The Wild Goose Chase was in competition at Cannes in 2019. I think that the Cannes competition place was won because this is a French co-production of the fourth film of writer-director Diao Yinan, a filmmaker who began as a writer for the Sixth Generation director Zhang Yang in the 1990s soon after his graduation from drama school in Beijing.
His previous film, the thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (China 2014) won the Golden Bear at Berlin and was released in the UK. I’m sorry I missed it. This new film is described in the French press notes as a polar and US critics have described it as a film noir, but I’m grateful for the press notes in which director’s own statement suggests a hybrid of polar and wu xia (martial chivalry film). He refers to that rather wonderfully envisaged concept of the jianghu or ‘marginal world’ where things and people are not quite what they seem. I think I remember this concept as worked out in A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong 1987) and The Bride With White Hair (Hong Kong 1993) both featuring the much-missed Leslie Cheung. The polar provides the battle between police and criminals and the jianghu describes the ‘marginal world’ in which the action takes place. As Diao himself puts it, the police are not in uniform, they are disguised in this night-time world where all kinds of things can happen, especially on the misty lake and in the chaotic backstreets of the town.
The film begins with a meeting at an underpass beneath a railway station on a dark and wet night. The central character Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is waiting for his wife, but a mysterious woman Liu Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei) in a slinky red top appears and tells Zhou that she has been sent instead. Several flashbacks will then reveal why this meeting is taking place before the narrative moves into the inevitable noir/polar ending. I must confess that I found some of the jumps in time between sequences slightly bewildering so I’m having difficulty trying to discern a linear story. I don’t think that would worry the director. He suggests that he is more interested in ‘movement’ through the dark world than a psychological study of the ‘doomed man’ and the femme fatale. The opening is in fact quite slow but things soon speed up, moving into a series of sometimes surreal and always fascinating set pieces and chase sequences. Diao suggests that each of them has a basis in reality – a news story or something he himself had noticed. One sequence presents a ‘conference’ of local criminal gangs, meeting for a demonstration of how to steal motorbikes and a subsequent re-organisation of territories for each gang. But the aspect of the film that really caught my attention were the scenes on the ‘Wild Goose Lake’ itself where prostitutes posing as swimming beauties ply their trade. I can think of a few American films noirs where a couple are in a small boat on the water in the fog, but the most striking image I remember is the boat trip in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).
At points the film becomes a police procedural but the central plotline focuses on the large reward offered for Zhou’s capture. Zhou himself decides that if anyone is to get the money it will be his wife and child. But how can he ensure that this happens and who can he trust?
The key to the unusual locations is the regional setting of the film in Wuhan, a major city region and large urban sprawl in Hubei province. Diao searched for locations around the many lakes in a 200 km radius from the centre of Wuhan on the Yangtse River. He then decided to use local Wuhan dialect rather than standard Mandarin. Kwei is Taiwanese and she had to learn the dialect, as did Hu Ge. Most of the large cast are local actors or non-professionals. The production must have been relatively expensive because of the many nights (50) of shooting complicated action scenes. It seems strange that Diao would create a film for which most Chinese audiences would need subtitles. The international audience will have subtitles anyway and won’t appreciate the local dialect. So is this a rare hybrid genre-art film. Obviously this works for the South Korean auteurs such as Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook, but their films are blockbusters at home as well as arthouse/specialised hits abroad. From the Unifrance website (all French films listed) it looks like the film could be distributed in the UK by MUBI so I’ll be watching out for it on my stream and hoping it gets into at least a few cinemas.
I’ve enjoyed researching the film and I think now that I’m beginning to understand a bit more. There are some extremely violent incidents (which are also quite unusual) to go alongside the surreal sequences. Overall the film is exciting and fascinating for anyone interested in Chinese cinema and that distinctive blend of Chinese and French crime genre ideas. I’m intrigued to see that this has now become an aspect of mainland cinema. I’d be interested to know what HK filmmakers like Johnnie To make of this film. Which brings me to Hu Ge. He is quite distinctive as a tall Chinese whose looks certainly equip him for the role. One review I saw suggested that he had a presence like Robert Mitchum in RKO noirs. I’m not sure that is quite right, but he does reming me of other actors in crime noirs. This is definitely a film to look out for.
I watched Bastards twice when it came to the UK in early 2014. I even introduced the film for an audience but I knew that I needed to see it again at a later date and when it appeared on MUBI this month I watched it again. Some films by Claire Denis make, for me, an instant impact (Beau Travail, 35 rhums). But Bastards is more like L’intrus in demanding long retrospection. My notes from 2014 reveal that I wasn’t sure whether Bastards was a film or an installation – a work of art, a dissection of genre, mood, style, ideology and much more. But I’d done my homework, I knew where the ideas came from and now I think I see how they come together.
In the film’s Press Pack, Denis tells us that she needed to find a story idea quickly to exploit a production opportunity that suddenly arose. Whereas in 35 rhums she turned to Ozu to help her tell a personal family story, in this case she turned to Kurosawa and his noirish take on Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Kurosawa’s tale of a man (Mifune Toshiro), who marries an industrialist’s daughter as part of a strategy to avenge his father’s suicide, provided her with a protagonist, an outline story and a title (the Kurosawa film was titled Les salauds se portent bien in France). But Denis and her co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau needed another character as well:
In the film, all seems normal, everyone has a family, children are collected from school, they are given afternoon snacks – even the divorced couple manages to handle their relationship pretty well. But there’s the young woman. She’s from another state of the world.
She comes from another character who has always been with me: Temple, the female character in William Faulkner’s [1931 novel] Sanctuary. When I was myself an adolescent, that book transformed me. I wasn’t frightened at all, on the contrary, the last chapter between father and daughter in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris gave me a rush, and a certainty that girls must deal with their sexual misfortunes by themselves. Temple takes out her compact and looks at herself. (Claire Denis interviewed in the Press Notes)
I confess that I tried to read Sanctuary but struggled to finish it. But I can see how Denis used the ‘Temple’ character in her script. Let me try to outline Bastards without spoiling the narrative. The brilliant Vincent Lindon (up there with the very best in global cinema) is Marco Silvestri, a ship’s captain on an oil tanker who is forced to abandon his ship in an unnamed port and head home for Paris where he finds disaster has struck the family of his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) and brother-in-law, his buddy from training school. His next action is to investigate what or who is behind the tragedy that he finds on arrival. The camerawork and editing by Denis regular Agnès Godard and new recruit to the Denis team, Annette Dutertre presents the ellipses in the script so the timing is not clear, but we see Marco moving into an apartment where one of his neighbours is Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) with her young son. Only later do we realise that Raphaëlle is the mistress of Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) and that Marco has identified Laporte as the cause of the collapse of the Silvestri family shoe factory business. A telling line of dialogue in these opening scenes comes from the nephew of the concièrge of the apartments who when challenged by Raphaëlle explains that he is filling in for his aunt – “It’s normal, it’s family business”. Marco is about to threaten one family, unaware of some of the secrets within his own family. But later we we will understand that he had withdrawn from the family business to go to sea and that his own marriage has ended with his two daughters living with their mother. This is certainly a film noir and a very dark and very disturbing noir, something emphasised by shot compositions and Stuart Staples’ music. The ‘Temple’ character is Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton) who he finds in a psychiatric hospital. What has put her there?
For a production put together quickly, Bastards is a complex work, finely detailed with numerous clues and narrative links that don’t immediately register. It helps that most of the cast and creative collaborators like Godard and Staples are Denis regulars. Alongside Michel Subor we get to see Alex Descas and Grégoire Colin as familiar Denis performers. Vincent Lindon was the protagonist of Vendredi Soir (France 2002) and Nicole Dogué from 35 rhums has a minor role as a Police Inspector. The three central women in the story are all Denis first timers and she said that she wanted them to be dark-haired ‘Mediterranean types’. They are all very good and very much part of the noir narrative. Bastards is a brutal film – ‘dangerous’ or even ‘deranged’ as one blogger has put it – and misogyny is suggested by the presence of a ‘Temple’ character. However, as is usual with Denis, the women are not passive victims, even when violence of different sorts is directed towards them. Nor are they simply ‘good’. The men are wretched and all tainted in some way but the women are also implicated or even directly involved. Which one is the femme fatale? Perhaps they all are?
I’ve read a number of reviews of the film and interviews with Claire Denis. One of the best is on the cinema scope online website by Jose Teodoro. He suggests something that I also experienced. On a first viewing the film sees dreamlike and floating. The one or two short sequences that might be dreams or flashbacks are disorientating. The ellipses confuse the sense of a narrative drive. But on later viewings we realise that the story-line has a strong narrative drive. As Denis explain, we only gain an insight into the narrative data as Marco himself discovers things. Marco is the key character and he defines the noir narrative as much as the formal elements of cinematography, mise en scène and music. Teodoro suggests he is like a Robert Ryan figure who might be in a film noir or a Western. That’s a good call I think. Bastards made me think of a 1950s film noir, something as cold and brutal as The Big Combo (1955) or neo-noirs based on the novels of Jim Thompson. Vincent Lindon’s star persona is ideal. He looks like the hard man who could sort out any mess, but there is both an ‘ordinariness’ and ‘working stiff’ quality that makes him vulnerable. In Bastards, he has all the accoutrements, including a vintage Alfa-Romeo and a taste in expensive shorts but he is also flawed. There is a strong erotic spark between him and Chiara Mastroianni’s Raphaëlle but Marco is also the most naïve character and we know that he is the doomed man of the noir.
I’m so pleased that I watched Bastards again. I realise I saw things much more clearly this time. Significantly, perhaps, I remembered most scenes but I’d repressed the detail of the harrowing closing scenes. How did I feel at the end? The film is so dark that I might have despaired but it is so beautifully crafted and intelligent that somehow I felt uplifted by a beautiful work of art. That’s Claire Denis for you. I know many people don’t get her films, but for me they define what cinema can be. One final point, the film was shot digitally which both created problems with lighting but also allowed more flexibility. In interviews Denis explains this in some detail.
The Toronto festival trailer:
I think I must have first seen Phantom Lady on TV in the 1970s. In those days my TV screen was small and all I remember from that first viewing was a bar, high heels clacking on the dark streets and Elisha Cook. Everyone knew poor Elisha would never make it to the last reel in any of the dozens of films in which he appeared and he certainly didn’t in this one – he’s also playing a drummer in a jazz group! Other than that and that the film was directed by Robert Siodmak, the director of that remarkable German film Menschen am Sonntag (1930), I could remember nothing. My recent viewing via MUBI proved to be a revelation on a larger TV screen in HD it sets up a whole range of interesting questions as well as providing much visual pleasure.
Phantom Lady is an adaptation of a ‘breakthrough’ novel by Cornell Woolrich published under his cover name ‘William Irish’. Woolrich was immensely prolific and IMDb lists 42 film titles based on his stories and novels. He’s best known as the writer of the short story that became Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and for the stories adapted for Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). He’s also known as one of the key sources for Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s alongside Hammett, Chandler and James M. Cain. After watching the film I looked up two detailed studies of the film, one by Michael Walker in an essay simply titled ‘Robert Siodmak’ in the MovieBook of Film Noir (ed. Ian Cameron, 1981) and the other, ‘Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the abandoned city of the Forties’ by David Reid and Jayne L. Walker in Shades of Noir edited by Joan Copjec (Verso 1993). One of the most important revelations of these two pieces is that Woolrich wrote in such detail about scenes that Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell with art directors Robert Clatworthy and John B. Goodman were able to form very clear ideas about how to put them on screen. The narrative is set in New York City but filmed on Universal Studio lots in Los Angeles which are used to conjure up streets very effectively. There is definitely a feel of German Expressionist Cinema about them.
As Walker points out, the narrative structure is clearly defined in three sections. In the first a professional engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) visits a bar feeling depressed and buys a drink for a woman who seems similarly down. He persuades her to join him at a variety show as he has two tickets. At the end of the evening they part and she leaves him without revealing her name. When Scott returns home expecting to find his wife with whom he quarrelled earlier, he finds her dead and a trio of police detectives waiting for him. He believes the ‘phantom lady’ will provide him with an alibi, but although she was wearing a very distinctive hat, none of the obvious witnesses remembers her with Scott. He is arrested and later convicted. In the second section one of Scott’s employees (her role in his office is not clear), Carol ‘Kansas’ Richman (Ella Raines), is convinced that he is innocent and sets out to find the ‘phantom lady’. But the witnesses she questions tend to disappear. At the end of this section she meets Scott’s close friend Marlow (Franchot Tone) back from South America and in the third section she and Marlow seek the final witness, the ‘phantom lady’ herself. They are supported by Inspector Burgess (Thomas Gomez) who by this stage believes that Scott Henderson may have been framed. In between each section, a bridging scene sees Kansas visiting Scott in prison awaiting execution. It’s apparent that she is in love with him. There is a clear resolution to the narrative with a ‘happy ending’ – something which many viewers find banal after the mystery/suspense twists and the look and feel of the film overall.
Kansas, as played by the wonderful Ella Raines, is an unusual female lead. She acts something like a femme fatale at one point in order to get information off a witness. Towards the end of the film she needs to be rescued, but for much of the film she is an intelligent and resourceful investigator. Although her role in Henderson’s business is never clearly defined, she is a professional office worker and independent woman – unfortunately rare in Hollywood narratives of the 1940s. Ella Raines had a film career which was probably not that unusual for talented and attractive young women in the mid 1940s. She was ‘discovered’ in a drama school stage production by Howard Hawks and put into The Nelson Touch (Corvette K-225 in the US) in 1943. Over the next few years, she appeared in several films, usually in the lead film role and opposite major male stars such as Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Charles Laughton and directed by name directors. She made three films in all for Robert Siodmak, two for Preston Sturges and Brute Force (1947) for Jules Dassin. But after 1950 her film career petered out and she moved into television. She virtually retired from film and TV aged just 36. I had always thought of her as a B picture player, but her films were, I now discover, A features. Robert Siodmak didn’t suffer the same fate and I’m going to dig out some more of his work.
It seems scarcely credible that Kiss Me Deadly is over 60 years old. It still carries a punch with its brilliant camerawork and editing and its story about a brutish man in pursuit of what turns about to be a disturbing pre-echo of a contemporary scare, referred to in the film as “the great whatsit”.
Mickey Spillane, author of the original novel, died in 2005. His obituaries faithfully recorded his enormous popularity in the 1950s with millions of paperbacks sold and the establishment of the aptly named Mike Hammer as a certain kind of American hero. Misogynistic and fascistic, Hammer is a private eye who blunders his way to a ‘solution’ of each case with excessive violence – about as far from Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe as you can get. Spillane had a strange relationship with Hollywood, appearing both as himself and as Hammer in a couple of films and also seeing his stories and his hero taken on by an unlikely group of filmmakers.
Victor Saville was a well-known British director who began making films in the 1920s, was successful in the UK in the 1930s and went to Hollywood in the 1940s as a producer-director for MGM. In 1953 Saville formed Parklane Pictures and bought the rights to four Mickey Spillane novels, simply on the basis of their popularity. He directed two of the films himself (The Long Wait, 1954 and My Gun is Quick, 1957) and produced the other two (I, the Jury 1951 and Kiss Me Deadly). The films made very good profits and Saville next identified Ian Fleming novels as similarly lucrative properties, but was too early into the market and couldn’t make an appropriate deal with United Artists.
Kiss Me Deadly was less commercially successful than the other Parklane films, but it has gained a high critical reputation as one of the two great ‘late period’ films noirs (sharing the honour with Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil (1957)) and credited as a major influence on the directors of La nouvelle vague in France at the end of the 1950s.
Robert Aldrich (1918-83)
Parklane hired producer-director Robert Aldrich to make Kiss Me Deadly. Aldrich was from a wealthy Eastern family of bankers, but he turned out to be one of the most radical filmmakers in post-war Hollywood. University-educated, he got a job at RKO through a relative’s influence and learned his trade as an assistant to directors such as Jean Renoir, William Wellman, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Lewis Milestone, Charles Chaplin and Joseph Losey. He made several programmes for television in 1952-3 and directed four features before 1955, including two Westerns for the Burt Lancaster-Harold Hecht company, Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954). These early films helped introduce a new kind of ‘tough’ and more ‘realistic’ Western with a focus on the Apache and American incursions into Mexico. Aldrich and Lancaster returned to similar territory with Ulzana’s Raid (1972) an unsettling film with clear references to Vietnam. Aldrich was a radical who enjoyed turning Hollywood expectations upside down. He must have been intrigued with the possibility of Hammer as hero/anti-hero on a quest in a world with no clear moral order. Ralph Meeker turned out to be perfect casting for Hammer and Aldrich went on to become the leading ‘tough guy’ action director of the next thirty years.
The script with its witty one liners and ironic references to high culture is by A. I. Bezzerides, writer on pictures for Bogart, Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum and another leftist to dismay Spillane. The wonderful cinematography is by Ernest Laszlo, a regular with Aldrich and later Stanley Kramer, who had previously lensed the film noir D.O.A. (1950) and Jo Losey’s remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1951). With art director William Glasgow, also an Aldrich regular, he created the first ‘modern’ noir.