It’s the second part of our French New Wave crash course, as we look at the works of those in the rather more loosely defined Left Bank group – Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy and Chris Marker. Are they any better than the Cahiers du cinema gang? There’s only one way to find out…
In one of the bolder moves for what’s nominally a romance, Alain Resnais’ film opens with images of the incredible suffering caused by the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, intercut with two intertwined lovers, which is a hell of a mood to create. Initially conceived as a documentary about the Hiroshima bombings, Resnais baulked at the necessary grimness this would involve and instead opted to transition into a rather gentler story of a fleeting relationship between them there lovers. Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) plays a French actress, finishing up filming an anti-war film in Hiroshima, who as mentioned is currently intertwined with local architect Lui (Eiji Okada).
Elle, as she’s credited, although the film seems to prefer the rather impersonal Her (and Him for Lui), takes the bulk of the narration duties as she verbalises her experience of Hiroshima, and her relating this to her own wartime trauma and the aftermath of a doomed relationship with an occupying German soldier. This is interspersed with observations, comments, and disagreements from Lui, who past is explored less, but no less damaged by the war. He’s perhaps more concerned with the possibilities of their relationship in the present, while Elle is consumed by the past.
So, although the capsule review would call it a relationship drama, it’s as much a treatise on memory and how your views of the past effect your interpretation of the present, dealt with in language that’s closer to poetry than dialogue.
Technique-wise, while this does indeed take the baton of non-linear narrative from Citizen Kane, it’s handled exceptionally well, and with jump cuts that actually look like there’s some intentionality behind them, as opposed to Godard’s random splicing extravaganzas. All in all, this would feel altogether contemporary, if it weren’t for the fact it’s significantly better than most contemporary works.
Arresting from the outset, Hiroshima Mon Amor more than deserves it’s reputation and acclaim, and it well worth viewing.
Alain Resnais continues the themes of Hiroshima Mon Amor in Last Year at Marienbad, a film that took me about half an hour of watching before I could get any purchase on at all. It seemed like it was the middle ground between the most obtuse of David Lynch’s works and an M.C. Escher painting.
Indeed, there’s a very plausible alternative universe where I was marginally more tired or otherwise less receptive to what this film’s selling where I simply stopped caring, but once you figure out the trick of separating out the conversation that’s taking place from the tumult of imagery that borders on the surreal, it’s a lot less alienating.
Although the narrative unveiled in the conversation is, certainly on first viewing, not entirely clear, the bullet point summary is clear enough, even if the character names aren’t. X (Giorgio Albertazzi) is talking to A (Delphine Seyrig), trying to convince her to run away from her occasionally present husband M (Sacha Pitoëff). Well, in a nutshell, although much of the film is spent questioning even those most basic elements.
Without getting into them too deeply, again as with Hiroshima Mon Amor there’s a lot here about the subjectivity of both memories and events, as it becomes clear that the leads remember things so differently that it’s difficult to reach a definitive conclusion even on what exactly happened last year in Marienbad. That, however, feels quite far from the point, in as much as it has a point, of the film.
Of course, the exact point is rather beyond me, certainly on a first viewing, and in some regards it feels as close to a poem as it does a film. As mentioned, this film as art over entertainment ethos is bound to raise a few hackles, but after making my peace with the presentation I found myself being rather captivated by Last Year at Marienbad.
Challenging for sure, but I found this inviting rather than repulsive, and I’ll certainly seek out more of Alain Resnais’s work on the back of these two samples.
Jacques Demy’s Lola was described as a musical without music, although given the “performance” Lola gives in her club, even this minimal amount is far too much. Anyway, that’s rather getting ahead of myself.
Cecile (Anouk Aimee), better known by her stage name Lola is working touring the cabaret bars of France, with her young son in tow. On the other side of town, Roland Casard (Marc Michel) has slumped in late to a job he could not stand for the last time, getting fired and having little prospects of any more palatable job appearing any time soon. Wandering through town, he happens upon Lola, an ex-girlfriend of his, and realises he is still infatuated with her.
Lola doesn’t particularly share those feelings, instead dreaming that the father of her child, Michel (Jaques Harden) will return after some years of absence. In the short term at least, she’s loosely attached to Frankie (Alan Scott), an American sailor who reminds her of Michel. Another axis in relationships opens up when a chance meeting in a bookstore with a young girl coincidentally named Cecile leads to Roland meeting her mother, Madame Desnoyers (Elina Labourdette) who seems to be quite taken with the young man.
But it seems that no-one is going to be around to live happily ever after, with Lola heading off to another town on the circuit, Frankie shipping off back to the navy and Roland being approached to take on an exceedingly shady “delivery” to South Africa. So perhaps no-one will end up with who they want to be with, but at least they’ll all be heading off in different directions to avoid reminding each other of the missed opportunities. Or will they? Who can say? Only those who watched the film, I suppose.
I’m not necessarily recommending that you do that, to be honest. While I’ve no particular beef with any of the actors or events contained within the film, it didn’t speak to me on any emotional level, and for a film that’s so concerned with emotion that’s a bit of a problem. It’s asking perfectly reasonable questions about the nature of love versus the need for stability in life, particularly when you have other responsibilities, but none of the characters particularly chimed with me. Roland’s a shade too obnoxious, Lola’s a shade too flighty, Frankie’s a shade too clingy, inasmuch as he’s given a personality at all.
So, yes, asking perfectly fine questions, but I’m not invested enough in any of the characters to care a great deal about any of the answers. I’ve seen a great many more objectionable films, but this one rather bounced off me. Not recommended.
First off, this film is only very tangentially about umbrellas, which I find to be a major bait ‘n’ switch.
If Lola was a musical without music, then I suppose that makes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a musical without theatricality. The question behind it appears to be along the lines of “what if we took the dialogue of a standard relationship drama and applied it to music, regardless of content and meter”? It’s great that we can perform the science to answer these important questions, although in this instance the results are very much “don’t do that, it’s super weird”.
Not, it must be said, completely out of the realms of enjoyability, but super weird nonetheless. Much as with Lola, it’s about young lovers, this time featuring mechanic Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve), who works in her mother’s titular umbrella shop. They are madly in love and hoping to marry, but Guy is drafted off to the war in Algeria. Genevieve soon realises she has other problems to contend with, as Guy has unknowingly left Genevieve pregnant.
While she and her mother are fretting about what to do when an unexpectedly large tax demand comes in, threatening their umbrella shop and Genevieve’s future, their paths cross with Roland Casard (Marc Michel), who you may remember from such films as that last one that we spoke about. He falls in love with Genevieve at first sight and resolves to marry her, which bring us back to the issues of such films as that last one that we spoke about.
Apologies if this heads into spoiler territory for this over half a century old film, but Genevieve opts for the security of a marriage with Roland, which makes for a tragic homecoming for Guy as he comes to terms with being abandoned and, after an understandable period of wallowing, tries to forge a new direction for his life.
Now, despite not having much of a affiliation for musicals, I found The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to be a little more charming than most, perhaps due to the more believable characters, or perhaps due to the riotously colourful cinematography. That said, as mentioned at the start the concept of the film is a very strange thing indeed, making for some really bizarre lyrics.
Unfortunately as with Lola, it’s not a film that made much of an impact on my emotional centres, and while again it’s making perfectly valid points and questions about the nature of love, I couldn’t really bring myself to care all that much about them. However, the characters are much more likeable than those in Lola, so it’s certainly a much easier watch – just one that I’m not all that sure I could truly recommend.
I suspect that if we had this to do over again, there’d be a lot more of Agnes Varda’s films on this list. In Cleo from 5 to 7, which is told in more or less real time, Florence ‘Cléo’ Victoire (Corinne Marchand) is a singer anxiously waiting for the results of a medical test, although we don’t know that from the very outset, so you’d be forgiven for thinking her character was behaving somewhat obnoxiously and narcissistically. Or at least, I hope I will. Also puzzling, while we’re talking about the opening, is the sequence of Tarot cards being shot close up in colour, then cutting to the actors in black and white, and then promptly dropping this motif for the rest of the film. I have no idea what that was meant to entail.
Anyway, the rest of the film is rather more conventional as Cleo attempts to go around the rest of her daily routine despite the test weighing on her mind, which if I were to list would give a false sense of mundanity to events. It’s difficult to make “shopping for a hat” sound exhilarating. But over the course of the hour and interactions with her household staff, her songwriters, and a young soldier about to be shipped off to Algeria, she reflects on how she’s approaching life, and how little time we have, in the grand scheme of things, before finally getting the result she’s been waiting for, delivered by a doctor with the worst bedside manner in the world. Or in this instance, kerbside manner.
As much as anything else, it’s a film about time, mortality and legacy, as Cleo runs through a gamut of emotions and concerns about her possibly reduced time on Earth, and her reputation as a pop lightweight, seemingly admired more for her looks than her vocals. Despite this occasionally coming across as crash course in maturity, nothing in this feels particularly outlandish. Sure, it swings into melodrama for moments, but nothing unwarranted by the circumstances, and it’s a great performance from Corinne Marchand that anchors the film well.
Varda was a photographer by trade before entering the world of film-making, and that shows in the framing of the film. Also, like many of those we’re talking about today, there’s rather more coherent and designed a narrative than those zany improvisationalists of the Cahiers du Cinema gang, which serves the film in far better stead. It’s almost as though planning helps when shooting a feature film, who’d have thunk it, etc.
Her viewpoint of story and character is clearly wildly different from the likes of Godard, and that’s presumably why this film is substantially better than Godard’s immature, gangster obsessed fantasy Breathless. Cleo from 5 to 7 is a very enjoyable, and very well made piece of observational cinema that’s a million times more worthy of being a poster-child of the New Wave movement than almost all of the other films we’ve sampled over these podcasts.
We should mention that these film selections came from the beginner’s guide over at NewWaveFilm.com, and for La Jette I think I got as far as reading “inspiration for 12 Monkeys” before signing up to watch it – 12 Monkeys being not only a favourite of mine but also a member of the Tech Noir subgenera we’ll be covering next month. What it didn’t say, at all, which I feel is rather burying the lede, is that this isn’t a film by most folk’s definition. Director Chris Marker himself calls it a visual novel, which is far more apt.
Set over a series of photographs, it’s the narrative of a man with a very strong memory of a scene at an airport observation deck (the pier of the title) in a world that has since undergone a catastrophic World War, with humans driven underground. Surviving scientists have worked out a method of time travel, with hopes to avert this state of affairs, and believe this unusually obsessive memory will help him withstand the process.
Indeed it does, although the course of events does not run smoothly, but perhaps we should keep them under our hat. Not necessarily to avoid spoilers for a film this old, but given that the film’s only half an hour long we’d be in danger of simply repeating the entire plot line verbatim.
I enjoyed La Jettee well enough, but I can’t help but feel there’s not a great deal to talk about. It’s a strong story, well narrated, with some very effective imagery, and if you’ve any interest in science fiction at all it’s a must see, as much for the historical value as anything else. It’s a strong half hour entry and shows, along with the works of Remy, the breadth of story type that could fall under the classification “New Wave”. So, yes, another recommendation, especially for all right-thinking people who like 12 Monkeys.
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