Category Archives: Film Directors

Varda’s Le Bonheur Picture Perfect

In retrospect, Agnes Varda is one of the major figures of the New Wave, and created what is arguably the first New Wave film (1955’s La Pointe Courte), Varda was something of an outsider to the group of Cahiers du Cinema critics-turned-filmmakers who dominate discussions of the New Wave to this day. A formally trained photographer and art historian, her associations were primarily with other Left Bank artists and filmmakers like Marguerite Duras, Chris Marker, and novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose narrative experiments informed many of the more adventurous films of the era.

Le Bonheur is Varda’s third feature film, and stars Jean-Claude and Claire Druout as Francois and Therese, a middle-class couple living happily in the Parisian countryside with their children, played by their real-life children Olivier and Sandrine. He works as a carpenter, and she as a seamstress. They dote on their children and seem utterly devoted to each other; yet after Francois meets a pretty young clerk at the local post office, he wastes no time in pursuing her.

Francois’ rationalization of his infidelity, which he insists increases his family’s happiness at no cost to his relationship with Therese, in a sort of perverse take on Mill’s utilitarian ethics, is at the root of Le Bonheur‘s atmosphere of unease and inevitable tragedy.

Stylistically, Le Bonheur is most famous for Varda’s masterful use of bright, oversaturated color (including fades to vivid primary colors instead of black in scene transitions) and for its minor-key Mozart score, but she uses subtler aesthetic strategies as well. Varda’s use of jump cuts, for example, might seem similar to Godard’s jump cuts. But, where he often used jump cuts to distance the viewer from his films by emphasizing their artificiality, Varda employs them more subtly, often to convey a character’s subjective view of a scene or emotional state. Also reminescent of Godard is the presence of advertising and pop culture, but again, this is deployed sparingly (a ye-ye pop song in the style of France Gall, ad posters featuring smiling women, a wall of pinups at Francois’ workplace).

Le Bonheur is a singular film both in the New Wave as a whole and Varda’s body of work, and remains controversial and much-discussed even today.

By Ryan Hupp

Le Bonheur screens this Wednesday
September 28, 7:30 p.m.
L’Etage / 624 South 6th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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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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Godard’s Contextual Layering of Band Of Outsiders

Since his feature debut Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard has been deconstructing the genre film and likewise dissecting the conventions of the very medium in which he works. Band Of Outsiders was, at the time of its release in 1964, his boldest attempt at doing so and perhaps his most successful. Due to the complex and contextually layered nature of the film, the following analysis will break the film down into proportions by paragraph.

Firstly, the narration of the film, in third person respectively, represents literary convention. This seems especially true given the use of the device in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). Truffaut used an objective narration to preserve the literary aspects in his screen adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roche’s novel. Truffaut, accomplishing the latter objective, used the device simultaneously to illustrate the psychology of his characters. Godard’s use of the “narration” device is in direct response to this. Like Truffaut, Godard wishes to preserve the literary element in his adaptation (of a novel by Dolores Hitchens) as well as adding a psychological depth to his characters, which would otherwise be absent. Godard differs in his use of this device, however, in how the narrator is quite self-aware. This awareness is quite clear in a number of scenes in which the narrator does more than address the audience, but addresses it in regards to the medium in which it exists. For instance, as the three principal characters first arrive at the café, the narrator makes explicit reference to those members of the audience who have arrived late and have missed the first portion of the film. Such a tactic forces the audience to invest in the film beyond its characters and action, but in context of its technical ramifications. Godard highlights this again differently later in the film by removing the diegetic soundtrack, leaving only the narrator’s commentary during the famous dance sequence. Godard is less interested in narration as Truffaut used it, but rather in the Brechtian sensibilities it allows him to explore within the film itself.

Secondly, Godard presents his characters without the usual style attributed to the crime genre. Instead he favors a cinematic style akin to the films of Morris Engel (Little Fugitive), but with the narrative pacing of Italian neo-realism (of which Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria is a good example). Thus, the criminality of the three main characters becomes secondary to their romantic conflicts and the day-to-day living that comprises the first third of the film. Not till Arthur (as played by Claude Brasseur) retrieves his pistol from beneath the sink does the criminality move beyond pure circumstance to a driving narrative device. Godard is hence rejecting the motifs of the crime film as a director, but instead allows it to flourish in the games and pranks perpetrated by the two male leads. Internalizing such motifs that way again works, though more subtly, as the narration has. It is apparent that Godard is less interested in his narrative, as in the idea of the function of film.

Beyond the above-mentioned post-modern ideologies is the trappings signature to a film by Godard. The character Arthur is, like Godard, interested in Maoism; and both Arthur and Franz (Sami Frey) show a keen interest in how the media documents violence. Looking passed even the political, the film stars Godard’s muse and now ex-wife Anna Karina as Odile. Yet, it does seem unfair to neglect the film as a narrative entity, focusing just on the filmic aspects. It is without a doubt, one of Godard’s most humanist works in regard to his characters and how he allows them to be depicted both dramatically and cinematically. In comparison to the early films of Frank Perry (David & Lisa) or Cassavetes’ Shadows; Band Of Outsiders is their equal in its youthful exuberance and quirky nostalgia.
All this considered, Band Of Outsiders may not be the most popular film by this controversial director, but it is both heart-warmingly optimistic and essential to the director’s development. As a final anecdote; it was this film that interested Warren Beatty in hiring Godard to direct his own genre film Bonnie & Clyde, though the job of director would eventually fall to Arthur Penn.

By Robert Curry
September 14, 5 p.m.
Philadelphia City Institute Library / 1905 Locust Street / Philadelphia, PA
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The real Jacques Mesrine

JACQUES MESRINE TIMELINE (courtesy of Music Box Films)

1936    Birth of Jacques Mesrine in the Paris suburbs of Clichy. His parents are blue-collar workers. His father works in the lace industry.
1956    Departure for the Algerian War, from which he will return three years later with a certificate of good conduct.
1961    Marriage to Maria de la Soledad in Paris (who inspired Sofia’s character in the film). They have three children but separate in 1965.
1962    First prison sentence for robbery.
1966    First encounter with Jeanne Schneider, his female alter ego, with whom he fled to Canada.
1969    Abduction of Quebec billionaire, Deslauriers. Mesrine and Jeanne Schneider are accused of murdering a hotel employee. They are later declared innocent.
1969    Mesrine’s and Jeanne Scheider’s arrest in Texas, extradition to Canada and condemnation to 15 and 10 years of detention respectively.
1972    Mesrine’s escape from the Saint-Vincent-de-Paul penitentiary, which he attacks 15 days later to free his companions. He is declared Public Enemy No. 1 in Canada. He attacks several banks before fleeing to Venezuela.
1972    Return to France.
1973    First arrest before his phenomenal escape from the Compiègne Tribunal, where he takes his own judge hostage. He gets arrested again by commissioner Broussard, whom he welcomes with champagne. From this moment on, he is also considered France’s Public Enemy No. 1.
1977    Publication of Death Instinct, the autobiography he wrote and distribute clandestinely in prison. Famous trial in Paris: through his pranks, Mesrine attracts the media before being condemned to 20 years of prison.
1978    Escape from the La Santé prison with his accomplice François Besse. Attack on the Deauville Casino. First encounter with Sylvia Jeanjacquot, with whom he travels to Italy and London. Attempted abduction of Judge Petit.
1979    Abduction of billionaire Lelièvre. Abduction of the journalist Tillier, whom he leaves for dead. Mesrine explodes in the media, granting interviews and permission to be photographed. A police unit called “anti-Mesrine” is created.
02.11.1979      Mesrine is shot to death in the center of Paris at Place de Clignancourt by the men in Broussard’s unit.  His girlfriend, Sylvia Jeanjacquot, is badly injured.

Mesrine screens this Wednesday
August  24th, 7:30pm
L’Etage  / 624 South 6th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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Code of Silence

The solitary man as complex antihero seems formulaic in Hollywood these days. However, at the time of its release, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film caught an industry that thrived on glamour by surprise.

“One of the pleasures of Le Samourai is to realize how complicated the plot has grown, in its flat, deadpan way,” Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times said. Melville’s lead embodies silence as a calculated weapon He’s a man of action and few words. For instance, Jef Costello does not speak for the first 10 minutes of the film. Additionally, music is almost non-existent. Melville allows narrative to move forward through action.

“[Melville’s] style remains haunting and elegantly spare, just right for the kind of hit man who lives in silence, in bare and colorless surroundings, with a lonely caged bird,” Janet Maslin of New York Times said.

Within this code of silence, Jef embodies several classic archetypes such as The Hero, The Trickster or Fox, The Devil or Satan, The Scarecrow, and even Rebirth. In fact, all these archetypes clash within the character himself.

This character type who struggles with multiple archetypes has been seen in John Woo’s classic, The Killer, Jim Jarmusch​’s 1999 Ghost Dog, and, most recently, Ethan and Joel Coen’s 2007 No Country For Old Men. Moreover, these films as well as countless other Hollywood films have captured the meditative, loner hero trapped in his own mind. The augmented sound of birds only further illustrates how alienated our hero is from the world around him. Le Samourai’s dark and stark style created the foundation in which New Hollywood-era films thrived in the 1970s.

By Peter Suanlarm

Le Samourai screening this Wednesday,
August  17th, 7:30pm
L’Etage  / 624 South 6th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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