With its elaborate action set pieces, exhilarating espionage plot, and a debonair Cary Grant calling back to his North by Northwest character, one might be forgiven for thinking that Charade is Alfred Hitchcock’s wish fulfilment of finally working with Audrey Hepburn. Working in tandem with these plot devices though is a screwball liveliness not typically associated with the master of suspense, sending Grant and Hepburn on a romantic rollercoaster through intimate entanglements and creative visual gags. Stanley Donen may not belong among the great auteurs, but in Charade’s airy, colourful comedy we can still see the mark of the classical Hollywood moviemaker and musical-lover, teasing out a light-hearted battle of the sexes amid conspiracies of fraud, theft, and murder.
It isn’t long after Hepburn’s Paris-dwelling American expat, Reggie, learns of her husband’s death that the treachery of his past misdeeds narrows in on her. Charles was not a man she knew terribly well or loved a great deal, but his death regardless leaves her as the benefactor of an illegal, secret fortune that three mysterious men are now pursuing. It would seem her only ally would be a suave, fellow American she has met in France, Peter – or is it Alex, or Adam? Grant switches identities so many times in Charade that we never really know where his loyalties lie, and yet there is an affable ease in his performance that constantly reassures us of his gentle fondness for Reggie, winning our trust even when his actions haven’t earned it. Narrative twists and developments come at us quickly, keeping us in the grip of Peter Stone’s thrilling screenplay, but when we see Grant shower with his clothes on in an act of playful humour, it isn’t hard to see why Reggie is so utterly charmed.
Soon enough, the mystery of Charles’ murder escalates into an Agatha Christie And Then There Were None-type whodunnit, driving an uneasy tension through the steady elimination of suspects and a series of spectacularly staged confrontations. Though these stand-offs often unfold in wonderfully Hitchcockian fashion, Donen rejects studio sets in favour of real locations around Paris, creating striking backdrops out of authentic storefronts, skylines, and historical architecture.
Behind a shining neon sign on the roof of the American Express office, Grant engages in a physical struggle with one of Reggie’s mysterious stalkers, while Donen’s high and low angles dramatically underscore the sheer altitude and danger. Through the Varenne metro station, Donen suspensefully cuts between Reggie and her pursuer, turning the underground into a sprawling, modern labyrinth. Outside the Palais-Royal, a colonnade becomes a battleground between good and evil, with both sides shooting at each other from behind columns. Most resourcefully of all, the climax moves into the Théâtre-Français, where the orchestra pit, prompt box, and stage become an interactive terrain that both sides creatively wield against each other. Where Hitchcock often returned to iconic British and American monuments as the basis of his set pieces, Donen infuses Charade with an air of Parisian romance and peril, and balances it precariously on the edge of both.
Integral to this tension is the eclectic film score Henry Mancini pulls together, combining the syncopated rhythms of electric keyboards, percussion, and saxophones with orchestral hints of the James Bond-like theme. As we traverse Paris, a broader pastiche of continental cultures emerges in his soundtrack as well, incorporating instruments and harmonies from Eastern European and Latin musical traditions. With the discovery that the conspiracy surrounding Charles’ hidden fortune has its roots in World War II espionage, the international flavours of Mancini’s soundscape progressively reflect the film’s broadening scope, building out its lively, capricious setting.
This is not to suggest that Charade lacks focus though, as Donen has sharp intent behind his choices of camera angles and lighting, carving out images of loneliness and intrigue from elegant compositions inside French interiors. So too does his tightly paced editing do well to follow the exhilarating action of each set piece, spill one crucial epiphany forth in a rapid montage, and in the very final shot, land a brilliant punchline in a split screen grid, playing on Grant’s multiple identities. Donen’s mix of calculated storytelling, screwball antics, and authentic location shooting makes for a fascinating blend of tones, and yet he skilfully integrates all three into Charade with enchanting ease, embellishing what could have been a more serious genre film with pieces of his own buoyant affect.
Charade is currently streaming on Mubi, Kanopy, and Binge, and is available to buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.
Besides its extreme avant-garde stylings and near non-existence of any visible narrative, it is tricky for foreigners to pick out what exactly made The Color of Pomegranates so controversial in 1969 that Soviet authorities sought to censor its depiction of 18th-century Armenian poet and troubadour, Sayat-Nova. One of the primary accusations made against it takes a very limited perspective of art’s purpose and potential – for political purposes, this mystifying film simply was not educational enough. This understatement would be somewhat amusing if the propagandistic principle driving it did not have such a destructive impact on Soviet artists of the era.
Sergei Parajanov had no desire to be a font of factual knowledge in making this film, and so while the forced removal of Sayat-Nova’s name technically detaches it from the actual historical figure, it also ironically digs it even deeper into its abstract emphasis of impressionism over exposition. It is not the details of the poet’s existence he seeks to render in moving pictures, but rather his inner life that gave birth to such delicate written and musical expressions. Dialogue is scarce here, though Parajanov is clearly following in the tradition of silent film with his use of intertitles, many of which are drawn directly from Sayat-Nova’s verses and are lined up with key points in his life. Lyres hypnotically spin in the air as if enchanted by some melodic allure when the young musician uncovers his deeply rooted passion, and his written words unite with it in lyrical harmony.
“From the colours and aromas of this world, my childhood made a poet’s lyre and offered it to me.”
Though it does follow a vaguely linear structure that progresses from childhood to death, The Color of Pomegranates is more vividly defined by its dazzling visual poetry, flowing between loosely connected images that are unlike anything other filmmakers had attempted before. The coarse textures and rigid staging directed towards the camera at times even make this feel as if it were born in its own isolated bubble divorced of cinematic influences, coming from a century that predates the invention of the artform. Instead, it is often paintings which feel more comparable to Parajanov’s style here, most distinctly that of Salvador Dali whose surreal artistry invites similarly symbolic interpretations through incongruous representations of reality.
In the film’s opening shot, three pomegranates weep their juices onto a white fabric, staining it with a red mark in the shape of Armenia as it existed in the 18th century. Even in the emblematic image of this fruit though, Parajanov is drawing on its status as a symbol of good fortune in the nation’s religious culture, patriotically asserting its sovereign identity. Such detailed understanding of these anthropological intricacies are not so essential to understanding The Color of Pomegranates on a purely emotive level though, as each tableaux of Sayat-Nova’s life and artistry is rich with reverent adoration for art on its most instinctive level. At one point in his childhood when a thunderstorm drenches the books of his family’s manor, the adults gather and press them under their feet, draining them of their liquid much like the bleeding pomegranates of the opening. As they are laid open on large roofs to dry out, Parajanov composes an evocative composition of great veneration, surrounding the young poet with open pages lightly flapping in the breeze like living creatures.
Sayat-Nova’s growth into adulthood is marked by all the usual milestones of a full life, understanding artistic beauty, falling in love, and encountering death, and yet this is about as closely as Parajanov identifies his story with any sense of logical order. Instead, The Color of Pomegranates sinks us into a deep reverie caught up in ceremonial rhythms driven more by the slow, deliberate gesturing of his actors, primitive pieces of folk music, and choral chanting than any editing or camera movement. Perhaps the only exception may be the prominent use of jump cuts to subtract and alter parts of specific compositions, jarringly bridging gaps in time. Unlike his previous film though, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, static shots are the dominant choice here, set back in wides to meditate in sacred rituals tightly bound to Sayat-Nova’s artistry. The death of Holy Father Lazarus marks a period of grief for the poet, who digs a grave for the Catholicos in a strange, stone church full of sheep, while Orthodox priests carry out liturgies accepting their anguish as a blessing from God.
“Brothers of mine in soul and blood, grief, inconsolable grief has been sent to us from heaven.”
Darkness seeps into Parajanov’s imagery as Sayat-Nova adopts the black garb worn by the holy men around him, some of whom are seen biting into pomegranates. Tapestries bearing religious icons similarly dominate this section of the film as the artist grows even more in touch with his spiritual beliefs. Eventually we emerge out the other side, and the dark robes are shed to reveal white garments underneath, like new identities being born from cocoons of sorrow.
The end of Sayat-Nova’s own life comes about in a similarly mystical manner, as the symbolic pomegranates are cut open for their juices to drench his white robes like blood. “Sing,” commands a man standing high up above him. “Sing,” he commands again, dictating the direction of his life. “Die,” he finally orders, and from a low angle we view Sayat-Nova’s younger self floating in the air, looking down at us holding a pair of cherub wings. As the man is escorted away by two small angels in one world, he lies down for the final time amid candles and flapping chickens in another, landing on a final note not of mourning, but of peaceful, spiritual acceptance.
Anyone unaware of Sayat-Nova before watching The Color of Pomegranates may not come out of it fully grasping his place in Armenian history, and yet there is still a new understanding of his delicate, romantic artistry born in its outlandish stylistic experiments. For all the censorship battles Parajanov fought throughout its production and distribution, it was far from the end of his troubles with Soviet authorities. Four years after the film’s release in 1969, he was arrested and imprisoned in a gulag under false charges that targeted his bisexuality. His friend and artistic inspiration, Andrei Tarkovsky, was anything but silent in his protests, leading an array of prominent figures in Hollywood and world cinema to oppose this great injustice. Although he would be released within a few years, it would take him almost two decades to re-join the industry, and as such The Color of Pomegranates looked to be the last feature film to emerge from this peculiar director for a long time. Even beyond its original context though, this wildly elusive piece of cinema still stands as an innovative, surreal tribute to Armenia’s rich history and culture, vibrantly independent of any modern political influence or narrative convention.
The Color of Pomegranates is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.
If the pulpy crime novel ‘Down There‘ had been translated to Hollywood’s silver screen a few years earlier, it may have looked like a standard film noir, composed of stark shadows and austere characters. Had it been adapted by Jean-Luc Godard, it might have deconstructed the genre with self-conscious humour, giving the middle finger to tradition so that it can play in the sandbox of avant-garde filmmaking. With François Truffaut at the helm, what we get instead is Shoot the Piano Player, sitting somewhere between sweet sincerity and lithe playfulness, and existing far from the realm of cinematic expressionism. Any remnants of noir that might linger in the pensive voiceover of a mysterious man with a troubled past are practically absent in the French auteur’s whimsical slapstick and graceful camera movements, which candidly float through the bustling bar where former concert pianist Charlie now plays honky-tonk tunes to Parisian patrons.
Compared to Truffaut’s autobiographical debut The 400 Blows released only a year earlier, Shoot the Piano Player is a livelier piece of cinema, experimenting with its form a little more freely. After a pair of gangsters kidnap Charlie and Léna, the bar waitress who he shares a budding romance with, they explain how their boss Plyne turned them in, and the film cuts to a black screen framing the bartender in three circles, greedily stroking wads of cash and happily divulging their personal information. Any time a scene begins to edge towards stagnation, Truffaut will happily throw in short, amusing cutaways like these that whisk us away elsewhere. Even as Shoot the Piano Player approaches its climax later, a gag is slipped in mid-conversation when a gangster declares “If I’m lying, may my mother keel over this instant!” The immediate cut to an elderly woman collapsing on the floor would have surely provided some inspiration to Monty Python’s comedic style years later, stepping smoothly away from the narrative to land a brief, effortless punchline.
Just as Truffaut’s editing offers levity, so too does it prove to be integral in telling the heartfelt stories of Charlie’s past and present romances. From a distance, the confused shuffle of hands between him and Léna as they walk together down a street might seem like an awkward interaction, but through some insert shots there is rather a nervous intimacy imbued in his reaching out and her recoil, quietly exploring the boundaries of their young relationship.
Being the tools of Charlie’s musical craft, his hands often receive this kind of visual emphasis from Truffaut’s camera, wringing out tunes from the bar piano. If we are not dwelling on his hands, then the internal piano hammers are isolated on their own, producing jaunty tunes seemingly of their own accord, or Truffaut will otherwise catch Charlie in creative frames and move the camera around him in a relaxed glide. This may not be his ideal life, but while his hands are sliding across keys he can comfortably disappear into his light-hearted music, becoming nothing more than the mysterious bar musician who brings joy to strangers.
“Who is Charlie Kolfer? All we know is he’s the piano man who’s raising his kid brother and who minds his own business. Your music brings in the locals every night, and the joint takes off.”
The tragic tale of his past romance he runs from today is divulged through a flashback that dominates the middle section of the film, and which Truffaut dreamily slips into via long dissolves and multiple exposure shots of faces, neon signs, posters, and restaurants, as Léna’s voiceover echoes in the background. While there is usually a light spontaneity in Charlie’s present tense voiceovers that express his unfiltered thoughts, the shift to past tense in this flashback associates him more closely with the traditional noir protagonist, haunted by old mistakes and troubled relationships. Within this fatalistic reflection, truths begin to spill out around Charlie’s real name, Édouard, and his marriage with Thérèse, a woman who regretfully slept with an impresario to earn her husband his career as a concert pianist.
“It was like he’d cut me in two. As if my heart were one thing and my body another. It wasn’t Thérèse who went with him. Just her body, as if I wasn’t there.”
Édouard’s shock and momentary lapse in judgement initially pushes him to leave the room in cold rejection, though his remorseful return a few seconds later comes too late. A melancholy dissolve leads from Thérèse’s splayed body on the pavement below their apartment to the newspaper article of her death, and pieces of Charlie’s new identity thus begin to crystallise. The shame he carries with him is reflected in his new choice of profession, turning away from concert halls and relegating himself to obscurity in a small bar as both penance and escape.
The gangsters’ conflict with Charlie’s brothers takes up a good portion of the present-day storyline, though Truffaut often frames it as a distraction from his actual priorities, right up to the moment he is unavoidably caught up in their affairs and forced to retreat to his family’s hideout in the mountains with Léna. Back in Paris, the glare of streetlamps and headlights blearily refract through the windscreen as the camera drives outside the city’s boundaries, until a dissolve eases us into the bright, frosty landscapes of the French Alps, where the stage is set for a final shootout.
Here, dark pine trees frame and obscure characters set against the white snow, as the key players tentatively anticipate the impending conflict, and Truffaut’s editing dynamically accelerates towards the tragedy that punctuates its climax – the death of Léna, who was instructed by Charlie to wait outside the cabin at the most inopportune time. It appears that life moves in catastrophic cycles for this reclusive pianist, as for a second time he is forced to look down at his lover’s lifeless body crumpled hopelessly on the ground, destroyed by his own rash misjudgements.
When Shoot the Piano Player returns to the bar in its final minutes, it might seem that Charlie has simply returned to pay penance once again, covering his deep pain with cheerful melodies. And indeed, Truffaut does linger on his agile fingers dancing across the keys for a brief, few seconds, absorbing him into his own musical expression, but it is not for long, as the camera soon glides upwards to finish on a still close-up of his pained, wistful face. The tonal blend of comedy and tragedy which the film balances so skilfully in its narrative often makes it seem as if it could conclude on either note, and although there may indeed be a lightness that continues to flow from the pianist’s hands, Truffaut’s camera no longer engages in its falsely merry melodies, choosing instead to reach out with its final shot to the sensitive, sorrowful character hiding behind them.
Shoot the Piano Player is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Common wisdom says that 8 ½ is titled after the number of films Federico Fellini had directed at this point in his career, the total consisting of six previous features, two shorts, one co-directing effort, and this, his most autobiographical, self-reflexive piece of cinema yet. Had none of those fallen into place, it would have been represented as an entirely different numeral, but instead we get this incomplete fraction, stuck between integers as if waiting to be filled in. The same could be said of the two Italian directors connected to this film, with both the fictional Guido and real-life Fellini reflecting on the pressures of fame, religion, art, and relationships tugging them in multiple directions without a clear, unifying principle which they can follow through on. Thanks to their professional careers, they are familiar with the unique suffering that comes with overactive imaginations trying to sort through fragmented lives of excess, but there is also an irony that this profession is one of the few that can manifest a catharsis for the issues it is responsible for. It is not so simple as projecting one’s crippling insecurities up on large, flickering canvases, but it rather arrives through humbling self-examination, opening one’s mind up to a world that may either praise the genius it sees or eviscerate it for a lack of inspiration.
For Guido, there are few nightmares worse than this claustrophobic social anxiety. Caught in the middle of a traffic jam, he bangs on the windows of his car as if suffocating from the stagnation, while the silent witnesses of neighbouring vehicles passively watch his struggle with cold, bored expressions. Quite eerily, there are no engines to be heard on this busy stretch of road, and neither do we see any close-ups of Guido’s panicked face, which might have otherwise oriented us more clearly in the scene. Even his escape and liberating ascent into the sky are eventually spoiled by a man looping a rope around his ankle, tethering him to the earth like a kite that can only soar so far before crashing back down. When he awakes, the surrealism dissipates, and yet Fellini still holds back from revealing the face of his surrogate, multi-tasking his medical examinations and creative consultations. It is not until he is able to get some time to himself in a bathroom that he is revealed in full, and that Marcello Mastroianni’s perturbed, restless performance finally starts to lift off.
Even at the spa retreat where Guido hopes to compose himself before embarking on the production of his next film, there is little hope that he will find the peace that he desires. Journalists, casting directors, crew members, sycophants, agents, and fans turn up to the resort with questions ranging from the trivial to the overly invasive, and none of them are particularly helpful in curing his director’s block. It is not an issue of funding or resourcing, but he is simply not mentally prepared to offer up anything of value to his audiences. In Fellini’s own career, La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ mark the point where he begins to veer further away from his roots in neorealism, and so it is not difficult to imagine himself in Guido’s position facing a culture of excessive fame and materialism, trying to create something grounded in real world issues. The result is a psychological dive into his own self-critical mind, picking apart this exact struggle in lavishly designed sets that don’t even bother trying to conceal his own abundant wealth and privilege.
Out on the resort’s blanched white terrace, patrons gather beneath umbrellas and in lines for mineral water, though Fellini rarely hangs on wide shots long enough for us to adjust to the almost blinding environment. Apparently reality is just as disorientating as Guido’s dreams, as while strangers and associates gaze right down the lens, Fellini’s camera couldn’t get away from them sooner, disengaging and drifting through the surroundings so that their lines of dialogue essentially become voiceovers. Then every so often, a new character steps into the frame, manifesting like a phantom and suddenly readjusting long shots into close-ups. Guido is used to being behind the camera as the observer, not the observed, and Fellini keeps up this persistent anxiety in his jarring visual whiplash, snapping us between characters, priorities, and dreams that can’t quite congeal into anything productive.
Criticisms that Guido’s screenplay lacks any “central issue or philosophical stance” haunt him deeply. If art reflects one’s mind, then this director’s block necessarily calls his value as a filmmaker into question. Disappearing into his own fantasies might at times feel like the single most effective way he can run from these feelings, as we observe in one dream where a harem of women fall at his feet, offering him a power over those in his life he feels threatened by, and yet an unfiltered, self-critical imagination can be an unwieldy thing. Just as it is an endless source of creativity, so too can it spiral off in egotistic directions or turn against the dreamer themselves, as these women do when they catch onto Guido’s misogynistic attitudes.
Another layer of Guido’s psyche offers portals into his past, though they are rarely so straightforward as to be direct representations. While his deceased parents make frequent appearances, in his mind they are slippery, malleable figures, with his mother manifesting after he makes love to his paramour, weeping over his sexual vices. This shame seems to be tied to his sexual development as an adolescent, when he and his schoolmates paid La Saraghina, a prostitute who lived in a shack down at the local beach, to dance for them. The Catholic guilt beaten into him by the school priests is instrumental in shaping his awkward relationship with religion, as in the modern day he is still trying to appease a Monsignor imposing Christian morality upon his film, but his mother’s dramatic sobbing also binds every sexual experience of his life from here on to this Freudian angst.
Even above his desire to create art is his need to be loved and affirmed, not just by a select few, but by everyone – the religious, the secular, the fans looking for entertainment, the critics looking for intellectualism, and even his deceased parents, who continue withholding their affection in death. The arrival of an actress he believes is ideal for a role paradoxically described as “young and ancient, a child yet already a woman” does little to assuage his insecurities, as even while he venerates her as some abstract concept, she cuts him down in recognising the character he has based on himself as being incapable of love. Placating even one person is an impossible task, let alone the hundreds of people begging for answers, and therein lies the source of his creative block. “Everything happens in my film. I’m going to put everything in,” he proclaims, but in catering to the desires of so many others, there is nothing truly authentic or honest about his artistic expression. In his impossible endeavour, he has become a walking paradox: a director with no direction.
Finally, the day of shooting arrives for Guido, and he has to practically be dragged on set against his will. Once again, the crowds of journalists, critics, and crew are present, blasting him with questions of political, tabloid, and spiritual natures. “Can you admit you have nothing to say?” one man cruelly jabs, as Fellini’s frenetic editing and score keeps trying to build to a climax. “Just say anything,” he is advised, but still, there is nothing that comes from his mouth. Within the crowd, his wife, Luisa, is present in her wedding dress, taunting him with memories of happier days, and above them all is the giant rocket launchpad set piece, standing like a hulking steel monument to his own meaningless ambition and restricted imagination, offering empty promises of space-bound adventures.
Beneath its menacing shadow, the only feasible solution seems to be a clean, sharp gunshot to the head. At first, this suicide seems to be nothing but another dramatic diversion from reality, adding one more drop to the sea of memory and dreams that Fellini traverses with such elusive grace, and which keeps obscuring the boundaries between Guido’s inner and outer lives. Symbolically though, it is a perfect merging of the two. What is missing here is the explicit reveal that he has aborted production on the film, which we are left to surmise in the following scene when we return to reality. In killing his failed project, he kills the part of himself that simultaneously strives to live to impossible expectations and scorns the people setting those standards.
It is perfectly fitting to 8 ½’s cinematic form that Guido’s monologue announcing his fresh perspective is not the focus of these final minutes, but instead simply underscores a grand, visual sequence that could only ever be rendered through this artistic medium. Out on this open plain, those people who make up his identity and history begin to congregate, for the first time uniting in a single location. “How right it is to accept you, to love you. And how simple,” he ponders, as men in tuxedos shout to crew members standing up on lighting rigs, who turn their beams towards the launchpad.
“Life is a party, let’s live it together. I can’t say anything else, to you or others. Take me as I am, if you can. It’s the only way we can try to find each other.”
Though his lips are not moving with his voiceover, Luisa can hear him perfectly, and between the two estranged spouses, there finally seems to be some sincere attempt at understanding. It is only in shaking off his constant need for approval that he is able to connect with others in any meaningful way, accepting them as they are and, in turn, allowing him to present his honest self to the world without shame.
Not far away from the site of this epiphany, a small, ragtag marching band of carnival performers parade towards the set’s scaffolding, and then all of a sudden, a set of makeshift white curtains are pulled back. Behind them, every single character we have met throughout 8 ½, major or minor, pours down the steps of this magnificent launch pad as if attending some grand carnival directed by Guido, who conducts them all in a single, unifying fantasy. As the fragments of his lives piece together in a giant circle and spin around the set, Fellini’s avant-garde visuals become expressions of communal delight, rather than unsettling isolation. Creativity and creation are two different concepts that are not always in sync, but in lining these up through the filter of Fellini’s own wildly surreal stylings, 8 ½ stands as history’s most brilliantly compelling piece of self-reflexive cinema, seeking to examine the arduous processes of its own construction.
8 1/2 is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.
Highly stylised, futuristic visual designs do not always mesh so well with low-budget location shooting, but for a postmodern master of avant-garde cinematic form like Jean-Luc Godard, such delightful incongruity only strengthens his genre deconstructions. Alphaville is his take on film noir, but it is also a science-fiction set in a dystopian city, with hints of George Orwell and German expressionism, as well as the seeds of what would later become 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Why then has it fallen so far by the wayside when considering the widespread reverence held for those pieces of art that influenced it, and which it influenced in turn? Perhaps the answer can be found in Godard’s characteristic dissonance that rejects complete narrative immersion, striving to understand how authoritarianism is represented through the medium of film, rather than any traditional examination of the ideology itself. With that set as his thesis, Alphaville doesn’t just take a stand against artistic and emotional censorship, but rather becomes an act of creative rebellion in its very construction.
With the film’s exterior scenes being shot largely on the streets of Paris at night, it does not take a huge leap for Godard to reimagine its modernist buildings and streets as a futuristic society crawling with shadows and pierced by stark, white lights emanating from neon signs, cars, and streetlamps. This may be an economical choice, but it is also a purposefully stylistic one, turning away from artificial sets in favour of realistic environments that seem both familiar and slightly alien.
Ruling this metropolis is Alpha 60, a Big Brother figure that manifests a menacing, croaky voice paired with a single, circular light, occasionally beaming out from behind whirring fan blades like some mechanical piece of artificial intelligence. Alpha 60 is not our protagonist, but it is essentially our narrator, with its ominous voiceover indoctrinating us into its cold rule of didactic reasoning. Its assertion that Alphaville’s technocracy is founded on logic is absurdly inconsistent with its resistance to questioning, though it is evident that the blind acceptance of rules it demands simply serves to suppress anything vaguely human.
“The acts of man through the centuries will gradually destroy them. I, Alpha 60, I am merely the logical means of this destruction.”
Lemmy Caution is the craggy-faced secret agent from the ‘Outside Countries’ who comes into Alphaville with a mission to end Alpha 60’s reign of tyranny, but in his character design he bears far greater resemblance to a straight-talking, Philip Marlowe-type detective, ripped from the pages of a pulpy Raymond Chandler novel. Paired with this hard-boiled archetype is Anna Karina’s femme fatale, Natacha von Braun, who has lived her life by the rigid rules set by her father, who is also the city’s malevolent creator. To her, words like “love” and “conscience” are completely foreign, both being banned from Alphaville’s dialect that is specifically designed to limit freedom of thought. Upon meeting Lemmy, we can see pieces of his passion bleed into her, destabilising the brittle foundations of Alpha 60’s despotism.
Like The Big Sleep and so many other film noirs that came before, Alphaville possesses a dizzying plot that lands us at the mercy of a shady world which cannot be fully penetrated, constantly moving two paces ahead of any single character or viewer. Beyond the shadowy city streets, the bright interiors of buildings become havens from this darkness, lining ceilings with rows upon rows of lights caught from low angles that press down upon our characters. As Godard’s handheld camera passes through the modernist architecture in long takes, we acclimate to this fascinating environment of glass elevators and elaborate spiral staircases that simultaneously belong to 1960s Paris and reach into some progressive vision of its future.
It is not merely the immediate atmosphere that consumes us in Alphaville though, as Godard goes on to push his rejection of narrative transparency even further with formal cutaways to the Parisian neon street signs spelling out symbols and equations. These limited, inflexible forms of linguistic expression break up scenes like punctuation marks, reminding us of the world beyond Lemmy’s immediate experience, as well as Godard’s own presence in this story as a disturber of its continuity. Similarly, the suspenseful musical theme of accented horns and strings at first simply sits in the background, but each time it is repeated it announces itself just a little bit more, denying us the cadenced resolution we crave. With his trademark jump cuts and direct addresses to the camera topping off his self-aware style, he keeps us constantly living on a layer removed from the story, recognising the artifice of every technique, motif, and archetype that defines this film, and the science-fiction and noir genres at large.
As Lemmy achieves his great victory over Alpha 60 towards the end, shots of unprocessed negative film invert shades of black and white while the city falls apart, its systematic oppression finally being reversed and Godard’s loud, audacious style proclaiming itself within the very fabric of the projected reel. Like his protagonist, he stages his own angry, one-man riot against the stifling limitations imposed upon artists within the old Alphaville, distinctly exerting his creative power as a director, not just a mere observer of events. The citizens’ conditioning to replace questions of “Why?” with firm statements of “Because” is the antithesis of everything he stands for, most of all regarding cinematic convention. It is not enough to simply continue film noir and science fiction traditions, but getting to their reasons for existence by bringing them to our attention and stretching them to their limits is the basis of his playfully wicked experimentations in Alphaville, confidently asserting the inalienable right to imagination and curiosity among all humans, whether they be real or fictional.
Alphaville is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.
When Diouana is first picked out by ‘Madame’ as a nanny for her children back home in France, she can hardly believe her luck. Among a crowd of women desperately scrambling for a job on the streets of her Senegalese village, she is the only one not pushing her way to the front, trying to beat the others out. At first the decision to pick her, the quiet, patient one, seems gracious. Clearly Madame sees the virtues of a good worker in her, she believes, even if she does not have any experience. In hindsight, it is an obvious red flag – of course a bitter, domineering woman like Madame was going to choose whichever Black woman looks the most subservient. Confusion, regret, and loathing boil within Diouana over the course of her slavery-adjacent employment, and through her voiceover memoirs, Ousmane Sembène leads us into the heart of her suffering.
In its acute examinations of racial oppression, Black Girl stands proudly as a tentpole of both African cinema and Sembène’s directorial career, evoking the stylistic sensibilities of the French New Wave in its handheld camerawork and location shooting in Dakar and Antibes. Visually, Sembène defines both cities by their architecture, recognising their colonial parallels while drawing a sharp distinction between his camera’s immersion in either. Back home in Senegal, Diouana walks through streets as a free citizen, set against gorgeous backdrops of streetlamps and bridges. In France, the urban environment merely manifests as views from the windows of Madame and Monsieur’s home. As she looks out at the city drenched in darkness, she recalls the promise she was given for a better life.
“The mistress told me: ‘You’ll see, Diouana, there are lovely ships in France.’ Is France that black hole?”
It quickly becomes apparent that the French dream of liberty and equality is not reserved for people like her, as Sembène trades out Dakar’s streets for the closed-off interiors of the family home. He stages his scenes here with a constant sense of oppression, in one shot letting the family relax in the foreground with only Madame’s feet in the frame up on a table, while Diouana is wedged between walls in the background, shrunken and subjugated by the boxes drawn around her.
When it isn’t the physical infrastructure dominating the frame, it is the condescending, disapproving expressions of white people, caught through vulnerable point-of-view shots that land us in Diouana’s eyes. In a pair of extended flashbacks, she recalls the set of circumstances that led her servitude, and with her employers taking it upon themselves to respond to her family’s letters, she comes to feel even more cut off from her own past and identity. All that is left is that tiny prison, which quickly becomes her entire world.
“Back in Dakar they must be saying ‘Diouana is happy in France, she has a good life.’ For me France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and my bedroom.”
The only mark Diouana has on the space is a single African mask, standing out in Sembène’s black-and-white photography as a dark imprint against the blank wall it hangs upon. It is a gift she brought to her employers, though one which they accept as little more than a decorative museum piece, cheapening her very presence and contribution to the household. As her treatment grows worse, so too does her depression, and her contempt for Madame eventually erupts in a struggle to reclaim that mask she had so courteously offered them.
The foreshadowing Sembène lays out in Diouana’s anguish makes her suicide no less upsetting. It is at this point that her pervasive voiceovers that have accompanied every step of her journey cease, thus ending our primary vehicle of insight into her mind. Within the broader French society, her death manifests as a mere headline in a newspaper, read by people relaxing on beaches. For Madame and Monsieur, it is similarly nothing more than a disturbing disruption to their privileged lives. Not long after, the bathroom that Diouana slit her throat in is entirely spotless, all traces of her existence and demise completely erased from their home.
In depicting the ease with which the racial trauma of Black Girl is swept under the rug, the post-colonial allegory that Sembène puts forward fully comes to fruition in its final act. Monsieur’s voyage to Dakar to return Diouana’s belongings to her family and pay them out is a weak attempt at compensation, and one that they have no trouble seeing through. Much like the young boy who dons her old mask and stalks Monsieur through the streets, so too does the memory of Diouana and France’s colonial history at large haunt him with a lingering guilt. In this tensely edited sequence, there is no end to his running. It can be wiped from physical records, but memories of the atrocities committed against the African people do not fade.
Black Girl is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Playtime opens with a chaotic jazz track of frenzied drums and an electric keyboard against a cloudy sky, though it won’t be until we reach the final act about ninety minutes in that we will come across anything close to this anarchic again. The Paris of Jacques Tati’s slightly futuristic France is a highly curated assortment of rigid lines and boxes, fastidiously fitting workers into cubicles, citizens into apartments, and tourists into buses. His regular silent buffoon, Monsieur Hulot, doesn’t mean to disrupt this tidy, bureaucratic order, but letting a force of innocent curiosity loose in a city of inefficient processes and absurd designs does not bode well for either party.
In real life, the sprawling city set was dubbed Tativille, and pushed Playtime’s budget so far that it claimed the record for the most expensive French film ever produced. This isn’t surprising either – anything less simply would not have satisfied Tati’s extravagant metropolitan vision, built out of large, meticulous set pieces as sharp in their visual design as they are in their social satire.
By breaking his film up into vignettes that wander from one set piece to the next, Tati keeps a lax approach to traditional plotting, allowing for an organic exploration of his bizarre, monochrome vision of Paris. This is a city of metal and glass, shiny and sleek in its smooth textures, but also completely soulless. The charm of old-fashioned French culture only exists in small glimpses – a street florist contributing a few pops of colour to an otherwise drab sidewalk, and an elusive reflection of the Eiffel Tower in a glass door as it swings open. Everywhere else in this environment of harsh angles and parallel lines, there is barely a curve to be found. For Tati, this is an absolute triumph of set design and architecture, relying on these purely visual elements to tell a story of innocent romance and mindless conformity that dialogue alone cannot convey.
It is just as much his immaculate framing of the city as it is his monumental production design which isolates his characters from each other, as there are so many vertical dividers between windows and walls that it is almost impossible for anyone to stand anywhere without being boxed in. His deep focus photography serves well in capturing the breadth and scale of these colossal sets, but it serves a comedic purpose too in the staging of his visual gags, making full use of the frame in all its layers and obstructions. As Hulot sits at the end of an extra-long hallway in an office building, the man he is waiting to meet appears down the other end and begins to make the long journey from the background to the foreground. And then, in awkward silence, we wait some more. Very gradually, the man gets larger, and yet the comically long corridor just keeps on stretching the scene into oblivion.
Elsewhere in this office building, Tati confuses a pair of identical doors that lead to very different locations, observes a call operator confuse himself with a switchboard of buttons and dials, and discovers a labyrinth of cubicles ergonomically designed to cut its workers off from all human contact. So much striving for progress has effectively neutered this society’s functionality, to the point that what should be an epicentre of human innovation has become an absurdly convoluted playground. Should one manage to escape from it, as Hulot eventually does, there is no guarantee they will make it back inside the same building – all across this city are identical structures one could easily end up in instead.
It is in one of those buildings where Hulot comes across a trade exhibition of various pointless inventions. A broom with headlights attracts a small crowd, and a door that can slam silently is on show too. Perhaps the greatest display though is ‘Thro-Out Greek Style’ which turns ancient Greek columns into flip-top bins, tastelessly commercialising history for cheap profit. If we were to theorise that it is perhaps just this corner of the world that has succumbed to modernity, we are proven wrong when Hulot comes across a series of travel posters advertising famous international destinations, amusingly representing each one with the same dreary city buildings we have already seen here in Paris.
“Ultra-modern” is the word citizens proudly use to describe the impersonal style of their architecture and interior design, though there is nothing that looks particularly comfortable about it. Perhaps public buildings can get away with conforming to the same cookie-cutter moulds, but the stacking of identical apartments on top of each other like glass display cases saps the personal lives inside of anything that makes them remotely unique or intimate. Even as Monsieur Hulot enters one of these flats to visit his friend, Tati keeps his camera on the outside, observing the grid of windows from a distance where we can see neighbours going about their own ordinary, unexciting business. At times the camera is positioned in such a manner that we can’t even see the walls dividing the apartments, creating the illusion that their inhabitants are conversing with each other in a unified space. We know better than that though – such a connection between strangers is but a dream in this world of arbitrary barriers.
Our only hope that some quaint European charm might live on lies in the converging paths of Monsieur Hulot and Barbara, an American tourist desperately searching for the France of her dreams. As they find each other in a chic, modern restaurant, its geometric and architectural perfection falls to pieces around them, and Tati turns this ordered environment into one of unbridled chaos. It starts small with a floor tile that keeps getting stuck to shoes, revealing a small structural flaw in this room held together by glue, and then the glass door at the front smashes to pieces, forcing a staff member to hold the handle in place and mime opening it for guests. A spiral neon sign on the ceiling leads drunk customers around in circles, pretensions of restraint go out the door when the jazz musicians are replaced by an erratic, impromptu performance, and then, with one swift motion, Tati collapses a ceiling decoration, marking his infrastructure with a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of wooden planks and exposed wires. This uncontrolled mess is the perfect meet-cute for what appears to be the only two people in Paris who long for simpler, scruffier times.
With his slapstick gags and production design carrying so much of the storytelling, Tati’s scripted dialogue remains notably minimal. Rather than functioning to convey detailed information, it simply melds into the sound design where every other aural cue is accentuated. The loud clacking of shoes on hard floors and the constant hum of fluorescent lights tell us just as much about these environments as the nasally drawl of American tourists or the slick sales pitch of a creatively bankrupt entrepreneur.
Of course, cinema is a visual medium though, and Tati recognises it as such in his exacting formal precision, never failing to put his rigorously designed mise-en-scène front and centre. That he can draw out such playful beauty from a society so void of individuality speaks to his craftsmanship as a comedian and filmmaker, especially in the closing minutes where he leads a balletic dance of cars along the city streets, circling roundabouts in never-ending loops and bouncing in time to carousel music. For all its light-hearted social satire, Playtime remains an intricately stacked construction of gags and set pieces, as monumentally ambitious as it is methodically delicate.
Playtime is currently streaming on SBS On Demand and The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.
Before we see any of the creatures promised in the title Planet of the Apes, we spend a good thirty minutes wandering around a mysterious landscape of dunes, waterholes, and open fields inhabited by mute humans. Charles Heston leads the way as George Taylor, an astronaut from 1972 and captain of a space crew that has crash landed on an unknown world some two thousand and six years into the future. Its environments and civilisations are built slowly and thoroughly, and besides the use of some clumsy camera zooms that insist on pushing our attention in the most obvious directions, Franklin J. Schaffner’s majestic style of epic filmmaking is well-suited to the material. It is when we first see the rustling stalks of corn and an army of apes on horseback bursting through the vegetation that Planet of the Apes moves into truly exciting territory though, whisking us away to a city of prehistoric stone structures and non-human primates.
This entire set is an impressive feat of production design for Schaffner, cleverly combining elements of caveman civilisations and modern technology to craft a world that can’t be placed in any familiar time. Rudimentary labs, courtrooms, churches, and streets carved from rock become a playground for his boisterous narrative of chases and escape attempts, though the apes themselves who are in control of it all possess a far greater intelligence than those that Taylor is familiar with. There is a similar integration of primitive and contemporary sounds in Jerry Goldsmith’s discordant score of exotic percussion and orchestral instruments, hauntingly underscoring the environment’s otherworldly qualities.
The culture that has evolved here is also one that has been thoroughly tipped on its head. The re-invention of popular monkey-centred idioms that place humans in subservient positions can be somewhat glib at times (“Man see, Man do” is one notable offender), but otherwise this subversion of status is one that Schaffner cunningly incorporates all through the structure of this upside-down civilisation. Hunters take proud photos with their human game, theories abound that apes evolved from “dirty” men, and most fascinatingly, cultural conflicts between faith and science are a constant point of contention between different factions of the city’s inhabitants. In these parallels, Schaffner makes his point bluntly but powerfully – the advanced intelligence of any species does not make them inherently special, but rather exposes their ties to their primitive, evolutionary roots.
Then again, perhaps there is a single inherently human quality that separates one genus of primates from another. Schaffner paces his narrative well in his final act leading to this discovery, transforming Planet of the Apes into a western of sorts in which a band of allied apes and humans venture across a harsh desert to uncover the “Forbidden Zone”, where it is said one can find evidence of a pre-ape civilisation. The warnings of the apes’ religious leaders fall on deaf ears, describing man as a “harbinger of death” who makes “a desert of his home.”
As Taylor trudges along an empty beach towards what he believes is his freedom, Goldsmith’s eerie score continues to play beneath with a nervous anticipation. The discovery that they eventually reach at the other end is simply gut-wrenching, not just because of the anguish that reverberates through Heston’s voice, but Schaffner’s framing of the shot itself, slowly bringing those iconic spikes on the Statue of Liberty’s crown into view from behind, before we cut to a wide and realise the full, bleak context. There are no close-ups or frantic cutting to be found here at all. In a few stark, simple shots, humanity’s desire for ultimate dominance is uncovered as the trigger for its own destruction, the pieces of this mystery fall into place, and Schaffner effectively immortalises Planet of the Apes as an immortal touchstone of cinema history.
Planet of the Apes is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.
Jean-Louis’ night at Maud’s is a test of faith brought about by chance. Where his newest love interest, Françoise, is a blonde Christian who lives traditionally, Maud is a dark-haired, secular, modern woman, playfully pushing his rigid boundaries. It is important to Eric Rohmer’s philosophical drama that she is not some antagonistic seductress though, looking to ruin or corrupt his perfect moral standard. After all, his sympathies with his God-fearing protagonist aren’t so clear-cut either, with Jean-Louis being a man struggling to reconcile his conscious actions with his faith. It is rather Maud’s transgressive incitement which motivates him to seriously consider his own life as it pertains to his values, as well as the erratic universe which pushes his fate in whatever fickle directions it may choose.
With the character of Vidal, a Marxist university lecturer more aligned with Maud’s worldly sensibilities than those of his theological friend, Rohmer rounds out this four-person chamber drama. It is a dense script of mathematical, social, and ethical quandaries which drives My Night at Maud’s, and not one that affords its audience any time to lag behind. Lengthy conversations take place inside apartments and cafes, as Rohmer stages different combinations of character interactions without ever bringing them all together in one location. Many of these discussions are not planned, but rather emerge organically from crossings of unlikely paths, thus immediately setting the stage for an in-depth debate over the mechanics of probability.
“Our ordinary paths never cross. Therefore, the point of intersection must be outside those ordinary paths. I’ve dabbling in mathematics in my spare time. It would be fun to calculate our chances of meeting in a two-month period.”
From there, conversations regarding Pascal’s wager open up, considering the risk that human’s take with their lives in deciding whether or not to believe that God exists. It is a gamble that both Jean-Louis and Vidal play safely, though within different contexts. The latter, being an academic, chooses to believe that history holds inherent meaning, as it is only then that his life’s work can hold value. For Jean-Louis though, moral choice is an imperative he wishes to keep putting off, and it is that “half-heartedness” which Maud skewers him for.
Such heavy philosophical dialogue rarely hampers Rohmer’s cinematic staging of this drama, particularly in Jean-Louis’ pivotal conversation with Maud that sees him uncomfortably move around her apartment, while she lies still in bed. As he oscillates back and forth in this scene, the temptation becomes real, eventually leading to his decision to sleep next to Maud – though categorically not sleep with her. Later, Rohmer blocks Françoise in a similar position and sets up a counterpoint between both characters, though one that strikes a different note when she offers him a different room.
The clean order of Rohmer’s symmetrical compositions is consistent with the mathematical precision of the screenplay, but in his framing of characters behind glass windows and doors he also creates a cold distancing effect. In this environment where roads are slippery with ice and sidewalks are dusted with snow, such camerawork makes for a fitting choice, as if silently encouraging these characters to break down barriers and find warmth with each other amid the winter weather. This frigidity is also somewhat offset by the festive lights and decorations that smatter scenes with religious undertones, grounding these philosophical discussions in the Christmas season where Christians congregate in churches and meditate on their faith. With this in mind, Rohmer sets in motion the first tangential crossing of paths between Jean-Louis and Françoise at a mass, as he eyes her profile from across the congregation.
It isn’t long after this that he becomes convinced he will one day marry her. When Maud comes in, she is not simply drawn up as a seductive obstacle to this goal manifesting, but Rohmer rather uses her openness to expose Jean-Louis’ hypocrisy. He is a man concerned with his own respectability, and is willing to forget about his own history that carries contradictions with his faith. So too does Françoise come to a similar conclusion, asking that neither of them speak of their pasts again when their shameful misbehaviours surface.
Perhaps though it is this course of action which grants the greatest happiness, as we see Jean-Louis and his now-wife, Françoise, run into Maud five years later – by chance of course, the same way almost every other meeting in the film has taken place. At the moment that Jean-Louis realises that Françoise was in fact the woman who slept with Maud’s husband and thus set in motion their divorce, he once again chooses to bury the past in favour of a blissful marriage.
It is telling that Rohmer chooses to stage this scene against a sunny beach rather than the snowy urban landscapes that have dominated the rest of the film, revealing a fresh warmth in Jean-Louis’ life that has failed to manifest up until now. In true philosophical fashion, My Night at Maud’s isn’t ready to deliver firm answers to its academic quandaries, and yet in this narrative built on a series of formal happenstances Rohmer also crafts an absorbing examination of fate, free will, and history as they fall under theological and secular perspectives.
My Night at Maud’s is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.
During his peak of activity in the 1960’s, Jean-Luc Godard took a brief respite from sending up beloved Hollywood genres to aim his incisive wit towards the “gods” of storytelling themselves, be they Greek poets or contemporary filmmakers. The tension between the ancient and the modern is evident in Contempt as writers, directors, producers, and actors argue amongst themselves, trying to determine the motivation that drove Odysseus’ epic ten-year adventure across the eastern Mediterranean. It is indeed a curious thing that so many ancient myths take the emphasis off the internal journeys and onto the external, and yet this allows for some universality in which individuals can imprint themselves on these legendary figures. In the case of these artists making a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, it is the perfect story upon which they can map their own relationships and ambitious endeavours.
Cutaways of Greek god statues with their eyes and lips coloured in with reds and blues run through the film, as Godard’s low angles powerfully frame them against the sky. In fact, Contempt’s mise-en-scène may be his most classical we have seen to date, even as Godard’s primary “French” colours keep bursting through in its set dressing and lighting. Back at the apartment of Brigitte Bardot’s actress, Camille, and Michel Piccoli’s playwright, Paul, the occasional bright blue chair or red towel worn like a toga pierces the beige, modern architecture, marking the breakdown of their relationship as a tale just as fresh as it is old, woven into the archetypes of human storytelling. Is it sexual jealousy that has driven them apart, or rather a loss of respect for Paul’s integrity as an artist? Was Odysseus’ journey driven by a faithless wife back home, an indifference to her growing contempt for him, or something else altogether?
Unable to agree on the source of their own woes, Camille and Paul are driven to the extreme ends of Godard’s compositions, divided by huge amounts of negative space in the walls and door frames of their accommodation. Even when the two finally come face to face, it is as if they can’t stand to be captured in the same image together, as Godard’s camera instead shifts side-to-side in close-ups of their profiles. This ebb and flow between casual conversation and shouting takes up a full half hour of the film’s modest 100-minute run time, letting them attempt some sort of direct expression of their feelings before returning to the film set for the remaining third.
In the villa where the shoot is taking place, several of Contempt’s characters venture up a cascade of steps to a flat rooftop, overlooking the same Mediterranean Sea which played host to the hero of Homer’s epic poem. Godard knows what he has with this gorgeous set piece as he returns to it over and over, further isolating his characters in long shots as lonely, modern idols wandering a corner of the Earth so famous for its stories. The potential to contribute to the mythos of humanity is right there for the taking, but for those who degrade it with their visions of dishonest, crude entertainment, it ultimately holds nothing but contempt.
Contempt is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.