Category: Literary adaptations

Adapting Highsmith #5: The Two Faces of January (UK-France-US 2014)

The three characters 'off road' on Crete

The three characters ‘off road’ on Crete

This film is included in the ‘Adapting Highsmith Tour’ but I managed to catch it on TV via Film Four. I remember its cinema release and wondering whether to go and see it. Something made me decide not to see it then. TV is not the same but I’m glad I did see it eventually.

The Two Faces of January was published as Patricia Highsmith’s ninth novel in 1964. This film adaptation uses Highsmith’s main settings, starting in Greece in 1962. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is an American con-man with an attractive younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), seemingly on vacation but in reality ‘on the run’ from those he has swindled. Touring the Parthenon in Athens they meet Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaacs), a young American tour guide who tells them he has just left Yale and hasn’t decided yet what he wants to do. Fortunately he speaks several languages and he impresses Colette. Soon he is being invited to dinner at the couple’s 5 star hotel. The film’s title points towards the ‘two-faced’ Roman god Janus, sometimes thought to be the basis for the naming of ‘January’ as the first month. In the story, all three central characters are deceitful and deceptive and a typical Highsmith scenario sees the development of a multi-faceted relationship between Chester and Rydal – one aspect of which is a struggle over Colette.

The production background for the film suggests an American independent with full Hollywood presence (Timnick Films – previously responsible for The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) from Anthony Minghella) in conjunction with Working Title and StudioCanal (a partnership dating from Vivendi’s ownership of Universal in the 1990s). Perhaps then it’s best to think of the film as an international co-production – a European film with American stars. The writer-director Hossein Amini was born in Iran but raised in the UK from age 11. Best known as a writer (for films like Drive (US 2011), this was his directing debut. IMDB suggests his favourite director is Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director of polars – French crime films – an interesting twist on Highsmith? The cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind (best known to me for his work with Michael Winterbottom), the music is by Alberto Iglesias – the sound of Pedro Almodóvar – and the editing by Jon Harris, a regular on the last two Danny Boyle films and who had previously worked on Liliana Cavani‘s Ripley’s Game (2002), another Highsmith adaptation. With three lead actors of the stature of Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac and these creative talents behind the camera it is perhaps surprising that the film got only a limited release in North America through the independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. The film’s generally successful ‘international’ release was negated by a failure in the ‘domestic’ US market. One interesting aspect of the international release was box-office success in Spain and Argentina where Viggo Mortensen is popular. The quoted $21 million production budget is large by European standards.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Most of the money does appear on screen. Great care has gone into production design and costume design – ‘dressing’ locations in Istanbul and finding vintage outfits for the actors. Zyskind’s cinematography and the score by Iglesias work very well. The problem with the film for me is that the script delivers plot details and clues about the characters’ motivations very quickly and almost subliminally. So, like the other Highsmith stories, this is essentially about relationships between characters and to some extent the set pieces, e.g. a scene in an airport lobby where MacFarland escapes from Keener, get in the way of the character study. We spend more time combing these scenes for plot cues to try to work out why they happen like they do rather than focusing on the characters. Amini in the Press Notes refers primarily to Hitchcock’s romance thrillers and says that he went back to the 1960s ‘Mediterranean thrillers’ such as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Le mépris and most of all Clément’s Plein soleil – the first adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also mentions Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) in relation to the relationship of the married couple under pressure. (See this interesting Empire piece on Amini’s influences.) All of this is fine, but somehow the director fails to produce either the thrill of the adventure or to get to grips with the psychology of the characters which all of the above do in one way or another. Keener has somehow transferred his neurosis about his difficult relationship with his father to a new neurosis about MacFarland. This is stated a couple of times but I never really ‘felt’ it in the interaction of the two characters. Similarly I didn’t get much from the problems in the marriage and Colette is not given much space at all. The film looks great and it is nicely choreographed but it doesn’t deliver enough and it can’t compete with the French and German Highsmith adaptations.

Adapting Highsmith #4: This Sweet Sickness (Dites-lui que je l’aime, France 1977)

David (Gérard Depardieu) and Lise (Dominique Laffin)

David (Gérard Depardieu) and Lise (Dominique Laffin)

From the 1960 Highsmith novel with the same English language title, This Sweet Sickness is a 1977 film by Claude Miller starring Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Moui. It’s perhaps the most delirious narrative of all the screenings in this Highsmith season, ending in a full-blown fantasy sequence.

David (Gérard Depardieu) is an accountant at a company in Central France. A typical Highsmith anti-hero, he ‘lives a lie’ – each weekend heading for Chamonix in the French Alps where he claims he is visiting his parents in a nursing home. In fact they are dead and he is secretly building/furnishing a chalet for his childhood sweetheart Lise (Dominique Laffin). Unfortunately she married someone else when David was away for two years (military service?) and is now pregnant with her first child. The film’s French title translates as ‘Tell Him/Her, I love Him/Her” which is intriguing and seems more informative that Highsmith’s original English title. This is because David himself is being pursued by Juliette (Miou-Miou) – and she in turn is being chased by David’s colleague François (Christian Clavier) who is attempting to cheat on his wife.

Juliette (Miou-Miou) and François (Christian Clavier)

Juliette (Miou-Miou) and François (Christian Clavier)

Claude Miller directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Luc Béraud. While keeping the central characters and the opening narrative close to Highsmith’s story (i.e. the book’s plot as reported on Wikipedia), Miller changed the second half in several ways. Not surprisingly perhaps, Highsmith did not like the adaptation. Miller, who died in 2012 just before his last film Thérèse Desqueyroux was shown at Cannes, was influenced by François Truffaut. Under Truffaut’s guidance he directed his first feature in 1976, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that aspects of Dites-lui que je l’aime seem to refer to Truffaut’s own interest in Hitchcock. At the beginning of the film David visits a cinema, sitting in front of Juliette who has recently moved into the same lodging-house. The screening is Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and a cut takes us straight from the auditorium to Joan Fontaine on the screen as the new Mrs de Winter exploring Manderley, the de Winter house. Juliette will eventually explore David’s chalet in Chamonix and if you know Rebecca you won’t be surprised at the chalet’s destruction in Dites-lui que je l’aime.

Claude Miller’s film is indeed ‘filmic’ and there are several interesting images/sequences. A photo in the chalet from the 1950s shows David and Lise as children. It sits below the kite (named ‘Fergus’) that they used to fly together. Outside the chalet a boy and girl, roughly the age of the children in the photo, are playing a game of ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’. Where have they come from? The chalet is quite isolated in the hills. David comes out and shoos them away. Later in the film he sees another pair of children playing the same game. Are these children real or a figment of David’s obsessive imagination? In David’s bedroom at the chalet, a print on the wall shows a young woman looking out at the viewer. I think this might be Vermeer’s ‘A Lady Standing at a Virginal’ – or something similar (I think she was the other way round)? I thought that the scenes outside the chalet in the snow were reminiscent of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960).

David caught in the rain and behind the front gate of Lise's house – the perfect image of a man trapped in his obsessive and doomed desire?

David caught in the rain and behind the bars of the front gate of Lise’s house – the perfect image of a man trapped in his obsessive and doomed desire?

In 1977 Gérard Depardieu was well on the way to becoming the pre-eminent French film star – a status he had obtained by the early 1980s. I watched him only a few weeks ago in 1900 (Novecento) (1976) which was shot only a couple of years earlier and he seems to have put on a lot of weight in just two years. In the image at the top of this post, he still displays a youthful sensitivity and charm (the glasses remind me of James Dean), but at the same time he hints at the brutality and wildness he is capable of. This was all part of Depardieu’s star persona and would come to the fore when he toured the US in 1990 to promote Green Card. In Dites-lui que je l’aime he slaps, punches and throws both men and women and throws wine or water in their faces. This film is unusual for Highsmith because, apart from Carol (UK-US-France 2015), it is the only one to my knowledge to involve two leading female characters, one of whom (Juliette) is nearly as active an agent as David himself. There is a sense in which Highsmith might be seen as misogynistic in terms of her female characters, but here she is perhaps better seen as misanthropic. I did find the violence dished out by David quite shocking – possibly because he flared up so quickly and was out of control before his victims were aware of what was happening. One of the main victims is Juliette – who dishes out her own form of emotional violence. Depardieu and Miou-Miou had ‘form’ in this kind of emotional drama, in Les valseuses (1974), a film that also includes Isabelle Huppert and Brigitte Fossey, both of whom have appeared in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ films.

Lise (Dominique Laffin) is sometimes difficult to tell apart from Juliette when both wear woollen hats that hide their hair. Lise is less 'active' than Juliette but still an agent in the drama.

Lise (Dominique Laffin) is sometimes difficult to tell apart from Juliette when both wear woollen hats that hide their hair. Lise is less ‘active’ than Juliette but still an agent in the drama.

In trying to classify this film, I can’t help thinking that it is a bit like ‘Truffaut-Hitcock on speed’ – it’s a psychological thriller, crime melodrama and emotional romance rolled into one. The performances of Depardieu, Miou-Miou and Claude Piéplu (who plays David’s eccentric neighbour) carry the energy that this mixture of repertoires suggests and I think this was perhaps the most enjoyable of the adaptations I’ve seen.

I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again. But I confess that I found the film narrative to be riveting and I soon forgot about the image quality. I watched this in one of the smallest screens at HOME which was nearly full. The last HOME screening in the season is this coming Thursday and since it’s directed by Claude Chabrol I’ll be there early to get a good seat. Can’t wait, this has been an excellent season.

The Blue Room (La chambre bleue, France 2014)

Esther and Julien in court

Esther and Julien in court

After burying myself in Patricia Highsmith adaptations for a couple of weeks, it was quite refreshing to switch to this little gem of a Georges Simenon adaptation. The Blue Room stars Mathieu Almaric and he directs the film himself. The film is only 75 minutes long but none of the time is wasted.

Julien (Mathieu Almaric) is the owner of a business selling and renting out agricultural equipment in Central France. He has an attractive modern house, a beautiful wife and child but he has met again the girl he desired at school. She is now helping to run a pharmacy in a nearby town and she has an older husband who is ailing. She is very much up for an affair and the couple meet for afternoons together in a local hotel with a ‘Blue Room’ that becomes their regular site for passion.

The film is presented as a sequence of short scenes with ellipses. It reminded me somehow of Chris Marker’s La jetée (France 1962) – which is a narrative made up of still images. The story is narrated via flashbacks – Julien’s memories – and through the questioning by the local examining magistrate and a prison psychologist after a crime has been committed. Finally, there is a court scene in a traditional small town courtroom with locals crammed in to witness events. Much of the interest in the film is in its formal precision. The aspect ratio is Academy 1.37:1 and Almaric explains the reasons for this in the film’s Press Notes. This choice seems to be becoming more common. For me, it worked as this is a ‘chamber film’ with a clear sense of entrapment and the squarish ‘enclosed’ screen space seemed appropriate. Almaric says that the panoramic feel of widescreen would have created something different. The other two factors are the use of carefully chosen musical scoring from Grégoire Hetzel and photography that depends on many quite static shots composed by Christophe Beaucarne.

'Real' bodies

‘Real’ bodies

This kind of film defeats some conventional perspectives. I’ve seen it described as an ‘erotic thriller’. IMDb lists the various classifications in different territories. In the US, the MPAA has it as ‘R’, presumably because there is some full-frontal nudity (‘graphic nudity’!). In the UK, the BBFC has it as a ’15’ . In Germany it is ’12’ and in France it is for ‘Tous publics’.  The film isn’t directly ‘erotic’ and the nudity is post-coital – I’m not sure it is a ‘thriller’ either, although there is one scene that might make you jump. What is transgressive is that the nude bodies are presented in a realist way. It’s a hot day. Sex has made the lovers sweat, there may be semen and there is certainly the drama of a spot of blood dropped on a white towel – a lip has been bitten in the heat of passion. Any eroticism is really in the mind, in the thrill of the secrecy of an affair and in the woman’s open desire – and the man’s acquiescence. Esther is played by Stéphanie Cléau who is also credited as co-writer of the film. She is physically taller than Julien and also more confident and assured in herself. I don’t think she is a type as such, even though we learn little about her – and what we do know comes from Julien’s memories. (I say this because some US reviews refer to ‘similar’ Hollywood genre movies which I think work quite differently.) Stéphanie Cléau is not a film actor. Her experience is in theatre as a writer and indeed there is something compellingly different about her brave performance. Almaric says that since Julien’s wife Delphine is played by an actor (Léa Drucker), it was important that Esther wasn’t a ‘known face’ because then it would be a contest between two actors. Esther is the initiator of the way the affair moves – Julien is in some ways the ‘willing victim’. All three leads are excellent.

Julien with his wife Delphine and daughter Suzanne on holiday

Julien with his wife Delphine and daughter Suzanne on holiday

On one level this is the story of how an affair can destroy a marriage, mapped out in the clinical investigations by a magistrate and a psychologist in prison. On a second level it is a cinephile’s treat, a delirious mix of influences and connections. Simenon’s novel comes from the early 1960s and it is a familiar story he had honed over many years. He’s been adapted many times and Amalric tells of how he acquired the rights at a time when he had a gap in projects and the chance to make a chamber piece in a short time. The most obvious lineage for the ideas in the film is from Simenon to Chabrol via Hitchcock. There is that same sense of a bourgeois affair, especially in small-town France. Rather than a thriller though, it is like a mystery – a ‘whydunit’. We get strong clues to how one crime might have been committed but we aren’t sure how another might have happened. Even more of a mystery/intrigue is why Julien would stray from his wife and child. In the most memorable line from the film, Julien reflects, “Life is different when you live it and when you go back over it after”. The trailer below offers a good sense of the formal qualities of the film. I’m struck again by the power of the music to suggest or perhaps to question emotions. Amongst a string of influences (Preminger, Fritz Lang) Almaric and Hetzel have created a blend of Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann with Truffaut’s use of Georges Delerue in La femme d’à côté (1974).

This is a film to watch and re-watch. In the UK the film has been in a handful of cinemas (Picturehouses claims it provided one of their busiest ‘Discovery Tuesday’ audiences) and is also available on VOD.

The film’s trailer (in the correct ratio – the US trailers falsely represent the film)

Adapting Highsmith #3 : Le meurtrier (Enough Rope, France-West Germany-Italy 1963)

The Italian poster for the film.

The Italian poster for the film.

This extraordinary film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s third novel The Blunderer published in 1954 in between The Price of Salt (that later became Carol) and The Talented Mr. Ripley. The French title means ‘The Murderer’ – I’ve also shown the English, Italian and German titles in this post. As far as I can see, the film follows the novel fairly closely – shifting the action to the area around Nice in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France, but keeping the names of the characters. I confess that I was quite surprised that the behaviour of the characters in the film was indeed based on Highsmith’s characters – but then I shouldn’t be surprised. The film’s narrative is actually very recognisably ‘Highsmith’, but the presentation is definitely odd.

Walter (Maurice Ronet) with the music student Ellie (Marina Vlady)

Walter (Maurice Ronet) with the music student Ellie (Marina Vlady)

In outline we have the familiar Highsmith model – two men linked in some strange way, involving murder and with the female characters mainly functional rather than ‘active’. The wonderfully named Melchior Kimmel is a bookseller who one night murders his wife after arranging an alibi. An architect, Walter Saccard, is trapped in what he feels to be a painful marriage and is chasing a young music student. He reads about the murder of Kimmel’s wife in Nice Matin and decides to visit the bookshop. Later he investigates Kimmel’s alibi and sets in motion the extraordinary incidents that will tie the two men together. The third crucial (male) figure in the narrative is a deranged police detective, Corbi – the like of which I’ve rarely seen before. Highsmith certainly doesn’t do police procedurals! I won’t spoil the narrative any more if you want to read the novel.

The German poster – emphasising Kimmel's thick glasses

The German poster – emphasising Kimmel’s thick glasses

Co-productions were common in France in the early 1960s, especially with Italy and Germany. (In 1963 there were 36 ‘French’ productions and 105 ‘co-productions’ listed for the French film industry –Encyclopedia of European Cinema, ed Ginette Vincendeau, Cassell/BFI 1995.) In this case, the co-production was presumably a factor in the casting of Gert Froebe as Kimmel. Others in the audience expressed the view that Froebe was dubbed (he swears in German several times) and that Yvonne Furneaux (who had been at Oxford and worked in the UK film industry) was also dubbed as Saccard’s wife Clara. My poor ear for French couldn’t distinguish if this was the case – much of the dialogue seemed to be shouted anyway! The important production issue is really that this is an example of what François Truffaut famously dismissed as ‘le cinéma de papa’. Le meurtrier was scripted by the team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, Truffaut’s main villains, and directed by Claude Autant-Lara, a director he put in the same category. Truffaut wasn’t alone. Most of the critics on Cahiers du cinéma loathed directors like Autant-Lara. Jacques Rivette in 1957:

I think that Autant-Lara, Clément and Clouzot are all sickening . . . people who have been corrupted. (quoted in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s, ed Jim Hillier BFI, 1985: 39)

Rivette was arguing that Autant-Lara and the others were simply interested in making money and that they would refuse to work ‘on the street’ like Rossellini, making ‘social films’. This perspective needs to be placed carefully in context. Like much of the Cahiers polemic there are many issues to be aware of. Truffaut’s charge was that the ‘cinema of old men’ was too attached to literary sources, that it relied on tight scripts and studio sets and that it peddled a form of middle-brow entertainment with little artistic expression. Truffaut himself used similar kinds of ‘literary texts’ early in his career, ranging from literary novels to Série Noire thrillers and his true cinematic auteur, Alfred Hitchcock, had already adapted Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train in 1951. By 1963 when Le meurtrier appeared, Truffaut’s charge had lost much of its impact following René Clément’s Highsmith adaptation Plein soleil, released in 1960. Clément was another of the ‘old guard’ but his version of The Talented Mr. Ripley was in glorious colour, had a great Nino Rota score, camerawork by Henri Decaë (who photographed Truffaut’s 400 Blows) and outstanding performances by a young Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. In fact it has been claimed to be Highsmith’s favourite of the adaptations of her work (she died in 1995). Seeing it today Plein soleil looks as fresh, youthful and exciting as anything from La nouvelle vague. But is this true of Le meurtrier?

Walter (Maurice Ronet) and Clara (Yvonne Furneaux)

Walter (Maurice Ronet) and his wife Clara (Yvonne Furneaux)

Much of Le meurtrier is shot on location around Nice and these scenes feel ‘modern’, but the interiors are shot at the Victorine Studio in Nice and these aspects do feel quite old-fashioned. The reality is that Autant-Lara and his collaborators were indeed ‘old men’ as seen by Truffaut. The director was nearing 60, the writers were roughly the same age or older. Many of the others in the creative team were born before 1914. This doesn’t make them poor filmmakers but it does help to explain part of the animosity of young critics who wanted themselves to be young filmmakers. Two other bits of trivia may or may not be interesting. The shoot included two couples. Marina Vlady (who plays Ellie, the music student) had been married young to Robert Hossein who plays the deranged detective. They had already split up by 1959. Later Vlady would become known as the central ‘character’ in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France 1967). Yvonne Furneaux married the director of photography on the film Jacques Watteau in 1962 – before or during the shoot. Maurice Ronet is the real star of the film and he seems to have been happy to appear in the films of the ‘old guard’ and those of the New Wave filmmakers.

Interrogation by the detective Corbi (Robert Hossein) of Kimmel (Gert Froebe). Ronet is behind left and in the far background is Harry Meyen as Toni (a witness)

Interrogation by the detective Corbi (Robert Hossein) of Kimmel (Gert Froebe). Ronet is behind left and in the far background is Harry Meyen as Toni (a witness)

I don’t think all this background necessarily ‘explains’ why the films feels so ‘odd’ but it helps. I was certainly ‘entertained’ by the film, even if I found some scenes to be quite poorly executed. Highsmith’s narratives are often dependent on very unexpected behaviour by characters and by coincidences accidents that might be expected in melodramas. In the other adaptations these are acceptable and perhaps hardly noticed because of the performances and the maintenance of a tone that accommodates the violence and the black comedy. I wasn’t sure that was the case in Le meurtrier. Sometimes it was impossible to ‘suspend disbelief’. Who, it might be asked is ‘The Blunderer’ of the title? It could conceivably be any of the three leading male characters. Kimmel is overweight and very shortsighted (his glasses remind us of Strangers on a Train). Saccard lies very badly and makes a string of mistakes in what he does and how he talks to the detective – and the detective himself is just extraordinary. The music score has been interpreted as an attempt at the kind of scoring used by Hitchcock, especially with Herrmann. I didn’t think it worked and it only made it more difficult for me to work out what kind of film this was.

I understand that Keith Withall is going to write something about the overall technical aspects of the prints in this season. In this case, we had been ‘warned’ that the DCP had been created from a worn 35mm print and that we might expect scratches. These turned out to be very minor. There were two issues for me. The print was quite soft and faded – as if there was a lack of contrast in the black and white images. This meant that several interior scenes which appeared to have been lit/designed to create film noir images were instead simply grey or murky. The second issue was that the presentation was supposed to be 2.35:1 as the film was shot on ‘Franscope’. To my eye, although it looked like a ‘Scope shape, the image was squashed vertically so that the characters were slightly flattened and ‘fattened’. Gert Froebe became even more immense, but so did Maurice Ronet and Marina Vlady, the ‘glamorous couple’. I’m not sure how this could have happened and it could have been an issue about projector settings and the DCP as much as with the transfer from film. Finally, as with the two previous screenings, the mono sound seemed ‘bright’ and ‘harsh’. These niggles aside, however, I’m grateful to have had the chance to see this example of mainstream French cinema of the early 1960s.

For details of the ‘Adapting Miss Highsmith’ Season go to the website.