Violette (Martin Provost, 2013)

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Violette (Martin Provost, 2013) opens as a film that is concerned with textures of the body and mind, the mind of a vivid writer and her body, as its is viewed by others and herself. In the opening scene, Violette (Emmanuelle Devos) bathes herself in the crisp air, then later cares for her injured friend, told through close ups of hands and body parts and a sound track caressing the skin. I began this film with no knowledge of Violette Leduc or her work, so this seems an insightful choice given the name of her first published memoir, In the Prison of Her Skin. Her skin, without the protection of clothing, is not an exposure which frees her — it is the very thing in which she feels trapped, punished. 

As her friend, Maurice (a fake husband, to keep up appearances), convinces her to direct her sadness and despair into writing. The first line she narrates from her work is, ‘My mother never held my hand.’ Surely, a harsh line and a hard thought for so many to hear, redolent of rejection, spite, or yearning. This neglect manifests as a clutching obsession with people she comes into contact with, particularly her literary mentor and peer, Simone de Beauvoir (an extraordinary Sandrine Kiberlain).

In reflection, this is all a worthwhile part of the film, but experiencing it as the opening segment was very slow, cold, and alienating, despite its bodily sensations. Thankfully the particular part, set in the French countryside, did not last long, and when the film cuts to a more self-confident, sartorially assured Violette, in Paris, this feels like the film’s real beginning, the beginning of French dandyism and the literary scene, as she makes a new life in the city. She escapes the empty countryside, but what she can’t escape from ultimately, though, is life. ‘My mother spared me, to my despair,’ she tells Simone de Beauvoir, who tells her to write it all down, ‘you’ll do women a favour.’  

‘Everything wounds you,’ her friend Jacques Guérin (Olivier Gourmet) scolds, and although she is a mercurial personality it is hard to believe that his criticism does not stem from a fear of women, and of women’s voices. Breaking news that her sexually explicit material is being censored, Simone tells Violette, ‘A man told me humiliation at being a woman should never be an excuse to humiliate men.’ That is the way that the early feminist fight for equality was viewed, and as the more vulnerable voice it was silenced. (This makes particularly interesting viewing around International Women’s Day.) 

In the end, Violette found a way to have her voice heard and found some pleasure. At least, those things are settled upon in the film by the success of her sixth book, 18 years after her first. The Bastard draws the film to an end, an uplifting scene that, while I’m sure the text wasn’t so uplifting, allowed her some reprieve, some satisfaction. Violette kept living, and writing.

This is, really, a beautiful film, with delicately drawn characters, subtle acting, and a delicious palette. There is the odd cliché, like when Violette looks at the cracks in her apartment ceiling when she is on the verge of a breakdown over Simone, her mother yet again pulling her hand away and later a seducer clutching her hand with his, but these are forgivable. Gentle clichés like these can be expected in works that rely on and creatively interpret metaphor, particularly from another artist or art form, and visual description can suffer in some formal cinema constructions that are without the fluidity and freedom allowed of literature. 

So, it all works, and with the intrigue, the fascinating relationship between Violette and Simone, and the brief snippets of her writing narrated on screen, Violette proves an important, remarkable film. Leduc was always the least noticed in her circle; at least, that’s how she felt herself, and wrote very convincingly that she was. In her writing and her thoughts, she admits that she blended real life with dream life, creating her perfect narrative, the perfect form for her feelings — just like some of the best films do. This is one, so see it, and honour International Women’s Day. 

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Survivors of the last sunset

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The Last Sunset (Robert Aldrich, 1961)

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Ever in My Heart

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Like so many films of the early classical narrative era, Ever In My Heart (1933) uses newspapers to advance the plot along, to serve as major, and minor, narrations on setting and character. A short feature at 68 minutes, it introduces the technique of using a newspaper to advance narrative and scenario at the one-third point. A newspaper flips open and doomfully announces that Germany has invaded Belgium, beginning WWI, at the time when the German-born Hugo declares his citizenship and allegiance to the USA.

“If one could only believe a single line in these newspapers.” she sighs.

“Censorship is working, all right.” Hugo replies, nonplussed.

It is Christmas, they are waiting for Hugo to come to them, listening to “Silent Night” and scorning it because it’s a German song. Newspapers continue to feature in scenes, their large-text headlines obscured but obvious enough within the frame, being read at the dinner table. The news, apparently, is one-sided — and though I am educated on twentieth century history, living in current times I can definitely believe that it would be censored of Allied atrocities. The exchange above, between a married couple who are ostracised from their vehemently American social scene because they are perceived as German, is a bitter reminder at the shallowness of mob behaviour, of surface thinking, the kind made so shameful by Fritz Lang’s Fury three years later. (In his column about “Newspaper Movies”, Richard Brody also brings up two Lang films, While The City Sleeps and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, which both also confront the immateriality of truth and reality in the newspaper “business”.)

News-reporting, too, hardly seems to be balanced. At least, not any more. In newspaper movies, or even simply in movies which feature newspapers as story in their editing or in their dialogue, newspapers certainly show no signs of being balanced. They are there to give only one opinion, to make only one point, and that (for plot excitement) is usually the most bigoted, the one given with the least amount of research. It’s used to terrify the action, like here, in Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961).

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In the end of Ever In My Heart, Barbara Stanwyck rules the film, as she does all of her films, although in the most bitter way she doesn’t — she is forced into her role. (The still below is the moment she spies her son, who has just transitioned from very ill to passed away, to illustrate her supreme acting skills.) Poisoning her ex-husband, lover to her and America but hated by all other Americans, and herself, she becomes the unhappy and unintended victim of a blind and insulated patriotic cruelty. It’s one of those shameful states of humanity that it’s almost too hard to think about it, and write about it — the state is out of our hands, too, and in the hands of the newspaper moguls.

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(I am aware, too, that propaganda and censorship powers are rather strongly held by film studios and the movie machine, too. Those powers are arguably stronger when held and enforced by the news media, in those earlier times of the three-print-newspaper days, through to now with the 24-hour media machine.)

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What does Stoker sound like?

Mia Wasikowska, as India, whispers to open Stoker (Park Chan-wook, 2013). She whispers on a black screen, then on an obscured perspective, and a still screen. The whisper unsettles me. I don’t like when people whisper to me or near me; the same goes for film characters. The whisper here is meant to unsettle.

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Stoker is a glamorous film, heavily stylised, and it’s beautiful. The interiors, walls, the buckets of ice-cream, the lighting, all gorgeous. But it’s all so obvious.

As a whole, the soundtrack in Stoker is not easy to accept, and not really easy to listen to. (Despite how much I adore Clint Mansell.) India is hypersensitive; she hears, smells, sees things closer than others do. This is a delicate perspective, needing measured treatment, but Park and his sound department butcher it with their soundscape. When she puts on a metronome and begins to play piano, it ticks loudly. Even when she’s upstairs, distant and removed, it continues to tick loudly. Her mother, Nicole Kidman, holds the weight with her thumb to stop it ticking, and when she removes her thumb it doesn’t restart again, which it should have. Style betrays expectation and this can’t be sustained. The camera movement in Stoker is slow, to emphasise the sound, and the senses. But when the senses know a better reality than the one being fictionalised for us on screen, things are destined to go wrong.

It’s easy to heavily stylise a film’s visual aesthetic and have it look great on a number of levels. I do think it goes too far in Stoker. And in addition to the visuals, the sound is too stylised, and the film suffers for this. It rings hollow.

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A Blast of Silence, and New York echoes

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Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961) is a startlingly dark B-film noir that trudges through the gunk and garbage of Manhattan’s streets and spaces. And it’s not just the visuals that make this a unique and powerful film, a commentary on the city, the existential condition, and the nature of forgiveness. The empty echoes of ‘Deck the Halls’ sung a cappella, as our lone hired gun Frank (Allen Baron) walks beneath the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree, and continue as ‘Oh Come, All Ye Faithful’ as he circles around the Plaza’s eateries, fighting with the sounds of traffic. It’s an eerie sound in this film whose soundtrack is otherwise easy listening (flute, piano, and brushing on a drum kit) or a heavy jazz composition.

Christmas Day begins with church bells ringing loudly (and taking up the whole sky and screen) and a distant a cappella call of ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’. All of these songs, their lyrics and musical tone, represent a passion for life and living, yet these passions are the very antithesis of noir’s hopelessness, and of Blast of Silence‘s weighted fatalism, of its permanent displacement.

He walks amongst the crowds so much, so often, negotiating his way through the bustle he so dislikes, and the festivities he is desperate to avoid. But after he unexpectedly murders slimy hoodlum Ralph (Larry Tucker), out of panic, he leaves the East Village apartment and walks down a deserted sidewalk, no other movement but the scattering of litter in the wind. Everywhere he goes, the litter in the wind follows him. Feeling lost, uncertain, he walks to Lionel Stander’s narration, “For the first time in your life you don’t wanna be alone.” Yet he still walks alone, this time along the Hudson River, not a sign of life on the empty water behind him.

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He’s done the hit job. A long walk, on boardwalks over swampland, in a deserted space by the side of a highway. Jazz music accompanies the walk. All of a sudden, Frank keeps walking but his employer stops. As soon as Frank realises he’s alone, the music stops. It’s silence. Silence accompanies Frank’s anxiety, as well as it allows ours in the audience to brew, producing stronger worry and uncertainty, a sinister swell, than music. The only sound emanates from the highway, or is made by the wind sweeping through the swampland. And finally, Frank knows he is dead. He is alone. “They all hate the gun they hire,” Stander tells us, and Frank, at the beginning. Death is a messy situation.

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Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, 2007)

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Okay, so even I’m bored of all this conversation about women in (or *not* in) film, but as the issue begs, the conversation will keep going. Even I’ve partaken in it, and I can’t seem to say everything I want to. And not everything I say is being heard. Of course, this is because there is simply so much wrong; with the film industry, with other industries, and with the way that white men have pretty much ruled not only the production of things, but also the reception. Even female filmmakers, a lot of the time, if going for a high-profile kind of gig, might use a male-driven narrative to form the plot.

Then I was watching Shotgun Stories (2007), from the wonderful Jeff Nichols, whose Take Shelter (2011) I finally had the absolute (stressful) pleasure of experiencing recently. It’s great. But so far, thirty minutes in, four women have appeared. Two mothers, with less than a minute screen time, and two romantic interests, only seen in conversation with their “men”. The plot involves two families of grown men, who have something of a war between themselves. I noticed how odd it was that both families had produced only men — not impossible, but odd, perhaps unlikely. Then the small-town American men fought. One of the brothers of the “good” family didn’t fight, and was scolded, made to feel ashamed for being cowardly. I thought, perhaps it was scripted just so these men could be made to act out “male-specific problems” like shame and fighting. Isn’t this the problem? 

One evening Michael Shannon’s wife hears a bottle break on their house at night and asking “What was that” as she wakes up her husband. Sure, but…whatever.

The worst thing about all of this, I think, is that if there ever is a female character who adopts any qualities “like this”, she must be talked about “like that” — as though she’s so positive because she’s a woman doing “this”. That response is so boring. It’s been boring for a long time, but as long as the representation, and the response, is marginalised, it will stay so. And maybe I’m prolonging this cycle by writing this. But I just needed to write that, in each of the two warring families, there were three and four sons respectively (and three young sons between them). I couldn’t help thinking that Shotgun Stories was scripted like this, with seven men, so that issues like fighting, responsibility, manliness, guts. It showed me nothing knew at all, nothing I haven’t seen before, even beautiful Michael Shannon’s character was boring. When each family loses a brother they decide to “be cool” and bring their war to an end. 

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It’s not that filmmakers don’t have a right to explore “male” characters and “male” issues. But simply using men in a way that’s consistently expected isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. Sure, Take Shelter centred around a male character’s psychological breakdown, but the involvement of his wife in his rehabiltation, and the central support role she played, lifts it far above Shotgun Stories. Nichols’ use of the widescreen also improves by Take Shelter, although it is impressive in its slow grandeur in the earlier work. At first I thought perhaps this would be like an adult version of Stand By Me (1986), if only because of Barlow Jacobs‘ resemblance to River Phoenix. But Stand By Me does a much better job of revealing and exploring the intricacies and difficulties of self-expression in a small town.  But Shotgun Stories, burning as it is with “pain”, left me cold.

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Rene Clair’s Le Million (1931)

“They’re awful people, these artists, these doodlers!” grumbles the dairymaid to her service clan, when Michel (René Lefèvre) can’t pay his dues, or his rent. And so René Clair as a comedian of language and tone, as well as visual play. We are set up to side with a hapless underdog, a man who almost knows he’s lost but is publicly shamed into putting on an act. And so, let the act begin!

A farce, and a blend of backstage musical (or opera, rather) and integrated musical comedy, Le Million is le magnifique! Even the scenes which are not straight musical have a flowing lyricism about them, a choreography that makes them appear dancelike. The film opens with lots of speaking and wooing over rooftops, characters running to and away from each other past chimneys, through skylights and windows, above and across the city.

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The ground is a fluid space too, encouraging pathways and movement. Authorities and building workers joyously singing in unison as they chase Michel through the building, and up an unending staircase, for his money. Part of what makes Michel’s discomfort at being poor is that everybody else is so willing to believe that he does, in fact, have a lottery ticket that will make him a millionaire. They congratulate him with a bouquet of flowers — his face here is beyond perfect.

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Later, in a police station, Michel has been arrested on suspicion of being the thief “Grandpa Tulip”, and he meets the man who bought his jacket with the golden ticket in the pocket, who is reporting a watch theft. It is a very strange, funny scene, a combination of mistaken identity and director exposition, when the audience has more knowledge than the characters. Of course things are going to go wrong for them.

Then a man, probably a crazy under observation for being so, approaches the conversation wearing only undershorts and a bowler hat. Removing his hat, he admits, “Excuse me, but I think the jacket is mine” (or something). A chaotic, multivoiced fight ensues, everyone joining in but no one really certain what they’re fighting for. This sort of scene was repeated in the magically tragicomic ending of The Life of Brian, and recalled in legendary tales like that of Eric Douglas doing stand-up in the UK, and spurring an epic Spartacus take off. Delightful, and demonstrative of Clair’s mastery of an entire scene. He just has characters who, though unnecessary to the story, give the visuals and the tempo an extra spice.

2013-11-21 11.21.28 pmIn the final sequence, upon unlikely and very utopian resolution of the plot, the entire cast joins in a joyous song and dance, finally celebrating the uplifting motif that has been teasing them, with its melodic optimism, for the entire film. Even the shirtless man from the police station is there, inexplicably. Le Million is really an absurd picture, but the magic of Clair’s visual layout, and the chemistry of his characters to their plight, is a strength that will sustain his career into the next decade.

 

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