Category Archives: Tom Kaiser

Le Bonheur Colors the Meaning of Happiness

The sight of sunflowers are normally a sign of happiness, of joy. And yet Le Bonheur (Happiness) is an Agnes Varda film, and she is not going to let the young family in the background of these ominous plants escape unscathed. By the end of the film, it is the autumn, and the leaves, the characters, and even the family have changed.

And yet the park lands are constantly a heaven for the family, with their bright colors complementing the richness of the outdoors. Contrast this with the family’s return home early on, to the beige, tan and blah world of their town and their in-laws.

Varda deliberately chooses the colors red and blue to signify the passion and domesticity of protagionist François (Jean-Claude Drouot). François appears to have a great relationship with his wife Therese (Claire Drouot) but it cools off slightly, but not enough to leave her. While mailing a letter François falls in love with postal clerk Emilie (Marie-France Boyer). He uses his job as a carpenter as a reason to visit her apartment and eventually go to bed with her.

For nine-tenths of the movie, you wonder how long François can hold onto his dream situation of a bigamous relationship. Varda is not the first director to explore bigamy, but Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist is indicative of the exploitative tone prior films would have used and had to have used in order to escape censors.

Most films would have focused on the spurned wife and her struggles, but François and his actions are the main focus, and the filter (through his mascuilinity) the viewer sees the events take place from a neglected point of view. Varda’s tale is not unsympathetic to François, and he gets a happy ending, but it is at a terrific cost, and drives the point of Theresa’s plight even more.

By Tom Keiser

Le Bonheur screens this Wednesday
September 28, 7:30 p.m.
L’Etage / 624 South 6th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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When he’s killed, there will be 3,000 widows at his funeral

If not for an obscure French movie from 1937, the world would be a lot less exotic.

Julien Duviver’s Pepe Le Moko is a tale of a love that can not be, set amongst the backdrop of a strange foreign land.  That can be said about some of the greatest films of all time, including Casablanca and The Third Man.  But Pepe Le Moko came first, and was the inspiration for all who came after it.

Compare, for instance, Pepe Le Moko with its 1938 American remake, Algiers.  Charles Boyer became an icon for doing everything Jean Gabin did, only in English.  But it is not Gabin who is misquoted for all eternity, “Come with me to ze cas-bah.”  The U. S. production code also forced a change to the ending, so Pepe’s fate is still the same, but inflicted by someone other than himself.

When looking at Casablanca, you can see where it borrows liberally from Pepe Le Moko.  Humphrey Bogart may win Ingrid Bergman over with his charm, but Jean Gabin has been there and done that.  As Pepe, he has no time for what’s going on in the world, because the world comes to him.  Bogey has the consolation of contributing to the greater good, by allowing Bergman to leave with her husband and continue to work to defeat the Nazis.  Meanwhile, Pepe loses his lover, his infatuation, his freedom and his life.  Maybe it isn’t hard to see why more people like Casablanca.

But perhaps the most lasting legacy of Pepe Le Moko is in the Looney Tunes character Pepe Le Pew.  In fact, in the 1954 cartoon The Cats Bah, the world’s most romantic skunk is neighbors with Pepe Le Moko.  However, Mel Blanc’s interpretation of the character is purely that of Charles Boyer, because who would make a French skunk actually fluent in French?

By Tom Keiser

Pepe le Moko screens this Wednesday
August 10th, 5:00PM
Philadelphia City Institute Library / 1905 Locust Street / Philadelphia, PA
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The Importance Of The Automobile In Elevator To The Gallows

In the beginning of Louis Malle’s 1957 film, Elevator To The Gallows, we are led to believe that Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is the main protagonist.  While the murder of Simon Carala is in cooperation with Julien’s mistress and Simon’s wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau in her breakout role), we follow Julien up to and including the deed.  We think we will witness his escape, but in true film noir fashion we are shown how fate acts in Julien’s (literal) absence.

The cars used in Elevator To The Gallows say a lot about the characters who use them, and of the societies they are a product of.  The American convertible that would be the getaway car for Julien becomes the Bonnie & Clyde Death Car, at least in the imagination of semi-rebellious teen car thief Louis and his flower girl accomplice Veronique.  Florence’s “baby” turns out to be a Renault Dauphin, the French equivalent to the Volkswagen Beetle, which also turned out to be the French Ford Pinto.  And the unfortunate German tourists ride in a Mercedes 300 SL, the fastest car commercially available in the 1950’s, but in the end they wind up going nowhere fast.

Julien drives a Chevrolet, or at least would if he wasn’t stuck in that damn elevator shaft all night.  It seems to be a Chevrolet Deluxe, no later than 1952.  In his stead, the would be rebel Louis takes control with his girl Veronique.  The American car is perfect for both Julien and Louis, in that it exemplifies the type of personality they each have.

A career soldier before his career with Mssr. Carala, Tavernier is both a loner and a romantic.  He exemplifies the American noir archetype, and the fact that he drives an outdated American automobile is telling.  By 1957, gaudy colors and large fins decorated ornate American vehicles.  The Chevrolet Deluxe is beautiful in its way, but it feels dark and impenetrable, especially through the black and white cinematography.   Moreover, it feels in place with the French automobiles on the streets of Paris, much as how film noir found a second livelihood through its French admirers.

Louis wants what  Julien has but will not even try to earn it.  Julien may only vaguely look like a veteran, but he is a soldier in his mannerisms, demeanor, and his career.  Louis sees the car running and takes advantage but he can not comprehend the mechanisms plotting against him.  At least Julien sees the black cat on the window ledge.

It is an odd quirk that Jeanne Moreau and the Renault Dauphin intersect in this movie, because where they started and where they wound up are very different.  The Dauphin was a very popular automobile, but was prone to rust, especially during cold weather.  More than one automobile expert, including the guys from NPR’s “Car Talk,” consider the Dauphin to be one of the worst cars ever made.

Jeanne Moreau was a relative unknown when Elevator To The Gallows was made, although she had previously been in several movies, some of which were successful.  In the end, though, Elevator To The Gallows catapulted Moreau into French and then international stardom. Her stellar performance on Gallows led to her working on Malle’s The Lovers and Francois Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim.  When people think about mid-20th century France, they are more likely to remember the young woman waiting for her mister than the economy car her husband bought for her.

The Mercedes 300SL is an icon in its own right.  Its gullwing doors, incredible performance on and off the track, and sheer speed make the DeLorean from Back To The Future look like a really cheesy imitation.  The couple from Munich knows its power, but only so much as to deny Louis and Veronique what little power they have.  Louis and Veronique abandon the car in the middle of Paris, neither fully grapsing the power of the automobile they stole, nor acquiring the remorse which should follow after killing two people.

The automobiles the characters in Elevator The The Gallows drive, and how they drive them (or not) are a good barometer for how the characters behave throughout the film.  As Julien Tavernier awaits his fate in an elevator shaft, the world goes on without him, hurtling towards its destiny.

By Tom Keiser

Elevator to the Gallows screens this Friday
August 5th, 8:00PM
AxD Gallery / 265 South 10th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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