Category Archives: Imaginary French Cinema

#233 – Evenings of the Dead (Soirées du Morte, Les)

(1976, Fr/It, 118 min) Dir Alain Andere. Cast Sylvia Maria, Niels Arestrup, Maria Rohm, Orson Welles.

For his first film since 1968’s Extase de l’Obscurité Alain Andere teamed up with Sylvia Maria, then white-hot following her performance in Louis Blanc’s absurd, offensive and inexplicably popular Prostituée de l’Amour as the titular ‘Prostitute of Love’. She and Arestrup are a pair of heroin addicts bobbing on the poverty line in Paris – nonpersons, basically, who can be kidnapped by Maria Rohm and her band of henchmen who travel around the city in an old ambulance collecting such types. They are conveyed to a vast country estate presided over by Orson Welles’ Count Puce (mostly confined to a big chair or a litter), the head of a group of parasitic entities from beyond space who drain the life force from their victims. But first, sport – they, along with another half-dozen victims, are released onto the estate and are hunted down one by one. To the keen-eyed this is basically the same film as his last one but with the Marxist subtext amplified and as subtle as a brick. To those who can stomach their metaphors broad and can live with Maria’s inept acting (she appears cross-eyed and stoned throughout) there’s plenty to enjoy with typically stunning photography and some fantastically gruesome death scenes both sides of the class divide.

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#230 – Roman by Polanski

(2010, Fr/US, 130 min) Dir Marina Zenovich. Cast Mathieu Amalric, Blake Lively, Christian Slater.

In retrospect there doesn’t seem to be a more appropriate choice to play Polanski than Amalric (who is himself a director) – the physical resemblance alone makes him a lock for the role and his performance in this, an adaptation of the 1984 autobiography, confirms the choice. His performance is also the best thing about the film which would make for a fine double bill with the same years equally uneven biopic Gainsbourg – much like that film Roman by Polanski is more a catalogue of incident than realised portrait but both are slick and entertain for their run time. While the film is also at pains to assure audiences that the incidents depicted in the film are being viewed through the director’s telling rather than a record of fact, Zenovich (also the director of the documentary Polanski: Wanted and Desired) is obviously beholden enough to her source to dwell for too long on the more insalubrious decisions in his life. Blake Lively makes for a fine Sharon Tate but  it has to be said that whoever convinced Christian Slater to play Jack Nicholson here deserves an Oscar to themselves!

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#228 – Vacances de Morts Vivants, Les (Holiday of the Living Dead, The)

(2011, Fr, 108 min) Dir Jack Vitesse. Cast Swann Nambotin, Frédéric Pierrot, Géraldine Pailhas.

French zombie comedy set on the French Riviera. Pascal’s travels with his family to the town of Piabo for the summer. Piebo, a former sleepy fishing village on a remote spit of land, is now a vacation complex that lines the coast, an island of luxury that looms over the modest houses of it’s year-round residents. Young Pascal, a shy and quiet young man, doesn’t want to join the resort’s youth groups for enforced fun so he pretends to his parents that he’s participating but instead amuses himself by exploring the many nooks and crannies of the complex – the backroom staircases for example, or the labyrinth of air conditioning passageways. As he amuses himself however he begins to see things that suggest to him that all is not well at the heart of Piebo – a chef who has been tethered to an armchair where he froths at the mouth and writhes with an almost supernatural strength, a family of tourists with a strange illness marched into one of the walk in freezers where there are imprisoned. Something is going on and the owners of the Piabo Hotel don’t want anyone to panic. How can Pascal let anyone know without giving up his lie? When will people be roused from their relaxations to notice those among them who have been reduced to brain-dead cannibals? A lively, subversive comedy blessed with some great locations from Jack Vitesse, the one time enfant terrible of the cinéma du look (see Homme du sous-terre, Les) who seems to have developed an affinity for plot in the intervening years.

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#214 – Nagarhole Elephant Dreaming

(1976, Ire/Fr/Ind, 64 min) Dir Daniel Dermot McBurton.

As he tells it in 1927 the struggling and wholly unsuccessful painter Daniel Dermot McBurton, then the same age as the century, had a dream in his decrepid Dublin basement flat. In his dream he was sitting outside a coffee shop in Paris having just sold his first painting. Upon waking and with nothing to lose McBurton promptly sold everything he owned bar the clothes he stood in and his paintings (which no one wanted anyway) and bought himself passage to France where his dreams promptly came true despite not speaking or understanding the language. Thus a lucrative career was born, first in painting and then in film. In 1972, when he was still the same age as the century and at a time of creative plateau, he had a dream of an elephant in India. When this elephant was hurt McBurton himself was hurt. Upon waking he decided that he no longer had anything to lose, left his third wife and sold all his possessions and moved to Western India close to what was then the Nagarhole wildlife sanctuary and is now Nagarhole National Park. Despite once again being in a country whose language he neither spoke or understood he assembled a film crew and recorded, without plan or narrative, the world he now found himself in. In the process of making the film he found Emai the elephant, who he claimed to identify from his dream and whose life he believed was inextricably bound to his own. Unfortunately the resulting film, Nagarhole Elephant Dreaming, wasn’t the success that resulted from his earlier dream – it showed in Cannes to overwhelming disinterest though years later it’s plotless exploration of the land proved an influence on ethnographical documentarians such as Pascal and Filipe of Access Road anti-fame. Either way McBurton didn’t care – he died happily ten years later, in 1986, still as old as the century. Coincidence or not and unbeknownst to McBurton, he also expired within an hour of Emai’s death in Nagarhole National Park.

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#184 – Empty Forest, The

(2015, US/GB/Fr, 102 min) Dir John Henry.

Campaigning doc about illegal wildlife trade. In the last couple of decades the amount of animals in the wild has declined massively and confrontational director John Henry wants to find out why – this is no disingenuous starting point question either, he wants to actually ask people why they are taking the animals out of their habitats and why the people who are buying them are doing so, even if it means being on the receiving end of some very angry men. The answer is depressing – the animals in question are either being kept domestically in cages thousands of miles from their natural habitat or else eaten for the status their meat conveys and the unfounded belief in it’s medicinal properties. An angry film that forces the viewer to bear witness to the animal markets of South East Asia, the piles of confiscated ivory in Africa and the animals caged outside restaurants in China or, as more recently exposed, in the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Laos. A barrage of statistics makes it plain that it’s not just elephants and tigers that are suffering – the loris, bears, pangolin, snakes, salamanders and many, many more now hover on the brink of extinction. That there is no solution or hope of a happy ending offered by the film makes it that much bleaker.

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#182 – Une Année à Fitou (One Year in Fitou)

(2010, Fr, 96 min) Dir Roland Sacher. Cast Jean Dujardin, Ludivine Sagnier, Niels Arestrup, Yolande Moreau, Zoé Félix.

A little bit Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, a little bit A Good Year – either way it’s an unusual film for Roland Sacher to have ended his career with, being that he was more readily associated with taut thrillers like Dans le Mur and Operation Reptile. It seems his death – a surprise at a healthy seventy – has set this notion in stone, erasing romantic comedies like Susanne and oddities like The Pass into Heaven’s Arms from the collective memory much like obits for Sidney Lumet spotlit Serpico and forgot about The Wiz. Anyway – city traderDujardin learns of his father’s death and is left in the will a decrepid vineyard in darkest Languedoc-Roussillon run by husband and wife Arestrup and Moreau who take a dim view of this pampered dunce swanning into town with his party time sister Sagnier in tow. Of course he comes to love the place and under his attention the vineyard blossoms and of course he falls in love with feisty local girl Félix to boot. You’ve seen this film a million times already but despite that Une Année à Fitou is still a pleasure. Perhaps it’s the scenery, perhaps it’s the performances, perhaps it was my low expectations going in but it’s a perfectly fine way to spend an hour and a half on a wet Sunday afternoon.

#175 – Taisez-vous! (Shut Your Face!)

(1950, Fr, 61 min, b/w) Dir Albert. Cast Albert, Romy Pice, Oscar de la Vana, Jacques Jacques.

The first full length feature from future French film luminary Albert, of Le Roi du Canard and Monsieur B dans l’Univers fame. As such Taisez-vous! is an altogether more small-scale an enterprise, set entirely within one room in a library though since said room is the vast glass and iron reading room in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris the smallness of the scale is entirely relative. Albert plays a novice librarian on his first day on the job, desperate to not let a single noise disrupt the silence but inevitably mere shushing soon isn’t enough and before long he’s bursting bubbles of gum before they pop, making everyone remove their shoes (if by force if necessary) and trying to baffle the sound of books being set down with a well aimed catapult and a pile of small cushions. It all gets out of hand, of course, culminating in the bookshelves toppling like dominoes and Albert diving madly to bodily interrupt their crashing end. The whole enterprise rests on Albert and his performance and as such the film is a success – his whole body is a wonder of physical comedy and his facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission.

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#162 – Chaînes Invisibles, Les (Invisible Chains, The)

(1978, Fr, 102 min) Dir Alain Andere. Cast Raymond Polac, Jean Rochefort, Catherine du Mai.

Anton Phillipe St. Jude Dominique La Tasse wakes in an exquisite room in a gold-leafed Baroque style that is unfamiliar to him. From the window he can see that the house it is part of is sited in a vast estate in the countryside. Curious, he rings the room’s bell and soon enough a valet appears. “What am I doing here?” he asks, scaring the valet off to summon the master of the house, one M. Vilper. “What do you last remember?” this man asks, puffing sanguinely on his pipe and studying the clouds that drift from it. Anton thinks. “It was night. A masked tribunal by candlelight. I was to be sentenced.” M. Vilper nods. “But this is no prison,” protests Anton. M. Vilper laughs and excuses himself. Anton investigates, meets his few fellow inmates and walks to what he thinks might be the extent of the grounds… but goes no further. The resulting ‘action’ are a series of philosophical debates between Anton, M. Vilper and the rest of the inmates about the nature of imprisonment, about freedom, about liberty. At the end of the film Anton’s time has been served and he returns to Paris and his life as it once was. Despite this, as his goes about his day-to-day life, he is never sure whether this is not simply a larger prison and whether he can still feel the weight about him of the invisible chains of freedom.

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#151 – Elisa Lees

(1972, Fr/Sp/WGer, 82 min) Dir Helmut Durmou. Cast Lisa Beit, Howard Messinger, Peter Feebler.

Serious Seventies kink from Swiss director Helmut Durmou, the man who quietly amassed a fine oeuvre of very personal and highly specialised films over his thirty year career and who sadly died in the first week of this year at the age of eighty-one. Elisa Lees was his first film, made at the age of forty-two with privately sourced funds and follows the awakening of its naïve title character as she is inducted into a new world. So far, so generic as far as these things go but about halfway through the film the dominated becomes the dominatrix and she returns to discipline the men who once held mastery over her. This isn’t done in a mean, revengey kind of way though – Durmou’s films frequently kept their eye on the ball with regards consent and roleplay and the men are all very grateful once she’s done with them with the suggestion floating about that we’re merely bearing witness to a kind of ‘edited reality’ and that there is a larger story at play that we are only glimpsing. It’s a little rough around the edges but Durmou’s classical staging and clear, sharp photography are already on display – he clearly knew what he wanted from the outset.

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#145 – Operation Reptile

(1988, Fr/US, 130 min) Dir Roland Sacher. Cast Christopher Lambert, Antonio Banderas, Fernando Rey.

Tense Day of the Jackal style thriller based on true life events surrounding the assassination of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle while he was living in exile in Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay. The guts of the film detail the lead up to the act itself – how the team entered the country, how they were armed, the months of meticulous monitoring of Debayle’s movements. The scene of the assassination itself is suspense brought to the point of dread perfection – as if the lead up to Debayle’s car being stopped in the road wasn’t bad enough the rocket launcher that is to deliver the killing blow suddenly stops working and Banderas’ character has mere seconds to act. I could feel everyone in the cinema leaning into the screen at that moment and could hear the sound of gripped armrests creaking under the stress. Everything works here from the unshowy performances to the matter of fact photography to the clear, propulsive editing. This is the film that set Sacher back on the straight and narrow after a string of flops and misfires, setting him up nicely for his streak of classics through the nineties.

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