Friday, September 17, 2010

Film Review: Violette

"Violette" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

As film lovers all over the world mourn, or at least should mourn, the passing of the legendary French filmmaker Claude Chabrol, I am going to review one more of his many titles as a sort of tribute to one of cinema's great masters.

"Violette" (1978) is sadly not a Chabrol film which instantly springs into the mind of moviegoers when they think of Chabrol. This is truly unfortunate. The film belongs in a class with some of Chabrol's best films such as "Les Biches" (1968), "Le Boucher" (1972) and "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969).

After hearing about the news of Chabrol's death, I knew I was going to review another one of his films. And I immediately knew it was going to be this title. Mostly because I've never seen this film before. I didn't want to go back and rewatch one of his films which I have seen. I wanted to take delight in something new.

I had heard of this film however. To Chabrol fans it is known as the movie which began the collaboration between Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert. They would go on to work together six more times; "The Story of Women" (1989), "Madame Bovary" (1991), "La Ceremonie" (1997), "The Swindle" (1997), "Merci pour le Chocolat" (2002) and "Comedy of Power" (2006). Making Huppert, as far as I am concerned, Chabrol's greatest muse since his ex-wife Stephane Audran, whom also co-stars in the film.

"Violette", despite its lack in popularity and prestige, is quite a typical Chabrol film. Many of his favorite themes are on display here. The film deals with the classes. It doesn't engage in the class warfare "La Ceremonie" did, which was Marxist at its core, but does show us people who strive to crawl out of their social class.

Young Violette Noziere (Huppert) seems so sweet and innocent. At first we see her sitting down with her parents; Germaine (Audran) and Baptiste (Jean Carmet) having dinner. She does her homework without being told and kisses her parents goodnight. She appears to be the model child. But all is not what it seems. Violette has her bad side. The Noziere's are middle class. But Violette is a social climber. She wants to be rich. She has a tendency to steal and is something of a prostitute. So much for family values.

Huppert, who looks so young here, is perfect to play this character. She somehow manages to capture both the innocence which is required of the role and a seductive nature. But that has always been the strength of the characters Huppert has played, especially in her films with Chabrol. She has always had the ability to mask her character's feelings with her poker face. We know something is going on in her pretty head. We can sense the wheels are turning. But what exactly is she going to do? What is she capable of?

Violette downplays her family's status. She likes to look elegant. She allows friends and potential clients to believe she comes from a wealthy upbringing. This allows several people to be jealous of her. At the hotel where Violette takes her clients one of the maids admires her clothes. She would love to be like her, not knowing they are really both the same. But this also attracts the attention of Jean Dabin (Jean-Francois Garreaud) who knows nothing about her past but wants to use her for her money.

And like any Chabrol film there are family secrets. Germaine and Baptiste at first appear to be a rather bland and boring middle class couple. Everything in their life is routine. At night Violette can hear them make love and can recite to herself what they will say. Though Germaine may not be as proper as we or even Baptiste may think. Violette is not his daughter. Germaine, perhaps, had an affair, with a wealthy man, Emile (Jean Dalmain), who Violette blackmails into giving her money.

There is actually a lot going on in this film. Maybe a bit too much. I also thought the movie runs a little too long. Trim some of the sub-plots and cut the running time 30 minutes or so and I'd say the film is a masterpiece. It's not. It comes pretty close though.

The film plays around with linear structure. It also changes POV (point of view) so at times we don't know when we are seeing reality or Violette's version of truth. And because Violette has a tendency to lie, we can never be quite sure if what we are hearing is the truth. At this point does Violette even know she is lying? Has her stories become her reality?

"Violette" was written by Odile Barski, who had worked with Chabrol on several screenplays. Together they wrote Chabrol's last film, "Bellamy" (2009) and "Comedy of Power" (2006) among others. Frederic Grendel was another writer who worked on the script. He may be best known for writing "Diabolique" (1955).

The film has some of the most beautiful cinematography you will find in a Chabrol film. It was done by his frequent collaborator Jean Rabier, who worked on "This Man Must Die!" (1971) and "La Rupture" (1970, released in the U.S. 1975). Besides his work on Chabrol films he also shot "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (1964). "Violette" has a similar romantic quality to it. The film is suppose to take places in the 1930s. Rabier gives the movie a nostalgic look.

Although what is really impressive about "Violette" is Huppert. The movie could have used more of a psychological undertone to it in order to explain Violette but perhaps Chabrol wanted to avoid that on purpose. Make the character more mysterious. But it is still interesting to see how Huppert portrays the character. A young woman whom you feel never quite knows the consequences her actions will have. What made her this way?

The film was nominated for two awards at the Cannes Film Festival. It won one, Huppert for "Best Actress", while the film was nominated for the palme d'or. The only other film Chabrol made which was up for the top prize at Cannes was "Cop au Vin" (1986). The film was also nominated for four Cesar Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) and won one for Audran as "Best Supporting Actress".

As I have said before, I'm going to miss not having Chabrol make any more new films. Watching a film like "Violette" makes us realize how much we have lost when we lost Chabrol.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Film Review: Someone to Love

"Someone to Love" *** (out of ****)

When Henry Jaglom made "Someone to Love" (1988) he was 46 years old. At that point in his life Jaglom asked the question, why is his generation, the baby boomers, so alone? Why are so many of his friends either single or divorced. But, because it is a Henry Jaglom film, the answer to that question we be given to us from a female perspective.

"Someone to Love" starts off with a couple, Danny (Jaglom) and his girlfriend Helen (Andrea Marcovicci). They have been going on for six months but it is not a serious relationship. She is newly single and wants to enjoy her single life. She's not looking to rush into anything. In fact, Danny has never spent the night at her place. On this particular night they discuss the issue.

This scene is intercut with, what is simply credited as "Danny's friend" (Orson Welles, in his last screen performance) discussing theories of the theatre. But his words seem to reflect the current state of relationships and the ways the genders view them.

During these opening moments I was starting to fall pretty hard for the film. I was prepared to call it Jaglom's best film. At this point the film started to remind me of Alain Resnais' "Mon Oncle d'Amerique" (1980).

Like all of Jaglom's films this one had a personal quality to it. The performances are naturalistic and have an improvised feel to them. Jaglom is a very gifted actor with a wonderful screen presence. He has great chemistry with Marcovicci. We truly believe they are a couple. They speak and act like real people. We can see ourselves in them. We can see ourselves having the same conversations.

In these opening moments Jaglom seems to be making the case all people want to do is connect to someone. We all want to find someone special, "someone to love". This got me thinking about today's dating world. I bet Jaglom could make a film out of the topic of Internet dating. People have given up meeting other people in bars and real life and have resorted to the Internet. We are all so hungry to make a connection. Online dating is big business.

And for some reason these sequences really connected with me. I could relate to the theme and the characters. Another interesting scene involves Danny and his brother Mickey (played by Jaglom's real life brother Michael Emil, who has appeared in a few of Jaglom's films) and talking about relationships. Mickey says he just can't meet someone. Or more aptly, he can never meet the right woman at the right time. There is always some obstacle standing in his way. So Danny gets an idea. Why not throw a party with the hidden agenda of finding someone for Mickey.

But Jaglom throws more into the pot. The film now takes place at an abandon movie theatre, which had been around since 1911. A demolition crew is going to tear it down to make way for a shopping mall. It also happens to be Valentine's Day. So Danny has sent out invitations to all his friends telling them to met him at the theatre for a party. But Danny's true intentions are to make a documentary on why people are lonely.

Some of the guest include a famous actress, Edith (Sally Kellerman) and Yelena (Oja Kodar, who was romantically linked to Welles). Danny asks his guest, mostly women, if they ever thought, at this point in their lives, they would still be single? Have their childhood dreams of one day falling in love and getting married come true? Do they still secretly wish for that?

It is at this point "Someone to Love" takes the wrong turn most Jaglom films take. The film now largely consist of "talking heads" explaining the dating scene and whether or not they are happy being single.

Jaglom has often used this approach. He takes a single idea and runs with it. But all he merely does is ask a question and then ask every single member of the cast that same question so we get 20 different answers. He has done this with "Eating" (1990) which was about women's views on eating and sex. Then there was "Babyfever" (1994) about a woman's urge to motherhood. Next came "Going Shopping" (2005) and what does shopping really mean to women.

All of these movies start out promising because they have a story and then they abandon the story and go for the talking heads approach. I'm usually not a fan of this strategy. I think "Someone to Love" could have been a much more effective film if Jaglom had centered it around his character, Helen, Mickey and maybe Edith and kept cutting to Welles making his theatre observations which are really code for today's relationships.

The film also tries to suggest, the reason people today are lonely is because of the sexual revolution and the women lib movement. For a film made in 1988 I think this concept is a bit out of date. If Jaglom wanted to make a film commenting on the women's lib movement and the effects it would have on society and dating I think he waited too long. Why not make it in the 70s or early 80s. Not at the end of the decade.

When I first heard of the film I thought it was going to be Jaglom's "8 1\2" (1963). That movie centered around a filmmaker trying to make a movie and recalling the women in his lives. In "Someone to Love" Danny is a director also. But instead of movies Danny was going to incorporate the stage. But "Someone to Love" is nowhere near as good as that movie. The film doesn't even examine theatre people in the same way Bergman films like "After the Rehearsal" (1984) or "The Rite" (1969) did. Jaglom isn't reaching for that same profound, intellectual level.

But if I seem to have some problems with the film, why am I recommending it? The movie, despite everything, has some wonderful moments. Jaglom really impressed me with his screen presense. It is wonderful to see Orson Welles here. And the dialogue between him and Jaglom makes me wonder how much of this film was improvised. Their conversation is too perfect. It flows so smoothly. You can't write dialogue this good. By the end of the film it seems Welles is improvising.

Considering the films Jaglom has made, this one ranks among his best. It is the easiest of his films to watch. It could be a good introduction into the way Jaglom works. Though it is true I feel when he works more with a structured story his films come out better; "Tracks" (1977), "Deja Vu" (1998) and "Festival in Cannes" (2002).

Henry Jaglom is a talented filmmaker. It is a shame more people aren't aware of his work. His films have a much different vibe than a Hollywood mainstream picture. Jaglom's films are more personal. You can tell Jaglom puts a lot of himself in his movies. They are a labor of love. He makes exactly the kind of film he wants to make. You have to respect that. "Someone to Love" has some fine moments.

Monday, September 13, 2010

In Memory: Claude Chabrol

Influential French filmmaker Claude Chabrol has died at the age of 80.

It was only recently I was discussing the work of this great filmmaker on this blog when I reviewed his films "Masques" (1987) and "Comedy of Powers" (2006). At the time I said I looked forward to seeing the master's next film. Sadly, that will never be.

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows of my great appreciation for the films of Mr. Chabrol. He has become one of the most discussed filmmakers on this blog

Claude Chabrol is credited among film historians for giving the world the first film in the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) movement with his film "Le Beau Serge" (1958). He was one of the most proflic and respected directors in the movement. He was also, one of the last living directors of the movement, Eric Rohmer died earlier this year.

Chabrol, like most of his Nouvelle Vague contempories, got his start as a critic writing for the now legendary Cahiers du cinema, along with Jean Luc-Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. But Chabrol made radically different films from these men. Rohmer was the romantic, Godard's films were political. Chabrol however earned the nickname "the French Hitchcock". His speciality were suspense/mysteries.

The films of Claude Chabrol focused on the bourgeoisie, though his earlier films, like "Le Beau Serge" were aimed at the working class. He wanted to expose their perfect facade. His films usually involved femme fatales, family secrets and murder. His films though always had a dry wit to them. Chabrol had a sarcastic world view. His films were never "preachy". Sometimes the "bad guy" got away.

I first became aware of Claude Chabrol thanks largely to former Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington. He would usually lavish high praise at Chabrol. He placed "La Ceremonie" (1997) on his top ten list. It was not unusual for Wilmington to give a Chabrol film 4 stars. My first run in with Chabrol was when I saw "Merci pour le Chocolat" (2002). My first time watching a Chabrol film in a theatre was when I saw "The Flower of Evil" (2003). His best film in recent years. A throwback to his earlier work and a film I put on my own "top ten" list that respected year. Since that time I eagerly attended each new Chabrol film.

It is true I was no longer filled with great excitment with his more current films, but, I walked into each movie hoping for the best. I wasn't ready to turn my back on Chabrol. Unlike many, I wasn't under the impression Chabrol's best days were behind him. I actually looked forward to see his next film.

Few filmmakers have been "rediscovered" often as Chabrol. His first films were critical successes. They laid the foundation for the nouvelle vage. But during the mid-60s critics started to turn their back on Chabrol. Was his talent a fluke? Had he run out of ideas. Chabrol answered all of his critics beginning what became known as his "classic period", releasing some of his strongest films; "Les Biches" (1968), "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969), "Le Boucher" (1972) and "Wedding in Blood" (1974). But once the 1980s hit, again, Chabrol was considered "old hat". His best days were behind him once again. And again Chabrol shot back at the end of the decade making "The Story of Women" (1989), which managed to win the National Board of Review award for "Best Foreign Film". Chabrol was back, so it seemed. After falling out of the public taste, yet again, he scored a comeback with "La Ceremonie", which was nominated for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

I'm going to miss looking forward to the next "Claude Chabrol film". It is a shame most younger film fans are unaware of this great filmmakers films. But even with his passing, I for one will continue to take pleasure rewatching his films. I'm sure there will be those who may want to go back and examine what is now his last film, "Bellamy" (2009) and try to see if any hidden messages can be found. But that is foolish.

With Eric Rohmer's death earlier this year and now Chabrol, the great masters are quickly fading away. Who is left? Godard is finally going to receive a lifetime achievement Oscar next year. Hoping in the next few years both Rohmer and Chabrol will get theirs.

In the next few days I'll probably review another Chabrol film as a sort of "tribute". Until then I will give my ratings for every Chabrol film I have seen.

1. Le Beau Serge (1958) **** (out of ****)

2. A Double Tour (1959) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

3. Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) *** (out of ****)

4. Les Biches (1968) **** (out of ****)

5. The Unfaithful Wife (1969) **** (out of ****)

6. This Man Must Die! (1971) **** (out of ****)

7. Le Boucher (1972) *** (out of ****)

8. Wedding in Blood (1974) **** (out of ****)
9. La Rupture (1975) *** (out ****)

10. The Pleasure Party (1975) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

11. Innocents with Dirty Hands (1975) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

12. Cop au Vin (1986) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

13. Masques (1987) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

14. Story of Women (1989) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

15. Madame Bovary (1991) *** (out of ****)

16. Betty (1992) ** 1\2 (out of ****)

17. L'Enfer (1994) **** (out of ****)

18. La Ceremonie (1997) **** (out of ****)

19. The Swindle (1997) *** (out of ****)

20. The Color of Lies (1999) *** (out of ****)

21. Merci pour le Chocolat (2002) *** 1\2 (out of ****)

22. The Flower of Evil (2003) **** (out of ****)

23. The Bridesmaid (2006) *** (out of ****)

24. Comedy of Power (2006) *** (out of ****)

25. A Girl Cut in Two (2008) *** (out of ****)

26. Bellamy (2009) *** (out of ****)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Film Review: Lured

"Lured" *** (out of ****)

"Lured" (1947) is an interesting forgotten work from famed filmmaker Douglas Sirk. Sirk, as some readers may known, was the man behind several melodramas such as "All That Heaven Allows" (1955) and "Written on the Wind" (1956). "Lured" doesn't have much in common with those movies, on the surface. This is a noir/mystery starring Lucille Ball. If that doesn't grab your attention, nothing will.

"Lured" was one of Sirk's first American films. He had directed several films in Germany under his given name, Detlef Sierck. The majority of his early English language films are difficult to come by. The only ones in wide circulation seem to be this movie and "A Scandal in Paris" (1946).

This film doesn't have the qualities Sirk fans may have come to expect. There isn't a beautiful color scheme, lavish sets and no melodrama. But "Lured", like "Written on the Wind" and his other better known films, is suggestive. Today, many audiences consider Sirk's films campy. They hinted at risque subjects. "Lured" is no different. The film did run into some problems with the censorship board.

Here we are dealing with a serial killer, who puts ads in the personal columns, hoping to attract innocent, young women. He says his intentions are noble, he is marriage mind for instance. He tauts the police by sending them poems, which offer very subtle clues as to whom his next victim will be. The police, headed by Inspector Temple (Charles Coburn) can't figure out the poems and are no closer to finding out the identity of the man, even after 8 women have been killed.

Events take a turn when Sandra (Lucille Ball) learns that her friend is missing. This all comes after the friend had exposed to her intentions of running away with a man she met through a personal column. Could she have fallen for the serial killer? The police think so.

Inspector Temple wants to use Sandra as bait to lure the killer. She is to answer all personal ads and meet the gentlemen, while a police officer tails her. Eventually she will run into the killer.

This all makes "Lured" sound interesting and suspenseful but it never quite reaches its potential. First of all, there isn't really any genuine suspense. We never really feel Sandra's life is in danger. The film was written by Leo Rosten, who wrote Sirk's next movie, another mystery film, "Sleep, My Love" (1948). But here the film has a sarcastic undertone. There is a dark humor. Ball gets a few laughs. This reminded me a bit of a Hitchcock film, but not quite as polished.

One of the film's main objectives is to present Lucille Ball as a beauty. After all, it is her beauty which is suppose to lure the serial killer to attack. Every man in "Lured" falls under her spell. Creating a strong sexual undertone. However, while Ball may have been an attractive woman, Sirk and his cinematography, the Oscar winner, William Daniels, don't do enough to accentuate her beauty. The camera doesn't linger on her. She needed better lighting.

And finally, once Sandra takes the case there is never another murder. This also creates a lack of suspense. There is no cat and mouse game between the police and the killer. And as a result we really don't have a list of suspects until late into the picture.

Some of those suspects are suppose to be Charles van Druten (Boris Karloff). Sandra answers his ad and agree to meet him at a dark corner at an empty street. We can sense Charles may not be all there and Sandra is uneasy in his presence.

Then there is Robert Fleming (George Sanders). He is a nightclub owner and wants to offer Sandra a job as a dancer. He is a playboy type who appreciates young, beautiful women. Now, as I said, the film reminded me of a Hitchcock film and oddly enough Sanders appeared in Hitchcock's first two American films; "Rebecca" (1940) and "Foreign Correspondent" (1940).

And lastly we have Lyle Maxwell (Alan Mowbray) as a butler who has lingering eyes for Sandra, after he gets her a job as a maid. Dr. Moryani (Joseph Calleia), whom along with Maxwell have a questionable scheme they want to include Sandra in. And Fleming's friend and business partner Julian Wilde (Cedric Hardwicke).

For a 1947 film there is a pretty good cast here. Coburn had already won an Oscar for his performance in George Stevens' "The More the Merrier" (1943). He was an effective character actor also known for roles in such films as "Kings Row" (1942). Many of us know Lucille Ball of course for her comedy and her most famous role on the television show "I Love Lucy". But she was a struggling actress back in the 30s and 40s. Mostly appearing in light comedies and musicals. Some of her better known performances, at this point, would include appearing in "Room Service" (1938) with the Marx Brothers, the Cole Porter musical adaptation "Du Barry Was A Lady" (1943) with Gene Kelly and the all-star female cast comedy "Stage Door" (1937). So seeing her in this kind of film was unusual.Though one of her prior films to this was another mystery film, "The Dark Corner" (1946). I wonder if her performance in that movie led to this movie.

Despite some of its flaws "Lured" is a curiosity piece for film buffs. Especially those with an interest in Sirk's career and Lucille Ball fans. Even if you are only familiar with her work in television, this will catch your attention because you won't be use to seeing her in this type of film. "Lured" is no masterpiece but it is fun to watch. There is a lot going on under the surface here which makes it quite risque for the times.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Film Review: Around A Small Mountain

"Around A Small Mountain" ** (out of ****)

Before walking into Jacques Rivette's "Around A Small Mountain" (2010) my expectations were high. Rivette is one of the great filmmakers no one talks about anymore. He may not be as well remembered as his fellow Nouvelle Vague contemporaries such as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer or Francois Truffaut, but, he is just as important to French cinema as they are. Knowing that, it makes me very sad that I have to tell you the old master's latest film is a disappointment.

The film follows two lost souls. A woman, Kate (Jane Birkin) who is running away from the past and a man, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto) who just seems to be running away. She use to be a circus performer but 15 years ago packed up and left her father's circus after a traumatic performance. Now, with the death of her father Kate returns. What memories will this reunion inspire?

Vittorio is supposedly on his way to Barcelona but after he notices Kate stranded on a deserted road, he fixes her car and soon becomes intrigued by her. She invites him to the circus performance that night.

Now, a lot of readers may start to jump the gun and say, well, I can figure out where this movie is going. It's a love story between these two people. I'll let you think what you want because I don't want to spoil the movie for you, but, things aren't what they may seem.

What disappoints me so much about this film is it is such a rich story. This movie should inspire us. It is about love, life and death. After leaving the movie theatre we should have a strong sense to go out and live our lives. The movie should make us appreciate every moment we share with those we love. And in the end it does none of those things.

I reviewed Rivette's last film, "The Duchess of Langeasis" (2008) which was a period piece love story about two tragic lovers who didn't have time on their side. In some ways we can draw the connection to this film. These are two people whom have met at the wrong time in their lives. But Rivette doesn't dwell on that. This is not the kind of romance some viewers may be expecting.

As I sat in the movie theatre I could actually sense the boredom of the people sitting around me. I over heard one woman lean in to her friend and say "well, at least the scenery is nice". "Around A Small Mountain" needed more passion. More vibrant characters. Better dialogue. It is sparse. It also needed Eric Rohmer. I felt the same way after I saw Rivette's "Va Savoir" (2001), which was a much better film. It also needed a beautiful, lush score. Where's Michel Legrand when we need him? The film makes me think of songs like "Watch What Happens", "You Must Believe in Spring" and "The Windmills of Your Mind".

Rivette is a gifted filmmaker. Watch "La Belle Noiseuse" (1991), my favorite of his films. Watch "Va Savoir" or his most popular film "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (1974). Those movies will prove Rivette's talent. "Around A Small Mountain" is not the kind of film that should have been made by a director of Rivette's stature. He is capable of so much more. This kind of movie makes us appreciate what Eric Rohmer did and how much he will be missed.

If you want to see a movie about people in a circus dealing with love and lost watch Charlie Chaplin's unsung comic gem "The Circus" (1928).