When I think of paranoia and conspiracy in cinema I tend to think of Pakula and Frankenheimer. I should be adding Jacques Rivette to that list. Since Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is an adaptation of a conspiratorial Thomas Pynchon novel, these make a good pairing.
Paris Belongs to Us
Most of the Rivette films I’ve seen – this one, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Le Pont du Nord, Va Savoir – have a few things in common. They feature female protagonists caught up in a mystery that’s larger than they can imagine or that they actually have imagined. Paris Belongs to Us stars Betty Schneider as Anne, a young student who becomes obsessed with Gerard (Giani Esposito), a temperamental theater director, and a possible cabal intent on murdering intellectuals in Paris.
Rivette’s film, made right at the outset of the French New Wave, is literary as might be expected. The play Pericles makes up much of the backdrop.
Unlike the other Rivette works I know however, this one’s strength is not its playfulness. In fact, though it’s all a bit absurd in the end it never quite reaches the same zaniness as Le Pont du Nord or level of romantic fantasy of Celine and Julie. Instead, Paris Belongs to Us is somewhat close to realist fantasy – there are plots going on, but maybe the biggest plot of them all is summed up by Terry (Francoise Prevost), an enigmatic femme fatale, at the end of the film: “We’re imbeciles.”
That’s sort of the payoff of Paris Belongs to Us, the plot of which, without giving too much away, also involves an American radical, a Spaniard’s suicide, a missing tape of music, and a mysterious theater financier. Are these threads tied together? Anne thinks so. So do a few other people in the film, and together they make these threads more apparent than perhaps they actually are. But that’s the point of Rivette’s film: conspiracy exists, the powers-that-be are out to get “us”, but we’re also doing ourselves in.
Though the film is less breezy than its famous early-60s French counterparts it also still encompasses what I think is the most cohesive element of the French New Wave: the freedom, naivete, and innocence of youth. Characters wander and roam around Paris. No one works, and when Gerard has the opportunity to make money, he quits, citing artistic interference (the struggle of the artist is also a theme here: Gerard is at turns tyrannical and kind, frustrated and brilliant; but in the end, he feels useless. Rivette doesn’t seem to elevate his status as tortured theater director.)
Much of Paris Belongs to Us takes place in nondescript apartments-
-outdoor cafes (does that guy look like a thin Godard to anyone else?)-
-and the streets and exteriors of the city otherwise-
In this way it rarely feels designed, though there are sequences, like these in a theatrical rehearsal space, that lose the plain, unobtrusive mise-en-scene in favor of something that is worn and very near stylized:
I’ve never seen Rivette’s famous Out 1, but for my money Celine and Julie is his masterpiece. Paris Belongs to Us has real momentum, but Terry is maybe the best part of the film (that’s her in the last image above, background, white outfit). She’s so mysterious, magnetic on-screen, and the stereotype she fits (the aforementioned femme fatale) is more difficult to discern than the other stereotypes that abound here.
The rest of it is fun, tricky, ephemeral and, well, paranoid, but it feels like Rivette hadn’t quite gotten his full force going in a way that he would with his later films.
Where Paris Belongs to Us finds its conspiracy existing mostly in unseen connections, Inherent Vice makes its own vast scheme so intentionally convoluted that it certainly does become comedy. There is seriousness to PTA’s latest film, but again unlike Rivette’s, the comedy is foregrounded.
I read Pynchon’s novel last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it. I almost wish I hadn’t read it going into the film: I found myself caught up in the intricacies of the plot left off-screen. Anderson’s adaptation feels pretty faithful. It’s verbose, the period design is spot-on, and it captures a sense of longing and fleetingness – maybe unimportance amidst something that seems so important – in a way that the novel also discusses. That verbosity is part of the comedy: it eventually becomes a joke whenever a new piece of the overwhelming conspiracy is introduced.
Josh Brolin steals the show here as Bigfoot Bjornsen, a cop caught between the drug-fueled hippie world of 1970s LA, a life of glamour, home life, and good ol’ Johnny Law. He’s flat-out hilarious, has some of the best lines in the film, and really carries his moments when on-screen. It’s not that anyone’s bad in this film (Joanna Newsom is as close as that comes), it’s that Brolin is memorable.
It’s so easy to fall in love with PTA’s direction. He shoots in a way that feels at once loose and strict – I don’t know how else to describe it. Maybe it’s that his actors are fluid, stutter at times, trail off, and his camera lingers, but still there’s a definite rhythm that feels pre-planned.
I don’t have any stills here to reflect it, but this film is gorgeous. From the spot-on period cinematography from Robert Elswit, to the beautiful production design from David Crank, to the perfectly placed Neil Young on the soundtrack, Inherent Vice captures the era.
I was really struck by how many close-ups are in the film. It surprised me for some reason. I think I associate Anderson’s films with wide-shots mostly. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s that some of my favorite moments in his films are his really well-blocked wides, but Inherent Vice felt littered with close-ups. Not in a cluttered way, and never in a cutty way, just that we would stick on someone’s single for awhile and get lost in their reaction without a view to the “outer” world around them for an extended period.
There are several scenes that stuck out, which I’ll mention in passing in case you’ve already seen the film: Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc and Owen Wilson’s Coy talking outside amidst a heavy fog that feels so obviously fake as though it were either pulled from a ’40s back lot or from Doc’s drug haze; Doc’s interaction with Sloane Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas) that oozes sex (and features a fantastic lead-in close-up); a conversation between Doc and Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short) that’s both hilarious and creepy at once (due to, I think, both Short’s great performance and a lot of off-screen action); a quiet 2-shot with Doc and Bigfoot that involves a frozen banana.