Mademoiselle is one of the best films I’ve seen in the past few months and that includes all those that I’ve blogged about and those that I still haven’t (new ones like Like Someone in Love, Trance, The Place Beyond the Pines and Stoker, and older films like Black Moon, The Pajama Game, A Bay of Blood, and Reds).
For one, it features Jeanne Moreau, who is so strangely bewitching, and so able to inhabit any role. She’s one of the all-time greats, and deserves all the recognition she’s gotten.
The film reminds me of Losey’s masterpiece The Servant in its look at power relationships, sexuality, and subservience. Moreau is the title character, a chaste, strict school teacher in a small French village who is actually the one causing a series of recent disasters. The villagers, however, prefer to place the blame on a foreigner, the Italian logger Manou (Ettore Manni).
There are two immediately striking cinematographic elements of Mademoiselle. The first is the gorgeous black and white contrasty look as shot by David Watkin. It’s really stunning, and no wonder that Watkin would go on to shoot films like Out of Africa and Chariots of Fire. The second is that the film is composed entirely of static shots. It’s a strategy I’ve seen before (Tsai Ming Liang always comes to mind), but I’ve rarely seen it as successfully done as here. The film is so well-composed and blocked that it doesn’t feel static, which is a hard feat to pull off.
A lot of times when we see a film that relies on the static camera, that film prefers primarily wide shots. While there are stunning wides here, Richardson and Watkin don’t shy away from close-ups. Consider this excellent introduction of Moreau:
These close-ups add a false movement to the static frames, as though we’re panning along Moreau’s body instead of cutting from shot-to-shot. It’s also just a visually perfect intro: we get her put together accoutrements before we see what the violent action is (opening a dam to cause a flood). That’s storytelling.
That’s not to say that there aren’t scenes that are dominated by wide-shots. Here are two of my favorites:
The first shot there is a great way to shoot Moreau’s small apartment, pushing her into that corner rather than panning with her. And the other is a Rashomon-like wide (although any shot in woods with the sun glinting is automatically Rashomon if its post-1950) that really takes advantage of negative space and those great oak vertical lines.
Other sections of the film use the series of shots to really expressive ends. Here’s another fantastic moment from the film. Manou and Mademoiselle square off in a wide-shot:
Rather than play it out in the wide, or show their burgeoning “relationship” via traditional means, Richardson cuts to a close-up of Manou chopping into a nearby tree-
-then to a medium-wide low angle, looking up the tree as birds fly away-
-and then finally to a close-up as Manou aggressively kisses Mademoiselle’s neck and she allows it:
It’s such a perfectly conceived set of shots, where the chopping and birds act as emotional and motion stand-ins for the tensions arising between the two. The time cut (Manou magically moving closer to Mademoiselle) also doesn’t feel as abrupt because the shots that bridge his movement – axe and birds – are so filled with motion.
There are some daring structural ideas in Mademoiselle as well. Here’s one. Manou and Mademoiselle are together in the woods. Manou shows her a snake he’s caught and brings it towards her:
This happens at about the 52 minute mark of the film. Richardson then cuts away to a recollection of the first time Mademoiselle saw Manou in the woods. Suddenly from there we’re transported to her classroom, and things progress forwardly as though this encounter in the woods is finished.
Towards the end of the classroom scene Richardson cuts to Mademoiselle in a profile close-up as she tells a story. She turns towards camera and he dissolves…
…to Mademoiselle preparing in the mirror. Something we’ve seen her do before:
The next series of shots is a close-up Mademoiselle as she lights a piece of paper and brings the flame close to camera, followed by a dissolve to a burning house in the distance:
The significance is clear. Richardson has just used another time jump to show that she has perpetrated yet another crime. But here’s what I like best about this (long) sequence. It’s now around the 1:08:00 mark of the film, and now Richardson cuts back to the woods from 16 minutes ago, showing Manou put the snake onto Mademoiselle’s wrist:
It’s a nice play with time, confusing the structure, making us do some work, but probably most importantly, giving us an insight into the relationship between violence and sexuality – as though everything between the two shots of the snake were the thoughts running through Mademoiselle’s head in those short seconds.