I think these might be time-lapse shots of the tide going out, but the picture quality is too poor to be sure. This is gonna be a rough one…

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Opens with a closeup of Catherine Deneuve smiling, a good sign, but soon she and husband Michel Piccoli are in a car crash. Afterwards, she can’t speak anymore and he has a harry potter scar on his forehead. Some eerie, powerful string music and many close-ups of crabs later, we’re at a seaside town where the couple have come to recuperate. Apparently they don’t talk with the locals much because there’s plenty of gossip going around.

Sheet salesmen:
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Doesn’t take long for things to get weird. Small hands drop buttons into pockets. Piccoli (whose character name is also Piccoli) gets scammed by traveling sheet salesmen. Fishermen provide La Pointe-courte flashbacks for the viewer. Piccoli beats a chef with a dead cat. But it’s not a comedy! Something dark and eerie is definitely going on.

Piccoli talks with a horse. The horse talks back.
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Piccoli is a writer working on a story, and when we see him writing the dialogue being spoken by a woman across town, I’m never sure afterwards what is really happening and what’s part of his meta-movie.

horse: “What is your story about?”
MP: “It’s about a man who knows how to control people by remote control. … but it wouldn’t last very long, a minute at most. This guy would be a bad person, with an evil mind. He wouldn’t be human or animal anymore.”

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Soon Michel meets a bad man with an evil mind, Mr. Ducasse, who lives in a tower. He’s hired kids to drop magic discs into townspeople’s pockets which enable their wills to be controlled by his super computer. Ducasse calls the townfolk his “creatures”, gets Piccoli to play a game of Battle Chess with him over the fate of the town and of MP’s wife. MP is losing, but decides he doesn’t have to take Ducasse’s crazy misanthropic shit anymore, destroys the computer and tosses Ducasse from the tower. I’ll let NY Times give away the ending below.

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Other notes I took while watching:

Catherine writes him messages, which I can’t read from the poor picture quality, and even if I could read them, they’d be in French. I have nice DVDs of Varda and Demy movies here, but I choose to watch a junk bootleg instead. Odd priorities.

The dead cat came with a piece of iron that makes the lights go out and causes people to act strange.

He just told a rabbit that his wife is pregnant.

Thief Max burns money, puts on diving suit, gets shot by partner.

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You can’t tell much about the camerawork from my lo-res letterboxed videotape, but it’s one of the first films shot by William Lubtchansky (a decade before he began his 30+ year relationship with Jacques Rivette) along with two others. Interesting that all of her films until 1977 had multiple credited cinematographers.

Village Voice calls it “really botched” in their roundup for this year’s retrospective… “If it’s about anything, it’s about the creative process in action and stars that fine actor Michel Piccoli as a novelist who bases the characters in his story on friends and acquaintances.”

Ebert: “a complex and nearly hypnotic study of the way fact is made into fiction. It seems to operate on many levels, but in fact it operates on only one, illustrating how fantasy, reality and style are simultaneously kept suspended in the mind of a creative writer.”

NY Times: “Then love conquers all. The survivors of the seven subplots make happy arrangements — for example, the statuesque hotel keeper (Eva Dahlbeck) gives up mistressing for the town doctor and begins with an underage busboy. The writer almost completes his novel. The wife gets her voice back, pronounces her husband’s name (“Edgar”), and has her baby — a bawling creature who at the end fills up the screen precisely to balance (and somewhat to resemble) a crab creature that fills it at the beginning.”

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The movie’s studied anthropology and attack on human behavior reminds me of Resnais’ Mon oncle d’Amerique. And also of Bjork’s “Human Behavior.” There’s definitely, definitely… definitely no logic.

I think most Jacques Demy studies begin with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and end with The Young Girls of Rochefort, pausing to mention that he died young and was married to Agnes Varda. I enjoyed those two so much that I figured his other films couldn’t be that bad, so I checked this out since the video store didn’t have Lola. Not only is it not-bad, but I challenge anybody to find anything wrong with it.

Catherine Deneuve (the same year as Tristana) plays a young princess. A few months after her mother passes away, the king (Jean Marais, not looking too different 25 years after his other fairy-tale film, Beauty and the Beast), with no other attractive princesses in the land, decides to marry Catherine.

Funeral for a queen:
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Catherine, a sheltered princess who spends her days with parrots and blue-painted dwarfs sees nothing wrong with this – after all, she loves her father. Fortunately, her fairy godmother Delphine Seyrig (the year after Mr. Freedom, and looking much classier) knows it’s a problem so gives Catherine a series of costume-design challenges to pose to her father to delay the wedding. When he passes them all, making her dresses the color of the sky, the moon and the sun, she asks for a dress made from the skin of the prize donkey which shits gold and jewels. Seems like a cruel slap at the kingdom, but he does it, and she flees for the country wearing the freshly-killed donkey.

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Doing small-town drudge work in public, but secretly sleeping comfortably in her shack with some magical fairy help, Cath attracts the attention of Prince Charming (Jacques Perrin, who starred in Z after playing the military poet who is driving away in the final shot of Rochefort). He meets her, loses her, then does the Cinderella thing with all the girls in the land, only instead of a slipper it’s a ring that fits only her hand, and announces they are to be married.

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Just then, a helicopter (!) drops in carrying the king, who is going to marry the fairy godmother – a hilarious ending to a story that started pretty dark (death, incest, donkey-killing).

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Demy (in homage to Cocteau?) uses slow motion and reverse effects as cheap movie magic to enhance the fairy-tale atmosphere. Hmmm, and painted people hiding in the walls and Cocteau’s name in the credits and his leading man in the cast – I guess he was an influence after all.

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Lovely music by Michel Legrand and lovely cinematography by Ghislain Cloquet, both returning from The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Dialogue that prefigures the helicopter:
CD: “Can a spell wear out like a dress?”
fairy godmother: “No, but it can weaken like a battery.”
“A battery? What is that?
“Nothing – I’m getting old!”
“But fairies don’t get old.”
“You’re right. I had forgotten.”

Also: birds galore… a giant stuffed white cat as a king’s throne… iris-fades to solid colors a la Le Bonheur… force fields… talking flowers… horses painted red… pretty much a must-see movie.

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Katy, Jan 2013: “I mostly liked it.”

Camille: “Can I come during the day, from 5 to 7?”
Marcello: “The magic hour for lovers.”

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Simon Cinema (Michel Piccoli) isn’t doing too well, confined to his mansion-museum with his butler (Truffaut/Duras vet Henri Garcin) and best friend Marcello Mastroianni (as himself, sort of). Film student Camille (Julie Gayet, the girl with the giant gag vase in My Best Friend) is hired to talk with Simon about movies for 101 nights, and her boyfriend (Mathieu Demy) takes advantage of her position to cast the legendary Mr. Cinema in his student film.

Michel and Marcello:
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Garcin and Gayet:
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But the plot is just an excuse for some fun. Every star of French cinema shows up, major films are mentioned (nothing is discussed in any depth – no time). Anouk “Lola” Aimée, Catherine Deneuve and Robert De Niro take a boat ride. Sandrine Bonnaire appears as both her Vagabond self and Joan of Arc. Piccoli drops the Simon shtick and the white wig for a minute and compares cinematic death scenes with Gérard Depardieu (“that old devil Demy!”) before a poster of their co-starring Seven Deaths film…

Gerard and Michel:
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Sandrine d’Arc:
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Hanna Schygulla (Fassbinder films, Passion) and Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim, The Lovers) play Simon’s ex-wives. There are seven dwarfs. There’s a conspiciously Bonheur-looking sunflower shot. Alain Delon arrives by helicopter (reminiscent, though it maybe shouldn’t be, of the out-of-place helicopter in Donkey Skin).

Gayet with Alain Delon:
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Jeanne and Hanna:
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It’s all very light and playful. I’m sure I missed a thousand references, but it keeps many of them obvious enough to remain accessible (if you didn’t catch the meaning when a bicycle is stolen outside the mansion, someone cries “italian neorealism strikes again!”).

Mathieu Demy meets Fanny Ardant:
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The credits list how many seconds and frames were used from each featured film – impressive – and also all the stolen music cues.

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tour bus guy: “Glad to see you on form.”
Simon: “Form of what?”
“Why, you seem content.”
“Form and content, a debate even older than I am.”

At Cannes:
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NY Times: “While covering so many bases, Ms. Varda never makes more than a glancing allusion to anything, and at times the film is such an overloaded grab bag that it grows exasperating. Or even baffling; for unknown reasons, Stephen Dorff turns up in a pantheon of great Hollywood stars.”

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LA Times: “Michel Piccoli plays Monsieur Cinema, who embodies the history and spirit of film, and in particular, that Fabulous Invalid, the French motion picture industry itself. (Since Varda is such a playful director, Piccoli is sometimes simply himself.) Monsieur Cinema may have been inspired by the director of the landmark Napoleon, the late Abel Gance, whom Piccoli resembles when he puts on a long silver-white wig.”

Lumiere brothers:
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Doctor Belmondo and Jack Nance:
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The large family house still stands, where once lived two parents, two sons and a daughter (now grown with children of their own), and one best friend who often visited. They’re all somewhat miserable now, especially the daughter, a playwright who never smiles. The family reconvenes for the first time in years (after one had been banished for a time) in the big house because of a life-threatening illness. Old problems re-emerge, along with some new ones, and there’s a secret love affair involving the best friend. BUT ENOUGH ABOUT THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, here’s the acclaimed new holiday picture from the director of the even-more-acclaimed Kings and Queen.

An IMDB review of K&Q calls Arnaud’s earlier 1996 drama “a rambling, shambling, thoroughly engaging 3 hour trip through the lives of a group of rambling, shambling, lost characters, made by a director looking to pour as much raw life into a film as possible and let the rest sort itself out. He has no interest in a well-knit story.” The same goes for this one, much to Katy’s frustration. This is roughly the same kind of movie as Happy Go Lucky, but instead of following the quirky life of one main character for two hours, we’ve got ten main characters for two and a half, so obviously we come away with less depth from anyone here than we did with Poppy in H-G-L – another Katy complaint. I liked the movie a fair bit. It’s an engrossing family sketch with great performances and no big scripted moments, fake-sounding climactic speeches or tidy resolutions, and the filmmaking was spot-on, tracking skillfully between a hundred different people and events (and featuring a hundred different music styles), cutting quickly without every becoming wearying or losing the threads of things. But then again, the Traumatic Family Drama isn’t really my bag, and while I’d happily watch this again over Rachel Getting Married (our last big family trauma film similarly featuring lots of shaky-cam cinematography), I’d even more happily forget both of ’em and sit through another show of Happy-Go-Lucky (or, ahem, The Royal Tenenbaums).

Junon (Catherine Deneuve, last seen in A Talking Picture) is sick (not visibly), needs marrow transplant. Her jolly, supportive husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon of Same Old Song) rigorously calculates her chances of survival. Hot-tempered middle child Henri (star Jean-Do in Diving Bell and the Butterfly), eventual marrow donor, bounces around with his new girlfriend Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos, star of La Moustache and Read My Lips) joking around and getting people upset at him. Tormented oldest child Elizabeth (Anne Consigny, Jean-Do’s dictation assistant in Diving Bell) tries to protect her schizophrenic, suicidal teen son Paul, usually without the help of her husband Claude (Hippolyte Girardot, intrusive downstairs neighbor in Flight of the Red Balloon). Meek youngest child Ivan (filmmaker and regular Raoul Ruiz actor Melvil Poupaud) hangs out with wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni of Love Songs and Ready To Wear, daughter of C. Deneuve and Marcello M.) and their two kids, and best friend/cousin/painter Simon.

Whew. So having introduced the characters, here’s where I lay out their story arcs and intersections, but I can’t think of a whole lot of those. There’s some to-do about Paul, a potential marrow donor, and whether his mental state is up for it. Junon and Faunia go shopping. Sylvia sleeps with Simon, in one of the only forward plot developments.

Easier to list are things the movie brings up which are not fully explored (or only barely). The childhood death of a sibling (who also needed a marrow transplant). Why Liz went from tolerating her brother Henri to hating him. Ivan’s reaction to catching his wife in bed with his cousin. And so on… but maybe it’s all comprehensible in hindsight, removed from the kinetic hustle of the movie. Take Henri’s Jewish girlfriend Faunia: a veiled attack on his possibly antisemitic mother, with whom he’s had a bitter history, plus, as an outsider who has never met the family, a window for the audience into the family home, someone for whom old family frictions can be described without the movie having to resort to narration (although it does – main characters talk to the camera), her outsider nature reinforced by her Jewishness on Christmas eve (she goes home before the day). Hmmm, that actually wasn’t so hard.

Shot by Eric Gautier, an impressive Assayas and Resnais D.P. who also did Into The Wild and Gabrielle. References include Shakespeare, Emerson, Funny Face, The Ten Commandments, The New World, and Angela Bassett’s ass.

So I’ve shown Katy two post-9/11 movies with downer endings in a row, and now I realize that I was about to show her a third. Unintentional, but can’t be a coincidence. Current theory is that 9/11 hit in the middle of my exploding cinephilia and I was angry that nobody wanted to talk about it in film, so the few films that dared to discuss it stuck in my mind… and it’s been about five years since I’ve seen ’em, the perfect amount of time to watch them again? Does that make sense?

Malkovich is still deliciously distracting as the captain. I’d forgotten how BUNUELIAN the whole thing seems. From one ancient landmark to another, having slightly unreal meetings and conversations with people along the way, then a huge narrative jump and we’re at dinner with the captain and his famous friends, then another dinner conversation, this time with the mother and child, Malkovich standing the whole time, a song in Greek, then terrorist attack!

A very unusual movie. I kinda love it, but never quite knew what to make of it. I remember this M. Dargis piece:

As the two stop at ports from France to Turkey, the film takes the shape of a genial history lesson, one that grows progressively darker when you realize the message Mr. Oliveira has been delivering alongside all the seemingly benign tourist shots. The film begins, rather prophetically, with the image of people waving goodbye. … As they stand in the shadow of the Acropolis, Maria Joana wonders, “What did people do here?” Her mother replies, “They worshipped their gods.” In a sense, who those gods were and what they meant is at the center of “A Talking Picture,” which takes the measure of Western civilization for good and for ill. Although the mother-and-daughter exchanges purposely recall the discourses that once echoed throughout the Acropolis, their sightseeing also has the flavor of everyday life. … The metaphor of privileged tourists blithely afloat on a luxury ship – and embarked on a circle tour of that crime scene known as Europe and its colonial-era environs, no less – is at once blunt and brilliant. In both its intellectual reach and the elegant simplicity of its form, “A Talking Picture” bears resemblance to Andrei Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” … this is the only film I can think of that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, has so directly addressed the war on liberal democracies. Maybe it takes an angry old man who can cede the sins of the West without also sacrificing its ideals.

N. Vera:

On one hand it’s a young girl’s education on the world and its ways; on the other it’s a meditation by three godlike women (godlike for their high status in the film and higher status in world cinema), representing at least two of the most prominent cultures in Europe, holding forth on their views of love, life, and human history.

France and Italy are, if not the most prominent, easily the most graceful of European powers (odd–or maybe not–that Germany, Britain, and Spain are not mentioned); both countries owe much of what they are to Greece, a fact Helena points out, lamenting at the same time the subsequent loss of status of her country (French, Italian and especially English are spoken everywhere; Greek is spoken mostly in Greece, and at most as borrowed words in other languages). America, the single biggest Western power in the 20th and 21st centuries, is represented by a fawning buffoon of a captain (played with selfless enthusiasm by Malkovich)–who is, it must be noted, Polish (all Americans except the natives are, of course, immigrants). Portugal as represented by mother and child is invited to the table, but the invitation is politely refused (the mother capitulates on the second offer, which included a gift of a lovely little Muslim doll to the child). France, Italy, Greece together at a table with the party hosted by America, and Portugal a reluctant but desired guest.

What’s missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt’s monuments are shown and discussed, they’re discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it’s from the Mid-East–Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship’s officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected culture’s startling response.

In an article by Z. Campbell, he says the film “is often if not exclusively interpreted as a conservative lament,” but he praises Oliveira’s other works and says “This is an artist concerned with, among other things, the representation of unrepresentable experiences the source of which exists in some unspoken spaces of social structure (hospitality, companionship, family ties, tradition).”

The mother, Leonor Silveira, has appeared in just about every Oliveira film I’ve heard of. Captain Malkovich will be in the next movies by the Coens and Clint Eastwood and also a thriller about vampire mutants. French entrepreneur Catherine Deneuve was in a few Raoul Ruiz movies I’ve gotta see. Greek singer/actress Irene Papas starred in Costa-Gavras’ Z and previously The Guns of Navarone. Italian model Stefania Sandrelli was in a bunch of Bertolucci movies including a starring role in The Conformist.

The box art takes the one looking-into-camera close-up of Leonor Silveira and nests it inside the one shot where she is dwarfed by the monuments she visits. A nice idea, but then of course it’s cluttered up with titles and floating heads of the other stars.

Katy would not have liked it. Or would she?

Tristana’s (uncle?) guardian decides to start sleeping with her. She has an artist boyfriend. When she gets sick, the uncle has her leg cut off to save her, but when he gets sick, she opens the windows to the cold air and he dies. Also she has dreams where his head is a bell clapper.

Catherine Deneuve is very good as Tristana, and Fernando Rey is good as Don Lope. The movie is dreamlike and slow in that special late-period-Bunuel style that I’ve never appreciated. Pretty okay overall.

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Severine is the wife of Pierre (Jean Sorel), but is unhappy with him sexually. She’s got a rich fantasy life, though. Sleigh bells and cats and a horse-drawn carriage lead her into rape-fantasies with coachmen, dreams of being tied up and humiliated and made to play dead. Family friend Michel Piccoli (of The Milky Way, Contempt and Diabolik) tells Severine about a brothel, which she hesitantly joins. Hilarity ensues when a customer (Marcel) becomes dangerously infatuated with her, and Piccoli eventually visits the place again, sees Severine there and threatens to tell her husband. In a jealous fit, Marcel shoots Pierre then is killed by the cops. Piccoli sits alone with Pierre, now confined to a wheelchair (and blind?) and presumably tells him Severine’s secret. The coachmen float us away into fantasy once more.

Terrific looking movie and really great performances. It’s got that Bunuel-dream-crawl pacing. Maybe best watched very late at night. Doesn’t make me weary like most Bunuel movies… probably one of my faves. Not as sexy as I’d maybe promised, more bizarre… sense of danger over sensuality, mostly a tense movie. Katy sorta liked it I guess.