The Day After I’m Gone (Israel-France 2019)

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At a loss

This is writer-director Nimrod Eldar’s feature debut and an accomplished one it is. The opening is a beautiful shot of a fairground ride slowly revolving and it lasts so long it’s clear it has some symbolic value. It’s a daring start, not seeking to engage audiences immediately into the narrative and the film itself takes a distanced view of the dysfunctional daughter-father relationship of Roni and Yoram. It’s the subject of melodrama. However, Eldar dials back to emotions to reflect the numbness felt by the protagonists who are superbly played by Zohar Meidan and Menashe Noy.

Yoram works as a vet in a safari park (he’s better with animals than with people?) though the scenes there reveal little of his character and one encounter with ‘stupid visitors’ seems pointless. Similarly, we only see Roni when she’s with her Dad and though it’s clear that the characters are withdrawn because of the loss of a mother/wife there’s no sense Yoram was any better at connecting before their tragedy. There’s one intensely dramatic scene which is shown ‘from a distance’, from the father’s perspective, but is nevertheless effective. However, the film would have benefited if both characters’ ‘back stories’ had been given a little more detail.

Even though we see his failings as a dad, at least Yoram tries to do something to resolve the crisis and they visit their extended family headed by a racist patriarch. This allows Eldar to, tangentially at least acknowledge, the constant crisis Israeli lives are overshadowed by: their subjugation of Palestinians. However, as the film is about family and not politics it’s understandable that the issue is not dealt with in detail. There’s also a scene were youngsters ‘perform’ the song ‘I love Israel’ and the expressions of the protagonists tell us all we need to know what they think about the sympathies of this right wing family. Even though Yoram may have had good intentions he can’t get through his male stupidity and it seems he feels the victim rather than his 17-year-old daughter.

Eldar’s direction is subtle, for example there are long takes of the protagonists in a car which require the leads’ strong performances as they wordlessly wrestle with their difficulties. Sound is important too, simple things like a cheering football crowd in the distance are given resonance, and the tricky, because potentially sentimental, ending is handled very well.

If some areas are under-developed there’s more than enough to thoroughly engage us in the private grief of two alienated individuals.

Da 5 Bloods (US 2020)

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Taking the knee

Spike Lee  is one of the most interesting film directors working today not only because he brings an African-American perspective to the world but also he doesn’t let convention stifle his message; he’s always been a Brechtian filmmaker. BlacKkKlansman even saw Lee getting Oscar recognition (not that I believe it is an arbiter of what’s good just a signifier of what’s acceptable in the mainstream) and there’s a great line in Da 5 Bloods about the Klansman in the Oval Office. Lee doesn’t pull punches and even if he sometimes goes ‘over the top’ it’s always in a good cause. But what to say about this film which feature four vets returning to Vietnam apparently to bury a lost comrade?

By the end I hated it; it was like watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained where the brilliant representation of racism is curdled by the stupidity of the final scenes. It’s not just Da 5 Bloods ends badly but it’s totally misconceived; Kermode hits the mark:

What is less certain is the rather more awkward Three Kings-style adventure into which Da 5 Bloods mutates, as our antiheroes get chased, shot at and blown up in the jungles of modern-day Vietnam, selling their souls for gold like the fortune hunters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

That said, he quite liked the film but the mis-steps, for me, overwhelmed all that’s good. It’s not as if mixing Sierra Madre into the politics of the Vietnam War couldn’t have worked but it is ineptly done. It’s a failure at the level of the script which was written by Lee and Kevin Willmott based on an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; I surmise that whatever the merits of the original it doesn’t work with what Lee and Willmott introduced. Too much of what we see is risible: the land mines; Paul’s (Delroy Lindo) madness; Otis’ (Clark Peters) discovery. It’s not as if any of the narrative threads are impossible just they are not integrated comfortably into the whole.

There is much to like in the 155 minute running time: Newton Thomas Sigel’s brilliant cinematography that captures the beauty of Vietnam and, in the flashback scenes, uses 16mm to give the feel of documentary footage from the time. Lee throws in numerous references to Apocalypse Now!, the helicopters in the sun and The Ride of the Valkyries in particular, and uses footage from Civil Rights police violence and numerous black voices including Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. All these work brilliantly but I was so alienated by the film from the time they find the gold that I had to force myself to keep watching. It’s available on Netflix.

Michel Piccoli, actor 1925 to 2020

Michel Piccoli was one of the most familiar faces in French cinema over the second half of the 20th century. He is listed as having made over 200 screen appearances; on film, on television and in short films/documentaries. This is greater than that of Max von Sydow, who was himself an incredibly active actor. Piccoli played a variety of characters but one common type was the bourgeois faced with economic, social or sexual problems. Some of these characters featured in films by major European talents including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Luis Buñuel.

He started in films immediately after the war in 1945. His early roles were mainly small supporting ones, often uncredited. He had a speaking part in Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955), a vibrant film in Technicolor, recreating Montmartre in the 1890s. He also appeared in a film produced in the German Democratic Republic /  Deutsche Demokratische Republik [GDR], Ernst Thälmann – Führer seiner Klasse (1955). This probably reflected his relative left-wing views. Then he had an uncredited role in Rene Clair’s Les grandes manoeuvres (1955). And he obtained  roles on television, both in TV films and TV series.

He had a supporting role as a night club owner in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Doulos (1962). Then in 1963 he played Paul Javal in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris. The action takes place during a film production; we actually hear Fritz Lang’s famous put-down of CinemaScope, suitable only for ‘snakes and funerals’. Paul is married to Camille (Brigitte Bardot); how we envied him. But she is the target of producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The latter is an extreme caricature of the overbearing over-sexed Hollywood producer; an early role model for Harvey Weinstein. But the film is equally memorable for the way Godard uses Raoul Courtard’s cinematography and Agnès Guillemot’s editing.

The following year saw his first outing with Luis Buñuel who was making his first collaboration with the writer Jean-Claude Carrière on Diary of a Chambermaid  / Le journal d’une femme de chambre (1963). The film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Octave Mirbeau (1900) and followed an English language version directed by Jean Renoir for a Hollywood independent production in 1946. This French version enjoys the advantage of the casting of Jeanne Moreau as the chambermaid, Célestine. Piccoli plays Monsieur Monteil, the head of the decadent household at the château where Celestial works. Piccoli’s character is an obsessed and exploitative bourgeois; both animals and women are his prey. Piccoli went on to appear in several more films directed by Buñuel. Belle de Jour (1967) stars Catherine Deneuve as a wife who seeks sexual variety by working in a brothel. Michel Piccoli as Henri Husson is a friend of her husband and but also a client at the brothel. He attempts to us his knowledge to pressurize Séverine (Deneuve) into providing sexual favours. This is Piccoli in his most familiar role; cool, aloof and predatory. His role in The Milky Way / La Voie lactée (1969) is a cameo as the Marquis de Sade. The film is a picaresque. story following the pilgrim’s way to Santiago de Compestelo with a variety of characters and theological issues; all presented in sardonic manner. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972) finds Piccoli in a supporting role as a government minister. The film has one of Buñuel’s favourite plot devices, recurring dinner parties or similar events that never actually complete.

Piccoli appeared along with a host of French, German and US stars in Is Paris Burning? (Paris brûle-t-il ?), a 1966 French-American epic historical war film about the liberation of Paris in August 1944 by the French Resistance and the Free French Forces during World War II.

In The Young Girls of Rochefort (Les demoiselles de Rochefort) is a 1967 musical and romantic comedy directed by Jacques Demy, Piccoli is part of a cast which includes Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorleac, Danielle Darrieux and the non-French Gene Kelly. Piccoli plays the owner of a music store which is an important site in the key romance between Deneuve and Kelly. He and Danielle Darrieux provide supporting older generation romance.

Themroc (1973) saw Piccoli in the lead role in a film that gave two fingers to censors and became a cult classic. The actors had to manage without dialogue as the sound track was grunts, howls and similar. The plot included cannibalism and incest among other taboo activities. I, like many, enjoyed it immensely.

With his next film, La grande bouffe (Blow-out, 1973) Piccoli seemed in danger of becoming typed cast. The film celebrated suicide by over eating; with Michel one of a quartet dedicated to gross indulgence. The film also became a cult title; as funny as Themroc but not quite as subversive. The film also offered a plethora of canine characters but not in any way suitable for English susceptibilities.

French actors like Michel Piccoli appear to have a longer career that is the case in mainstream US and British industry; and Piccoli worked almost exclusively in French/European productions. In 1990 he had the title part in a fine Louis Malle film, Milou en mai / Milou in May. Set in an atypical 1968 setting, rural South-western France; family life and a funeral are disrupted in a minor way but mirroring the wider conflicts of this memorable year. French film titles suffer in English translation but the US release was especially maladroit, May Fools.

In La belle noiseuse (1991) Piccoli played the almost retired painter who revisits his art. The film is loosely adapted from the short story ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu’ (‘The Unknown Masterpiece’) by Honoré de Balzac, with important additions by the director Jacques Rivette. The painter’s professional and personal interaction with his young model raises issues both about art and personal relationships.

In 1994 he played in The Emigrant / Al-mohager, a film by Youssef Chahine, the Egyptian film-maker. This biblical-based story, like his earlier foray in the GDR would seem to reflect his personal politics and principles; in this case working with a major film-maker whose films are rarely seen in the trans-Atlantic territories.

Piccoli continued appearing in films regularly up until 2015. Most years he appeared in several films, active until the age of ninety. Many of these, as was the case throughout his career, did not receive a British release. So I have only seen a small part of his output. But his best films were memorable, both for his screen presence and for the film being the product of really fine film-making. One would expect his work with the likes of Buñuel, Demy, Godard, Melville and Rivette to lead to new generations enjoying his skill and distinctive persona.

Redoutable (Le Redoutable, France-Myanmar 2017)

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Truth at 24 frames a second?

I’ve found it increasingly difficult to watch Jean-Luc Godard’s recent films but am not sure whether that’s a comment upon me or Godard. Others seems to like them but maybe the fans haven’t moved on; from what I can tell Godard hasn’t moved much in recent years but it must be incredibly difficult to recapture what was seen as youthful brilliance during his heyday of the French ‘new wave’. Director Michel Hazanavicius’ script is based on Anne Wiazemsky’s memoir Un an après, which was about her marriage to Godard in the late ’60s (though they didn’t divorce until 1979 they had been separated for nine years) and so the film shouldn’t be taken as a straight rendition of what happened; however, I was fairly convinced.

In the film Godard himself (played brilliantly by Louis Garrel) says he’s finished at 37 years old and there is a sense that he was out of his time. His brilliant debut À bout de souffle was made in his 30th year, not quite in the ‘hot fire’ of youth, and when May ’68 erupted he was nearly 40. The film portrays him as trying to keep up with the youthful rebellion but not belonging despite the reverence with which he is held by the youngsters. Incidentally the May ’68 demos are brilliantly staged in the film.

Godard’s films steadily moved away from commercial cinema, not that he started in its midst anyway, and by the start of Redoutable he’d just made La Chinoise (1967) which didn’t hit the zeitgeist though the follow-up, Week End (France-Italy, 1967) did; the latter doesn’t get a mention as the film covers only a few weeks in May including the abandoned Cannes film festival. He’s seen meeting Jean-Pierre Gorin with whom he formed the Dziga Vertov group; they went on to make the excellent Tout va bien (1972, France-Italy) with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. One film of Godard’s from the era I’d like to see again is Le gai savoir (France-Germany, 1969) which I remembered enjoying in the halcyon days of the UK’s Channel 4, in the 1980s, when they screened truly alternative texts.

Hazanavicius uses a Woody Allen gag when a fan asks Godard when he’s going to make funny films again (as against the serious political stuff) and though Godard didn’t make straight comedies (or straight anything) there was a lightness of touch to many of his earlier films and Redoutable takes its cue from that. One scene, in particular, is hilarious when Godard and his confederates had managed to get Cannes cancelled the General Strike means there’s no transport back to Paris other than a packed car in which he can’t help but be his argumentative self; its superbly staged and performed.

There are more gags in the Godardian touches such as the use of intertitles and the self-reflexive scene were Godard and Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) discuss having actors perform nude gratuitously in film: of course, they are naked. In fact Martin is often naked in the film though it’s a stretch to suggest that Hazanavicius is satirising the misogynist tone of many of Godard’s films. The portrayal of Godard does show him to be an entitled male even though he is one who understands his entitlement he can’t resist using it. At the end of Agnès Varda’s documentary Faces Places a planned reunion with Godard fails to happen because he isn’t home showing him to be mean spirited.

I particularly liked Christian Marti’s set design that emphasises red, white and blue, colours that often featured in the director’s films. I think those who know Godard will enjoy the film more than those who don’t but there’s enough for the non-aficionado too. Any Godard fans want to have a go at the question, ‘Redoutable is the best film featuring the name Jean-Luc Godard for many, many years’. Discuss?

CIFF20 #5: Kuessipan (Canada 2019)

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Friends for life?

CIFFlogo My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.

I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fontaine and Verreault, states:

Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.

This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.

Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.

An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.

Nightfall (US 1956)

Jacques Tourneur is one of those filmmakers who was perhaps wasted by ‘Studio Hollywood’. He made some excellent films and some less good ones but nearly all show an understanding of techniques, a real imagination and a great feel for composing and choreographing scenes. Nightfall is a shortish feature (78 mins) adapted from a David Goodis novel by Stirling Silliphant. That’s a good starting point. Goodis was a noir novelist, arguably as well-known in France as the US, perhaps even more so with adaptations by Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960) as well as René Clement and Jean-Jacques Beineix. Silliphant was a prolific writer for TV and cinema from the 1950s until the 1980s, mainly for ‘tough guy’ action narratives. Nightfall was the first of his film scripts and the casting adds to the feel of the film which would sit well with some of his 1970s scripts. Aldo Ray is a distinctive figure and he is matched by Brian Keith as the lead villain, although Rudy Bond as the almost psychotic ‘Red’ eclipses Keith at times. The surprise for me was Anne Bancroft who had been appearing in films and TV for five years already, but this is the first role of hers that I’ve noticed and she is very good, even if underused in what is primarily a male action picture.

Jim searches for a newspaper

The set-up is classic film noir with Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray) introduced to us as a man perusing newspapers on a street corner in Los Angeles. It’s one of those long newsstands with papers from every major city in the US. When the cashier turns on the overhead lights as dusk approaches, the sudden brightness seems to really disturb Jim. A man asks him for a light and starts up a conversation before heading off to catch a bus. Jim goes into a bar-diner on the corner and meets a young woman, Marie (Bancroft). She wheedles $5 out of him and then they have a drink and he buys her dinner. In a parallel cut we see the man who caught the bus arrive home to meet his wife. Does he know Jim? Outside the bar Jim and Marie part and immediately two men bundle Jim into a car. Who are they? Was Marie set up to trap him? What has Jim done? It’s a brilliant start to a narrative and in a short while we’ll get a flashback that reveals the incident in which the wholly innocent Jim found himself caught up in the kind of story that only a noir writer could devise.

Marie and Jim together

Without describing the plot outline in detail, I’ll just point out that Jim was on an innocent trip to the hills in winter when he became involved with a pair of violent men. Fortunately Jim escaped and by chance discovered the men had left a briefcase of money. Jim hid the money and went into hiding. But now he has been found by both the two violent men and the third man – an investigator tracking the stolen money. The narrative is clearly going to return to the hills and it will become a matter of who gets there first and finds the hidden money. We know Marie must be involved further because she is a leading player. Other than that it’s all up for grabs.

Marie is a catwalk novel on an upmarket fashion show (in the open air)

There has been some discussion about the film as to the noir label. I’m certainly not a purist in these matters. The night-time opening sequence certainly suggests noir. The sequences in the snow in the hills might seem less so but there are certainly precedents in, for example, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1949) in which a ‘disturbed’ cop (Robert Ryan) and an angry father (Ward Bond) hunt for a young man across the snowy hills. There are also some parallels with Tourneur’s own classic noir, Out of the Past (1947) – including a scene where two urban heavies turn up in the peaceful mountain community where Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is trying to escape his past. And in turn we wonder if Marie will prove to be a femme fatale like Jane Greer’s Kathy in Out of the Past. Paranoia (and terror) can be represented in snowy and sunny landscapes just as it can in dark urban streets.

Jim appears caught by the Brian Keith character

Jeff has been in the forces but he makes his living as a commercial artist which is an interesting idea for an actor as physically distinct as Aldo Ray. (Ray was best known for military roles.)  Similarly, Ms Bancroft is a respectable fashion model and one of the film’s showpiece sequences is a fashion show in the open terrace of a famous LA department store watched by the two heavies and an anxious Jim Vanning. This sequence feels ‘modern’ – in fact the whole film seems to have moved on from the earlier noir world – though the slight story doesn’t have the complexity of some of the major 1950s noirs. But what it does have is the suspense and paranoia. Another reference might be Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) – two men on a fishing trip who inadvertently give a lift to a serial killer. There is also something of the same realist feel of Lupino’s films shot around LA. Overall the film is lean and mean. The closing sequence has been controversial and I won’t spoil it but the reference here might be a ‘looking forward’ to crime thrillers which bring city violence into the agrarian community like the later films North by Northwest (1959) with its crop duster plane chasing Cary Grant and Prime Cut (1972) with its chase featuring a combined harvester. Other films which have some of the same flavour include Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – Ray has a similar presence to Ralph Meeker and Anne Bancroft even looks a little similar to maxine Cooper who played Mike Hammer’s secretary Velda. Nightfall features some excellent camerawork by Columbia house lensman Burnett Guffey who was well versed in noirish crime thrillers (e.g. Human Desire 1954 and the Ida Lupino-produced Private Hell 36 (1954)). I enjoyed the film very much and would recommend it. Anne Bancroft is a revelation and Aldo Ray’s casting works for me. Nightfall can easily be found online but I watched the Blu-ray from Arrow in the UK which includes analysis by Philip Kemp and other contributors less familiar to me, but each offers something extra on a film that deserves to be re-discovered. I hope to feature more of Jacques Tourneur’s work on the blog, so watch this space.

Here’s the scene where Jim meets Marie for the first time.