Stranger by the Lake (2013)

aka L’inconnu du lac

2015 #117
Alain Guiraudie | 100 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | 18

Iiiiiit’s the arthouse gay sex thriller!

I’m just going to mention that before it comes the elephant in the room: this movie features lots of ultra-explicit gay sex. If you catch it on TV, that stuff’s been partially removed (the BBFC may’ve passed it as an 18, but it remains illegal to show so much detail on TV, even at 1:20am when Channel 4 aired it), so even if I wanted to I won’t be discussing that aspect in detail. Still, even without the, er, money shots, the sex is more frank than you normally see. It’s also set on an all-male nudist beach, so even when they’re not at it there’s plenty of flesh to go round. If that kind of thing bothers you, this is certainly a film to steer clear of.

For the less prudish, it’s worth getting past the initial titillation, because pornography isn’t the point. Rather, it’s an intriguing dramatic thriller about what we’re prepared to accept, risk, or ignore in the name of attraction: Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) fancies Michel (Christophe Paou), then spies him murder his former lover (in an extraordinary long, unbroken take), and then enters into a relationship with him anyway. This exploration plays out through a slow-burn pace, which balances burgeoning romance with an almost casual, incidental attitude to the thriller elements. It works thanks to our investment in the characters, their relationships (both sexual and friendships), and how these feed and influence the storyline.

In this regard it has a very particular speed and style — even if there was a version without copious full-frontal male nudity and explicit sex, it still wouldn’t be for everyone. It helps to evoke both a certain time and place (lazy summer days on holiday) and a particular lifestyle (that of gay cruising — which, much to the (presumably straight) policeman’s bafflement, continues virtually unabated even after one of their number is murdered in unexplained circumstances). This is further emphasised by the gorgeous cinematography. Claire Mathon apparently shot it using only natural light, and it looks fantastic — understated (this isn’t a heavily-graded hyper-real kind of beauty), but sumptuous.

The film never leaves its lakeside beach setting. That’s interesting for several reasons. One, it might seem like a limiting move, but isn’t — the beach is where the main action occurs, so why leave? Two, the story is about that aspect of these people’s lives — so that focus probably makes the film stronger. But, three, the characters’ lives do exist outside of this place. Franck gets drinks with friends from the beach; he has dinner with new acquaintance Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao) at least once, and misses an arranged meal at least one more time; he’s even interviewed at the police station, which you’d think would be vital to the plot. But we don’t see any of that. We learn about it when it’s arranged or after it’s occurred, from conversations at the lake. It’s an interesting choice; one that creates a particular kind of focus, and some sort of unity of space and time. It would give the movie a very different feel (though no less valid) if we actually saw those other encounters on screen.

The style is supported by strong performances. I suppose some would say “brave”, by which they’d mean “they’re naked a lot and having gay sex”… so, I mean, maybe it is brave, but, still, that’d be a euphemistic description. What I mean is that they’re strong because they’re calm, understated, realistic, and believable without tipping over into amateurish. You feel Franck’s complex mix of fear and excitement, his lust overpowering common sense; there’s a certain timidity, maybe even naïvety, present in his eyes. Conversely, his lover Michel is unreadable; a closed book, where you never know what he’s thinking, feeling… plotting. Franck’s new friend Henri is similarly tricky to get an accurate handle on, but he’s the yin to Michel’s yang (or vice versa). He’s not plotting, he just is. Or maybe he was plotting all along…?

Stranger by the Lake has a lot of factors that would put various people off, but for those that aren’t bothered by a slow pace or… nope, forgotten what the other ‘problem’ was… there’s a fascinating character drama cum murder thriller to be engrossed by.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

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L’Atalante (1934)

2015 #138
Jean Vigo | 85 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | France / French | PG

The only feature-length work of director Jean Vigo (though Zéro de conduite just qualifies for AMPAS’s definition of feature-length, being 41 minutes) before he died tragically young at 29, L’Atalante has been acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.

It wasn’t always thus. It was not well received at first, leading to a tumultuous release history. Previews were so poor that the distributor cut 20 minutes and released it as Le chaland qui passe, the title of a popular song at the time, which was of course added to the soundtrack. It translates as The Passing Barge, which is a very apt moniker, at least. Nonetheless, it was still a commercial failure. In 1940 it was partially restored, and after World War 2 its reputation began to be rehabilitated by critics, including becoming a favourite of the French New Wave directors. It was more thoroughly restored in 1990, and then again in 2001, bringing the film as close to its original form as possible.

Personally, my view hews closer to the original reception. Reportedly a French distributor called it “a confused, incoherent, wilfully absurd, long, dull, commercially worthless film,” while critics called it “amateurish, self-indulgent and morbid.” OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but there are nuggets of truth in there.

It boils down to a relationship drama, about a couple so in love that they married in haste and now must learn how to live together and reaffirm their love in a new context. That story is told with some asides to barge life that seem (at least to me, on a first viewing) wholly unrelated, but in themselves are frequently more entertaining, thanks primarily to the performance of Michel Simon as the barge’s older first mate.

The romance is told in a way many describe as “poetic”, which seems to me to be something of a euphemism for “obliquely”. There are certainly poetic shots or sequences, like Jean’s dive where he sees a vision of Juliette, but the actual narrative is more social realist — low-key, and not spelt out or expounded upon for our benefit.

At one time, L’Atalante must have been visionary, groundbreaking, and revelatory to both critics and other filmmakers. Over eight decades on, however, whatever was then new has been subsumed by filmmaking in general; it has become familiar, or been better employed by filmmakers who were finessing rather than experimenting. L’Atalante may well be a significant work in the history of film, and for that reason may once have been considered one of the greats (and still is by some), but for me, now, it doesn’t have enough merit as a work in its own right.

3 out of 5

L’Atalante was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

aka La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc / Jeanne d’Arc’s lidelse og død

2015 #69
Carl Th. Dreyer | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | France / silent (Danish) | PG

The Passion of Joan of ArcWidely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time (look at the lists!), Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s French-produced silent movie depicts the last hours in the life of Joan of Arc (Falconetti), a nineteen-year-old who is on trial by the Church for claiming God instructed her to fight to free France from British rule. You probably know it doesn’t turn out well for her.

Such a summary, while not inaccurate, is almost disingenuous. “This is by all odds the least religious and least political Joan ever made,” write Jean and Dale D. Drum (in a piece included in the booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray release), because Dreyer was explicitly not interested in the political or theological issues of the trial, which he felt were no longer relevant by the 20th Century. As he wrote in 1950, “I have tried to show that people in the medieval tragedy were, behind their historical costumes, people just as you and I are, caught up in the web of political and religious opinions and prejudices of the time.” With those religious and political issues set aside, Dreyer was instead focused on the universality of Joan’s experience as a human being. He was attempting to relate the tale — and, more importantly, the emotions — of a young woman sure of her convictions but persecuted for them.

Jeanne d'ArcDreyer based his telling on the written records of Joan’s trial. Although that’s grand for claims of historical accuracy, it’s hard to deny that silent cinema is ill-suited to thoroughly portraying something dialogue-heavy. There are many things silent film can — and, in this case, does — do very well indeed, but representing extensive verbal debate isn’t one of them. Bits where the judges argue amongst themselves — in silence, as far as the viewer is concerned — leave you longing to know what it is they’re so het up about. Sometimes it becomes clear from how events transpire; other times, not so much.

Dreyer’s faithfulness was not in aid of precisely representing what happened, however. For instance, the film takes place over a day or two, at most, while in reality Joan’s imprisonment, trial and execution took most of a year. Events were condensed so as to provide “a kind of bird’s-eye view, where all the unnecessary elements disappear” (Dreyer, quoted by Drum & Drum). This was partly in aid of what Dreyer described as “psychological realism”: rather than slavish fidelity to the facts of the era, it was about accurately and universally conveying the human experience.

According to Chris Marker (also in Masters of Cinema’s booklet), the aesthetic element of achieving this goal is one reason the film has endured so. Dreyer’s efforts to make the events seem ‘present’, as opposed to historical, works to make the film eternally present; they help it to transcend not only the 15th Century, but also the more recognisable trappings of “a silent-era movie”. The actors wear no make-up, perform in sparsely-decorated setsneutral costumes on sparsely-decorated sets, and are almost entirely shot in close-ups — all elements that avoid the usual grandiosity of historical movies, both in the silent era and since. What we perceive as being ‘grand’ changes over time (things that were once “epic” can become small scale in the face of increasing budgets, for instance); pure simplicity, however, does not age much.

The near-constant use of close-ups, in particular, is one of the film’s most renowned elements. Dreyer was inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, feeling this was an area film could excel in a way theatre obviously couldn’t. For Dreyer’s goal of giving us access to Joan’s very soul, it’s arguably the perfect medium — eyes are the window, and all that. This hinges on Falconetti’s acting. In her only major screen appearance, she delivers a performance that is still considered one of the greatest ever. It’s hard to pinpoint what she’s doing, but her wide eyes and almost crazed expression convey more subtlety than that sketched summary might imply. She is Joan, you feel, which again was Dreyer’s goal: he wanted his cast to inhabit their characters; to be them. He insisted the words from the trial record were spoken accurately (even though they obviously couldn’t be heard by the audience) and he built a whole 15th Century city set so that the actors might feel they were really there. As the film is shot largely in close-ups, that feels like a stupendous waste of money; and it led to the crew having to drill holes in walls and dig pits in the floor in order to get the shots Dreyer desired. But hey, whatever works.

JudgesThe actors playing the judges may be less individually memorable than Joan, but it’s their conflict — the personal battle between Joan and these men, as Dreyer saw it — that drives the film. Dreyer believed the judges felt genuine sympathy for Joan; that they did what they did not because of politics (they represented England, and she had led several successful campaigns against the Brits) but because of their devout belief in religious dogma. Dreyer says he tried to show this in the film, though it strikes me the judges still aren’t portrayed too kindly: they regularly seem contemptuous of Joan, and are outright duplicitous at times. Maybe that’s just religion for you.

Despite being of the film’s most famed elements, Joan isn’t entirely constructed of close-ups. When Dreyer breaks free of such constraints, the dynamic camerawork on display transcends many people’s view of silent cinema. A swinging pan as maces are dropped from a window was a personal highlight, but there are some great, dramatic push-ins during the trial. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the editing as well: it’s surprisingly fast-cut at times, and the use of montage for some sequences (particularly in the torture chamber and the epic climax) makes for stunning visual cinema.

Reportedly Dreyer’s preferred soundtrack was complete silence, which makes sense given his other aims and views on depicting realism rather than interpretation. That sounds a little like an endurance test, however, and so of course the film is usually presented with a score. In the US, it’s now routinely accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light. Clearly it’s a noteworthy soundtrack because it feels like the vast majority of reviews and comments online make reference to it. Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray doesn’t include it, What's at stake?however, so I have no opinion. Instead, they offer two alternatives. On the correct-speed 20fps version, there’s a piano score by silent film composer Mie Yanashita. Apparently this is the only existing score set to 20fps, and Masters of Cinema spent so much restoring the picture that there was no money left to commission an original score. Personally, I don’t think they needed to. Yanashita’s is classically styled, which works best for the style of the film, and it heightens the mood of some sequences without being overly intrusive, by and large. Compared to Dreyer’s preferred viewing method, of course it affects the viewing experience — how could it not, when it marks out scenes (with pauses or a change of tone) and emphasises the feel of sequences (with changes in tempo, for instance). That’s what film music is for, really, so obviously that’s what it does. Would the film be purer in silence? Maybe. Better? That’s a matter of taste. This particular score is very good, though.

The Masters of Cinema disc also includes the film in a 24fps version, which is how it used to be presented most of the time (what with that being the standard speed for so long; it’s also the version Einhorn’s score was written for). I watched just the climax at that speed, and I’d agree with the scholarly consensus that it’s clearly running too fast. If it was the only version you knew, you might not notice; but in direct comparison, people are clearly moving unnaturally fast and the pacing of camera moves and edits feels off, like there’s not quite long enough to appreciate what you’re being shown. At 24fps the Blu-ray includes an avant-garde score by Loren Connors. It feels apocalyptic and so, in its own way, is somewhat appropriate, but it’s far too dissonant for my taste. I can’t imagine enduring it for the entire film, even at the commensurately shorter running time. Silent London’s review describes it as “tedious and barbaric… insensitive and intrusive”, and advises first-time viewers to “steer well clear.” I concur.

Close-upSome viewers describe how they’ve found The Passion of Joan of Arc to be moving, affecting, or life-changing on a par with a religious experience. I wouldn’t go that far, but then I’m not religious so perhaps not so easily swayed. As a dramatic, emotional, film-viewing experience, however, it is highly effective. As Dreyer wrote in 1950, “my film on Joan of Arc has incorrectly been called an avant-garde film, and it absolutely is not. It is not a film just for theoreticians of film, but a film of general interest for everyone and with a message for every open-minded human being.” A feat of visual storytelling unique to cinema, it struck me as an incredible movie, surprisingly accessible, and, nearly 90 years after it was made, timeless.

5 out of 5

The Passion of Joan of Arc was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 14th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Also of note: this is the 1,000th feature film review I’ve published. (For what it’s worth, 2015 #112 will be 100 Films #1000. I’ll probably reach that in August.)

Pixels (2010)

2010 #40a
Patrick Jean | 3 mins | download

Pixels falls somewhere between a commercial and a CGI showreel, albeit one with a definite narrative and a dizzying amount of fun.

The plot is simple: characters and graphics from old 8-bit computer games escape and run riot over New York City. We’re talking Space Invaders firing on real streets, Tetris blocks crashing onto buildings, Donkey Kong hurling barrels from the top of the Empire State Building, Frogger hopping across a road of real traffic… For people of A Certain Age (a little older than me, it must be said) it’s an explosion of nostalgia, but everyone can be impressed by the CGI on display. My personal favourite is the effect of Tetris blocks on that building, but I won’t spoil it here.

Rather than just being a high-concept showcase, director Patrick Jean relates a story. It’s slight and dialogue-free, true, but then this is only two-and-a-half minutes long and, really, is a showcase more than a fully-fledged film. Considering the film’s point — a series of videogame-inspired vignettes — a narrative is virtually unnecessary, but tying them together with one anyway is a pleasing touch.

The visuals and execution of the humorous premise easily hold the attention for the brief running time, however, and I’m sure the former are set to do the film’s real job proficiently — i.e. win One More Production lots of work.

4 out of 5

Pixels can be watched in full on the production company’s website.

A feature-length adaptation is released in the US tomorrow, 24th July 2015, and in the UK on Wednesday 12th August.

Play Time (1967)

aka Playtime

2007 #118
Jacques Tati | 115 mins | DVD | U

Play TimeI know some people love the work of Tati, just like there’s always someone who loves everything; personally, I find his films largely dull. His character, Monsieur Hulot, is like Mr Bean but less funny (don’t worry, I know Hulot comes first by a good few decades). There are some laughs to be had in Play Time, but they’re a long way in and not necessarily worth waiting for.

Play Time is certainly pertinent to the ‘Cityscapes’ course we were shown it as part of, but even the subtext (which is about as ‘sub’ as a space station), about the depressing similarity of modern cities, is repetitively over-done.

Recommended only as a cure for insomnia.

2 out of 5

Play Time featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2007, which can be read in full here.

Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913)

aka Fantômas: À l’ombre de la guillotine

2007 #111
Louis Feuillade | 54 mins | DVD | PG

FantomasThe first of the silent Fantômas films (I reviewed the second previously).

It’s interestingly structured: there’s no ‘origin story’ for Fantômas, he just is an infamous master criminal, who’s introduced in what would undoubtedly be a pre-titles sequence today, before the story switches to follow Inspector Juve and his quest to solve the disappearance of Lord Beltham… which of course leads back to Fantômas. Its pulp fiction roots shine through in the entertaining plot that’s just far-fetched enough.

As I said before, it’s not for everyone, but for those who enjoy this sort of thing it’s unmissable.

4 out of 5

À propos de Nice (1930)

2007 #108a
Jean Vigo | 23 mins | download | U

Short film about the French city of Nice, mixing documentary-style footage of people with shots of the architecture, as well as clearly staged scenes (a man getting sunburnt, for example).

There’s a certain playful edge to it all, not just with content such as a garish parade and crazy dancing, but with amusing tricks (again, the sunburning), camera tomfoolery (for example, moving it to follow the loops of arches at speed; or using slow motion and sped-up shots), and picking out shots of pedestrians apparently for their annoyance at being filmed.

It’s an interesting amalgamation, then: part art, part documentary, part sketch show.

3 out of 5

Fantômas: Juve Versus Fantômas (1913)

aka Juve contre Fantômas

2007 #105
Louis Feuillade | 62 mins | DVD | PG

Juve Versus FantomasSecond instalment of the early French film serial, adapted from a long-running series of pulp novels.

Fantômas is a criminal adept at disguise and avoiding capture by police inspector Juve. It’s full of crazy schemes and action set pieces, which means it’s actually a great deal of fun, relatively fast-paced and densely plotted, exciting and deliberately amusing (though, as with anything this old, there are things to point and laugh at if you’re so inclined). It also looks stunning for its age, with a stable and crisp picture, which incidentally makes great use of colour tinting (for example, turning from blue to yellow when someone switches on a light).

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re interested in early cinema this is one of the most entertaining examples I’ve seen. As you may have guessed, we were shown this as part of my degree; off the back of it I’ve ordered the DVD of the full serial.

4 out of 5

I never got round to watching the rest of Fantômas, though I’ve been meaning to ever since… (story of my life.)

Breathless (1960)

aka À bout de souffle

2007 #46
Jean-Luc Godard | 90 mins | download | PG

BreathlessGodard’s first and most famous film; part of the beginning of the nouvelle vague, a French movement defining a particular youth culture at the time. OK, loose history lesson over.

This is definitely what most people would call an ‘arthouse’ film, though is decidedly less so than the one other Godard film I’ve seen (1962’s Vivre Sa Vie, which goes by various translated titles); this might be down to it drawing inspiration from American movies, most obviously those starring Humphrey Bogart.

Undoubtedly not for everyone, but an obvious must for anyone with an interest in art / international cinema.

4 out of 5

Hidden (2005)

aka Caché

2007 #43
Michael Haneke | 113 mins | DVD | 15 / R

HiddenEmpire’s 15th best film of 2006 is very European. “How so”, you may ask? Well, firstly, it is French; but it certainly feels it: it takes a very good concept/plot for a thriller and then stretches it out a little thin, with a notably slow pace, and a concentration on the dramatic impact on characters rather than plot movements. Not necessarily bad things, and it walks a fine line somewhere between them working and them failing (that is to say, it’s not wholly successful). There’s an irritating apparent lack of resolution, though reading one theory in an online review has suggested maybe I missed (or misinterpreted) it.

The performances also deserve mention — as with everything else they teeter between excellent (mostly) and a bit unbelievable (see: the rather muted ‘arguments’, or the unusual order of reactions to the son going missing). Some also might argue the direction is flat, with many long shots and relatively few cuts. You could argue this reflects the theme/plot, but on the other hand it is somewhat symptomatic of some areas of European cinema.

4 out of 5