Making of Fanny’s Journey

Here’s a 20 minute video about the making of Fanny’s Journey, a well-crafted film based on a true story of a 13 year old girl who’s got to lead eight children out of Nazi-controlled France to Switzerland during WWII.

Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.

Le Ciel à Vous

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Jean Grémillion’s Le Ciel à Vous, stands out as it’s uplifting film. Released during the occupation during WWII, it’s the story of a married couple, who must move their family’s home and business when their land is sold to make room for an aviation club’s airfield. Thérèse and Pierre Gauthier are happily married and even when they disagree they respect each other. They have a daughter and a son.

When Lucienne Ivry, a famous aviatrix, performs at the airfield, the Gauthier’s flock to the show. Nostalgic, Pierre remembers his days as a mechanic in WWI. He’s a master mechanic and saves the day when Ivry’s airplane’s engine fails.

Pierre grows more and more keen on flying and takes it up as a hobby. Meanwhile, his competent, beautiful wife gets more jealous. Her jealousy propels her to take up flying herself on the sly. When Pierre finds out, he panics. But when he sees how much she loves flying, they begin to share this somewhat dangerous hobby. Since Pierre’s a great mechanic and Thérèse has a knack for business, they are able to afford their own plane. In fact, they soon start winning prizes for aviation. All isn’t smiles though, when the family hits some financial troubles, the parents decide to sell their daughter’s piano. (The daughter was a fabulous pianist, but the mother made her quit the piano since she wanted the girl to enter a more practical field.)

Gremillon_Filmw_CielVous_originalEven when the going gets tough, and it seems that they should sell their plane, Pierre and  Thérèse keep flying. She racks up so many trophies her mother complains of all the extra dusting. As proficient as he was, Pierre knew their plane couldn’t break any more records for me. Then Thérèse decides she has a good chance to break the women’s long distance record of 2000 some miles. Her mother is against it and Pierre is torn too. He wants her to seek fulfillment and he does believe she can do this, but he also realizes it’s dangerous. Grémillion gives us such a multi-faceted marriage at the film’s core. Each wants the best for each other. Both Pierre nor Thérèse believe in fulfilling their duties to their business and family. They don’t just do what feels good. They’re cheerful, smart people throughout the story and while they may disagree, they do so with respect and dignity, which was so uplifting to watch.

The plot held my attention and I admit I wasn’t certain what would happen at the end. This is a film I’d definitely watch again.

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

 

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.

Jules and Jim

Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is rightly considered a classic. Based on an autobiographical  novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the story focuses on two young men, with a deep friendship. Jules is Austrian and lives in Paris, while Jim is French. They share a way of looking at the world. Both are looking for love in 1912. When they meet Catherine, who resembles a sculpture which they view as the paragon of female beauty, they’re both struck by her spirit and openness. Jim agrees to let Jules court and marry her.

The three make a carefree group, but you just know that this arrangement won’t last forever. Catherine is capricious but didn’t fascinate me the way she did all the men who fall for her. She has no job and no interests. She’s pretty and open to life. Her spirit can be summed up when after viewing a play, they’re discussing the heroine, as Jules and Jim debate, Catherine illustrates her view of the role of women by jumping in the Seine. Fully clothed, Jim jumps in and fishes her out.

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Soon WWI breaks out and Jules and Jim fight on opposing sides, both fearing that they may shoot the other. Catherine is back at home in Germany caring for her daughter and receiving beautiful love letters from Jules. In addition to being enigmatic, Catherine struck me as a taker. There’s no mention of her writing great letters to Jules to support him while he’s fighting for his country.

After the war, the men return and soon Jim is on his way to see Jules and Catherine and their daughter Sabine. Jules confides to Jim that Catherine’s taken lovers including a man named Albert, who appears from time to time. In true European form, Jules excuses Catherine since this is her nature. He is right, but it’s exasperating watching this woman escape all responsibility and never be held to account, which would help her grow up. Perhaps if Jules, or Jim, were stronger and more of leader, though that’s not his nature, Catherine might not test him so much or get bored. It’s doubtful, but possible.

Whenever you’ve got a trio, you can bet a friend is going to start something with his pal’s wife and with Jules’ permission, Jim begins an intimate relationship with Catherine. She still has sex with Jules and Albert and probably other men we don’t see.

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It was interesting to see how Truffaut portrayed a sexy couple, or a few such relationships without a lot of nudity. I think his films are sexier with their fully dressed characters than those where the actors are buck naked.

Though I didn’t like Catherine, I did like the movie, which was masterfully paced and full of emotional surprises. Jeanne Moreau gives an outstanding performance. As I write historical drama, I found it interesting how Truffaut didn’t spend money on exquisite period costumes or settings. There are hints of the eras, but the costumes weren’t as accurate or elaborate as you see in period pieces made now.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD come with terrific bonus features including interviews with the sons of the men the story is based on and with the original “Catherine” who lived to be 96 and saw the movie before she died.

Cléo from 5 to 7

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Agnés Varda’s 1962 film Cléo from 5 to 7 focuses on a beautiful, young singer during the two hours she’s waiting to hear whether she has cancer or not. She’s had her tests and the doctor said to call him at 7. How do you occupy yourself right before you’re going to get such a diagnosis?

Cléo first goes to a fortune teller. She gets her cards read, but the fortune teller gets upset when asked to read Cléo’s palm. Things do not look good. From there Cléo and her maid go shopping and we see how much more grounded and practical her maid is. Sure anyone would be on edge and jumpy at this time, but we figure, given her purchase of a winter fur hat, bought purely to annoy her maid, that Cléo is capricious.

The film made me sympathetic to Cléo. She’s a rising star, but she’s surrounded by men who have little time or respect for her. It’s not till she’s in a park right before 7 when she meets a fellow that she might be able to trust. Her maid and friend are reliable and trustworthy, but really, when you’re about to learn if you have terminal cancer, you are pretty alone.

There’s a lot of attention given to the strangers Cléo passes who’re living as if they have forever (though one stranger certainly does not). These little snippets of action and conversation spice and show what life really is like and how we aren’t the center of anyone’s drama.

The lead Corrine Marchard does a fine job as Cléo bringing her to life in a way that we see her as more than a dizzy singer with a bit of bad luck. Yes, she’s got privilege and doesn’t understand fully how much, but we still want to learn more and understand Cléo better.

The camera work in the film is inspired and masterful, creating a look that remains fresh today.

Earrings of Madame de . . .

Directed by Max Ophuls, Earrings of Madame de . . . is a film dripping in style. The earrings have a magical power, power to return to a married couple that grow apart and power to represent a range of emotions.

The beautiful Countess Louisa is married to an older general. While she’s hidden her debts from him and thus decides to sell a pair of earrings he gave her, their marriage isn’t bad. They are distant from each other, but he seems to understand her and marriage. In their social circle, I don’t believe anyone has an ideal marriage between soulmates. Here we see a marriage where there’s a lot of freedom. The general seems icy, but he does care about Louisa.

After she sells her earrings and reports them missing at the opera, the jeweler informs her husband and he buys them back. He then proceeds to give them to a lover as a farewell gift. When the lover must sell them to cover a gambling debt, you wonder just when they’ll return to Paris and to the countess.

Louisa soon meets an Italian diplomat named Donati. Their relationship goes from cordial to flirtatious to romantic obsession. As you’d expect, Donati has bought the earrings and gives them to Louisa, who’s already made a spectacle of herself when like Anna Karennina collapses when Donati falls from a horse during a hunt. People have been talking, but the sophisticated General brushes aside such possible indignities. He’s above such trifles.

However, things begin to fall apart when Louisa thinks she can fool her husband into thinking she’s found the earrings in her drawer.

The film is a masterpiece of cinematography and style. I constantly reevaluated what I thought of Louisa, the General and Donati. I had sympathy for each at various points. The film’s mastery is that they’re all likable and all in the wrong. Because of their social standing and their inability to sympathize much with each other or put aside social façades, the ending was inevitable. Louisa’s fate was due in large part to her distance from reality and her own lies.

It’s an intriguing and stunning film, but it’s also easy to remain aloof from the aloof characters.

I started to listen to the commentary that’s available on the Criterion Collection DVD, but the pedantic theories got old fast.