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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

On Jean Gabin - Noel Bjorndahl looks at the great actor's early career from MARIA CHAPDELAINE (1934) to REMORQUES (1941)

Madeleine Renaud, Jean Gabin, Maria Chapdelaine
Jean Gabin has been labeled “the tragic hero of contemporary cinema”: he was France’s greatest male star for several decades and his presence became an asset to what amounts to roll call of France’s greatest pre-New Wave directors (Duvivier, Carné, Renoir, Gremillon, and later, Becker). Many of his performances were subdued, watchful and reflective but he was capable of strong action and of erupting into forceful violence. He made his first impression in Duvivier’s Maria Chapdelaine (1934) as the soulful fur trapper (in love with Madeleine Renaud) who dies a cruel death in the icy Canadian wilderness while trying to return to his fiancée.
La Bandera
He went on to establish for Duvivier the archetypal doomed anti-hero first as the Moroccan-based legionnaire in the extraordinary La Bandera (1935), then in the title role of its more famous successor Pepe le Moko (1937).

The latter established Gabin’s vulnerable humanity in being drawn not only to dangerous innocent waifs like Michele Morgan in Carné’s Quai des Brumes (1938), but also to manipulative femmes fatales like Mireille Balin both in Pepé and in Gremillon’s marvelous Gueule d’amour (1937). 

Le Jour se Lève
In many ways, his active/passive screen persona had affinities with Robert Mitchum’s during the late 40s when Mitchum became a key noir icon in movies like Tourneur’s Out of the Past.Great as Gabin was in Carne’s (and screenwriter Prevert’s) lyrical fog and doom laden fables (Le Jour Se Leve (1939), Quai des Brumes), his best work in the late 30s was, firstly, for Renoir (as the working-class antihero in Les Bas-Fonds (1936); as the train driver of La Bete Humaine (1938), a savage, driven performance matched by that of Simone Simon as the woman who degrades, taunts, and is brutally murdered by him; and, especially, as the common man escapee of La Grande Illusion (1937) giving him effortless natural nobility that overshadows that of aristocratic officer Pierre Fresnay).

La Grande Illusion

Secondly, he made two outstanding films for Gremillon. His tugboat captain in Remorques (1941) is the better-known, but in Gueule d’amour he plays the Legionnaire “lover boy” of the film’s title who uses his uniform as a magnet for sexual conquests until he meets the elegant Mireille Balin (in a variation of her rich siren in Pepe le Moko). He first attracts and seduces her, but then finds her consistently out of his reach. The film traces Gabin’s fall from “pride and glory to self-pity” (Dudley Andrew’s words) where his attempts to re-ignite Balin’s fires out of his military context lead to his degradation as she taunts him with her infidelities, then to increasingly violent outbursts, and finally to strangling her.

Gueule d'amour
The film ends with an uncom-promising epilogue where the numbed Gabin confesses all to his legionnaire friend as they head back to Morocco. The homo-erotic elements implied in this male friendship and what was seen as “the film’s degeneracy” apparently upset the right-wing critics of the time. It’s an unqualified masterpiece.

Monday, 25 September 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare's screen shots show a taste of the 4K/HDR restoration of BLADE RUNNER

JUST PICTURES. Click to enlarge

Italian Film Festival (6) - Barrie Pattison reports on THESE DAYS and SICILIAN GHOST STORY

Editor’s Note: Barrie Pattison's earlier reports on the Italian Film Festival can be found if you click on the following film titles After the WarI Can Quit Whenever I Want to: MasterclassLet Yourself Go, Messy Christmas and  Stories of Love that cannot Belong to this World

These Days (Giuseppe Piccioni)
Giuseppe Piccioni penetrates the gumnut curtain more often than most Italian film makers and those movies have been consistently engaging - 1996’s Cuore al verde/Penniless Hearts, 2001’s Luce dei miei occhi/Light of My Eyes, 2004’s  La Vita che vorrei/The Life I Want  and 2009’s Giulia non esce la sera/Giulia Doesn't Date at Night.

His new Questi giorni/These Days is a departure from them. The only one of his regular performers to show is a now mature Margarita Buy who acquits herself impressively as a middle aged mother, becoming a hairdresser, her ambitions sacrificed to raise daughter Maria Roveran. She’s highly critical of her girl’s do.

The plot centres on four young women about to enter adult life. Roveran is diagnosed with a life threatening disease (excuse for one of the film’s boob shots). Orchestra violinist Caterina Le Caselle has become pregnant. Laura Adriani’s love life with Filippo Timi (La doppia ora) is stressful and dissatisfied Marta Gastini has accepted a waitressing spot in Belgrade. The early stages of the film establishing the leads are uninvolving as the audience struggles to remember which back story goes with which unlined face.

However, when Gastini decides to drive to her new Serbian job, the others join her and the piece turns into an engaging Italian Road Trip movie. The girls with their pre-occupations and lack of experience become distinct characters. They encounter a group of English speaking boys who take an interest, lending them a tent and taking them canoeing at the camp site. One tries to link up with Roveran - shot of him awkwardly sharing the back seat in the car. Gastini takes a dim view of that, sends him for coffee, dumps his back pack and drives off.

When they get to her drab looking Serbian destination they share the flat of her severe friend Mina Djukic, part of a group restoring a Belgrade cinema - which shows The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator over the dance floor. The backpacker is there and lets it be known that his experiences with the girls screwed up his vacation and he is looking elsewhere now - telling small scene.

Finally, a dash to the emergency room unites the friends in a way that makes the film rewarding. It has an uncharacteristic natural feel and reliance on close-ups of fresh featured young women which may (or may not) draw on improvisation

Effective desaturated scope images. The great Sergio Rubini (La bionda) is down to a walk-on.

Sicilian Ghost Story (Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza)
Fabio Grassadonia and  Antonio Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story is something new – a genuinely scary movie derived from the case history of a Mafia murder, filmed in an unfamiliar style that fluctuates between realism and fantasy. Romeo and Juliet get mixed
in with Dante and a few more high culture references.  - sound like your total festival movie? Well it is but it overcomes that handicap.

We start with a scene of Sicilian children on their way back from school with young Julia Jedlikowska following class mate Gaetano Fernandez off the path only to be attacked by a menacing dog whom he distracts with a half sandwich and his back pack. The two ride off on the motor scooter.  He’s under the age. They go to see his steeplechase horse and have their first kiss. In the background we spot a giant dam and a police car headed towards Fernandez’ house. The girl comes back after dark and Vincenzo Amato her father, while clearly angry, embraces her.

The boy vanishes from the classroom and everybody avoids the subject. There’s no sympathy in either house. The grand parents of the boy won’t talk to her and her mean Swiss mum spends her time in the house sauna and serving dad cold pasta meals from the fridge.

Turns out that Fernandez’ unseen father is a super grass and his former polizia associates have kidnapped his son to pressure him into silence. Both children lose their grip on reality under the pressure of his captivity and her efforts to find out where he’s being held. The film’s most striking innovation is a dream sequence that we assume is one character’s when it proves to be the other's.

Evidence of a decayed society is everywhere. The pet owl fed on the poisoned mice in the barn is one of the film’s nicest double duty bits of business. There are a couple of striking wide angle distorted tracking shots and it is all filmed in a disorienting style with cuts to objects too large in the frame, exaggerated sounds and confusing digressions. This contributes to the considerable suspense.

If the film has a fault it is the clashing style of the sunny ending. Of the young players making their first film, friend Corinne Musallari sending coded messages by flashlight across the dark hillside village makes the most impression.