Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Film Club Reviews #3

L'Atalante (1932)

Jean Vigo was the first poet of modern cinema. Of course there were great directors of the silent era like Murnau and Lang, but their emotional range was rarely much above Victorian dime-store romances, morality plays or crime novels.
Vigo was different. He brought a modern indifference to absolutes and types, a dreamer's knowledge of inner states, a realist's understanding of the complexity of desire and a romantic's eye for the beauty of industrial landscapes and plain country girls. And he did all this with just one full-length film, L'Atalante, the first film we showed when we began the film club in 2007. A statement of intent. Either you understood or you didn't. Not that we picked it for that reason but it worked out that way.
Many of the 120 people who turned up clearly thought we were resurrecting the old film club and all the social implications of that. What they got were two relative nobodies with poor networking skills and absolutely no snob value at all. Oh and a film often voted one of the best ever made. Shouldn't that have been enough?
Maybe they couldn't see passed the love of mood over contrived drama, maybe it didn't tell them what to think, or maybe it just didn't pander to the kind of romantic narrative we've become used to, the kind perfected at much the same time by Frank Capra in It Happened One Night.

Pretty heiress on the run meets tough-guy reporter and they bicker all the way to a happy ending. In fairness, it's a great film, but it ends where real life takes over, before the question can be asked. How could these two live together after the adventure of their 'meet cute' has ended?
L'Atalante begins there. The happy couple, marching through the village on their wedding day. It's the kind of procession that would end a Jane Austen adaption. But it's part of this film's emotional realism to want to explore the difficulties of maintaining love after the inital flush of romance.
The courtship has obviously been swift. This girl trapped in a small village dreaming of escape meets a handsome(ish) bargeman. It's surely part of the attraction for her. The excitement of escape.
But soon the monotonous day to day routine of barge life begins to bore her and resentment grows towards her husband for not being whatever she imagined him to be. Add in the unsettling, brute presence of the old seadog, Jules, fascinating and frightening her with his tattoos and gruffness, and it's not surprising her head is turned by another man and dreams of big city life.

It's a river journey film, (name me a bad one), with water as a symbol of poetic vision, a metaphor for the search for love. And it's full of the shyness and yearning of desire. But unlike Murnau's Sunrise, say, L'Atalante locates sexuality within the marriage not outside it, another sign of it's modern sensibility. Tragically Vigo died soon after making this, the original DNA of European cinema, as if its perfection left him with nowhere else to go. We should all be so lucky to leave behind such a fitting epitaph.

The Film Club Reviews #2

The Beat That My Heart Skipped(2005)

One of the finest french films of recent years. It's a remake, of course, of James Tobruk's 1978 movie Fingers which starred the young Harvey Kietel. So why's this so good. Well, first, second and last, there's the star, Romain Duris. He's dynamite in this. It's a star-making turn. He's got to be convincing as a thug-for-hire, flushing illegal-immigrants and squattrers out of buildings and, at the same time, a former piano prodigy trying to rekindle his career. It's borderline absurd and only an actor seething with poetry and violence could pull it off. Kietel, of course, had it in his prime, wandering the mean streets with god and redemption in his soulful eyes. Duris is just as good, if not better. Moody and hypnotic, he gives a performance that's not only intensly physical, but also loaded with wary emotions, private thoughts and twitchy fingers. He's not likeable but you ache for him nonetheless as he can't quite reach the sensitivity required to be a great pianist. Maybe it's been brutalised out of him or maybe he never really had it. Maybe it's just a relic of his past, a way of keeping his dead mother's memory alive. Whatever it is, the anger inside won't let him relax. He insists on hounding the music into submission. Meanwhile his gangster life isn't going away either. Jacques Audiard's direction is superb, all smeary neon and late-night faces lit by muted, dashboard lights. Edited with loose-limbed brilliance, it's a cool urban noir and an engrossing meditation on the mystery of talent.

The Film Club Reviews #1

M. Hulot's Holiday (1952)

This just makes me happy. The sounds, the blissful atmosphere.
Watching it makes me feel like I've been on a holiday, like I've spent a week in another carefree world, so perfectly does it create time and place. I feel refreshed and full of good cheer (ok, so not like a real holiday then, but you know what i mean.) After all, what more could you ask of a film, of any great art, than that it create a perfectly realised world, which exists in its own sweet bubble of eternity?And I haven't even mentioned how funny it is. Hulot's unique tennis serve, the animal rug caught on his boot spur, the numerous instances of simple but perfect slapstick, missed steps, squeeky doors, collapsing canoes. What Tati seems to have understood (unlike the Mr Bean ripoffs) is it's Hulot's sublime impeturbability, his oblivious good nature that makes it so funny. We're not laughing at him, it's not a film version of funniest home movies. We don't pity or dispise him (as i expect even his creators do of Mr Bean), we love Hulot. May he always be on holiday, pipe at a jaunty angle, funny car barping along country roads, pretty girls playing idyllic music from hotel windows, the sea whooshing dreamily in the background. And as long as this film exists, he always will.