Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Jean-Luc Godard: a beginner's guide

Godard is as revolutionary and influential a hinge-figure in cinema as Joyce was to literature and the cubists were to painting. He saw a rule and broke it. Every day, in every movie. Incorporating what professionals thought of as mistakes (jump-cuts were only the most famous instance), mixing high culture and low without snobbish distinctions, demolishing the fourth wall between viewing himself as a maker of fictional documentaries, essay movies, and viewing his movies as an inseparable extension of his pioneering work as a film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s.

Here are six films from his enormously productive 1960s period, when he ground out one masterpiece after another, 14 in a mere seven years. Don’t feel limited to this one decade, though, the rest of his career is no less fascinating, infuriating and masterly.

À Bout de Souffle (Breathless)

The revolution starts here. A barely-there sub-Série Noire plot involving a vain and nihilistic petty criminal (Jean-Paul Belmondo) with a Bogie fetish, and his sometime American girlfriend (Jean Seberg). He shoots a cop and goes on the run – sort of – and then gets shot himself. The real revolution is formal, stylistic. Just as the Velvet Underground incorporated the “accident” of feedback, Godard used the flaws and formal no-nos of conventional cinema to reinvent cinema. Shooting without permits, using no real script (dialogue was post-dubbed), and liberated by the same new lightweight cameras that powered the 60s documentary boom, Godard achieved an off-the-cuff, free-form documentary feel that felt totally new and invigorating in 1960. He also shattered notions of high culture and low, proving that you could infuse seedy B-movie trash with Apollinaire and The Wild Palms, Shakespeare and teddy bears, Dovzhenko and Frank Tashlin. And nothing was ever the same again.

Le Mépris (Contempt)

At Cinecittà Studios in Rome, a film of The Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang himself (one of the four or five giants who locked down the grammar of cinema, lest we forget), and funded by Jack Palance’s crude American producer, is slowly failing to get made. The screenwriter’s (Michel Piccoli) marriage to a frequently naked Brigitte Bardot, meanwhile, is slowly being unmade. Shot in widescreen and color by Coutard, Contempt is almost ridiculously gorgeous to look at, inflected primarily by Godard’s career-long obsession with the color red (JLG loves red almost as much as Michael Powell did), and graced with enviably smooth and elegant tracking shots, some of enormous length and complexity. And despite working with a higher budget (from Carlo Ponti, of all people), one never loses the impression that Godard showed up in the morning with an idea or two, found a pre-existing set or locale, and just started shooting. The result, however, is one of the masterpieces of French cinema.

Bande à part

The “cutest” and most accessible of all Godard’s early movies, Bande à part has ingrained itself into the international folk-memory of cinema, and is referenced in dozens of other movies, whether directly, as in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which re-enacts Bande’s famous nine-minute race through the Louvre, or indirectly, as in Tarantino’s production outfit, A Band Apart Films. At the centre is Godard’s then wife and 1960s muse, the utterly beguiling Anna Karina, who takes up with two criminals who plan to rob her rich employer. Mostly they just lark about in the perfect Paris of 1964, riding cars, bullshitting in cafes – including one moment when one character asks for a minute’s silence, and the entire soundtrack drops out for that period – and generally failing at being crooks. This is the approachable, antic, fun-loving Godard who largely vanished during his radical Maoist decade after May 68. Still a joy to devour.

Une Femme Mariée (A Married Woman)

Godard made a number of intriguing and provocative films about women’s lives in the 60s: Une Femme est Une Femme, Vivre Sa Vie, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and this long out-of-circulation 1964 portrait of a woman being slowly but steadily eclipsed by advertising, consumer goods, fashion spreads and consumerism in general. Into the mix are thrown the early-60s Auschwitz trials in West Germany, extended montages of fashion photography, and the fetishization of leading lady Macha Meril’s body, which gradually becomes indistinguishable from the advertising that constantly assails her. For reasons not made public, A Married Woman was initially banned by the French censors. Godard believed that the ban arose not from the mild instances of nudity in the film, but because it was “an attack on a certain mode of life, that of air-conditioning, that of the prefabricated, of advertising”. All the horrors of modern life, in other words, made into great art.


A magical and bizarre sci-fi fantasy, somewhere between Cocteau’s Orphée and Lang’s Dr Mabuse movies, starring American expatriate actor Eddie Constantine – with his Warner Bros private-eye face and manner – as Lemmy Caution, an investigator sent to destroy the notorious Alpha 60, a sentient computer, half HAL 9000, half the computer in The Prisoner, much given to quoting Borges, that controls the city of Alphaville, absorbing the soul of the individual into the mindless mass of the collective. With his legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard discovered the future – unevenly distributed, then as now – in contemporary Paris without building a single set. In Alphaville one can summon up a “Seductress Third Class” for assignations, but no one understands the meaning of “love” or “conscience”. Lemmy’s weapons are poetry and literature, their meanings ambiguous and ever in flux, and thus intolerable and rebarbative to Alpha 60, which is finally destroyed by the words “I love you.”

La Chinoise

La Chinoise – along with Weekend, another masterpiece from 1967 – closed off the first period of Godard’s career – the approachable era – and foreshadowed his politically committed, near-Maoist Dziga Vertov period in partnership with Jean-Pierre Gorin, during which he seemed determined to alienate anyone who’d ever loved his early work. La Chinoise (very loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed) is a black comedy about political commitment, starring Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Léaud and Godard’s future second wife Anne Wiazemsky (star of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar), and is rife with visual jokes and audacious editing (keep an eye on the ever growing and shrinking quantities of Mao’s Little Red Book that appear on the shelves behind the direct-to-camera speakers). Weekend, which is extremely formally aggressive, contains one of the most striking and hilarious tracking shots in movie history, an endless traffic jam that somehow contains all of life – birth, meals, fist-fights, philosophical arguments, sex and death.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Spectre review: James Bond is back, stylish, camp and sexily pro-Snowden

If nothing else, the spelling of the title should tip you off that this is a thoroughly English movie franchise. Bond is back and Daniel Craig is back in a terrifically exciting, spectacular, almost operatically delirious 007 adventure – endorsing intelligence work as old-fashioned derring-do and incidentally taking a stoutly pro-Snowden line against the creepy voyeur surveillance that undermines the rights of a free individual. It’s pure action mayhem with a real sense of style.
Ralph Fiennes’s M finds himself battling a cocky new colleague Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) who wishes to abolish the 00-programme in favour of a vast new multi-national computer-snooper programme. The code name of this awful new stuffed shirt is C – and Bond does not scruple to make crude innuendo on that score.

James Bond is cutting loose from duplicitous, bureaucratic authority - in the time-honoured fashion – and plans to track down a certain sinister Austrian kingpin at the heart of something called Spectre, played with gusto by Christoph Waltz. This is the evil organisation whose tentacular reach and extensive personnel may in fact have accounted for all Bond’s woes in Craig’s previous three movies.

The movie doesn’t say so but the “t” in Fleming’s Spectre stood for terrorism – the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion – and perhaps one of the first uses of the word in pop culture.

Is this Craig’s last hurrah as Bond? His somewhat tetchy remarks in interviews preceding this movie – indicating a readiness to quit – oddly mirror the tetchy media comments that greeted the news of his casting almost 10 years ago. Craig showed they were wrong: and I hope he carries on now. He is one of the best Bonds and an equal to Connery. That great big handsome-Shrek face with its sweetly bat ears has grown into the role.

He has flair, sang-froid, and he wears a suit superbly well by bulging his gym-built frame fiercely into it, rarely undoing his jacket button and always having his tie done up to the top. At one point he simply snaps the plastic handcuffs the bad-guys have put on him, with sheer brute strength. Yet there is also an elegant new dismissive tone that he introduces into the dialogue bordering on camp. “That all sounds marvellous,” he purrs when advised of some footling new procedural restriction, adding later: “That all sounds lovely.”

He is particularly vexed at the news that a sleek new car has in fact been reserved for 009. The script by John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth runs on rails with great twists and turns and gags.

We start with a gasp-inducing action sequence in Mexico City for the Day of the Dead. Director Sam Mendes contrives a stylishly extended continuous tracking shot to bring our hero into the proceedings and it isn’t long before an outrageous set-piece is in progress with a helicopter repeatedly looping the loop while 007 vigorously punches the pilot and a fellow passenger.

A clue salvaged from the chaos puts Bond on the trail of Spectre, taking him at first to Rome where he has a romantic interlude with a soigné woman of mystery, played with distant languor by Monica Bellucci. Then he is to infiltrate the horribly occult headquarters of Spectre itself – a wonderfully old-fashioned “evil boardroom” scene for which Mendes manages to avoid any Austin Powers/Dr Evil type absurdity.

Waltz’s chief is an almost papal presence of menace, upsetting all his cringing subordinates by saying and doing next to nothing, and photographed in shadow. When he recognises Bond in the room, he leers: “I see you! Cuckoo!” – a French expression which in fact is to have a darker significance, revealed at the end.

From here we go to Austria and this is where Bond is to encounter his main amour: Dr Madeleine Swann, stylishly played with just the right amount of sullen sensuality by Léa Seydoux. It is of course ridiculous that the pair manage to get away from there to Tangier in such stunning changes of outfit without worrying about suitcases, money etc. but it is all part of the escapist effect.

Madeleine and James’s train journey comes with vodka martinis in the dining car followed by a colossal woodwork-splintering punch-up with a beefy henchman. They appear, moreover, to be the only passengers on the train.

Later, he gets a horrible hi-tech torture scene, with Waltz’s ogre whispering: “Out of horror, beauty....” A new version of the sadism that was on display when Mads Mikkselsen was roughing him up in Casino Royale.

Another person who has grown into his part, incidentally, is Ben Whishaw as the perennially stressed quartermaster and tech supremo Q: Whishaw has developed him as a very enjoyable comic character.

It’s deeply silly but uproariously entertaining. At the end, I almost felt guilty for enjoying it all quite so much – almost.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

99 Homes review – chillingly topical eviction drama

It so happens that this film gets its release here just as high-risk, high-yield mortgage bonds are making a cheeky comeback in the US. The name has been changed from “sub-prime” to “non-prime”. There are higher safeguards, reportedly, although that new prefix weirdly makes it sound like fewer. So 99 Homes coincides with the financial world’s Windscale/Sellafield moment.

It first appeared at last year’s Venice film festival but it gripped me just as much on a second viewing – a piercing comment on the toxic-loan slump and the bailout bonanza that appears to underline Milton Friedman’s immortal words: socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the rest. Ramin Bahrani – who directed Goodbye Solo (2008) and Man Push Cart (2005) – has created a middle-class nightmare driven by the powerful engine of shame: the shame of losing your home and the shame of then having to work for the person who took it away.

Michael Shannon gives a lip-smackingly good performance as Rick Carver, a predatory real-estate broker in Florida; he is as dead-eyed as the local alligators which, as he admiringly comments, never sleep. Carver smokes an e-cigarette, and its sinister blue glow is never far from his lips: increasingly the sign of a smarmy screen villain.

He is the court-appointed agent for houses that have been repossessed by the bank, because the wretched debtors (for whom Carver has nothing but contempt) could not keep up with the payments on risky loans. Backed up by armed officers from the sheriff’s department, Carver supervises that unwatchably horrible moment when these people and their families are ordered out of their houses and their belongings piled up on the front lawn in front of the neighbours.

Carver enjoys a rich harvest of misery, taking a juicy cut from the eventual repo sale which, although a bargain, will be generally more than the loan sum. Everybody wins, apart from the poor homeowners whose rash borrowings created this carrion opportunity in the first place. Carver is armed because, at the moment of eviction, those devastated residents have a habit of brandishing their own guns, often turning their weapons on themselves in an ecstasy of self-hate and despair. The movie opens with Carver cruising gator-like through a grisly scene of carnage.

One of his victims is Dennis, played by Andrew Garfield, a hardworking carpenter and builder: he is a single dad who lives with his son Connor (Noah Lomax) and his mother Lynn (Laura Dern). Dennis falls behind with his debt repayments, and duly gets the treatment from Carver and has to move into a grim motel, sharing a room with his mother and boy. But then a twist of fate means that Carver himself needs a willing builder to work on a particularly horrible job.

Swallowing his pride and self-respect, Dennis offers to work for Carver and something in his mixture of desperation and willing competence compels Carver to like him. He winds up making poor Dennis his favourite employee and confidant: the dependable guy who can execute all the illegal scams he has going for bilking the bank for phoney repairs and fraudulent fees.

Garfield’s performance shows that Dennis, perhaps like a Vichy French official coming to work with the Nazi occupier, forces himself to like and even admire Carver, to throw himself into the whole horrible business, almost to brazen out his humiliation and cauterise his own despair.

Carver has his own compulsion to school Dennis (a little like Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke in the cop drama Training Day), driving him around the quietly desperate neighbourhoods, showing him how to spot the opportunities for profit in all the badly tended and tatty houses. He insists Dennis must “pop his cherry” by having to supervise an eviction himself, and really earn his money. There is something deeply horrible in way the habits of gentility persist: the evictees and evictors have a grimly insincere habit of addressing each other as “sir”.

Watching this movie for a second time, I wonder if writer-director Bahrani did not perhaps originally intend Laura Dern’s role to be that of a wife; interestingly, the script would not need to be changed much for this to make narrative sense and she seems in one scene to have a say in what happens to Connor that would be more likely to come from an outraged spouse. But the set-up, as it stands, has a tough plausibility. It’s a compelling and relevant picture, with terrific performances from Shannon and Garfield.

Friday, September 18, 2015

In Cold Blood review – still chilling Capote adaptation

There’s a televisual brashness to Richard Brooks’s 1967 film version of Truman Capote’s true-life reportage classic, now on cinema rerelease. It’s strange to think how fast things were working: the book had been published the previous year and the killers executed the year before that.
Robert Blake and Scott Wilson play Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the two young drifters and ex-cons who broke into a Kansas farmhouse, expecting to find a safe full of money, slaughtered the family and got away with a paltry amount in cash.

Capote’s non-fiction novel brooded on the sheer pointless nightmare, and so does the film, to some extent; the killers’ casual excitement at the prospect of murderous violence is still chilling. But there are ellipses here in which the film averts its gaze from the horror, deferring the key murder scene to the end. And there is a more high-minded emphasis on Blake’s psychiatric disorder and broken family home.

The movie features a fictional choric reporter called Jensen (Paul Stewart), a stoic and traditional-looking newspaperman – very different from the dandyish Truman Capote. Watched again now, In Cold Blood looks similar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which is explicitly referenced) and it is a missing link between Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Psycho (1960).

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

L'Eclisse review – Antonioni's strange and brilliant film rereleased

Sphinx-like … Monica Vitti in L’Eclisse
Michelangelo Antonioni’s mysterious and disquieting 1962 film L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) is rereleased in UK cinemas for the first time in 10 years: a twilight zone of anxiety and alienation in which the director displays his ability to slow time down a stop and allow his characters to wander in an eerily untenanted landscape. He had a knack of making Rome look as empty as the middle of the night – in the middle of the day. Did his film intuit the emptiness of growing postwar prosperity, or just have its own strange vision of the aftermath of nuclear attack?

When I last watched L’Eclisse, for a feature about the Antonioni centenary in 2012, I found myself worrying that it looked dated: especially the startling “blackface” party scene. But watching it again now, I find myself gripped as never before, and the “African” scene is bizarre, stylised, and I think the point is to jab at the leisured classes’ casual racism.

The carina-brutta beauty of Monica Vitti was never more sensual or sphinx-like than here in the role of Vittoria, the well-to-do young woman who embarks on a difficult, doomed affair with Piero (Alain Delon), the nervy, conceited young stockbroker making money for Vittoria’s mother (Lilla Brignone) – who herself has become addicted to the thrill of day-trading.

The film really is visionary: it has a gift for unearthly images to compare with Fellini: the crashed car resurrected from the water with the hand of its dead joyrider visible is unforgettable. But it also discloses an enigmatic void in its own strange, hectic little love story: almost as if extraterrestrial forces are preparing this ground for some uncanny incursion.

Antonioni opens up a sinkhole of existential dismay in the Roman streets and asks us to drop down into it. What a strange and brilliant film it is.