Tag Archives: Film

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  He exemplifies the American noir archetype, and the fact that he drives an outdated American automobile is telling.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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Short Film Tuesday: Mister Wister the Time Twister (Robert Carl Cohen, 1957)

Robert Carl Cohen wrote & designed this quirky cartoon for les Films Jean Image in Paris in 1956. It was awarded a French “Prix de la Qualite” in 1957.

The Passion of Lovers is for Death

Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus reimagines the Orphic legend, telling the immortal story of the poet’s love affair with Death.
It depicts the story of Orpheus, a poet beloved by the public – but a pariah among the art set who have turned their affection towards Cegeste, a new and younger voice. Cegeste is like Arthur Rimbaud, whose early death cements his accomplishments as insurmountable.

So the poet, Orpheus, pursues death at the risk of life. As a reward, he receives the sounds of his new poetry as transmissions through the car radio coming from another realm. “I’m on the trail of the unknown,” he says as he is possessed by the words of the dead.
The poet is torn between two loves: Life and Death. He is alive and there is the natural obligation of self-preservation. But he would do also anything to prove himself as a poet.

It is death that the poet longs for. He sees it in himself as he gets older, the reflection in the mirror, taunting him but not taking him. Death steals his vitality, his life, his wife, and he descends into hell to retrieve her. There is a cyclical pattern of death and rebirth, the pursuit of one at the stake of the other. This is consistent with Cocteau’s notion of the poet’s need for a series of deaths in order to prove himself.

Orpheus redeems his life/ wife but is not allowed to look at her. Salvation requires repentance – which literally means “to turn away.” To look back at the object of desire is to want more than what has been given. Death is not satisfied by only looking and not touching, as Orpheus needs to have and to hold.

In the end, Death relinquishes Orpheus because she loves him and through his trials and poetry, he has become immortal.
Death as a lover is a common theme in poetry. Shakespeare says, “The stroke of death is a lover’s pinch,” (Antony and Cleopatra IV, ii: 280). Baudelaire describes the Dance of Death in his “Flowers of Evil”.  Emily Dickinson writes that “Death is a suitor” while Stephenie Meyer transforms vampires and monsters into heartthrobs. It is not (always) just a morbid preoccupation. Death is the common terminus of all humans. And as such it holds a certain power over life.
It is a paradox and poetic that the only way to achieve immortality is to woo Death.

by Brian Warfield

Orpheus screening and discussion:
July 1st, 7:30pm
AxD Gallery, 265 South 10th Street / Philadelphia, PA
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Short Film Tuesday: Jean Cocteau Documentary (Noël Simsolo)

A Documentary about Jean Cocteau by Noël Simsolo. Not quite a short, but inspiring!

A Meditation on The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacques Demy is a colorful and musical film that offered escape to audiences throughout the world upon its initial release in 1964.  It was an escape from both the political and reflexive “French New Wave” and the mediocrity of Hollywood (which had been in slow decline since the late 1950s, and still awaiting the “New Hollywood” that would be ushered in by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde in 1967).  Yet, Demy combined aesthetics of the two with romantic whimsy and a nostalgia other French filmmakers of his day seem less inclined to offer in their films for the flamboyance and fantasy of Hollywood musicals like Du Berry Was A Lady, Singin’ In The Rain or Guys & Dolls. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is also the film that made Catherine Deneuve an international star.

The narrative of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a familiar tale of romance and coming of age, but in its execution as a film presents something new and still innovative today.  Demy’s operetta film has a lush, rich color familiar to film buffs as the trademark of Hollywood glamour, and the visual palette of Jerry Lewis (particularly his film Cinderfella) and the dramatic use of color in the Powell & Pressburger films like The Red Shoes and The Tales Of Hoffmann.  The Eastman Color Process employed enabled Demy to transcend his audience to the film’s musical fairy tale setting.  Further, the cinematographer Jean Rabier was a long time collaborator of Demy’s (as well as with Demy’s wife filmmaker Agnes Varda) and that intimacy of artistic collaboration can be felt in the nuance of the camera’s movement as well as the iconic color scheme.

Still, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is equally famous as a musical, impeccably scored by Michel Legrand.  One may even draw a parallel between Demy and Legrand with the director and musician collaboration of Brecht and Weill or Fassbinder and Raben.  The two artists worked together on the final sound, texture and overall meaning of the music in the film, perceiving each other as equals, a rare occurrence in the cinema when dealing with composers.  Regardless, Legrand had made a name for himself years earlier in the previous decade for his work as a performer and sometimes arranger with esteemed jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Stan Getz.  His work in the jazz medium made him an ideal choice for Demy, for not only has jazz always been in vogue in France, but Legrand’s expertise in musical improvisation enabled him to work quickly and efficiently under the demands of the film making process.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is finally, in the context of Demy’s career, his masterpiece.  Unlike other “New Wave” films (and the root of my hesitation to call it as such), it deals with film genres without the dry and esoteric manner of Godard. It is rather more entertained with its self, becomes playful with the conventions of its genre. In this, Demy has been able to stand out from his peers, and has been able to make The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a film accessible to all audiences.

By Robert Curry