A Double Tour (Chabrol, 1959)

Also known as LedaA Double Tour is Claude Chabrol’s third feature. Not quite to his truly great period (which for me starts in 1968), this one’s still got its moments. It’s somehow more of a swinging film than other Chabrol’s. Maybe it’s the super-saturated Eastmancolor (the palette also reminds me of Purple Noonfrom a year later). Maybe it’s the musically and sexually charged opening.

Regardless, it’s still trademark Chabrol: the psychologically tortured murderer “next door” (Le Boucher), the difference in classes in one space (La Ceremonie (and also a likely homage to The Rules of the Game)), the bored upper class, the detective who is either inept or isn’t at the fore of the investigation.

Some SPOILERS below

As is frequently the case, the director’s camera is pretty active. It’s so much more fluid and classic than, say Truffaut’s or Godard’s at the time. Like in this lunch scene. Lazslo Kovacs (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who will of course star in Breathless the next year, and use that name as an alias) sits eating ravenously, his soon-to-be mother-in-law Thérèse (Madeleine Robinson) and her son Richard (André Jocelyn) stands over them.

He really isolates Laszlo, putting him, as we’ll see from the subsequent coverage, in the only frame effectively by himself. It’s a clear strategy for where our sympathies should lie once the murder occurs.

Chabrol cuts to another angle where Henri (Jacques Dacqmine) stands in the foreground. His son walks off frame and the camera begins to pull away, revealing Elisabeth (Jeanne Valérie) frame right:

Since he already established Richard and Thérèse on one side, he now puts father and daughter on the other side. Look at how small Laszlo looks in the frame here. He’s the lynchpin of this scene.

The camera continues its dolly back, motivated by both Richard’s and Henri’s movement, and ends in a pretty stylized wide, with Henri at the bottom of the shot, facing out towards us in a high angle:

The scene is pretty color-coded. Elisabeth, Henri, and Laszlo “versus” Richard and Thérèse. Or, if you pull Henri out of the mix, the way Chabrol does in his blocking, then it’s more of a 2-on-2. But if you add that bust in, which is revealed along the way, then you’ve got four sets of eyes looking accusingly at Laszlo, despite Henri trying to avoid doing so.

A Double Tour does drag for a bit, but the time structure is interesting. Chabrol replays things from various perspectives, including an affair, shot like it could be from The Sound of Music:

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As the investigation heats up (which it never really does, actually), and various people are cast as suspects, Chabrol’s symmetrical frames get even more so:

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But it’s the murder scene itself, shot in such an expressionist style, that’s really the highlight:

Can that first shot not anticipate The Servant?

So much of this is distortion, reflection, shadow. It’s distanced and impersonal, and Chabrol continues that at the end:

When we finally get a clear view it’s so far away, low to the ground as though we’re either murderer or victim, and with so much foreground. Certainly a reflection of the “tortured soul” of the murderer, this sequence (as with the very limited detective sequence) pushes the film away from noir rehash and more into Hitchcock-ian guilt (or Hitchcock rehash, if you want to be harsh).

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Neruda (Larraín, 2016)

Easily one of my favorites of 2017, Neruda gets Pablo Larraín back on track after what I think is the only slight misstep in his filmography (Jackie). Neruda is playful and beautiful. Like The Club, Larraín favors hazy frames, often seemingly underneath a layer of gauze. It’s not pushed as hard as that film, and here it feels dreamlike rather than menacing. No surprise that Sergio Armstrong shot both films, but didn’t shoot Jackie.

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The ending of the film reminds of a favorite of mine: McCabe and Mrs. Miller. And the whole film has a similar vibe to that Altman piece. There’s something inevitable, and both compassionate and dangerous at the same time. Some of this is in the way the camera constantly creeps along, but doesn’t follow as propulsively as in Jackie. It’s more keenly observatory here than it is internally demanding. Or course there’s also Federico Jusid’s score, which is a far cry from Mica Levi’s.

Some SPOILERS below

One of the great things about Neruda is that it really – I think more than any of his other films, including No – marks a shift for Larraín. The film is so much gentler than any of his other works. It’s lighthearted, mischievous, and funny at times, while never sacrificing any tension or sense of violence lurking just around the corner.

Gael García Bernal is so good as Óscar Peluchonneau, a detective who may or may not be real, chasing after the poet Pablo Neruda (an also-awesome Luis Gnecco), an accused Communist. Bernal plays Peluchonneau as though he’s just on the verge of winking at us but has to keep it straight for the sake of…the audience? His boss? Himself? It’s a nearly mannered performance, and certainly owes something to Sellar’s Inspector Clouseau, but it’s never stuffy.

It would be really easy to just mock Peluchonneau and have the great poet take the reins of the film, but the director avoids the trap. Peluchonneau is called “half-idiot, half-moron,” but Neruda is called out for his quasi-ideals by a woman who he thinks is an admirer, and later he can’t properly mount a horse (what kind of self-respecting Communist can’t get on a horse?).

What Larraín’s film eventually becomes is a literary mystery. It’s not far off from something like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, or other self-referential literature. At the end, in the McCabe-like chase in the snow Peluchonneau remarks on how he’s like a character in a mystery, and how his chase is also creating Neruda by lending him a newfound aura and fame. Then later, it’s as though Neruda’s words awaken – by means of a nicely timed crosscut – Peluchonneau from the grave.

 

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Pioneers in Ingolstadt (Fassbinder, 1971)

2017 is turning into the year of Fassbinder for me. This pretty early, made-for-TV entry is not yet the Fassbinder of the mid-70s, but it’s got some trademarks. It’s one of the funnier films of the director that I can think of. He’s got some dark, cynical humor in so many of his films, but there are some laugh-out-loud moments in Pioneers in Ingolstadt, especially with Klaus Löwitsch, playing a pretty hapless army sergeant who is maybe dumber than he looks.

We’ve got Löwitsch, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Rudolf Waldemar Brem, Harry Baer, and Günther Kaufmann. So many familiar faces.

For a Fassbinder film, Pioneers feels really static. I think in his later work he just gets people moving. They’re walking and circling constantly. Here, the film feels closer to stagey. Maybe not surprised, since it is based on a play.

This sequence in the park could almost be from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (mixed a bit with Brecht):

Is this look from the budget? The source material? It’s pretty expressionist. Some of his other frames also feel very Murnau. Like the first one below where Schygulla’s Berta sits opposite her employer and his son. That distance is so exaggerated, and then the reverse feels so flat despite the windows:

It’s a great compositional play – isolating Berta, but at the same time putting her at the center of the two men (it’s not a love fight between father and son, but she certainly is metaphorically between them throughout the film). When she’s in shot the frame feels menacing and uneasy; when she’s not it returns to normalcy.

When Löwitsch’s sergeant character falls off a bridge we get a moment that feels so familiar in Fassbinder films. The scene starts with him leaning back. The beam breaks and the camera quickly booms down to find him on the ground:

A back and forth between the sergeant and his men, now called to attention-

-and then Fassbinder goes into a super-slow dolly back, passing every single one of the men, and eventually landing on Max (Kaufmann):

It’s not just the camera movement, it’s the duration (about a full 1:10 for the track!) and the accompanying silence. It feels extra-diegetic, as though we’ve briefly left the world of the movie just to see all of these guys in close-up. I mean, is the sergeant staring at them for this full 1:10, his eyes roving down the line as slowly as the camera? I doubt it.

Later Max is at the forefront of a beatdown that takes over 3 minutes! It’s shot entirely in wide. This is nearly the opposite of the long track above. The staging is believable. It’s slow and therefore more vicious. Where we leave the world of the movie momentarily on the bridge, here we’re almost too into it, uncomfortably so. Pioneers feels this way throughout: it’s stagey and full of tableaus at one moment, and then realistically cynical the next.

 

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Eve Wants to Sleep and Quiet is the Night (Chmielewski, 1958 and 1978)

I only recently discovered Tadeusz Chmielewski. His 1958 Eve Wants to Sleep is a lightly comic film, sometimes critical of the Polish government, at times (and when at its best) reminiscent of a gentler Czech New Wave film mixed with Pierre Etaix.

The narrative revolves around Eve (Barbara Lass) who, as the title suggests, just wants to sleep. She can’t for various reasons. And, as we’re told in a musical overture, Poland isn’t a safe place at night.

Some of that danger – well, basically all of it – is presented comically. The riffraff of Poland are maybe violent, but they’re fun to watch and no less incompetent than the police. This sequence, the intro to a gang of street thugs, feels so Soviet Montage in its stark close-ups:

Eve Wants to Sleep really picks up steam once Eve is initially foiled from renting a room (in part because she fills out the owner’s crossword puzzle). Chmielewski leans on two extended gag-heavy sequences, one in a police station, the other in women’s housing.

The police station sequence revolves largely around mistaken identity and that aforementioned police ineptitude. The jail is empty and that won’t do, so the cops import a prisoner. When Eve locks herself in the arms room they have to recruit that same prisoner to take on the role of police officer:

The rooming sequence is superior and really strong. In search of a place to sleep a police officer walks Eve to the location. Unbeknownst to him – but well known to the owner – all the women have their significant others visiting, a practice which is outlawed.

One of the best gags involves a man exiting a room by window via a bucket on a rope. Later, when Eve shows up to that same room she’s recruited by the desperate tenant to sit on the bed so that the bed doesn’t get pulled to the window, causing the man to plunge down several stories:

Eve Wants to Sleep is a really great second act, bookended by two cute, solid ones. Chmielewski is much more montage-driven in this one than in Quiet is the Night.

Quiet is the Night

A twenty year gap between these two films is hugely evident in Chmielewski’s blocking. It’s so much more fluid and active in Quiet is the Night, a psychological thriller with a pretty devastating, if sometimes pushing the envelope of suspension of disbelief, denouement.

The film is indebted to M. A child serial killer terrorizes the streets. Piotr Lysak plays Wiktor, a young student who is constantly at odds with his tyrannical police chief father. Independently of his dad, Wiktor conducts his own investigation of the murders.

There are some romantic undertones to Wiktor’s friendship with his friend Bernard (Mirosław Konarowski). Some of it is in Wiktor’s desperation about all things Bernard, some of it is the way that Chmielewski treats them in his blocking, which remains close, and verges on the melodramatic.

Here’s a close look at one such scene where Wiktor and Bernard meet in their secret spot – the ship on which they plan to leave for the summer.

Wiktor enters first and sits into a medium shot:

Bernard comes in next. Chmielweski first finds them in a two shot, before Bernard sits next to his friend:

Frustrated, Wiktor leans back. Chmielweski’s handheld camera tracks swiftly left to right, reframing:

Eventually Bernard stands, pacing, and Chmielweski finally goes into some coverage – pretty rare in this film within any given scene. The camera first pans and tilts up with Bernard, before cutting to a reverse on Wiktor:

Back to the fluid master as Bernard sits again:

And Chmielweski ends in shot-reverse:

So many scenes in Quiet is the Night play in similar ways, coverage-wise. There’s little of it, the characters move a lot, and the camera follows in a handheld master. There’s a jitteriness to the frame and it all feels so natural. It’s such an advancement from a kind of expressionist montage to something much more like realism from 1958 to 1978. Similarly, Poland has changed a lot in that time. In this film the danger is palpable. Random strangers aren’t there to help or for comic relief – they’re potentially life-threatening.

In this particular scene Chmielweski keeps bringing the characters back to the 2-shot. A true close-up is rare – or maybe I should say a true single. The emphasis is obvious: the friendship is key. This is at odds with scenes of Wiktor and his father.

Immediately after watching Quiet is the Night I watched a modern TV show on Netflix that will remain unnamed. It’s a good show, by a director whose work I enjoy. But the show just felt so static and blandly formal coming off of Chmielweski’s energetic film. That’s the real coup of Quiet is the Night.

 

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Creepy (Kurosawa, 2016)

Some SPOILERS here.

Creepy is probably my favorite Kiyoshi Kurosawa film since Cure. It truly lives up to its namesake. Like Kurosawa’s 1997 masterpiece, this film also features a traumatized detective (Takakura, played by Hideyoshi Nishijima), on the trail of an enigmatic antagonist (here, Nishino, played unbelievably well by Teruyuki Kagawa; Kagawa should get some award for this role. Absolutely perfect casting).

Oddly, while Creepy feels like a return to the classic Kurosawa of the 1990s, it also maybe marks a slight departure from those films. Expecting a denouement similar to Cure, this one caught me totally by surprise in the tone of final optimism it strikes. That said, there’s nothing close to optimism preceding the last 5 minutes, and Creepy is brutal and tense throughout.

Kurosawa also departs from the supernaturalism of Seance or Pulse. Again, Cure-like in that department. This is very much a film about the evil right next door. Like an all-time favorite Blue Velvet it’s also about the dark underbelly of a seemingly mundane neighborhood (see below, where I talk about Nishino’s house).

Thematically, this is also (like some of Kurosawa’s great films) about a marriage that is possibly disintegrating, and more specifically, it’s about one couples don’t say to one-another.

There are some elements of Creepy that might be frustrating to viewers. What’s this super-drug that Nishino is administering? How does Takakura overcome it when others aren’t able to? Why does Nishino need a layout of houses that’s always the same?

These are, for me, totally excusable. Who cares what the drug is? This is a great example of what I like in genre films. I don’t want to know how we can travel to the future in the same way I don’t want to know how/what that drug is. That would be boring exposition that would bring me to the same conclusion anyway. I’d only like it if it has a narrative basis (i.e. the scarcity of the drug comes into play somehow). Suspend the disbelief, let the incredibly eerie mood of Creepy take you away, and enjoy the ride.

Stylistically, Kurosawa’s diegetic soundtrack is noteworthy. This is a loud film somehow, despite being relatively quiet. That is to say: the wind, the leaves blowing, cicadas chirping. all come to a roar time and again. It’s uneasy. Kurosawa uses hard sound cuts effectively, too. Scenes begin abruptly with a train already careening by mid-roar, or with Takakura’s wife Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi) running the vacuum cleaner. The whole aural strategy is just a bit anxious.

Structurally (and aesthetically), Creepy also keeps you off-guard. The prologue, one year in the past, is almost visually corny in a way. Takakura, then a police officer, interrogates and chases a serial killer. The killer’s outfit, some of the on-the-nose dialogue, the way we’re thrown right into a police procedural, all feels a bit TV. It feels close to corny. Then the film just…goes.

There are two visual moments that I loved in Creepy. The first is Nishino’s house. It figures so prominently into the film. Here’s the moment where Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), Takakura’s former partner, investigates Nishino. Nogami enters the house in a MS. Kurosawa cuts behind him, and Nogami turns right:

Then we get a hard cut, and Nogami enters frame in the foreground, from the right. Screen direction is totally wrong here (he exits left to right above, to keep continuity he should continue left to right below):

And of course the space seems totally different. The walls are concrete, the light is green.

Then later Nogami’s boss Tanimoto (Takashi Sasano) also enters Nishino’s house. Kurosawa shows him in a high angle. We know that he has to exit frame left (below) to get to the same place where Nogami was. Kurosawa just hard cuts from that first high wide, to the next two:

Those last two shots above are again high angles. We’re wider than we were with Nogami, too. Are we supposed to believe, in shot #2 above, that if we were just to turn 180 degrees we’d be looking back into Nishino’s entryway? The pitch blackness of that door frame makes sense, but little else seems to.

Then when Takakura finally enters, Kurosawa at first uses the same initial frame he did for Tanimoto, but shows the grimy further interior slightly differently:

Now, in the last two shots above, we are in front of Takakura looking back and we can’t see the entryway. So where are we? Is Kurosawa skipping ahead in space each time? There’s no effort made to connect them (no one shot or angle moves fluidly, without cutting from space-to-space; screen direction is broken or basically non-existent). It’s like the director wants them to feel like cheated, separate spaces. And we go with it. It’s so strange and jarring, and really adds to the impossibility of Nishino and everything he does and stands for.

Here’s the other moment I loved. Mio (Ryôko Fujino) and Yasuko dispose of a body in Nishino’s basement. Kurosawa frames them pretty tightly. Mio stands, and Kurosawa pans with her, left to right:

Then, just glimpsed really briefly, in the background and out of focus, is Nishino. He’s watching TV and eating. Totally unconcerned with the crazy stuff happening closer to us in the foreground. We don’t see him again for the duration of this sequence. It’s beautiful staging – the quick glimpse is chilling enough:

 

 

 

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Is Paris Burning? (Clément, 1966)

I’ve been meaning to watch this René Clément epic for some time. That’s certainly what it is. The saga of the Nazis defeat and departure from Paris – which I saw most recently in Volker Schlondorff’s Diplomacy – is here given the treatment not unlike maybe The Longest Day or even The Dirty Dozen in its scope.

That the film somehow feels American is maybe a testament to the screenplay, which is by Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal. It comes right between two great films of the director’s, Joy House and Rider on the Rain, both of which are taut thrillers. The latter (and inferior) of the two is a truly American vehicle, featuring Charles Bronson.

I wonder if a lot of actors did Clément a favor by being in the film. Anthony Perkins and Yves Montand? Barely in it (especially the latter). Same with Kirk Douglas. I know this was a passion project, but to have names of that caliber take 2-8 minute turns in a film that runs nearly three hours is remarkable. Oddly enough, I wonder if The Thin Red Line is a good comparable here. Very different psychology and mood, but in the sense of a huge, ensemble piece, that doesn’t really focus its attention on the stars as much as the battles at hand…?

This feels like the kind of war film that couldn’t really be made today. Part of it, again, is its daring scope. Part of it is Clément’s very classic, superior blocking. Part of it is the mood that’s somehow both jaunty and grim. And part of it is the quick insights we get into characters who are hardly on-screen at all (and the willingness to see them go from heroic to dead in the blink of an eye, which rings quite real).

That jauntiness comes from a great score from Maurice Jarre, but also beautiful asides like this one, where Henri Karcher (Jean Pierre-Cassel) has momentarily commandeered the house of an older woman in order to get a better vantage point to return fire to German soldiers.

Clément focuses as heavily on the woman, who tries to keep her tea clear of dust, while being unable to take her eyes off of the action in her living room:

Her reactions are hilarious, but it’s not just cute and fun. She’s so emboldened and overjoyed that the French have shown up with military power. The scene plays as entirely comic, but it’s not without danger. The 2-shot below is dusty and threatening:

Clément also mixes a whole lot of documentary footage in:

It’s startling, emotional, and really poignantly used. Clément doesn’t lean on the footage too heavily, but when he does use it tends to be quick establishing cuts (tanks entering the city) or cathartic outbursts.

The director also, despite working with a 2 hour, 53 minute film, really does pick his moments. He takes, for example, over a full minute to get the bell at Notre Dame ringing at the end. Overlong in another sequence, it’s perfect here. The shots slowly build and even feel dangerous at times as the huge structure looms in the foreground. The sheer amount of footage it takes to get the bell to ring is emblematic of the importance of the moment  historically: it’s not just duration since the average shot length in here isn’t particularly long; it’s also the diverse coverage; and the daily effort it would take to do so is also noteworthy and immense.

See the clip below (sorry about the black frames and lack of sound). The first 35 seconds have about five different set-ups of the bell. You get it again around 1:50, 2:35, 2:50, etc. Combined with all of the archival footage it’s really celebratory and has great momentum (check out the cut at 3:05 from the pan/tilt of the swinging bell to the rapidly moving aerial shot):

Here’s a great example of Clément’s really polished blocking (SPOILERS if you watch past 3:30). First look at the fluid transition from archival footage to the director’s own at 1:27. It’s a great match of screen direction, handheld camera, and movement. The clip starting at 1:41 is also accomplished. Clément stays handheld but greats great choreography (the long tracking shot at 2:04). When the focus shifts away from Anthony Perkins’ character and to Cassel’s the camera stabilizes. The tracking shot at 5:05 is much more fluid. The small operation with the older gentleman as he raises his rifle (pan right) and then lowers it (pan back left to the 2-shot) around 5:10 is fantastic.

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Fear of Fear (Fassbinder, 1975)

What’s the best film to feature Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack? I always thought McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Hard to argue with Fata Morgana. But maybe it’s Fear of Fear, which is also now one of my favorite Fassbinder films. The film reminds me of Ray’s Bigger Than Life, which in turn reminded me of Sirk’s Imitation of Life, and also of Haynes’ Safe. All make sense – Fassbinder fits neatly between Sirk and Haynes, and Ray is the consummate industry outsider.

Fassbinder regular Margit Carstensen plays Margot, a housewife who descends into some kind of drug-addled madness, perhaps partially due to her mundane upper-middle class existence.

Carsten is so great. Her angular face and perfect white teeth fit the character beautifully. There are so many times that she smiles slowly in close-up to a creepy result. The fluttering, dramatic score by Peer Raben really contributes, too.

This is Fassbinder’s style through-and-through. The saturated, decorated interiors. Margot blends right in with her couch and the vertical lines on her blouse run right along with the wallpaper:

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Fassbinder starts the film with a vertigo shot as the title comes in:

As if the title itself weren’t enough, then the unwieldy combined movement, concentrated on some still tedium, certainly does the trick.

Fassbinder loves divided frames. I’m certain there are plenty of others like this – also using a lamp – in his other, mid-70s films:

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He also likes that extreme foreground to really feel the camera moves. And the camera moves a lot: pulling down long hallways and panning to reframe in a new doorway; dollying to peer into a room at a new angle as a character moves. It’s elegant.

At odds with the mise-en-scene pictured above are sequences like this:

Pure white on drab wood. Margot dwarfed in that first frame. Beams looming, dangerously in the foreground. When she rushes forward the low, canted angle is unsettling.

Other Fassbinder trademarks are fully on display. Tableaus as people stare, nosy neighbors, generally high-key lighting, close quarters as representation of the stuffiness and claustrophobia of German life.

There’s, as usual, a host of his regulars, including Kurt Raab, who I’m really liking lately:

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Here he’s almost entirely silent, but his worn, knowing face communicates a hell of a lot with Margot.

There’s a repeated high angle POV shot – at once point it’s framed with an unknown person’s arm in the foreground – that Fassbinder often returns to:

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It’s the idea of constantly being watched, of the inability to escape. Tellingly, the film ends with Margot’s own POV, which is situated quite similarly:

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She’s been “cured,” and now she becomes the watcher. Her position has been reversed. Given the subject matter of what she sees – and other context clues – it’s doubtful that this “cure” is successful and true, but Fassbinder places her back in the mix of “normalcy” by giving her the closing, voyeuristic POV.

 

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