Friday, June 12, 2009

Truffaut-con 2K9: The Truffaut-memoration

a.k.a. Ahh ah ah AHHH ah... I know this much is Truffaut.

By proxy, Shenan has become something of a shut-in movie nerd like me. Or, at least, she's remarkably tolerant of my habits and spends a lot of time with me when I'm being a shut-in movie nerd. One of the things I like to encourage, to make my boringness seem more fun, is for us to work on some theme in our movie-viewing for a little while. The themes have been as specific as going through the Dirty Harry series, and as vague as watching a bunch of Spanish-language movies.

So when Shenan expressed interest in watching Jules and Jim back in January when it came on TCM, I jumped at the chance to parlay this interest into an excuse to watch a shitload of Truffaut movies. Back in college I had seen Jules and Jim, The 400 Blows and Day For Night, and had always meant to make my way back to Truffaut some day. I had squeezed in Shoot the Piano Player during my Film Noir Month in September last year, but otherwise hadn't watched anything of his in years.

To my elation, Shenan got jazzed by Truffaut and we ended up plowing through a ton of them over the last few months. The following post isn't really a major analysis of the films, but more of a brief diary where we'll write some blurbs on the films we watched in the order we watched them.

Jules and Jim

Dan - We recorded this one off of Turner Classic Movies at Shenan's request, and I was eager to see the movie again after 3 or so years. In a rather unbelievable twist of fate, the recording cut off moments before a rather shocking event just minutes before the end of the film... if you've seen it before, you'll know what I mean. I don't think Shenan fully realized how important the last few minutes were, and wasn't as manic as I was about tracking down a copy to watch. It turned out that the DVD at the video store was already checked out (I'm guessing the same thing happened to someone else who recorded it off TV), and it was a week or two before we were able to watch the ending.

Otherwise, returning to this film was a joy, and I appreciated it a lot more now than I did back in the day. I enjoyed Jules and Jim when I saw it in college, but I think I was so blinded by my hatred of the character of Catherine that I missed much of what the film was doing. Catherine is a bi-polar narcissist who enjoys playing cruel mind games and in a sense dominates much of the film, yet I see more clearly this time how the heart of the story is still Jules and Jim and their friendship. When I first saw the film, I felt anger towards the protagonists at playing willing victims to Catherine's emotional violence, but I no longer see that as detracting from the film. The men fall in love with the image or the idea of Catherine without ever truly understanding who she is. Their punishment is not deserved, but I do believe it is caused by the way they see Catherine as an ideal or an object and not as the flawed human being she is.

Truffaut has a way of telling stories that are sad and unsentimental, yet still infusing them with a lot of warmth, humor and humanism, and Jules and Jim is one of the best examples.

Shenan - I also think that the film may be a sort of evaluation on the trends of his generation (well, any generation, really, but specific to him, the things that were happening in the youth of his culture at the time), a la bucking convention and engaging in social and romantic relationships that went against the normal conventions. In a way there are a lot of advantages the characters draw from this, like being able to relate intimately to each other in ways that would not have been allowed (at least, not to each and every one of the others) had they stuck to the conventional man-and-wife monogamy foundation. But the movie, especially the ending, I think, strongly suggests that maybe these conventions are there for a reason. That reason being not destroying each other’s lives. In short, that conventions are in place because, while not perfect, they are the best system we’ve come across to gain the most while sacrificing the least, and keep things stable. It’s fine to explore other ways of doing things, but these conventions were not just slapped together without any thought. In very abstract and broad terms.

The Wild Child

Dan - After watching Wild Child, I dismissed it as good but nothing special. But as time has passed, the movie has stuck with me, I find myself still thinking about certain aspects of it. Which is usually the sign of an excellent movie, and I'm already beginning to re-evaluate it. More amusingly, one detail in the film has become something of an in-joke for Shenan and I. The titular wild child is a boy who was abandoned in the woods at a young age and grew up as an animal, and the film details a scientist's attempt to study and civilize the boy (it is based on a true story). The wild child can't speak and develops the habit, when he's hungry, of tapping an empty bowl against other people's legs when he wants food. Now, in our apartment, Shenan and I have taken to the habit of tapping an empty glass against the other person when we're out of beer.

Shenan - And saying “lait” in a high-pitched voice. Our cats have even picked up on this (the tapping), to the extent that they can. This was probably my least favorite of the Truffaut films (though it wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, just not my favorite). I don’t know exactly why, but it felt kind of flat to me. Maybe because there didn’t seem to be much at stake? I mean, Truffaut’s films are usually very humanist and deal with human relationships and emotions, and this one…I mean, what were really the consequences of socializing or not socializing this boy? The main character (aka Truffaut) obviously finds it a challenging and intriguing task, but never seems to move beyond the scientific curiosity with which he initially approaches it. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe I’d have to go back and watch it for emotional connection I probably missed.


The 400 Blows

Dan - My personal favorite of the 15 or so Truffaut films I've seen, and perhaps my favorite film about childhood. This was Truffaut's first film and in it you can already see many of his common themes appearing: conflicted views of women/sexuality, casual dismissal of authority, empathy for the lives of children. In a way, the movie sets the stage for the rest of his films that we watched, not least because we followed this by watching the Antoine Doinel series, Truffaut's cycle of films that followed The 400 Blows's protagonist over a period of 20 years.


Stolen Kisses

Dan - Sadly, we never saw Antoine and Collette, the 2nd Antoine Doinel film (a short film he made about 5 years after The 400 Blows) as it wasn't available on Netflix while we were watching these. Stolen Kisses is the 3rd film in the series (and the 2nd that is feature length), and it catches up with Antoine 10 years after the original. As I recall, this was the most overtly comedic of the series, more in the spirit of the good fun, but still with some dark undertones.

Shenan - The scenes between Antoine and Christine’s parents were particularly funny.


Bed and Board

Dan - Truffaut does a ballsy thing here and starts to show Antoine's flighty, whimsical behavior as having a lot of negative real world consequences. In fact, Antoine is a flat out dick in much of Bed and Board, something I bet disappointed a lot of Truffaut fans at the time but I felt was a rewarding creative risk. Especially when you consider that Antoine is a supposedly semi-autobiographical character; perhaps Truffaut was taking a hard, critical look at himself. This entry is also more audacious visually (even using stop-motion for one strange image of rapidly blooming flowers), and as a result I would probably consider it my favorite of the sequels, even if it is the least likable.

Shenan - This was my favorite too. It’s a rare thing when you can empathize and care about the main character while simultaneously being annoyed and slightly disgusted by their behavior. Well, disgusted is the wrong word. But the feeling you get when you’ve been cheated on. Which we get because we also empathize with Christine. I guess it’s a movie that doesn’t call on us to judge the characters, just get caught up in their relationship and affairs.


Love on the Run

Dan - The final Antoine Doinel film, made 20 years after The 400 Blows, works hard to regain some of Antoine's charm, without completely excusing his antics. What I liked about this one is that it seemed to have equal measures of romanticism and cynicism. There's a somewhat exhilarating ending where everything comes together, and fate is implied to have played a hand, and Antoine is in the embrace of a beautiful woman... and yet there is still a sense that this isn't the end, only a repeating cycle, and that Antoine will make the same mistakes with women over and over again. It's a happy ending with an asterisk.

The other interesting thing here is that Truffaut frequently uses flashbacks by cutting to clips from the previous 4 films. The result is mixed. At their worst, the flashbacks feel narratively lazy or like filler (especially in one case where we are treated to a lengthy scene from Bed and Board), like a cheap horror movie sequel that needs to patch in a extra 5 minutes to reach feature length. At their best, however, the flashbacks highlight Antoine's emotional growth (or lack thereof), underline thematic connections between the films, and create an overall sense that time in film and perhaps real life is an illusion. (i.e. even as Anotine now kisses his lover in a dizzying embrace, he still exists as the 13 year old boy riding an amusement park ride. The moments are simultaneous, not separate). And if nothing else, it's fascinating to watch how the actor, Jean-Pierre Leaud, who played Antoine in all the films, really aged 20 years in front of the camera.

Shenan - I felt the same way about the flashbacks. I really felt I didn’t need them to the extent they were in there, having seen the previous movies. It got really tedious for me, and I felt like they took up maybe half the movie (maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the impression I got). I felt a little cheated, I was getting a lot of re-used material that served as a stand-in for a hefty percentage of the new stuff needed to be feature length.

But having said that, I also realize what he was doing with it. And I do agree with them emphasizing his evolution, the saturation of the present with the experiences of our past, etc. I just wish there was a different way to do it. Which I don’t know if there is, since all the prequels already exist.

And it does have his touch of charming romanticism in it, even if it did have the whole “all these people’s lives just happen to intertwine in all these ways they don’t know about and wouldn’t you know it, they’re all destined to be lovers, isn’t it convenient that my ex-wife knows your unrequited love’s sister’s co-worker’s cousin’s cat’s veterinarian” angle.



Small Change

Dan - Surprisingly, what I thought would be one of Truffaut's best (it looked like a return to 400 Blows-esque material) turned out to be my least favorite of his films. Small Change is not without its merits and charms, but it wasn't as funny, moving or as evocative of childhood as 400 Blows, perhaps because it seems to gloss over the pain of growing up in favor of emphasizing the nostalgia.

Shenan - Uh…why do I have no memory of this one?

Dan - Ouch.


Mississippi Mermaid

Dan - If Small Change sapped away a little bit (just a little, mind you) of my enthusiasm for Truffaut-con, then Mississippi Mermaid brought it back in full force. Truffaut was a great admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, and this film is something of an homage. But instead of copying Hitchcock's style, Truffaut uses certain Hitchcockian story elements, motifs and visual strategies and infuses it with a distinctly Truffauldian attitude. As a result, he makes a top notch thriller that still stops to take the time to go over his usual obsessions and creates a unique and complex screen romance. It's not as tightly pieced together as a Hitchcock film, but it's looseness is part of the charm and doesn't diminish from the suspense or excitement.

Not to go off on too much of a tangent here, but I've also been attempting some due diligence by watching several Jean-Luc Godard films for the past month or two. And while I've come to a certain appreciation of his style, watching his films has mainly confirmed for me how much more I love Truffaut. Both filmmakers' attempts at genre films are a great example why. Godard's Breathless is ostensibly a gangster film, but it's more like an essay or a joke about gangster films. The film is funny and entertaining, and I appreciate the way Godard comments on the genre, mocking certain generic elements, but it in no way functions as an actual gangster movie. This is also true of his Alphaville, Band of Outsiders and Pierrot le Fou and the genres they supposedly represent. Truffaut's genre films, on the other hand, not only comment on their genres and function as film criticism like Godard's films, but they also work as genre films in their own right. Mississippi Mermaid subverts a lot of your expectations regarding the story structure, characters and visual style of crime/thrillers, and is also a great thriller to boot.

Back to my main point, this is a great film. Truffaut made a genre film, heavily influenced by Hitchcock, but without sacrificing his own point of view or personal touch. Note the way that Truffaut borrows one of the unused endings from Hitchcock's Suspicion. He's exploring the theme of idealized love that he's explored in many other films, and using the genre to find a new, darker take on the material.

Shenan - Sort of the opposite of Jules and Jim, in a way. Propagating or romanticizing the act of eschewing all societal conventions (and legal ones, too) for the sake of and idealized Love that, after all, is supposed to stand above all other things in the end anyway, isn’t it? Not love, mind you, but Love, with a capital L (sort of like my…or, Stephen Fry’s…distinction between Poetry and poetry). Anyhow. It was very suspenseful and I found myself engaged similarly to the way I get drawn into a Hitchcock film. Even his style of filming and using setting/isolation of two people together in the end feels like suspicion (or Vertigo, or Rear Window, or any other number of his films).

On another note, I think genre films can sometimes get a similar bad rap to the one that genre novels get. Maybe not as much, because film is excused more when it is made solely to entertain (you know, think Jackass, Borat, Transformers 2, etc) and not to try to accomplish anything else, whereas books/novels/stories/poetry what have you are, I think, considered an “art” or at least, the good “literature” is, and it is what everything is supposed to strive for. But there can be some great writing and great plot construction and characterization and craftsmanship in detective novels or Stephen King books or sci fi shit. And I like seeing someone like Truffaut make a genre film, be unafraid to make a genre film, and put his craftsman’s shine on it.


The Last Metro

Dan - Sort of a spiritual sequel to Day For Night, only about theater instead of film and heavier on plot. Typical of Truffaut, all the stuff in this movie about WWII and Nazism and the thriller elements are really just elaborate window dressing for a love triangle and a comedy/drama about a theater troupe. The one unexpected detail is that it grapples a bit with Jewish identity... I read somewhere that Truffaut was the illegitimate son of a Jewish man, a fact that Truffaut suspected but never confirmed until much later in his life. Parts of The Last Metro, with it's Jewish protagonist hiding from the Nazis, may be Truffaut's attempt at exploring this part of his heritage.

Shenan - I don’t have a lot to say about this one, but it was my favorite. I just found it the most intriguing and engaging. Simple as that.


Confidentially Yours

Dan - Another Hitchcock homage, this time more in the comic-thriller vein. Part of the fun is the way he applies his usual strong women/immature men theme to the Hitchcock template, and casts Fanny Ardent (his girlfriend) in what's essentially the Cary Grant role, with a man playing the hapless heroine. Not as great of a mystery/thriller as Mississippi Mermaid, but a good fun way to end a career, as this turned out to be his last film.

Shenan - Oh yes, I almost didn’t remember this, then I did. I came in a half hour or so in, maybe that’s why I was a little fuzzy at first. I like the rogue, self-fashioned female detective angle on this. She reminded me a lot of Grace Kelly in Rear Window; she had that same spunk, I guess is the best word I can come up with for it. That same recklessness maybe in an attempt to prove something, but she can definitely handle herself, and she’s sharp.



The Story of Adele H.

Dan - Another Truffaut film notable for having a female lead, which was not usually the case. Emotionally, this was one of Truffaut's most powerful, about a woman's descent into obsessive love and eventually into madness. I've read a bit here and there about possible sexism and/or misogyny in Truffaut's films. But while The Story of Adele H. doesn't present a positive portrayal of a woman per se, it's clear that Truffaut feels a strong empathy for Adele, and our sympathy lies with her even as she goes off the deep end. It's one of those movies that is a little hard to watch at times because the emotions are painful and the character just keeps making it worse and worse on herself.

Shenan - Why don’t I remember this one either?

Dan - Ah yes, as I recall you fell asleep and missed this one.



The Man Who Loved Women

Dan - Kind of an extension of the Antoine Doinel series, perhaps about what Antoine would be like when he reached Truffaut's age, where it focuses on a flaky but lovable man who is too infatuated with women to commit or settle down. And like the Doinel films, it feels at least partially autobiographical. As with Love on the Run, it may be just a tad too forgiving or permissive of the character's sometimes cad-like behavior, but still casts a critical and perceptive eye at it's subject. And I cared enough that I felt unexpectedly moved by the film's ending. If this character is a surrogate for Truffaut himself, then this movie is Truffaut asking us to accept his flaws along with his virtues.

Shenan - It is pretty lovable. Though don’t you remember that IMDB made it sound like the venereal disease was the driving point of the movie, the plot point fulcrum on which all the events of the movie hinged? When it was just a small little thing that came up like 2/3 of the way through the movie?


Fahrenheit 451

Dan - Definitely not one of my favorite Truffauts, but it seems to have an unfair reputation as a bad movie. Although some of the production design and special effects are a little dated/corny, Truffaut mainly succeeds at creating a strange and unique future world, giving it a weird, dreamlike feel.

Shenan - I agree. I especially liked getting to see the world of the people who memorized the books at the end, who identified themselves by name as the piece of literature they’d memorized.


Shoot the Piano Player

Dan - As you can see in my post about it back during Noir Month, I was a little underwhelmed when I first saw Shoot the Piano Player. My esteem for it grew considerably on my second viewing. While not the triumph that Mississippi Mermaid is, it is still a highly entertaining and charming combination of crime movie ingredients and Truffauldian idiosyncrasies. I originally bitched about "weird stylistic touches and broad comedy" contradicting the more dramatic elements of the story. I now realize that the blend of styles is what makes Shoot the Piano Player so fun.

Shenan - Also, that guy has the worst luck with women. I’m just saying, no matter how much I loved him, I would not be this dude’s girlfriend, unless I wanted a death sentence.


Day For Night

Dan - Another one that I appreciated more after seeing it again. I soured on Day For Night a little back in college, but for reasons that weren't the film's fault. Two classes I took showed it in the same semester, about a week apart, and watching it a 2nd time so soon after just seeing it I was a bit restless and bored. I knew I liked it, but something about the experience tainted the film for me.

Coming back to the film now, I took much pleasure in how Truffaut's good natured, meta, movie-within-a-movie-about-the-making-of-a-movie Day For Night revels in the process and the artifice of filmmaking. This is Truffaut's busiest and most Altman-esque film in the way it juggles a large cast of characters within a somewhat relaxed narrative, and like Altman's films each subsequent viewing helps clarify all the characters and their connections. These kinds of movies can tend to be self-indulgant (even great ones like 8 1/2) so it's a testament to Truffaut's charm that Day For Night stays likable and relatable.

Shenan- I didn’t notice it before, but now I can kind of see it being Altman-esque. If it wouldn’t take like five hours to do, I might suggest a Nashville/Day for Night double feature. And if we hadn’t just watched those two within a couple weeks of now. Maybe some day. Anyway, not much to say here, except that it was light and funny and likeable. My favorite part is the cat. Some choice quotes- “We’ll wait until you can find me a cat that can act!” and “Throw it in!” I like to imagine that’s something that happens with regularity on movie sets that involve animals. When the animals don’t behave or aren’t good “actors,” you just hike them into the shot like a football and see what happens.

The Bride Wore Black


Dan - And so we wrapped up Truffaut-con 2K9 with The Bride Wore Black, a film I initially didn't think we'd get to see since it was not on Netflix or at the video store. Fortunately, I discovered while shopping for a Father's Day gift that Amazon had a used copy for $3, which I quickly snatched up.

Like Mississippi Mermaid and Confidentially Yours, this is a Hitchcockian thriller with a decidely Truffauldian spin. A woman goes around killing off men, for reasons not immediately clear, and there is a lot of suspsense and dark comedy in the way she sets her intricate plots in to motion. And unsuprisingly, Truffaut uses this premise to explore his typical obsessions with male/female relations... the heroine's murder plots often resemble dates or flirtations. There is also a sense in which the film is, not exactly feminist, but an attempt at female empowerment: the victims are all men who have done the heroine wrong, and seem to try to control or diminish her in other ways, until she eventually turns the tables and snuffs them out.

Shenan - It’s Hitchcockian, and also Kill Bill-ian. I definitely have a hard time imagining, having seen it now, that Quentin Tarantino hadn’t seen this film and didn’t count it as an influence at all when making Kill Bill. I liked this one quite a bit; the only part I found kind of hard to “suspend my disbelief” for, so to speak, at first was the part where the woman obviously looked nothing like the teacher and counted on the boy being so stupid and easily confused or easily swayed that he would start believing she was his teacher if she told him so. But note I said “at first.” I think Truffaut ended up handling it with a grace that really was honest to the way little kids think or get confused when they are supposed to trust adults to tell them what is real and what isn’t, by the way he sort of remained unconvinced that she was his teacher, but didn’t really care and just went along with it, then to the police insisted that “Ms. Becker” had been at his house, while never actually indicating that the woman at the school who really was his teacher had been at his house. It was like there were two Ms. Beckers that existed, both of whom were supposed to be his teacher, but they were still two separate people at the same time.

The other part that I thought maybe relied a little too much on things conveniently happening was planning out that whole thing where they played hide and seek, and then she goes to leave and refuses to stay and then realizes she’s “lost her ring” and thinks it’s in the closet because she played hide and seek there, and then somehow assumes that the father will insist on looking for it himself, and will climb all the way into the crawl space and she will lock him in there and happen to have duct tape and blah blah blah. I mean, how could she have know there was a crawl space there before she entered the house? I thought at first, actually, that maybe he tried to show this as a spur-of-the-moment plan, acted upon when she saw there was a closet, because she initially grabs a knife in the kitchen, and I thought maybe she was going to kill him with that, but then has a better idea once she starts feeling the house out. But then I remembered that was intentional, to make us think she was going to kill him with the knife, when actually she just uses it to cut the phone line. Meaning she never intended to use it to kill him at all. Meaning she had her plan from the beginning, presumably. I don’t know. It was a bit much to swallow.
But overall I really liked this one. I thought it was great. And I liked that he used a slightly older Jeanne Moreau, and didn’t just go for some hot young bombshell to play the sexy killer heroine. It gives the sexual relationship she and the painter start having a more real and honest feel to it too- that she’s not some seductress who any man would fall instantly in love with, but (though still not unattractive, I’ll grant you) a slightly older and imperfect woman who happens to make a real emotional and physical connection with this artist (who is a self-described skirt-chaser, but with her it’s different, etc etc).

2 comments:

Shenan said...

this is a fucking achievement. someone better comment here besides me.

Shenan said...

...and no one ever did.