I’ve been watching Bresson’s earliest films in order, culminating in this extras-packed blu-ray of A Man Escaped. When I first started watching Bresson films (Au Hazard Balthazar, Lancelot of the Lake, The Devil Probably) I couldn’t figure out his style or why he was so acclaimed. Then I saw A Man Escaped and Pickpocket and loved them, but couldn’t say exactly why. Now I’m slowly figuring that out, though I still don’t really get Bresson’s worldview or what he means when he talks about his kind of cinema. He create subtle effects through careful modulation of elements that are usually more expressive: framing, editing and especially acting. This could lead to boredom, but he’s also using high-tension scenarios in A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and the constant fear of getting caught clashes in interesting ways with the flat affect of the performance, plus this movie’s nonstop (sometimes redundant) narration provides the inner thoughts that the lead character’s blank expression hides. There are only brief bursts of music (I learned in the extras that Bresson plays Mozart whenever the lead character meets with someone who might aid his escape). All the movie’s tension and repression pays off after the final escape as Fontaine and his late-recruited cellmate Jost walk into the freedom of the night fog and the Mozart rises, the transcendence that Bresson was aiming for.

K. Elmore:

Bresson and André Devigny, the real-life former prisoner of war on whose experiences A Man Escaped was based, had differing ideas of what type of actor should be cast in the role of Fontaine. Feeling that the character must look physically capable of making the escape, Devigny presented Bresson with a young paratrooper and military triathlete. Bresson, however, was interested in making a “very psychological, very internal” film, as Devigny puts it, and chose the philosophy student François Leterrier, who, though he didn’t resemble Devigny in build, had very expressive eyes.

T. Pipolo:

The economy, purity, and rigor of Bresson’s aesthetic are directly related to his vision of the world, a complex perspective that carefully balances a belief in free will against the notion of preexistent design. For example, while A Man Escaped seems to be clearly mobilized by the protagonist’s will to be free, at the same time, Bresson said his aim was to “show the miracle [of] an invisible hand over the prison, directing what happens.” Thus, the propulsive trajectory of Bresson’s narratives — a result of the removal of excess and the refinement of technique — serves his overriding theme that human lives follow an implacable course. This is also apparent in such later masterpieces as Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), Lancelot of the Lake (1974), and L’argent (1983), despite their widely different subjects and increasingly cynical view of a world in which spiritual redemption seems to have vanished.

Elmore again:

Bresson put [assistant Louis] Malle in charge of Fontaine’s spoons, rope, hooks, and other escape implements, saying “Since you come from documentary, you take care of the props.”

Pipolo again:

Bresson’s method of creating character was not through the actor’s performance but through the actions performed — an approach that emphasized the external world and concrete reality. It is what a fictional figure does that creates character; his inner self is revealed by his outward actions and how he performs them. In short, action is character.

The Cineastes episode opens with long, uncommented section of Bresson films, then bursts of quickly-edited Bresson speaking philosophically, hating on filmed theater and escapism, finally settling down on an interview where he is hoping that filmmakers younger than himself can create the poetic “cinematograph” that he dreams of. It’s all very quotable, but he needs to use more examples so we’ll understand what he’s on about. Bresson also discusses his ideas for a cancelled film on Genesis. Listening to his theories, I started to wonder if Straub/Huillet were up to the same thing, but research (including my own post on Class Relations) says not exactly.

Bresson: “People say I was Rene Clair’s assistant. I never was. If I had been, I wouldn’t mind saying so.”

Functions of Film Sound is only about the sound of A Man Escaped. I’m amazed that he required 50 takes of some shots and still post-synched the whole thing – you’d think all the takes are required to get the vocal delivery just right, but that was just for the visual delivery – dialogue took another pile of takes a few weeks or months later.

Elmore:

All of the dialogue in the film was rerecorded in a studio. Bresson would say the line to the actor, and he would repeat it back to him, usually no fewer than forty to sixty times. Then Bresson edited together the best take of each word to re-create the line of dialogue.

The Essence of Forms opens with lead actor Francois Leterrier’s disclaimer that Bresson would not approve of any of this, then he gives stories and analysis of Bresson and his methods. “He never gave directions about interiority.”

Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme: “We saw several films together. He never liked them. He’d quiver in his seat, muttering ‘How can they do such things?’ It didn’t seem bad to me.”

The Road to Bresson: The filmmakers use the Story of Film technique of shooting their documentary footage in the style that their subject might use. This one quotes Bresson’s book and redundantly (in blu-ray terms) excerpts the Cineastes episode (however it also makes the point that Bresson used redundancy in his films). Good feature, and it was made after L’Argent so it covers a wider range of work than the others. I liked Paul Schrader’s explanation of transcendental film style, summarizing the book he wrote on Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer. Happy ending: for his final film, Bresson received a Cannes award alongside Tarkovsky, presented by Orson Welles.

Bresson gets a laugh at the press conference.
Q: “Why do you make films that frustrate viewers?”
RB: “What viewer are you talking about?”

Tales of Mystery and Imagination is the title on the print, and IMDB calls it Histoires extraordinaires. An anthology film with three shorts based on Edgar Allen Poe stories, its reputation is of a brilliant Fellini film saddled behind a harmless Malle and terrible Vadim – but I like the Vadim (and I watched it twice, so I’m sure) and found the Malle unpleasant.


Metzengerstein (Roger Vadim)

Started watching this on DVD in French with bad dubbing – I noticed Jane Fonda was mouthing the words I saw in the subtitles, though I was hearing French voices. So after this segment, I started over with the British blu-ray, which has a great picture-quality advantage even if some of the voices are still dubbed. IMDB claims Vincent Price is narrating, but it sounds more like Rod Serling.

Jane Fonda, happiest when someone is getting hanged:

Frederique (Jane Fonda a few months before Barbarella) is a countess who wears outrageous clothing and hangs out with her rich friends and exotic pets (a blue/gold macaw, a baby leopard) taunting the peasants, sometimes to death. She meets a distant relative who lives on neighboring land (Fonda’s actual brother Peter, between The Trip and Easy Rider). She’s infatuated with him, but he doesn’t fall for her power trip, so she orders his barn burned down and he dies trying to save his prize horse. Just then a black horse appears at her castle, and she becomes obsessed with riding it, finally riding into some burning fields to be with her deceased cousin. It’s not much of a story, but I liked its mix of gothic brooding and 1960’s decadence. Also I liked Peter’s baby owl.

Francoise Prevost, a conspirator in Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round, plays “friend of countess” – not sure if that’s the friend Jane was fondling naked in a bathtub or not. The Poe story (in which the Jane Fonda character was male) was filmed again in the 1970’s by some French people I’ve never heard of.


William Wilson (Louis Malle)

Opens with the jump-cuttiest scene of a man running intercut with a rag doll falling off a church tower. Alain Delon (year after Le Samourai, two before Le Cercle Rouge) barges rudely into a confession booth and subjects a priest to his flippantly-dubbed flashbacks. First, as a psychotic young boy (fun fact: 27 years later, the actor playing young Delon would appear in Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak), Wilson was tormenting his classmates when another boy named William Wilson showed up, frustrating him. “Several years later I entered the school of medicine out of curiosity,” and as a psychotic young man, he rapes and tortures some girl on the autopsy table in front of his colleagues, again is frustrated when another William Wilson (now clearly played by Delon himself) shows up. Finally as a psychotic adult, Wilson is cheating a rich woman (Vadim’s ex-wife Brigitte Bardot, a few years before her retirement) at cards then whipping her (!) when Other Wilson arrives and reveals the fraud.

That’s the autopsy girl, not Bardot:

I don’t know what Wilson wanted the priest to do about all this, and I’m not sure if he’s just bringing up a few specific examples of the many times WWII turned up in his life, or if the guy only arrives once a decade. WW goes running outside, fights his doppelganger in a duel, and either stabs himself or leaps off the church tower, it’s hard to tell which. Good. It’s a misogynistic little film with diabolically bad dialogue. The Poe story (which has less nude-woman-torture, and fewer leaps from atop church towers) was filmed before in the silent era with Paul Wegener and again with Conrad Veidt, and I can tell just from its wikipedia entry that the original story is better than Malle’s visualisation.

William the Second:


Toby Dammit (Federico Fellini)

A drugged-out British actor arrives in Italy to appear in a film, for which he has been promised a ferrari. After suffering through his flight, cast and crew meetings and a party (haven’t seen it in a while, but looks like they’re partying on the set of Satyricon), he gets his hands on the ferrari and drives through the confounding Italian countryside, finally leaping an out-of-order bridge but failing to notice the steel wire just at neck level.

A decadent little film – every shot is crazy and imaginative and essential. Terence Stamp (year after Poor Cow) was so good in this, that it will now be necessary for me to watch everything he did between it and The Limey. Creepiest is the devil girl with a white ball who alternately torments and provokes the volatile Stamp without any dialogue. The Poe story actually features a character named Toby Dammit’s bridge-jumping beheading – though not in a ferrari, obviously.


Bonus image – a Jean Cocteau snowball fight:

“All is illusion. Set us free of this world.”

A badger on the road is run down by a small orange car driven by Lily, hiding her identity beneath a hat and bulky coat, driving through the midst of a literal battle of the sexes (with tanks and machine guns). She runs from her car after being discovered, chills for a while with snakes, millipedes and mantises before spying a unicorn then following a woman on horseback and a group of naked children running with a pig towards an old house in which she finds a bottomless glass of milk, a semi-talking piglet and rat, and an old woman with a C.B. and an alarm clock collection. So it kind of sounds like a kids’ movie, if not for all the nudity and brutal warfare, and were there some dialogue or a condescending narrator to help the viewer along.

Enter two more characters named Lily, a brother and sister played by Joe Dallesandro (the year after Dracula) and Alexandra Stewart (Mickey One, The Fire Within), both of whom I liked very much. Maybe it’s because they’re so silent, while the main Lily (Cathryn Harrison, who was 15 and had already appeared in Altman’s Images and Demy’s Pied Piper) and the old woman (Therese Giehse, in Malle’s Lacombe Lucien the year before) were hampered by the dubbing in their dialogue scenes.

nearly the full cast:

The old woman dies amidst an alarm clock catastrophe, but is alive again when the siblings come up to feed her (she sucks one Lily’s breast while Joe Lily tickles her ear). Main Lily remains in the old woman’s room for a while. A bird flutters around the room (prefiguring a later scene), and the woman talks with her rat friend (named Humphrey) and her radio, watches and mocks the girl, who eats the ant-infested christmas cheese and braves bureau snakes to flip through a photo album. Meanwhile the war outside makes itself known from time to time, and Lily finally escapes to seek the unicorn. She gets no help from the siblings, finally manages to hold an unsatisfying chat with the unicorn after ripping up some flowers as they scream in pain.

Lily plays piano while the children, some of them clothed now, sing along operatically, then is frightened by a painting of a male swordsman chopping a hawk in half while a woman weeps. Enter a hawk through the window, and Joe Lily with a sword. I hope that beautiful hawk (and the badger, and the lamb, and the snake) wasn’t actually hurt or killed by the film crew. This leads to a painful-looking sibling battle. Finally, Lily, alone in the woman’s room except for the unicorn, baring her breasts to feed it.

If there’s meaning to all this, it’s not readily apparent. The old woman outright tells Lily that she imagined the unicorn and the war, but the woman herself disappears at times. If Lily herself, or anything at all, is supposed to be “real” and imagining these events, perhaps while playing outside, or playing piano, the movie presents no evidence of this. Lily, or Louis anyway, has your mid-1970’s fascination with nature and nudity (see also: Wicker Man, Holy Mountain, Deliverance). The internet figures it’s somehow related to Alice In Wonderland, as must be every fantasy story with a young girl lead.

Luis Buñuel’s daughter-in-law helped with the dialogue, shot by Bergman buddy Sven Nykvist. “Old Lady” Therese Giehse died before this came out. I thought it was a funny misprint when the IMDB said “Director Paul Verhoeven died during the eulogy he delivered for her,” but it’s true – and this was a different Paul Verhoeven.

Movies I’ve seen by Louis Malle include noirish jazzy thriller Elevator to the Gallows, zany comic Zazie dans le metro, suicide drama The Fire Within, epic travel doc Phantom India, and now this 70’s fantasy with little story or dialogue. None of these things is like the other. I guess Malle was one of those filmmakers who liked to constantly try new things, not one who always made variations of the same movie.

“Tomorrow I kill myself.”

The score by Erik Satie probably sounds familiar because it was used in a Wilson brothers scene in “Royal Tenenbaums”. Luke W. later tries to kill himself right after quoting Alain Leroy into the mirror. I’d always wondered why he says “tomorrow” when he’s killing himself right then.

It’s a sharp-looking black-and-white movie about Alain Leroy’s last two days alive, because he sure enough kills himself at the end. Kind of the opposite of “Zazie dans le metro”, which I watched right before. Because of the harsh sudden downturn in emotion from “Zazie” and the late hour it aired, I was in an annoyed daze through this one. I know that Alain visited a lot of friends but I couldn’t tell you which was Jeanne Moreau from “elevator to the gallows” or even Yvonne Clech from “zazie”. So here’s the NY Times’ character round-up:

“Lydia, his wife’s friend, wants desperately to marry him. Life, his understanding doctor says, is worth living. Dubourg, his one-time carousing sidekick, has found peace and certainty in his studies of Egyptology and with a good woman and her children. Jeanne, the disenchanted painter, is, likewise, a kindred soul but unable to possess his imagination and love. Bernard Noel, as the kindly Dubourg; Lena Skerla, as his wife’s loving friend; Jeanne Moreau, as the jaded but understanding artist, and Jacques Sereys and Alexandra Stewart, as his rich friends, are some of the fine portraits in this gallery of generally off-beat Parisians.”

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Guess I didn’t like it much. The movie’s not ultra-depressing because Alain’s friends are alive and hopeful enough to continue – without diving deep into his own inner thoughts, it makes him out as dysfunctional, unable and unwilling to take control of his life. So it’s not a harsh unforgiving world (in fact, the world is very tastefully shot by the guy who later shot “young girls of rochefort”), it’s just Alain’s problem. Made in tribute to a suicidal friend of Malle’s as well as a tribute to Malle’s own reckless youth. Admirable, just not enjoyable.

TCM: “Long after making it, Malle remarked that with The Fire Within he finally managed to find a cinematic style—objective, unobtrusive, no frills—that ideally matched the content of the story he was telling.”

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NY Times: “highly introspective, often tenderly touching and sometimes tediously redundant”… “A viewer can appreciate the delicate exploration of Alain Leroy’s mind and heart but he is so special a case that it is extremely difficult to relate to his highly special tragic condition. One is often more attracted to the loving or well-meaning people who are seriously anxious to aid and comfort him.”

Roger Ebert: “The film is a triumph of style. It is quiet and indicative. It doesn’t explain a lot, but we understand a lot about it all the same. And in the concerned, indifferent, kind, cruel behavior of his friends, we see ourselves acting toward people like him, or acted toward by people like them. Rarely does a film so carefully portray this complexity of personal relationships.”

Shooting Down Pictures: “One of the recurring visual fascinations of this film is its preoccupation with people’s gazes, particularly at Alain. … I think this paradox, that humans’ attentions in each other, their gazes, their advances, can be full of energy and vitality and simultaneously empty and dehumanizing, is a substantial line of investigation offered by the film (moreso than its insights into the suicidal mind).”

“I just got enganged.”
“Are you pregnant?”
“Not yet, but we’re getting married anyway”

Awesomely insane comedy following a girl (Zazie, who apparently had a cameo the following year in A Woman is a Woman) through Paris for a weekend vacation in the care of her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret of Agnes Varda’s debut feature and La Grande bouffe).

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Zazie quickly escapes her uncle. She teams up with an icky-seeming man who I’m not sure is trying to kidnap her or not, and the uncle (who is incidentally a cross-dressing dancer) teams with his cab-driver friend Charles. There are car accidents and cops and the uncle is kidnapped by tourists… all plot description attempts are useless. I also wasn’t paying total attention because it was on TV and I couldn’t pause when making dinner. Should be fun to watch again sometime.

Came out a year after The 400 Blows, half a year after Breathless, and there’s already a “new wave” joke in it.

Wasn’t letterboxed. I got screenshots from elsewhere.

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Time out review:

Malle’s third feature plunges us straight back into the world of New Wave jiggery-pokery, with jump-cuts, lavish in-jokes, and a whirlwind narrative (taken from Raymond Queneau’s delightful novel) centred around a precocious brat (Demongeot) lewd enough to give a few tips to the Jodie Foster of Taxi Driver. It has survived the years much better than other indulgent frolics, mainly because Malle really does seem motivated by gleeful malice and anarchy – he’s not just toying with a fashionable mood. This spirit captured even underground guru Jonas Mekas, who commented on the original US release, ‘The fact that the film is a failure means nothing. Didn’t God create a failure too?’

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Jonathan Rosenbaum:

Arguably Louis Malle’s best work. Based on Raymond Queneau’s farcical novel about a little girl (Catherine Demongeot) left in Paris for a weekend with her decadent uncle (Philippe Noiret), this wild spree goes overboard reproducing Mack Sennett-style slapstick, parodying various films of the 1950s, and playing with editing and color effects (Henri Decae’s cinematography is especially impressive), though gradually it becomes a rather disturbing nightmare about fascism. Forget the preposterous claim by a few critics that the movie’s editing influenced Alain Resnais, but there’s no doubt that Malle affected Richard Lester–and was clearly influenced himself by William Klein, whom he credited on the film as a visual consultant. A rather sharp, albeit soulless, film, packed with ideas and glitter and certainly worth a look.

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