Monday, August 28, 2017


The Marseille Trilogy comes with a lot of history. These early French talkies are adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s stage plays, helmed initially by other directors, but overseen by the writer, who would go on to direct the final entry himself (the only one not taken from a play). A successful film career for Pagnol followed, only for him to fall out of fashion in the 1950s until Francois Truffaut resurrected his reputation. At least amongst cinephiles. I remember seeing The Marseille Trilogy on the shelf at the video store where I worked, its boxes faded and dusty, their old-fashioned look perhaps contributing to their never being rented. I was another of the philistines who kept passing Pagnol by.

Then again, in the DVD age, one also couldn’t be blamed for sitting back and waiting with at least some fair confidence that a restoration was on its way. Wait long enough and all these things will come back around again, right? And there is plenty to watch in the meantime.

It’s funny to put it that way now, and also to consider that, in the intervening years (more than a decade at this point), I sometimes thought about those boxes. I can see them in my head--mostly white with pinkish lettering and black-and-white photos giving very little information about who Marius and Fanny and César might be--and every once in a while, perhaps when I’d see Pagnol or the trilogy mentioned, I’d wonder what maybe I’d missed.

Luckily, I was right and these things do come around, and Criterion has a new The Marseille Trilogy boxed set struck from 4K restorations that should look light years better than those old versions, and I can make up for lost time watching them in a state that represents how Pagnol and his collaborators intended. (In his video intro on the Marius disc, director Bertrand Tavernier (Coup de torchon) reflects on the damaged prints that were all that were available back in the day.) And I must say, it was worth the wait. The Marseille Trilogy is something extraordinary, an entirely human drama, arguably more novelistic than theatrical, wide in scope but careful in focus.

The first two movies in The Marseille Trilogy, Marius and Fanny cover about a two-year span, with the biggest time jump taking place in Fanny, its beginning overlapping with the conclusion of Marius, every bit the chapter 2 of a much longer narrative.

1932’s Marius, directed by Alexander Korda (That Hamilton Woman [review]), introduces us to our cast. Bar owner César (Raimu, The Pearls of the Crown [review]) and his son Marius (Pierre Fresnay, The Man Who Knew Too Much [review]); Marius’ childhood friend, Fanny (Orane Demazis, Les misérables [review]), a street vendor; the merchant Panisse (Fernard Charpin, Pépé le moko); and many more, a colorful gathering of different peoples brought together at the port in Marseille. Marius and Fanny have grown up to fall in love, though neither would admit it. Recently widowed, Panisse is looking to marry Fanny as a way to bring some happiness back to his home, something that will end up forcing the issue between the two younger people. The only hiccup is Marius’ wanderlust. He’s not interested in running his dad’s tavern, he wants to see the world.

What follows from this set-up is a very human drama, with people both acting in their own self-interests and then rejecting the same when it means someone else maybe deserves a better turn. Fanny ends up being the one ready to give up the most: she’ll let Marius chase his passion even if it means letting him go for several years. She’d rather miss him while he explores far-off lands than be responsible for his always wondering what else is out there.

Marius ends with Marius leaving for Australia, and Fanny explores what happens once he’s gone. Released a year later and directed by Marc Allégret, Fanny takes us deeper into the characters Marius has left behind, exposing their different sides, and revealing them not to be entirely what we originally expected. Perhaps most notable is the relationship between César and Panisse, a friendship that dates back to their days in school. In Marius, we saw them bicker harmlessly the way such old friends do; in Fanny, longer-held resentments surface from that bickering, but so too do we see how generous a nature they really have. Our allegiances shift more than once, but then, life often changes that way, doesn’t it?

“Life” is a key word here. Pagnol is a writer who lets his characters truly live. Though directed by others, Pagnol is really the author of these films, casting the actors and running the rehearsals and generally setting the course for how they would go. You can see the theatrical roots showing at times, particularly with Marius, where action is mostly confined to one location (most often, the bar) and driven by dialogue. Pagnol is not afraid to let scenes run long, to let conversations follow their natural course, long enough for characters to equivocate, expose their true feelings, and double-back on them. We get to know everyone in The Marseille Trilogy by spending time with them. For Pagnol, character is plot, and what each character does in relation to another is how he builds his story. The Marseille Trilogy is a great family epic, one that grapples with time and growth, rather than focusing on one driving narrative device. If it were a TV show, it would be a soap opera. Who loves whom and why, and what will they betray to make that person they love happy?

Not that The Marseille Trilogy is cliché or hokey (and not that soap operas have to be, despite the hokey clichés about them); rather, our investment in the participants means the drama is riveting. Any cliché turn Pagnol might take is less a fault of the material and more years of cinema and television that have come since preparing us for certain twists in this kind of material. It doesn’t really matter if you can see ahead to evident developments, though, as the getting there is always surprising.

Also, the acting is so good, you might find yourself wishing this were an ongoing series. Some of the best moments in both Marius and Fanny have nothing to do with the central story, but instead are sidebar instances where other characters are just spending time together. An hilarious card game with César, Panisse, and their friends in Marius is one of the most charming things you’ll see this, or any, year. Raimu shows himself a master of gesture, and he has an easy chemistry with all of his co-stars that will make you glad when Pagnol inserts other such scenes into Fanny. Special mention should also be made of Pierre Fresnay, whose Marius returns almost two years after he originally left, and though he has been transformed by his adventures, the actor merely matures the performance rather than making a hard shift into a different gear. We can believe that the confident, hardened Marius in Fanny is the same as the anxious and often capricious young Marius we saw in his own movie. The cinematography opens up, too, breaking out of the confines of interior locations, showing more of the seaside town.

Which makes me all the more interested to see where these characters end up in César, the final installment of The Marseille Trilogy, when Marcel Pagnol takes charge of the camera himself. But that’s something for its own review...

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Two actresses who gained their initial fame in the 1990s have stepped behind the camera to make their own short films, each focusing on a young girl facing a life-altering change, but in very different ways.

Criterion fans will recognize Chloë Sevigny from Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco [review] and also had a featured role on the HBO series Big Love [review]. Kitty is her 2017 adaptation of a Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky) story. It stars Edie Yvonne as young Katherine, a.k.a. Kitty, a child who dreams of being a cat to such an impassioned degree, she eventually transforms into one.

Sevigny’s short is about the power of imagination, positive and negative. Childhood has both a light and a dark side, and while the girl Kitty finds happiness in her flights of fancy, the adults around her don’t share her whimsical vision. Even as the girl starts to slowly adopt the physical attributes of her namesake, her parents and neighbors fail to see what she sees, they have grown past such things--and to illustrate this divide Sevigny constructs her shots so that we can’t see their faces. It’s a bit like the Peanuts cartoons, all grown-ups are just out of frame, or shielded by something. It’s almost as if they consider Kitty too insignificant to bother.

This only changes when the metamorphosis is complete, but then only because Kitty is exiled for real, having embraced her imagined form in total. There is a bit of Roald Dahl here: by leaning into the magic, the child forever separates herself from the life she once had and can never fully return to the real world. Her choices have made her “different.”

Rose McGowan’s 2014 effort, Dawn, has a far more serious setting and a far darker outcome than Kitty. Known for her performances in both segments of Grindhouse [review] and the original Scream, McGowan has shifted her personal spotlight from acting to activism in recent years. Dawn illustrates some of the issues she has raised with Hollywood and our sexualized culture, but in a way that intrigues through storytelling rather than explicitly laying it out.

Set in the 1960s, Tara Lynne Barr (Hulu’s Casual) plays Dawn, a teenager experiencing her sexual awakening. Though warned against the hunky gas station attendant (Reily McClendon) who has caught her eye, when there’s no one around to chase him away, he and some friends come calling. Dawn decides to go with them into the woods, opening herself up to a violent fate, the doomed heroine of a true-crime fairy tale. (See also Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk.)

McGowan, working from a script by Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin, co-creators of Queen of the South, uses juxtaposition of two different worlds and points of view in much the same way as Sevigny--though here it’s the balance between the idyllic vision many have of 1960s rural America, and the modern sadism that lurks just underneath. In both cases, the shorts end with the titular characters being lead away by someone else, but only one finds happiness, the other finds tragedy.

I wouldn’t dare suggest that either outcome in any way suggests a difference between the filmmakers any more than these are just the stories they wanted to tell; rather, I think it’s more interesting to highlight the similar impulse that drives them. As actresses themselves, it makes sense that both Chloë Sevigny and Rose McGowan would choose tales that put their stars front and center, that highlight female characters driven by their particular desires and the center of their own narrative. Not relegated to the sideline as girlfriends or fetish objects, but true main characters.

On a side note, Rose McGowan was herself featured in an artful short film recently. The video for Luna’s cover the Cure’s “Fire in Cairo” is a tribute to her. Watch it for yourself below.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

LA POISON - #891

Sacha Guitry can sure make murderous fantasies feel playful and fun.

Plowing similar territory as Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours [review] and Pietro Germi’s Divorce Italian Style, the writer/director’s 1951 film La poison is a dark comedy about a married couple so sick of each other, they’d rather see the other dead than carry on with the charade. French superstar Michel Simon (L’Atalante [review], The Two of Us [review]) plays Paul Bracconier, a middle-aged husband in a small-town who has had enough of his wife of 30 years. She drinks three bottles of wine a day and is generally unpleasant to be around. Granted, Blandine (Germaine Reuver) is pretty sick of Paul, as well, and while he’s complaining to his priest and anyone who will listen, she’s buying enough rat poison to kill him seven times over. While Guitry’s sympathies clearly lie with Paul, from the looks of things, Blandine’s going to get him long before he gets her.

It’s certainly an amusing set-up, and one with enough comedy to build the whole script around, but luckily for us, Guitry goes deeper than that. La poison isn’t just about a married couple who are at each other’s throats, but it’s also about small-town gossip, religious and political hypocrisy, and one man’s hubris. Just as things are heating up at the Bracconier household, their neighbors are begging the same priest to whom Paul confessed to fake a miracle and drive tourism from Paris. Elsewhere, a defense lawyer (Jean Debucourt, The Golden Coach) is celebrating his 100th victory by crowing about his tenuous relationship with the concept of guilt. It’s his unique views about murder that provide Paul the morally grey justification to head his wife off at the pass--though as we’ll see, even the smartest barrister can’t save Paul from himself.

Michael Simon brings his usual gregariousness to the role. An enormous screen presence whose career spanned decades, from silent films through the Nouvelle Vague, Simon has a matter-of-fact way with the comedy of the situation. He can talk about killing his wife as if it was the most natural thing in the world, but he can also twist that same reasonable delivery into a dangerous self-satisfaction. It’s hard to tell whether to love or hate him in La poison’s finale. Part of you won’t blame him for his desires, even as his proclamations paint a far less appealing portrait than we’ve seen so far.

Guitry has fun with this, cutting away from Paul to show the reaction of others. In fact, the cutaway is his most common comedic tool. What goes on behind closed doors is often juxtaposed with what is going on outside of them. In their way, the other townspeople are accomplices to Paul’s crimes. Like the woman at the start of La poison who sits in the pharmacists examining other people’s prescriptions, they concern themselves more with the illness than the cure. They prefer the drama of the scandal to preventing the potential consequences. This is behavior that Guitry hardly sees as unique to rural communities; when Paul’s crime breaks wide, the filmmaker is indicting all of French society. Paul’s lawyer even puts a fine point on it: his job is secure as long as the press keeps promoting the crimes he defends and the public keeps eating them up.

Here, Guitry himself is a little guilty of having his cake and eating it, too, and I’m sure he’d be the first to admit it. In a meta sense, he is the biggest gossip of all, and takes the most joy in the deadly machinations of La poison. The joyous tone of the picture never gives way to a serious scolding, not even in the final scenes when he jumps between Paul’s testimony and the town’s impressionable children gleefully re-enacting what they’ve overheard from their parents--who themselves head off to Paul’s trial like tourists going to see a Broadway play. Other directors would use this old trick to shock us, to say look how horrifying this behavior and at who the resulting entertainment really corrupts. Not Guitry. He’s instead undercutting our own attraction to scandal and horror by noting how silly such base impulses can really be. In that sense, he’s not necessarily excusing Paul Bracconier, but implicating us in his creation and setting him up as the hero we deserve. I mean, aren’t we really rooting for him to get away with it?

In addition to a high-definition transfer, an interview with modern filmmaker Olivier Assayas, and a pair of documentaries about Guitry, this Blu-ray edition of La poison also boasts an original cover by renowned cartoonist/caricaturist Drew Friedman. If you don’t know Friedman’s work, seek it out, beginning with his books Old Jewish Comedians and Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, August 19, 2017


For those of us music fans who romanticize 1980s Britain, let Mike Leigh’s 1984 television movie Meantime be our wake-up call. Whether we dream of the beautifully dreary poetry of the Smiths and New Order or the New Romantic-glitz of early Duran Duran, our belief that it would have been an extraordinary time to be alive and English is based on a false ideal that borders on ghetto tourism. Sure, the hopelessness and boredom of Leigh’s tale is the same kind of situation that gave us Morrissey and Ian Curtis and Martin Gore, but it didn’t make philosophers and kings of everyone. We can hear the music without having to eek out an existence under Thatcher’srule.

Set in a London tenement, Meantime follows an out-of-work working class family--father, mother, and two adult sons--who struggle to get by, packed into a counsel estate apartment, living off unemployment. While Frank (Jeff Robert) has settled into a certain contentment doing nothing, largely enabled by his put-upon wife Mavis (Pam Ferris), his two boys are finding it hard to feel the hours ooze by without going mad. To cope, they go to opposite ends. Mark (Phil Daniels, Quadrophenia [review]) is caustic and confrontational, a prototype of David Thewlis in Leigh’s masterpiece, Naked, while Colin (Tim Roth, The Hit, The Hateful Eight) is quiet and withdrawn, and perhaps a bit behind developmentally. As we watch them kick against the nothingness across the length of Meantime, we will see the sibling dynamic at work, rivalry providing its own kind of support. Mark tears Colin down only to prop him back up (sort of).

Famous for improvising his material with his actors (Leigh is credited as having “devised” the film rather than having written it), Meantime’s drama is less plot and more situational. There are many scenes of doing nothing, of being trapped in the flat or down at the pub, the ennui inspiring cruelty, family and friends picking at each other. It’s a difficult dynamic to watch. Leigh risks inspiring annoyance in his audience, as well as a potential harsh reaction to how little these men seemingly do to help themselves. A scene down at the unemployment office sees both Frank and Mark abusing the woman who gives them their check; the opening of the film shows the family visiting middle-class relatives (Marion Bailey and Alfred Molina) and being passive-aggressively hostile toward their hospitality.

Yet, as we watch events unfold, it becomes clear that their idle state is not laziness, but a combination of defeat and pride. They have accepted that this is their lot, and there is little option for something better; at the same time, the few available options are pitiable scraps, more off-handed charity than considered solution. No one is offering them a viable choice to improve.

And while, yes, characters in Meantime can be annoying, watching them is anything but thanks to Leigh’s remarkable cast. While Daniels had plenty of work under his belt by this time, Meantime was a breakthrough for both Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, who plays Coxy, a brash skinhead. Oldman’s performance is physical, charismatic, and odd, his belching cadence predicting both his turn as Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy [review], and his many villain roles. Coxy is the perfect example of the wayward youth who gloms on to some kind of social movement or manufactured identity to mask his own weakness--which we catch a brief glimpse of in an unsettling scene where Coxy is called on his racist bullshit in an elevator. Oldman says little in the moment, but his vulnerability is evident in his face and body language. Alternately, Roth is restrained, his angst and anger all bottled up, presenting a false gentleness rather than a trumped-up bravado. In some ways, the actors would swap these roles a few years down the road in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Roth going nuclear and Oldman adopting a genial ignorance.

Leigh and director of photography Roger Pratt (Brazil, Mona Lisa) use the limitations of television to their advantage, achieving a lo-fi realism befitting the story. Shot on location, and contrasting the cramped apartments with the wide open spaces that these aimless young adults wander in search of something, anything to occupy the time, the outside world in Meantime is vast and endless, but offering no additional shelter or purpose, except to maybe make the characters feel smaller and more meaningless. (For contrast, see Oldman’s Coxy tucked into a big cylinder, trying to move, banging on the walls impotently...) Leigh’s England is as moody and gray as Joy Division’s, though a lot less tuneful. I don’t know if Andrew Dickson’s score is intentionally monotonous to match the repetition of the characters’ day-to-day, but its constant presence eventually serves to distract rather than enhance. But then, it’s also kind of emotionless to begin with.

All the more impressive, then, that Leigh ends Meantime so warmly, with Mark pulling his brother back from the brink after his pettiness sent Colin in the wrong direction. It’s an error corrected not even by kindness, but simply by devoting a moment to listen. Sure, the real ending suggests that once they are over that hump, the whole family will return to business as usual, but when every day is harsh, the small oases can mean a whole lot. Now if only the boys could take those brief bursts of energy and form a band....

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.