great acting and beautiful cinematography, but overbearing music and a muddled script.

The Dark Knight Risesmaybe the most anticipated movie of the year. But must what goes up also come down?

Ruby Sparks, a would-be deconstruction of the "manic pixie girl" concept that doesn't have the gumption to take it all the way. Noble debut writing effort from actress Zoe Cassavetes, however, and she's also really good in the movie.

Savages, Oliver Stone's proof that the only losing proposition bigger than the War on Drugs is his movie about the War on Drugs. Contender for worst of the year.

To Rome With Love, Woody Allen's tribute to Italy is a pleasant comedic quartet.

Total Recall, a surprisingly action-packed remake with Colin Farrell. Go watch the punching and the shooting and don't worry about it.

TrishnaIt's a bummer summer with Michael Winterbottom adapting Thomas Hardy. Pity poor Freida Pinto. 

The Watchyour summer safeguard against laughing. Trust me. You won't. Starring Stiller, Vaughn, Hill, and a bunch of dead air.

Also, if you're in Portland, the NW Film Center is starting Mark Cousins' epic movie about movies, The Story of FilmAn Odyssey this week. It's five parts, spread over all of August. I wrote it up for the Portland Mercury.

Annnnnd, Shawn Levy at The Oregonian did a round-up of Portland comics folks, asking them their opinions about superhero movies. Included are Brian Michael Bendis, Jeff Parker, Natalie Nourigat, Dylan Meconis, David Chelsea, and many others. And, naturally, yours truly. It's a pretty neat round-table. Read the full version online here.


1900Gerard Depardieu and Robert De Niro star in Bernardo Bertolucci's sprawling, mad epic.

Force of Evil, a sharp gangster picture from 1948, with John Garfield as a mob lawyer looking to take his gambling racket to the big time.

The Last of England, Derek Jarman's post-apocalyptic poem. A vision of the future from the vantage point of the 1980s.

Panda! Go, Panda! an early kids movie from Hayao Miyazaki.

Rio Grande, a pre-Quiet Man teaming of John Wayne, John Ford, and Maureen O'Hara.

La terra tremaLuchino Visconti's second feature, is a classic of Italian Neorealism.

Treme: The Complete Second Season. HBO's most challenging show is a lot like life. And, hey, ain't life worth it?

Thursday, August 2, 2012


The second entry in the Antoine Doinel series is actually a short segment from an anthology film featuring directors from around the world telling stories about first-time love affairs. Made in 1962 and running just thirty minutes, Antoine and Colette picks up with Antoine a few years after The 400 Blows (and it's included as a bonus on the 400 Blows DVD [review]). He is 17 and on his own. He has developed a love for classical music, and he works at a record company, first inserting the platters in their sleeves and then hand-pressing the albums himself.

He spends his nights going to music performances and lectures, and that's where he spots Colette (Marie-France Pisier, Diary of a Suicide [review]). She is a fidgety girl and doesn't really seem focused on the performance, but rather than see that as a red flag, Antoine is drawn to her. He starts to look for her at shows, and eventually talks to her and befriends her. Truffaut captures the excitement and confusion of young love, both in success and failure. Antoine spends much of Antoine and Colette aimlessly yearning, wandering the streets and waiting for Colette to come home, waiting for her to notice him, waiting for his attentions to be rewarded. He makes progress, but also makes a fatal mistake in moving into the apartment building across the street from her family and befriending her parents.

Jean-Pierre Léaud gets the restlessness and the empty pain of infatuation. Antoine appears lost and indecisive for most of the movie. This, to my experience, is accurate. Likewise, Marie-France Pisier's inscrutable behavior is going to be recognizable to anyone who has ever had an unrequited relationship, regardless of gender. There is something about how she is both engaged and yet absent, not really committed, that makes her appear unfathomable--though if you really watch, Antoine's lack of understanding is just denial. The signals are there if he'd choose to receive them.

Truffaut and cinematographer Raoul Coutard manage to create a light, breezy tone with their visual storytelling. The way the screen boxes off certain elements of the frame, zooming in on specific details while the rest goes to black and setting up a transition, comes off as both old-fashioned and playful. It is a kind of seduction, the filmmakers leading us to what they want us to see, suggesting where we should apply our attention, while enticing us with the mystery of what might appear when the image is restored.

This same technique is used once in the second full-length Doinel picture, 1968's Stolen Kisses. This follow-up makes for a more natural double feature with Antoine and Colette, as our hero is suffering from the same romantic maladies that plagued him six years prior.

Stolen Kisses opens as Antoine is being discharged from the army. He has spent his enlistment either in military prisons or escaping and going AWOL, proving that once he is back in an institutional system, the boy behaves the same as ever. Fed up with his antics, the army is sending him back to civilian life. Antoine immediately falls into his old routine, including pursuing the girl whose hot-and-cold indifference caused him to run away to the military in the first place. Christine (Claude Jade, Hitchcock's Topaz) is so like Colette, we'd think that Truffaut just swapped the girl's name when he swapped actresses if it wasn't for the Colette cameo midway through the picture. Whatever relationship she and Antoine had before the army, he has been relegated to the friendship zone, no matter how hard he pushes. Antoine doesn't know what to do.

Things take a turn for the better when Antoine joins a detective agency. Though the cases tend to involve mainly following other people around for ludicrous and selfish reasons, it gives Antoine a sense of purpose. Ironically, it's when he got embroiled in an adultery case while working the front desk of a hotel that Antoine got the investigator job, and it's also adultery that will be both his undoing as a private eye and allow him to succeed as a lover. While undercover in a shoe store in hopes of finding out why everyone hates its owner, Antoine is enchanted by the boss' wife, an elegant older woman played by a radiant Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad [review]). She responds to Antoine's fumbling affections, and though Christine doesn't witness their scandal first-hand, she does sense the tide has shifted. As these things go, when her admirer stops being a sure bet, she suddenly wants him. (It also probably helps that his being ushered into manhood this way makes him less needy.)

There is a lighter quality to Stolen Kisses than was evident in either The 400 Blows or Antoine and Colette. It's more fleet of foot. Truffaut applies the most delicate of comic touches to much of the movie, allowing for brief moments of physical comedy as well as the semi-ridiculous scenarios that the detectives sign up for. Léaud is charming and natural regardless of the situation (at times maybe too natural--the way he keeps pushing his bangs back was driving me nuts). He is a clumsy romantic lead, too overcome by passion to ever be suave. His declarations regarding Seyrig's character are overblown and silly, and his physical advances toward Christine--as they were with Colette--are desperate and pushy. The "stolen" descriptor is literal, that's how he kisses!

Christine is more sympathetically written than Colette. Her rejection of Antoine makes much more sense, he's got a lot of growing up to do. Nevertheless, her transformation is maybe a little too easy. Perhaps it would have been more convincing had she seen more of Antoine's education in the arms of the shoe lady, rather than just having a change of heart the first time she discovers he is unavailable. Actually, it's not just the bedroom business between Léaud and Seyrig that is missing--for a sexy romantic comedy, Stolen Kisses is almost completely lacking in sex or physical contact of any kind. It's as if Truffaut used up his flesh quota at the start when he showed the cheating wife's breasts.

Despite the chaste distance between the movie's lovers, Stolen Kisses is agile and entertaining enough to keep that from mattering too much. The maturing Antoine Doinel is every bit as charming as he was when young, and there is a looseness and unpredictability to Truffaut's plotting that keeps us wanting to know what happens next.

Since my Adventures of Antoine Doinel reviews began on a personal note, I'll keep it going by mentioning I had a similar experience to the one Antoine has when he runs into Colette in Stolen Kisses. In the years that have passed, Colette has gotten married and had a child. The husband/father is the guy she jilts Antoine for at the end of Antoine and Colette, no less. Seeing her this way only serves to irritate Antoine, and not just because he's on a stakeout.

I had a similar girlfriend, one who was seemingly unwilling to define just how much of her affection she was prepared to send in my direction. I pursued her for quite a while, including enduring a period where it was between myself and another guy. He ultimately won out, and they got married. I ran into her many years later in a supermarket, and she had her husband and children in tow. Rather than reviving the heartbreak that had ravaged me when we split, seeing her in that way just made me feel relieved. She looked tired, and frankly, what I saw of her life in just that brief glimpse made me tired, as well. This was a fate I had escaped. Perhaps there is something more to Antoine Doinel's propensity for breaking out of prisons than is immediately evident...?

Two more movies to go before I can be sure!