Sunday, November 26, 2017


It’s not the silence that gets me about LeSamouraï, it’s the stillness. Sure, it takes ten minutes before anyone says a word in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 crime masterpiece, but that’s not really what makes Le Samouraï so riveting, so impossible to look away from. That would be the economy of movement, and the willingness of the camera, along with everyone in its lens, to remain perfectly still. Particularly Alain Delon, playing Jef Costello, the hitman that leads this thing. He spends much of the movie with his hands in his pockets, staring straight ahead. It’s a performance absent of gesture. He only moves when he acts.

As with his heist film Le cercle rouge [review], Melville builds this noir knock-off around a Japanese proverb, this time borrowed from the Bushido, the code of the samurai warrior (or, at least purported to be, since apparently Melville made it up). “There is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle...perhaps....” Jef is a man without personal relationships, only connections. He lives alone with a chirping bullfinch that acts as his canary in the coal mine, its behavior tipping him off to any intruders. His clients can be anonymous, and the man he kills at the start of Le Samouraï, the nightclub owner, is a stranger to him. He’s a lone wolf (no cub).

Each step toward the hit is part of a methodology: getting an untraceable car, establishing an alibi, picking a route that will make it less likely for him to be seen. Step by step, Jef goes about his business. Only the unpredictability of others is his real enemy. This particular job starts to go haywire when a piano player in the club, Valérie (Cathy Rosier), is in the hallway when Jef exits the boss’ office. Her vague description of the killer causes police to round up any usual suspect that matches the brief. Except, when Valérie sees Jef in the line-up, she changes the details of her story to protect him. He doesn’t know why, and neither does the detective (François Périer, Orpheus [review]) pursuing the case. He’s sure Jef is his man, and he starts hunting the jungle cat with the a precision to match Jef’s own (provided, again, others don’t screw it up for him).

Breaking it down, Le Samouraï is a portrait of a cold-blooded killer having his blood warmed. Though Jef tracks Valérie down ostensibly to find out who his clients are after a double-cross, presuming they paid the musician to lie on his behalf, their encounter has a different effect on him. Jef sees the kindness in the woman, and he begins to understand that there is benefit to not always being alone, people can care about you and help you. At least, for me, this would explain his actions in the film’s final scene. He has fallen in love with her, such as he understands it. So he takes care of her in the only manner he understands: kill or don’t kill. (She wears animal print in early scenes: is she another predator or prey?)

It’s funny, because the first time I’d ever heard of Le Samouraï was when I was editing the comic book series Red Rocket 7. Michael Allred’s sci-fi comic was a tour of rock history through the eyes of an alien clone. Allred is an expert retro stylist, the sort of guy who would watch Melville’s immaculately designed film and see things he could use in his own work. In this case, the author opens an issue of Red Rocket 7 with Red’s girlfriend telling him “I love you” while in a movie theater. The movie they are watching in this moment of potential emotional panic? Le Samouraï. On the screen behind him, Jef Costello has a gun pointed at his head, held by the man who betrayed him. It’s a smart parallel. This kind of emotion is just as deadly for Jef as it feels for Red (though romance has more purchase in Allred’s world).

Le Samouraï is a cool film. Not just hip, but I mean in temperature, in look. There are no vibrant colors in the movie. The skies are gray, Jef’s apartment is green and brown, the nightclub is silver and blue--perhaps the most colorful image is Valérie’s white gold dress. It’s sparkly in much the same way the nightclub décor sparkles. It’s sleek and fancy and modern, but not necessarily space age. The club itself presents a different world, one that is clean and shiny. Everywhere else Jef goes is grimy and dank, with maybe the exception of the apartment of Jane (Nathalie Delon), his alibi. Its feminine details are soft and lean toward lighter hues, in contrast to the masculine, utilitarian, beige and gun-metal grey police station--hence, the police destroying the peacefulness of the flat when they invade. Every set is designed to let you know whom you are dealing with the moment you step through the doors. Those coming to this edition of Le Samouraï for the high-definition upgrade will be pleased to see how much the image has improved. (NOTE: The screengrabs here are taken from the 2005 DVD release.)

One last thing before I cease my ramble--AND THOSE WHO FEAR SPOILERS PLEASE LOOK AWAY NOW AND COME BACK LATER--but let’s talk that last scene.

The death of Jef Costello is its own odd style choice. In one sense, it recalls the end of Breathless [review], when Belmondo falls backwards in the street after being shot. Of course, Melville appeared in Breathless, and Jean-Luc Godard looked up to the older director, so is it possible that the end of Le Samouraï is some kind of metatextual answer to the conclusion of the revolutionary nouvelle vague classic? Delon does not go down with the same improvised realism of Belmondo. Rather, in much the same way that Michel’s death in that earlier film reflects the freeform aesthetic of Godard’s mis-en-scene, Jef’s death has a more rigid, theatrical styling, befitting both the aesthetic of Le Samouraï but also of a more classical filmmaking technique. With the small trickle of blood on his mouth, clutching his chest with gloved hands, Delon almost looks like Bela Lugosi sinking back into Dracula’s coffin. Is it the death of a warrior, or the finale of a horror movie?

Then again, perhaps it’s nothing. But if Jean-Pierre Melville is as precise as the character he gave life to, we know it has to mean something. Even if it’s just a sacrificial pose or that Jef is as unmoved by death as he is all else.

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


So, it’s only taken several years for me to backtrack and watch the first installment of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Paradise: Love. While the order seems almost immaterial, Love does set the whole thing up by putting all the women the series features in one place and sending them on their journies.

Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) is off on a trip to Africa for her 50th birthday. There, she plans to lounge on the beach with other Austrian women her age, a few of whom have been there before and can show her the ropes. Specifically, how to purchase her own local lover. Young men in the area accept cash and gifts to be these women’s companions, all the while professing their love, selling a thin illusion that the women aren’t necessarily buying, it just comes with the package. Teresa’s friends giggle over the boys’ naïveté and joke about them in German so they can’t understand what they are saying. Teresa isn’t sure about the whole thing at first, she wants to be treated a certain way, but pretty soon she goes from kidding herself about the affection she receives to being just one of the gals.

Seidl applies a sharp satirical edge to the ugly tourists here. The ladies don’t mask their true feelings, particularly with the language barrier to hide behind. They treat resort staff like performing animals, and the boys they hire like property. Which is easy enough to get agry about, but Seidl’s camera is wide enough to look at both sides, making Paradise: Love a more intriguing puzzler than the simple premise might suggest. The real trick of this movie is how often it flips the audience’s allegiances. While first we judge Teresa, as we eventually see her nervous bedroom habits, we begin to feel sorry for her. Tiesel portrays Teresa’s longing with quiet empathy. She could really use the love that the young men claim. We also see the two-way flow of bartering here, as her second relationship with a quiet, calming fellow named Munga (Peter Kazungu) turns from nights spent in bed to days spent doling out charity to Munga’s family, all of whom demand more than Teresa is able to give--and even insulting her from behind their own language barrier. While she is indulging in ghetto tourism, he is taking full advantage of her loneliness and her motherly instincts. (Initial love scenes with each man she couples with all turn into tutelage rather than passion.)

Of course, Teresa doesn’t react well to discovering Munga’s con, and so she goes back to trawling the beaches for a new hire. There’s a sad willingness on her part to believe each man will treat her better than the last, that he is sincere because he says so, to a degree that the hustlers are almost in sync with one another, refining the sales pitch with each new encounter. It’s a weird cycle, because for a bit we believe, too. Maybe it will be better. Maybe she’ll be better. But no, Teresa’s failures don’t improve her failings; she is no kinder to the others she meets. The whole thing culminates in her birthday party, where the women literally purchase a man for a night of fun and games, ridiculing and humiliating him. All the while, he pretends to like it, but other parts of his body betray that smile on his face as a forced lie.

As with all the Paradise films, one is left to ponder what exactly Seidl is saying about love. His laid-back presentation offers no real editorializing, and though he does show some sympathy for Teresa, his narrative does not take a side. Is his view of human relationships so cynical that he sees love as a series of transactions rather than a genuine connector? Or is the point here that there is a greater divide in the world than we care to admit, that different races and nations, as it stands, can’t possibly come together on equal footing?

Probably a little of all that. In Teresa’s individual case, she’s definitely not getting what she wants, but as the song goes, she sometimes gets what she needs. And perhaps that’s the underlying factor of all the films, that these big concepts like love and hope and faith are not as easily contained as we’d like, but maybe if we got honest with ourselves, we’d get just enough to get by.

Screencaps taken from Christopher McQuain's DVDTalk review of Paradise: Love.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


This review was originally written for in 2014.

Austrian director Ulrich Seidl completes his downer of a film trilogy with Paradise: Hope, the most youthful story of the three Paradise movies, though no less downbeat for its age or the better tomorrows falsely promised in its title.

Melanie Lenz stars in Paradise: Hope as Melanie, an adolescent girl whose mother has sent her to a diet camp for the summer to lose some weight. (Mom has gone to Kenya, as seen in Paradise: Love [review]; her aunt is the main character in Paradise: Faith [review]). Melanie joins the a dormitory of girls, all of whom are as unmotivated to be there as she is. The camp is a kind of prison, where food and activity are regulated. Phone time is limited, and days are spent learning about nutrition and performing often humiliating exercises. You know that old ditty "if you're happy and you know it clap your hands"? At diet camp, it's "clap your fat." Thighs, belly, bum.

Looking to get out of exercising, Melanie goes to the facility doctor (Joseph Lorenz) feigning a stomachache. He is clearly skeptical of this ailment, but he examines the girl anyway, making playful, possibly flirtatious, use of his stethoscope. Melanie is smitten, and she returns to see him regularly. In their private sessions, he seems to like her, too; in public, he rebukes her. Theirs is an unhealthy relationship no matter how you cut it, signifying a hopeful future as out of reach as Melanie's intended weight loss.

Seidl portrays the diet camp with the same dry brushstrokes as he used in the preceding films, but the dispassionate rendering makes the setting seem surreal and almost satirical. The grinding routine only succeeds in making the kids feel bad about themselves, and in the absence of food, they become obsessed with sex and other mischief. Underlying all their talk about the grooming habits of the opposite sex and past dalliances, however, is the same basic yearning: each child really just longs to be loved and made to feel safe. Even at her most reckless, Melanie is looking to attract affection and attention. In his way, the doctor provides these things, even if we never are exactly clear on his motives.

Lenz and her young castmates perform with a natural comfort. Much of what Seidl captures comes across as genuine horseplay, as if his troupe is merely living out the summer camp scenario he created for them. This makes the emotional danger in Paradise: Hope feel even more crucial, even if some of it is a bit cartoony. (At a bar, Melanie is victimized by two greased-up juvenile delinquents lifted out of a 1950s exploitation movie.) This realism also makes it all the more deflating when the film draws no conclusions for its young protagonist. She is just as alone and helpless in the end as she was in the beginning, only now more hurt and disappointed. In terms of ironic stingers, Paradise: Hope is the bleakest.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


This review was originally written for in 2014.

Ulrich Seidl's Paradise trilogy is a series of films connected thematically by the three different theological tenets that give them their name, as well as by the story aspect of each film being about different sisters in the same family. Their easiest comparison is to Kieslowski's Trois Coleurs [review], but Paradise has even less crossover elements than that masterwork.

Paradise: Faith is ostensibly the second part of the series, though they really can be watched in any order. (True confessions, I had yet to see Paradise: Love, the initial release, when first writing this review, but have seen it now.) Faith stars Maria Hofstätter as Anna, a middle-aged woman who has devoted her free time to bringing Catholicism back to Austria. Her chosen mode of witnessing is traveling door-to-door with a statue of the Virgin Mary and trying to convert the sinners she finds, blessing them with holy water dispensed from a spray bottle. She's terrible at the job. What she lacks in empathy she makes up for in self-righteousness. Some of the scenes of her testimony are painful to watch. A hoarder who accepts her help has difficulty kneeling, but she insists he position himself in just the right way. A drunk woman toys with her, and Anna's stubbornness nearly pushes her to violence.

By that point, we have the sense that these reactions may be just fine with Anna. She intends to suffer for her belief. When she fails, she repents through self-flagellation and a chain-link girdle. Each obstacle is just a test from Jesus.

The biggest test comes when Anna's estranged husband returns without warning. Nabil (Nabil Saleh) is an Egyptian Muslim and also a paraplegic. He is baffled and angered by his wife's conversion to Christianity, and though we never know for sure why he left, we do see him be both physically and verbally abusive. Perhaps it's his cruelty that has made Anna tone-deaf to the suffering of others. She believes God crippled Nabil to help him. His time in the wheelchair hasn't inspired personal reflection, however; not unless it's an act of faith to spend a lot of time thinking about sex. (If so, guess who has ten typing fingers and is going to Heaven? This guy!)

It's certainly to Seidl's credit that he gives no lip service to either religion in Paradise: Faith. One is not pitted against the other, and really, viewers might hazard a guess that the auteur has little regard for religion in general. What is more interesting to him is how both Anna and Nabil use their faith to cover their own shortcomings. As the old Bible verse suggests, one usually points out the splinter in another's eye while denying the massive plank in their own.

Paradise: Faith lacks an editorial point of view. Rather, the director holds his camera back, keeping his distance, letting the scenes run their natural length without unnecessary cuts. This makes the more difficult scenes even more uncomfortable. The viewer gets no chance to look away, and can't gauge when the moment will finally break. The resulting squirm factor can be excruciating.

Adding to this is the realism of the locales and, more importantly, the performances. Neither Hofstätter nor Saleh appear to ever really be acting. None of the cast looks like actors. Thus, the usual telltale signs of playing to the camera are absent, leaving only the individuals. It's one step shy of documentary. We are the omniscient observer, the God in which these people should have faith, if you will.

Seidl's drama can be tough work. Its lack of conventional plot requires that one pay absolute attention, even as the filmmaker's refusal to sugarcoat or add any adornment at all might compel you to turn away. Accept that Paradise: Faith is heading somewhere, though, and you'll be surprised by how much the film has moved you in the end. Most likely it'll be closer to depression, because uplifting it ain't. Misery is sometimes it's own reward, if not a couple hours of company.

Friday, November 3, 2017


This short review was originally written for The Oregonian in 2014.

Taking their cue from Affleck and Damon, actors Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman wrote 2011's The Color Wheel as a starring vehicle for themselves.

Alas, Matt and Ben they are not. Perry plays Colin, an uptight writer, and Altman is his sister, JR, a flighty actress. The pair undertakes a road trip to retrieve her stuff from her ex's place.

The siblings bicker and whine the whole way, only to bond at a horrible party with former friends. It helps to have people worse than you around, apparently.

Shot in black-and-white and lacking polished performances, "The Color Wheel" hearkens back to indie faves like Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise [review] and Kevin Smith's Clerks.

Unlike those films, The Color Wheel turns up more annoyance than laughter.