Classic Movie Review: Casque D’or (1952)

Title: Casque D’or
Release Date: 16 April 1952
Director: Jacques Becker
Production Company: Robert et Raymond Hakim | Speva Films | Paris-Film Production

Casque D’or refers to the helmet of golden hair on the head of Marie (Simone Signoret), the center of a love triangle between the ex-con carpenter Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani) and the mob boss Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin).  The Belle Epoque story feels like a gentile predecessor to West Side Story. More significantly it is a predecessor to the French New Wave movement which is probably why it made it on the Cahiers du Cinéma list.  The film is well-produced and well-acted, but I found it a bit dull. The famed final scene takes on the senseless violence of capital punishment.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Visitors (1993)

Title: Les Visiteurs 
Release Date: 27 January 1993
Director: Jean-Marie Poiré
Production Company: Gaumont

I watched the hit French comedy The Visitors back in the 1990s and remember it being a funny, Monty Python-style comedy.  It surprised me that the French could be so crude. The story involves a 12th-century knight, Godefroy de Montmirail (Jean Reno) and his servant Jacquouille la Fripouille (Christian Clavier) who through the machinations of a wizard are to travel through time to right a mistake.  They are accidentally sent to late-20th century France instead, where they meet Godefroy’s descendant Béatrice (Valérie Lemercier) and learn that Jacquouille’s descendant Jacques-Henri Jacquard (also Clavier) now runs the Montmirail castle as a hotel. Chaos ensues as Godefroy looks for a way to return to his time, while Jacquouille begins to like the opportunities for a peasant in post-Revolutionary France.

This movie is not the laugh riot I remember.  If anything, it seems to lack ambition for telling a bigger story and taking advantage of the culture clash and fish-out-of-water elements for comedy.  Instead there are a lot of gags involving people hitting other people and breaking things, which gets old fast. I don’t know why I liked it so much all those years ago, but it still does have certain charm. Reno is great at never breaking from his serious character despite all the madness around him.  Meanwhile Clavier is like Rowan Atkinson in his ability to be funny by doing things that are very dumb.  It’s a mystery why this movie became such a global hit, but despite all its flaws I still have a soft spot for The Visitors.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Van Gogh (1991) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter V

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Van Gogh
Release Date: 30 October 1991
Director: Maurice Pialat
Production Company: Erato Films | Le Studio Canal+ | Les Films du Livradois | Films A2

I admire the artwork of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh.  I’ve been to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and seen his art at other museums, watched the film Loving Vincent animated in the style of his art, and “Vincent and the Doctor” is one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who.  Despite all that, I am only familiar with the basics of Van Gogh’s biography, so I was looking forward to this film.

Jacques Dutronc portrays Van Gogh in the final two months of his life in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirts of Paris.  It’s largely a straightforward biopic, and Pialat’s approach eschews sentimentality and sensationalism.  For example, the story takes place after Van Gogh mutilated his ear but Dutronc’s ears appear in perfect condition.  The movie focuses less on Van Gogh as an artist and more on his interpersonal relationships.  This means a lot of people being goofy about trying to find something to talk about with an artist and Van Gogh being incredibly grumpy about it.

Key relationships include Dr Paul Gachet (Gérard Séty) the physician and amateur artists who Van Gogh consults who is ultimately helpless in dealing with Van Gogh’s mental illness.  Vincent also has several conflicts with his brother Theo (Bernard Le Coq), the art dealer who supports his career.  Theo’s wife Jo (Corinne Bourdon) is sympathetic to Vincent and advocates for him.  Van Gogh also forms a romantic and sexual relationship with Dr. Gachet’s daughter Marguerite (Alexandra London) while continuing an existing sexual relationship with Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein), a prostitute from Paris.

The movie is basically a sequence of Van Gogh having arguments and sex and there being very little emotion involved in either.  I know it’s probably more my fault than the film’s but I had a lot of trouble watching this movie. I ended up watching it over the period of four days because it just couldn’t hold me attention.  If the purpose of Van Gogh is to recreate the feeling of  emptiness the leads a talented artist to chose suicide, it does its job.  But ultimately I can’t say that is what I want from a film.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) #AtoZChallenge

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter H

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Hiroshima, Mon Amour
Release Date: 10 June 1959
Director: Alain Resnais
Production Company: Argos Films | Como Films |
Daiei Studios | Pathé Entertainment | Pathé Overseas

Along with The 400 Blows and Breathless, this movie kickstarted the French New Wave.  Director Alain Resnais previously made the Holocaust documentary Night and Fog, and this movie similarly pulls no punches in using archival footage depicting the horrors of the atomic bomb detonation in Hiroshima.  The better part of the movie though focuses on a non-linear conversation between French Actress Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) and Japanese architect Lui (Eiji Okada) as the have a brief and passionate affair.  Note that their names are French for “Her” and “Him.”

They talk about Hiroshima and the bomb, and they talk about their own experiences during the war (which includes many flashbacks to Elle’s family home in Nevers, France).  The focus of the film is on memories and trying to remember while needing to forget.  It is a bit on the talky side and a bit pretentious as well.  I’m afraid it didn’t hold my attention all that well, but the lead actors are great and I liked the location work and the then innovative “flashes” of memory.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Beau Travail

Title: Beau Travail
Release Date: September 4, 1999
Director: Claire Denis
Production Company: La Sept-Arte |Tanais | SM Films

If you’re like me you endured reading the overly-didactic Herman Melville novel Billy Budd at school. It’s the story of a handsome and popular sailor who inadvertently strikes and kills an officer, and the Captain “Starry” Vere who wrestles with his admiration of Budd and the necessity to execute him to uphold naval discipline.

Claire Denis moves the story on land for a contemporary story of a French Foreign Legion section undergoing training in Djibouti. It’s told as the memoirs of the section leader Adjudant-Chef Galoup (Denis Lavant), and much of the film has a dream-like quality.

When a handsome new Legionaire from Russia, Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin) joins the section and proves to be popular and heroic. Galoup grows resentful of Sentain’s threat to his own standing with the troops. The subtext is that Galoup is repressing a homosexual attraction to Sentain.

Not much “happens” for much of the movie as it is more a poetic depiction of the soldiers routine of training exercises (which
all the reviews describe as “balletic”), daily chores, swimming, and visiting a local nightclub to dance with Djiboutian civilian women. For the most part, this is a dominantly male movie with Denis’ “female gaze” providing a critique of performative masculinity and the display of colonialist power decades after Djibouti achieved independence. In addition to that, if you like hunky men in various stages of undress, this is a movie for you!

The final scene is much lauded and very impressive. I won’t spoil it here, but it feels tonally out-of-context with the rest of the film, while offering a reactionary coda to the slow-burn that had been building the whole time.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: My Night at Maud’s (1969)

Title: My Night at Maud’s
Release Date: May 15, 1969
Director: Éric Rohmer
Production Company: Compagnie Française de Distribution Cinématographique (CFDC)

For years I’ve known of My Night at Maud’s as one of the all-time great films primarily based on its prominent display in the foreign movie section of the video store I frequented in the 1990s, but I’d never watched it before. I’d imagined it was a comedic romp (and perhaps a bit raunchy) based on the title and poster. It is nothing of the sort and is in fact a movie where people have in-depth philosophical conversations about morality and religion. That’s fine by me, and like there to be more movies like this, but as Roger Ebert points out, you want to prepare yourself for it.

The protagonist is Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a man in his 30s who has recently begun to work in the small French city of Clermont. A devout Catholic, he’s developed a crush on a woman he sees at church named Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), but has not had the confidence to approach her. On a chance meeting, Jean-Louis is reacquainted with an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), who in turn introduces Jean-Louis to his friend with benefits, Maud (Françoise Fabian).

When it starts to snow, Vidal excuses himself but since Jean-Louis lives outside the city, he stays the night at Maud’s. The next day he encounters Françoise and finally introduces himself. That night he gives her a ride home but when his car gets stuck on ice ends up spending another chaste night out at her apartment complex.

All of this plot is merely the structure to hang the deep conversations among the four primary characters, with Maud and Vidal offering atheist perspectives to the religious Jean-Louis and Françoise. Their conversations are both direct and exceptionally corteous and should be an example to us all. A coda to the film reveals a surprise twist so subtle I missed it entirely until I read a summary of the film.

My Night at Maud does not feel like a movie made over 50 years ago and it could be remade today with few changes (not that it should).

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Madame de… (1953)

Title: Madame de…
Release Date: September 16, 1953
Director: Max Ophüls
Production Company: Franco London Films | Indusfilms | Rizzoli Film

French aristocrat Louise (Danielle Darrieux) has a debt and sells a pair of earrings that were a wedding gift from her husband André (Charles Boyer) to pay it.  The earrings become a device around which the narrative revolves as they are sold and resold and take on new meanings to the characters with each transfer.

The main plot involves an Italian baron, Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), and Louise falling in love (a big no-no in the aristocratic code where mistresses are acceptable, but love is forbidden).  There’s a brilliant scene showing their relationship blossoming over a series of nights dancing, their clothing changing as they move behind pillars, but the dance moving smoothly on.  Louise initially seems to be a careless and spoiled, and the matters of aristocrats mean little to me, but Ophüls tells their story in a way that can’t fail to elicit empathy.

I’m not sure exactly when the movie is set, but it appears to be the early 20th century. André and Fabrizio are both in the military of their respective nations and a recurring theme of the film is the formation of alliances among European nations.  I may be stretching my interpretation a bit, but I think this movie is not just a story of the dissolution of a marriage that leads to tragedy, but also a metaphor for Europe and all the petty slights that lead to the carnage of World War I.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Title: A Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Release Date: September 18, 2019
Director: Céline Sciamma
Production Company: Lilies Films | Arte | Hold Up Films

In 18th-century France, a young artist named Marriane (Noémie Merlant) travels to a remote island in Brittany.  Her commission is to paint a portrait of the aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), to be sent as a betrothal gift to a nobleman in Milan. The problem is that Héloïse does not want to pose for the portrait so Marriane must pretend to be her companion and observe her features when she can.

Héloïse mourns the death of her sister and resents having to take her place marrying the nobleman and losing her relative autonomy in a convent.  Marriane has a great amount of independence and outspokenness for a woman of her time and the two begin to bond.  They also spend time with a third major character, the unflappable house maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), and the film as a great number of scenes of women just enjoying one another’s company, something we don’t see too much of in film.

Not to get to spoilery, but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Marriane and Héloïse’s relationship grows into a romantic one.  They make the best of the time they have and there is also much yearning for more. The acting performances of the three leads are magnificent and the film is gorgeous.

One stand out scene occurs on a beach by a bonfire (the scene that gives the film it’s title) where a group of Breton women we’ve never seen before (and never see again) begin singing and performing as if they were in The Revels.  It’s such a stunning moment in a movie that is largely very quiet with very few characters on screen.

Rating:  ****

Classic Movie Review: Sans Soleil (1983)

Title: Sans Soleil
Release Date: March 2, 1983
Director: Chris Marker
Production Company: Argos Films

Sans Soleil is classified as a documentary but it’s really more of a series of vignettes and video essays arranged in an experimental matter.  It is the work of Chris Marker, creator of the equally experimental La Jetée, who presents himself as a fictional traveler who has sent his film to be described by the narrator (Alexandra Stewart). The original footage is largely from Japan, with a loose discussion of Japanese culture and customs, but also includes filmed in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco.  The San Francisco segment is from a sequence that feels like a non-sequitur as the filmmaker visits sites from Vertigo.   I was up too late watching this film and started drifting off to sleep which I think only helped to accentuate the dreamlike qualities of this strange and wonderful film.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Title: Au Hasard Balthazar
Release Date: May 25, 1966
Director: Robert Bresson
Production Company: Cinema Ventures

It’s a movie about the life of donkey, this should be sweet and light!  Or not.  Au Hasard Balthazar needs content warnings not just for animal cruelty but for the repeated abuse and sexual assault of a woman.  That woman is Marie (Anne Wiazemsky), one of the children in a rural village in the Pyrenees who baptizes the young donkey Balthazar in the opening scene.

Years pass by and as Balthazar is passed from cruel owner to cruel owner, the teenaged Marie is the main human protagonist and one of the few people who are kind and affectionate to the donkey. Unfortunately for Marie, she’s only able to find escape from her constricted life in an abusive relationship with the film’s main antagonist, the smug and evil criminal Gérard (François Lafarge).

While I don’t believe that movies need a “Hollywood ending,” I also don’t understand why so many “great films” have to be unbearably bleak.  There is no humor or humanity anywhere in this film.  Roger Ebert wrote a beautiful review of this movie, and I totally agree that Balthazar’s story is designed to elicit empathy.  I don’t agree with how Breeson handles the human actors who’s dialogue often sounds stilted and as if they’re reciting philosophical treatise.  The way Breeson constructs Marie’s story is basically torture porn (not surprisingly 65-year-old Breeson was sexually pursuing  the 18-year-old Wiazemsky behind-the-scenes) and borderline misogynistic.

Maybe this isn’t a “bad movie” by definition, but it makes me feel bad and I don’t like it.

Rating: **