Mademoiselle (Richardson, 1966)

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:

Picture 1 Picture 2 Picture 3

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:

Picture 4 Picture 5

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:

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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-

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-then to a medium-wide low angle, looking up the tree as birds fly away-

Picture 9

-and then finally to a close-up as Manou aggressively kisses Mademoiselle’s neck and she allows it:

Picture 10

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:

Picture 19

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…

Picture 12 Picture 13

…to Mademoiselle preparing in the mirror.  Something we’ve seen her do before:

Picture 14

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:

Picture 15 Picture 16 Picture 17

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:

Picture 18

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.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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6 Responses to Mademoiselle (Richardson, 1966)

  1. Pingback: Top 15 Films of 2013 | dcpfilm

  2. kristof says:

    A shot of sun filtering through woods is only automatically Rashomon if one is not aware of John Alton’s shot of a mounted policeman descending an incline in a forest with the sun behind behind him in Mann’s Raw Deal (1948), which looks a lot like the shot from Mademoiselle. (Maybe Kurosawa saw it.) And I’d be surprised if Alton wasn’t imitating some other predecessor. All speculation, of course. But given the imitative nature of human beings, highly probable.

  3. dcpfilm says:

    Fair enough. It’s been a long, long while since I’ve seen Raw Deal. Highly probably, indeed, though the buck has to start somewhere. Thanks for reading the blog!

  4. kristof says:

    P.S. I agree that Mademoiselle is a stunning and evocative film. All the criticism about Richardson doing European art cinema (as if it were a technique / borrowed style applied without conviction or legitimacy) needs to get past it’s own film-historical preconceptions and just WATCH the damn thing. That (i.e., perceptual immersion and analysis) is what you excel at, judging from the entries I’ve read. There is something refreshing about that kind of nuts & bolts (empirical) approach. It’s academic, of course, but I don’t feel that to be a criticism, as it increases appreciation of the art. It teaches, which appeald to anyone who loves to learn.

    • dcpfilm says:

      Thanks so much for the comment; it’s much appreciated! I just like to write about whatever I watch. And agreed: I read so much about Richardson before starting to watch his films, very little of which actually said anything about the movies themselves.

  5. Pingback: El Norte (Nava, 1973) and The Entertainer (Richardson, 1960) | dcpfilm

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