Alphaville Video -- Everything for the cinephile


More Spotlights:
Summer 98:  Alphaville
Fall 98:  Femmes Fatales
Winter 99:  Black History Films
Spring 99:  The Jewish Experience
Summer 99:  Hong Kong Cinema

Fall 99:  Favorite Foreign Films
Winter 00:  Britain's Best
Spring 00:  Silent Giants
Summer 00:  Restoring the Classics
Fall 00:  French Films

Spotlight for Fall 2000:
French Films

A customer writes:

To me, one of the main attractions of Alphaville Video is its magnificent collection of French films, which contains numerous treasures seldom found elsewhere.  If the following half-dozen gems are not quite household names (like Rohmer's Claire's Knee or Godard's My Live to Live, perhaps they should be!

Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard (1990)

Unquestionably one of Alphaville's crown jewels, this rarely screened masterpiece was the top vote-getter in a 1997 "Film Comment" survey on best foreign films that had never been released in the U.S.  Starring Alain Delon, it is at once the richest and the most accessible of recent Godards.  Sundry aphorisms, non-sequiturs, proverbs, and quotes-out-of-context vie for attention with references to Doetovesky, Balzac, and Dorothy Parker.  (The director's vaunted speed-reading ability stands him in good stead here.)  Scattered throughout the overlapping, stream-of-consciousness monologs are Godard's patented meditations on capitalism, the war of the sexes, life at the fin de siecle, and the passage of time -- all set to desultory cello, so that they form a modernist sonata both discordant and sublime.

The visual motifs are just as quintessentially Godard: Goya, tableaux of class struggle, Biblical allusions, even a bit of neo-noir murder mystery; an open hand reaches out three times, and in its ultimate fate lies the redemption of the characters and the fractured narrative.  The mise-en-scene is ravishing beautiful and hauntingly elegiac: rarefied chateaux, harsh winter light, great roaring machines, languid blue water contrasted with deep red leaves; the Contessa (Domiziana Giordano, from Tarkovsky's Nostalgia) even has the regal beauty to match these celestial fireworks.

If the setting is impossibly quaint and the characters are marionettes in an elaborate farce purporting to foretell the death of the non-egalitarian West as we know it, the sheer muliplicity of voices and thoughts ultimately defeat attempts to reduce them to schema.  Likewise, the density of themes and images leave no room for the grating self-importance that mars all too many recent films by Godard.  Nouvelle Vague demonstrates the kind of care Godard can bring to his work if he so chooses; amidst the cacophony of voices and kaleidoscope of images, the film attains a profound harmony.

The Lovers
, Louis Malle (1958) & Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnes Varda (1962)

Two films about spoiled heroines who attain self-realization and fulfillment; they are separated by merely four years but already seem epochs apart.  Both are shot in magnificent black and white by New Wave cinematographers Jean Rabier (Chabrol's frequent collaborator) and Henri Decae (The 400 Blows & Le Samourai).  Varda's film follows the perceptions of a hypochondriac debutante/singer as they unfold in real time in metropolitan Paris while Malle's focuses on a bored housewife stuck in a provincial small town.  Cleo is informed by pop music (the lyrics are written by Varda herself); The Lovers takes its cue from the andante of Brahms' Sextet No. 1 (not the 2nd Quartet, which the dust jacket of the video mistakenly assumes), composed in ascending scale, spare and austere, but also full of hope.

Cleo is as self-conscious as its neurotic heroine; its exuberant, virtuoso camera motion confronts her endlessly with mirrors and reflecting surfaces, as if to query her place in the world, and there is even a film-within-a-film that serves as a microcosm of the entire story.  Hemmed in by tarot cards, intimations of fate, proximity of death, and the spectre of the war in Algeria, the Bohemian heroine of Varda's film struggles to find her identity and destiny in a dizzying Brave New World; thus Cleo is about the responsibility that comes with freedom, the freedom of having broken through constraints societal and cinematic.

On the other hand, the astonishingly lyrical Lovers is about the attainment of that freedom, about a time when the world is made small, reduced to personal choices, a new age is dawning, and everything seems possible.  As the moon rises over the mist-laden night and the austere andante gives way to the sprightly allegro ma non troppo, the two lovers, for all intents and purposes meeting for the first time, embark on a headlong, Dionysian journey; the future is an open road, and boundless romanticism holds sway.  Neither cinema nor the world will be quite like this again.

A Sunday in the Country
, Bertrand Tavernier (1984)

In this extraordinarily rich and subtle film, an elderly, turn-of-the-century painter prepares for a visit from his son's family.  The son is a failed artist who reminds the father too much of himself, and this prompts him to lament the safe, stagnant art he keeps making while his Impressionist contemporaries passes him by.  The languid Sunday seems destined to slip away uneventfully until the painter's tempestuous daughter explodes on the scene.  Played by the irrepressible Sabine Azema (a favorite of
other French directors including Alain Resnais), she is here the favorite of everyone in the painter's household as well.  What follows is a whirlwind meditation on family, passion, art and life interwined.  As the daughter drives around in her fancy car, wind in her hair, the film literally turns into poetry and Impressionism in motion.  In the soft summer light glimpsed through thick foliage, across a Japanese bridge, in open air cafes by the river, among laughing, dancing couples, the masterpieces of Manet, Renoir, and Monet spontaneously come alive.

There is not a lazy, cliched, or heavy-handed moment in this magical film.  The naturalistic lighting is stunning even on video transfer, the nimble  camera seems to have a life of its own, the wonderful soundtrack (excerpted from Faure's piano quartets and trios) echoes sighs of regrets and longing, and even Tavernier's old-fashioned third person narration, which can be too flowery and literary at times (as in Life and Nothing But & Daddy Nostalgia), seems light on its feet and completely appropriate.  And towards the end, the film makes a direct reference to Bergman's Wild Strawberries.  One wonders if Tavernier isn't acknowledging that, for once in his career, he has surpassed even the Swedish master.  The film touches on the rims of so many human mysteries; within its admitted narrow scope, it is one of the most perfect films I have ever seen.

, Claire Denis (1988)

If the legionnaires in Claire Denis's soon-to-be-released Beau Travail (probably the most highly anticipated film from Europe since Kieslowski's Red) eerily remind one of Terrence Malick's G.I.'s in The Thin Red Line, the serenity and vast canvas of her Chocolat might also be said to evoke Malick's Days of Heaven.  Denis' debut feature is something of a masterpiece in itself.  Watching it again, I am shocked by just how well-paced and self-assured it is.

Set in Cameroon, one of the African nations where the director grew up, the film is a stroll down memory lane for a French woman visiting her childhood home in West Africa.  The film focuses on a tumultuous few months of her childhood, when the sky literally seems to fall down, in the form of a French colonial passenger plane.  The unexpected guests overwhelm her household and ultimately lead to the banishment of her devoted Black house servant.  In the process, the attitudes of the colonists -- their insidious racism as well as their occasional generosity -- are off-handedly laid bare.  What lingers long
after the film has ended are the long silences, the immense loneliness and vastness of the landscape, and the brilliant rapport between the child and the servant (this last reminiscent of Wim Wender's Paris, Texas, in which Denis served as assistant director.  Indeed, Denis would go on to inherit Wender's mantle as the cinematic patron saint of outsiders, and would extend it to both genders as well as immigrants of all ethnicities).

As mentioned above, Chocolat  is also Terrence Malick country.  Watching the subtle but irrevocable changes unfolding in her midst, our heroine's innocent child's-eye-view takes on the supreme indifference of a non-judgemental God patiently awaiting human follies to run their course.  Yet unlike Days of Heaven, it is not metaphysics, but people and the texture of their lives, that take center stage here.

La Guerre est Finie
, Alain Resnais (1966)

Not only does La Guerre est Finie boast the lyricism of Resnais's equally magnificent Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour, it is almost as technically brilliant as its predecessors, especially in its depiction of memory and consciousness.  First- and second-person narrations are intermixed, filtering events through two focal distances; words and phrases fold upon themselves, they are obsessions that cannot be exorcized.  Sublimal flash-backs and forwards suggest haunting memory flashes, mental flights of panic, premonitions of disasters to come; the brisk editing underscores the torrid pace of events, unfolding too fast for the protagonists to comprehend.

The story itself concerns a disillusioned revolutionary (Yves Montand) who is trying to coordinate a general strike in Franco's Spain.  He is caught in various moral and personal dilemmas.  Some of his colleagues have just been arrested.  His hard-line Marxist superiors, increasingly out of touch with reality, insist on immediate action that can only further endanger his group.  There is another chasm between these weary, exiled veterans and the young breed of reckless anarchists that Montand encounters.  In scenes of great poignancy, he gripes about the party line in private, but later finds himself gamely putting on a mask and defending those same strategies of his superiors' in front of the young firebrands.  The contrasts in age and politics find their parallel in his love life as well.  His old-fashioned mistress (Ingrid Thulin, veteran of so many Bergman classics) is willing to follow him to the end of the world and fervently wants to bear his child, while his new fling Genevieve Bujold's carefree attitude extends way beyond the bedroom.

In La Guerre est Finie each setting has its emotions: we have crowded roadside cafes; narrow streets in residential Paris; grim, anonymous apartment complexes, home to his fallen comrades; menacing train and subway stations; and the suburban headquarters of Montand's superiors, safely removed from everything.  This precise sense of place complements the far-away, wistful guitar score, just as the all-too-real intrigues in Paris are persistently played out against dreams of a remote Spain.  As in so many early Resnais films the narrative structure is fluid, but at the same time it possesses a stark clarity. A run-in with the border police; a death; a funeral procession; an encounter with the mistress' friends; a visit to the wife of a missing courier -- these seemingly random scenes linger on well after the unforgettable finale, coalescing into an ever more poignant whole the further one reflects on them.

The film ends with Montand returning to Spain in what appears his final, doomed campaign, and his long-suffering mistress racing the length of France to abort his mission, an effort that seems equally futile. But there is no bitterness in the last shot.  Instead, it strikes a deeply humanistic note of resignation, as if to say it is ultimately faith, comradeship, and love that will endure in this long twilight struggle for land and freedom.

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