Day for Night
"We meet, we work together, we love each other, and then...pfft...as soon as we grasp something, it's gone."
— The aging actress Severine’s (played by Italian starlet Valentia Cortese) astute lament on the intangible nature of filmmaking resounds the yearning romance of all art in Francois Truffaut’s 1973 film, Day for Night.
Elevator to the Gallows
Combining the splendid black and white photography of Henri Decaë, the magnetic force of Jeanne Moreau, and a superb jazz score by Miles Davis, Louis Malle’s directorial debut is incomparable in terms of mood and style.
The film was poorly received by critics but has since been deemed a masterpiece, both in terms of direction and pre-new wave modernity. The score by Miles Davis, accompanied with then unknown players and bop drummer Kenny Clarke, would fuel Davis to take on certain conventions within jazz—most notably, the kind heard through his album Kind of Blue that followed two years after the film’s release. Decaë’s work would also become prominent in the works of several new wave directors, specifically Truffaut and Chabrol. Perhaps the most interesting quality to the film is the fact that it is a rarity from Malle. It marks the first and only time that the director tried his hand at noir, or worked so tightly in the confines of a genre. As it goes with films like Riffifi and Le Cercle Rouge, the criminal aspects of it are somewhat downplayed by a wonderful cast and outstanding photography.
The last decades haven’t been that great for real-life political radicalism, but in the movies it’s been extraordinary: Baader Meinhof Complex, Munich, Che, the cartoonish Eight Miles High, and now, Olivier Assayas’s extraordinary bio Carlos (epic is an understatement). Not since the glory days of The Battle of Algiers, State Of Siege, and Z have political terror cells been so damn entertaining. Even more thanV for Vendetta, Carlos is one of the giddiest pro-terrorism flicks ever made. Originally made for French television, the five-hour-plus Carlos has been released in theaters at different lengths; but The Criterion Collection DVD includes the three episodes, at their original length, spread over three discs (with a fourth disc containing an excellent French documentary that helps to fill in the holes). Carlos is so dense with history and international period detail that seeing those above-mentioned films (which have a number of crossover characters and references in Carlos) definitely helps make the film easier to follow. But that’s not to say you have to be a history major to appreciate Carlos; it’s so riveting and Carlos, the character, is so fascinating that just committing to it proves amazingly rewarding.
In Episode One we meet Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, AKA Carlos (Edgar Ramirez), a young Venezuelan man who claims to be a Marxist committed to the anti-imperialism and pro-Palestinian causes (though not always pro Arab). We get no back story; the film opens with Carlos already established in political terrorist circles. He’s no modern day religious zealot; he seems to just be a fearless, hunky, suave playboy who is socially connected to every radical group from Europe to the Middle East. While seducing a woman he plays with his guns and has her orally pleasure a grenade while telling her “weapons are an extension of my body.” He smokes and drinks; at first the operatives above him treat him like a kid, but as his criminal star rises they begin to fear him. He’s a would-be assassin, with more than nine lives under his belt. But unlike The Jackal in The Day of the Jackal he’s not in it for the money; he’s clumsy and his plots are not as well planned out. Though Carlos and his comrades kill a lot of people in many countries they often get killed a lot themselves. Many women come and go throughout his life; some join his struggle, while others are just lovers. Episode One ends on a suspenseful note as Carlos and a makeshift little international militant group are preparing to attack OPEC headquarters in Vienna.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Jean-Luc Godard’s noiry, crime-romance Breathless (À bout de souffle) may be one of the most important films of a very important film era—a game changer. For the film critic turned filmmaker, Breathless Godard’s first feature and it helped to define an exciting new cinema movement that was brewing among young cinephiles in France now known as The French New Wave. With its hand-held photography, jump cutting, improvised script, and natural lighting, it carefully broke many rules of formal cinema. Inspired by American crime films, mostly the B-movies that that generation of the French critics came to appreciate long before their American counterparts, it romanticized the underworld, without the moral lessons of so many similar American movies. The film also gives a shout-out to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur, another film inspired by American Noirs. Playing the film’s lead, a small-time crook with a death wish, Breathless put actor Jean-Paul Belmondo on the map. His gripping and charismatic performance reeks of his influences, most notably Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando. Like so many filmmakers to come, from Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino (who both cite Breathless as a major influence), Godard’s work, and Breathless in particular, was a tribute to the movies that came before that the director admired.
After Michael (Belmondo) steals a car and then shoots a cop, he finds himself on the run. Still always playing it cool, he hides out in Paris with an American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), a New York Herald Tribune street vendor. Like the best of French couples they smoke a lot of cigarettes, have sex, and talk philosophically about themselves. She is in love with him, but he is selfish and utterly self-obsessed, as he makes Bogart-like faces in a mirror always trying to perfect his gangster persona. She knows he’s bad news but maybe that’s what makes her even more devoted. She may be a naive waif, but she’s also college bound; she’s not a simpleton like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, she just wants a classic bad-boy lover. Her love and her own need to survive eventually lead her to rat him out to the cops. In a long famous death scene he is shot and killed before falling breathless.
Who Wants to Kill Jessie?
Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is an underrated gem from a Czech New Wave director that hardly anybody has heard of. It plays on the conventions of comic strips, the mystery of dreams, and communist efforts in Czechoslovakia—with mad scientists who represent brainwashing.
Ruzenka (Dana Medricka) and Jindrich (Jiri Sovak) are a married couple who are both scientists. Each is trying to come up with an invention that will lead them to a Nobel Prize, and both are fairly eccentric. Ruzenka is in the medical field and has found a formula that she's named “KR VI” that can take undesirable qualities about dreams and replace them with pleasant ones. Jindrich is an engineer trying to find a way to increase production in his otherwise incompetent firm.
Songs from the Second Floor
This film is one in which everyone is a spectator, being human is extremely difficult, and the viewer is given a looking-glass into the sordid lives of characters who function in a gray existence.
Many compare the film to Swedish Opera, but for me it is like a blend of performance art and visual poetry that takes everyday life and heightens your awareness of its many disappointments to the point that it is both painful and funny.
Loves of a Blonde
New Wave filmmakers are given credit for the way that contemporary cinema has developed. French and Italian directors in the '60s were, and still are, given the most attention abroad for their work, but there are many films from Iran, East Asia and Czechoslovakia that are lesser-known gems. Milos Forman's filmography consists of many acclaimed films, including One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus, but Loves of a Blonde marks the beginning of his worldwide popularity and his first Academy Award nomination. When the film premiered at the New York Film Festival, it was considered to be as endearing and classic as Truffaut's The 400 Blows, which had its premier a few years earlier. The prevailing formalistic approach to filmmaking is absent here; the film is simple, realistic, and shot in real-time.
The story takes place in Zruc, a desolate Czech town adjusting to Communist rule. The war has rendered the female to male ratio 16 to one, and women of all ages are more or less forced into factory labor making shoes and textiles. The factory manager is sympathetic to the changing times and their needs, and he's concerned about the town's fate. Like a doting father, he worries about the hundreds of girls under his employ and approaches an army officer for help. He asks him to bring a regiment of soldiers into town in order to cure the longings of the young ladies.
The Flowers of St. Francis
Most films with religion as a central theme – specifically Christianity – are just awful. Even films with something original and authentic to say about religion can be overly pious, pedantic, and dull. But for every film on the subject that is too obvious or cowardly there are always films that manage to examine religion or use religion as a theme that are widely acknowledged works of art—Carl Dreyer’s emotionally pornographic The Passion of Joan of Arc, Michael Powell’s lurid fantasia of desire and self-denial, Black Narcissus, and Tim Robbins’s affecting denouncement of the death penalty, Dead Man Walking, are all good examples. But for every one of those there are quite a few stinkers. I think that unless a film challenges the assumptions of organized religion or audience biases then it’s not a subject worth going near.
The Flowers of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini’s film about St. Francis of Assisi and his followers, is the rare film about Christianity that manages to say something new about the religion itself. Well, not new per se as it pretty much embodies the radical spirit of the teachings of Jesus, but new in the sense that it’s not a depiction of Christianity that people are used to seeing. Rather than rely on a straight biographical narrative to tell the story of St. Francis, Rossellini tells his story in several vignettes that each embody his intense joie de vivre for animals and nature, for his brothers of the cloth, and for God. There is something downright goofy about these men joyously preaching the gospels in their tattered cloaks so happy to be poor. Somehow it’s poignant and charming instead of ludicrous.
A Man Escaped
What do you think of when you hear the term French New Wave? Do you think of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows or Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard's first feature film? Surely the majority of those who adore the movement and acknowledge its influences believe that Truffaut, and in some circles, Godard, were the inventors of the French New Wave. Not to spit in anyone's soup, but I'd argue against those claims using this film alone. The attractiveness of a film like The 400 Blows comes from its simplicity and the relation of the film to the director. Of course there's the auteur theory mixed in and Truffaut did write the film, but the most important aspect of it is the director’s relation to story and how well its messages were relayed based on that relationship. The 400 Blows is an autobiographical tale that stems from Truffaut's boyhood, and therefore no-one else could have made it work except him. In that sense, it resembles art more than entertainment because of the personal aspect and a story about societal detachment, which many people can relate to. But he wasn't the first to make such a film. Robert Bresson, one of my favorite directors, did the same thing these directors did, only first. A Man Escaped is about a French POW, and in reality Bresson spent time as a POW in Germany before becoming a screenwriter and director.
The film opens with a note from Bresson that simply states, “This is a true story.” Nowhere does it imply that it is his story or something similar, just that it's not a fabrication. Followed by this is the image of a stone and etched into it is a short passage paying respects to 7,000 Frenchmen who were killed by Nazis and Nazi allies. Next we see a simple sequence of a handsome man riding in a car. The camera is focused on his hands, which slowly creep towards the door handle of the moving vehicle. As the camera pulls away, we see two men handcuffed beside him and can make out “SS” uniforms on the driver and front passenger. We see the man hesitate and consider leaping from the car, and eventually he musters up the courage to do so. Within seconds he's returned and pistol-whipped as punishment, but they keep him alive and put him in prison. This opening sequence sets the stage for a story that has enough suspense to stand up to Hitchcock and enough pathos and realism to be considered the true beginning of French New Wave.
Mephistopheles, or Mephisto, is a character from German folklore that is an evil demon, or more suitably, the devil. The demon element to the character appears in the German legend of Faust in which an ambitious man makes a pact with the devil in order to obtain ultimate power and great success. This legend plays a huge part in this film, though the story is also heavily based on Klaus Mann's novel Mephisto and the life of Gustaf Grünfgens, the theater manager, actor, and director who was revered as one of the best of his time. Grünfgens's career prior to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime was fruitful, and being a sympathizer with the Third Reich certainly helped him prosper and continue to do so after the fall of Hitler. Grünfgens was also bipolar, for lack of a better word, when it came to his morals, sexuality, and political affiliations. Knowing this information may or may not take away some of the magic of the film. However, Klaus Maria Brandauer's performance is more than a stormy reincarnation of Grünfgens and the Faustian legend. It shows the upside of having an egoist portray a person who is so sure of themselves that they deny their affiliation with true evil.
br /> Brandauer plays Hendrik Hoefgen, an up-and-coming actor and theater director in Hamburg, Germany. In the beginning, Hoefgen wanted to take the stiffness from the stage by eliminating the distance between audience and performer. His aim was to create a new theater, full of vibrant and charismatic characters who could move audiences in a way that had never been done before. He also romanticized the idea of bohemian theater—one in which miners and laborers could feel comfortable and included. This led to his passionate pursuit of a revolution through theater, though there was little to revolt against in the beginning.