Andrzej Żuławski, Billy Wilder, cinema, Claude Chabrol, Daniella By Night, film, Innocents with Dirty Hands, Marilyn Monroe, Max Pécas, Mouchette, movies, Preston Sturges, Robert Bresson, Sullivan's Travels, The Devil, The Seven Year Itch
Mouchette (dir. Robert Bresson, 1967) – And that completes half of Bresson’s oeuvre. Still need to see the first two and the last four. Mouchette contains many clear similarities with Au hasard Balthazar, released only a couple years prior. They’re both about cruelty in the world and the resulting tragedy when cruelty singles out and overwhelms a victim. In Mouchette, however, we have a prepubescent girl as the victim rather than a donkey in the previous film. Of course, it’s not quite fair to call Mouchette a victim, since the film exposes the deeper complexity that comes with a human subject instead of an animal one. This keeps the film from feeling excessively melodramatic. Her attempts to avenge those who despise her are pathetic, but her mud-slinging against her school peers reveals that cruelty against others begets further cruelty and the kind of bitterness that, in this case, leads to suicide. Once again, the film focuses on hands as the symbols of agency. Bresson’s films deserve more than these brief blurbs. They create experiences in the viewer a lot like those elicited by Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, and Malick. Reducing shots and actions and other elements to their “meaning” ignores the unique effect that Bresson’s images have on the careful viewer. Mouchette complicates, problematizes typical existence, rendering it atypical or wonderful precisely for how typical it appears. These broken clauses are the result of a halfhearted attempt to verbalize Bressonian cinema.
Sullivan’s Travels (dir. Preston Sturges, 1942) – It’s considered the best Sturges ever did, and it’s easy to see why. The film introduces itself with a tribute to “those who make us laugh,” or something to that effect. It’s not dedicated to “those who lost their lives” or “those who make great sacrifices,” no. It’s set in Hollywood mostly, and the film business people regularly toss around the name of Ernst Lubitsch, the pre-code equivalent of Preston Sturges, who pushed the accepted boundaries of narrative and social mores/taboos, such as those in Trouble in Paradise from ten years earlier. The ultimate moral of this story–and there is certainly a clear moral–is that stories shouldn’t have to have morals. If they just want to be funny, so be it. Even the part of the story about disguising oneself as a tramp gets poked at in such a way that we understand, the film is neither trying to make a statement about poverty nor ignoring the potential problem of mocking homeless wanderers. It’s always fairly easy to see the influence of Sturges on the Coens, but never easier than here, particularly with the never-made movie within the movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou? This is interesting, because most of the Coens’ films are quite nihilistic, and even O Brother has a hint of it, but much less than most. Fitting, then, that it’s based on a Sturges film. Sullivan’s Travels isn’t nihilstic, it’s just carefree. It acknowledges the troubles with the real world and demands that those with troubles (which, it turns out, includes everyone) need something to laugh at.
The Devil (dir. Andrzej Żuławski, 1972) – Watched slightly less than half of this. Have wanted to get into Żuławski, but just didn’t have the stomach for the extremely abject, taboo-shattering warmongering going on in the film. If you haven’t seen it, imagine the war scenes in Andrei Rublev amped up and dipped into a sewer gutter. Thing is, it doesn’t necessarily seem excessive, despite all that. Undoubtedly, it has lots of basis in fact. For all we’re told that we’re “desensitized” to violence, we probably have no idea how brutal the medieval European (or other) status quo must have been. Apparently The Devil was banned from its native Poland for the better part of two decades on account of its being a parable of contemporary Polish politics. Seems that Żuławski’s later-career stuff is less brutal, so we’ll come back to him at some point.
The Seven Year Itch (dir. Billly Wilder, 1955) – While watching this, I had one of those no-duh epiphanies: the best methodology for understanding a film (or a text) is the methodology that the film itself endorses or begs. Why, I wondered, did I struggle to see anything in The Seven Year Itch other than gender issues, male POV, Mulvey-esque viewer identification, basic psychoanalysis? The film brings these issues to the forefront, with its main character, as a book publisher, reading a psychoanalytic book about male desire. The (obviously German/Austrian) author of this book shows up at one point, examining the publisher and quickly drawing the kind of psychoanalytic conclusions that we can all so easily draw from people and texts once we have down the basic formula. But, that’s what The Seven Year Itch is about. It so sutures the viewer to the male POV that there’s no hope of escaping it. Everything that happens is filtered through the point of view of the snarling, repressed id of the man. Marilyn is, explicitly, there for eye candy. We see nothing of her inner thoughts or fantasies, and we see everything of his. A large chunk of the film is composed of fantasy sequences entailing making love with Marilyn (who has no name in the film), getting killed by his wife, having his secretary come on to him, or seeing his wife make love with another man. Is it possible to subject a film like this to another methodology without ignoring the film’s own features and main aims? And when a film does this so explicitly, can we draw simplistic conclusions about it? Is it a critique of the modern, urban male? Is it essentially a burlesque show for the viewer’s psyche? Is it more subtle than that, perhaps, an undermining of the institution of marriage as only the male brain can try to undermine it? After all, it’s Marilyn, looking every bit like the housewife of fantasies, who calls out to Richard (yeah, that’s his name; now shorten it) from the kitchen window and throws his shoes out to him (gotta wear protection), ending the film as he runs back to his real wife. It’s well known that Wilder hated the changes that the censors forced him to make in the film – the unconsummated affair, for example. So, it doesn’t seem too much to see a subtle subversion of the happily-ever-after conclusion of the film. The id has been re-repressed and Richard has launched himself back into the superego. This seems way too much, but the fact is that Richard’s battle throughout the film is his oscillation between superego (being a faithful husband) and id (“terrorizing a young lady,” in Richard’s own words). Should we take the male ego as presented in this film as a normative oscillation of angst? It doesn’t seem too much based on the film itself. We only zero in on Richard after the film tells us that men in Manhattan have always been this way, all the way back to the Indians. It feels a tad too easy to conclude this, but this is what the film gives us.
Daniella By Night (dir. Max Pécas, 1961) – The first step of a close reading–even if you call it “phenomenological inquiry”–is to look closely and see what is there. What’s there in Daniella By Night? A model, ostensibly a pretty one, is the main character. The story is ultimately an upbeat one; there’s nothing tragic here that makes a statement about the proverbial “beautiful model.” She’s surrounded by a few other models. She’s thrown into an entangling situation filled with intrigue, espionage, and stolen microfilm. The powers coming up against her following her unwitting involvement are all male, and all of them at least admire her physical appearance. She uses this to her advantage, even as she tries simply to survive while delivering the microfilm to its intended destination. She’s the main character, but the audience regularly gets access to onlookers who comment on Daniella’s looks. This close reading requires us to look past the poor quality of the film–likely taken from a 16mm print. How the film has been treated since it’s creation is beside the point. In the end, she’s (literally) carried away by the man who deserves her through saving her from her own dangerous ineptitude. What sort of conclusions can we draw from this? More space is required for this to be a fair close reading, but at least this seems to be a pretty status quo film from the early sixties. The nouvelle vague is going on at this point, but this film wants nothing to do with that. It’s there to elicit interest and excite young viewers. Throwaway nightclub scenes toward the end offer voyeuristic satisfaction to bored viewers. The story gets buried in the scenes, which go on and on, dragged down with dull dialogue and under the impression that pretty actresses with overdone makeup forgive a multitude of cinematic sins. So, despite my best efforts, I really struggle to see how this film, on its own, is really about very much or contains very much meaning.
Innocents with Dirty Hands (dir. Claude Chabrol, 1975) – They call Chabrol the French Hitchcock, and one can sort of see why–this is a suspenseful film with plot twists–but this film lacks the level of clever ingenuity that made Hitchcock Hitchcock. Probably should have started with something a bit earlier of his, but Netflix delivered this one way ahead of schedule. (Les biches soon, hopefully.) This is another one of those anti-whodunits, wherein we wonder if those who commit the crime (and, naturally, screw it up) will get away with it. Strangely, kept thinking of that movie Double Jeopardy while watching this one, presumably because they both have something to do with a wife trying to off her jerk husband. However, the narratives are inverted between the two films. This one toyed with a few interesting themes before all of the twists near the end of the film. It has something to say about the delicate and elusive nature of knowledge, or truth. All the premises that start the case out, initially, turn out to be wrong. The assumptions that the would-be murderers have are overturned. By the end, the viewer doesn’t know which way is up. This seems to be a kind of trend of 1970s US cinema, and perhaps too in France. Coppola’s The Conversation, similarly, is couched in a mystery/thriller genre, but the uncertainty of everything being surveilled leads to a weird return to the repressed, back into a realm of primal being removed from knowing. In its own way, that’s how Chabrol’s film also ends: with nothing. Ending with nothing is always hard, but it’s just plain harsh when it’s preceded with the promise of everything.