Friday, January 22, 2016

Le Grand Amour (1969)

"Le Grand Amour" (1969) is a delightful, surrealist French comedy, a celebration of free form filmic narrative that employs a wholly playful visual approach to the stream of consciousness device. A routine plot of a bourgeois French businessman falling for his beautiful young secretary is given a refreshingly original and unconventional treatment that would please the fans of Luis Bunuel and older silent era slapstick comedies alike.

Etaix's film is not so much about the premise than it is about its highly inventive stylistic methods of storytelling. It is a testament to the power of cinematic language in conveying the infinite ideas and feelings that occupy the complex human mind. The entire film is narrated by the lead character Pierre, played by writer-director Pierre Étaix, who taps the medium of the motion picture to his maximum advantage in order to tell his story and reveal his deepest thoughts in a visually enchanting, and entertaining manner that has to be seen to be believed.

Random musings of the brain come alive in flashbacks resulting in hilarious visuals. "When I think about it, I could have married lots of others", Pierre muses and instantly we see Pierre getting married to a whole gang of brides! We see, as Pierre narrates. Every little detail of his thought process, no matter how whimsical and absurd, manifests itself visually on screen.

Etaix's comic flair ensures that despite a wafer thin plot, the viewer is hooked and thoroughly entertained throughout the duration of the film. Etaix fulfills the challenge rather effortlessly by showcasing an all-round talent of superlative acting, great writing and its equally great transformation to the screen. A Bunuel-esque bourgeois take-down is evident in the depiction of the mannered existence of Pierre's wife Florence's (Annie Fratellini) family. A wildly funny propagation of a grapevine among gossipy older women shows how Pierre's innocuous doff of the hat to a lady in the park turns into a full-on romp in the bushes!

Ironically, the distortions of facts are not limited to the ladies that Etaix satirizes. He lets the audiences have a good laugh on his own self in that superb gag in which he cannot make up his mind as to where he met Florence, whether on the terrace of a café or inside it. As he switches constantly between the locations, the vexed waiter who is actually part of the recollection jumps out of the story and asks him to make up his mind!

In other funny instances, we see exact contradictions to what Pierre is imagining or narrating. A striking example is the very ignorant notion of how he might have broken two hearts, those of his childhood sweethearts by deciding to marry Florence. Ditto for that deliriously absurd turn in which he declares to Florence's mother that he had decided not to marry Florence, and yet we see them getting married eventually. Or even that very universal bit in which local perceptions of Pierre's marriage are thwarted by juxtaposing disheartening gossip against a visibly healthy marital coexistence.

Considering Pierre's system of habitation and the fact that he has in a way, married into Florence's family perhaps makes him feel suffocated. Pierre and Florence reside just a storey above his in-laws and the fact that he has taken over his father-in-law's tannery business, makes him feel uncomfortable, a situation from which he seeks freedom of the mind. This freedom comes in the form of the comely young secretary, Agnes (Nicole Calfan), all of eighteen, with an extremely cute, innocent face, but not the strictly naïve kind either.

Pierre, who feels he got married much earlier in age and perhaps agreeing that it was wrong to marry a woman his own age, now begins to feel an unrelenting attraction to the much younger Agnes. Etaix makes the viewer see through Pierre's lens as the camera looks lovingly at Agnes, almost as if seeking the viewer's approval about how it is not unnatural for a bored man in his 30s to fall for her charms!

Astonishingly, we almost always see Agnes through the eyes of Pierre and his wildly outrageous fantasies, the best of which comes in the form of the extraordinary bed-on-wheels segment, when Pierre embarks on a hauntingly beautiful dream, snug in bed with Agnes in a teeny nightie; except they aren't really making love on this bed, just lying in each other's arms and travelling freely, as the bed glides along on its wheels (!) along an empty but beautiful country road. Along the way, they pass other dreamers-on-beds by, one of them perhaps a hospital bed, with a man in a cast!

The USP of the film are these fantasies and the seamless blending of these sequences with reality, in a marvelous job of editing which is intelligently thought out, carefully executed, and far from random. The comedic flavor of course, adds to the entertainment quotient, almost to the same degree as the jaw-dropping imagination, a product of the combined genius of Etaix and the great Jean-Claude Carriere. It is interesting to note, that the slapstick part mostly comes only during the bits which aren't strictly real, in a way as to mock the absurdity of stories told, either through a grapevine or through someone’s wild imagination.

Ultimately, "Le Grand Amour" becomes a unique venture that combines slapstick with the psychological realm, thereby distinguishing itself from the considerably broader, literal action oriented comedy of the silent era, and yet retaining its entire comic flavor, evident from a whole lot of incredibly funny moments sprinkled throughout. The heightened colours and use of buoyant music beautifully complement the film's joyful universe.

The only tiny grouse that bothers is the wrapped-up ending that comes off as very convenient and visibly lacking in ingenuity as compared to what comes before it. The cyclical as well as prophetic form that the conclusion takes, making the gossip mongers happy comes off as a bit too conventional for a film so remarkably offbeat.

It is a minor speck that deserves forgiveness, however, for by that point, Etaix has your heart conquered with his charming ode to free love.

Score: 10/10

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

L'Immortelle (1963)

A droopy-eyed, sad looking young professor (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) vacationing in Turkey meets a beautiful, but mysterious young woman (Françoise Brion), who he continues to meet over the next few days on his excursions around the place. He is instantly attracted to her, and she does reciprocate his feelings, albeit in a somewhat reserved manner. She refuses to divulge where she lives, often asks him not to accompany her to certain places, and is quite reluctant to even tell him her name. The professor is undeniably enchanted, and doesn't seem to mind so long as he gets to see her.

The dream romance comes to an abrupt halt, one day, when the woman completely disappears. The professor becomes obsessed, visiting their old meeting places, waiting there 'til wee hours, inquiring around town with whatever little knowledge he has about the woman, despite a huge language barrier and communication issue with the Turkish natives. His search gets increasingly frustrating when people begin to even deny the existence of such a woman as described by the professor, and he is constantly misled in his quest. Eventually he does bump into her. Or does he? Does the woman now exist only in his memories or in his dreams? Will he ever get an answer to what actually happened?

These intriguing questions form the crux of Alain-Robbe Grillet's "L'Immortelle" aka "The Immortal One" (1963). The filmmaker's directorial debut is far from being a straightforward mystery of a missing person. It plays out more like a series of vague recollections of a disappointed man who gets increasingly disoriented in his quest for his object of affection. The result is a surreal, eccentrically edited, fascinating mix of fragmented memories, some real and some, perhaps imagined.

Robbe-Grillet who wrote the screenplay for "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) uses many of the elements that made the Alain Resnais film a great success. Devices like a befuddling, fractured narrative with gliding camerawork, an unreliable narration/narrative, off-kilter editing, and a dream-like realm with characters that seem to float about in a sleepwalking daze, or simply stand around like zombies while the primary characters in a frame interact, contribute to create a very hypnotic, trance-like atmosphere.

There is a very sublime, evocative middle-eastern score playing in the background, sometimes only with haunting vocals, male or female, further giving the film a more spellbinding quality. The atmosphere created by Robbe-Grillet accentuates the mystical qualities of the locales. 

It may not seem so at the outset, but "L'Immortelle" boasts of thematically rich content, providing for an intellectually stimulating viewing experience. The complexities of the human mind are explored via a psychological tendency of sometimes crossing the barrier between fantasy and reality owing to the unpredictable and volatile nature of human memory, and how it could somehow deceive us, making us believe something else, not strictly adhering to the facts. The tendency to fill in gaps in order to make a broken memory whole, in the process, drastically changing the events within it, is examined. A piece of paper is visibly blank, shown repeatedly to the viewer, but the professor keeps going back to it, trying to find an address on it!

The recurring motif of the confusion surrounding the name of the woman ties with the important theme of identity, personal as well as ethnic. A language barrier separating people of different ethnic identities is present throughout. At least three different languages are used in the film, and whenever any language other than French is spoken, it is not translated in the subtitles, perhaps to make the viewer feel the professor's frustration of not being able to understand the people around him.

Only the woman can speak all languages, a somewhat abstract symbol of a universal being, someone devoid of a disparate identity. It may not be a stretch to imagine that Robbe-Grillet modeled this character as the universal representation of a woman as an enigma.

At times, identities switch or overlap. The woman and the professor's maid both give him the same name, in practically the same fashion. Could he be mixing up the two, and only imagining that the woman ever told him his name? In the third act, when the narrative takes increasingly maddening turns, identities are literally replaced, when characters switch places or are replaced by others, when the professor plays out earlier scenes from memory. Sometimes two distinct events merge into one: a byproduct of a confused mind?

A theme of mortality and an inevitable end to everything, even relationships runs parallel in the conversation between the lead pair. The professor tries to make sense of the woman's cryptic ramblings, but only the viewer may be able to find some meaning in it in the larger context of the film. The camera lingers on the ruins across the city, suggesting that anything glorious eventually crumbles. Any attempt to recreate or restore something that existed is merely an act of imitation. Its genuineness is lost, much like an event exists, but its memory is a fake recreation of the mind. It is never the real thing, corroborated by the fact that the professor recreates a single event in very various ways, thereby destroying the identity of the actual event.

The theme of genuineness vs artificiality is given a literal form in some earlier sequences. The woman says that any rebuilding work of the Byzantium is pointless and fake. The man outside the mosque keeps harping about the genuineness of the mosque and how old and ancient the monument is. The seller of artifacts meanwhile is seen selling the same article twice, both times claiming that it is genuine.

One could go on dissecting the nuances embedded within this highly rewarding film of great substance despite its modest length, and perhaps keep coming back to it and end up reading it in different ways. Very much in the spirit of the more acclaimed "Last Year at Marienbad", one could call "L'Immortelle" its overlooked first cousin that is far more meditative and varied in its structure, and just as beautiful, if not more so.

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Accident (1967)

"Accident" (1967) is one strange little beast, with a simple set up and a spare plot, but rife with an alarming complexity of human emotions. Joseph Losey's second collaboration with Harold Pinter after the 1963 film "The Servant" is a moody, calculated psychological study of a midlife crisis, ethically forbidden relationships, one-upmanship and associated jealousies.

A deafening car crash breaks the silence of the night in an English countryside not very far from the Oxford University. Stephen (Dirk Bogarde), a 40-something professor of philosophy, reaches the crash site to find his student William (Michael York) dead and his beautiful friend and fellow student Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) disoriented and in a state of shock.

The film then goes in flashback mode, to the events leading to the crash, giving us a closer look at the relationships between these characters, especially Prof. Stephen's longing for the much younger Anna. As Stephen grapples with his increasing age, his own married life and a steadfast professional conduct, trying hard to keep his feelings under control, his more successful, unscrupulous friend and colleague, Charley (Stanley Baker) threatens to seduce Anna, further leaving Stephen in a state of dismay and seething jealousy.

Pinter's script is as minimal as it gets, and while soaking in the quiet nature of the proceedings, one may wonder where it's all headed. Losey spends a fair amount of time making us witness the character interactions; of Stephen and his pupils over their tutorials, or later at an elaborate, extended luncheon at his plush country home, primarily held for William and Anna, but gate-crashed by Charley!

Through these interactions, we get a glimpse at how competitive the men are. Everyone seems to be on an ego trip, in some kind of a contest of masculinity, owing to the presence of one young woman, the femme fatale, who seems to have captured their fancy. In order to make an impression, or make the most of their attractive company, the men indulge in excessive drinking, perhaps in an attempt to top each other in their liquor guzzling capacity, and exchange cryptic lines that may or may not be veiled taunts. Charley passes some drunken snide remarks which are promptly addressed by an equally tipsy Stephen, specifically with regard to the former's popularity on television.

William, the youngest of the three, seems considerably unconcerned, and very sorted out. He is perhaps very comfortable with his aristocratic background and the fact that he is young. A competition of this nature from his older professors is something that possibly hasn't even crossed his mind. And yet, he is clearly inexperienced, eventually even making a drunk spectacle of himself while trying to socially match steps with his older company, the only time when he ever snubs his revered professor Stephen.

Very casually holding the strings of all these men is the supremely cold and nonchalant Anna who loves the attention and plays a bit with the feelings of each man, almost effortlessly and without qualms. The warm center in the whole drama is Stephen's wife Rosalind (Vivien Merchant), the only person who seems to have any sense of morals left in her.

It is easy to see how Pinter's script is designed to portray Bogarde's character in a sympathetic light despite his straying emotionally as well as physically at one point of time. It is interesting to note that Stephen's moment of weakness, an amorous reunion with his beautiful ex-flame Francesca (Delphine Seyrig) is sandwiched between two massive blows to his ego, a double whammy of defeat against his arch rival, Charley.

By definition, Stephen is the happier of the two friends, married, with two kids and a third on the way. Charley's marriage seems to be on the rocks, but this ultimately becomes a matter of concern for Stephen, not because Charley's marriage is falling apart, but because it stands to give him an excuse to get closer to Anna! All the while, however, despite full knowledge of William's closeness with Anna, and a higher probability of them hooking up, Stephen makes every attempt to stay close to Anna whatever chance he gets, well aware that it wouldn't develop any further.

These complex psychological reactions are conveyed immaculately by Dirk Bogarde in a superlative act. He is a man who leads a perfectly content life, and yet is silently sad. Behold his nuanced change of expressions, his uneasiness at Charley's unwelcome presence at his luncheon, not to mention his frustrations resulting from an adherence to principles, despite an unmistakable love for his wife. His reactions are never outward but his angst is palpable in his body language and every move of his facial muscles. Noteworthy is his amazingly natural act of stammering when nervously trying to say something that he perhaps doesn't mean.

While Bogarde towers above the rest in the acting department, the others, mostly notably Stanley Baker and Vivien Merchant are almost as great. "Accident" is mostly a performance driven film; the performances make the film such as this, because with a narrative as sparse, strong performances are essential to convey the nature of the interpersonal equations between the characters. A sense of intrigue is always in the air however; an unhealthy tension constantly brewing, hidden within the superficially composed mannerisms, almost like a volcano bubbling beneath a calm exterior.

The culmination and return to the present from the flashback is not a neat wrap-up as one would expect. What happens in the final few minutes is most unpredictable; a conclusion that is more baffling than strictly satisfying. But by this time, having spent more than an hour and a half with these intriguing characters, Losey has us already prepared for such an outcome. With complicated individuals such as these, how could one expect easy answers anyway!

Score: 9/10