Monthly Archives: March 2016

  • Contempt

    Le mépris

    Jean-Luc Godard (1963)

    Although the characters repeatedly express contempt for each other, either more or less explicitly, Jean-Luc Godard is the scorner-in-chief.  I’d dozed off before the end of Philip Kemp’s introduction but I got the message that Godard loathed the unaccustomed experience of international co-production and didn’t think much either of the Alberto Moravia source material (Il disprezzo (1954)), which Godard adapted.  The two main characters are Pierre Javal, a French novelist hired by Jeremy Prokosch, an American film producer, to rework a screenplay, and Javal’s wife Camille.   The script that Prokosch wants fixing has been written by the movie’s director, Fritz Lang, who plays himself:  the film within the film that Lang is making is an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey.  (In real life, by the time Le mépris was made, Lang had already directed his last movie.)  There’s a huge discrepancy between the emotional potential of the lines being spoken, as Camille (Brigitte Bardot) and Pierre (Michel Piccoli) say what they think of each other, and the lack of expression in the faces and voices of the actors.  Of course Bardot and Piccoli aren’t themselves uninteresting:  he’s a fine actor and she’s an amazing camera subject.  It’s remarkable how utterly different she looks when she put on a dark wig – her pouting but oddly dainty petulance is intriguing.  She’s used offensively, though:  it’s not only in an early sequence, which Godard supposedly included as a sop to the picture’s producers (Carlo Ponti, Joseph E Levine and Georges de Beauregard), that she’s undressed.  Jack Palance is terrible as the philistine Hollywood producer Prokosch (according to Philip Kemp, Godard couldn’t stand Palance any better than he could Levine – so he may have been happy for Palance to perform so crudely).

    The characters’ faces never crack – the only comedy comes in the translations supplied for Prokosch and Pierre by a bilingual young woman (Giorgia Moll) whose face you never seem quite to see.  The sea and the cliffs at Capri have a disorienting grandeur – it’s only when you’re watching seascape (photographed by Raoul Coutard), rather than people, that the passionate refrain of Georges Delerue’s lovely music seems to be supporting rather than contradicting what’s on screen.  Philip Kemp explained that the film was packed with quotes from other films.  I missed most of them but was struck that some people in the BFI audience seemed to find even basic references inherently witty.   All Godard needed to do to elicit chuckles or murmurs of approval was to show Brigitte Bardot reading a book by Fritz Lang or have someone else mention that a Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray movie was showing at a local cinema.  I think the only time I felt sympathy with any of the characters was when Bardot’s Camille, in the middle of a philosophising conversation, asked, ‘When do we eat?’  Particularly in the early sequences in and around Cinecittà, the movement of the camera suggests a film being made at many removes:  Godard makes you very conscious, as you watch, of your own boredom.  His contempt is infectious that so it’s hard to be roused to the heat of anger.  What I don’t get is the obviousness of his hero worship, as it’s illustrated in Le mépris, of the films and the film-making that he sees as worthwhile.

    17 February 2014

  • Le jour se lève

    Marcel Carné (1939)

    The prologue tells us what we’re going to see:

    ‘Un homme a tué … Enfermé, assiégé dans une chambre, il évoque les circonstances qui ont fait de lui un meurtrier.’

    We know almost immediately the identity of the man who’s been shot dead and, within a few frames, the identity of the man who killed him.  The latter’s name is François.  He doesn’t instantly strike you as the murdering kind; and we learn from the chatter of his neighbours in the building where he lives that he’s a good bloke.  So, as François wonders how the crime he’s committed came about, we wonder too.  And because he’s played by Jean Gabin we’re immediately well disposed towards him.  (This would also have been true of the first audiences for Le jour se lève, released in June 1939 – after La grande illusion, La bête humaine and so on).  The film is well under halfway through when we see the murdered man again.  His name is Valentin; he’s a music hall artist whose act includes performing dogs.  I hadn’t realised that the hero of The Artist may owe his name to this character but while George Valentin is a decent chap, his namesake here is a nasty piece of work.  He mistreats his onstage assistant Clara and, off stage, a younger woman called Françoise – in other words, both the women in François’s life.  (Valentin also mistreats the dogs in order to train them).  François lives with Clara – he likes but doesn’t love her the way he loves Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent).  As their twin names imply, these two are soulmates; the relationship between François and Clara is amiable and, we assume, carnal.  Even though François, a foundry worker, isn’t predisposed towards violence, it comes as no surprise that someone wants to murder the vile Valentin – so we don’t remain baffled for long as to how on earth his death could have come about.  You might think from all this that Le jour se lève won’t have much ammunition left for its second half.  Yet the film is so relentless and concentrated that you don’t experience the lack of surprises as something disappointing – anything but.

    The film is structured as a series of flashback recollections in the mind of François, interleaved with shorter sequences in the present – the morning after the night which has ended with Valentin’s death.  These sequences describe the scene in the street outside, where a crowd has gathered, and François’s interactions with them.  The people in the street are sympathetic but avid for the details of what’s happened and what might happen next.  When at one point François yells at them the effect is startling because Gabin is normally such a vocally quiet actor.  The moment is also startling because he’s such an intensely believable one – he gets over to an exceptional degree the sense of a man’s horrified realisation of how he’s wrecked his life irretrievably.  Le jour se lève – written by Jacques Prévert and based on a story by Jacques Viot – is engrossing and engaging thanks principally to the wonderful actors and Marcel Carné’s direction of them.   As well as Gabin, there’s Arletty.  Clara is a smaller role than Garance in Les enfants du paradis but, as in that film, Arletty has the quality of a used sphinx – she is beautifully present but infinitely old.  There’s also Jules Berry, extraordinary as the sadomasochistic Valentin, who’s both strongly malignant and profoundly weak.  Berry’s Valentin seems always in motion.  This drives François mad in their climactic meeting – but it’s a movement without fluidity: it has a stiff, irrational, spasmodic quality – like a puppet no one is controlling.  (There were times when Valentin reminded me of the ventriloquist’s dummy Hugo in Dead of Night – in the moment in the nightmare sequence when Hugo starts to move independently.)  Valentin makes things up, he boasts of being a dreamer – this makes him more threateningly unpredictable.  The cast are able to make the characters they play both individual and definitive and the ominous, poetic visuals and music – the cinematography is by Philippe Agostini and the score by Maurice Jaubert – give the story a compelling weight.  The people in it, François especially, seem fated to a degree way beyond the fact that we know his fate from the start.

    16 May 2012

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