“The Story of Marie and Julien”: Un homme, une fantôme, un chat

A ghostly Emmanuelle Beart in Marie and Julien.

My education in the films of Jacques Rivette continues.  As I understand it Rivette had been trying to make The Story of Marie and Julien since the 1960s, at that point to star Albert Finney and Leslie Caron, but the film never materialized until 2003.  It was to be one of his last completed films.  It shares a similar formal quality with Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), a revenge thriller that has the detached feel of a mathematical proof.  Marie and Julien is enlivened by the fact that it’s both a love story and a ghost story.  Marie and Julien’s love affair is in the Romantic/Gothic tradition of Pelléas and Melisande, Vertigo, and Washington Irving’s “Adventure of the German Student,” with an ending that owes something to fairy tales like Pinocchio and The Velveteen Rabbit: the undead Marie (Emmanuelle Beart), moved to tears by the suffering of her lover Julien (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), magically regains her mortality.  It’s too reserved and sane to be top-tier Rivette, but its restraint is appropriate to the somberness of the plot, and it has an erotic edge that one normally doesn’t encounter in his films—with the possible exception of La Belle Noiseuse.  

The Story of Marie and Julien: Nevermore (Gaspard) in the clock.

The other thing Marie and Julien has going for it is a fantastic animal performance by a tuxedo cat named Gaspard (he looks a little like Disney’s Figaro), who steals nearly every scene in which he appears as Julien’s pet cat Nevermore (!), often by clambering on top and inside of the elaborate clocks that Julien works to repair.  While they don’t play as significant a role in his films as they do in those of, say, Chris Marker, cats tend to be associated with magic throughout Rivette’s work.  Joe Dallesandro dandles a kitten in Merry Go Round, a stray cat acts as a witness to the antics of Celine and Julie Go Boating (and is given the final word of that film, as it were, by appearing in the last shot), and in Marie and Julien Nevermore’s acrobatics lead Marie to discover a cache of secret documents.  In the pantheon of cats of the nouvelle vague, Gaspard is no Zgougou or Guillaume-en-Egypte (how could he be?), but he’s remarkable all the same.

Merry Go Round: Joe Dallesandro with kitten.

Celine and Julie Go Boating: The cat watches.


The homosexual in the text: Dennis Christopher as Eddie Kaspbrak in "Stephen King's It" (1990)

Is Eddie Kaspbrak in Stephen King’s It (published in 1985) supposed to be gay?  He’s certainly coded that way; he’s quiet, small, and sexually repressed, a hypochondriac with an overbearing mother, an emotional dependency on his asthma inhaler that he continues to nurse into adulthood…and a pinky ring.  The novel, which I recently finished re-reading, avoids the question of Eddie’s sexual orientation almost as frequently as it raises it.  King implies that Eddie’s deepest fears are related to homosexual desire: It, the shape-shifting evil force that haunts Eddie’s hometown of Derry, Maine, first appears to Eddie in the form of a homeless leper who offers him a blowjob.  The leper represents the two things Eddie is most afraid of: sex and disease.  Eleven-year-old Eddie is so terrified at the thought of catching syphilis that one can imagine AIDS later causing him to nail himself shut inside his own closet.  But Eddie’s closetedness has just as much to do with the homespun bigotry that is shown to breed in small towns like Derry, where those who dare to be openly gay risk assault and murder (one such victim, Adrian Mellon, has asthma—a signifier that makes him a double for Eddie).  As a gay man, Eddie would also represent another facet of Derry’s/It’s victimization of racial, sexual, and economic outsiders.  But King leaves Eddie’s sexual orientation open to interpretation.  His invention of a wife for Eddie would seem to be a dodge, though the fact that she’s explicitly presented as an Oedipal surrogate for Eddie’s clingy, unattractive mother works to corroborate a queer reading of Eddie even better than it does dispel it. 


A flop

Frederic Forrest in One from the Heart (1981).

The best thing about Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart (1981), generally agreed to be something of a film maudit, is probably the song score written by Tom Waits and performed by him and Crystal Gayle; I’m partial to the lovely penultimate number, “Take Me Home,” sung by Gayle with Waits on piano.  Choosing Waits to write love songs for a romantic comedy/drama set in Las Vegas would seem obvious to the point of being on the nose, since Waits’ music is always already infused with the romance and the seediness of such places.  (When I went to Las Vegas for the first time several years ago I felt like I was inside a Tom Waits song.)  He gets the tension that exists between dreaming big and living low—an idea that’s supposed to structure the plot of the film, in which a bored Teri Garr and her ambitionless live-in boyfriend (Frederic Forrest) spend the Fourth of July entertaining notions of running off with other people, only to recommit to each other.  All of this unfolds against a series of deliberately artificial backdrops, optical effects, and elaborately designed sets that are used to create a Las Vegas only slightly more unreal than the real thing.  (It’s a theatrical technique Coppola would continue to experiment with in such later projects as his 1987 adaptation of “Rip van Winkle” for Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre.)  Waits understands this world and its inhabitants better than anyone else involved in the production, though; the script is a deadly, humorless pastiche of Hollywood screwball comedies, and Garr and Forrest are never able to find the beats in the dialogue.  At least the film has him.


Rivette’s “Duelle”: l’autre coté du miroir

Juliet Berto as Leni the Moon Goddess in Duelle (1976).

Perhaps more than any of his New Wave contemporaries Rivette embraced the fantastical as a form of creative possibility.  Truffaut and Chabrol found possibility in experimenting with established genres, as did Jacques Demy—and Demy arguably went as far as Rivette did in indulging a love of fantasy.  (His fairy-tale confection Donkeyskin is, among other things, a love letter to Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete and all that it stands for.)  But films like Duelle (1976), currently streaming on Mubi.com, show Rivette’s singular penchant for using the lyrical freedom and off-the-cuff spirit of the New Wave to tell stories about witches and magic spells and enchanted objects.  Duelle’s trifle of a plot, which is as fuzzy and baggy in its own way as those that unfold within the labyrinthine worlds of Out 1 and Paris Nous Appartient, revolves around the search for a talismanic jewel (known as The Fairy Godmother) by two rival witch-goddesses (cf. the witches of the East and the West in The Wizard of Oz, or the Red and White Queens in Through the Looking Glass) and the mortal magician who comes between them; it eventually falls to the sister of the latter, a lowly hotel concierge, to take over his mission, and the film ends with the suggestion that she has undergone a magical transformation of her own.  But Rivette’s fantasy worlds are never very far removed from reality: his witches, conspirators, and samurai do battle and hatch schemes in the metro stations and cafés of contemporary Paris, their supernatural qualities often suggested by whimsical accessories or costumes (capes, chokers, veils), and their adventures are set to the improvised noodlings of an omnipresent jazz pianist.


Take 3 of 3: "Story of Women" (1988)

Talking shop: Isabelle Huppert in Story of Women.

Class and crime were the two favorite themes of the late Claude Chabrol (1930-2010); in Chabrol’s best films (Les Bonnes Femmes, Le Boucher, Le Ceremonie) the two are intricately braided together to make chilly, ironic thrillers.  I’ve discovered a new favorite Chabrol film (or at least a close second to Le Ceremonie, which it would be hard to trump) in Story of Women (1988), an Occupation-era drama set in a provincial French town where desperate housewife Marie Latour begins performing abortions for local women on the sly.  (She later expands her services by renting out a spare room to a couple of town prostitutes and their clients.)  The film is a nuanced, clear-eyed, and thoroughly gripping panorama of women under various degrees of duress; like, say, Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls (1986)—on the surface a very different movie—the Chabrol film is whip-smart about the choices faced by working-class women.  And how women both help and exploit one another (in some cases simultaneously).  And how even class privilege may not/does not protect women from the punitive damage of living under male systems of power.  And how the oppression of women is all but written into the ideology of the modern justice system.  And all manner of other ideas besides.  That Story of Women stars the great Isabelle Huppert—who plays Marie with the blank insouciance that has become something of her trademark as an actor—makes it even easier to recommend.  

Take 2 of 3: "Purple Noon" (1960)

Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) practices his hand at forgery in Purple Noon.

Has there ever been a bad film adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel?  Having not seen Liliana Cavani’s Ripley’s Game I can’t speak to its merits—but even if it may be a dud we still have Strangers on a Train, The American Friend, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Carol.  And Purple Noon (1960, dir. Rene Clement), one of the earliest attempts at adapting Highsmith for the movies, with Alain Delon as jet-setting criminal Tom Ripley.  Cool and comfortable within the private world of his own amorality, Delon’s Ripley floats through the film, his very blandness allowing him to adapt, chameleon-like, to each situation in which he finds himself (and to appropriate others’ identities whenever convenient).  Purple Noon downplays the homoeroticism of the source text pretty significantly, even going so far as to invent a tryst (albeit a queerly triangulated one) between Ripley and his best friend’s girl.  It also rewrites the ending of Highsmith’s novel in order to punish Ripley, and in so doing invents a somewhat clunky twist—though it didn’t bother me any more than do the often-clunky denouements of any number of classic Hollywood noirs. The film as a whole is involving and pretty and sexy enough to withstand a few false notes.

Take 1 of 3: "Summertime" (1955)

Do I hear a waltz?: Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi at the Piazza San Marco in Summertime.

Three short takes today, each posted separately, in response to three recent discoveries from Criterion via their (soon-to-be defunct) Hulu channel.  Midway through the opening credits of David Lean’s Summertime (1955) I realized that the film was based on the same Arthur Laurents novel that would later become the (underrated) Richard Rodgers/Stephen Sondheim musical Do I Hear a Waltz?  With that realization in mind I worried that I might not buy Katharine Hepburn in the role of a slightly neurotic American spinster who is moved to indulge in a fling with a smooth-talking Italian during a week-long vacation to Venice.  But Hepburn sells it (wouldn’t you know?), as does Rossano Brazzi in the role of her paramour.  It’s ultimately a story about the necessity of sloughing off one’s provincial American mores in order to fully understand Europe—culturally, sexually, gastronomically, and otherwise.  The tone of the film is much different from the musical, so they don’t end up feeling like they’re competing to tell the same story.  Both are lovely.  And if nothing else Summertime’s cinematography, shot in vivid Eastmancolor, will make you long for an Italian getaway.  (But why was this not done in widescreen?)


Les amants

Watching Francois Truffaut’s The Soft Skin (1964) I was never completely convinced that Nicole, the tres chic flight attendant played by Francoise Dorleac (sister of Catherine Deneuve), would go for Jean Desailly’s married man—he’s a bourgeois public-intellectual type who looks like a French-New-Wave version of John Hodgman.  But that didn’t much get in my way of enjoying the film, an almost shockingly straight-faced drama in which nearly all of the stylistic flourishes that decorate Truffaut’s three previous features have been stripped away.  For the first three-quarters of the film, the plot feels almost procedural; then, at the last minute, it steers into thriller territory, much as Truffaut’s The Woman Next Door (1981) would do nearly two decades later.  The note on which it finally lands is almost Bressonian in its elegance and brutality.  The lovely score by Georges Delerue doesn’t hurt, either.  Nor does cinematography by Raoul Coutard.  (Just check out how stacked that credits list is!)          

Domestic scenes: Spielberg's suburbia

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: opening doors onto wonder and danger.

The sleeper hit of the summer (on the small-screen front, at least) has turned out to be Netflix’s Stranger Things, a derivative but immensely entertaining sci-fi adventure in the style of Cronenberg, Carpenter, and vintage Spielberg.  One of the most appealing things about the series is the extent to which its suspense plot is populated by warm and humorous characters—dorky middle-school kids and harried single moms and heartsick teenagers.  The banality of the show’s milieu (certain of its situations would not feel out of place on an episode of Family Ties) works to leaven its spooky, campfire-story tone.  While recent tent-pole movies like Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad have struggled (and failed) to strike a balance between lightness and heaviness, sincerity and irony, Stranger Things succeeds in doing so almost effortlessly: it’s thrilling and fun and funny, and it has a big heart. 

The show owes its particular combination of these qualities mostly to Spielberg, whose Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) I revisited earlier this week.  (E.T. is a more direct influence on Stranger Things; I’m hoping to get around to revisiting that one later this fall.)  Both Close Encounters and E.T. (1982)—as well as films like Poltergeist (1982, dir. Tobe Hooper) and The Goonies (1984, dir. Richard Donner), which take place within the extended Spielberg universe—ground their fantastical plots in suburban environments that are so believably drawn that we immediately buy everything that proceeds to happen within them.  In Close Encounters, I love how Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) brushes with extra-terrestrial life play out before an audience of squabbling kids and nosy neighbors, against a backdrop of model train sets and Looney Tunes cartoons.  When he tries to describe his sighting of a UFO to his wife Ronnie (a beautifully frazzled Teri Garr), she translates it into the language of groceries: “was it like a taco shell?  Or one of those Sara Lee moon-shaped cookies?  Those crescent cookies?”  Meanwhile, an alien encounter at the home of Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her three-year-old son Barry sets off thick media static: Jillian’s TV set starts up in the middle of a late-night movie while, on the record player, Johnny Mathis sings “Chances are…”  (Barry’s record player strikes up a chirpy nursery-school song.)  Where Ronnie Neary tries to conceptualize the UFO in terms of supermarket foods, Barry’s sightings set off a series of child’s-eye associations.  Mesmerized by the novel shapes and colors of the ships, he cries out “ice cream!”, and, later, “Toys!”  


Rivette nous appartient

It’s a wonderful time to be a Jacques Rivette fan right now: even though the man himself is gone, his films have never been more accessible to North American audiences than they are currently.  The legendary Out 1 has been unearthed and is now available on Blu-ray, in addition to streaming on Netflix (!); three mid-period films (Duelle, Noirot, Merry-Go-Round) either are or will be streaming on Mubi.com this month; and Rivette’s debut feature, Paris Belongs To Us (Paris Nous Appartient, 1961) has been inducted into The Criterion Collection and is streamable on Hulu.  Curiously, Celine and Julie Go Boating—arguably Rivette’s best-known work—remains unavailable on North America at the moment, most likely due to mired copyright issues.  But it’s almost easy to overlook the loss of Celine and Julie when there is so much else to discover (or re-discover).

Woody goes to the movies

Woody Allen watching Duck Soup in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

Toward the end of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) Woody Allen’s character has an epiphany about the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life at a screening of Duck Soup: having thus far spent the entire film stressing out over his mortality and seeking meaning in organized religion, he eventually finds salvation in the screwball mayhem of the Marx Brothers.  The movies—and comedy in particular—are accorded a profound, almost sacred power in Allen’s work.  An avowed atheist, he hails cinephilia as a form of religious practice and the movie theater as a church-like space of imagination and wonder.



Jack Lemmon watches TV in The Apartment (1960).

Is it appropriate to describe Jack Lemmon’s performance in The Apartment (1960, dir. Billy Wilder) as beautiful?  Because that’s the word that came to mind as I re-watched the film the other day for the first time in over a decade.  Oscar Hammerstein once remarked that he was more likely to be moved to tears by scenes of happiness than by scenes of sadness; I thought of that at several points during the film, namely whenever Lemmon’s character goes into giddy mode, wound up first by the thrill of a promotion (even one that amounts to moving his desk from one side of a glass wall to the other) and then by burgeoning feelings of love for Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the chronically depressed elevator operator who has the good fortune to attempt suicide in his apartment.  Happiness for Lemmon’s C. C. Baxter looks almost like mania: he chatters endlessly, makes bad jokes, and laughs at himself, often failing to realize that he’s the only one laughing.  Lemmon captures the experience of Baxter being so cocooned in the bubble of his own elation that he can’t see how ridiculous he looks, or that other people around him—like Miss Kubelik—are busy being trapped in their own private hell.  The moments when this realization dawns crushingly on him are beautiful, too, as for instance when he catches sight of his reflection in Miss Kubelik’s cracked compact mirror and discovers that she’s the latest victim of his predatory boss.  His whole self deflates like a leaky balloon.  So yes: beautiful seems the right word. 

The beauty of happiness (top)...and happiness punctured (bottom).

Baxter’s coming into consciousness about his own victimization, and Miss Kubelik’s, is also a crucial piece of the film’s political ethos.  For a mainstream Hollywood film The Apartment is surprisingly bold in its willingness to challenge ideological systems like capitalism and patriarchy; even its Hollywood ending is predicated on the main characters deciding, independent of each other, to reject those systems.  Hollywood has long made a business out of (hypocritically) appealing to the audience’s identification with the Little Guy in his rage against the machine, and neither Billy Wilder nor his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond is Jean-Luc Godard, exactly, but their screenplay seems to me relatively forward-thinking in its willingness to identify parallels between the dehumanization of the modern worker and the sexual oppression of women by a monolithic structure in which bureaucracy, misogyny, and the profit motive go hand-in-hand-in-hand.  (One of the film’s many wonderfully dark jokes is that the oppression of women has itself become bureaucratized—something to have to schedule, like a dentist appointment.) 

Further to the credit of Wilder and Diamond, the film identifies as the locus of this system none other than bland, smiling Fred MacMurray—TV dad and perennial Disney star.  In Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) MacMurray signified something like the stupidity of crime; here he signifies something closer to the banality of evil.  MacMurray’s Sheldrake and his philandering cronies coerce and bully Baxter in the same way that they use and abuse women; one of the interesting things about the film is that Baxter comes to realize that he’s being had—duped, lied to, fucked—in the same way that Miss Kubelik is, and by the same man.  It’s a theme on which Mad Men would seize in a big way, especially in key episodes like “The Other Woman.”  That The Apartment is able to treat its subject matter with such glancing comic zeal is a tribute to Wilder’s (and Diamond’s) formidable talent.

The banality of evil: Fred MacMurray as Sheldrake in the Christmas-morning scene.


Bergman and intimacy

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona (1966).

I re-watched Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) this week; it remains so striking in so many different ways that it’s incredible to realize that the film is now fifty years old.  It moves effortlessly and mystifyingly in and out of its various registers (psychodrama, erotic fantasy, experimental film), often creeping into territory that Bergman would not dare to touch in any other work.  Is there a sexual passage in Bergman more potent than Bibi Andersson’s monologue, delivered to the (outwardly) non-responsive Liv Ullmann, in which she recounts a long-ago beachside orgy with two teenage boys and another girl?  Andersson’s voice veritably throbs with pleasure at the memory of that day while Ullmann sits perfectly still, watching and listening with an intensity that is no less powerful for being silent.  So Persona is maybe Bergman’s sexiest movie, with the possible exception of The Silence, or parts of Through a Glass Darkly.  It’s also his scariest: along with Hour of the Wolf, it’s something like an art-house horror movie.  I don’t think I’d ever noticed before how alluringly predatory Ullmann is here; she moves in and out of the rooms of the cabin like a sexy vampire, and in certain close-ups her stony expression flickers with wanton cruelty.  (And all of that’s before we get to the scene where Ullmann presses her lips to Andersson’s bleeding arm…)  And it might also be his most stylish (Bibi Andersson’s sunglasses!).