Thursday, February 16, 2006

Thursady, Feb. 16, and two press screenings in the Rendezvous With French Cinema series: "La Moustache" and "L'Enfer". How many movies are there named "L'Enfer"? As usual, the Rendezvous screenings are more crowded than other series at the Walter Reade; the francophilic tendencies of New York City cineastes aren't going to go away easily.

Usually i try to remember the description from the press release, so i have some idea what to expect. For some reason, i didn't really bother, and i had no idea what i would be seeing. And i found this worked to my advantage: with no preconceptions, i found both movies to be enjoyable. "La Moustache" (directed by Emmanuel Carrere) initially seemed like a gloss on Kafka, but then it takes a turn and i was reminded of Claire Denis's "L'Intrus", as the protagonist seems to lose himself in a foreign environment ("orientalism" certainly retains its fascination for the French intelligentsia). Vincent Lindon had a great deal of charm, and Emmanuelle Devos seems to be in every other French movie during the last year. This time, i was struck by her voice, which sounded considerably harsher, almost grating. She's becoming the "go-to" girl for many French directors when they want a "star" but not someone who is too glamorous (rather as Sandrine Bonnaire was a few years ago).

"L'Enfer" was "disconcerting"; actually, i found it enjoyable, because i wasn't expecting anything. It seemed like one of those thrillers, usually based on Ruth Rendel or even Patricia Highsmith, in which all these clever little stories all come together at the end and their connection reveals something clammy and distasteful. But i had forgotten that the film was based on a screenplay that had been part of the "final trilogy" of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Kraysatof Piesiewicz. Whatever philosophical or theological pretensions the film might have had seemed totally erased. I don't know if that's what the director, Danis Tanovic, intended, but the result was a glossy thriller that was only a glossy thriller.

But on that level, the film was fascinating, because it showed you why you use a star. Emmannuelle Beart, for example. At this point, her swollen (probably collagen-enhanced) lips seem to be bursting apart, and her face (with its odd wrinkles fragmenting her porcelain features) seems on the verge of collapse: she's become practically a billboard of anxiety. She's come to incarnate sensual dissatisfaction. Even someone like Karin Viard, with her crisp, precise features, and her efficient manner, has become emblematic: she's the "responsible" person, the one who's always the designated driver. This movie doesn't do anything to test these actresses, it simply lets them go into their (usual) dance. Even if some of the actors weren't "familiar" (even if you hadn't seen them before), watching this movie, you feel like you already knew them. (The part of Julie, the woman the Beart character's husband is having an affair with, seemed so familar, but i couldn't place her... turned out to be Maryan D'Abo! In a very Maryan D'Abo part.) For this reason, the movie reminded me (mostly) of an old Claude Sautet movie, like "Cesar and Rosalie" or "Vincent, Thomas, Paul, and the Others".

French cinema has always been notorious for this type of star casting. And most of the great French stars (Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan, Danielle Darrieux, Pierre Fresnay, Michel Simon) seemed to be content to play within very sharply defined parameters. But that was one of the pleasures of the classic French cinema: in that sense, French cinema isn't that different from an old MGM movie.

But maybe we should be looking for something else, and maybe that's why some of the critics who came to see "L'Enfer" went away very disappointed.

I haven't even had time to look through all the magazines of the last week or so. Vanity Fair came, with its "notorious" cover. I read a few of the articles. Charlotte Chandler does another of her "conversations with" pieces on old Hollywood celebrities (Groucho Marx, Billy Wilder); in this case, it's Bette Davis. Nothing startling, though it is interesting to see Davis's take on her relationship with William Wyler. And Peter Biskind's article on the making of Warren Beatty's "Reds" was revealing: it was certainly unexpected to read about how committed Warren Beatty was to the idea of getting the story of an American communist (and the fact that he didn't want to whitewash this central theme) to the screen. Of course, one of the problems with these articles is the problem with all such Hollywood articles: you either take these people at their word, or it's hopeless. Peter Biskind needed the input of Diane Keaton on this article, so what's never mentioned is that when Beatty started work on "Reds" he was still living with Julie Christie. Just as when William Wyler started working on "Jezebel," the script was constantly being reworked by his friend John Huston (who did receive credit). But the "model" for the character of Julie, the capricious, beguilingly bitchy, domineering Southern belle, was Wyler's first wife (from whom he had recently gotten divorced), Margaret Sullavan. Incidents from Wyler's life with Sullavan were transposed into the script. (When Julie storms into the bank and interrupts Pres during a meeting... Sullavan would storm onto the set of "These Three" because she suspected Wyler of having an affair with either Merle Oberon or Miriam Hopkins.)

The writing of "history" is so difficult: there's always going to be people who are overlooked. And values change. In his review of the recent biographies of Laurence Olivier and Elia Kazan, Robert Brustein (in The New Republic) mentions that Richard Schickel, in writing about "theater" in his book on Kazan, constantly condescends to and patronizes the theater (and doesn't even get his facts straight, especially about classical theater). That idea, that the movies had superceded the theater, and why would Kazan (in the 1950s, at the height of his Hollywood career) go back to it, has become such a... well, it's the mindset of so many people now.

A few years ago, Michael Korda wrote an article (in Vanity Fair) that was so amusing, because it was about how all educated English-speaking people in the 1950s and 1960s were always debating who the greatest English actor was (the three candidates were Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson). That classical tradition continues, but it's now on the defensive.

But in the case of Kazan, there's one very unfortunate tendency that Kazan has (and it can be found all throughout his autobiography). If he doesn't like someone (or if it's a woman and he hasn't slept with her), he'll suddenly complain that so-and-so is "limited" or "untalented" (words Kazan uses to describe Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, and Dorothy McGuire).

But in all this, i've been thinking about how we judge things, how we decide something is good or bad. Movies seem to me to be so treacherous, because people take them so personally. One tendency now that has become alarming is the invocation of morality in terms of judgement. Every year, someone i know will decide to get on a high horse about how so-and-so is somehow immoral for being ambitious or angling for awards or whatever. But who in Hollywood history hasn't been ambitious or power-hungry or ruthless? If they haven't been, chances are, you haven't heard of them. And the behavior of most of those people was appalling! You couldn't even print most of the (true) stories about Howard Hawks, John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, Otto Preminger. But this is certainly true in terms of the 20th Century, in all the arts. And when you add politics to the mix, it's very dicey. If being a Nazi or a Nazi-sympathizer disqualifies someone as an artist, well, you've just let out Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, Luigi Pirandello... and just because your politics are ok (leftist, "egalitarian," humanitarian) doesn't mean you're a "good" person. In fact, you can be a horrible person (Brecht is the classic example).

Anyway, yesterday, while running my errands, i watched "Black Widow" on Fox Movie Channel. This is the 1954 murder mystery directed by Nunnally Johnson. When i saw it as a child, i thought it was just the most sophisticated thing ever; seeing it now, it seems one of the most preposterous movies ever made, because just abotu everyone in it is miscast. Reginald Gardner isn't allowed one bitchy quip, and he plays the male sex object fought over by Ginger Rogers and Peggy Ann Garner! Rogers, a "natural" (basically untrained) actress if ever there was one, is cast as a "grande dame" of the theater! Gene Tierney (one of the least "theatrical" of all actresses) is also supposed to be some sort of stage star. Peggy Ann Garner is supposed to be one of those grasping, eager, ambitious artistic bitches... the strain of the performance in her case is all too visible, and she comes across as too hard. (Anne Baxter pulled off this soft-on-the-outside, hard-on-the-inside number in "All About Eve," but just barely.) But "Black Widow" is set in the kind of fantasy New York City where people always have swanky cocktail parties, and people live in fabulous apartments with terraces and views.

But it's also interesting because it's an example of a movie where everyone seems to be cast so totally against type that it gradually creates a total fantasyland with no basis in any sort of reality at all. If "L'Enfer" seemed like an example of perfect typecasting, "Black Widow" is an example of anti-typecasting, and both are just as preposterous (and entertaining because of it).


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