Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Truffaut, Gazza and not re-evaluating Hitchcock - Reviews #125

In part two of the summer round-up, I spend a day in the dark with Truffaut, don't bother re-appraising Hitchcock's alleged "lost masterpiece" and go on about Joseph Gordon-Levitt again.

Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
- An introspective Austrian (Oskar Werner's Jules) and a moustachioed ladies' man (Henri Serre's Jim) find their intense friendship variously compromised and cemented by their dealings with the capricious Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who marries one but makes an intangible connection with the other. This is one of Truffaut's two most famous films - the other being the unassailable, unimpeachable Les quatre cents coups, one of the most remarkable achievements in all of cinema - but it's really not all that great. It's intellectually stimulating but emotionally deadening, with an intrusive, almost ever-present third-person narration that strives for a novelistic feel, but winds up dominating the picture, and either telling us what we already know or reeling off exposition, while failing to adequately convey the passage of time. The film's fabled atmosphere of exuberance - which extends to some inspired freeze-framing and a joyous dash across a bridge - evaporates after a half-hour, leaving us stranded in the company of the annoying audio commentary, an unsympathetic heroine and the inscrutable Jim. The movie does have moments of unusual clarity - the points it makes about the gender of language are memorable and fascinating - and there's a lovely airiness to the outdoor scenes, but it's one established classic that doesn't quite stand up to its fearsome reputation. (2.5)


Three encounters with Antoine Doinel:

SHORT: Antoine et Colette (François Truffaut, 1962)
– Truffaut made five films featuring his alter-ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), of which this short movie was the second. It followed Les quatre cents coups – the film that got me into films, and still one of my absolute favourites – and was part of a portmanteau project combining the efforts of five directors from around the world, called Love at Twenty. Truffaut's segment is a simple story that sees the self-sufficient, 17-year-old Antoine throwing his ordered life to the wind as he falls in love for the first time. Sadly Colette sees him as a friend, rather than a lover, and seems slightly perturbed when he installs himself in a hotel opposite her bedroom. Still, her parents take a shine to the polite young man. This isn’t a classic as Les quatre cents coups is – a landmark movie about adolescence, told in a freewheeling yet neorealist style – but it’s very deftly done, the potentially minor storyline brought to vivid life through skilful editing, witty, quietly lyrical direction (spotlighted in the first concert sequence and three balcony shots, each significant in their own way), as well as Léaud’s lovely characterisation, closer to the semi-improvised realism of what had come before than the quiet mugging and hair-flicking of those subsequent sex comedies. I also like the timeless way Truffaut’s monochrome movies look; his colour films are positively hideous in comparison. (3.5)

Bed and Board (François Truffaut, 1970)
– Further seriocomic adventures in the life of Truffaut’s self-destructive, self-obsessed alternate self, Antoine Doinel, who is blessed with a son, lands a ridiculous, undeserved job, and fouls up his marriage – having fallen for a taciturn Japanese temptress. It’s entertaining, wise and funny, with several gags worthy of Lubitsch, and there’s a typically charismatic lead performance from Léaud, but if I have a criticism, it’s that both his performance and the film lack the naturalism that made Les quatre cents coups so very special. This is very much a movie, and his turn is very much that of a movie star, rather than one which draws you in through attractive or desperate realism. As movies go, though, it's great fun. (3.5)

Love on the Run (François Truffaut, 1979)
– The last in the Antoine Doinel series draws so heavily on footage from the previous four films that it sometimes resembles one of those sitcom episodes where the characters get stuck in a lift and then just remember things that have happened. The film does eventually find an identity of its own, though, and the final scene is very moving, segueing artfully and powerfully into footage from the theme park sequence of Les quatre cents coups in a way that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s really the only time that the archive clips really work, while the storyline – such as it is – relies too much on coincidence, just as the film leans a little too much on our goodwill, and our fondness for Léaud’s wayward protagonist, a character who in Truffaut’s words is “only comfortable in extreme situations”. There are effective moments, not least Antoine's farewell to his mother's lover, but as the director acknowledged, this is more a “curtain call” – a nostalgia trip for Doinel fans, and a chance to tie up a lot of loose ends through cold, analytical talkiness – than a coherent and important movie in itself. (2.5)

And, from the archive, here's a review of Les quatre cents coups, from a Top 100 list I did in 2009.

Les quatre cents coups (Francois Truffaut, 1959) - Thanks Mr Hutton. He was the fifth-form French teacher who treated us to a module on French cinema. Having screened Jean de Florette in previous years – and accidentally shown us Vigo's Zero de conduite due to an incorrectly-labelled video – he then ignited my burgeoning passion for cinema with Truffaut's rulebook-eschewing New Wave classic. Applying the innovations of that nascent movement to a semi-autobiographical story about a 12-year-old misfit, former film critic Truffaut created a movie that cut deeper and raised you higher than his contemporaries (among them Godard, Chabrol and Malle) could ever manage. Jean-Pierre Léaud is Antoine Doinel, unhappy at home and at school as he graduates from innocence to cynicism. He bunks off his comprehensive to go to the fair, almost burns down his house with an ill-advised shrine to Balzac and gets sent to reform school after a litany of misdemeanours. Like lying to his teacher that his mum is dead. Exhibiting a sense of assurance that's dazzling for a debut filmmaker, Truffaut utilises a loose narrative style that has time for fairground fun and a heap of freeform, improvised character stuff. In doing so, he creates a movie that's beguiling, funny and utterly unique. It's hard-hitting too, but deceptively so, as it presents the world through Doinel's eyes. There's misery there, and a sense of bristling injustice, but contrasted with moments of childlike euphoria - particularly in the opening half hour. The offbeat ending is one of the great unresolved climaxes. I was obsessed with the movie for about five years. I suppose I still am.

Favourite bit: The puppet show, in which the unquestioning glee of the children is contrasted with the growing cynicism of Doinel and his pal.

See also: Truffaut's ode to childhood, Small Change, damaged by poor plotting and one truly terrible special effect, but full of superb vignettes. The scene in which a baby unpacks his mum's shopping is one of the funniest, most anarchic things you'll ever seen on screen. Truffaut revisited Doinel in five subsequent films. The first full-length sequel in Stolen Kisses: a decent comedy of deceit and sexual longing that's a little too rooted in time.


Some Kind of Wonderful (Howard Deutch, 1987)
- Teenager Keith (Eric Stoltz) is hard-up, likes art and works part-time in a garage. So in '80s American high school terms, he's an outsider. His sole ally is a drumming, quietly smitten tomboy called Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson) - who bears more than a passing resemblance to Pretty in Pink's Ducky - until he catches tiny-mouthed belle of the school Amanda Jones (Lea Thompson) on the rebound. A little while ago, I suggested Pretty in Pink was John Hughes' best film, but actually this is, with Hughes fixing the problems with both that film (the lead ends up with the wrong person) and The Breakfast Club (that hideous makeover scene). It's complete escapism, but also affecting, intelligent and funny, with the writer-producer's usual stylised characters and vivid dialogue, and wonderful performances from both Stoltz and Masterson, who may be my favourite movie chauffeur. Only quibble: they should have let Brilliant Mind by Furniture play out, as it's great. (4)


This is definitely what teenagers are like and how they get girls.

10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999) - Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is transplanted to an American high school (Padua High) in this bright comedy-drama. Sweet-natured Joseph Gordon-Levitt loves arrogant, coquettish Larisa Oleynik, but her protective father will only let her date when rebellious elder sister Julia Stiles gets a boyfriend too. So Gordon-Levitt and his scheming pal get obnoxious Andrew Keegan - also after Oleynik - to pay loser Keith Ledger to snare Stiles. Got it? The film has little idea of how teenagers actually behave (a Riot Grrrl genuinely goes gooey over someone publicly singing an Andy Williams song at her), but it's fast-paced, witty and very nicely-played, particularly by Stiles and Gordon-Levitt, whose singular style was somewhat unformed, but whose talent and natural likeability shine through. "And I'm... back in the game!" (3)


Rio (Carlos Saldanha, 2011) – Formulaic but fun animated feature, from Brazilian director Saldanha and the rest of the Ice Age gang, about rare macaw Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), who decamps from Minnesota to his birthplace of Rio, but finds himself out of his depth, as he can’t fly, he’s chained to a withering free spirit (Anne Hathaway) and he’s about to be stolen by bird smugglers. The film continues an inauspicious tradition, that began with Merrie Melodies and persists apace, of non-sequitur songs in which animals spoof contemporary acts; odd, then, that a rap number featuring an evil cockatoo called Nigel somehow emerges as a comic highlight. There’s a lot to like about the film: it has an excellent score, some very attractive visuals and Eisenberg’s likeable voicework, while Saldanha does acknowledge some of Rio’s more unsavoury aspects within the framework of a kids’ feature. But the story is over-familiar and unadventurous, and there are just too many characters, the majority given a single funny moment at most. (2.5)


The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
... is that he's dead. People are forever trying to re-evaluate this as Hitchcock’s lost masterpiece, when really it’s just a passable black comedy with enough of The Master’s hallmarks that eager theorists can link it to his better films. Single mum Shirley MacLaine, modern artist John Forsythe and ageing romantics Edmund Gwenn and Mildred Natwick are among the small-townsfolk who stumble across a dead body, and then either think they’ve killed it, bury it, or dig it up, across 99 minutes. It starts quite iffily, hampered by a self-satisfied script that keeps giving Gwenn dreadful asides which he has to read to himself, but its comedic and romantic elements do congeal, making it reasonable if unexceptional entertainment. MacLaine’s charming debut performance is a major bonus, as is the autumnal cinematography, though it jars somewhat with the studio interiors. Bernard Herrman’s score was his first for Hitchcock. (2.5)


One Night in Turin (James Erskine, 2010) – Erskine’s documentary about England’s 1990 World Cup campaign has most of the flaws of his subsequent movie – From the Ashes, which dealt with the 1981 cricket series – but few of the virtues. There are no insightful talking heads, so the slack is picked up by an unbearable pseudo-poetic script, written by the director and read by Gary Oldman, while the match footage is constantly interrupted by unnecessary, amateurish reconstructions that serve only to spoil pivotal moments in the action. The attempts to contextualise the tournament in socio-political terms are also as hamfisted as in Erskine's later film: yes, bring the hooliganism aspect into the discussion, but why bother offering an irrelevant, sketchy crash course in Thatcherism? The central story remains a fine one – even when it’s framed in an unconvincing way that paints Gazza as a second Maradona, and Bobby Robson as a tactical genius – and there’s a very moving (and intelligently subtitled) sequence that reveals just what the manager said to his tear-flecked playmaker before the shoot-out against Germany – but this is a film that doesn’t do its subject justice. And no-one ever called Gary Lineker “Golden Boots”. (2)


Wedding Daze (Michael Ian Black, 2006) – Atrocious romantic comedy about strangers Jason Biggs and Isla Fisher getting engaged on a whim. There are actually six or seven laughs, and Biggs is quite good, but the story makes literally no sense – none at all – and the movie is overflowing with horrible, indefensible jokes and detestable characters, including Edward Herrmann degrading himself in a part that he presumably thought would reinvent him as another Eugene Levy. Yuck. (1)

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