Juliette dreams of L'Atalante

Dita Parlo as Juliette in L'Atalante (dir. Jean Vigo, 1934).

In sleep she dreamed her way back on the barge, where the sounds of the city were as distant as an echo and where one drifted off to the lapping of the water on the hull of the boat and the yowling of the cats mating in the night.  In these dreams she found herself pressed tight against Jean’s wiry chest, his arms holding her close to him as they lay dozing fitfully in their cabin, drenched in the sweat of late July, Père Jules’ snores quaking through the wall.  She dreamed that she was sleeping—or rather forgot where she was sleeping and imagined herself in that other bed with the smell of unwashed men and mangy cats and bilge water pressing upon her like a fever.  She dreamed of her own memories: of the press of Jean’s lean frame against her back, his hands lightly clasped around her waist.  They would lay like that until the light of the dawn made its way into the cabin and woke her and she would peel herself out of Jean’s embrace (he was a sound sleeper; he never woke up) and slip out of bed, through the cabin door and into the lair of Père Jules, who lay sleeping like a beast or an ogre in a book of fairy tales.  She would crouch down beside him as he lay snoring and farting, his fleshy lips parted to reveal a mouth of rotten teeth like black gumdrops, just watching him (like Jean, he was a sound sleeper); and then, with one eye always peering back at him over her shoulder, she would wander to his vast pile of treasures (the grotesque marionette with the face like a wizened apple, the Chinese fan, the elephant tusk, the music boxes and the mechanical toys, the cloudy glass jar in which the severed hands of his late friend had been pickled), running her hands over them lightly and with the wonder of an enchanted child while the men slept and the water lapped the sides of the boat and the cats sunned themselves in the sharp light of the morning.



The Films of 2017: It

Last night I went to see It and then I had a nightmare in which I was trying to kill a spider the size of a half dollar and the nightmare was approximately fifty times scarier than the movie and almost that many times more interesting.  At the risk of hyperbolizing, It represents everything that’s wrong with Hollywood cinema today.  Director Andy Muschetti and his screenwriters have taken a valuable piece of intellectual property, Stephen King’s magnificent and sprawling 1985 novel about a group of seven misfit children who band together to defeat an evil force haunting their town, and stripped it of its charm and imaginativeness to the point of unrecognizability.  They have shifted the setting from 1958 to 1988 for no conceivable reason other than to pander to the nostalgia of its target demographic—thirty-somethings who, ironically enough, are likely to have grown up on the 1990 TV miniseries adaptation starring Tim Curry.  They have then gone on to jettison any of the subtlety of King’s characters, “update” most of the horror sequences by substituting a host of standard issue ghouls and ghosts, and crank up the action to a headache-inducing fever pitch.  It may have made for three times the budget, but for pacing, intelligence, and overall craftsmanship it makes the miniseries look like The Godfather.    


The Films of 2017: Beach Rats

The opening scene of Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats finds adolescent Frankie (Harris Dickinson) cruising a gay webcam site in the basement of the home he shares with his blue-collar family on the outer reaches of Brooklyn.  It’s summer vacation, and when he’s not partying with his posse of casually homophobic dude-bros he’s trolling online for gay hookups, usually with older men.  (He claims that he’s drawn to them because he’s less likely to run into them socially, though it’s implied that, like so many other aspects of his sexuality, his real reasons for doing so are not fully known, even to himself.)  Meanwhile, he struggles to keep up appearances by dating Simone, a local flirt he meets on the boardwalk one night while out with his boys.  Addiction further complicates his efforts to manage his sex life: he turns to drugs to help cope with his sexual repression, and he uses gay sex as a means of scoring drugs.   


The Films of 2017: mother!

Say what you will about Darren Aronofsky—he is an artist who is always himself.  Aside from the occasional detour into kitchen-sink realism (The Wrestler), Aronofsky specializes in high-octane mind-fucks, Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan being the best of these.  His latest, mother!, begins like an absurdist comedy by Albee or Pinter: a barrage of strangers descends upon the isolated farmhouse shared by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, insinuating themselves into the couple’s privacy and appropriating their space.  While Lawrence grows more and more frazzled with each ding-dong of the doorbell, Bardem remains curiously unfazed, even as the houseguests continue to multiply like Ionesco’s chairs.  Their foils in this first half of the film are another couple played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, the former of whom praises Bardem's professional talents while the latter takes passive-aggressive jabs at Lawrence’s childlessness.  The mounting sense of unease is compounded by touches of the Gothic (what’s down in the basement?).  Then, suddenly, the narrative of the film is swept clean and seems to start over again, only to give way to more outrageous horrors.


Animal time

Raccoon in The Domain of the Moment (dir. Stan Brakhage, 1977).
A few years ago when Criterion released its Blu-ray edition of the films of Stan Brakhage I remember popping in one of the discs and watching, almost at random, 1977’s The Domain of the Moment, a fourteen-minute film structured in four movements (as so many of Brakhage’s films are; he even took the liberty of restructuring Dante’s tripartite Divine Comedy as The Dante Quartet, with two times the hell).  Each of Domain’s movements is devoted to the observation of a different animal: a baby chick, a guinea pig, a raccoon, a snake.  Like the subjects of Chris Marker’s Bestiaire, Brakhage’s animals are rendered as sources of mystery and wonder, vectors for the radical curiosity that Brakhage brought to all of his work.  I can remember being instantly gripped by the tactility and intimacy of this film, which opens with Brakhage’s 16mm camera just centimeters away from the chick as it picks its way through what I imagine is the backyard of the Brakhage family’s Colorado homestead.   

The title of the film refers to the sense in which, presumably unconscious of time, animals occupy a continuous present.  Years ago I heard an interview with a veterinary oncologist who noted that animals “have mastered the art of living in the moment.”  Brakhage’s films, which so often attempt to imagine various states of subjective experience (usually related to the act of seeing), here considers what it feels like when nothing exists outside of the field through which one is running, or the grass one is nibbling, or the window at which one is pawing…or the mouse one is devouring.


Sitting tall

Alan Ladd as Shane.

I credit Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything for sparking my interest in the Western genre.  Despite (or perhaps as a result of) having grown up watching my dad watching the complete filmography of John Wayne ad nauseum on VHS, I had little interest in watching, thinking about, or otherwise engaging with Westerns.  They were boring and they took place in ugly, dusty frontier towns and there never seemed to be any women in them—only men, doing boring masculine things.  Then, as a graduate student with a budding interest in gender studies, I came upon Tompkins’ book.  It seemed revelatory, and yet everything that she says about Westerns had been there in front of my eyes all along, even though I couldn’t see it.  Of course Westerns are all about men doing masculine things, and of course the women in them are pushed to the periphery.  They are epic dramas of male anxiety, of men in crisis, of violence and pain and, yes, heroism.  And, as Tompkins observes in the opening chapter of her book, they are obsessed with death—“in these films death is almost the only thing.”  Through the lenses of psychoanalysis and gender, the entire genre now seemed as vast and mesmerizing as a Monument Valley landscape.

A year later I was teaching a college writing course on the Western.  I assigned three films, the first of which was Shane (dir. George Stevens, 1952).  It seemed (still seems?) to me an iconic representation of the Western hero as mythic figure.  No matter that Shane is played by the famously diminutive Alan Ladd (he stood only 5’6”!): as Shane, he towers—metaphorically—over nice-but-ineffectual homesteader Joe Starrett, played by the six-foot-tall Van Heflin.  For better or worse, phallic power in the Western isn’t always about brawn; it’s about a certain grim determination to see things out, even if it means taking a bullet in the process, and about being quicker on the draw than the other guy.  (In this case, the Other Guy is played by a supremely creepy Jack Palance.)  Masculinity is about illusion and performance, literally embodied by Ladd as filmed by Stevens; thanks to movie magic, Shane appears larger than life.  It helps, too, that Ladd’s most frequent scene partner in Shane is the then-ten-year-old Brandon de Wilde, and that, shot from low angles while sitting down, he appears taller than he is.   

Shane gives a shooting lesson to Joey (Brandon de Wilde).

What’s more interesting than the dynamic between good guy and bad guy in Shane is that between good guy and good guy.  Shane and Joe are buddies, their friendship cemented by an early scene in which, unprompted, Shane helps Joe uproot a pesky tree stump; but they both know that only Shane can effectively rid the town of its resident terrorizers, which means that Shane eventually resorts to beating Joe unconscious in order to keep him safe from harm during the film’s climactic shootout.  Sometimes love, it seems, means beating the shit out of your best buddy.  Such is the gendered logic of this most anxious of film genres.

Shane and Joe wrestling the stump...

...and each other.


The Films of 2017: The Ornithologist

Between Joao Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist and Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical, 2017 is shaping up to be a banner year for movies about the picaresque sexual misadventures of beautiful European men.  Where Guiraudie’s film wrote large the fears and fantasies of a bi-curious French writer, Rodrigues’ film concerns a gay ornithologist (played by French actor Paul Hamy) who experiences a series of bizarre encounters while on a scouting expedition in the forests of Portugal.  After his kayak is destroyed by rapids he is rescued, or more accurately kidnapped, by a pair of giggling Chinese lesbians; he has a violent and erotic rendezvous with a deaf-mute shepherd; he runs afoul of a band of brilliantly costumed marauders; he survives an accidental attack by a trio of bare-breasted female hunters.  He’s repeatedly visited by two birds, an owl and a dove--are they supernatural agents, or is he merely suffering from hallucinations?  Then, in the film’s final scenes, he undergoes a mysterious transfiguration: after purging himself of his ID and other possessions, and having singed off his fingerprints, he is reborn as Saint Anthony of Padua (!).


The Films of 2017: The short takes of summer

We’re more than halfway through the year in film, a good time to take stock of what I’ve missed and what I need to catch up with.  Some thoughts on three recent viewings:

I’ve never been much of a Christopher Nolan fan, but his latest, the WWII historical drama Dunkirk, is splendid: it approaches the material with a restraint and a tactfulness that feels somehow quintessentially British, and at 106 minutes it’s just the right length.  There’s none of the pretentiousness or bloat that has (pardon the pun) capsized Nolan’s previous work, even if his playing with chronology makes things unnecessarily complicated at points.  It also sports a superb performance by Mark Rylance as a middle-class English civilian whose determination to do his part in rescuing his imperiled countrymen drives the most compelling of the film’s various plot strands.  Recommended.   

Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja could be seen as a spiritual sequel to his last film, Snowpiercer—another broadly conceived political fantasy featuring a large international cast.  (Korean newcomer Seo-Hyeon Anh appears alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Tilda Swinton in, of course, dual roles, wearing, of course, wonky teeth.)  Where Snowpiercer was an action thriller for the Occupy Wall Street era Okja tackles such hot-button issues as genetically modified food and animal rights.  As with Bong’s previous films, it’s cartoonish and fun enough that the crashing obviousness of its “points” ends up not mattering all that much.  Recommended, but don’t expect, say, Brazil.

More subtle is Asgar Farhadi’s The Salesman, a domestic drama that’s as suspenseful as any of this year’s thrillers.  Set amongst a group of stage actors putting on a performance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, its utilization of a personal crisis as a means of exploring larger ethical questions recalls such other great works of drama as Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.  Ostensibly the story of a high school teacher’s quest to take revenge on his wife’s assailant, it slowly morphs into a pitiless and ironic satire about the fragility of the male ego.  And there’s something of the nervous tension of Roman Polanski’s apartment films in the opening scenes of the film, as the central couple moves into a unit in a housing complex still crowded with the belongings of the previous tenant.  Recommended.       

I’m tempted to make a joke that James Gray’s The Lost City of Z ought to be retitled The Lost City of Zzzzzz.  But I don’t want to beat up on this film too badly, because it’s such a lovingly mounted period piece, photographed in burnished gold tones by Darius Khondji (with whom the director previously collaborated on The Immigrant).  While long and not particularly gripping, it’s also sensitive and thoughtful.  Recommended, but with some reservation.    


On ranking Soderbergh

Benicio del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, the border cop who experiences a crisis of conscience in Traffic (2000).

The premiere of Logan Lucky a couple of weeks ago—Steven Soderbergh’s “comeback” movie—has inspired a slew of articles reassessing Soderbergh and ranking his films.  To look at the various rankings is to be reminded of the eclecticism and idiosyncrasy of Soderbergh’s output.  While many critics seem to agree that he’s an important filmmaker, there’s no real consensus as to what his best film is.  Is it Out of SightOcean’s ElevenChe?  My own preference is for Traffic, a film that holds up beautifully in spite of the fact that it hails from another era: its historical moment pre-dates 9/11, social networking, and mobile technology.  It’s possible to argue that what Traffic tries to do—that is, map a whole sprawling network of interconnected players, locations, and systems—has since been accomplished to better effect by long-form television series like The Wire.  But as movies go it’s hard to imagine someone pulling it off better than Soderbergh does here.

I’m tempted to make the case that Traffic is Soderbergh’s best movie because it best encapsulates the spirit of his filmmaking—i.e., that it’s somehow “representative” of Soderbergh’s artistry.  His genius for casting Hollywood actors, for instance, is in full force here, as is his cheeky sense of humor in playing them against type or using them in otherwise unconventional ways.  (Real-life husband and wife Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones co-star but are never onscreen together; big name actors like Albert Finney and Salma Hayek flicker by in walk-on roles; Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman of Out of Sight re-team here but as different characters; public figures like Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer have cameos as themselves; vintage favorites like Amy Irving and Miguel Ferrer are given key supporting parts.)  And Traffic is as good an example as any in Soderbergh’s career of his default tone: clear-eyed, eminently sane, humane yet ironic.  Like all of Soderbergh’s films, it’s also expertly paced; considering it runs 146 minutes, the thing moves.  But the problem in reducing Soderbergh’s oeuvre to a single title is that he has never stood still long enough to develop a signature style.  A talented and canny journeyman, his career has been studded with anomalies, one-offs, and experiments: slick Hollywood blockbusters (the Oceans franchise), weird passion projects (Schizopolis, Kafka), profile pieces (the Spalding Gray concert films).  One of his current projects is reportedly a horror movie shot on an iPhone, another a choose-your-own-adventure-style hypertext.    

Playing with stars: Michael Douglas as Robert Wakefield surrounded by politicians (playing themselves) in the Georgetown cocktail party sequence.

Traffic came out in December of 2000, fast on the heels of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, that year’s other “drug movie.”  Both went on to rack up numerous critics’ awards, and Traffic ended up winning four Oscars, including Best Director for Soderbergh (who competed against himself for Erin Brockovich).  The two films could be said to represent the opposite polarities of cinematic style.  Where the Aronofsky is visceral, kinetic, and assaultive, the Soderbergh is measured, clinical, and intellectual.  Requiem for a Dream has enjoyed a somewhat better reputation than Traffic, which may have something to do with a slight bias among cineastes toward Aronofsky’s “hot” style over Soderbergh’s trademark sang froid.  It may also be that what Soderbergh does in his films is often so unassuming, and so invisible, that it risks going unnoticed.  But, with all due respect to Aronofsky, Hollywood could use more of Soderbergh’s cool touch.  So all of the recent Soderbergh love is something to celebrate—even if ranking the films of this most mutable of filmmakers is something of a fool’s errand.


A girl's own story

What struck me most upon re-watching Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl (1965)—recently restored and released on Blu-ray by Criterion—is its total avoidance of sentiment in telling the story of Diouana (M’Bissine Therese Diop) as she travels from Dakar to the French Riviera, ostensibly to work as a nanny for a white couple, and suffers such profound alienation that she is eventually moved to commit suicide.  Upon arriving in France, Diouana succumbs to the drudgery of cooking and cleaning for her (nameless) employers; the wife nags and berates her endlessly, while the passive, alcoholic husband tries to placate her with cash—Sembene’s point being that bourgeois Westerners believe that with enough money any indecency can be compensated.  (After Diouana’s death the husband travels to Dakar and offers her wages to her mother, who refuses to accept them.) 

Sembene suggests that Diouana and her employers are jointly imprisoned within a colonialist ideology in which each culture sees the other as Other.  The husband and wife exoticize Diouana, their understanding of her limited to externalities such as her food and her clothes, while Diouana labors under the delusion, fueled by fashion magazines and anecdotes, that France is a dream-place of leisure and pleasure.  Even if the film ends on a note of reparation, with a traditional African mask owned by Diouana being returned to her family, Sembene does not present an image of the cultural divide between Europe and Africa being breached.      

The plot of this fifty-nine-minute film has the contours of melodrama.  But Diouana’s plight is treated by Sembene and his actors with chilly irony instead of with tears and sighs.  (A master ironist, Sembene’s other masterpieces, like Xala [1974], are similarly trenchant; Mooladé, his 2004 parable about female circumcision in Burkina Faso, is the closest he came to making a feel-good movie.)  In a film that is shot through with the politics of ant-colonialism, this may be its most subtly political move: Sembene refuses to give Western audiences the satisfaction of using pathos as a way of engaging with Diouana’s story.  It’s unsettling to be presented with a representation of a victim who is not made into an object of pity—and yet this distinction is crucial to engaging with the politics of Black Girl.  By keeping his characters at an emotional distance that Brecht would have admired, Sembene prevents us from responding to them according to familiar, maudlin conventions.  Sembene’s stance is never “poor Diouana!”; it is always “this happened.


The trouble with Harry: Placing "The Third Man"

Back in 1999 The Third Man (1949) was voted the best British film of the 20th century, its Britishness hanging on the origins of its director (Carol Reed) and screenwriter (Graham Greene).  But Britain’s claim on The Third Man has always seemed somewhat arbitrary.  It is a film defined at every turn by internationalism, the story of an American in Vienna written and directed by Britons and produced by a Hungarian-cum-Englishman (Alexander Korda; in the U.S., the film was distributed by David O. Selznick).  Perhaps it’s this internationalism that has always made The Third Man such a hard film to place, exactly, and that has also made it so unlike any other film of its time.  Some of the turns of its plot resemble those of Casablanca, but it could hardly be said to deliver the same sort of uncomplicated “entertainment value” that that film does; its pleasures are far more curious, subtle, adult.  At the end of the film Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles have a scene together and we’re reminded of Citizen Kane (perhaps a better point of reference than Casablanca)—but then The Third Man doesn’t resemble Kane very much, either, except perhaps in its visual boldness. 

The Third Man simply is not like any other film: it is only itself.  It certainly doesn’t look like other movies from 1949, American or British.  Its cockeyed angles, lingering close-ups, and long takes (that final shot!) feel downright audacious when held up next to, say, Kind Hearts and Coronets or White Heat, to choose two contemporary films at random.  The Third Man belongs to no particular country or cinematic tradition or genre (is it a noir or not?).  It’s a patchwork movie set in a patchwork city, the fragmented Vienna of the post-war years, divided into Russian, French, British, and American zones, as seen through the baroque chiaroscuro of Robert Krasker’s cinematography and set to the wry, jangling rhythms of Anton Karas’ score.              

There’s also an attention to seemingly insignificant characters and objects that one rarely sees in commercial sound cinema of this period, Hitchcock’s films being one exception.  I’m thinking of the moon-faced little boy who appears at the doorway when Cotten is arguing with the porter; the cat chewing on Orson Welles’ shoelaces; the parrot that nips at Cotten’s finger; the cup of dice that Alida Valli plays with distractedly while she’s in Harry’s bedroom; the balloon seller, who looks like he has wandered over from Fritz Lang's M.  The Third Man is a treasure trove of grace notes, weird props, minor players.  Why is it so affecting, for example, when Paine (Bernard Lee), the Cockney sergeant and right-hand man of Trevor Howard’s Major Calloway, is shot and killed during the climactic melee in the sewers?  Perhaps because it’s so unexpected (what reason has he to die?), but also perhaps because even though his part amounts to little more than a bit he’s one of the most affable and least shady person in the film—so affable, in fact, that he apologizes to Cotten’s Holly Martins right after he has socked him in the jaw.  The Third Man may not be the expression of a single, identifiable auteur (a point that’s been made by Peter Bogdanovich), but there are fingerprints all over it.     



"L'Avventura": Wanderers in the space of desire

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti.

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are so stylish and atmospheric that it’s tempting to see them as expressions of pure surface.  His astonishing run of early 1960s films—L’Avventura in 1960, La Notte in 1961, L’Eclisse in 1962, Red Desert in 1964—are high on mood and low on narrative momentum, even when they seem to be about such dramatic situations as disappearances and break-ups.  L’Avventura, which baffled audiences when it premiered at Cannes, deceives us by setting up a mystery that is not only never solved but is also gradually forgotten about by the characters themselves.  As the search for the missing Anna (Lea Massari) comes to feel less and less urgent, L’Avventura morphs into an oblique, chilly tone poem about her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), who embarks on an affair with Anna’s not-particularly-distraught lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti).  Claudia and Sandro spend the second half of the film drifting from town to town, ostensibly in search of Anna but acting more out of aimlessness than anything else.  

L’Avventura is an environment unto itself, serene and cool and always quivering with a vague ominousness that never quite comes to a boil, as exemplified in the brilliant scene where Claudia finds herself in a village square surrounded by leering men who circle her like wild dogs.  But then the last forty minutes or so happen, and you realize that L’Avventura isn’t “just” an exercise in style at atmosphere at all—it has become an eerily perceptive account of the psychological stress that attends a new relationship, the direction of which is uncertain.  (“Avventura” means both “adventure” and “affair.”)  We watch as Claudia tries to navigate the space of her desire for Sandro: at first apprehensive and guilty, she eventually succumbs to it, allowing herself to be overwhelmed with passion.  Until recently I had always hated the scene late in the film when, besotted and giddy, Claudia dances around her hotel room to a dumb pop song.  It always seemed like such a hokey, tone-deaf scene in what is otherwise an impeccably hip film.  Then I realized how naked and moving Claudia’s love for Sandro is in that moment—naked to the point of being embarrassing.  She is naïve and touching in her confidence that this is real, and that it will last.  But in the final scenes of the film we see her riven with doubt, fear, and panic (and guilt—she imagines the vanished Anna returning to stake her claim on Sandro). 

Claudia, love-sick.

L’Avventura captures the sense in which two lovers may occupy entirely different emotional states even as they traverse the same ground of their relationship together.  Time, too, becomes elastic in this state: the film captures the feeling of infatuation, of being drunk on sex, of the inability to concentrate on anything other than the object of one’s affection, and of moments apart that seem to stretch on endlessly.  (Antonioni and Vitti somehow make Claudia’s boredom fascinating, as we watch her stay up all night waiting for Sandro, doodling on newspapers, making faces in the mirror, reciting random numbers to herself.)  The film is a record of an adventure and a journey, but Antonioni misdirects us so that we don’t realize we’ve been pulled into the story of an entirely different adventure, and an entirely different journey, than the one we thought we were watching.  

Vitti as Claudia: bored but never boring.


The Films of 2017: A Ghost Story

David Lowery’s A Ghost Story opens with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House,” a tip-off that this will not be a supernatural thriller in the vein of, say, Poltergeist.  Moody, pensive, and spare, it’s not out to sting you with jump scares.  Rather, it meditates on such subjects as the nature of death, the passage of time, and the ephemeral traces left behind by the departed.  The ghost in question is a recently deceased musician, C (Casey Affleck), who during his life shared a shabby little ranch house in rural Texas with his partner M (Rooney Mara).  After he’s killed in a car accident C’s spirit returns to the house draped in a white sheet, silently looking on as M mourns for him.  Eventually she sells the house and moves away, leaving him behind, at which point the film takes a series of completely unexpected turns, its plot ranging across vast distances of time and space along with its restless central figure. 


Zbigniew and James

Cybulski as Maciek in the ruined chapel.

Zbigniew Cybulski (1927-1967) has often been called “the Polish James Dean,” partly because he was the very public face of the hot new Polish art cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, partly because (like Dean) he died young, at the age of thirty-nine, in an accident.  I was thinking more about the comparison upon rewatching Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds (1958) earlier this week, in which Cybulski plays Maciek, a hip, scrappy, embittered soldier of the Polish Underground, tasked by his comrade to assassinate a newly appointed Communist Party secretary on V-E Day (the entire film unfolds over the course of some twenty-four hours, much like Rebel Without a Cause).  While he waits for an opportune moment to carry out the assassination, biding his time in the bar of the hotel where his target is attending a victory banquet, Maciek busies himself by making eyes at a pretty barmaid.  Together they enjoy one night of happiness, making love and wandering through the ruins of the small Polish town before the appointed time comes, he completes his mission, the sun rises, and he is gunned down in the street. 

Maciek with Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska).
So, much like the characters in the James Dean canon, all those troubled boys with their masc, punchy, one-syllable names (Jim from Rebel, Cal from East of Eden, Jett from Giant) Maciek is a bad boy and a romantic, beautiful and doomed, a figure for tragic youth.  He struts through the film wearing a pair of shades (I like to imagine they’re yellow-tinted) until finally he dies on a garbage heap, writing in pain and kicking his heals in the air, letting out a last gasp as the film fades to black: one of the great unforgettable endings in European art cinema.  The connection to Dean also has something to do with a shared acting style specific to the mid/late 1950s.  Cybulski’s performance is poised somewhere between the grand gestures of the classical style (there’s a moment where, in the ruined church with Krystyna, he lashes out with his whole body in an expression of torment that feels deliberately composed rather than natural) and the spontaneity of Method acting.  Cybulski may not walk that line as carefully as Dean did in his best roles, but his Maciek is still unforgettable and heartbreaking.  And there is dark humor there, too, as when Maciek tries to distract Krystyna by getting her to talk about her family (“and what about your brothers and sisters?”) while he fumbles to pick up a stray bullet from the floor of his hotel room.

A touch of farce: looking for the lost bullet.


In memoriam: Jeanne Moreau, 1928-2017

Pictured: the late Jeanne Moreau with Jean-Marc Bory in The Lovers (dir. Louis Malle, 1958); with Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1958); with Marcello Mastroianni in La Notte (dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961); in Jules et Jim (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1962); with Claude Mann in Bay of Angels (dir. Jacques Demy, 1962); with Maurice Ronet in The Fire Within (dir. Louis Malle, 1963); with Jean Ozenne in Diary of a Chambermaid (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1964); in The Bride Wore Black (dir. Francois Truffaut, 1968); with Lucia Bose in Nathalie Granger (dir. Marguerite Duras, 1972); in Querelle (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982); and with Melvil Poupaud in Time To Leave (dir. Francois Ozon, 2006). 

Moreau could play steely and cold in movies like Bay of Angels, which Pauline Kael likened to a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle.  She could do a caricature of Dietrich for Fassbinder in Querelle.  She could be a free spirit, a bored housewife, a femme fatale: as Catherine in Jules et Jim, she plays nearly all of these roles at various points.  Her entrance in that film is one of the great entrances in cinema.  Perhaps no other actress could have been so enchanting as to convince us that the two title characters would spend the next thirty years of their lives in reckless pursuit of her.  Jules and Jim see her as the embodiment of an ancient statue whose face—sphinxlike, enigmatic, beguiling—has obsessed them since their youth. 

Moreau’s appeal didn’t rest on prettiness; it had to do with something regal, vibrant, and slightly haunted about her.  Even in her liveliest roles, like Catherine, there comes a point when the fun and games stop and she reveals some intensely private and wounded part of herself.  Her liveliness and joy suddenly congeal into a heaviness around her cheeks and her mouth.  (Jules and Jim is about nothing so much as the decades-long struggle of its male characters to reconcile themselves to these two sides of her personality.)  In The Lovers that moment happens when, almost immediately after walking out on her family with her new paramour, still radiating afterglow, she suddenly catches sight of herself in a café mirror and seems to freeze.  She searches her face as if for some answer to who she is and what she’s doing.  Those of us who have spent nearly a lifetime watching her on screen will continue to search her face—sphinxlike, enigmatic, beguiling—for answers to those same questions.