Archive for the ‘50 films’ Category

50 films: #9. Pete’s Dragon (Don Chaffey, 1977)

April 18, 2015

My early relationship with films is hazy. These days, any respectable child has assimilated Frozen by the age of four, having watched their DVD of it a hundred times, but we didn’t own a VCR until I was six so that wasn’t an option. We didn’t go to the cinema often. The first film I remember seeing at the Westway was Disney’s Cinderella, which bored me almost to tears.

Most of my favourite films, then, I discovered on the telly. Some of them now feel like they were always in my consciousness. Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Our Hospitality) and Laurel and Hardy (Swiss Miss, Way Out West), surely I knew these from birth? Likewise the musicals whose soundtracks we had on tape or LP, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver! (though I don’t think I saw the film of Oliver! until I was eight or so).

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Some films, though, I remember distinctly watching for the first time. Whistle Down the Wind, for instance, a favourite film of my father. He noticed it was on BBC2 one Friday evening when I was six, suggested I might enjoy it, and I sat there mesmerised. I wasn’t a discriminating watcher of television at that age, and my parents were very good (though they might not have realised it) at guiding my viewing. I know it was their idea that I might like repeats of Dad’s Army and Reggie Perrin, and probably ‘Allo ‘Allo too. My love of ‘Allo ‘Allo predated our having a video recorder. I recorded one or two episodes on my cassette recorder, audio only, with other family members forbidden to speak lest their voices be picked up on the tape.

At the age of seven and a half (3 February 1991), already in the grip of self-obsession, I composed a ‘Factfile’ on myself. Following sections on ‘Birthplace and home’, ‘Language’, ‘Years of living in the house’, ‘Pronunciation’ and, naturally, ‘Aunties’, there is a list of ‘Favourite films (in order)’. I was a maker of lists even then. It reads:

1. My Fair Lady
2. Whistle Down the Wind
3. Pete’s Dragon
4. The Sound of Music
5. West Side Story

I can’t call Pete’s Dragon a favourite film these days, but I remember vividly the first time I saw it. It was on Channel 4 (as I recall) one Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I’d have been six or seven. I missed the beginning, so didn’t know the film’s title, and we didn’t have the TV Times so I couldn’t easily find out what it was. (This was in the period shortly before the deregulation of TV listings in the UK; the Radio Times published BBC listings, but for ITV or Channel 4 you had to buy a separate magazine. How did we live?) Perhaps I used Teletext to identify the film. Being a letter writer, I wrote to Channel 4 to ask them to show it again. A reply directed me to HTV. I wrote to them and was informed that they had the rights to the film until 1993 and would certainly be screening it before then. I couldn’t wait another three years, and Auntie Sue (featured in the ‘Aunties’ section) bought me the video for Christmas.

Pete and Elliott and some apples

Pete and Elliott and some apples

Let’s step back from the dull autobiographical detail and concentrate on the dull film. It’s the story of a boy, Pete (Sean Marshall), on the run from his abusive adoptive family, the Gogans (headed by Shelley Winters), in early twentieth-century Maine. He arrives in a small fishing town, Passamaquoddy, and is taken in by lighthouse-keeper Lampie (Mickey Rooney) and his daughter Nora (Helen Reddy). Pete has one friend, an animated dragon, Elliott, who possesses the power of invisibility and keeps getting them into scrapes. Nora has a fiancé, Paul, presumed lost at sea. Anyway, Elliott helps to find Paul, Pete gets a new family, and somewhere along the line everyone learns the true meaning of home.

Although it’s a film that many people, myself included, have a fondness for, one can’t overlook its shortcomings. The Gogans are obnoxious redneck sterotypes, Nora and Lampie and Pete anodyne bores, Elliott a dullard. (Is it justifiable to object to a cartoon dragon on such grounds? But why not? Remember Principal Skinner on Free Willy: ‘Justice is not a frivolous thing, Simpson. It has little if anything to do with a disobedient whale.’)

'Oh, no. Willy didn't make it. And he crushed our boy!'

‘Oh, no. Willy didn’t make it. And he crushed our boy!’

He’s not much better, but one comes to appreciate the comic diversion provided by travelling quack Doc Terminus (Jim Dale), a pervert who attempts to buy Elliott by bribing Pete with a potion that induces puberty two years prematurely (I mean, what?). His shill Hoagy is played with irritating tremulousness by Red Buttons (real name Aaron Chwatt; it’s sad that Hollywood actors felt obliged to change their names to hide their Jewish or Eastern European roots, but sometimes it was clearly a necessity).

As in real life, I never notice people’s appearance or costume in films unless they seem obviously anachronistic. Jane Kean’s anal schoolmistress at least looks the part. She’s so humourless and starchy that she might almost be a librarian. (I love her.) But Pete with his pageboy haircut and dungarees is inescapably 1970s, and Paul, who turns up five minutes from the end with an improbable story about amnesia and a bang on the head that restored the memory of his engagement to Nora, looks like he’s wandered off the set of a porn film.

'There's a dragon ... in my pants'

‘There’s a dragon … in my pants’

The songs are mostly written in a 1970s pop idiom, and are occasionally slightly sappy. One of the harder-edged lyrics: ‘Life is lollipops and raindrops with the one you love.’ Nonetheless, their saccharine sweetness was an important part of the film’s alchemy for me, and the ballet sequences within songs — the round/square dance in ‘There’s Room for Everyone’, Terminus and Hoagy’s avaricious pantomime in ‘Every Little Piece’, best of all the lighthouse-cleaning sequence from 1:39 here — are the parts where the film really catches fire.

Anyway, it’s not a forgotten masterpiece, which might explain why Disney are remaking it this year (cast to include Robert Redford). How and why, then, 25 years ago, did it affect me so profoundly? I can still feel the mixture of sweetness and sadness it evoked in me. I was an emotional wreck by the end. I couldn’t have explained how I felt to someone else, and I wouldn’t have wanted to. It was like being secretly in love.

Given that I didn’t fancy either Pete or Elliott, I surmise that it was the dynamic of their relationship that spoke to me, and the film now seems to be crying out for a queer interpretation. I have read next to no queer theory, all I know about queerness is innate and instinctual, so this will be crass and unnuanced, but that’s what you get with this blog.

At the start of the film, Pete and Elliott appear to all intents and purposes to be in love. They perform a nauseating duet in which Pete sings, not very cryptically, ‘Remember the night when you first confided … and things went so right that we both decided …’ to which Elliott, not being able to speak, replies in nonsense syllables. In the French dub Pete claims they met only a week ago. They’ve certainly not wasted any time.

But a love affair between a boy and a dragon is not something a small town like Passamaquoddy will accept. To the townspeople, Pete knows, Elliott represents the unknown, the object of fear, and so Pete persuades him to invisibilise himself.

After a sighting of Elliott creates havoc in town, Pete hides him away in a cave by the sea. ‘You did everything wrong in Passamaquoddy,’ he mopes. ‘Now everybody hates us. I don’t know whether you’re good for me … or bad.’ [Side note: I was seven or eight when I had my first crush on a boy. He was in a TV series. One night I had a dream that he and I had a secret friendship in real life, and I hid him in a cupboard to prevent other people from finding him. The symbolism of my subconscious wasn’t all that subtle, and still isn’t. Anyway, closet = cupboard = cave.]

Nora, although she doesn’t believe in Elliott until she meets him herself, appears to understand Pete’s otherness. ‘It’s clear that friends can be different,’ she sings to him. She knows it’s tough being in love when the love is impossible. Pete’s got his dragon, she’s got her missing ’70s moustache man.

At the climax of the film, doing Pete’s bidding, Elliott breathes fire to relight the lighthouse lamp, which has been extinguished in a storm. This helps Paul’s boat get back to shore, and Nora, oblivious to Elliott’s discomfort, kisses him. He’s uncomfortable because he’s shy, of course, but also because he’s gay, and so he vanishes himself once more. The lighthouse is so obviously emblematic of Pete’s phallus that I don’t need to write any more about it here.

In spite of the film’s aggressively sexual imagery, the ending is soft-centred. Elliott tells Pete that he has to go away. He’s found another boy to go out with, and Pete’s need for him has diminished now that Paul has returned. He’s part of a nuclear family. Not that Paul’s a direct replacement for Elliott, but there’s something about the moustache that tells Pete there are new adventures in store. I wonder if it’s too late to get that puberty potion, he may be thinking.

Odd, but not surprising, that the ending still moves me. It’s hard to break those childhood emotional attachments. Pete asking, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ like every boy who’s ever had his heart broken, the recapitulation of ‘It’s Not Easy’ over the farewells (I think Noel Coward wrote something about the potency of cheap music), the wistful mixture of melancholy and optimism as Pete rushes forward, sweetly calling goodbye as Elliott takes off, the sudden sunniness. It didn’t make me cry when I watched it recently, but I know it will in the future.

50 films: #8. Lacombe Lucien (Louis Malle, 1974)

August 21, 2014

The next feature film Louis Malle made after Le Souffle au Coeur is about as different a film from that social comedy as can be imagined. Lacombe Lucien is an uncompromising drama set in occupied France in 1944 about a peasant boy, Lucien Lacombe, who joins a group of collaborators.

Title

The film opens with the teenage Lucien (Pierre Blaise) working as a hospital orderly. He washes the floors and empties the patients’ chamber pots. A bird tweets innocuously outside the window. Lucien takes a slingshot from his overall, takes aim, and kills the bird. Written down, the symbolism of this act seems heavy-handed, but it’s an effectively concise encapsulation of the paradoxes of this character. His job is to care for people, yet he takes pleasure in destruction. He is neither still a boy nor yet a man. Who carries a slingshot around?

Having finished work, Lucien cycles home to the farm where his mother lives. His father is a prisoner of war, and his mother is having an affair with the landlord, M. Laborit. Lucien brings money to his mother, and performs tasks around the farm. He helps a group of men to attach a dead horse to a cart, and strokes the horse’s head tenderly. He takes potshots at rabbits with a rifle while a younger boy attends him. He catches a chicken and, holding it upside down, chops its head off with his hand. This is all presented in the most unsentimental, matter-of-fact way. We see Lucien as an uncomplicated person, a blank canvas. What occupies his mind? What motivates him?

Boy

Laborit’s son has joined the Maquis, and perhaps this plants an idea in Lucien’s head to do the same. Lucien goes to see a schoolteacher, Peyssac, the leader of the local Resistance, and asks to join, but he is rejected as too young. Travelling back to the hospital, his bike gets a puncture. Diverted from his normal route, he happens upon a dilapidated hotel now used as a base by a group of collaborators. Taken in and plied with drink, he is quizzed about the Resistance presence in his home town of Souleillac. Naively, he tells them of Peyssac, who is apprehended the next morning. Lucien falls under the spell of the collaborators. Glamorous and attractive, and including an actress and a cycling champion, they are unlike anyone else he has ever met.

One of the collaborators, Jean-Bernard (Stéphane Bouy), takes Lucien to a middle-aged Jewish tailor, Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler), to have a suit made for him. Formerly a friend of Jean-Bernard’s father, Horn now pays Jean-Bernard protection money for not handing him over to the Gestapo. He lives in semi-reclusion with his elderly, nearly silent mother, Bella (Therese Giehse), and a daughter of about Lucien’s age, France (Aurore Clément). Lucien falls in love with France, and, despite her reservations about the people he works for, she finds herself doing the same.

This is a dangerous game for Lucien to play. When he brings France to the hotel for a party, she is viciously abused by the jealous hotel maid, Marie. Meanwhile, the longer he spends at her family apartment, the more intolerable life becomes for her father. Horn calmly hands himself in. When German troops come to take France and Bella away, Lucien intervenes to help them escape to the country. A caption relates that Lucien was later tried and executed.

Lucien and Horn

The phrase that recurs in descriptions of the film is ‘the banality of evil’, a phrase first used by Hannah Arendt in reference to Adolf Eichmann, whose trial for war crimes she attended in 1961. So much of the evil that happens over the course of the film is the result of apathy. Lucien’s heart, one senses, isn’t in helping the Gestapo. He has no interest in their principles. He simply wants something to do, and the Resistance won’t take him. Early on in his apprenticeship, the maid Marie takes Lucien to one side and advises him to abandon the Gestapo, as the Americans will win the war. It’s a test of how far he has been indoctrinated. Will he reject the collaborators as a result of her advice, or will he expose her to them as a traitor? In the event, he does nothing: it’s the easiest course.

That said, Lucien’s involvement with the collaborators gives him licence to exercise the cruel streak shown in the first scene of the film. Most of what goes on at the hotel is bureaucracy — receiving and replying to letters — and the most malevolent character in the film, the humourlessly dogmatic Faure (René Bouloc), is essentially a penpusher — the genuine face, you feel instinctively, of the Gestapo. That makes the rare occasions where the sadism of Nazism is shown explicitly all the more shocking, in scenes of water torture upstairs in the hotel, and in one chilling scene at a doctor’s country house.

Jean-Bernard, aided by Lucien, limps up to the house, feigning a leg injury and asks for Dr Vaugeois, a man he knows to be working for the maquis. The doctor cautiously takes him in. When the doctor removes the bandage from Jean-Bernard’s leg and finds no wound, he knows the game is up. Lucien and others go through the doctor’s trinkets, taking the best pieces; the doctor’s brother phones up, and is told by a collaborator, Hippolyte, that the doctor is going to be shot; Lucien and Jean-Bernard ask the doctor’s teenage son Patrick about an impressive model ship he has made during the past year. Jean-Bernard snaps the mast in two, and Lucien breaks off the upper deck. Throughout this scene, the potential for violence that seethes below the surface is as horrifying, if not more so, than the small outbreaks. As Lucien calmly breaks up the boat, he stares into Patrick’s eyes, his own swimming with malevolence, and also with wonder at the power he is just beginning to discover in himself.

Lucien

The small act can be as devastating as the large. In a later scene, Lucien visits the Horns’ appartment and finds France playing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. Horn says he feels that his whole life has been lived to the beat of this music. After France’s departure from the room, Lucien threatens Horn with exposure unless he gives permission for France to attend a party at the hotel, and sits on the piano keyboard. The tiny gesture of sitting on the piano, the huge implication of cultural rape and desecration.

Related to the banality of evil is the element of chance in the film’s plot. A character in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys talks of subjunctive history — ‘moments when history rattles over the points.’ An example given there is that Halifax might have taken over as Prime Minister after Neville Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940, but at a key moment went to the dentist. If he’d had better teeth, he might have been made PM, and the Germans might have won the war. Pascal expressed a similar thought: ‘Le nez de Cléopâtre: s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.’

Lacombe Lucien is a huge ‘what if’. Lucien, broadly speaking, is not someone who does things, rather someone things happen to. If he had been taken in by the Resistance, or if his bike hadn’t suffered a puncture, he would not have encountered the collaborators. Late in the film, with the hotel sacked and the collaborators decimated, Lucien comes across a prisoner upstairs in the hotel. The prisoner appeals to Lucien’s youth, and promises that he will help Lucien to escape if he releases him. It’s another turning point: if Lucien lets the man go free, he has a chance of making it out alive himself. Instead, Lucien gags the man and draws on a lipstick mouth. It’s his own pathetic show of resistance.

Prisoner

It doesn’t seem to be until Horn sacrifices himself, maintaining his dignity to the bitter end, that Lucien begins to appreciate the value of life. He redeems his past actions with one heroic act, but too late to save himself. The final scenes of the film, which pulsate quietly with energy, show Lucien, France and Bella establishing a way of living in a deserted farmhouse. Lucien sets traps for food, kills animals, cleans his gun, counts his money, makes love with France; Bella wanders in the fields, watches a cricket on a leaf, plays patience. Lucien’s return to the simplicity of rural life is a return to blamelessness.

Bella

I didn’t write about the performances in Le Souffle au Coeur, but one has to write about the performance here of Pierre Blaise, perhaps the most notable of the many non-professional actors Malle worked with. (The performances of Holger Löwenadler and Therese Giehse are also remarkable, to a degree that I am not capable of expressing.) That one feels no sense of justice at the fate of Lucien, just one of pointlessness and pity, is down to the power of this one performance. Malle, quoted in Philip French’s exemplary Malle on Malle:

I could see from the first rushes that on the screen there was something so powerful, so ambiguous about him. In a way, you could look at him as the ultimate villain, but at the same time he was incredibly moving, as he was discovering power and money and how you can humiliate people who have been humiliating you for years. Pierre Blaise was so good, he got me into trouble. A lot of people saw the film almost as an apology for a collaborator because Blaise was so moving and disturbing that you could not completely hate him.

The character of Lucien seems to have been an extension of Blaise’s own. It is clear that his own influence on the film was profound, and welcomed by Malle.

He was very wild, he was seventeen, had left school at fourteen and had gone to work with his elder brother, who was cutting trees in the woods … Something that fascinated me from the beginning — he had a natural culture. He was a passionate hunter; he would talk about birds, about birds in certain seasons, how to find them, how to hide yourself to shoot them. He had this intimate relationship with nature — not only being a peasant, but also he’d spent the last two years of his life in the woods.

I did something that I had already done with Le Souffle au Coeur. We were going through the script and he was reading the scenes, and [Patrick] Modiano and I would listen to him. We adjusted the script because when he had a problem with a line he was usually right and we were wrong. I could see right away that he knew much more about the character than I did; he was not only playing the part, he was also my technical consultant on everything that had to do with the character’s background, his emotions, his behaviour. He agreed to do the film somewhat reluctantly, I think he was interested in the money and I liked the fact that he was not really interested in becoming an actor.

As with Lucien in the film, we can play the ‘what if’ game with Pierre Blaise. He died the year after the film’s release, barely twenty years old, crashing a car he had bought with the money from his acting work. If he’d never met Louis Malle… But there is no what if in life. It’s history — just one fucking thing after another.

I don’t have any grand thesis about this film. Just watch it, is what I say. Alan Bennett again, writing about perhaps the film’s greatest asset, its avoidance of didacticism, in the London Review of Books:

To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as clichés. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien … The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences — witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl — as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront. That would be the convention, and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction in the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through, Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.

IMDb

50 films: #7. Le Souffle au Coeur / Murmur of the Heart / Dearest Love (Louis Malle, 1971)

August 16, 2014

The latest in an occasional series of uninformed essays about films I like. I was prompted to revive this semi-aborted project when I read the published screenplay of Le Souffle au Coeur last month to check whether I could still understand French. The reminder this gave me of my absolute devotion to this film, a devotion that, unlike so many other things, has endured for the best part of twenty years, made me think I ought to dig a little deeper.

In order to distinguish this blog post from everything else that has been written about Le Souffle au Coeur over the years, I will start with my personal discovery of the film. When I reached the age of 13 I developed a passion for foreign films, particularly French films. I loved them partly because watching things with subtitles made me feel mature, however illusory that feeling may have been, but more particularly because I loved the French language and because, largely by chance, the films I discovered happened to be about subjects close to my heart — love, boyhood, growing up (or not). It may be a false memory, but I think I was given a video of Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups on the same birthday that I received my first shaver.

(Digressing slightly, it was Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne that set me off, screened as part of the BBC’s ‘Cinema 100’ season in 1995. I saw many films for the first time then: The Wizard of Oz, King Kong, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Night of the Hunter. Vertigo too, I think. Every week a new epiphany. Those days are gone. When BBC2 showed Now, Voyager a couple of weeks ago I nearly had a coronary.)

Le Souffle au Coeur

Growing up in unmetropolitan Somerset in the 1990s, the way you got to see foreign films was to check what was on BBC2 or Channel 4 late at night and set the video, and that was precisely how I came across Le Souffle au Coeur, which was broadcast in a double bill with Malle’s Le Feu Follet at some point in February 1997. I think it was then, because I recall it being around the time of my brother’s birthday, and because I remember discussing it with my uncle on the phone, which would have to have been that year, and, most conclusively, because documentary evidence exists that proves I was 13 years old, namely this. I’m amazed it’s still there. I hadn’t perfected my polished prose style by that time, and doubtless what I wrote then was mostly derived from the thoughts of other people; but there it is. It contains spoilers, as will this.

Then, as now, the Radio Times included the film’s BBFC classification in its listings, and while I could generally get away with watching a 15, Le Souffle au Coeur was an 18, though it sounded tame enough to me. I was desperate to watch it. Fortunately the attention my parents paid to what I watched was not so scrupulous that I couldn’t sneak a film like this past them. I was naturally devious, they tacitly condoned my viewing of Eurotrash, and the parental veto was rarely enforced. Better that I should be watching a film about a boy visiting a brothel than that I should be visiting one myself, they might have reasoned, sensible people that they were. I loved the film so much I even showed it to my mother (a not infrequent occurrence, though a bold move in this instance; more on that later), who loved it too.

The film opens in the spring of 1954. The French are at war in Indochina. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Laurent (Benoît Ferreux) and a schoolfriend are stalking the streets of Dijon in pursuit of money, ostensibly for the wounded at Dien Bien Phu. They talk of jazz — Laurent loves Charlie Parker; his friend, less coolly, Jelly Roll Morton — and go into a record shop, where Laurent steals an LP while his friend attempts to butter up the owner. The owner moans that if he gave to every charity he’d have no money left. ‘Mais monsieur,’ pleads Laurent, ‘il s’agit de la France.’ The man puts a coin into the collecting tin, and Laurent and his friend move on. Laurent arrives home. His family house is grand, if a little faded, and doubles as his father’s gynaecological practice. At the door Laurent is greeted by his cat Joseph. ‘I’ll play you a record that’ll blow your mind,’ he says, and they go in.

I love this title sequence, which is an encapsulation in miniature of many aspects of the film: its style (I love the simplicity of the titles — Helvetica, is it?), its wickedness, its good humour, and (not least) jazz. And in barely four minutes, we have come to know its hero, Laurent, an intelligent, playful, cheeky adolescent who loves jazz and reading but doesn’t always play by the rules.

Laurent’s life at home is essentially a happy one. He has two mischievous elder brothers, Thomas and Marc (Fabien Ferreux and Marc Winocourt), who lead him through various rites of passage — smoking, meeting girls, and eventually sex — and lots of records (Parker, Gillespie) and books (Camus, Vian, Montherlant, Proust, Tintin). Laurent’s parents’ marriage is an unexpected one. His father, Charles (Daniel Gélin), is middle-aged and stuffy, his glamorous Italian mother, Clara (Lea Massari), a free spirit, much younger — indeed, she seems to be closer in age to her sons than to her husband. During a discussion of the war at dinner she describes colonial expeditions as ‘démodé’, which earns her a critical glance from Charles. She dotes on Laurent, and calls him ‘Renzino’.

Laurent

There is a moment in the title sequence where Laurent’s friend spills some of the money he has collected. As they gather it up again, Laurent giggles. This is a sign of things to come. Rarely can a film have been made that contains more laughter. Laurent returns home to find his father ranting at his secretary for having double-booked him. Laurent laughs as he cradles Joseph. He then finds his brothers in conference with his mother. While Marc stands guard, Thomas extracts some money from her purse. The subsequent chase around the room is resolved not in anger but in laughter. A number of scenes in which Thomas and Marc misbehave — getting Laurent’s ruler out to compare penis size (‘Je bande pas, c’est mon état normal!’), playing spinach tennis at the dinner table, getting Laurent drunk and letting a girlfriend teach him French kissing at a party — end by being foiled by the family servant Augusta (Ave Ninchi), but whereas in another film the interruption would have been ominous, in each case here the good humour is maintained. It’s unusual that a film should show people having fun and getting on with each other to such an extent, and unusual that there should be so little threat to the harmony of Laurent’s existence. He doesn’t get on with his father, but there’s no suggestion that he may attempt emancipation. A film with so little conflict might be unspeakably dull, but Le Souffle au Coeur is not.

The film draws heavily on Malle’s own childhood. He grew up in a bourgeois industrialist family, had two boisterous elder brothers, and, like Laurent, was diagnosed with a heart murmur and had to go away to a sanatorium to recover. Malle told Philip French:

During my early years as an adult — not that I had been an unhappy child, actually I had a happy childhood — I rebelled violently against my background and education. I suppressed my childhood and didn’t want to deal with it, which perhaps explains why my early films were not about my childhood the way most first films are. But, after India [where Malle had gone to make documentaries], it came back. I had reached a point where I was beyond rebellion and I was trying to understand what had happened to me and how I’d become who I was. It’s not that I consciously went back to my childhood; my childhood came back to me.

Malle’s early films grew out of collaboration with right-wing writers and actors, but by the 1970s Malle’s own political beliefs had settled into a sort of left-wing libertarianism. Le Souffle au Coeur is a symbol of that, a family drama that subverts the bourgeois morality of his childhood, playfully but (to some viewers) shockingly.

Marc

Laurent is diagnosed with a heart murmur after contracting scarlet fever at scout camp, and is advised by his doctor to visit the spa town of Bourbon-les-Eaux for a cure. The scenes that follow form the most joyous sequence of the whole film: Augusta changes the ice on his chest, which he tolerates grumpily; Clara sits by his bedside and talks of her childhood, singing Italian folksongs with her guitar; his brothers visit to give him presents of music and books and to tell him of their sexual exploits; his confessor, Père Henri (Michael Lonsdale), visits to teach him Heraclitus, and is gently mocked by Laurent and Clara; finally, Laurent and Thomas try to play chess while their parents, uncle and aunt are glued to the television (subversion of traditional roles). Marc comes in to announce he has passed his exams, then in a moment of high spirits attacks a Corot painting on the wall with a knife. We know it is a forgery, but the adults don’t, and the three boys are in hysterics at their outrage. This series of vignettes builds up a picture of Laurent’s life far more effectively than a single, drawn-out scene would, and that is the case throughout the film. Malle is rarely thought of as an auteur, because his style seems to vary so wildly from film to film, but he often shows himself to be a great storyteller. His way of telling this story may appear almost casual, but it masks a great sophistication.

Clara

The second half of the film takes place at Bourbon-les-Eaux, where due to an administrative blunder Laurent and Clara have to share a room. Laurent strikes up friendships with the other teenagers staying at the sanatorium, and Clara flirts with a self-satisfied young man, Hubert. Laurent protests this in the strongest terms: Hubert is an idiot, and a royalist! Laurent’s quite right about Hubert, but his objections are a sign of jealousy, and his relationship with Clara often appears to be equivalent to that of a husband and wife, or at least of two close friends. When Laurent discovers his mother is expecting a visit from a man she has been having an affair with, he gives her his blessing: ‘Quoique tu fasses, je t’aime et je suis avec toi.’ After the relationship has ended, he consoles her, acting as her confidant. She expresses a thought that may have occurred to the viewer: that this is an unusual conversation for a mother and son to be having. ‘Pourquoi pas?’ he replies. ‘Je suis ton ami.’ When, both somewhat drunk after Bastille Day celebrations, they fall into bed together and make love tenderly, it feels the most natural thing in the world. Malle again:

When the picture was released, I was standing outside a theatre on the Champs Élysées listening to people’s reactions as they came out. I remember two women, obviously members of the bourgeoisie, coming out of the film. They had wonderful smiles and really seemed very happy. Suddenly one of them said, ‘It was horrible what we just saw.’ Then they started arguing. One said, ‘I thought it was funny and touching.’ Then, ‘No, no, it’s terrible.’ And she suddenly became very pompous. I tried to follow them on the Champs Élysées, but at some point they noticed that I was listening. I think it was a case of double-take for many people; they enjoyed the film tremendously, and then when they thought about it, they said, ‘Hey, this is a very scandalous proposition.’ I really liked that. It’s one of the things I’ve always liked to do, forcing people to reconsider preconceived ideas.

I imagine Malle came under a certain amount of pressure from his studio to end the film differently. If you get busy with your mother, you have to pay the price. Any Ancient Greek can tell you that. And if memory serves there is a moment in the screenplay where Laurent briefly contemplates a razor blade. What happens, though, is that Clara explains to him gently that what has happened will not happen again, but that she will think of it fondly. Laurent goes out, gets into bed with another girl, and returns the next morning, shoes in hand, to find his father and brothers waiting for him. Realising the implication of Laurent returning shoeless, Thomas and Marc begin to laugh. Charles joins in, then Clara, then finally Laurent himself. It is the only way the film could have ended, with the reintroduction of laughter, the dissolution of tension.

Laughter

When I revisited the film a couple of days ago, I found I hardly needed to. I’ve assimilated it. What is its legacy to me? Laurent’s tastes certainly influenced my reading (I think perhaps I had already read Camus’ L’Étranger, but it inspired me to try Le Mythe de Sisyphe, which I managed about 30 pages of before giving up; later, I fell in love with Montherlant), but the main thing it gave me was jazz. I don’t imagine a day will dawn when I fail to see the point of Charlie Parker. I even share Laurent’s lack of humour about it. At the sanatorium he asks a girl, Hélène, back to his room to listen to his records. When she suggests dancing to them, he retorts, ‘Sont des disques pour écouter, pas pour danser.’

IMDb

50 films: #6. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg / The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

March 29, 2012

It’s by the luck of the draw that I find myself writing about this film barely a week after an excellent piece about it appeared in the blogosphere. There may not be a great deal of interest I can add to that, but I will preface what follows with a warning that it contains plot spoilers. I don’t believe the watching of this film is harmed by advance knowledge of what happens in it, since the arc of the story relies on banal romantic conventions and clichés to such a degree that it is quite possible for the perceptive first-time viewer to divine its outcome on the basis of having watched only the first ten or fifteen minutes. One of the things that interests me about Les Parapluies is how a film with such an ostensibly hackneyed plot should be so successful in shunning banality.

I was in my mid-teens when I first became aware of Les Parapluies. I’d been devouring French films at a steady pace for a few years, but a French-language musical was a novelty to me – furthermore, a musical containing no spoken dialogue at all, in which even the most mundane lines are sung. It sounded bewilderingly exotic.

In spite of the sumptuousness of all that follows, I love the opening title sequence most of all. The sound of a foghorn ushers in the aerial view of a cobbled Cherbourg street, a picture-postcard impression of a seaside town, as that familiar, bittersweet tune begins in Legrand’s tender, minimal scoring. The rain falls vertically, the meticulously choreographed pastel umbrellas and bicycles move across the screen, and the heart is automatically enraptured by the impeccable care and attention paid to the film’s colour and surface and style. Well, my heart anyway.

The action begins in the garage where 20-year-old Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) works. His workmates are the campest mechanics imaginable. One sings of his plans to go dancing, while Guy is excited about seeing Carmen. He is mocked mercilessly: ‘L’amour est enfant de Bohème, la la la la-la-la-la la la!’ His colleague cannot abide the artifice of people singing everything. ‘Tous ces gens qui chantent, moi tu comprends ça me fait mal!’ he sings.

Guy, it transpires, is straight. After clocking off he meets his beloved, 17-year-old Geneviève, whose mother, Madame Emery (Anne Vernon), owns the eponymous umbrella shop. He must have met this girl quite a few times already, as he evinces no shock at her being Catherine Deneuve. Despite Madame Emery’s well-intentioned naggings, Geneviève persists in stepping out with this older man.

A digression now about Michel Legrand’s magnificent score. It is through-composed in the way that a Wagnerian opera is. (I think a direct comparison of Legrand and Wagner might see the former come off pretty badly, though as the writer of ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ he probably wins in the hummability stakes.) There are only a couple of free-standing songs capable of being extracted from and sung independently of the musical: the one everyone knows (‘Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi’, rendered into English as ‘I Will Wait for You’ and sung by a thousand Lesley Garretts and Susan Boyles the world over), and Roland Cassard’s sweet little aria that later became ‘Watch What Happens’. Melodically, Legrand relies on the Leitmotiv, with the jaunty ‘C’est toi, Guy?’ / ‘Bonsoir, Tante Elise’ as Guy returns home to the elderly aunt he lives with (Mireille Perrey); and then the sensuous ‘Bonsoir, Guy’ / ‘Bonsoir, Madeleine’, which recurs whenever Guy meets his aunt’s young carer (Ellen Farner). Much later in the film, Guy will sing to Madeleine, to the same tune, of his dream: ‘Être heureux, avec une femme, dans une vie que nous aurions choisi ensemble.’ Harmonically, Legrand relies heavily on the circle of fifths. Few composers have exploited the potential of the circle of fifths so effectively, and none so often.

Guy and Geneviève talk (sing) of the future, which is rarely a good idea at such an early stage of a film. Incurable romantic that Guy is, he dreams that they will one day own a petrol station. Geneviève is more interested in children, and informs him that they will have a girl called Françoise. But what if it’s a boy? asks Guy, reasonably. Geneviève explains, ‘Il y a toujours une fille dans la famille.’ These are the prophecies that will be both fulfilled and shattered by the end of the film.

Before long, Guy receives his call-up papers and bids Geneviève a tearful farewell to go and serve in Algeria. Soon after his departure, she finds she is pregnant. For the sake of respectability, and at her mother’s behest, she marries a jeweller, the kindly Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), and stops writing to Guy. He returns from the war to find everything changed, and marries Madeleine. An epilogue shows Guy and Geneviève meeting again, a few years down the line.

It reads like the plot of a second-rate romantic novel, and the twists in the tale revealed at the end – that Guy does now own an Esso filling station, that Geneviève has called her and Guy’s daughter Françoise, and moreover that Guy has called his and Madeleine’s son François – may seem like the customary clichés of popular fiction. And yet they are gutting in their way, like the twist of the knife at the end of Manon des Sources. Surely it is a combination of the film’s visual style and its intoxicating music that produces this effect.

Roger Ebert, from whom I am seldom minded to dissent, writes that the film’s style, i.e. constant singing and thereby, presumably, whimsicality, ‘would seem to suggest a work of featherweight romanticism, but “Umbrellas” is unexpectedly sad and wise, a bittersweet reflection on the way true love sometimes does not (and perhaps should not) conquer all … The very last scene, of a final meeting between Guy and Genevieve, is one of such poignancy that it’s amazing the fabric of a musical can support it.’ Of course, opera supports this kind of thing all the time, and some of the bolder musicals (West Side Story) have a stab at it (no pun intended), but Les Parapluies is a rare creation in this regard. You don’t expect a musical to have such a profound effect on you. I remember watching it with my mother and brother a few years ago, and at the end sitting in silence for maybe twenty seconds, all of us too choked up to talk. I don’t think my memory has played me false in this recollection.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for five Oscars. A new print, restored under the supervision of Jacques Demy’s widow, the director Agnès Varda, was released in 1996. It is currently available for viewing online here.

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