Friday, September 18, 2015

Milou En Mai (May Fools) (1990)

The opening frame of a swarm of buzzing bees is almost a prophetic image of how old Milou's (Michel Piccoli) plush, countryside family home would look soon after. His much older mother dies suddenly, leaving him alone with a faithful old maid Adele. A funeral is planned within the next two days. The closest family members turn up one by one, each bringing with them their own sets of surprises or extended family members.

Set during the month of a massive civil unrest in France, May 1968, Louis Malle's "May Fools" (1990) is a brazenly funny, satirical drama revolving around a dysfunctional family brought together after a long time, for a solemn occasion. Only the sanctity of the funeral is soon diluted, as the reunion turns into a daytime picnic followed by a nighttime misadventure, with clashing egos exposing their underlying pretensions, damaged relationships, and growing insecurities.

The script written by Malle and the great Jean-Claude Carrière is razor sharp, with its biting humour, intelligent, well-timed dialog, and an eclectic bunch of interesting characters to boot. It is fascinating how likeable all of these characters are, despite the blatantly presented fact that they are in no way perfect, and in fact, downright eccentric to the extent of being revolting. All of these characters have diverse traits, all off-the-wall in their own way, but intriguing, nevertheless.

A family that appears close-knit on the surface begins to expose cracks within, that widen over the period of these three days. External forces, not limited to the socio-political turmoil, of course, aggravate matters, as the funeral parlour workers go on strike. The stay of the family members is extended, leaving them more time to spend with each other, much to their reluctance.

Notable is how, the historic event serves entirely as a backdrop while the family gathering and the drama that ensues becomes the focal point. Events are sometimes shocking in how bold they are, even the verbal exchange between characters. It is all, however, delivered with a buoyant, comic tone, thereby alleviating the shock value. And therefore, it's not all that eyebrow raising, when the most loyal torchbearer of the family, Milou, the only one who doesn't want to sell the property of the forefathers, exhibits his wildly flirtatious ways, with not only the domestic help (in the presence of his mother's dead body, no less!) but also the wife of his journalist brother. Not explicit, but certainly hinted at, is also his unusual way of looking at his growing granddaughter Françoise, as he gazes at her bare legs, perhaps in a salacious manner or simply in admiration of how fast and big she has grown.

The brother (Michel Duchaussoy) is another looney, who is more interested in the radio announcement of the current affairs than in his dead mother, so much so that he first listens to the radio upon arrival and later sees his dead mother! He is so much in love with the radio, that he is hardly bothered about his brother's open flirting with his wife. Milou's daughter Camille (Miou-Miou) and the niece Claire (Dominique Blanc), are all the more extreme points on the curve; one, a family woman with three children, and a typically neglectful husband, and the other, a lesbian who brings in a much younger lover, only to lose her to one of her cousins.

The cousin appears to be a pseudo-rebel who joins in with the students merely for the thrill, not for the cause. The bourgeois hypocrisies are exposed in the most savage of ways; Camille bawls out loud about how people use her, and Claire first seduces the truck-driver in a fit of jealousy and later rebukes him by reminding him of his socioeconomic stratum!

The rather morbid comedy stems from how these characters gleefully neglect and disrespect the dead body of their mother, even singing and dancing around it in a stone-drunk frenzy! The priest who comes in to administer some last rites just nonchalantly starts talking about the unrest whilst conducting the ritual. The family engages in revelries, and (thankfully interrupted) sexual games, in what looks like a celebration rather than a mourning. Actions and words highly inappropriate for the occasion are openly exchanged, while in a hilarious repeated gag, Françoise asks her grandpa the meaning of the choicest of words that she isn't even supposed to hear.

In the midst of all this, the insensitive progeny squabble about who will take the silver and the furniture, rather than maintain some peace around the house in the final hours leading to the funeral. Their shameful behavior and the pitiable scheme of things is acknowledged in silence by the dead mother who literally shows up by her gravedigger, with a remorseful expression on her face!

A cultural and inherent class divide is showcased with an important twist regarding the maid Adele in how it ruffles a few feathers, and also with the entry of a rather blunt and foul-mouthed truck-driver who is an uninvited, but helpful guest, driving the old lady's grandson safely to the house in the turbulent atmosphere. The truck-driver's rather brash ways are received with a surprising indifference, despite his openly lustful confessions about the women in the house. It's a brilliant juxtaposition of mirroring events on the outside in the city, which is bustling with protests attacking capitalism and the consumerist culture. The workers take down the bourgeoisie with their strikes, while this funeral event serves as a microcosm for the conflict outside with its own share of a class friction.

And it is a mighty entertaining microcosm at that; for at the end of this scathing dramedy, despite all the deplorable behavior that Malle makes us witness, we come out feeling happy and satisfied in the end.

Score: 9/10

Monday, September 14, 2015

Diva (1981)

"Diva" (1981) was among the first of what they called the Cinéma du look movement, wherein a film was all about gloss, about style, and less about the substance. Despite the rather discouraging knowledge of this acquired definition of the movement, the plot summary was nevertheless, intriguing enough to give this one a shot.

A legendary Opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins, popularly known as the Diva (Wilhelmenia Fernandez), who is against recording her music, delivers a grand performance, which is secretly recorded on some top-notch equipment by a young postman, Jules (Frédéric Andréi), who is a smitten fan. He is noticed doing this by a pair of Taiwanese bootleggers and/or record label mafia (?) who decide to pursue the young man to get their hands on this priceless recording so as to blackmail and coerce the singer into officially recording for them.

Meanwhile, another vital tape, a confession of a prostitute implicating the city police chief (Jacques Fabbri) in a prostitution racket, makes its way, unwittingly into the postman's hands; a tape which is badly wanted by the chief and a pair of pimps who will go to any level to keep the root of the racket a secret. And thus begins a chase like no other; with its share of mix-ups and misunderstandings, involving a motley bunch of people either trying to save the tapes, destroy the tapes, or use them to their advantage.

It's not an original premise - we have seen stuff like this before, and also after: A single object of great importance (known in the cinematic parlance as the Macguffin), or in this case, two (tapes), in the possession of a clueless young protagonist, being pursued by unrelated characters for various reasons.  We know what we are usually in for in cases like these. The main guy will be chased around town, wondering what the hell is happening, there will be a kingpin out to get the booty, and there will be opportunists waiting to take advantage of the situation. Bodies will pile up, the booty will exchange hands, and the plot will be driven to its exciting conclusion.

Not surprisingly, this is more or less how the story proceeds. And therefore, we begin to shift our attention to the treatment and also the how of it, rather than the what. We focus more on the handling, on the thrills, on the punches, rather than the direction of the plot development.

Jean-Jacques Beineix certainly achieves the look. Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot captures the seductive neon-lit charm of the streets of Paris by night; not to mention the great use of colours, overall. The strange abode of Gorodish (Richard Bohringer) is electric blue. He loves the sea and owns a secluded castle overlooking the sea. Hell, even his jigsaw puzzle features the picture of a deep blue sea! Jules' apartment is a fancy place converted out of what seems to be an old loft garage, with beautiful artwork comprising of cars and nude women.

The scenes in the police station are always filmed with a beautiful sun-shiny golden hue. The eclectic soundtrack of Opera, synth-pop and classic rock goes a long way in making these awesome pictures come alive. There's a very ethereal feel to the long walk taken by Jules and Cynthia across the city in the early hours of dawn. An ambience of a chaste romance and perhaps an impossible one is very aptly created.

Sadly, all its visuals, its colourful characters and style, are not enough to get past some of the awful contrivances, some illogical twists and predictably silly turns that begin to surface in the latter half of the film. We are soon brought into the archetypal action thriller territory with impossible chases, incompetent cops and nick-of-time rescues! The famous moped chase scene is one of the most ridiculous scenes ever, even if it has been lauded for the way it has been filmed; either it hasn't dated well or it is simply not digestible enough. There are various other instances of characters popping up at the unlikeliest of places at the most precise of instances to save the day, or ruin it - it is almost magical!

It's a cliché that plagues many a Hollywood and Bollywood films. All the cops are bungling nitwits and all the villains are ruthless caricatures who get away with almost everything; 'til the very end of course, while you keep rooting for the good guys.

Stuff like this still works with the right handling and the right comic punches and thrills delivered the right way. But "Diva" doesn't have that kind of an edge to it. It doesn't help matters that the dialog is mostly tepid and half-baked as well. "Diva" struggles to stay afloat and we await the end of this vapid circus, while the titular Diva and the bootleg recording get sidelined for the most part. Cynthia literally disappears in the final half. Whatever novelty this plot had to offer, about the purity of music and its preservation, gets sidelined as well, and we return to the same old drugs and prostitution business. The confession tape and characters involved in it become the focal point...the spirit of music takes a back seat.

It's a beautiful moment when Cynthia reappears in the end to listen to her own tape and exclaim "I have never heard myself sing".  Alas, by this time, we stop caring about her thought-provoking views on music.

Score: 6/10

Friday, September 11, 2015

Trans-Europ Express (1966)

A self-referential metafilm with self-deprecatory humour, a satire on the filmmaking process, a satire on the crime thriller genre and its usual tropes, a paranoia thriller/comedy, and what-not! That may seem like too many ways to describe a single film, but rest assured, it is by no means a stretch. Alain Robbe-Grillet experiments with the film within film device with successful results in his truly avant-garde and unique genre-bender, "Trans-Europ Express" (1966).

This enjoyable film stars Robbe-Grillet himself, as a filmmaker who, almost on a whim concocts an idea for a film, which plays out within this film as a central plot, only to serve as a tool for the filmmaker and his assistants to manipulate and play with. The so-called plot of the film within the film revolves around a rookie drug peddler (Jean-Louis Trintignant, as himself and as Elias), who appears to be smuggling drugs across stations in the said Trans-Europ Express, which is the primary universe of this picture. And this is rightfully so, for the very idea of the film and the whole mise en scène, in fact, is born in this very train, as the film proceeds.

Nevertheless the premise of the film being proposed, and what to expect of it on a broad level is declared at the outset in a deliberately cartoonish fashion, fake beards and animated explosions included! It is a masterstroke, as the supposed plot is symbolically as well as literally, rendered secondary and non-serious. Furthermore, the filmmaker shows who the boss is, by twisting seemingly straightforward events in the day of this drug peddler, constantly toying with ideas and eventually turning a predictable caper/crime thriller into something wholly unpredictable, much like the capricious mind of the filmmaker.

And thence, Robbe-Grillet demonstrates, how the suave protagonist who appears to be this super confident smuggler is actually being controlled by the filmmaker and his script girl (Catherine Robbe-Grillet), as is the case in any film for that matter, wherein the iconic status of a hero is actually a creation, an illusion for an entertainment hungry audience who wants someone to idolize. With most of the action on the streets and in the train, and also in a room with a beautiful young female lead, and a charismatic central character involved in crime, being pursued by the cops from Paris to Antwerp, this film in many ways reminds of Jean-Luc Godard's acclaimed classic "Breathless" (1960).

But Belmondo in the Godard film was portrayed as this uber cool, extra confident, smooth-talking street-smart charmer who appears to be the one in control. Could Robbe-Grillet’s film be a sly dig directed towards this very persona and film by turning the tables and showing that the protagonist is in fact, a puppet - one being watched and controlled? It's certainly more of a satire or at least a subversion than a tribute.

Establishing and exercising control is a prominent theme of this film, that also encompasses the seemingly gratuitous scenes of masochism and bondage that the film is more notorious for. It is possible that when "Trans-Europ Express" was filmed, such scenes were considered very bold for the time, but frankly by today’s standards they are really very tame. As far as graphic content is concerned, there is not even any on-screen nudity involved in these scenes. The only real nudity comes much later, in the final 'Woman in Chains' striptease scene.  The aspect which could perhaps be deemed shocking or somewhat misogynistic is the protagonist's  bold declaration that it is only rape that turns him on.

In a somewhat self-deprecatory manner, the gratuitousness of the subplot of the prostitute, Eva (Marie-France Pisier) and the ensuing violent sex scenes is questioned by the secretary, to which the filmmaker is ready with a justification. "She is not important. He has some free time", he says! The filmmaker controls his central character, who in turn, exercises control over Eva, who at once is an assistant of Elias's employers, and is also working for the police. It is insinuated that this dual nature of hers is an indecision on part of the filmmaker whilst discussing her. Thereby, while the scenes may be gratuitous from the standpoint of the film within the film, they in fact are a thematic fit in the actual film!

Attention to detail in the filmmaking brainstorming process is extraordinary. Taking a dig at the rather whimsical minds of filmmakers and how they play around with glee with their creation, the plot begins to twist and turn; moves made by characters are backed up, fates are altered, events are questioned. Plot points are picked, then abandoned, after being deemed absurd or unnecessary. Perhaps in a subtle dig at crime/caper thrillers in general, a plot hole appears whilst complicating the story. The entire scene is axed, just as soon as the hole is pointed out.

This twisting of the fate of the protagonist at every step magically gives "Trans-Europ Express" the look and feel of a Kafkaesque paranoia thriller, as surprises await our protagonist at every corner. People aren't always what they seem, for at one time they are on his side, and later they aren't! This uncertainty and convoluted chain of events, eventually give the film its surrealistic quality.

Just when you think this gang of filmmakers have had their fun after the climactic scene at the cabaret, Robbe-Grillet introduces an outlandish meta twist and ends it with a cool, savagely funny statement about films based on true stories, that makes you cheer. This is classy and intelligent filmmaking at its finest.

Score: 9/10