Gaumont

French Cancan (1955, Jean Renoir)

As French Cancan started… wait, no. Before I even started French Cancan (I avoided watching it yesterday in fact), I was dreading an experience similar to The Golden Coach. I don’t think my soul could handle two terrible Renoirs in one month. However, once it started, I was immediately reassured to some degree–Jean Gabin is the lead and the film is in French.

The first act of Cancan is good, not spectacular, but good. Renoir does not direct well in color. His composition is lazy and–the film is about the creation of the Moulin Rouge (I have no idea of its historical accuracy)–it’s distractingly noisy. Of course, it’s probably noisy to hide the lack of any content. The film runs 103 minutes and I probably took three and a half hours to watch it. Folding laundry is more interesting. With a single exception, the film’s well-acted, but it’s not enough. There’s nothing going on in French Cancan. It’s not about Gabin’s theater promoter, it’s not about his aging star, it’s not about the young girl who’s replacing that star. It’s about noise.

In the last twenty minutes, after the film’s gone through a number of five minute conflicts and resolutions, the Moulin Rouge finally opens. This sequence is mind-numbingly boring. With my attention free to wander, I tried to think of a funny opening line to this post, something about the themes and motifs of Jean Renoir’s earlier films in relation to French Cancan. Then I realized… French Cancan has no themes or motifs. It’s a bunch of boring fluff. Still, it’s not as infuriating as The Golden Coach, but it certainly testifies that late Renoir is nothing like early Renoir.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Renoir, based on an idea by André-Paul Antoine; director of photography, Michel Kelber; edited by Borys Lewin; music by Georges Van Parys; produced by Louis Wipf; released by Gaumont.

Starring Jean Gabin (Danglard), Françoise Arnoul (Nini), María Félix (La Belle Abbesse), Jean-Roger Caussimon (Baron Walter), Franco Pastorino (Paulo), Giani Esposito (The Prince), Philippe Clay (Casimir), Valentine Tessier (Mme. Olympe), Lydia Johnson (Mme. Guibole), Jean Parédès (Coudrier) and Albert Remy (Barjelin).


Conversation Piece (1974, Luchino Visconti)

I adore broad, sweeping statements. Here goes: I do not think any film, of all the films I have seen (conservatively, a couple thousand, maybe three), has had a worst last thirty seconds than Conversation Piece. It’s so incredible, so incredibly bad, I can’t believe the cast and crew didn’t start giggling when a) reading the script, b) shooting the scene, c) editing the scene, and d) seeing the scene. It’s really that bad.

I could make some comment about Conversation Piece being worth seeing just for that ending, but that’s unfair to the rest of the film. Conversation Piece is really long. It’s only two hours, but it’s all people talking–and as a continuous scene, instead Visconti breaks it up with no transition, which disorientates the viewer for a bit at the beginning, but then he or she gets ready for these cuts. For a while, the pace of the film is fine, probably the first hour, but the second crawls by, since it’s not just the events that take place off screen, it’s the changes in the characters.

I’ve never seen Burt Lancaster and Visconti’s more famous collaboration, The Leopard (out of laziness, I have it somewhere), and I rented this film because of Lancaster. He’s reliable, if rarely exciting. Unfortunately, that reliability plays through in his character in Conversation Piece. Besides the bad flashback scenes, much of the film–except when Lancaster is alone with his de facto ward, played by Helmut Berger (who was in The Godfather, Part III and “Dynasty”!)–is Lancaster reacting to what’s going on around him. When he announces his personal revelation to the audience in the last ten minutes, the audience has known it the whole time–because, otherwise, there wouldn’t have been a story.

It’s not a bad film and–perplexingly–it couldn’t be any different, but I knew everything it was going to be about in the first fifteen minutes. Except the stupid last shot… no one could have guessed that one.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Luchino Visconti; screenplay by Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Enrico Medioli and Visconti, based on a story by Medioli; director of photography, Pasqalino de Santis; edited by Ruggero Mastroianni; music by Franco Mannino; produced by Giovanni Bertolucci; released by Gaumont.

Starring Burt Lancaster (Professor), Silvana Mangano (Bianca Brumonti), Helmut Berger (Konrad), Claudia Marsani (Lietta), Stefano Patrizi (Stefano), Elvira Cortese (Erminia), Dominique Sanda (Mother) and Claudia Cardinale (Wife).


36 Quai des Orfèvres (2004, Olivier Marchal)

Quick rule of thumb: do not set the present action of your movie over seven years and then skip six and three-quarters of those years. And I’m being generous with that three months. 36 Quai des Orfèvres is one of two films–it’s either a damn good cop movie (with some bad dialogue) or a piss-poor revenge drama. The director, with a ludicrous dedication at the end–almost as ludicrous as The Towering Inferno‘s dedication to firefighters, goes with the latter and it’s too bad, because there’s a lot of good stuff in here.

First, it’s got Daniel Auteuil, who seems to be in a lot of good films. It’s also got Gerard Depardieu, who’s astoundingly good as the conflicted–yet essentially “good”–cop. Until he becomes the bad guy. Once Depardieu becomes the bad guy, 36 is set down the road to its inevitable mediocrity. Even without the six year break from the story, I don’t think there’s anything they could have done to turn it around.

It’s also different to watch a French cop movie. Watching American movies and TV, you quickly become an authority on the American variation–for a while, in fact, 36 appeared to be a modern (and good) version of L.A. Confidential–so watching a French cop movie is different. The prisons are nicer and the cops tend not to shoot the criminals as often as they do in America. They also don’t beat them and French people make smoking look cool. Auteuil makes smoking look so cool, if I were single, I’d probably start smoking.

Of course, even though the film didn’t get US distribution or even a DVD release, Robert DeNiro is remaking it, directed by Marc Forster (who’s a native of Germany, incidentally) and written by Dean Georgaris (who “wrote” Tomb Raider). I suppose if DeNiro gets a reasonable co-star… No, scratch that. Remakes of foreign films do not fix the problems (Vanilla Sky). All they do is invite disrespect for the original piece. And there’s a lot to respect about 36 Quai des Orfèvres, just not enough to make it good. This film has four screenwriters. Very few films–modern films–are good with four screenwriters. (Very few modern films are good with any screenwriters, I suppose. Bring on the chimps!)

(Another thing about long present action–don’t cast too old: Auteuil’s French. When I see him with the grown-up daughter, who’s aged too much for seven years, I’m thinking it’s his girlfriend, not his kid).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Olivier Marchal; screenplay by Marchal and Dominique Loiseau, from a story by Marchal, Franck Mancuso and Julien Rappeneau; director of photography, Denis Rouden; edited by Hugues Darmois; music by Erwann Kermorvant and Axelle Renoir; production designer, Ambre Fernandez; produced by Franck Chorot, Cyril Colbeau-Justin and Jean-Baptiste Dupont; released by Gaumont.

Starring Daniel Auteuil (Léo Vrinks), Gérard Depardieu (Denis Klein), André Dussollier (Robert Mancini), Roschdy Zem (Hugo Silien), Valeria Golino (Camille Vrinks), Daniel Duval (Eddy Valence) and Francis Renaud (Titi Brasseur).


Danton (1983, Andrzej Wajda)

Period pieces and biopics tend to fail, at least ones made since 1950. I was just reading something about the growing audience want for realism in movies–this movement growing in the 1960s and 1970s (though the location shooting of the late 1940s is certainly a precursor)–that want made period pictures and biopics difficult… there needed to be reality. You couldn’t have Henry Frankenstein wearing a 1930s robe in late 18th century wherever (they never really specified in Bride of Frankenstein, did they?). Some films, obviously, managed to get around these difficulties. Kubrick embraced it fully–Barry Lyndon had a special lens adapted to shoot scenes by candlelight–while others ignored it and were ridiculed. I’m not sure how historically accurate Danton is, but it’s allegiances are to film, not to history. I’m pretty sure when the French Revolution was going bad, there wasn’t foreboding music in the background.

The film juxtaposes Danton and Robespierre, positing them as alter egos. It’s been a while since I read any French Revolution history, but I remember it both from undergrad and earlier and the Terror was not a particularly happy time and Robespierre never got a positive review. More recently I’ve watched Gance’s Napoleon and his Robespierre is insidious. I think Robespierre’s speech in that film was the scene where Gance swung the camera at him on a trapeze. Danton opines a different Robespierre, a sad one who’s just as upset as Danton about the Revolution going bad.

Danton is not a history lesson. Besides the one subtitle about the year, there’s none of the common exposition to inform the audience. I’ve found that exposition is only common in American films. Danton drops the viewer into a situation about a bunch of leading politicians and tells a story. The film’s present action is maybe two weeks, not longer. It gradually builds, introducing its large cast of characters (since it’s not a biopic, it takes the time to tell its story in scenes, not summary). While Gérard Depardieu appears in the first scene, he doesn’t do anything for the first twenty minutes or so. Depardieu is excellent as Danton, charming and resigned at the same time. Wojciech Pszoniak is better (which is hard, Depardieu’s real good) as Robespierre. The rest of the cast is fine, but since the film’s about those two men, they leave the impression.

I brought up Kubrick earlier because the director seems to have seen a few of his films, particularly Paths of Glory. Danton is good throughout, but it becomes excellent at the end, when it becomes fully filmic. Previously, the viewer could see right and wrong being done (by both the bad guys and the good), but at the end, director Wajda goes all out. There are hints something is going on earlier, a scene at the Convention when Robespierre speaks (no trapeze though) gets quiet when it should get loud. Reality takes a backseat for cinematic storytelling. The end of the film, however, embraces the medium to an extent I didn’t think possible in the film. In the last fifteen minutes, Wajda goes beyond–in terms of quality storytelling–what he’d set up in the previous 115 minutes. The end is devastating.

My fiancée said a history professor of ours said it was the finest film about the French Revolution. He’s probably right (I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen any other films about the French Revolution). In the American critical expectation, there seems to be the need for a film about the French Revolution to teach the audience something about said Revolution. Danton didn’t teach me much (except to check out more of Wajda’s films and Pszoniak’s too). It was concerned with being a fine film, not being a teaching experience… and it worked out really well for it.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrzej Wajda; screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Boleslaw Michalek, Agnieszka Holland and Jacek Gasiorowski, based on a play by Stanislawa Przybyszewska; director of photography, Igor Luther; edited by Halina Prugar-Ketling; music by Jean Prodromides; produced by Margaret Menegoz; released by Gaumont.

Starring Gérard Depardieu (Danton), Wojciech Pszoniak (Robespierre), Anne Alvaro (Eleonore Duplay), Roland Blanche (Lacroix), Patrice Chereau (Camille Desmoulins), Emmanuelle Debever (Louison Danton), Krzysztof Globisz (Amar), Ronald Guttman (Herman), Gerard Hardy (Tallien), Tadeusz Huk (Couthon), Stephane Jobert (Panis), Marian Kociniak (Lindet), Marek Kondrat (Barere de Vieuzac) and Boguslaw Linda (Saint Just).


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