Archive for July, 2008

New French Extremity #1

July 30, 2008

In 2004, James Quandt wrote in Artforum, ” The New French Extremity sometimes looks like a latter-day version of the hussards, those Celine-loving, right-wing anarchists of the ’50s determined to rock the pieties of bourgeois culture; but for all their connections (shared actors, screenwriters, etc.), the recent provocateurs are too disparate in purpose and vision to be classified as a movement.”

In the case of Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, the film’s provocations, meant to disarm the stereotypical viewer adjusted to the familiar rumblings of cinematic narrative, fail to evoke a sense of empathy or understanding for its characters. Arguably, the film strongly delivers on its “shock” value, exposing charred human repulse in the most vulnerable of circumstances, and the denouement in Twentynine Palms accomplishes its primordial purposes of inciting disbelief and awe, its intensity further amplified by the utter lack of cognizant events for the most part until then. But what is one to make of the meaningless violence? Quandt probes further:

“What new or important truth does Dumont proffer that his audience needs to be slapped and slammed out of its sleepwalk into apprehending? In his sophistry, Dumont may place himself in the tradition of provocation, from Sade to Rimbaud to Pasolini, but Twentynine Palms has none of the power to shock an audience into consciousness evident in the elliptic violence of Bresson’s L’Argent, the emotional evisceration of Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, or the bitter sexuality of Pialat’s A Nos Amours.”

The film’s masculinity overwhelms and erodes whatever arousal it prompts within the common man during its numerous sex acts. Ballistic grunts and screams almost echo within the distant sky or the nearby ceiling. The hummer, imbued as a phallic symbol, is the vehicle of transport in which the two main characters, struggling to communicate, spend most of their time in. Darren Hughes, in his Senses of Cinema piece, writes:

“As an example, when all is said and done – after the endless driving, the pain-faced orgasms, the countless miscommunications, and the brutal, brutal violence – Twentynine Palms, I think, is really a film about a red truck.”
I think I agree.


Les Amants

July 24, 2008

Louis Malle, often referred to as being tangential to the French Nouvelle Vague, made the polarizing Les Amants (The Lovers) in 1958, when Godard and Truffaut were still critics at Cahiers du cinema, and Chabrol was just getting started (in the commentary, Malle observes that The Lovers was released between Chabrol’s first two films). Screened at the Venice Film festival, it caused a huge uproar by the Italians who scandalized the film for its blunt and tasteless “sex” scenes, and it later received similar receptions back home in France.

Ginette Vincendeau, in her essay accompanying the DVD, says, “Fifty years on, it may be hard to understand the shock waves The Lovers created with its “frank” depiction of a woman’s sexual pleasure, but in the context of late-1950s France, it was a bombshell, all the more so as Malle embedded his portrait of a woman’s “liberation” within a trenchant satire of the high bourgeoisie.”

This is precisely what caused the ruckus in Italy, France and the US (where the manager of a theater in Ohio was accused of screening obscenity, and the case was subsequently taken to court). Now it might be the fact that audiences everywhere were appalled by the character Jeanne’s (played by Jeanne Moreau) perfidious affair with a stranger in her own house, but what really drove them over the hill was the fact that the film applauded her for it. The film defended her right to sabotage her marriage and her child, to seek a new life, hesitant and uncertain about the future, yet unrepentant, with a complete stranger, shunning even her “socially acceptable” lover.

In Germany, apparently, scenes containing her child were removed, to make Jeanne appear less harsh and mercurial; but as Malle explains, this would render the entire purpose of the film useless, since without the child, Jeanne really is giving up nothing. It is only when she considers the child, and even after that decides to leave her stale bourgeoisie life behind, has she really undergone a transformation – from the mother of a loving child and the wife of a loveless husband to the lover of a bohemian wayfarer.

Ginette writes beautifully about Jeanne Moreau’s rising role in the Nouvelle Vague (Moreau later went on to play a tempestuous woman handling two lovers in one of the central films of the Wave, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim):

“This rebirth is indeed self-consciously reiterated in Jeanne’s transformation in The Lovers, from artificial, frivolous creature to “existentially” sensuous woman. Bernard tells her “I love you because you are different.” From her huge close-up at the opening of Elevator to the Gallows, Moreau was at the center of a shift in the representation of female eroticism, from the body to the face (even the sex scene in The Lovers avoids showing her body). Her face connoted interiority, her full, slightly down-turned lips gave her a proud, independent allure. Moreau brought to the cinema a new type of glamour, less overtly sexy than Bardot, more cerebral – she was known offscreen as a cultured woman, in tune with the new art cinema. With Moreau, the “new woman” of the New Wave had arrived.”