Elevator to the Gallows (dir. Louis Malle, 1958) – Am going to need to read up on this one, on account of its excellence. Am also going to need to check out more mid-late 50s French films that aren’t from Cahiers/nouvelle vague folks. If Malle qualifies as “new wave,” it’s not because his style is anything like that of Godard, Truffaut, Varda, Resnais, etc. (A quick Wikipedia check confirms that Malle is categorized among “other directors associated with this movement.”) Despite being complex and multifaceted, the story is quite linear, extremely balanced, and its numerous strands reunite at the end as ingeniously as they originated at the beginning. Haven’t seen any Rohmer, but this felt very much like a “moral tale,” as some of his are called. The camera is a bit freer and wanders more than, say, Renoir’s or Bresson’s, but it’s also constrained and deliberate in a way unlike the new wave crew. (Or anyway, it’s more Left Bank than Right.) It’s got an urban setting, it features criminal runaway lovers, and there’s some haphazard shooting. Other than these pretty superficial (Right Bank) new wave similarities, Elevator to the Gallows is a tightly structured film that insists on consequences for moral violations even as it toys with viewer expectations. The sequence of shots that ends the film is brilliant, the stuff of tragedy, even with a nod to Narcissus seeing himself in the pond.
The Lovers (dir. Louis Malle, 1958) – It felt right to follow up Malle’s debut film with his sophomore effort, but The Lovers is in another vein from that of Elevator to the Gallows. Camera movement and the overall tone of dispassionate documenting make it fairly clear the same person is directing, but The Lovers has these curious moments of ambiguity. Does the film sympathize with Jeanne, as she restlessly pursues the nearest male like a cat in heat, proclaiming her love for the other men and disdain for her husband? Or, does the film pity her? Overall, yes, the film seems removed from taking a position. But it almost seems as if it can’t help but serenade Jeanne with its stringed soundtrack when she’s most head-over-heels. The conclusion of this one differs significantly from Elevator, as if Malle perhaps found the previous film a bit too tidy and, perhaps, preachy, opting for a less settled, less decisive conclusion in The Lovers. There’s the hint of a Romeo and Juliet tragedy, as the two lovers (the titular two?) drive off, without a care as to where they’re going, just happy to be together and leave Jeanne’s former life in their rear-view mirrors. Films like this seem to be making an appeal to experience, forcing the viewer to relate what’s on screen with real-world phenomenal (in the sense of phenomena) living. Am presently reading Vivian Sobchack’s The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Her opening argument applies here. Cinema isn’t either a frame of expression from a filmmaker for an audience or a window for the viewer’s perception of reality. It certainly isn’t a mirror, subjugating a filmic text to the structures of psychoanalytic or feminist theory. Instead, a given film is a dynamic given and giver, presupposing experience, constituting experience, and embodying experience. Meaning is assumed in its existence and is, primordially, present in and through and after the film itself. So, The Lovers isn’t just a text to be read or a surface to remove in order to find its underlying structures. It captures real-world experience and meaning as it simultaneously constitutes and creates more meaning. It is meaningless without a referent in reality that viewers can use as system-codes (à la Umberto Eco) from which to derive meaning. Within this understanding of reality that is fundamentally based on and respectful of experience, authorial intent matters but is only one piece of the multifaceted phenomenon of a given and giving film. For understanding The Lovers, then, what the film itself is doing as a phenomenal embodiment of lived experience matters as much as the experience in reality on which it is based and the way that viewers relate their lived-existence to it. We, as viewers, do this by intending toward particular features of the film (like the weird musical moments) and try to understand how these features fit into the experience of the film as a phone and the signification of reality that comes with lived experience in the world.
Zazie dans le Métro (dir. Louis Malle, 1960) – So yes, that’s three Malle films in a row, which doesn’t count Viva Maria! the week before. It’s a delightful exercise, when you have the opportunity, to get to know a filmmaker in semi-chronological order. Zazie is his third film, with the previous two in this post being his first two. My <140-character description of this was “George Meliés + Buster Keaton + nouvelle vague + Play Time = Zazie dans le Métro.” The film is very goofy, perhaps belonging to a genre I know nothing about. It’s got sequences that are constantly sped up, like Benny Hill stuff, and dialogue that clearly loses something in the translation. The English subtitles feature lots of nonsense, word plays, and rearranged compound words. One wonders what the French sounds like to those who know French. This is chaos, or lunacy cinema. The premise is straightforward enough: a young girl stays in the city with her uncle, but her constant efforts to run away and have fun wreak havoc on the city and cause societal pandemonium. It’s hard to tell if Zazie is fun-loving as a film or, as Jonathon Rosenbaum called it, “soulless.” One thing is sure: this is not the film that you expect from the director who made Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers immediately before it. It does, however, make some sense that it comes from the same filmmaker who would do Viva Maria! five years later.
Trouble in Paradise (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) – Made the mistake of watching Peter Bogdanovich’s little intro on the Criterion DVD before watching the feature. Turned off said intro on account of Bogdy’s cringe-inducing imitations of Lubitsch, Renoir, etc. One thing he notes that is noteworthy is the opening title sequence of the film, which overlays “Trouble in” with a two-pillowed bed. After a couple moments, “Paradise” dissolves over the bed to complete the title. The idea is that “Trouble in Bed” is what’s behind Trouble in Paradise. There’s certainly some quintessentially pre-Code sexual innuendo and humor here, but it’s going too far to say that’s the main point of the film. No one really sleeps together and getting each other in bed is hardly the main plot point. Trouble in Paradise is a funny story about a con-artist couple who move in on a big con, only to have a bit of a love triangle tangle up the plans. I dislike it when podunk critics/academics/bloggers say how a movie could have been better, but I’ll be hypocritical just this once. Some star power would have added personality to the film. The main trio here lacked, as they say, luster. Still, it’s always interesting to see how pre-Code films got away not so much with sexually charged dialogue as with a storyline that makes the audience sympathize with wrongdoers. The thieving couple gets away scot-free, off to live happily ever after. These sorts of endings, as much as the saucy changing scenes, are what led to the Code’s institution.
The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick, 2011) – Have written much more extensively on this one for a seminar, hopefully with more to come. I’ve deliberately avoided non-academic writing on the film, lest I get overwhelmed with countless takes on the film and become unable to cite them all. This one, from an academic in a non-academic forum, is helpful. What stands out in this, maybe tenth, viewing? The complexity of the nature/grace distinction, for one. It’s not a neat dichotomy in real world experience. Father is not all nature and mother is not all grace. Jack is the embodiment of the blend that constitutes humanity. The non-linear structure seems tighter and more perfect than ever to me. The more you watch it, the more the formal logic (that is, the logic of the film’s form) makes sense. Also, point of view. It’s all Jack, even when he’s imagining or recalling his mother’s grieving. The mother’s didactic voiceover that opens up the film, during the Bresson-inspired shots of her as a little girl among cattle, is dual-directed, first toward Jack and then toward the audience. It contextualizes everything that will follow in the film. Also, the biblical structure of the film clicks better and better. It opens with Job 38:4,7, which hearkens back to Genesis 1. We get Cain and Abel (and Seth) imagery, we get some Good Samaritan stuff, and closer to the end we get Paul from Romans 7. Finally, we get Revelation 21. But, let’s please avoid the unsubtle and oversimplified conclusion that the end is “heaven.” Clearly, it’s not simply that. We have a projection that the adult Jack anticipates: a heavenly, to be sure, but unrealized space of reconciliation and peace and unity and love. It’s all shining there, all glory. Phenomenologically, it’s the absolute bracketing, the absolute reduction, pure saturation of the given. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the film focuses on birth as ultimately given. The universe is born, the earth is born, then Jack is born: cosmic, terrestrial, human. Birth is the ultimate giving, it gives life, which is the primordial wedding of nature and grace.