Thursday, September 27, 2012

Heat (1995): Pacino/De Niro Death-Match

The main attraction of Heat when it appeared was the prospect of De Niro squaring up to Pacino. It was like Ali vs. Foreman, or Godzilla vs. King Kong; two super-heavyweights were going head to head. Michael Mann first became well-known for getting his actors to power-dress in the TV show Miami Vice. Here, instead of Crocker and Tubbs in those awful 1980's sports jackets, he gives us De Niro and Pacino looking as serious as death in smart, conservative suits; when they meet at the table they look less like cop and criminal and more like two ferociously competitive CEOs from rival companies.

De Niro's impervious 'cool' in the face of all dangers and troubles have of course made him an icon ever since that moment when, as the Italian-speaking Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Part 11, he blew away a rival, with a gun wrapped in a muffling white cloth which went up in flames as soon as he pulled the trigger. (That film was the last time he shared credits with Pacino, though they were in different segments and never actually shared the screen). This seductive self-assurance was not evident in everything he made in the 80's and 90's but films like The Deer Hunter, Once Upon A Time in America and Goodfellas did continue and expand his renown as a guy's guy you could look up to. They showed him as very sure of himself, very forceful if anything got in his way, and his taciturn nature seemed to bespeak a certain inner nobility.

Heat was a return to that De Niro and probably also its last ever outing; after that he started playing dads in knitted sweaters. He is certainly at his most Zen-like here and in terms of the acting competition I think he comes out the winner. Pacino in facts seems to be strangely over-acting at points; when he's rolling his eyes and making funny faces at informers you're not quite sure how to take him. Is it supposed to be tongue-in-cheek? But surely this is a serious film? These bouts of hyporbolic thesping are one of the few weak points in the film. The others are some of the dialogue given to Diane Venora, who plays Pacino's long-suffering partner, always trying to connect with him more than he'll allow (does anyone really say 'you sift through the detritus'?) and the plotting at the end which allows the Val Kilmer character to escape simply by using a false ID is surely a blunder; I was mystified how the police, after having Kilmer under surveillance for weeks, would not simply recognise him. But these criticisms really don't matter. They really don't. You could likewise find things to complain about in King Lear or Hamlet if you really tried.

There are so many things that make this a great film. Right from the start you are sucked in by the fantastically broody, haunting music, written by Elliot Goldenthal and the Kronos Quartet and interlaced throughout the movie with tracks by William Orbit, Brian Eno and others. As a train rattles across night-time L.A. it's like the opening bars of a symphony which you will want to experience again and again, and you know you're about to witness something special. The action scenes that follow are so much more menacing and thrilling than those in your average action movie because of the professionalism and intent evident in De Niro and his crew (of whom Tom Sizemore is a stand-out). The huge firefight in the street after the bank raid is one of the most kinetically powerful scenes ever put on film. The cat and mouse aspects of Pacino's pursuit of De Niro and how De Niro turns the tables on the L.A.P.D. are wonderful; you really sense and sympathise with De Niro's existential battle to be master of his own life whatever the cost (despite his immorality). The use of Moby's 'God Moving Across the Face of the Waters' for the final scene is particularly effective, and the lushly romantic aspects of the film -De Niro having to leave behind his woman, for example- are also handled just right, a bit movie-cliché but in the context they work.

Above all it's a beautiful film to look at. The photographic compositions are masterly: De Niro's face under surveillance, seen through a night-vision camera, startled by a sound and reacting like a dangerous animal; De Niro and Jon Voight at the top of a hill with an unearthly-looking LA motorway in the distance behind them at sunset; De Niro and Val Kilmer sitting drinking coffee in De Niro's beachside house, dwarfed by the huge windows, the sea rolling away behind them; Pacino in a helicopter swooping down over the lights of LA at night and then speeding along the motorway to catch up with De feel like you're in some alternative universe where everything looks more striking and ethereal than in reality. It's a masterpiece, and I’m probably not the only one who thinks it’s the best film of the last 20 years.

Igby Goes Down (2002): Cold to the F**king Bone

I once saw a TV documentary about the teenaged children of the super-rich in New York, the offspring of those multi-millionaires and billionaires who own the mansions in Long Island and have the office towers in Manhattan named after them. I was surprised at how most of these kids seemed to be acutely anxious. What was far more noticeable than the great luxuries they had access to was the obvious unremitting pressure they felt to live up to the fortunes their parents had made. In their world to have anything less than a high-achieving career would constitute a family scandal, and with such a career requiring constant attention and hard work they seemed sorrowfully aware that they could never really relax the way the rest of us occasionally do.

The young man, Igby, in this film (played, excellently, by Kieran Culkin) is from a 'good' East Coast family and is in a similar position to these children of millionaires. Igby Goes Down is a very sad movie in a way, a black comedy that skirts dangerously close to unbearable comedy, about the way parents' psychological problems affect you when you're a teenager and make you either hate them, pity them, or both. Its sharp satirical swipes at upper crust society reminded me of Vanity Fair and other 19th-century novels, and Jeff Goldblum plays an ultra-slick stepfather figure to Igby who's perhaps the most ridiculous and despicable character of all in the film; he's from a class of people who when literally caught with their trousers down are experts in deflecting attention away from themselves and implying there's something wrong with the person observing them. When Igby crosses him, he also has no qualms about pummelling the boy, who's half his size, into the ground. There are certain things he says which are telegraphed to us as evidence of his shallow, rigid, uncaring nature: 'I believe that certain people in life are meant to fall by the wayside, to serve as warnings to the rest of us' and 'Families should be run like businesses, with contracts between each family member'. We recognise that as Igby listens to this self-serving crap, he's groaning inwardly at the nature of the world he was born into. 

Still, it's Susan Sarandon, as the mother he refers to as 'the heinous one', who is Igby's main problem. We see the boy attending therapy sessions (with a sniffling, unsympathetic shrink who hits him across the face) and when we then cut to his imperious mother biting the head off a young Indian doctor, it's clear why he needs that therapy. In the middle section of the film Igby gets into a relationship with a girl called Sookie (Claire Danes) and when she betrays him to hook up with his older brother, Ollie (Ryan Phillipe) he tells her she doesn't understand what kind of family she's getting into. They're rigid and cold - 'cold to the fucking bone' - and no way would his mother ever accept her. Ollie, who's just as imperious as his mother, walks past him then, calling him a glutton for punishment to try to stand in their way, and Igby ends up in some Bohemian dive with drug addicts and drag queens, coming back to the family home for the final scene of the movie only to help out with his mother's assisted suicide. 

Igby's father, played by Bill Pullman, is the only vaguely sympathetic adult figure in his life and at the very start when we see Igby as a young boy smiling at the father's antics you see how a child can form a special bond with the more unhinged members of the adult community if they're the only ones who can show humour or warmth. But his father's life and character is a source of pain too. In that scene Igby is aged 6 or 7 perhaps (for the most part we see him in his late teens), and he witnesses his schizophrenic Dad come into the bathroom, go into the shower cubicle, and start tearing at his own face. Pullman then smashes the glass with his fist, and the little boy has to witness his dad lying there, his arm covered in blood, spouting on about this 'great weight' constantly coming down on him. With childhood experiences like this it's no wonder Igby isn't impressed by all the supposed good things in life adults tell him he must aim for. One conversation in the movie is about how great schools are supposed to shape you not squash you. But Igby cannot feel anything positive in what these 'great institutions' are trying to do for or to him; he can only feel the pain they cause him. He says his father went through the system, achieved everything, then in his 40's Igby feels he is just killing time till it's his turn to have a nervous breakdown too.

Some reviewers have compared the film to Catcher in the Rye, which is a measure of how sophisticated it is. It’s full of little throwaway complaints about the way the world is, which though contextualised as teenaged moaning, are obviously much more than that. For example, one character says that a reverse Darwinism seems to have taken over the world, where less evolved creatures are better equipped to survive than the more evolved ones. Since the film was made in 2002 it’s tempting to take this as a statement of complaint about Bush's America. The film to me ultimately seems to be about how the ideals and values of our Western societies, perhaps especially Anglo-Saxon societies (order, discipline, material success), when applied in isolation or in extremis, leave no room for human nature to breathe, and if as an adolescent you are forced to engage with this, it damages you, possibly for life. In the end all Igby wants to do is go abroad, away from the West, and get that 'Razor's Edge experience' as he describes it.... The director of Igby Goes Down is Burr Steers, who was also known as an actor in the 90’s in films like Last Days of Disco and Pulp Fiction. It’s one of only three films he’s directed, the other two being Zac Efron pictures. I haven’t seen them but I highly doubt they’re as incisive and refreshing as Igby. The film also contains great music by the Beta Band, Badly Drawn Boy, Coldplay and the Dandy Warhols amongst others.

Monday, September 24, 2012

JFK (1991) - A Mystery Wrapped in a Riddle Inside an Enigma

JFK (1991)

Bill Hicks used to do a routine where he joked that when every U.S. president is sworn into office, he's taken into a little dark room and shown film of the Kennedy assassination, but from an angle no one else has ever seen before. The cigar-chomping fat-cats who surround him - the people who really run America - then say 'Any questions?’ to which the new president replies in an innocent voice 'No, sir, just what's my agenda for the next 4 years?'

JFK is like a huge elaboration on this idea: that at the heart of the so-called greatest democracy in the world there may be a corrupt, duplicitous force. It's Oliver Stone against the world, or at least against the U.S. government, and the question you have to ask yourself is: do you subscribe to the lone-nut theory i.e. it's just Stone going off on one because he's still embittered by the damage done to him personally by the Vietnam war (witness how he emphasises that Kennedy's death meant an escalation in the war, witness the quoting of Vietnam casualty figures during the end titles) or do you believe there really was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy?

Personally, I think that if you start to believe every conspiracy theory out there you end up in la-la land with the likes of David Icke, who insists that the British Royal Family are alien reptiles in disguise. But on the other hand it'd be naive to believe nefarious shenanigans and manipulations don't go on behind the scenes of government, and if people like Oliver Stone are right even a fraction of the time, then the finer points of our Western cultures - all that stuff about liberty and democracy and people’s rights - are big lies. Indeed JFK presents its evidence in such a way that you'll probably start thinking, if you haven't already, that the basis of our societies is not morality or truth or freedom but power in a completely amoral sense, power in isolation, power whatever it takes.

Watching the film recently, I was surprised to see how certain things which I loved about it when I first saw it in my early 20's now seem very affected. These include Kevin Costner's 'through the looking glass' speech, John Candy calling Costner 'Daddy-O', and the way Costner says back to him 'Am I communicating with you' in a sing-song Southern accent. Donald Sutherland plays the mysterious 'X' and when he meets Costner in a Washington park he has a long, thrilling, fact-packed monologue, but even that suffers from Stone's boy's-own pleasure in showing off his knowledge of the political shadow-world. When Sutherland names country after country the CIA has operated in it's too obviously the director and writer eager to bring up pointed, but in the context irrelevant, facts rather than a believable thing the character would say. X also seems to be able to tell the future, quoting the final cost of the Vietnam War, even though the scene is set in the late 60's!

But these are minor quibbles with what is still one of the most thrilling and intelligent films ever made. The screenplay by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar is brilliantly dense and informative, and the editing by Academy Award winners Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia is world-class, as is the cinematography by Robert Richardson (Casino, Kill Bill). At the start of JFK we're plunged into a sinister atmosphere: as the world comes to terms with the American President's shocking death we're shown a character played by Jack Lemmon being savagely beaten by a man who's paranoid about what Lemmon has seen in his New Orleans office in the months leading up to 22/11/63. The pace is hard and fast, a touch psychotic, like someone shouting at you, and critics of Stone's point of view might say that's to bamboozle you and give you no time to think. Before you start watching it's wise to know a bit of Cuban history, at the very least that Castro came to power in 1959 after ousting the right wing dictator Batista, that the US organised an invasion by Cuban exiles in 1961 (the 'Bay of Pigs' fiasco), and the exiles' anti-Castro resentment then turned to anti-Kennedy feeling because he refused to support them as much as they required.

Apart from all the Cuban elements there are so many other strands to the story and strange connections between people flung at you it can be confusing. There's a sub-plot about Lee Harvey Oswald (a spookily brilliant impersonation by Gary Oldman) in Russia, scenes showing the witnesses to the bullet coming from the grassy knoll being interrogated and ignored, and implications that certain key witnesses were murdered after November 1963. We follow Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), a D.A. for New Orleans, three years after JFK's death, as he pursues Clay Shaw/Clay Bertrand (Tommy Lee Jones) and David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), believing them to be part of the conspiracy. The film could be accused of an anti-homosexual prejudice in fact; the emphasis on bringing Shaw to trial and the scenes showing scenes of his 'homosexual underworld' seem to be saying it wasn't the mafia, or the Cubans, or the CIA who killed Kennedy, it was the gays that did it! Since the actors who get to wear dresses and pinch each other's nipples are noted ‘hard men’ Jones and Pesci, this was one part of the film I found truly bizarre.

Mid-way through this three hour film, Ferrie meets up with Jim Garrison and a few members of his investigative team in a hotel room, and Pesci gives a spluttering over-the-top turn, his wig sliding off his head, as he relates how Oswald knew Shaw, and Shaw is an 'untouchable', and they both worked with the anti-Castro Cubans, and they also both knew Jack Ruby, and they all worked for the CIA anyway; it's all 'a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma'. Soon after this Ferrie is found dead. Costner then goes to D.C., does the Mr Smith Goes to Washington thing at the Lincoln memorial, and he meets X.

Sutherland as X tells him that all the standard security procedures were deliberately ignored that day in Dallas (John Williams' music is brilliant here, as in many other parts of the film, on insisting on the sinister nature of what went on.) He tells Costner 'ask yourself: who benefits?' It's the question to end all questions when discussing world politics. Stone paints a picture of John and Robert Kennedy as two fresh-faced young idealists up against the greedy, power-crazed establishment and says JFK was a threat to the military because he attacked covert operations which had budgets in the billions. X rattles off the evidence, saying that the defence budget for Vietnam was 75-100 billion dollars, and implying that the Vietnam War had to go ahead to fulfill a business contract the government had made with American companies. 'The organising principle of any society is for war' he says. 'The authority of the state over its people resides in its war powers.' After Kennedy's death Vietnam started 'for real'; on November 26, 1963 Lyndon Johnson reversed JFK's policy, and Stone actually depicts him telling the generals explicitly 'Gentleman, I'll give you your war.' (Bill Hicks used to do another routine where he compared America to Jack Palance, the baddie in Shane, who seeks out innocent farmers, throws a gun at their feet, and dares/forces them to pick it up, so that he can shoot them down, and still tell people 'they were going for the gun. I had to do it!')

In Kevin Costner’s 20-minute speech in the final courtroom scene of JFK he says that when a government acts the way the American government did after the Kennedy assassination, you call it what it is: fascism. I thought this was interesting in view of a point already made by Donald Sutherland's X: namely that at the end of World War Two the US government brought out the scientists who had developed German rocket technology. Norman Mailer (who was another one obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, authoring a book called Oswald's Tale; An American Mystery) in 1969 wrote a long essay called 'Of a Fire on the Moon' in which he discussed how Wernher Von Braun, the man chiefly responsible for the Germans' V2 rocket which killed so many Londoners, had been co-opted by the American military establishment chiefly because they felt what he knew was more important than what he had done. Thomas Pynchon dealt with the same matter in Gravity's Rainbow. They were both writers steeped in the liberal-humanist tradition discovering to their horror that at a critical point in their country's history, when confronted with the most evil regime ever known to man, the powers-that-be didn't destroy them; they decided to learn from them. That then gives rise to the possibility that they may in fact have become much like them.

1991, when JFK was made, now seems like a comparatively innocent political age, but it’s interesting how some of its themes take on new relevance in the post-9/11 era. Kevin Costner's character makes many startling points in that final speech and strangely enough one of them - that the ordinary people sending their sons off to war in their old-fashioned belief that America is great are manipulated and lied to by the powers-that-be - is also made by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 about the situation in Iraq. Stone’s film caused so much controversy at the time because he suggested there was a coup d'etat in Washington in 1963, and Americans subsequently became slaves to an illegitimate regime. In the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era the legitimacy of the American government once again became a very contentious issue of course, with some saying that the coup d'etat this time occurred in the 2000 election.

An interesting footnote: in the 2003 documentary The Fog of War Robert McNamara, US secretary of defence at the time of the onset of Vietnam, admits that had Kennedy survived, the US would probably have pulled out of Vietnam earlier. So it's not just something Oliver Stone made up. In fact The Fog of War, as a documentary, is far more convincing for the case of a conspiracy without even trying because it replays actual tapes of Johnson trying to get McNamara to retract public statements he'd already made saying America would be withdrawing troops from Vietnam, and adds what I thought was an essential corroborating piece of evidence: that the South Vietnamese president was assassinated just three weeks before Kennedy, throwing that country into turmoil, destroying the plans to withdraw American troops, and in fact 'necessitating' a greater influx of American military personnel.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Stanley Kubrick Letter to Ingmar Bergman, 1960

In a previous post  I wrote of how I thought Bergman was the greatest ever director. So when I recently heard this read out on 'A Damn Movie Podcast' I was intrigued. I just love it of course: Kubrick knew what he was talking about. 

Language, Cinema and Subtitles

Music doesn’t do it, unless you count opera and world music, and even they usually only give you access to fanciful phrases in Italian and German, or the stylized clichés common to love songs. Literature doesn’t do it, unless you’re one of those rare creatures who read parallel texts: the original next to the translation. Theatre doesn’t do it. The graphic arts don’t do it. Only cinema does it. Only cinema connects you to the world’s peoples and their multiplicity of voices, their strange sounds and cadences, their alien realities. Subtitles are such a miraculous boon to the world that people who don’t make regular use of them to find out about their fellow man should really be regarded as peculiar Luddites, akin to those who refuse to travel in vehicles with internal combustion engines.

Of course because of the global dominance of Hollywood films, outside the English-speaking world nearly all people, educated or not, do encounter subtitles on a regular basis. I live in Thailand and here the most popular movies are American not Thai. In cinemas most people watch the ‘soundtrack’ version, whilst cable TV has hundreds of subtitled English-language films and TV programs every week. It’s a similar situation in most Asian and continental European countries that I know of, and probably in the rest of the world too. Dubbed versions often exist as well, but the quality of the dubbing is often so poor – the voices so false and inexpressive- that it puts most people off.

Meanwhile in Britain, the US and other English-speaking countries, 80 or 90% of people never go near a subtitle. This imbalance mirrors that of general foreign-language learning. Whilst most young people in countries like Holland, Sweden and Malaysia learn English to a high level, and most young people in countries like South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand learn enough to have a basic conversation by the age of 20, 90% of our adolescents can’t put one sentence together in French, German or any other language. Whilst anyone who’s anyone in any Asian country probably studied abroad and speaks fluent English as well as their own language, our business leaders and politicians are often sadly monolingual and thus crucially blind to the existence of other realities outside their own subjective ones.

Maybe all schools in English-speaking countries should make teenaged students watch two or three foreign movies every week. I’d be happy to make up a list of age-appropriate films that would expose their impressionable young ears to a bit of Japanese, a bit of French, a bit of Romanian, Russian, Chinese, Spanish, German, Korean and Swedish. So much of natural language-learning- i.e. the way we all pick words up as children- is passive, and merely to have these teenagers in the same room as these sounds would probably do some good. They wouldn’t actually start speaking the language of course, but they’d be made more aware of other realities. You never know, it might even have a humanizing effect: being properly aware of another language tends to reduce your ability to act like you know it all, and make you face up to the fact that you know very little.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

50 Great French Films (with video)

Films had to achieve a certain amount of ‘Frenchness’ to be included here. For example, I wanted to list Certified Copy (2010), which is officially a French film, but since it’s set in Italy, is mainly in English, and has an Iranian director, it didn’t seem right to. One or two non-French elements like that might not have disqualified it, but three major non-French elements meant it had to be left out.

To me these are not just '50 great French films' but also the 50 best French films of all time...

The video above shows the posters for all 50 of the films listed here.

  1. Le Crime De Monsieur Lange (Jean Renoir, 1936)
  2. Pepe Le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937)
  3. La Bete Humaine (Jean Renoir, 1938)
  4. Le Quai Des Brumes (Marcel Carne, 1938)
  5. La Regle Du Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)
  6. Le Jour Se Leve (Marcel Carne, 1939)
  7. Les Visiteurs Du Soir (Marcel Carne, 1942)
  8. La Belle Et La Bete (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
  9. Jeux Interdits (Rene Clement, 1952)
  10. The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
  11. Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)
  12. Ascenseur Pour L'echafaud (Louis Malle, 1958)
  13. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
  14. Plein Soleil (Rene Clement, 1960)
  15. Vivre Sa Vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)
  16. Le Mepris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
  17. La Peau Douce (Francois Truffaut, 1964)
  18. Belle De Jour (Luis Bunuel, 1967)
  19. Week End (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
  20. La Femme Infidele (Claude Chabrol, 1968)
  21. Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut, 1968)
  22. Ma Nuit Chez Maud (Eric Rohmer, 1969)
  23. Domicile Conjugal (Francois Truffaut, 1970)
  24. L'Enfant Sauvage (Francois Truffaut, 1970)
  25. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Bunuel, 1972)
  26. La Maman Et La Putain (Jean Eustache, 1973)
  27. La Nuit Americaine (Francois Truffaut, 1973)
  28. Les Valseuses (Bertrand Blier, 1974)
  29. L'Argent De Poche (Francois Truffaut, 1976)
  30. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977)
  31. Buffet Froid (Bertrand Blier, 1979)
  32. Le Dernier Metro (Francois Truffaut, 1980)
  33. Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)
  34. La Haine (Matthieu Kassovitz, 1995)
  35. L'Appartement (Gilles Mimouni, 1996)
  36. Ma Vie Sexuelle (Arnaud Desplechin, 1996)
  37. The Dreamlife of Angels (Erick Zonca, 1998)
  38. Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
  39. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
  40. Irreversible (Gasper Noe, 2002)
  41. The Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, 2003)
  42. A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004)
  43. Look at Me (Agnes Jaoui, 2004)
  44. Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)
  45. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
  46. I’ve Loved You So Long (Philip Claudel, 2008)
  47. The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda, 2008)
  48. The Class (Laurent Cantet, 2008)
  49. Micmacs (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2009)
  50. The Artist (Micel Hazanavicius, 2011)

Trying to 'Get' Godard: Contempt (1963) and Masculin-Feminin (1966)

Brigitte Bardot in Comtempt AKA Le Mepris (1963)

I’m sometimes tempted to put Godard in the same category as certain other acclaimed arthouse directors who mainly make arid nonsense, and it’s usually after I’ve seen one of his total mis-fires, like La Chinoise, One Plus One (which managed to bore me to tears even though it’s all about the Rolling Stones and I’m a big Stones fan), First Name Carmen or L’eloge D’amour. Pierrot Le Fou also left me cold, and three other films often recommended as his best work - A Bout de Soufflé, Alphaville and (Tarantino’s favourite) Bande a Part - I thought were OK but nothing special. All in all, it’s a disappointing turn-out considering his reputation. Yet Godard has made at least two great films - Weekend and Vivre Sa Vie - and another very good one, Tout Va Bien, and there’s something about him that makes me come back to his work every year or so and give him another shot, in a way I’m not inclined to do with many other directors who bore me this much.

Such a policy has mixed results. I watched Masculin-Feminin recently and it was another one of his duds. Paris looked beautiful in it - both the exterior shots and inside the coffee bars - but the typical Godard problems once again applied. There was no story as such, and there wasn’t enough of anything else to compensate. If it was supposed to be an avant-garde film ‘which played with our notions of traditional narrative’ (the usual justification for these things) then it didn’t seem to be doing much ‘playing’. There were just a lot of disconnected scenes vaguely centered on Jean Pierre Leaud and his relationship with a girl named Madeleine (Chantal Goya). One or two of them were interesting but many others were quite tedious and overall it didn’t amount to much. In fact this film struck me as like listening to a 10 year-old boy with ADD who keeps on starting on a new subject every few minutes with no rhyme or reason: not a particularly pleasant experience. And Leaud, usually so likeable as Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s films, here plays an annoyingly petulant, callow youth who’s hard to identify with. 

However, I also re-watched Contempt a few weeks ago, a film that hadn’t impressed me much the first time I saw it, and it seemed a lot better on this occasion. Director Fritz Lang has a small role in it and he’s fine as an actor even though the lines he’s given are often inane: shockingly bad pseudo-theorizing like ‘Man takes comfort from the absence of God’ and so on. Does Godard really expect anyone to be interested in this nonsense, which feel like verbatim quotes he’s taken from the latest philosophy primer he’s reading? I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. And the somnambulent effect of Godard’s artificial dialogue is here redoubled in some scenes because an interpreter acts as a go-between whilst American Jack Palance tries to talk to Frenchman Michel Piccoli; everything has to be translated from English to French and vice-versa, so we hear it twice. 

Generally though, by Godardian standards, this film does make an effort to connect with the viewer. The main musical theme of the film by Georges Delerue is quite beautiful and that helps a lot, plus the visuals are wonderful. (I kept thinking as I was watching that maybe Godard should have been a painter rather than a film director. On the other hand, maybe the striking images here should be more rightly credited to the cinematographer Raoul Coutard). And whilst often in Godard films you feel that the characters barely notice the existence of each other, here at least there is a clear set of characters and a kind of love triangle to hang on to. Piccoli is a screenwriter employed by unpleasant film producer Palance, who throughout the film seems to be on the point of seducing Piccoli’s wife, played by Brigitte Bardot. So we feel some tension at least. 

Much of the first half of the film is taken up with a back and forth discussion/ argument between Piccoli and Bardot about their relationship, set in a striking apartment bathed in warm summer light and decorated with bright red furniture and fabrics. Godard over-does it, for sure. I enjoyed this scene up to a point but it goes on for half an hour or more, the musical theme is repeated at least 10 times at intervals, and in the end you start thinking: doesn’t the director know when to cut, doesn’t he have script or a story to follow, something else he should be moving on to by now? Nevertheless, the inch-perfect framing of those wide cinemascope shots so that they make wonderful stills is very engaging. Plus he does move on eventually and the final twenty minutes of the film, with its unusual coastal setting, are quite captivating. Though this film is still far from perfect, there were enough interesting things in it to make it the fourth Godard film that I can honestly recommend. 

See 90 Screenshots from Contempt here