1960s, Comedy, French cinema, Thriller

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Tirez sur les Pianiste

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Director/Coscreenwriter: François Truffaut

By Roderick Heath

The evergreen lustre the early films of the French New Wave still retain stems in part from a tangible quality inseparable from the moment and place of their making. That sense of fleet-footed adventure encoded in their frames, captured by a bunch of ragged young men and women spilling out into the streets, informed by a sense of lawless enthusiasm, both in taking advantage of an urban space teeming with life usually edited out of films, not yet gentrified and legally corralled into sterility as so many big modern cities are becoming, and excited by the very idea of tactile communion with an art they had previously only worshipped from the theatre seats, theory and aesthetic, cliché and revolt suddenly fusing into new forms, art as a form of obsidian ore. One vital element that connected most of the early films the movement churned out was Raoul Coutard’s photography. Somehow raw and stripped of the usual cinematic gloss and yet also humming with a sense of quicksilver beauty and poise all at once, Coutard’s work was a great part of that mystique, with Paris as his set decorator, as if Cartier-Bresson or Capa had taken up shooting low-budget movies. Amongst the critics turned filmmaker who formed the core of the New Wave, François Truffaut had earned himself a measure of infamy as a reviewer for his harshness, to the point where he was refused an invitation to the Cannes festival in 1958. He took all the chances inherent in putting his money where his mouth was when he made his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), only to stun everyone with his dynamic, intimate, alternately gruelling and beguilingly autobiographical debut. Truffaut quickly followed that success by helping write the script for his friend and fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Luc-Godard’s debut as director, Breathless (1960).

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Faced with the question of what to offer as his own sophomore feature, and with most people expecting him to continue in the vein of serious, evocative cinema he had forged, Truffaut balked at the idea of repeating his breakthrough and the kind of praise he received for it. Choosing instead to perform a seemingly radical swivel from personal artist to entertainer, and make a work purely to please himself and other film lovers, he next set out to make the kind of gamy, dynamic genre cinema fare he loved, particularly American gangster films. He chose as his basis the novel Down There by oft-filmed American hardboiled writer David Goodis. Shoot the Piano Player, as the film is generally known, nonetheless proved if anything an even more radically free-form, eccentric, wildly energetic exploration of cinema’s raw textures and testing ground for the peculiar way theoretically trashy material can mesh with personal perspective and creative audaciousness and come out as something entirely new. Shoot the Piano Player has at once the breezy, cheeky flavour of a Parisian bar-room joke and an ultimately lacerating edge of the genuinely mournful, as well as a certain wry, distanced, but substantial perspective on Truffaut’s coming of age as a filmmaker of repute.

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Goodis’ novel, depicting a fallen piano prodigy and his ne’er-do-well brothers who inadvertently draw him back into their seamy criminal world, has a fascinating key-note that Truffaut latched onto, the disparity between the way we understand art as a zone of yearning, disciplined, transcendent reach, and crime, a grimy, degrading world, by offering a character trapped between both spheres. Truffaut, who had dropped out of school and taught himself whilst contending with authorities of all stripes and living by his wits before finding new grounding in the world of film, surely could understand such a schismatic worldview. Trouble was, Truffaut supposedly realised during the shoot how much he detested gangsters and found it stymied his commitment to the story, so he turned increasingly towards comedy and burlesque to defuse his discomfort. Right from the film’s frantic opening shots, it’s instantly obvious that Truffaut had no interest in emulating the poised, technically imperious art associated with Hollywood’s noir masters, however. Basic rules of cinema as largely practiced up to that date are instantly, brazenly ignored, as shots hosepipe dizzyingly, focus drifts in and out, and Coutard’s handheld camerawork records blurry car headlights and scantly-lit nightscapes in impressionist smears.

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Such rudely chaotic beauty and evocation of vertiginous urban menace seems to set the scene for some wildly paranoid flight, as it becomes clear a man is running from a car trying to run him down. But the plunge into action resolves when the man, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), collides with a lamppost, a comic diminuendo to an opening that comes on with such nourish menace. Chico is helped up by a passing stranger (Alex Joffé) who then regales him happily about his life with his wife in a scene of ribald conversation: the urgency of a life-and-death chase, the essence of genre storytelling, gives way to its ambling, contemplative, gently humorous dissection. Only when it’s done and they part ways does Chico take off in a madcap sprint once more, as if remembering what movie he’s supposed to be in. Chico’s flight brings him to a bar thrumming with evening life, thanks to the combo playing there, led by the pianist Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) whose poster is on the wall outside. Chico proves to have a distinct motive for coming here: Charlie is in fact his brother, the once-famous Edouard Saroyan, now leading a determinedly modest workaday life entertaining the flotsam of the night. The two heavies who have been dogging his trail, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), enter the bar, and Charlie helps stall their pursuit as Chico flees out the back door.

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This early sequence in the bar, run by the leather-skinned Plyne (Serge Davri), is a marvel of swift-serve incidents and character sketches, quickly establishing the terse, closed-off nature of Charlie, so different to his criminal yet gabby, friendly brother, and the people Charlie works with or entertains. Such folk include the sleazy but perversely sympathetic Plyne, the wary Mammy (Catherine Lutz), Plyne’s estranged wife still working the bar, and roaming waitress Léna (Marie Dubois), the gorgeous but cagey object of Plyne’s desire. Around them flit vignettes and oddball characters. Two gawky onlookers mull the quality of flesh in the bar (“The other night it was first class quality!”). A man assures his dancing partner he’s interested in her chest because he’s a doctor. Chico chats up Mammy with gaudy patter: “You’re desirable—that’s why I desire you…I’m planning on getting married tonight.” A young man dancing with lovely prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier) gets tired of her teasing way and gives her a slap, only to earn himself gentlemanly retaliation from Chico. Charlie leaps back onto the piano to distract the audience from the sudden invasion by the two heavies chasing Chico, inspiring the singing waiter (singer-songwriter Boby Lapointe) to jump up and regale the audience with his bouncy, cheerfully bawdy song about a man driven to distraction by his wife’s breast enlargements, with lyrics spelt out on screen singalong-fashion. The way Truffaut shoots Lapointe’s performance, momentarily pausing the frantic pace of his images only to focus on a performer who throws out words and vibrates with rapid-fire energy to equal the director’s.

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Here Truffaut calls back to the Hollywood tradition of shoehorning a musical performance into movies for the sake of broadening appeal, and establishes his own work’s intense feel for the local, street-level cultural life, whilst also offering the director’s own spin on the same phenomenon Godard would later pursue more intently: investigating the synergy of art forms purveyed within art forms, giving the movie over to a performer’s use of space and sound to recalibrate how we react to such elements. Charlie lives in a drab apartment with his youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), with Clarisse his upstairs neighbour and friend with benefits. Clarisse sleeps with Charlie after both get home from their exertions that night, in a funny scene where Clarisse’s pop sponge of a mind lends proceedings a mode of cultural burlesque as she recites jingles and gives critical opinions of a John Wayne film (“It proves America wants peace.”), and stirs Charlie to make his own joke at the expense of film convention, as he covers Clarisse’s bare breasts with a sheet: “In the movies it’s always like this.” His zipless, pay-as-you-go relationship with Clarisse suits Charlie’s disengaged approach to life, but he soon finds the contracts of identity are about to snap into effect

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Ernest and Momo start tracking him, hoping to find a way to use him to track down Chico, who, along with the fourth Saroyan sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), has ripped them off after a robbery they staged together. Léna alerts Charlie to the fact they’re following him, and she walks with him through the night as Charlie grapples more with his unspoken attraction to Léna than with the dogging hoods. The next morning, Fido spots the two gangsters lurking outside their apartment block and drops a milk container on their bonnet from the third floor. When Charlie emerges from his apartment block, Ernest and Momo swoop on him and drag him into their car at gunpoint, and they soon pick up Léna the same way, intending to pressure Charlie into leading them to his brothers, and Léna realises that Plyne let himself be bribed into giving the hoods their addresses. Léna’s quick wits see her contriving to attract a policeman’s attention, giving her and Charlie a chance to slip away from their kidnappers. Léna then leads Charlie to her apartment where he discovers that, far from being indifferent to him, Léna has been worshipping him from afar, aware of his real name and former identity as a famous concert pianist.

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Charlie doesn’t bear much apparent resemblance to the gutsy, inquisitive, often exasperating Antoine Doinel as introduced in The 400 Blows. Fido evokes Antoine more, with his pranks, quips, mop of Presley-esque hair and finger-snapping pursuit of the right jive rhythm, every inch the natural-born Parisian rascal. Charlie nonetheless offers Truffaut’s first grown-up hero with a sense of linkage to his young alter ego, grown up and offered a taste of paradise only to be defeated by life. Charlie is alternately defined by his cool, detached manner and his almost crippling fear of human interaction, a fear that predates the various traumas that define his life and seem rooted in the act of distinction that cleaved him away from his brothers and set him on a path to refined artistry and success. He recalls young Chico and Richard tossing stones at the car that whisked away to his piano lessons, their mocking reminder, still resonating with Charlie, that in the end he’s still their brother. Charlie’s seemingly stoic, deadpan approach to most situations life throws his way, from gangsters chasing after his brother to the topless prostitute teasing him in bed, belies a deep-set sensitivity, and the voiceover narration Truffaut allows him affects a Bogartian cool but also reveals his timorousness in the face of challenges like whether or not he should try to seduce Léna, and the mantra of noncommittal he repeats to himself when situation get too emotionally charged.

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Charlie has been forged by a form of survivor’s guilt, a trait bolstered by the grim fate of his wife and former career, described in a lengthy flashback halfway through the film. The former Edouard, a struggling musician, had nonetheless been happily married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who worked as a waitress whilst he tried to kick-start his career: their daily games of “customer and waitress” in the café where she worked attracted the attention of impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann), a seemingly fortuitous meeting that resulted in Edouard’s big break, leading to huge fame as a concert performer under Schmeel’s guidance. But the Saroyans’ marriage started to founder as Edouard finally grew more successful, and eventually Thérèse admitted that Schmeel gave Edouard his chance because she agreed to sleep with him. Thérèse then threw herself to her death after Edouard walked out on her, and he completely left behind his former existence, taking refuge for years in anonymous jobs until one day he worked up the courage to tickle the ivories in Plyne’s café again. Finally, the man reborn as Charlie seems to complete his degradation when he and Léna confront Plyne over his betrayal. Plyne, equally steamed as he realises Charlie has “soiled” the lovely Léna, starts a fight that turns deadly as he tries to choke Charlie, forcing the pianist to stab him in the back.

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The greatest quality of Shoot the Piano Player is also the most difficult to fully describe — the blithe way it steps between postures of raucous humour and wistfully earnest feeling, metafictional wiseacrey and waylaying emotional directness. Shoot the Piano Player, amidst the pile-up of jokes, genre touchstones, and romantic ephemera, probes what artistic success means in terms of personal identity, a notion that also extends the attitude of investigation as to what forces define us from childhood to adulthood and what happens to the self when its foundations collapse. This preoccupation would continue to bob up throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre, essayed on an epic scale with his subsequent Doinel films but also evident in works like L’Enfant Sauvage (1969) and The Story of Adele H. (1975). Comedy and tragedy here are wound together like the disparate halves of Charlie/Edouard, right from the opening scene in which thriller canards suddenly swerve into a stranger’s wry but poignant story about how he and his wife got married, had kids, and fell in love in that order, and so has the kind of existence everyone else in the film yearns for but fails at. Even the jokey use of Charlie’s dissonant narration leads in with supple force to a sudden swerve in the way this device is employed, when, during the flashback, Edouard tells himself not to walk out on Therese. His conscious, rational self tries to retain command of his instinctual, emotional self, and fails with terrible consequences. Charlie tries to dispose of the disparity, but such traits remain integral to all human experience, even if some, like Charlie’s brothers and their gangster enemies, operate purely on the level of sensual instinct. This idea is illustrated with bawdy gusto when Ernest raves with wild-eyed glee about erotic wonts and consumerist delights when he and Momo have kidnapped Charlie and Léna. They’re like embodiments of the side of Truffaut’s mind that’s a magpie attracted by shiny objects of all kinds, complete with a watch that rings out the score of Lola Montes (1956).

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The New Wave directors were often driven to comment sarcastically on the fame they had been granted by their anarchic, rule-breaking impulses, which edged in some cases into genuinely revolutionary sensibilities, as suddenly a bunch of café bums and movie geeks found themselves media celebrities. Part and parcel with this was their study of their own schismatic sensibilities, their simultaneous immersion in the modes of cinema and self-conscious distrust for it, the critic-intellectual’s unease with the instinctively profligate method of art and the needs of the entertainment-seeking audience. Here Truffaut found a sly way to wrestle with the question of whether such a charmed life could continue, or if selling out would be inevitable. Cleverly, Schmeel, the devil who consumed Edouard’s life, is presented not as a charming playboy but a kindly, fatherly type to Edouard, one who enjoys his pet pianist so much he puts his portrait on his office wall. Charlie’s shyness is initially funny, but we learn Edouard’s anxiety and discomfort in the public eye harmed his personality, as he felt a need to boast and feed on acclaim, and fuelled the mounting sense of crisis in his private life even before that calamitous revelation. Success demands a price, the kind of price that hacks into the presumptions and recompenses of ordinary life. Léna’s adoption of Charlie as lover also identifies him unapologetically as potential gold mine, as she admits to him she wants him to return to his old life to give her a better one. This signals the possibility of a rebirth for Edouard, but also puts Charlie on a collision course with every fact of his identity he’s been ignoring. The bleak side to Shoot the Piano Player is rooted in one basic irony: the reawakening that life demands from Charlie promises rewards but instead simply replays bitter experience. To be alive is to be open to pain as well as joy, and whilst for some that very alternation can be a drug-like habit, for others shutdown is the only option to weather it.

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Although general audiences initially met it with bemusement, Shoot the Piano Player became a fetish object for movie lovers in itself for Truffaut’s ebullient cinematic stunts, building upon the remarkable camera freeness and willingness to utilise seemingly antiquated or merely functional effects like the iris shot and the freeze frame with definitive authorial intent. It’s still very easy to see what the fuss was about, as even the following decade or so of pop cinema that would relentlessly mine Truffaut and Godard’s works would rarely recreate the pace and bravura ingenuity with which they’re offered. The rough-hewn, almost home-movie-like crudeness apparent in the film’s earliest shots resolves when Chico enters Plyne’s bar into sudden professional precision, mapping out vignettes with Hawksian concision, but offered with a machine-gun pace that flies far ahead of the more measured studio style. Truffaut’s more ostentatious flourishes come on with real wit and bratty showiness, like a triptych shot of Plyne in negotiation with the gangsters revealing him in different postures ranging from noble stonewalling to money-grubbing treachery. Or, most famously, a sudden cutaway after Ernest swears a story he’s told is true on his mother’s life, only to offer a glimpse an old woman suddenly keeling over from a heart attack. As opposed to Godard’s increasingly studious preoccupation with the semantics of expression through cinema, Truffaut remained far more intuitive, catching ideas and whims and condensing them into visual motifs with intelligence but also carefree zest. One of Truffaut’s greatest stylistic pirouettes comes during the flashback sequence, recounting Charlie’s journey to give an audition for Schmeel: his finger hovers for a moment in giant close-up over the doorbell button, the momentousness of the act for the young, talented, but fatally uneasy man captured in all its epic intimacy.

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Truffaut, instead of following Charlie within for the moment of truth, instead tracks the glum-faced violinist who was auditioning before him as she leaves Schmeel’s apartment. The sounds of Charlie’s thunderous romantic strains momentarily make her pause, and continue to resound on the soundtrack as she leaves the building and heads out into the streets, presumably, to a life of anonymity, whilst Charlie has been anointed, with the suggestion, ever so ethereal, that something is wrong. The hints of machinating fate Truffaut offers in this disorientating interlude soon takes shape but offers in its moment an islet of mysterious beauty that suggests another level to Charlie’s journey, the power of music, celebrated again by Truffaut in parentheses with his film. Truffaut returns to the musical interlude motif late in the film, during Charlie and Léna’s flight from the law, shots of the car’s progress along misty highways and into snowy alpine hills set to a languorously romantic song about two lovers who signify their continuing ardour with signs like going bareheaded. Similarly dreamy is a bedroom sequence, as Charlie and Léna make love and sleep peacefully together, counterpointed in aching dissolves with the images of Edouard’s old concert posters on the walls – past, present, and future all in flux. The soft edges of such sequences stand in contrast with the violent filmic syntax elsewhere, as in the rush of shots depicting Edouard’s plunge back into his hotel room and out to the veranda only to see Therese dead far below on the pavement, a moment that communicates the suddenness and horror of such a loss in volubly immediate terms. Truffaut even displays outright contempt for standard movie grammar, as in the concluding moments when the criminal Saroyans and their nemeses flee in cars, Truffaut hacking up the action into summary shots, as if contemptuously farewelling these halfwits and bad seeds who leave human wreckage in their wake.

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Truffaut’s admiration for Hitchcock, which he would later try to work out in more belaboured terms in his fascinating misfire The Bride Wore Black (1968), is first sighted here during Charlie’s fight with Plyne, drawing on Dial M For Murder (1953) as a desperate fight for life sees a blade sunk into a spine, in a moment charged with perverse intimacy. But Hitchcockian erotic overtones are swapped for the weird spectacle of apparent masculine bonhomie, as Plyne affects to embrace Charlie after their hot heads have cooled, only to then start throttling him, a spasm of sexual-nihilistic disappointment turning the bar owner deadly as Plyne grunts out his fury for Charlie despoiling his idealised, virginal version of Léna. Earlier on Charlie had given Plyne a sympathetic ear when he confessed his crush on the waitress, revealed in his gruff pathos as he readily admitted he was far too ugly to charm her (“Perhaps it’s glands,” Charlie suggests; Plyne replies, “No, it’s my face.”). Charlie’s defensive killing is witnessed by neighbours, but he thinks he won’t be able to prove the circumstances, so Léna and Mammy hide him in the café cellar and then help him flee to his parents’ house in the Alps, which has already been taken over by Chico and Richard as their hideout. Meanwhile Ernest and Momo kidnap Fido, and force him to take them to the same place.

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Aznavour’s lead performance was one Shoot the Piano Player’s great coups, bringing to the part surprising physical wit, his weirdly charming molten-plasticine face, and definite comfort with playing the instrument central to the character’s life and way of mediating the world. Although not at the time an experienced actor, he perfectly embodies Charlie’s bipolar nature and wears his sad-sack suppliance as assuredly as one of the trench coats he wears. Some of his best moments come during his first walk with Lena, counting off steps with his fingers behind his back as he tries to work up the courage to take her arm, before starting to suggest they get a drink together, only to find she’s already flitted off into the night. But the whole cast is excellent, particularly the uncanny trio of ladies around him, Mercier, Berger, and Dubois, each a study in a diverse types demarcating different classes and ways of looking at female archetypes. Mercier the black-haired gamine, Berger the classical cool, continental blonde, and Dubois the fresh-faced, brightly smiling urchin: Berger is particularly effective delivering Helene’s long, confessional monologue, prowling around the hotel room in an inescapable shot, pinioned like a butterfly in a collection. Mercier, who would later find great fame playing the cult heroine Angelique in French films, brings an insouciant delight to her role as a featherlight character happy to play bedmate to Charlie and part-time mother to Fido, but who hits the bottle out of guilt after the hoods snatch Fido from under her nose in a vignette of throwaway pathos.

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Dubois, who was Truffaut’s discovery for the film (her real name was Christine Herze), has her finest moments breezily handing Charlie the mission of giving her a better life, which Charlie seems to accept with his familiar deadpan stoicism, only for her then to state, with a show of lancing vulnerability as she farewells him to work, that the only thing she really asks of a man is to tell her when things are over. Later, when Lena drops him off at his parents’ mountain house, Charlie is stricken as he tries to work out how to cast her out of his life now that he seems to have been claimed by the family curse, Aznavour’s face calcified by the conflicting desires to cut himself off from her as he’s sure he’ll bring her doom, and the urge to not let her go, resolving with the unspoken wish, “I wish she’d let me finish drinking that bottle.” The drive into the mountains shifts the film’s gear into a more rarefied realm, charged with an ironically dissonant sense of romanticism and melancholia that cuts across the grain of madcap energy seen in the rest of the film, as Charlie settles down to wait out the night with cigarettes and weltschmerz as his brothers crow that their brother has finally joined them. The dawn brings good news, as Lena returns to tell Charlie he’s been vindicated by the witnesses and can return to the world. But it also brings the two hoods, with the canny Fido snatching a chance to give them the slip.

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A gunfight between the two gangs breaks out, with Lena, sprinting through the snow to try and reach Charlie’s side, gunned down accidentally. In spite of Truffaut’s improvisatory shooting style, Shoot the Piano Player manages to coherently encompass its manifold impulses, starting off with shots of Chico running and building to the climactic moment when Lena dashes through the falling snow. The film is offered as an embodiment of perpetual motion until suddenly it doesn’t – the gun cracks, Lena falls, and slides down the snow-crusted hillside like a pathetic toboggan, coming to a halt in anaesthetising snowfall, the streetwise yet innocent young lady finding an unexpected fate worthy of some Thomas Hardy heroine. Charlie and Fido dash to find her, but recover only an ice-caked corpse, whilst the battling nitwits speed away to whatever end they deserve. As for Charlie, Truffaut reveals in his final, delicately poignant last shots, he returns to his former place behind the piano with fingers dabbing the keys robotically, playing with stone-faced detachment, hovering again in a place outside of life’s regular flow. Truffaut’s peculiar faith that cinema could be anything that he wanted it to be allowed him to dare offer a film so expansive and unruly in its sense of life and death and how the two sometimes overlap, affirming even in the midst of tragedy a romantic’s conviction that life without love is meaningless, be it human or artistic.

Standard
1970s, Fantasy, Film Noir, Foreign, French cinema

Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976)

aka Twhylight

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Director: Jacques Rivette

By Roderick Heath

Unlike most of the New Wave directors to emerge from the critical collective at Cahiers du Cinema, Jacques Rivette’s most admired work came in the early ’70s, a time when compatriots like Truffaut were either negotiating with the mainstream or in total retreat from it, like Godard. Rivette seemed energised by the mood of the waning days of the counterculture and concurrent intellectual flowerings of post-modernist and feminist theory, and he made his best-loved movie, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), in this period, as well as his highly regarded made-for-television epic Out 1 (1971).

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As if rejecting all explicable comment or interest in the fallout of political revolts and the New Wave itself, Rivette began to celebrate imagination, play, and ambiguity of the self as a counteraction and commentary on a repressive backlash in contemporary life. Rivette embarked on what was to be a quartet of films titled “Scenes from a Parallel Life,” each playing on a generic mode and employing a peculiar unifying concept—a war between two goddesses, daughters of the sun and the moon, over a cursed jewel. Rivette made only two of the films before suffering a breakdown and experiencing harassment by authorities, and the completed works were barely screened. Those two films, however, Duelle and Noroît (1976), have a status as hidden treasures.

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Rivette’s cinema is an acquired taste, but for anyone who can adjust to his wavelength, which isn’t so much obscure as merely reticent, he’s an alluring artist entirely dedicated to realising the most beautiful effects through the simplest means. Rivette’s fascinating, if still embryonic debut, Paris Belongs to Us (1960), introduced many of the elements he found intriguing: the dynamic exchange between life and art, ties of family threatened by worldly trials, and an ironic juxtaposition of humdrum reality and fantastic theorising, arch paranoia, and forces of power. The goddesses whose war Duelle describes embody the anxiety over the place of everyday humans between blocs of power and favour that can be associated with the counterculture shadow-enemies of Paris Belongs to Us.

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Rivette had come a long way since his debut, for Duelle is a carefully paced and utterly controlled work, all the more fascinating because like many of Rivette’s films, a high level of spontaneity was utilised in its production, if not quite as much as he often otherwise favoured. This time Rivette had written a story outline and created the characters and situations rather than give his cast all the room to invent their own, but still did not actually write the scenes until a few hours before they were performed (the scripting credits are given to Eduardo de Gregorio and Marilù Parolini). This edgy, happenstance energy infuses the performances even whilst Rivette’s camera maintains a balletic grace. Rivette, like all the other New Wavers, was also an inveterate film buff, and Duelle sports a magpie’s selection of tropes lifted neatly from favoured films of French poetic realism and Hollywood noir.

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The initial model was the great Val Lewton/Mark Robson horror film The Seventh Victim (1943). This is immediately apparent in the way Rivette renders his Paris, like Robson’s New York, a depopulated, magic-realist space full of poets and changelings, dreamers and sufferers. Duelle’s basic plot is slowly fleshed out, and the era it is set in only hazily defined, evoking a Paris where dance halls and gambling clubs unchanged since the heyday of Jean Gabin rubs shoulders with more definably modern locales and styles. It begins on “the last night of the new moon for this winter.” A woman calling herself Leni (Juliet Berto) approaches a young hotel clerk, Lucie (Hermine Karagheuze), searching for an Englishman named Max Christie who stayed at the hotel a year before. Leni claims to be his concerned sister, and pays Lucie to dig up what she can about where he’s gone. Lucie suggests Leni talk to her predecessor at the hotel desk, Elsa (Nicole Garcia), who now works as a taxi dancer at a decrepit nightclub called the Rumba. Leni, in an entirely different guise, approaches Elsa, who recalls Max’s expansive joie de vivre and tells Leni to look up his companion, Sylvia Stern (Claire Nadeau). Another mystery woman, the jaunty Viva (Bulle Ogier), and her helpmate Elizabeth (Elizabeth Wiener), trail Lucie’s brother Pierrot (Jean Babilée) and Sylvia when they return by train from Amsterdam. Later, Viva pays Pierrot’s debt when he loses at cards and ensnares him in her plans to locate the “Fairy Godmother,” a legendary cursed diamond that Max, Pierrot’s former partner in shady deals, had first turned up.

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When Leni tracks Sylvia to an aquarium, Sylvia babbles to her about how Max had “fought and defended,” and that he suffered and has recently died. Sylvia is wracked with guilt and sees herself as heir to his struggle. Leni runs off when Pierrot arrives, and shortly after, Lucie receives a phone call asking her to come to the aquarium. When Lucie arrives, she finds Sylvia dead, with a bruise or burn mark on her neck. Lucie hides when Viva enters the aquarium and bends over Sylvia’s dead body, and trails Viva back to a gambling club she frequents, where the two play roles and try to elicit information. Viva theorises that Lucie was brought to the aquarium to set her up. Elsa, whose real name is Jeanne (she felt her real name was vulgar), is falling in love with Pierrot, who promises he can give himself to her completely now. And she discovers the Fairy Godmother itself, attached to a choker band now in Pierrot’s possession, and fondly places it around her neck, setting in motion a fresh chain of contest, decay, and death.

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“Duelle” is an invented word, a feminised version of “duel,” and it’s with good reason the film has such a title: the story is strung along by a series of intimate pas de deux between competing characters who exhibit and swap places of command and submission, desire and pathos. Every sequence up until the very central one is dominated by interactions of only two characters; in that centrepiece, a crucial sequence in both the literal (as the 15th of the film’s 30 individual scenes) and narrative sense, as the core characters encounter each other in the Rumba and William Lubtchansky’s gliding camera absorbs them as they chase, challenge, flirt and dance with each other. It’s here the story finally becomes less opaque, whilst, ironically, the cinematic technique becomes more overtly surreal; The Fairy Godmother works an influence on Pierrot, who approaches a mirror, raises his hand—as Elsa recalled Max once doing—and cracks the glass with magical force. This gesture reveals to him the two demi-goddesses, Leni and Viva, in their true forms, approaching each other in ritualistic style and pledging to continue their metaphysical contest for the jewel, holding their hands up like Pierrot’s gesture. This, it seems, indicates the mirror-image, dualistic bind of the two supernatural forces (even if, in their disco-glam outfits, they look like they’re about to start singing “Dancing Queen”).

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Lucie, the first and last person we see in the film, is glimpsed initially looking fearful and unsteady on her feet—it proves she’s trying to keep her balance atop an inflatable ball—with Pierrot helping her remain steady. It’s a superb metaphor for both their relationship at this point, a conflation of the film’s parable of human life, and its tenuous, reinventing-the-wheel approach to cinematic form. Leni’s recurring line, “You’ll see me again,” is, at first, a throwaway, but becomes a phrase laden with threat; the intrusion of the goddesses into the everyday lives of the protagonists heralds annihilation in a situation that works in cruel cycles and seems to have happened before, with Max and Sylvia having played out the parts of Pierrot and Elsa—indeed, the drama is built around a pantheistic rhythm, linked to seasonal shifts.

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And yet Duelle’s unique approach plays out nearly straight according to the dictates of a noir narrative: the characters battle over an emblem of wealth and steadily annihilate each other and themselves in the process. The Fairy Godmother jewel plays the same poisoned-chalice device at the heart of The Maltese Falcon and especially the Great Whatsit of Kiss Me, Deadly: like that manifestation of raw, consuming power, the jewel leaves marks upon the flesh of those who encounter it and spells inevitable doom. However, Rivette’s dialectic removes standard, dependable props from those familiar arcs, rendering the tale overtly mystical and inexplicable, and the spaces have to be filled in with intuition. Rivette begins with a familiar theme of his, Lucie’s desire to save her brother who’s enmeshed in a mystery (a la Paris Belong to Us), and plays her honest naïveté against the femmes fatale, Viva and Leni. The familiar economic and social parables of noir are present: Lucie, Pierrot, and Elsa/Jeanne all come from a low social bracket and are desperate to rise; the demi-goddesses live and pose as aristocrats, and the jewel is what they all covet.

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Such aspirations shade into less modest ambitions, to take on gods and transcend fate and nature. Viva and Leni’s prize in gaining the stone is a chance to live like a mortal for longer than their allotted 40 days in winter: “I’ve been young for far too long,” Leni confesses sadly to Pierrot. As Jonathan Rosenbaum cogently pointed out, the goddesses seem purified metaphors for the idea of movie stardom itself, locked in perpetual, pristine shape. The conceit of employing supernatural drama is on one level amusing and defiantly ludicrous, and yet Rivette, an aficionado of ancient Greek drama (several of his films revolve around attempts to stage the works of Aeschylus and Euripides), employs the idea of gods taking on human form and interacting with mortals with the same blithe tone as those classical works, and for similar ends. Rivette simultaneously exploits the way his characters encapsulate refined concepts often conceived in the traditional binary oppositions of mythical works—male/female, power/impotence, desire/hate, mortality/transcendence, and so on, beginning with the utterly archaic dialectic of sun and moon—and also deliberately evoking the wider pantheon of sexual identity inherent in pagan traditions. Thus, the characters constantly alter the parts each plays in relation to each other. This dedication to fairytale logic is reflected by a recurring motif, a quotation from Cocteau’s play Knights of the Round Table, in which Merlin explains a breakdown of purely mathematical and physical logic: “Two and two no longer make four / All walls can be shattered.”

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Similarly, in Duelle, people, within themselves and in relation to others, contain multitudes. Pierrot changes personas with the various women according to their natures (and vice versa), caring and soft with his sister, firm and solicitous with Elsa, challenging and aggressive with Viva, and finally, with Leni, both combative and in sympathy—both of them love Elsa and yearn to escape their lot. Pierrot’s the only major male character in the film, both with the potential to defeat them all and yet also at their mercy. In a droll sequence, Viva, who otherwise is the more constant of the two goddesses, sheds her imperious Marlene Dietrich-ish suits and air of utter command to play the ditzy, seductive drunk to tie Pierrot closer to her. Berto’s Leni alters from genteel fragility in approaching Lucie at the outset, to trenchcoat-clad femme fatale with Sylvia, to seductive butch with Elsa. There’s a vein of tongue-in-cheek costume-play here, one that emphasises the teeming talents of its actresses, but also constantly smudges settled sexual and social identities. Both Berto and Ogier affect ambiguous looks and roles throughout the film as they contend for control, and a crackle of sexual attraction lies underneath all the characters’ dealings with each other, except for Pierrot and Lucie, whose relationship is forlorn in its anxious sibling protectiveness and anxiety. A strange empathy runs between all the characters, alternating with a determination on each person’s part to emerge victorious—that is, alive.

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Rivette is a classic art house director, of course, but as I’ve noted before in my review of Fascination, Rivette’s aboveboard filmmaking in works like this bears many similarities to Jean Rollin’s underground horror (the aquarium scene particularly resembles a similar one in Rollin’s Lips of Blood), and I’m starting to wonder if there’s a phrase that can describe this specifically French style of fantastic cinema, airy, beautiful, but deliberately lacking in artifice: perhaps “surrealist-naturalism” would cover it. Rivette’s deconstructive approach is perhaps most amusingly, and oddly manifest in utilising pianist Jean Wiener to provide only source music, at the Rumba Club but also in other, rather more bewildering situations. The links with other traditions are equally apparent—Rivette revealed the depth of homage to Cocteau not only in quoting him but in casting the sinuously graceful, very cool Babilée, who had danced in Cocteau’s stage productions of the 1940s, and his character possesses the kind of haunted taciturnity wielded once by Louis Jouvet in Marcel Carne’s Hotel du Nord. His death—he is put down out of pity by Leni as he begins to succumb to the stone’s corrosive influence—exudes delicate tragedy.

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Rivette avoids standard forms of suspense-building, and yet Duelle constructs an increasingly tense atmosphere that comes to a head in brilliantly simple and riveting sequences, like that in which Pierrot, working with knowledge given to him by Viva, attempts to trap Leni by dazzling her with light, confronting her like a gunslinger in a hotel corridor and driving her back, locked in momentary shock as he opens room door after door, and, finally, when Viva chases down Lucie, threatening her with a sword-cane and teleporting her to a different location thanks to the pure magic of a jump-cut. In such a fashion, Rivette manages to both deconstruct how cinema creates excitement and still generate it. Finally, Lucie, apparently the weakest element, emerges ironically as the victor in this war, when she accidentally discovers the power of the Fairy Godmother to annihilate the incarnate goddesses when drenched with her blood, a trick that firsts destroys Viva after she stabs Lucie and her spilling blood reveals this power. With certain, vengeful purpose, Lucie catches up with Leni in the park where she was to duel with Viva, and wipes her out, leaving Lucie to dazedly recite the Cocteau poem, her fate, and indeed what is now her status — victim? hero? new demigod? — entirely ambiguous. Either way, it caps a tantalising experience. l

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1950s, Drama, French cinema

The 400 Blows (1959)

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Les Quatre Cents Coups

Director: Francois Truffaut

By Roderick Heath

The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s debut film, is a work around which implicit ironies swirl. It looks as much backwards as it does forwards, to Truffaut’s youthful experiences, and the artworks and ideals he considered vital, as well as attempting to articulate a fresh sense of what the cinema could and ought to be capable of. The movie made an immediate impact, proved a vanguard for the Nouvelle Vague, and ironically, won for Truffaut a director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival, from which he had been banned only a year earlier for his notorious savagery as a critic, for the film’s compassionate and lithely expressive outlook. It represented an expansion of the cinematic lexicon, presenting a rich and original achievement precisely by reconfiguring the past of both film and Truffaut’s life experience.

The 400 Blows offered a mode for making directly personal statements on film, without the encumbrances and clichés commercial cinema had developed. And yet it is the film’s intimacy that was striking, its closeness to its subject and lack of showy technique that marked it as special and distinct from the eruptive works of Truffaut’s friend and collaborator Jean-Luc Godard, whose À bout de soufflé competed with The 400 Blows at Cannes (along with a third Nouvelle Vague figure, Alan Resnais, with his Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Truffaut utilised an approach to shooting that other Nouvelle Vague directors would employ. Working on a small budget, he dispensed with bulky and expensive sound and camera equipment, employed natural lighting, and post-dubbed most dialogue and sound effects. He encouraged improvisation in performance, reflecting and influencing the “cinema verité” documentary craft which several Nouvelle Vague directors sprang from. The art was in turning this rough-hewn brand of cinema into an aesthetic asset, but it had clear precursors, most especially in the Italian Neo-Realist works—the “real, crude, natural images” that Truffaut loved—in the works of Jean Vigo and Roberto Rossellini. The 400 Blows concluded with a freeze frame that is now a recognized icon of cinema. Truffaut references classic works of cinema to inform his own vision, especially Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933), to the point of virtually recreating one scene from that film, to absorbing the actor-centered style of Jean Renoir, a debt Truffaut acknowledged as vital for the growth of the film’s concept. But it’s an interior, rather than social, perspective that animates the film.

Such innovations might not have amounted to much if the film had been no good, but The 400 Blows was immediately lauded as a great work, rife with authenticity and powerful, novel dramatic epiphanies. Truffaut, like other early Nouvelle Vague directors Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, was a critic for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, and the possibilities inherent in bringing an intellectual, culturally informed perspective to filmmaking, steeped in a detailed sense of film lore and theory, as opposed to a technically assured, regimented experience from within studios, became apparent. The film is dedicated to André Bazin, a telling touch both in a cultural sense, as Bazin inspired so much of the young critics’ work, and in a personal sense, for Bazin and his wife had practically adopted Truffaut after the calamitous severance from his parents that the film more or less catalogues.

The 400 Blows, whilst empathising with its young, raffish antihero Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), does as little as possible to manipulate or make melodrama of his story. No wise elder or beneficial authority figure like, say, Father Flanagan of Boy’s Town (1937), is especially, personally interested or sympathetic to Antoine, nor are there reassuring changes of heart on the behalf of his self-absorbed mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) or erratic stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). Truffaut looks at the situation in humane, but unflinchingly pragmatic, analytical terms: unfolding as a process, watching Antoine move from being a scamp, hellraiser, and petty thief to a prisoner and a runaway from the law, and leaving him without his story or life in any way resolved. That Antoine is Truffaut’s alter-ego is generally accepted, and the subsequent series of films following Antoine into middle age confirms that he survives an adolescence that threatens to be thorny; but this film leaves him hanging at the cusp of a fraught moment of choice.

Truffaut himself remarked that he wanted not to “depict adolescence from the usual viewpoint of sentimental nostalgia, but, on the contrary, to show it as the painful experience it is.” The 400 Blows opens itself up to the experiences of youth, attempting to capture its enthusiasm, amorality, confusion and honesty. Some hint of Antoine’s exceptional potential is given in his love of film and literature, rewriting Balzac off the top of his head in class, but this causes him only strife at this point in his life. Like many boys, his is a world of idols and fetishes, alternately intense and discursive emotions, private standards and amoral reflexes. The major characters in the film have a full-bodied, realistic, self-contained humanity to them; they are capable of actions both admirable and detestable, leaving motives hazy, needing to be teased out, like, say, the years of frustrated combat with classes full of boys that must influence the teacher’s reactions, or whatever makes Gilberte resent her son so intensely. Some motives only become explicit after some time, like the fact that Julien isn’t Antoine’s biological father.

Either way, for all the moments of boyish or familial camaraderie that sprinkle the narrative, there’s a quality of solitude to the characters, a charged distance to which Antoine is heir and also passive mirror. His best friend is René (Patrick Auffay), who finally takes him in to his house when Antoine won’t face his parents after being expelled. Although from divergent backgrounds, Antoine and Rene seem drawn together as friends because both live with detached, inconsistent parents who often leave them to their own devices. The finest, and final flash of familial unity that Antoine and his parents experience is a jaunt to the movies where they see an unlikely choice for a family outing, Paris Belongs to Us by fellow New Waver Jacques Rivette. Rivette’s film is about conspiracies, and Antoine is always aware that this islet of amicability in his family life has been bought with a conspiracy between him and his mother to suppress the truth of her infidelity. Later, when Antoine attempts in his clumsy way to illuminate the truth by writing it in a letter to his father, he only succeeds in cutting himself off completely from his coolly vengeful mother, who summarises her affair as “my bad patch.” It’s a bitter scene, all the more so for the unredeemed hypocrisy. Through Antoine’s perspective, the barriers between adult and childish behaviours are vague, with the adults just as self-centered and buffeted by whim as he is.

The fleeting joys of Antoine’s life are realised chiefly in movement: his ebullience in a fun fair centrifuge, his final escape from the reformatory. He attempts to be self-determining, first within the system, when he works hard to achieve something in class, and then outside it, as when he tries to steal and sell a typewriter to survive without his parents. There’s a quality of the frontiersman to Antoine in the way he treats the city as a terrain in which he must survive, snatching bottles of milk and washing himself in the frozen park. His independence is erratic and often foolish, and yet it’s a reasonable response to a home life in which he is regularly reminded of marital strife and his mother’s dislike for him. And yet his efforts often take him back to where he began. As in the centrifuge, there’s only an illusion of movement. His efforts to achieve something in school see him humiliated and expelled. His effort to be self-supporting with crime sees him try to return the typewriter, only then to be caught. From then on Antoine’s life becomes a repetitious series of closing doors, cutting him off from his past and from his options, as he is processed like a criminal, driven through the city, surveying its lights from the van now through bars, abruptly aware and weeping for a lost freedom that he had previously known only as a natural state.

The reformatory is a break that a magistrate promises will do him good, but it simply proves a harsher, more arbitrary version of what he’s been through—a justice system the writer James Baldwin considered a manifestation of “the least sentimental people on earth.” A tiny infraction sees Antoine receive a slap in the face from a staff member when it took a significant deception to inspire such violence from Julien. The other boys are all up-and-coming criminals and rebels, aligned in militaristic ranks, a state of affairs a wayward individualist like Antoine can’t abide. Jean Constantin’s score continually counterpoints Antoine’s journey with ironic themes, his nighttime prison ride scored to a lilting waltz, the reformatory ranks moving to jaunty marches, providing a sarcastic commentary on what befalls Antoine that, without trying for maudlin identification, throws his perspective into relief. The long, innovative, improvised scene of Antoine being interviewed by a female psychiatrist in the reformatory both offers an unleavened insight into Antoine’s psyche (and that of Leaud) and possesses the qualities of documentary record. In the unblinking focus on Antoine, the sequence also reinforces the distant interest of the psychiatrist, which has largely been that of all the grown authority figures in Antoine’s life, only it’s now objectivised in the use of camera and sound. The technique is possibly also influenced by the long takes and hidden interviewer of Citizen Kane (1941), a film Truffaut loved.

In the concluding scenes, Truffaut shows Antoine running away in a lengthy tracking shot, moving with the boy and yet keeping him center frame, thus emphasising both movement and the exhausting effort of his flight. When he reaches the beach, he sprints out onto the sand to the edge of the sea, and then turns back, his bewildered face caught in that frozen image. The idea of ending a film without actually offering a conclusion was a radical one at the time, and about to be taken a step further by Michelangelo Antonioni just a year later with L’Avventura. And yet it is a decisive moment. Until this point, Antoine has done things as a boy—impulsively, intuitively, haphazardly. Now, having run to the farthest point possible, with his options exhausted, he has to halt and look back in apprehension and decide what the rest of his life is to be. The freeze frame that concludes the film is not merely an interesting technical flourish; it’s a shock, a needle pinning Antoine precisely at the point where, early or not, rightly or not, a boy becomes a man.

It’s this sense of Antoine and his experiences as individual, precious even as they’re painful, that marks The 400 Blows as original and distinctive from realist, representative figures and experiences. “In speaking of himself, he seems to be speaking of us,” Jacques Rivette commented in his review at the time. Truffaut proposes no idealistic solutions to the situation, suggesting rather that the faults in the characters are common faults in human beings and thus unlikely to be altered by institutional changes. Adults will always resent a boy like Antoine, and boys like Antoine will always face their moment of reckoning a hair too early in life. Over and above its achievements as a new way of approaching life on screen, The 400 Blows, even if is was to prove far from the most formally or intellectually radical of the Nouvelle Vague films, proved the capacity of a new style to move and stir audiences. As such, not merely as an individual work, but as a trumpet blast for a moment of great importance in cinematic history, its continued presence in the canon of French and world cinema is readily explicable.

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1960s, Drama, Famous Firsts, Foreign, French cinema

Paris Belongs to Us (1960)

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Paris nous appartient

Director: Jacques Rivette

By Roderick Heath

“Just because you’re paranoid,” goes the saying, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” The debut film of Jacques Rivette, the most wilfully eccentric of the early Nouvelle Vague directors, could well be described as an exegesis on that theme. Rivette, a filmmaker never in a hurry to get anywhere (his 1971 film Out 1 runs 13 hours), only occasionally indulges the look-at-me editing and referencing that spiced up the other eruptive early films of the movement in Paris Belongs to Us, begun in 1957, but released in 1960. Rivette is deceptively becalmed, even gentle, whilst being coolly, almost cruelly implacable. Anne Goupil (Betty Schneider) is an unshaped ingénue studying English literature whose cramming is interrupted one day by the sound of sobbing from a neighbouring flat in her student boarding house. Investigating, Anne finds a distraught woman who knows Anne’s brother Pierre (François Maistre), and, in her grief, talks about the murder of a man named Juan. She seems to think the murder has been committed by some cabal and predicts that all of them, including Anne and Pierre, will fall victim. Anne tries to calm the woman and dashes to get her a glass of water, but returns to find her composed, smiling, and pushing Anne politely out of her room. Invited by the shifty, alienated Pierre to a party of his lefty bohemian friends, Anne soon finds that a man named Juan really is dead. A guitarist of a level of talent that no one can agree on, Juan’s thought to have committed suicide. Present at the party is a boozy, angry, American writer, Philip Kaufman (Daniel Crohem), who had to flee the States because of the blacklist, his ex-wife Terry Yordan (Françoise Prévost), and her current boyfriend, aspiring theatre director Gérard Lenz (Giani Esposito).

Later, when Anne encounters Philip, a mysterious hit-and-run death disturbs him sufficiently to make him drag Anne along in fleeing through the streets. He speaks of a plot that will inevitably cause Gérard’s death, an event that perhaps only Anne can forestall. Anne, inclined to take this stuff seriously after two such similar and yet obscure encounters, tries to alert Gérard to his apparently grim situation. The young, ardent director laughs it off. When his lack of finance means difficulties in keeping the cast of his dream production of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre together, he drafts Anne to play the role of Marina. As Anne digs deeper, she uncovers sure evidence that something is going on, but what? Is the rootless, knowing Terry a kind of spiritual succubus, bringing death or ruin to every man she comes near? Or are they all pawns in some monumental game? What has the economist De Georges (Jean-Marie Robain), for whom Pierre does “some odd jobs,” to do with it? Why is Juan’s sister, a former radical, now living in De Georges’ apartment as his infantile mistress? Is Gérard’s sudden success in getting Pericles staged by a major theatre really a big break, or a cunning ploy to destroy him? And why is Juan’s legendary last recording, an improvisation that Gérard was desperate to have for the play, so hard to find and so seemingly close to the heart of the mystery?

Rivette’s dark thesis perceives the alt-culture of its era as assailed, self-deluding, and terminally self-destructive, trapped between blocks of power and making the situation worse with its own hysteria. Philip, the film’s prophet of hellish entrapment, lounges in his one-room apartment surrounded by his own artwork, dozens of modernist squiggles that resemble evil, gnawing, gnomic heads; he gives one to Anne, who soon enough sits peering at it in her own room, his demons infesting in her mind, too. Easy to see then why this film never stirred the same orgasmic odes to coolness as Breathless (1960). And yet it’s both the most awkward and possibly the most artistically and intellectually advanced of all the early Nouvelle Vague films. Paris Belongs to Us is as deeply, even apocalyptically, political a film as Godard’s The Little Soldier (1963) or Week-End (1967), perhaps even more so, but in a dissembling, allusive fashion, exploring the dire state of things through parable and paranoia. It takes no refuge in the hip and the righteous. The film’s references—McCarthyism, Franco, Hitler, the Resistance—invoke an age of insidious ills and underground struggle, with the borders between creeds and causes becoming porous and disturbingly homogenised.

In another sense, it’s not political at all, but a statement about art and the lot of artists in the modern world. The artists, from the passive and impotent, like Philip, to the most seemingly energetic and idealistic, like Gérard, are tortured, pushed by forces beyond their control, torn by conflicting desires both to commit (that great godhead that Sartre urged in his On Literature) and to create, consuming them in the process. Even the most superficial glance at Rivette’s oeuvre reveals that the motif of the band of players putting on a play, usually a work of the classical canon, that will never be performed is one of his recurring gambits; artistic endeavour being both eternally new and ancient, evergreen, and ever endangered. Here, Pericles, is critiqued early on by Anne and an actor friend as a rambling collage of great words, which is precisely what Gérard loves in it. Pericles’ connection on a spiritual level is an observation that shines a light on the ideals of Paris Belongs to Us, too, as its peripatetic characters roam the world and yet can’t escape each other. Juan’s elusive recording becomes both something of a holy grail and another wild goose, an emblem of the beauty of creation that becomes lost in the tangles of design. And yet, in a provisional fashion, the film also makes the case for creativity and the power of the intellect, of perspective, to define the world over all other influences—for good and ill. The title’s allusion is opaque: who the “us” is could be the theoretical conspiracy, or the energetic young artists and students, or the people in general. Either way it’s contradicted, and yet also solidified, by the quote from Charles Peguy at the start, “Paris belongs to nobody.” It’s not just the city, either, but the marketplace of ideas and aesthetics that it’s always represented, as well as the crucial crossroads of political and philosophical movements. Everyone and no one owns life.

And yet the narrative’s labyrinthine descent revolves around Philip’s conviction—a conviction that Terry shares—that a grand conspiracy is in place by a hidden society to turn the world into “one big, jolly, concentration camp.” The idea eventually proves to be something of an intellectual luxury that Philip has conjured and temporarily infects others with that offers the strange reassurance well familiar to us—the conspiracy theory, the notion that the truth is explicable but in a great, hidden whole. hat things really are going on—De Georges really is trying to wipe out people more talented than him, and Juan really was killed by Falangist agents—at first seems to substantiate, but finally corrodes such a notion, revealing a world teeming with threat and intrigue and, often, hopeless and irreducible confusion and shapelessness. “It’s easy to justify everything with a single idea, including his (Philip’s) inaction and cowardice. The nightmares were just alibis,” Terry offers in a final summary. That the alibi is powerful enough to stir Terry to commit murder reveals the danger in such solipsism. It’s a vital and powerful indictment of the retreat of the modern mind into the fringes of conspiracy theory and fragmented blocks rather than deal with problems at hand; people become implicated in destroying themselves and others. Gérard is both victim of plots and also of character—he’s tried to kill himself once before—and a situation, as Anne, who sets out to save him, finally rejects that role and precipitates crisis. All actions feed into every other action.

Although Rivette’s camera roams all over Paris, the city becomes more defined by the breathless little boxes most of the characters live in and streets at dawn that are deserted, zombie-movie-ready. The few expansive moments come thanks to Gérard, as when he and Anne converse within sight of Notre Dame, and later, when he triumphantly walks the theatre roof as he regards the city. Late in the film, when Anne receives a note from Gérard threatening suicide by midnight if she doesn’t call him and it’s already nearly 1 a.m., Anne settles in weary confusion by a window as the sound of the clashing TVs and radios in the apartment building congeals into a strange electronic menagerie. Along the way, there’s a scene incorporating the Tower of Babel sequence from Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis (many of Lang’s silent films, with their quivering air of sinister influence, are a definite touchstone for this movie), with all its allusive evocations of both grotesque capitalist-industrial presumption (and that film’s dictatorial elite) and its fear of apocalypse and disintegration as the punishment for its hubris. “The Wormwood star approaches,” warns one of Juan’s associates in one of the recurring moments of terrible pronouncement. But it’s not to be taken so seriously. “I love a femme fatale!” Gerard jests when Anne suggests Terry could get him killed, a moment that feels like a poke in the ribs to the whole enterprise.

As an aesthetic and conceptual statement, Paris Belongs to Us is strong, even triumphant. Its prognosticative wits are remarkable, all the more so for predicting and possibly influencing the subsequent concerns of directors like Antonioni (mysteries that go nowhere, a la L’Avventura, 1960, and the tortures of discerning truth from impression in a politicised context in Blowup, 1966), De Palma (the same hothouse paranoia infests Greetings, 1968, and much of his subsequent work), David Lynch (for whose career of rabbit-hole descents this could almost be draft thesis), and indeed a vast sector of the modern canon. As a dramatic work, it doesn’t quite work as a well. Rivette’s style is both more intimate and classical than the other New Wavers, with a carefully gliding camera that moves like an attentive listener; yet Rivette’s also less assured in eliciting performances and maintaining pace, and he slaps on a dissonantly corny score. His private mood seems detached from the efforts to conjure urgent, Lang-and-Hitchcock dread, finding more immediacy in watching birds skate across a dawn pond in the affecting final image, as if, like Gérard, he seeks something more humane, a way out of this cold scenario. Schneider is no Anna Karina, with little facility for illustrating her movement from blasé innocent to crumpled adult, and so her engagement with the other characters, especially Gérard, isn’t as crucial as it needs to be. For buffs, there’s a funny cameo by Godard as a café lecher.

Troubling, unsteady, and strange, Paris Belongs to Us is nonetheless a vital movie.

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1960s, Foreign

The Little Soldier (1960)

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Le Petit Soldat

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

By Roderick Heath

After his debut with the vivid gangster film Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1959), Jean-Luc Godard, the once and future champion of avant-garde cinema, got himself in trouble. Again. Wanting to make a film about the still-raging French-Algerian war, he decided to make a work centering on the nest of espionage in his native city of Geneva, and where he figured he could make a film even more cheaply than his Parisian debut. He advertised in the newspaper for a “lead actress and girlfriend”—the man’s cheek knew no bounds. One girl who answered was a 17-year-old Dane named Anna Karina, soon to be Godard’s wife and muse. The Little Soldier, his second film, was not seen as his second. It was banned by the French authorities for three years, by which time he had come along in his directorial development. If The Little Soldier was something of a lost and rudely treated film, it bears attention as a thematic precursor to his genuinely anarchic Week-End (1967).

The Little Soldier tells of the impossible position of Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), a young Frenchman who deserted from the army to hole up in neutral Switzerland, making his living as a photographer. Judging by his various conversations and confessions throughout the movie, his background is left wing, but he has fallen into the hands of the right-wing OSA, the reactionary paramilitary group who later attempt to assassinate DeGaulle for making peace with the Algerians. The reason for Bruno’s involvement remains shadowy—possibly lingering patriotism and guilt. His chief, Jacques (Henri-Jacques Huet), orders him to assassinate Palivoda, whose radio program “A Neutral Speaks” appears to be funded by pro-Algerian Marxists. Meanwhile, he is introduced by Paul (Paul Beauvais), a fellow OAS operative to Veronica Dreyer (Karina), an acquaintance. The friend bets Bruno 50 francs he will fall in love with her. Bruno pays the 50 francs at the end of their first meeting.

Bruno, like Belmondo in Breathless, is a man in love with his own image (“I am a secret agent after all,” he states mysteriously to Veronica), except that his ardour is toned with a dark personal irony that’s not too inappropriate considering the backyard spy games he’s gotten himself into. He and Jacques are responsible for a previous assassination, and the lingering bitter taste, plus a personal aversion to feeling “defeated,” causes him to refuse Jacques’ assignment to kill Palivoda. Jacques promises to pressure Bruno by getting him into trouble with the Swiss authorities, which might then mean his deportation to France and imprisonment there. Bruno’s attitude is, essentially, bring it on. He’s much too smitten with Veronica to care.

Hired by Veronica to take some photos, Bruno comes to her apartment, and they flirt shamelessly. As often with Godard, he presents explicitly long takes that are of a pretty girl being asked questions and offering her teasing answers, encouraging the viewer to drink up coquettish beauty exactly like a smitten, probing boyfriend. This is Godard at his most becalmed, wanting us to be sensitive to the slightest flash of her eye and curl of hair. It’s his sense of cinema boiled down to the fixated image. The sequence—Veronica cavorting playfully before Bruno’s camera, with still shots of Karina’s beaming features interspersed—became something of a handbook for how to shoot romantic lyricism in the 1960s.

Like all of Godard’s films, there is lying at its core an infuriating conflict—the conflict between intellectual discourse and cinematic sensuality. For example, Bruno luxuriates in verbal artefact when he engages in a long, fumbling, pseudointellectual rave about his inability to commit to any side because of his lingering, sometimes banal, attachment to various national products (“I like America because I like American cars”). Yet, Godard also turns to the visual image, the powerful conduit of feeling, like those long lingering close-ups of Karina. It’s more than a mere conflict between commitment and aesthetic—they intermingle in rich ways, as Godard’s sense of cinema is inextricable with his sense of politics. But how? Why? How, for instance, can he be a filmmaker so adoring of Hollywood’s mastery over the strength of cinema, whilst being so theoretically opposed to such industrialised art?

Godard’s answer was to fragment the cinematic space, to appreciate the shot over the tale, because the shot is individual and dialectic—a communication device that lays out detail in opposition to narrative, which pulls the viewer to a preordained moral and intellectual conclusion. His lightning-in-a-bottle sense of cinema, full of flash edits, artfully haphazard cityscapes, and disorientating pans, revivifies the senses as much as he assaults them (with Raoul Coutard’s customarily extraordinary photography) with a vision that owes far more to the crisp energy of action photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Capa than to Hollywood. His attempts to overcome the limitations of traditional cinema in constructing the kind of art he desires were always determined but fumbling, much like Bruno’s speechifying, prefigured with a poet’s sense that everything is connected (as T.S. Eliot formulised the poet’s sensibility) and to place all things on an equal footing: intellectual explication, aesthetic experiment, sensual pleasure, and even other art forms all try to claim centre-stage in the film.

But Godard holds them all at bay, forcing them into a dialectic. Hence, Bruno’s narration is as subdivided as Godard’s herky-jerky visuals, a reading list of young intellectual talking points and obsessions, swinging from fatalistic contemplations of his immediate fate as an agent to meditations on poets and cinema. Godard’s aesthetic battle between discourse and narrative, dialectic and dogma, would be the keynote of his career, a conflict he would take to various levels of climax—the traffic jam sequence in Week-End and its scene of the revolutionary garbagemen represent polar opposite solutions, pure cinema and pure didacticism.

No one would ever mistake Godard for a feminist. His films are filled with duplicitous and untrustworthy ladies, many of whom end up branded as such and degraded, if not dead. Veronica, proves to be in cahoots with the enemy, a choice she’s made because they have ideals, not mere reactionary emotions. Yet, in a way, she embodies the core of Godard’s sympathy for those with ideals rather than prejudices, confirming the ambiguity of his attitude towards Bruno. Bruno’s conflicted situation, his higher level of self-awareness, and the more mysterious nature of Veronica means the film has a darker, more urgent sensibility than Breathless. Godard embraces melodramatic narrative sufficiently to make for a film that works rather more as a thriller than anything else he made.

Nonetheless, his emphases are entirely different to any like film prior to its making, with the long romantic scenes where nothing overtly romantic happens: the move from edgy flirtation to Veronica lolling in Bruno’s bed is skipped over. In the film’s centrepiece sequence, Bruno, on the outs with the OAS who label him coward and traitor after his attempts to kill Palivoda end farcically, is captured by their enemies and is subjected to burns, suffocation, and electrocution in their attempts to pry Jacques’ phone number out of him. Bruno has no loyalty to Jacques or his tinpot agents, but keeps his mouth shut, once again, to avoid defeat, his personal need. His escape, rather than a nail biter, is amusingly simple—he leaps through a window, taking the chance that their room is on the first floor. The camera cuts away to a shot of a high building, seeming to communicate the worst, but then his voiceover informs us that, indeed, the room was on the first floor.

That’s the closest Godard ever comes to Truffaut’s style of genre mockery (e.g., Shoot the Piano Player). But Godard uses the offhand nature of this narrative device as a double-edged blade—the finale’s tragic revelations are once again imparted only in voiceover, with ironic distance, as we watch Bruno, pressured at last into killing Palivoda to save Veronica, shoot the man in the back and make his escape, only to learn he disappears into anonymity and that Veronica dies from OAS torture anyway. In his attempts to avoid defeat without taking a stand, Bruno defeats himself utterly. Nonetheless, as he states, “One thing I learnt is not to be bitter. I am just glad to have so much time ahead of me.” It seems a bleak statement—a long future without Veronica—but it also contains an affirmation. Bruno has escaped into the future, and what he decides to do there will be entirely his own choice.

Godard’s attention to the new nature of warfare seems now positively prescient. The Algerian insurrection invented much of the current landscape of violence—terrorist bombings of civilian targets and methods of torture that are today chillingly familiar, and so does his understanding of the schisms in the conscientious mind such times can create. If Godard’s take on the event is naively student-Marxist, it doesn’t lessen his electric sense of where the modern world was heading, atomising into cells of belief and allegiance. The lovers’ trysts, torture sessions, and terrorist cells hiding out in blandly boxlike modern apartments portrays a world becoming quickly devoid of true reference, and Bruno’s urgent attempts to synthesise his beliefs, his artistic and human fancies, is the behaviour of someone trying to knit himself a reference before he concludes in a long rave that silence might be the only worthwhile sound. Forty-eight years on, the energy welling out of this film is still startling and unsettling. l

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