Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon: Germaine Dulac

Introduction

When embarking on blogathon I tend to opt between either of two extremes: either I pick a subject I know innately, preferably looking at it from a vantage point I’ve note yet attempted; or conversely picking a subject which to become more enlightened about, in short, seeking a moment of auto-didacticism. It was with the former intent I embarked to write an introductory sort of overview to the works of Germaine Dulac.

The collegiate experience doesn’t permanently affix one’s critical or aesthetic modality of choice but it does greatly influence it. As such, my reflex knowing that I was covering a writer/director was to take an auterist approach seeing how one of her films was already being covered in-depth.

As it so happens this decision, based on the facts of her life and career, was of providence more than of my own making. I discovered that not only did Germaine Dulac write, direct and shoot films but she was also one of the earliest pioneers of film criticism. One of my longstanding complaints: the French pioneers of film theory such as René Tabard or Henri Langlois are hard to find in print and translated to English are hard to find.

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Aside from her inclusion in the forthcoming Early Women Filmmakers box set from Flicker Alley in May, Tami Williams, PhD, is preparing Pure Cinema: Selected Writings of Germaine Dulac, for publication through the University of Wisconsin Press.

So more in-depth knowledge of her life and works are on the way, allow me a brief introduction that I hope will inspire you to look further into her fascinating life and work.

I. SEARCHING FOR PATHWAYS FROM UNIQUENESS TO UBIQUITY

Typically when women are breaking into male-dominated fields their inclusion and acceptance seems to be almost self-congratulatory on the part of the gatekeepers of the boys’ club (“See we let the girl in, aren’t we great? ‘Men’ on three!”). Take for example this article pictured below which that starts with the phrase “Germaine Dulac is the only female director in France at the moment.”

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The particular nomenclature had her bristling against it, whenever and wherever she could Metteur being a phrase borrowed from the theatre, it bears noting that the standard credit for film directors in France is now mise en scène.

In response to a journalist who only cited the novelist of the source material as the ‘author’ of The Seashell and the Clergyman (Le coquille et le clergyman). She said:

“les intellectuels et le cinéastes se rapproches, or, ce sont des nuances de mots qui les séparent irrémédiablement”

the intellectuals and the filmmakers should develop a closer kinship to one another, for it is only nuances between words that irremediably keep them apart.

However, her push against the status quo wasn’t just against the parameters and influences on film, but also one that was very sociopolitical in nature. Aside from her activism in socialist causes, the onset of the Great War had her urging women to make their presence felt and a difference. While World War II was seen as a sociological flashpoint in the United States where the war effort suspended typical notions about the sexes and work, Dulac sounded the rallying cry in the War to End All Wars as it was on France’s doorstep:

“international task of French Women.” She urged her audience to “create things anew and according to your own spirit”

Yet while being quite involved in activism this did not slow down her varied productions during this time:

From 1916-1918, Dulac produced and directed six feature-length films, a six-episode serial film, a ballet-pantomime set at a cross-dressing masked ball, and a series of journalistic shorts, all of which are lost, though Williams thoroughly describes and analyzes the existing related documentation. After the war, though continuing to produce films on her own, Dulac mostly worked with independent producers, including Ciné-Studios, Film d’Art, Société des Cinéromans, and Delac, Vandal et Cie.

II. VANGUARDIAN

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One of the traps when discussing a female pioneer in a field is discussing the precedent she set, or the way in which she was an antecedent of those in said field in her gender. Make no mistake, there were many instances wherein Germaine Dulac was out in front of all filmmakers in many ways.

Not only was she on the vanguard of thought, but there was little to no precedent for it. In a wonderful piece on Senses of Cinema (see it for a more in-depth reading of her career and works) that Dulac was indeed ahead of her time in championed the notion of auteurism that Truffaut, Goddard, Varda and others would rally around and propel in France in the ‘50s and ‘60s onward.

“This letter addresses a concept—authorship—that was not prominent in French film discourse at the time.”

-Rosanna Maule

If one were to look at her filmography, be it what is still extant or it in toto, one will find that despite its at time varied stylings it her works are typically distinctively hers. Much as the scattershot styles and genres the great Michael Curtiz directed in part as a result of the Studio system, Dulac’s varied output was dictated in part by the marketplace in which she worked.

Since the end of World War I, French cinema was hindered by an economic and institutional crisis, struggling to counteract Hollywood’s emergence onto the international film scene. The fragmentation of France’s film industry into various film companies, many of them small and independent, and the crisis of the national system of film distribution and exhibition coincided with the expansion of alternative circuits of film production and distribution by avant-garde filmmakers.

She was a woman definitely marked by her era and some of her quotes underscore the very issues that arise when engaging in feminist film theory as Patrice Petro astutely observes:

As the history of feminist film theory so clearly demonstrates, the very attempt to ‘find’ a female subject has led to a paralyzing situation in some feminist film histories, which tend either to affirm a socially constructed feminine identity or to reject any attempt at self-naming at all.

Yet one must not fall too deeply into the trap of examining films that at this point in time are around ninety years of age by current social mores. Be it in telling a tale of a wife distressed by her relationship with her oafish husband with a different kind of tragic capper (The Smiling Madame Beudet), A farcical look at a cruise romance (Invitation to the Voyage), or the impossible conflict of clerical celibacy as seen through the eyes of a woman (The Seashell and the Clergyman), her vantage point on these dramas was unique in and of her perspective alone even if she did not have different aesthetic aims than many, but that she had too.

“It is unacceptable that half of humanity continues to be written off.” Despite her exemplary career, during which she was compared to such cinema luminaries and innovators as Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir, Dulac experienced erasure both during her life and after her death. Over a century later, women directors are still grossly underrepresented in the film industry, women’s stories dismissed as unbankable by producers, and it is still unacceptable.

Flitterman-Lewis expanded upon that notion by saying The Seashell and the Clergyman was “a more intriguing field of inquiry, for it thematizes woman as a force of desire within the production of the filmic writing itself”.

If you get too bogged down in labeling you could be missing the textual intrigue in examination of the technical. If you want to label her as a surrealist impressionist, you can What ratio she filmed these stylings in, and whether this film fully fits the surrealist mode, and if in The Seashell and the Clergyman she gets to shout “FIRST!” rather than Un chien andalou, is not as important as having created the work itself and how she advanced the aesthetics of visual of storytelling, and engaged in an active dialogue both in her work, in her writing on film, which establish an exchange between high and popular culture, art and commerce.

 “The avant-garde and commercial cinema, or the art and industry of film, form an inseparable whole.”

Germaine Dulac

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In this balancing act, Dulac found the equilibrium for other forms of exploration that paved the way for her presaging other cinematic developments.

Her filmic approach to sport in her documentary of the Tour de France anticipated Leni Riefenstahl. In 1919, Dulac set up her own distribution office in New York, becoming one of the first foreign filmmakers to do so. She also distributed several of her films through London studios.

Francois Truffaut on the set of Confidentially Yours (1983, Le Films du Carrosse)
Her dialogue between art and criticism and commerce and art she would foreshadow things not just like the The New Wave, where a group of young French critics viewed and studied film voraciously with the intent to study the landscape, but in embracing the avant-garde and popular cinema she anticipated not just one of the New Wave idols, Hitchcock, but in professing the auteurist belief can be found in more broadly accessible film types she anticipated the likes Spielberg.

III. QUESTING FOR DIALOGUE

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Her insistence on creating and persisting upon a dialogue about the nature of film, challenging preconceived notions while the art was still in its youth, cannot be underestimated in its importance in affecting the form’s aesthetic development.

When the cinema was a purely visual art form there was truly more a case to be made against intersectionalism. With the advent of sound, cinema became the crossroads of all artforms, the cinema and its forerunners became much closer. However, seeking ones own voice, ones own means of creation, and standards of narrative and technique was a necessity. The only way to adequately establish such beliefs were to experiment and to share your thoughts with colleagues. This exchange of different ideas, especially when one has a unique view of cinema is a necessity:

I actually had the desire to become a dramatist, but when some pecuniary circumstances obliged me to abandon this first path to chose that, at the time more lucrative, of the cinema, I had no regrets. However, in the beginning I did not understand the importance of the cinematographic expression in its entirety. Only by using ideas, lights, and the camera was I able, by the time I made my first film, to understand what cinema was, art of interior life and of sensation, new expression given to our thought … an art non-tributary to the other arts, an original art with its own meaning, an art that makes reality, evades from it while incorporating it: the cinema spirit of beings and things!

And Dulac was certainly not one to run from nuance and say things that very nearly contradicted each other (but not quite), as this quote from the same interview proves:

I believe that cinematographic work must come out of a shock of sensibility, of a vision of one being who can only express himself in the cinema. The director must be a screenwriter or the screenwriter a director. Like all other arts, cinema comes from a sensible emotion … To be worth something and “bring” something, this emotion must come from one source only. The screenwriter that “feels” his idea must be able to stage it. From this, the technique follows.

Not only would this philosophy be embraced by the New Wave but further down the line would appeal to many modern day actors.

IV. NOUVELLES VOGUES

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The French word vogue is now so synonymous with fashion that it’s full embraced in the English lexicon, the name of a magazine, and a hit song by Madonna all bear its name. However, it is one thing to introduce things as the latest trends, but it’s quite another to explore new notions so throughly that they tend to permanently affect an aesthetic landscape, which is what it seemed Dulac did.

She maintained an ongoing dialogue between different models of cinemas that the auteur and the European art cinema would later crystallize into oppositional clusters, despite their interrelations in the film industry and in the production and distribution policies of European governments. She established a more consistent correspondence between film theory and practice, personal view and formal expression, aesthetic and technical considerations. Although her filmmaking career ended relatively early and she subsequently pursued a more administrative role at Gaumont, she continued to write and lecture on film, maintaining her intellectual and aesthetic commitment to cinema until her death.

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Dulac avoided the contradictory intentions of auteur critics and filmmakers by keeping the contradictions in check through a dialectical position in her filmic and theoretical practices. From this perspective, her auteurism also invites one to reconsider the conceptualization of the auteur in different historical and critical frameworks.

If one were to take too cursory a glance at the career trajectory of Germaine Dulac one might be too quick to dismiss it, as one where she transitioned from more literary-based traditional films to impressionist and surrealist works to newsreels. However, the back and forth of these works is more involved than that, and her interests even more varied than that as she also wrote plays that were performed and engaged in theatrical criticism.

One need look no further than her Wikipedia entry to see disinformation spread with a generic, unsupported claim that “Her career as filmmaker suffered after the introduction of sound film and she spent the last decade of her life working on newsreels for Pathé and Gaumont.”

As if this was some sort of failure on her part, running the nonfiction film department of France’s oldest film distributor and writing presciently about the importance the newsreel could hold. Poor thing. It made me nearly want to create a Wikipedia account just to flag that nonsense.

The title of this piece has been purposely been selected for its trace of irony. For Dulac was not seeking the next trend like a bandwagon to jump on but instead was seeking to introduce new concepts and change the paradigm wherever and whenever she could. First, let us look at that aforementioned, and scoffed at by some Wikipedians, newsreel work:

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La Mort du Soleil (The Death of the Sun)

The team she headed at France-Actualités made and sold to distributors, including its patron Gaumont, a weekly compilation of about twenty minutes made up of short news items. In the 1930s, cinema programmes usually consisted of a short film, and a newsreel, before the “big film”. News theatres offering non-stop newsreels and cartoons were just opening. About five companies, including Pathé, Eclair etc., competed for contracts. A typical newsreel programme from the archives of France-Actualités, for 2 March 1934, ran for 20-30 minutes as follows :

  1. Belgium: accession of King Leopold
  2.  Lake Placid bobsleigh competition
  3. ‘Paris-humour’: a taxi-driver’s strike, using a puppet
  4.  Maiden voyage of the Normandie
  5.  The mysterious death of local councillor in Dijon*
  6. General review of the army garrison in Algiers
  7. Children’s string band in Montmartre
  8. Police work: how laboratories help trace criminals
  9. Film awards at Harry’s Bar, Venice
  10. Two air force planes collide in mid-air
  11.  Funeral of victims after a street riot
  12. Saint-Malo fisherman’s religious procession

When one characterizes working on newsreels as a career that is “suffering” the inference is that nonfiction films are less than, that person has without careful examination answered the question why film even needs to exist. Germaine Dulac examined that question, and make no mistake based on what little I read, and knowing there’s more to come, she never overlooked the basic question, which I’ve seen too few tackle:

When the cinema was first discovered and given mechanical and technical form by the Lumière brothers, it took by surprise a world by no means ready for it.

If we compare cinema with the invention of printing, that too had brought upheaval, by finding a completely new means of spreading the written word, but it did not create any new form of expression: on the contrary, it appeared in response to a need. […] Commercial entrepreneurs had created a “need” for cinema among popular audiences before artists had had a chance to reflect on its possibilities.

In fact many of Dulac’s crusades were not shortsighted in their aims but seeking to create a cinematic framework and reexamine definitions that were, in her estimation, too quickly set in place in the art’s infancy.

Her wish to unify creative responsibilities in the figure of the filmmaker insists upon the need to break away from the literary and theatrical notion of authorship in French culture. For Dulac, abolishing the expression metteur en scène (which she considered reductive because indebted to its theatrical origins) would have meant dispensing with a concept that at the time was, even more so than in literature, almost exclusively identified with male authorship.

The foreword-looking nature of her film thought was especially prescient when it came to the newsreel:

The public has learnt to notice any changes in their attitude, their appearance or their gestures. Familiarity starts to breed sympathy and perhaps understanding of ideas. Greater familiarity leads to more informed judgment. Walls come down. The vagueness of speeches can be harmful. The precision of the camera brings the clarity of truth.

Thanks to newsreels, we can enter into diplomatic discussions, into quarrels or alliances between peoples, and we can learn about their society.

The dialogue she was interested in was just not in traversing the divide of criticism and creation, but also in meandering from one style of filmmaking to another.

In remaining working on newsreels Dulac kept some of her focus always on what many (mostly men) thought the original function of the motion picture was going to be: the recording of real life events rather than staged, scripted dramas or comedies.

In her avant-garde work she focused on another major tenet of the cinema the juxtapostional relationship of images through editing technique, the quasi-musical rhythm it by itself could create, and the mimetic ability to reflect the workings of the conscious and subconscious mind, as well as the alchemical tricks that could be achieved by techniques in post production such as super-impositions split-screens and the like.

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The Dancer’s Prism

While traveling back and forth between the artifice and veracity of film she was able to underscore the impartiality necessary to accurately convey current events and what cinematic techniques could be manipulated to mold interpretation. In short, she put out a primer on how to interpret the influence of propaganda on newsreels and films.

The cinema, with its whirlwind of moving images, delivers what we all dream about, all the things that escape conscious thought.

What lessons could have been learnt if the cinema had been invented a hundred years earlier, if it could have captured the ancien régime and then the events and people of the French Revolution!

In future years, historians will unquestionably go to this source rather than to written documents, because thanks to film, they will be able to reconstitute an event not merely in the imagination, but with an exact visual image.

The result of this little survey was as follows: the items I had selected from the weekly programmes were actually dependent on each other: one thing had led to another. When stripped of irrelevancies, their graph told an inexorable tale. The cinema was truly in the service of history.

This is another example in which the cinema binds together the scattered forces of humanity and coordinates them into a single current which thereby gives them wider distribution.

If that isn’t enough to convince you that her aims were for the future and the overall betterment of the artform, perhaps nothing else could convince you, but in fact there is more.

From 1930-1935, Dulac was the artistic director and nonfiction filmmaker at Gaumont, one of France’s largest and oldest production houses. She also assisted Louis Lumière in creating France’s first major film school, L’École Louis Lumière, where she taught until her death in 1942. Dulac was fundamental to the 1935 nationalization of the French film industry and in 1936 helped establish the Cinémathèque française.

If you reached this point and are itching to see some of her work, my mission has been accomplished. Below is what was readily available online. Enjoy!

V. PURE FILM: Or, Don’t Take My Word for It Just Watch

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First, what is one of her seminal works.

“Throughout the picture,” writes critic Nathan Southern, “Dulac uses such devices as slow motion, distortions, and superimposed images to paint Beudet’s various emotional states onscreen,” an intersection of form and substance that resulted in a picture that “instantly established Dulac as a force in world cinema.”

 

The Smiling Madame Beudet (La Souriante Madame Beudet) (1923)

 

Invitation to the Voyage (L’invitation au voyage) (1927)

The following quote perhaps describes this film best, for even through its experimentations in repetition, in shot length, even without the framework of the source material, and the tongue-in-cheek commentary keeping this quote in mind one will see it embodied on celluloid.

A film’s characters are not the only important things; the length of the images, their contrast and harmony, play a primary role alongside them. A new drama made up of movement, finally understood rationally, asserts its rights, magnificently leading us towards the symphonic image poem, towards the visual symphony beyond familiar formulas where, like music, emotions burst, not into deeds or actions, but into sensations.

Below you will find links to both a monochromatic and a sepia-toned version of the film. The monochromatic one features a more logical scoring option in my estimation inasmuch as I find jazz to rarely be fitting accompaniment to silent cinema, and is frequently anachronistic.

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The Seashell and the Clergyman (Le coquille et le clergyman) (1928)

After more than seventy years, Germaine Dulac’s film The Seashell and the Clergyman surely merits that we take another look, as we reclaim Dulac’s rightful place among pioneering filmmakers of the early avant-garde. – Maryann De Julio 

 

Spanish Dances  (Danses Espagnoles)  (1928)

Some of the earliest works of the silent cinema were merely cinematic records of particular dance styles or routines. In excess of two decades later, Dulac here pushes that idea forward with the technology available to her.

Celles qui s’en font (1928)

The music video was hotly debated innovation in the music industry in the 1980s. Today, it is such an afterthought it’s rarely discussed at all. More than a half-century before that Germaine Dulac already experimented with the form.

 

Étude cinégraphique sur une arabesque (1929)

This was the first of Dulac’s shorts I watched. Borrowing nomenclature from ballet and combining it with her shock of images she creates a study in motion created by both her mise en scène and editorial choices. It is a symphony of movement.

 

Retour à la vie (1936)

I could not find a subtitled version of this film unfortunately. Some of the drama is readily apparent and visual. It’s only the detail that is lost in this talkie. However, it is another example of Dulac’s preoccupation with the juxtaposition of city life in Paris versus the very different provincial existence in the rural areas of France.

 

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Beauty and the Beast (2017, Disney)

This Paris-province conflict is still a reality of modern-day France, and the examination that Dulac was so fond of sees itself exemplified this very year as Disney in expanding the story of Beauty and the Beast for the live action version had Belle, Maurice, and her late mother as Parisians until she was taken by the Black Death.

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Review: Love at First Fight

Love at First Fight is a French dramedy that tells of the relationship between twenty-somethings Madeleine (Adèle Haenel; Aliyah, Three Worlds) and Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), two young people searching for themselves. The English title promises are far cutesier romcom than the French title Les Combattents (The Combatents), which is far closer to the truth of the matter.

The film begins with Arnaud and his brother, Manu (Antoine Laurent) having a contentious meeting with a sales rep trying to to pass off a subpar coffin to them. They storm out and it establishes their line of work, they are contractors and are taking over their late father’s business. Manu is more dedicated than Arnaud, which is part of his internalized and externalized conflicts.

Enter Madeleine who is a wannabe survivalist and army recruit, who is in a transitory life-moment herself setting off down this path after earning a few master’s degrees. With this the film introduces its strongest performance and to an extent its largest problem.

Love at First Fight (2014, Strand Releasing)

There is no wit in platitudinal cynicism. To find truth in nihilistic existentialism one needs to find a uniqueness in the characters worth exploring, exploiting, and extrapolating this idiosyncrasy into universality, and this film doesn’t really accomplish that task.

And to do so it’s best to not have a character put themselves through a situation obviously predestined for failure, and not only failure but one in the most frustrating way possible. Truly this section does allow the original title top ring true, but as previously stated it does get tiresome.

While it is compelling that the seemingly more lost-in-life Arnaud is more comfortable in their self-imposed survival situation, the winding down of the film is overly-languid under-compelling relegating this film to ultimate mediocrity.

Love at First Fight (2014, Strand Releasing)

Azaïs’ performance is sufficiently endearing, Haenel is a true talent and I have yet to even view her most well-known works, but ultimately they are the only thing that makes this film a tolerable pastime. There are films to be seen and to be made about the 21st century malaise not exclusive to Milennials alone, but this is not among them.

There are a few gorgeous images, some laughs and the standout leads but the drama is never compelling enough and the sweetheart element is never touching enough. A film about a survivalist ought to be able to keep its head above water better than this.

Review – The Jewish Cardinal

This film tells the dramatized tale of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. Lustiger was born to a Jewish family but was kept safe by a gentile family during the second world war. At the age of 14 he felt the calling to convert and was baptized into the Catholic Church.

That’s the backbone of the tale; it’s the hook. It’s what gets you intrigued, however, the film structures itself differently in part because its allowed to. The dual-nature of Lustiger’s identity only really surfaced when he was promoted to the position of Bishop of Orléans. Were this to be an exploitative tale a bulk of the film would be public bickering and fighting back against both sides trying to claim him as their own; what for some films is a whole here is merely a launch-point. Where the film excels is the introspective nature the film has.

Another hurdle this film has to overcome is that it tells a sprawling tale from 1979 to 2007. Covering that much time in roundabout 100 minutes can be problematic, however, there is a wonderful symmetry among the struggles Lustiger has within his own family, with the Church, with himself and in trying to be a liaison between said Church and the Jewish people. That conflict is crystallized as a bulk of the tale ultimately concerns an ill-fated and -conceived establishment of a convent at Auschwitz.

Such a duality wherein a character is balancing his faith an ethnicity is not an easy one to convey. Audiences who appreciate gray areas will certainly gravitate to this film. It reminds me of a bit of The Other Son where the inextricable link of the Jewish faith and ethnicity is made rather profoundly in a different way. Whereas here a man seeks to keep his cultural identity and his “newfound” faith.

A film that paints in such shades of gray would be nowhere without an excelling cast, faltering on their part would render the tale farcical or disrespectful regardless of the best efforts of the writer(s) and director. Thankfully this film has no issues as such. Both clerics that are the central focus of the film are painted as rather human. Firstly, there’s Laurent Lucas as Lustiger, whose introspective yet fiery nature. Then there is Aurélien Recoing as, for the lack of a better term, the antagonist (in some regards), as Pope John Paul II is not painted as infallible, but rather a man whose judgment of a particular situation is clouded by his own world-view. The coming to an understanding that both characters have as they reach a consensus on the crisis is rather moving and sets the stage well for the closing acts.

Those acts are set in motion by the well-timed nature of the flashbacks. For a time it seems like the film is burying the lead not showing or discussing the conversion process and similarly avoiding discussion of the war. Those play in later. It’s a clear illustration of breaking chronology is a better treatment.

To preserve the surprise of it, I will avoid describing the detail the peace that Jean-Marie comes to and the conclusion he reaches regarding his identity at is really only discussed at the most pivotal points of the film. However, it is an intriguing way to look at it.

Clearly, as described above, this is a film that’s not afraid to discuss matter of faith, but also take those discussions into some difficult, challenging places. It’s a story wherein it could be tempting dumb it down and mollycoddle but it does not, quite the opposite it respectfully challenges those watching it to think – proving that faith-based films needn’t be neither propaganda or mindless.

9/10

Thankful for World Cinema: You and the Night (2013)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of Thankful for World Cinema please go here.

You and the Night (2013)

I have a theory about this film. I put that forward from the start to immediately plant the seed that it’s the kind of film that one might develop theories about. Now, the cynical view would be that any film that requires theories about it is being far too abstruse for its own good. However, there are a number of affectations within this film that I believe make theorizing not only necessary but welcome.

The set-up, on the surface, is a simple one. Round about midnight a couple and their live-in transvestite maid are in preparations for an orgy. The guests at said orgy are all “labeled.” And I mean labeled such that they are hardly if ever referred to by name but rather as a label: The Slut, The Star, The Stud and The Teen. Even the maid, who can be argued to be one of the more central figures in the narrative, is usually referred to as just that, The Maid.

That’s just one thing that lends some credence to theory-bearing. The hints flow into the story slowly. There is a deftly not-much-commented on futuristic music player, there are sudden theatrical infiltrations of negative fill in the apartment during story telling by many of the players. When there are intrusions of seeming reality (such as the police in search of a missing person) the interaction is odd, stylized and over-the-top, but decidedly so and not accidentally. All this and more contribute to a notion that the film is fact an utter fantasy fashioned as such to examine as many sexual quirks and avenues in singular psyches as possible.

The lack of convention can be plainly seen in the third act as fantasies dissolve back into a reality that more closely borders the surreal than ever before in the film. These are the more secondary intimations that have less bearing on the plot, the more obvious hints that I interpreted this way cannot be discussed lest they give away too much of the film’s action.

There are many subgenres and approaches to film that require more out of actors and this film certainly gets plenty from its ensemble. The central triad is played by Kate Moran, Niels Schneider, whom I recognized from Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats, here he is equally as evocative if not more so; and lastly Daniel Maury as the maid. For as absurd as the interactions of this trio may be they pull it off, and more importantly, behave as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Flanking them are footballer-turned-actor Eric Cantona who has a similarly unenviable task of not only saying his monologues straight-faced but selling them and succeeds. Fabienne Babe astutely plays the star-in-hiding with skeletons in her closet. Alain Fabien Delon, son of legendary French leading man Alain Delon, brings a perfect ingenue-like quality to this film and effectively plays a fought-over prize. Perhaps the most enigmatic, and in some ways most lacking character is that of The Slut, however, this is no fault of Julie Bremond’s. There is an attempt to plumb a profundity beneath a pornographic façade of all of these characters. The results with her character just don’t prove as conclusive as they do with the others.

There is an odd kind of mysterious magic that keeps You and the Night engaging throughout. It’s tale is a curve rather than a straight line and thus the end is a bit of an ellipsis. However, ultimately the journey is an intriguing one which plays out a bit like Pirandello writing an exploration of human sexuality for a different medium in a different century.

6/10

The Problems of Limiting Foreign Film Submissions (Part 1 of 2)

In my previous post, I wrote about how I would propose to alter the Foreign Language Film submission process. I am working backwards as now, in this post, I will address, with a little more support to back up my own hypotheses the issues that would be addressed if you were to allow select countries multiple submissions.

Essentially, the goal is as follows:

If you are a nation like France or Italy with a long and rich cinematic tradition, the selection process can prove volatile and complex. France, for example, submitted Of Gods and Men a few years ago. Its being snubbed, while an Algerian film with a similar subject, Outside the Law, making the shortlist caused quite a furor. Now, this is not to say that France being given more submissions would’ve gotten it to the shortlist, but being limited to one film invariably creates questions and doubts. Both nations made films about the colonial era, one was chosen and one wasn’t. Aside from the complaints about which nation a production really pertains to, it’s messy. Just search debates about selections and you will find trades reporting on them annually.

Now, I will grant that a multiple submission policy is altruism, and being realistic these things would likely still have happened but if France were afforded a handful of submissions, these incidents would likely have been lessened.

Erika Bók in The Turin Horse (Cinema Guild)

Taking any political extremism out of the equation, multiple nominees for some countries would also make some nations more inclined to take a chance. When Hungary submitted The Turin Horse last year, it was speculated in trades to have a slim chance due to the composition of the viewership and the nature of the film, and sure enough it wasn’t shortlisted. Not that Hungary has been especially prolific lately, and their last nomination was in 1988, but it’s a good example of a country that could’ve used an extra spot to pick what it thought was the best artistic choice and then gamble on a popular pick and/or one likely to find favor with American viewers.

Greece’s selection of Dogtooth a few years ago was seen as some as being silly, almost frivolous. Just it being described as gutsy made me want to see it. They were lucky in actually earning a nomination. I enjoyed it, but was equally surprised by its selection once I saw it.

With just one film allotted per country, as fair as that may seem, too many ulterior factors come into play besides is this really the best film, and some of the factors I suspected were echoed by others I asked. Other factors I hadn’t considered, that can be found mirrored in American films jockeying for Oscar nominations, also came to the fore.

The questions I typically asked were as follows:

At times, does the reputation, or lack thereof, of a director influence the selection?

At times, does politics, whether real or film, play a part?

At times, do films more likely to impress Oscar voters get selected over more artistic films?

Did you see (Title of film submitted by your country)?

If you saw it, did you like it?

Why do you think (Name of country) selected (Title of Film) Deserved it? Oscar-Friendliness? Both? Neither?

Here are some of the findings from Brazilians I asked, more nations will follow in the next part.

Brazil

With regards to Brazil, this is the nation where I will have the widest range of opinions. Aside from being a dual citizen, a majority of my family lives in Brazil so I was able to receive the highest number of responses here also.

When The Hollywood Reporter wrote-up the announcement they correctly cited O Palhaço (The Clown) as a domestic box-office success. Over 1.4 million tickets sold. That’s accurate, as ticket sales are the measure (especially for domestic films) and in Brazil that’s a fairly high total. I take no issue at face value with sending the domestic box office champion as your nominee. There are stories like wins for domestic films in Spain and Norway that are most definitely positives. Hollywood proliferates globally and for indigenous cinemas to be successful at home is very important.

The complications of selecting the box-office champion of the year arise when you have mixed reactions to the film in general. First, I will recuse myself from weighing in on the film itself (O Palhaço) as I have yet to see it. However, I admit I was a bit surprised by this choice as I had yet to hear of it. I saw one Brazilian title this year, which I thought was great, and heard of another one. Both made a decent splash either on the festival circuit or in the international market. With regards to the plot when I read of it, it seemed like a less actually political selection, but did entertainment politics factor? What besides the box office could’ve influenced this selection?

So what did my family and friends say in response to my inquiries regarding O Palhaço? They start off about as negative as a film receiving such an honor can get: “My husband saw it and thought it was horrible! According to him the movie must’ve been picked for a lack of options!” The lack of options isn’t something that’s necessarily supportable by empirical evidence. In 2012 two films either solely produced or co-produced by Brazil appeared in Berlin, 5 films either solely produced or co-produced appeared in the Cannes programs and 2 either solely or co-produced appeared at Sundance, so there were other Brazilian films with festival pedigree. Not to mention the fact, that having eligible films doesn’t always lead to a submission, as was evidenced by Luxembourg passing.

As I got more and more comments, the initial reaction that people were “Sharply divided” proved true. However, in Brazil’s case one of my suppositions seems to have played out, and that’s the reputation of the director. With O Palhaço the director is lead actor Selton Melo. It’s a passion project, those with negative views of the film argue it’s a “commercial for him.” So box office appeal and the fact that a respected actor took on a project does buoy the Oscar hopes of this film, and even those who like Melo fell on the side of those less than enthused by the film, and some even underwhelmed by this particular turn. However, Melo’s status only seems to be growing in Brazil, as he is also taking on a Brazilian-produced HBO series.

The clout, or lack thereof, of some distributors within Brazil was also reported to me as a factor that could keep more deserving films from being considered. This seems not too foreign when anyone who pays attention to Oscar races here knows how much money is involved in campaigning, and how certain directors, producers, and studio heads become favorites. It was also indicated to me that candidacy for the Brazilian submission may not be a cheap thing to make yourself eligible for, which wouldn’t surprise me either, but that is an issue that filters down to the national level and is beyond the purview of the Academy or any foreign body. However, the fact remains that many would attribute most submissions as being decisions that disregard aesthetics and if the film also happens to be good it’s a bonus, but it’s a powerplay. One response pronounced all that quite explicitly and even concluded in English stating “It’s all about business!”

Perhaps the most intriguing response I got was the one that indicated it’d be impossible to remove politics entirely since you’re asking countries to submit films, and I will grant that. It’s practically impossible to expunge when other productions and/or world events will cause protests. The nation submitting likely consciously or unconsciously affects voters, even if its just that a certain viewer has more of an affinity with one national cinema or another. What the ultimate goal of this plan, that I admit will likely never, ever occur, is to encourage more risk from national film governing bodies. Perhaps that encouragement would lead to more aesthetically forward choices that will get rewarded by the votership, or better yet bring the film to new audiences.

Now, according to my idealistic designs, Brazil as a prior multiple-nominee would receive three submissions. If that were the case, perhaps they’d be so inspired to take a chance on one of the remaining selections on something a little more free of influence. To paraphrase John Lennon, I may be dreaming but I know I’m not alone in hoping something like that would occur.

Thankful for World Cinema- The Green Room

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

The Green Room

François Truffaut in The Green Room (Le Films du Carrosse)

Truffaut’s The Green Room may be his great over-looked gem. It is a film that I think still deserves the Criterion treatment even though it was saved from the Land of the Out of Print by the wonderful new On Demand services.

It is a film that sees Francois Truffaut make a rare trip in front of camera, not only as an actor but one playing a character unlike himself to a large extent. Unlike his turn in Day for Night in this film he is not a director but a journalist who after World War I starts to detach himself from the world lamenting all those he has lost.

The film is a fascinating examination of how to reconcile the fact that even as we live we are amidst death. It examines a character who is overly-preoccupied with those who have passed such that he forgets how to live. Perhaps what is most impressive is that it takes an noble and relatable premise, respecting and honoring the dead, and takes it to an extreme such that we se how detached from reality one can become.

It is also a refreshingly intimate piece. There aren’t many players concerned in the drama here. There is the home nucleus: Julien, Georges and Mme Rambaud. Then Julien also interacts with his boss on a few occasions and Cecilia most of all. This allows the drama to be very focused on the protagonist and his obsession.

This film is a sparkling example of Truffaut’s simplicity shining through. It’s an examination of character and theme where all is very apparent and he wants you to delve deeper and search for more within the film. It is often hypnotic, always fascinating and a must see no matter how you manage to obtain it.

9/10

Thankful for World Cinema- Son Frère

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Son Frère

Bruno Todeschini and Eric Caravaca in Son Frère

This is quite an interesting French drama about the difficult relationship that two brothers have. One of whom is gay and receives his brother one night as learns he is fighting a mysterious and seemingly incurable disease.

One thing that is interesting about this film is that while it does deal a lot with treatment of this illness it goes out of its way to say that the disease even has a name but never says what it is. It insists on being about the patient and the care-taking brother and not the disease itself.

Aside from being a relationship film that doesn’t take the traditional route of dealing incessantly with whatever relationship it addresses. It also deals with death obviously, but moreover with being a patient. In examining those with chronic illnesses it casts an eye on the hopelessness of it all and the fear of surgery.

In that vain there is an amazing one-scene performance by Robinson Stévenin in which the brother witnesses the fear very sharply by seeing someone else in pain.

The film works very sure-handedly and keeps its pace steady but don’t let it fool you in that regard because there is a climax coming and it might even fool you in that regard. You may miss it or its impact immediately but it is one that leaves you thinking.

It is a very intimate and taut drama that is worth looking up.

8/10

Thankful for World Cinema- Last Year at Marienbad

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Last Year at Marienbad

Delphine Seyrig and Giorgio Albertazzi in Last Year at Marienbad (Concinor)

If there is a film that can be said to define the French New Wave it may well be Last Year at Marienbad. A film directed by Alain Resnais (Night and Fog) which deals heavily with memory, or more precisely the accuracy of memory and what is reality. It is a film that moves along dreamlike with many incremental repetitions of phrases, with fractured snatches of conversations creating whole thoughts and at times surrealistically staged scenes.

It is a film that engages the viewer that dares him to follow this Byzantine structure and try to get out the other end, and if he does get out the other end will he have his head on straight when he gets there? It is a fact that film is not a disposable medium and many, if not all films, welcome a second viewing. This film insists on several. It is very likely that every time you’ll walk away from the film with a new piece of information you never considered before. This film is a complex abstract masterpiece that makes Inception look like finger-painting by comparison.

Consider that you examine two characters, their relationship and how much they really know one another and they are never given proper names, in fact, no one is: the three main players are referred to as A, X and M. Most of the rest are referred to as “Une personnage de l’hôtel.”

Which brings to mind another point: The camera pans around this hotel and its surroundings a great deal. Sometimes in conjunction with voice-over sometimes running contrary to the scene. The Baroque architecture of the edifice is quite startling and the hotel becomes a character in the tale in and of itself. As the discussions in which M is trying to convince A they did meet often begin with him stating where in the hotel they were.

It is a fascinating and mind-bending film which has no equal or parallel, an infinitely rewarding experience you’ll want to revisit over and over again.

10/10

Thankful for World Cinema- Night & Fog

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Night & Fog

Night & Fog (Argos Films)

It is virtually impossible to ever come close to fully grasping the totality of the horror of the holocaust. If anything were to ever come close it’s Night & Fog. Never has the greatest calamity of the 20th Century been handled so precisely.

Many people are down on voice over narration but it’s part of the nature of the beast in a documentary and here, in this film, you have some of the greatest narration ever written by Jean Cayrol, a man who was himself a concentration camp survivor.

Not only does this film uniquely, at the time, mix color and black and white images but also uses the abandoned structures of the camps to haunt the film.

There is no question that this film is the apex of documentary filmmaking. It tried to take a massive subject and condense into something easy to understand. It allows you to reflect on things you see and learn but tries to bring as much of what transpired out as it can.

It also in turn becomes an important historical document. It is a masterpiece in as much as it achieves perfection in its form. If it was a feature length documentary it may not have this kind of impact.
 
It is an eye-opening and jarring account of the atrocities of the second World War that should be required viewing for all.

10/10

Thankful for World Cinema- Le Petit Nicolas

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Le Petit Nicolas

Maxime Godart, Vincent Claude, Victor Carles, Germain Petit Damico, Charles Vaillant and Benjamin Averty in Le Petit Nicolas (Wild Bunch)

Firstly, I must say that the availability of this film in the US is virtually non-existant. I managed to acquire a Canadian DVD (Also a Region 1) on Amazon. The film didn’t really see distribution here because it is based on a book series by René Goscinny that doesn’t have tremendous cultural impact in the US.

His other major contribution is as one of the architects of the Asterix series of books, which some here do know so the terrible first cinematic adaptation did come here. All this is brought to the fore because its non-distribution in the US really is confounding. The adaptation angle needn’t be used to sell the film. The humor and themes of the film really are universal.

While being familiar with the book, I’m sure, helped some appreciate it. It is a delightfully simple and accessible story that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. There are little treats for those in the know like, for example, the boys get inspiration for a scheme from an Asterix strip but it isn’t necessary to enjoy it.

This film is also very funny and while it does test your suspension of disbelief it should pass. Much of the film hinges on misconceptions that Nicolas has about his home life, which could be clarified if he talks to his parents but a child’s fears aren’t always relayed to his parents especially these.

This was a wonderful discovery and hopefully there are others in the offing as the series of books is quite lengthy.

10/10