Atlantic City, Louis Malle, 1980

Louis Malle is one of the few directors arising from the European art cinema tradition to achieve mainstream success in American film. Atlantic City is an excellent demonstration of the way in which his sensibilities can be translated to a relatively traditional cinematic narrative.

Helped along by a magnificent later career performance from Burt Lancaster, Atlantic City continues the tradition of neo-noir narratives kickstarted by the Nouvelle Vague and later adopted by the New Hollywood movement. One could almost imagine Scorsese directing this picture as it seems to pine for an authentic, grimy past which has been paved over in an effort to co-opt Atlantic City’s legacy for the sake of family friendly entertainment.

The film maintains a tone of bittersweet nostalgia throughout, playing off of Lancaster’s legacy as a Hollywood icon to heighten the sense of a bygone past. He is paired expertly with a young Susan Sarandon whose performance oozes fragility and vulnerability. Though the film has a few thrilling moments, it is overall a drama of emotion, with Lancaster’s character seeking to redeem himself for a lifetime of perceived cowardice. The depth of characterization achieved by all of the principal performers gives the film’s unexpected ending a heartwarming quality which suggests that even in the face of adversity, these men and women will find some way to persevere.

Atlantic City is, arguably, Malle’s finest English language film, and it’s a damn shame that it didn’t win any of the academy awards it was nominated for.

Lacombe Lucien, Louis Malle, 1974

Though many films have touched on the subject of the French Resistance in World War II, few have dealt with the issue of collaboration in a manner as honest and straightforward as Lacombe Lucien.  Malle’s naturalistic portrait of a young man’s navigation of the moral quandaries abounding in Vichy France demonstrates the manner through which many French men and women found themselves aiding the efforts of the fascists to purge France of so-called undesirables.  Part of the film’s effectiveness can be attributed to Malle’s decision to cast a non-professional in the titular role.  Pierre Blaise embodies Lucien with a natural grace and guilelessness which is made even more singular by the fact that he delivered only a few other performances before his death at age 20.

It is hard to capture the gravity of this film in words.  If one had to elucidate its thesis one might point to the intoxicating and alluring  nature of violence and authority, as the viewer sees  Lucien become seduced by the fearsome nihilism embodied by the secret police who continue their reign of terror even when it becomes clear that the liberation of France is at hand.  The shame and guilt of collaboration is underscored in the film’s conclusion in that despite his turning away from fascism, Lucien is still held accountable by the Resistance for his actions.

A meditation on the banality of evil, Lacombe Lucien is a reminder of the power of social pressure to encourage men and women to take part in unmitigated evil.  The power of its images and its immensely convincing performances render this film a unique piece of art in dealing with the legacy of nazism and the Vichy government.

 

Zazie in the Metro, Louis Malle, 1960

Zazie is a bit of an oddity.  Representing Malle’s effort to adapt an unfilmable novel by Raymond Queneau, its tone is that of a madcap, slapstick comedy which makes use of strange and unpredictable cuts to inject realistic scenarios with a hint of fantastical whimsy.   Those familiar with the works of Wes Anderson will see clear evidence of the debt that director owes to Malle when watching this film.  Its deliberate color palette and immaculately stylized sets and costumes bring to mind such Anderson films as The Royal Tennenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, though both of those films are not nearly as silly as Zazie.

The film itself is extremely entertaining; exploiting a variety of locales throughout Paris to present Zazie and her harried guardians with ever-more-ridiculous set pieces to enact, Malle distills the manic energy of childhood into filmic form.  However, the film lacks any overarching theme or ideology besides vague meditations the power of disorder and chaos to reinvigorate stuffy adulthood.  This leaves the movie feeling acutely hollow at its conclusion, with the narrative failing to provide satisfying resolution to any central conflict or train of thought.  The enormous stylistic departure represented by Zazie, when compared to Malle’s earlier works, prefigures the increasingly experimental bent of his output through the 1960’s.  Simultaneously a film which might have been marketed to children and an expression of Malle’s interest in expanding the grammatical and stylistic boundaries of cinema, Zazie in the Metro is ultimately an engrossing, but not entirely satisfying movie.

The Lovers, Louis Malle, 1958

The Lovers is a film best enjoyed in the manner which one might enjoy a series of paintings in a gallery.  Allow its images to wash over yourself; become lost in its gauzy atmosphere of detached longing.  This film tells a simple story, that of a dissatisfied woman trapped in a boring, comfortably bourgeoisie existence (a la Chopin’s The Awakening).  This role is performed with ethereal grace and poise by the legendary Jeanne Moreau who, at this point, was in a romantic relationship with the film’s director, Louis Malle.  That these two were madly in love is obvious due to the palpable haze of desire and devotion which hangs over every frame containing Moreau.

Building upon the heightened sense of emotion Malle cultivated in Elevator to the GallowsThe Lovers finds the director taking that preoccupation to its logical conclusion–a film which creates and sustains a moment of emotional and dramatic climax for a large portion of its running time.  In this attempt, The Lovers is entirely successful.  Though its narrative feels secondary to Malle’s portraits of Moreau and her amazingly emotive face, it is simply so beautiful that one doesn’t notice too often.  The last 30 minutes of the film in particular is one of the most gorgeous black & white sequences of the Nouvelle Vague.  Also of note is the film’s tasteful use of voice-over narration, a common affectation of the Nouvelle Vague, which can seem overbearing or distracting in the hands of a less-skilled director.

The Lovers is a film for film lovers, especially those enamored with the early days of the New Wave.  Though it is immaculately photographed and achieves a poetics of cinematic emotion which many directors struggle to achieve, its non-traditional pacing and lack of a real narrative hook would more than likely render it too “artsy” for some.  However, if you love Jeanne Moreau and have any sort of appreciation for black and white cinematography, this film has a great deal to offer.

Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle, 1958

Elevator to the Gallows would make an excellent double feature with Breathless. It's clear that Godard saw something in Malle's combination of Hollywood style noir and art film experimentation. Even the characters' costuming and their stylized manner of speech connects the two films thematically and artistically. However, there is one key difference to these films. Whereas Breathless is clearly centered around the point of view of Jean-Paul Belmondo's roguish thief, ETTG is much more concerned with Jeanne Moreau's experiences. In fact, many of the film's most memorable shots are lovingly photographed close-ups of Moreau's face.

The fact that a great deal of the film is devoted to Moreau's wanderings through Paris speaks to one of ETTG's most memorable quirks; it establishes and then upsets the audience's narrative expectations, all within its first act. We think we are about to witness the aftermath of a murder as Moreau and her beau elude the cops. Instead, their escape is delayed when her lover is trapped in an elevator and his car is stolen by a teen couple. It is this teen couple who lives out the lovers-on-the-run fantasy which was promised in the set up while Moreau pines over her missing boyfriend, assuming he has abandoned her for another lover. This expertly handled dual narrative speaks to Malle's confidence juggling complex plot devices as well as pushing the boundaries of traditional cinematography.

Elevator to the Gallows is one of the most patently entertaining and visually intoxicating films of the early Nouvelle Vague. Plus, its original soundtrack courtesy of Miles Davis is one of the finest uses of jazz in all of French cinema. Though it's mostly remembered as Jeanne Moreau's ascendance to worldwide celebrity, ETTG is as essential as any film from the period.

Le Cercle Rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970

Over the past week or so, I’ve been exploring the works of Jean-Pierre Melville, a French director associated with the Nouvelle Vague who is well known for his terse depictions of the criminal underworld.  I have to admit that though I have enjoyed many of these pictures, few of them have spoken to me on a deeper level, besides the magnificent Army of Shadows.  Le Cercle Rouge is an exception to this tendency.  I find that it blends the best elements of Melville’s French sensibilities with the thrilling action one might expect from a more traditional, American film noir.

That Melville so masterfully pairs the patience of European art cinema with elements that would come to define action cinema, one of the most popular genres of film in the 1970’s, speaks to the director’s unique position in the world of cinema.  He is a figure who helped to catalyze the movement known as the nouvelle vague by daring to make  low-budget, experimental pictures in the period immediately following WWII while also managing to develop a penchant for thrillers and crime capers.  This allowed him to remain commercially viable in a period where many of his contemporaries found flagging returns at the box office.  Like Claude Chabrol, Melville drew upon the influence of Hollywood directors like John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock while staying true to the arthouse ideal of creating intelligent, challenging pictures which expand the capabilities of film as a medium.

Le Cercle Rouge unfolds slowly, offering only the barest bones of narrative detail to flesh out its characters.  Each of the three principal protagonists carries himself with an air of detached coolness, one of Alain Delon’s signature affectations which is also evidenced in Melville’s Le Samoraï.  The film more than makes up for its slow start with brief moments of frantic action which highlight the precipitous position of the characters as they attempt to pull off a once-in-a-lifetime jewel heist.  The depiction of the heist itself is mesmerizing, presented in an hour-long sequence almost completely devoid of dialogue.  Many critics highlight this section as a tribute to the film Rififi which is often noted for its sensational depiction of a heist.  Regardless of what inspired Melville’s work on this picture, it has undoubtedly acting as a guide for directors seeking to work within the realm of action cinema who are unwilling to sacrifice artistry and attention to narrative in the name of cheap thrills.  The recent movie John Wick makes many visual references to both Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samorai, and its safe to say that Keanu Reeves’ performance as the titular hitman is undoubtedly informed by Alain Delon’s work with Melville.

Le Cercle Rouge is a formative work of action cinema, prefiguring trends in filmmaking which would come to dominate filmmaking in the 1970’s.  Though, at 140 minutes, it may feel a bit aimless in its opening act, this merely serves to set the stage for a series of coincidences and consequences which serve to propel the narrative toward its ultimate climax.  A must see for anyone interested in the history of crime film, Le Cercle Rouge manages to offer sufficient thrills for more pedestrian viewers without losing sight of its artistic goals and preoccupations.

Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956

Bob le Flambeur is a skillful, engaging tribute to the best aspects of hardboiled, Hollywood noir.  It demonstrates Melville’s penchant for American gangster flicks while also presaging many of the stylistic flourishes which would demarcate the early works of the nouvelle vague.  Upon watching this film, it is impossible not to compare it to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless which would be filmed just a few years later.  It is clear that Godard was heavily influenced by this film, particularly in crafting Belmondo’s gangster as a direct riff on the character of Bob.  At one point in BLF, characters even discuss the fact that Bob was among the first gangster in Paris to adopt the affectations of American mafiosos.  Godard would take this idea and run with it to its logical conclusion, heightening these meta-theatric references by having Belmondo’s character adopt the mannerisms of Humphrey Bogart, a legendary performer well-known for his portrayals of troubled noir detectives.  Similarly, BLF contains several instances of handheld camera shots as well as a non-traditional use of voiceover narration to provide key plot details in the film’s opening and conclusion.  All of these traits would become hallmarks of the nouvelle vague school of film making at the dawn of the 1960’s.

Bob le Flambeur exhibits no real narrative inventiveness, providing the viewer a predictable but well-staged and performed tale of intrigue and strained loyalties set in Paris’ criminal underworld.  Though the plot arc will offer no real surprises to those familiar with the major works of Hollywood noir and hardboiled pulp, Roger Duchesne’s masterful turn as Bob is more than enough to rescue the film from its more quotidian elements.  Overall, it is not among the most groundbreaking or inventive of proto-new wave films, but it is certainly worth seeing if one is interested in the development of arthouse cinema in France as a product of certain filmmakers’ obsession with the works of Golden Age Hollywood.

The Silence of the Sea, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949

Melville found fame and success later in his career with a series of well-crafted, terse action-oriented thrillers.  As such, it is easy to forget that he got his start in filmmaking in the period immediately following WWII, working alongside such luminaries as Bresson and Renoir on pictures which have little in common with Le Cercle Rouge or Un Flic.

Few subjects have been adapted to the medium of cinema as often as the story of the Second World War, its historical status as a manichean struggle between the forces of the evil nazis and a benevolent coalition of Western powers permitting screenwriters to frame it as an unambiguously just war which had to be waged against an inhumane, irrational foe.  Melville’s The Silence of the Sea is not that sort of war picture.  Instead, it offers a realistic and gripping portrait of life in rural France under Nazi occupation in which ambiguities abound and even among the German occupiers there exists doubt and moral confusion about the righteousness of their cause.

The film relates the story of a Nazi who, inspired by the steadfast and unshakeable resolve of his French hosts to speak even a word to him, lest their speech be construed as acceptance or collaboration, comes to question his participation in the war.  Werner, characterized as a sensitive and artistic soul, believes himself to be righting the wrongs of the WWI, and in doing so, setting the stage for a second European renaissance in which France, Germany, and the other cultures of Western Europe will find themselves restored and re-invigorated.  For large portions of the film, Werner is the only character who speaks with the thoughts of the unnamed Frenchman and his niece being delivered through narration.  This gives the film a tone which some have described as anti-cinematographic in which we come to understand the inner-turmoil experienced by the protagonists not through visualized actions or words but a sort of stream-of-consciousness to which Werner has no access.  This serves to highlight the major theme of the work which is the breakdown of communication and, by extension, the dissolution of classical notions of humanism which the war symbolized.  As Werner comes to understand that his idealistic interpretation of the Nazi occupation was deeply misguided, he frantically attempts to reach out to the frenchman and his niece so that he might have some means of shielding himself from the horrors to which he is now a party.  However, they deny him this, despite their misgivings, because of Werner’s inability to abandon his duties even after coming face to face with the realities of Hitler’s final solution.

This is among the most powerful and evocative World War II films ever created.  It examines the power dynamics and motivations at play between the Germans and the French, the first of the major Western powers to fall in the face of blitzkreig, in a manner wholly absent from the glamorous and jingoistic Hollywood pictures which would follow it.  I’ve often taken issue with the likely apocryphal quote attributed to Francois Truffaut that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film because war is inherently exciting on screen; I think this film strongly demonstrates the foolishness of such a sweeping and un-nuanced proclamation.

Oedipus Rex, Pier Paolo, Pasolini, 1967

In the latter half of his career, Pasolini dedicated a significant portion of his creative energies to a series of adaptations of literary classics.  Oedipus Rex is the first of these films and demonstrates summarily what might have attracted to Pasolini to such projects.  With this film, Pasolini uses the original Oedipus narrative as a loose framework instead of a rigorous guide for his own tale of destiny and tragedy.

Though the director does include all of the major plot points from Sophocles’ drama, the visual style of the film suggests a hodge-podge of cultural referents, drawing from artistic motifs common in Meso-American and Middle Eastern cultures while primarily shooting on location in Morocco.  This amalgamation of various cultures and mythos allows Pasolini to develop a visual palette which is simultaneously familiar to the viewer as well as otherworldly or ahistorical.  This creates the sense that the story is taking place outside of time, in a landscape where the psychological concepts suggested by the tale of Oedipus are rendered in flesh and blood.

In some sense, Pasolini draws on the tradition of sword & sandal epics, a style of filmmaking which was enormously popular in Italy at the time, to capture the period he is trying to evoke.  Similarly, certain shots in the film are reminiscent of a Spaghetti western with the subjects of Thebes appearing in ponchos and sombreros and living in adobe huts that wouldn’t look out of place in the Southwestern corridor of North America.  However, it becomes clear by studying the film’s text that while the director is intent on distilling the mythic quality of Oedipus through his images, the character of Oedpius himself is meant to illuminate the status of the character as a symbol for certain concepts pertaining to human sexuality within the field of psychoanalysis.  Human sexuality remained a favorite theme of Pasolini’s throughout his career with the director taking particular interest in exploring aspects of sexuality rendered taboo by society at large.  Therefore, it is easy to see why Pasolini would choose to focus heavily on the passionate sexual relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta which ultimately dooms the city of Thebes.  Likewise, Pasolini is often pre-occupied with the sacred and the mystical.  Though nothing overtly supernatural is witnessed in Oedipus Rex, the weight of prophecy hangs heavy over the characters, suggesting that certain destinies cannot be subverted, even by the most steadfast of protagonists.

With Oedipus Rex, Pasolini creates a perfect blueprint for filmic adaptations.  Though the tragic tale of Oedipus is known the world over, the director’s amazingly inventive visual style and costuming creates a unique vision which both calls upon the audience’s knowledge of the source material while also subverting it.  Pasolini presents the viewer with a vision of a past which never existed that feels so much realer and more fleshed-out than the most meticulously constructed of historical pictures.  Though it lacks the overt political rhetoric which many expect from Pasolini’s works, it is among his most stunning works simply due to the quality of its images.

 

Porcile, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969

Continuing in the allegorical, symbolic vein he first mined with Teorema, Porcile finds Pasolini examining both the connection between fascist Germany and the economic boom experienced by west Germany after the war through a pair of interwoven narratives.
One of these stories depicts contemporary German life in the bourgeois household of a factory owner. This is the literal level of the narrative, a heightened but still relatively realistic drama concerning business dealings and the legacy of the war. The second depicts the life of a savage cannibal at some period in the past. Through this storyline, Pasolini offers a meditation on cruelty of human nature and the systems of power which organize society.
Though the political subtext in this film is highly abstracted, it is obvious enough to see that Pasolini fears that those who brought the terror of the third Reich to fruition have simply been absorbed back into mainstream society. Similarly, he continues to develop his thoughts on the state of the middle class and its role in reproducing the ideologies of the dominant culture.
Like many of Pasolini's works, Porcile is confusing at times, its striking visuals often contributing little to one's understanding of the narrative. Those who engage with it fully will find it to be a multifaceted and intriguing puzzle which must be worked through with multiple viewings.