Short Takes: Catching Up With Louis Malle

louie-malle-essentialsTCM’s recent one night festival of five Louis Malle films gave me the opportunity to revisit two favorites and catch up with a few that I somehow missed in the past. Malle was a director who never liked to repeat himself. Once he explored a subject, he moved on. His work covered drama, suspense, comedy, documentaries and just about every other potential category. One of the original French New Wave, you never knew what he would do next. Malle never shied away from controversial subjects: French collaboration with the Nazi’s during World War II (Lacombe Lucien), child prostitution (Pretty Baby) and Incest (Murmur of the Heart) were all subject matter. What they all had in common was Malle’s artistry for handling these delicate subjects with taste and sensitivity. Continue reading

Short Takes: Eyes Without a Face (1960) Georges Franju

A brilliant, creepy, unsettling film about a crazed doctor who kidnaps a series of beautiful women, surgically and methodically removing their faces in hopes of transplanting successfully one on to the deformed face of his daughter. Just as you squeamishly hope director Georges Franju will move his camera away from the procedure, he stays securely in place forcing the audience to watch the complete removal of the face as if it were a delicate mask being lifted off, soon to be grafted on to the head of his deformed daughter, Christaine. It’s an unsettling scene, and an amazingly graphic one, considering the film was made in 1960, a year that historically has turned out three master works of horror, Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” being the others.

In some ways the film is reminiscent of many other horror films, the mad doctor, obsessed with playing God, think Dr. Moreau, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Frankenstein to name a few. In this case, it is Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur) whose beautiful daughter was severely injured in a car accident for which he was responsible. Being a good father, he wants to help his daughter to look beautiful again. Thus begins a series of kidnappings of pretty young things as the doctor attempts to remove the facial skin of his victims and in an extreme case of plastic surgery graft the removed victims face on to his daughter’s. Each attempt has been a failure, as one expects the bodies of missing young women are beginning to pile up.

The doctor is assisted by his loyal and attractive assistant Louise (Alida Valli) whose has had some work done herself. The film opens with Louise driving in the dark of the night to a secluded spot to dump the body of the doctor’s latest victim. Sadly, each experiment fails, leaving the Doctor’s daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) deeper and deeper in despair.

The film is based on a novel by Jean Redon, adapted for the screen by Redon, Claude Sautet, who also was Assistant Director, and the team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Boileau and Narcejac are best known for their novels “D’Entre Les Morts” and “Celle qui n’était plus” which themselves are better known by their film titles, “Vertigo” and “Diabolique.”

Director Georges Franju avoids the standard modus operandi of many horror films, the quick cuts, the tense music that builds up with a calculating beat that something dreadful is about to happen. Instead we get some magnificent eerie, moody photography creating a foreboding atmosphere of dread and fear, also an early music score by Maurice Jarre that is at times almost circus like, adding a strange macabre mood to it all.  Do not misunderstand, Franju does not shy away or forget he is making a horror movie. As mentioned, the film contains some of the most disturbing and unflinchingly graphic scenes to ever appear in a horror film from this period, in fact, if you about to undergo cosmetic surgery in the near future you may want to avoid this film.  Even today these scenes remain very disturbing.

The film was originally released in the United States in 1962. Back then horror films did not receive any respect from the art house/intellectual film audience and when released in a dubbed version as part of a double bill with “The Manster,” another film about a crazed doctor and his strange experiments, the film sank quickly. Even changing its title to “The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus” did not help. But over the years, “Eyes Without a Face” has risen from the “B” film grave and has gained the respect it has been denied. In 1995, the film was released in a new 35MM print and played at the Cinema Village in New York and a few other cities.  In 2003, during the Halloween season, the film appeared again, in another new print, for two week engagement at the Film Forum in New York.

“Eyes Without a Face” is a masterpiece of horror, an imaginative, nightmarish, poetic dream that you will soon not forget.

La Femme Infidele (1969) Claude Chabrol

 

Like Hitchcock, who he is often compared to, Claude Chabrol has never quite received the same level of respect his fellow new wave colleagues Godard and Truffaut have over the years. Generally working within a more conventional framework, his films focused on the dark secrets of the French bourgeoisie; generally adultery and murder.  Chabrol never provoked the intellectual following his fellow new wave comrades enjoyed over the years, when needed; he willingly bowed to the making of a commercial film so he could gain the freedom to do a more personal project. 

Many of Chabrol’s early films starred the arresting French actress Stephane Audran, his then wife, whose cool detached manner always fit perfectly into Chabrol’s bleak view of the French upper class.

In the United States Chabrol’s film rarely got beyond the art house circuit and rarely outside of New York having never had a financial windfall of grosses on any of his works. One of Chabrol’s biggest successes, both artistically and financially was his 1969 thriller “Le Femme Infidele.”

Here we have Charles Dasvellees (Michel Bouguet), an upper middle class businessman who suspects his wife Helene (Audran) of having an affair and hires a detective to prove himself right. Once he learns who the lover is, one Victor Pegala (Maurice Ronet), a divorced writer living in a small apartment, he calmly and coldly sophisticatedly goes to his apartment, introduces himself as Helene’s husband and claims that he and his wife have an arrangement.  She can have her lovers and he can have his.  Though Chabrol films these scenes very matter of fact they come across as to the viewer as unsettling. Your collar begins to fit just a little too tight. Can Charles really be this blasé?”  The answer comes soon enough when Charles stoic demeanor snaps after Victor gives a tour of his small apartment and he sees the unmade bed where he seems to envision Helene and Victor made love.  With an unexpected swift movement Charles whacks Victor on the head with a heavy ornament he picked up off a table. A lifetime of civilized living is gone.  What follows is a methodical cleanup of a murder scene reminiscent of Norman Bates cleaning up after “Mother” massacred Janet Leigh in the shower, the entire sequence from the initial cleanup to the dumping of the wrapped up body into a lake repeatedly reminds one of Hitchcock’s masterpiece.

As the police begin an investigation after Victor’s disappearance, they discover Helene’s name and address among Victor’s belongings. A series of visits begin to the Dasvellees home. Helene admits she knows him but claims she cannot remember when she last saw him. Charles claims to have never met him. The police are not convinced either is telling the truth.

One day Helene finds a photograph of Victor, with his address written on the back, in one of Charles suit pockets. She realizes Charles knew about the affair and that he killed Victor. A small self gratifying smile appears on her face. Helene takes the photo.  Chabrol’s camera methodically watches her come down the stairs and go outside where we see her carefully setting the photo on fire destroying the evidence. 

Still there is something else going on with the police as they appear one more time finding the Dasvellees family outside of their house. Just before Charles goes and talks to them, he declares his love for Helene and she does the same for him. As he walks toward the police Chabrol leaves Helene and their young boy far back in the distance. We watch the conversation from Helene’s POV but like her cannot hear what is being said. Suddenly, Charles turns around and looks back. Chabrol’s camera now reverses to look back from a distance toward Helene and their son. The camera begins to move slowly to the right behind some leaves obscuring slightly the mother and child. The film ends without answering many questions. Only the affirmation of their love beyond the dark secrets is what we are sure of.

Chabrol’s camera is exquisite in its movement, like Hitchcock he is a master of camera placement. There is no unnecessary movement. You see only what he wants you to see and it is all part of the succulent pleasures this movie offers.     

 ****1/2

Casque d’or (1952) Jacques Becker

Jacques Becker’s  “Casque d’or”  is a tale of a doomed romance between  a criminal trying to go straight and a prostitute controlled by the underworld. The plot focuses on Georges Manda (Serge Regianni), an ex-con working as a carpenter who meets an old prison mate, Raymond (Raymond Bussieres) who introduces him to his gang and the beautiful Marie (Simone Signoret), a prostitute with a violent pimp boyfriend (Roland Dupius).  Felix (Claude Dauphin), the gang’s boss has the two settle their “differences” with a knife fight in a back alley resulting in the pimp’s death. Later on when Georges finds out he has been framed by Felix, he escapes from the police and goes after Felix.

 Becker recreates the turn of  20th century France with a beautifully delicate touch, filmed in a lush in black and white by cinematographer Robert Le Febvre. The opening scene with the underworld hoodlums and their women rowing down the river, fashionably well dressed seems right out of a Renoir impressionist painting. Then there is the superb camera placement along a cobblestone street when Georges and Danard are being taken to prison. The cafe scenes transport you back to an idyllic time and place, the morning after the lovers spend the night together evokes the work of the French photographer Brassai. Yet despite all of this the flip side of the coin is also a story of underworld characters, pimps and killers.

The emotions, the feelings are mainly expressed through the talented cast, indeed there is less dialogue in this film than most and unlike most films there is not one likable character, just some who you dislike less than others. Simone Signoret is exquisite as Marie known as casque d’or for her golden blonde hair. Outgoing, sexual, voluptuous and just magnificent in the role. But she is not alone, there are exceptional performances from Serge Regianni who is both tender and brutally violent as Georges and Claude Dauphin as Felix Leca, the gang leader and a former lover of Marie who still desires her. His is a measured performance filled with cruelty and deceit.   

Based on a true life case, “Casque d’or” has an adult frankness to it that was missing in American films of the same period. The film was a financial flop in France at the time of its release though it has gained in reputation over the years and is now considered one of Becker’s best works.

****

Army of Shadows (1969) Jean-Pierre Melville

“Army of Shadows” is Jean Pierre Melville’s late career masterpiece. Released in 1969, the film never made it to the U.S. until 2006, some 37 years later!  At the time, Melville’s films were out of touch with the then popular French New Wave of Godard, Truffaut and company.  Now available on DVD, via Criterion, this is a must see for film lovers. Based on a book by Joseph Kessel, who also wrote the novel that was the basis for Luis Bunnel’s classic Belle de Jour.

      The film details the story of a group of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France. This is not the usual romanticized version of daring resistance fighters gloriously facing the German occupiers. Nor is it an action war film. It is a fatalistic, devastatingly dark look at the difficult choices made by this small group of individuals in order to survive. Posing as plain citizens, they spy on the Germans and report back information gathered to the Allies.  The film was not popular with the French at the time since it portrayed some of the French as complacent or complicit in siding with the Germans.

       The film opens with what must have been a chilling scene to the French; the German Nazi Army marching down the Champs-Elysees.  The film goes on to detail a few months in the life of a small unit of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France. The unit is lead by Gerbier, portrayed by Lino Ventura, as a brooding, single-minded and dedicated figure. Also, part of the group, are Jean Francois (Jean Pierre Cassel), Claude (Claude Mann) and Mathilde (Simone Signoret).

       Melville does not portray these people as heroic, refusing to show or give any empathy for what they do. They live in fear and feel ineffective. One of the more unsettling scenes shows the resistance fighters in an abandon house as they prepare to kill a terrified young traitor. These men are not professional killers; it’s the first time any of them have been in a position where they have to kill someone. They’re hesitant, unsure of what is the best way to proceed before deciding to strangle him. The scene is disturbing grabbing you and refusing to let go. In another tense scene the terrific Simone Signoret, disguised as a German nurse, along with two fellow resisters enters a German prison in an attempt to free one of their comrades who has been badly tortured. The man has been so badly beaten, they are told,  it is impossible for them to transport him. Without any argument Signoret accepts what is said and they leave. To do otherwise would invite suspicion.  These scenes contain no action, no music but are gripping and as tense as anything you will see.  The film is filled with strong powerful scenes like this including a shocking ending that demonstrates the disturbingly grim difficult decisions that have to be made in war.

      Melville’s use of muted colors dominate the entire film contributing to the unsettling, chilly and foreboding atmosphere.  There are great performances by Lino Ventura, Jean Pierre Cassel and most magnificently by Simone Signoret.