Thursday, March 20, 2008

Action! Mystery! Romance! En Français!

Man, you would think that with these new prints making the rounds, there would at least be placeholders on Amazon for forthcoming DVD releases of the likes of Diva and Last Year at Marienbad. Diva is apparently scheduled for a June release in the USA; Marienbad doesn't even have that yet.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2008 at Landmark Kendall Square #9 (Special Engagement)

How things can change. The advertising around the re-release of Diva includes examples of how, when this movie first appeared, its style was comapred to MTV, and it was clear that this was no bad thing. Today, critics likely wouldn't use those words as a compliment, but the intent behind the words still holds up: It's still eye-catching and fast-paced, brimming with youthful energy.

Our young protagonist is Jules (Frédéric Andréi), a mail carrier whose true passion is music. As the film starts, he's sneaking a rather large reel-to-reel tape recorder into a recital hall where American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) is performing. Hawkins doesn't believe in recording music, so she would regard this as a much greater theft than the dress Jules swipes from the dressing room. Jules isn't looking to sell it - likely disappointing to the Taiwanese gangsters who observe him recording it - he just wants it for his own use, and maybe to impress Alba (Thuy An Luu), a girl he spots shoplifting in his favorite record shop. Ah, but there's another tape, a cassette dropped into Jules's satchel by a passing woman, one which contains the identity of the man behind the Paris drug and flesh trade - both the cops and the local gangsters would like to get their hands on that!

At times, Diva plays like the offspring of film noir and the New Wave. Jules finds himself besieged on all sides by factions wanting something in his possession and willing to kill for it, with even the police coming across as far from safe, but he also has chances to sit around funky lofts with Alba to talk about music, or to engage in activities somewhere between flirtation and romance with both Alba and Cynthia. Alba and her apparent boyfriend, Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), seem pretty open-minded about this, which is good, because they'll both wind up involved in the thriller side of the story by the time its over. Another way of looking at it is that Diva is the early prototype for the flood of pop-crime movies that came a decade and a half later in response to Quentin Tarantino's success; the music obsessed over is opera and jazz, and the tone is youthful sincerity rather than something more showily self-referential.

This movie may not be as slick as its more recent brethren, but even MTV was frequently a makeshift work-in-progress back in the early 1980s. Screenwriter/director Jean-Jacques Beineix throws a lot of story at us early on, but does a reasonable job of juggling the various plot threads. Not a perfect job - this is his first feature, and I confess to scratching my head at one point, not quite sure who had tossed Jules's loft. Occasional stumbles aside, it's a very well-balanced film, with the mystery broken by comic relief that never gets too jokey, and a deft way about slipping between art talk and action.

The action sequences are memorable without being overly grandiose. The murder which starts the dominoes falling, for instance, starts with a simple indication that something is not as it should be - a woman getting off the Metro without her shoes - before quickly cranking the suspense up, intersecting three of the groups, and then being over as quickly as it began. There's a nifty chase with Jules steering his moped onto the Metro, and a quality standoff in Jules's darkened loft. Beineix has a knack for shooting the action clearly and making it exciting without falling too much in love with it, so it's still a blow when people are injured or killed, and we're still able to share Jules's horror when he eventually finds and listens to the second tape.

Part of what works so well about that is that Frédéric Andréi isn't cast from the later action-hero mold; he's a young guy who is thoroughly over his head in most of these situations. He's appealing for that, and his simple, pure devotion to things like art, music, and beauty. His pairing with Cynthia is fun; Ms. Hawkins is played by Wilhelmenia Fernandez in her only screen role, but she's as natural in the character as she must have been on stage, a tremendous talent whose commitment to a certain principle is sabotaging her career. The characters played by Richard Bohringer and Thuy An Luu are actually the main characters in the series of novels that includes Diva, and there is something cool and larger than life about Borodish, though Bohringer plays him as something well short of a pulp character. The folks in the smaller roles are good, too - notably Anny Romand as one of the detectives, Jacques Fabbri as her boss, and Dominique Pinon in an early role as one of the gangsters.

Twenty-five years or so on, with a new print making the rounds, Diva is still an exciting adventure. In some ways, it's a little quaint, but there is something a little wonderful about how it allows its worlds of gritty action and beautiful music to co-exist without self-consciousness or irony.

Full review at HBS.

Le Samouraï

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 February 2008 in Jay's Living Room (rental DVD)

This film is the basic prototype for cool french crime, with Alain Delon as hitman Jef Costello and François Périer as the detective chasing him. It's a wonderfully procedural thing, as Jef and the detective plot their next moves carefully, showing step-by-step how Jef executes a hit without being discovered (ideally) and the police track him down. Later, of course, the organization Jef works for decides to eliminate him as a liability when a misstep creates a trail that can lead back to him.

Le Samouraï features a lot of what makes for a good policier: Meticulous attention to procedural detail, a pair of antagonists who are both intelligent and driven enough to be evenly-matched, with just enough humanity to not appear psychotic. Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Delon have a knack for making this sort of character cool; I love the scenes where Jef will stroll into an unlocked car and then nonchalantly try every key blank out of dozens on a chain until he find one that starts the car. It's a perfect minimalism, without wasted effort.

I should probably watch some more of Melville's films; I really like his style, but whenever one plays near me, it seems as though I never have a chance to get there.

L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2008 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagement)

You can tell a lot about my favorite sorts of movies by the fact that the film which kept going through my mind during this one was Dark City. Not that I was expecting a clock or the revelation of the luxury hotel being an alien spaceship, but, yes, my brain kept going to the idea that someone, maybe "M" (Sacha Pitoëff), was somehow constantly resetting and changing the memories of the guests, with "X" (Giorgio Albertazzi) at least partially immune and drawn to "A" (Delphine Seyrig), the woman M had claimed as his wife.

Naturally, that's not what happens; Alain Resnais's film is much more purely surreal than that. It's strikingly beautiful, with marvelous black and white photography of elegant spaces and people. Amid all the deliberate vagueness, there's a simple idea of contrasting X's passion (though his story changes frequently, his aim doesn't ) with M's coldness and utter control over the situation. We watch M win games of Nim over and over again, while maneuvering A into a situation where he can punish her for even imagined or potential infidelity.

All in all, it's a nicely eerie little mindbender.

One review at HBS.

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