Brief impression: “La Mariée était en noir” aka “The Bride wore Black”

March 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

There’s no real point in re-treading the ground already covered by critical minds far more encyclopaedic and cineliterate than yours truly, individuals who have (probably) diligently and dutifully uploaded to The Cloud impressive and astute essays and think pieces that trace the lineage of influence that exists between Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films and Francois Truffaut’s 1968 kickass picture “The Bride Wore Black.” Sure, Tarantino denies having viewed Truffaut’s picture before writing and directing his Kung-Fu homages, but for someone as steeped in popular culture as Tarantino, who is as much a product of it as he is a producer of it, the possibility of him having internalised elements of “The Bride Wore Black” without having actually seen it is not  entirely implausible. Thus all that really needs to be said here to adequately satisfy those who would consider this piece of movie trivia a ‘pop culture elephant in the room’ that shouldn’t be overlooked is to acknowledge that The Bride did indeed wear black before she began hopping across the globe wearing Bruce Lee’s “Game of Death” tracksuit and equally canary yellow Onitsuka sneakers, almost single-handedly slaying 88 crazy assassins at one point.

But the reason for this somewhat petulant, wholly cynical refusal to dredge up the fact that a widely seen, cultishly adored duology was inspired – and brazenly so – by a relatively unknown French film (at least among many contemporary film viewers) is largely due to the disappointing lack of influence Tarantino’s sleeve-worn cinephilia and movie championing seems to have on his legion of fans, or at least the legions that profess to be fans of his. “The Bride Wore Black” aside, did Tarantino’s appropriation of the title “Inglorious Bastards” to “Inglourious Basterds” for his own men-on-a-mission war flick cause scores of people to rush out and seek the 1978 Italian B-picture that inspired the 2009 hit?  Frankly, in a world in which Quentin Tarantino’s remix movies (almost like cinematic versions of DJ Shadow’s “…Endtroducing”) have absolutely pervaded the mainstream and in which he has with his loud and garrulous voice been heard proclaiming his love for films old and new, too many kids have never seen “Taxi Driver” and know it only by way of a certain catchphrase whose origin they might not even be aware of; have never spared a thought for the brilliance of Jean-Pierre Melville and the French New Wave; have never truly ventured far if at all into Hong Kong cinema. Truly: how many lovers of “Pulp Fiction” have actually bothered to check out “Rio Bravo” after years of Tarantino yapping on and on about it?

“The Bride Wore Black” stars Jeanne Moreau – and her miracle of a face, one second dumpy and sad and the next sensuous and stunning as all hell – as a widow with a kill list. Having the love of her life, the one and only love of her life, Daniel, be taken from her literally minutes after she is declared his wife and he her husband doesn’t do Julie Kohler any favours, turning her first towards suicide, then homicide (with pseudo-suicidal implications). After (it seems) years spent quietly tracking down the whereabouts of the group of men she holds accountable for the senseless gunning down of her new groom, Julie embarks on a whirlwind mission to meet out revenge. The plot is that simple, but boy is it drawn with that very humanist lightness of touch and almost serendipitous narrative grace that distinguishes director Truffaut from some of his Cahier du Cinema/nouvelle vague contemporaries. Perhaps the most emotionally generous of the aforementioned cohort, Francois Truffaut also possesses one of the movement’s more naturally loose styles, loose both in the sense that there is a degree of naturalism to the look of his images and the performances his actors tend to give, but also in that his palette of techniques is broad and drawn from freely, the whole affair being tied together with an achingly rhapsodic score oddly reminiscent of what Bernard Hermann composed for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Truffaut’s styles seems to be defined by a surprisingly seamless patchwork of long shots, close-ups, freeze-frames, POV tracking shots, Hitchcockian camera waltzes, flashbacks, voice-over narration and scores of other techniques which coalesce into a whole which is strangely far less jarring than the aforementioned cinematic cocktail would suggest. Where Godard is punk and Resnais baroque radicalism, amongst others, Truffaut is almost serene in his virtuosity, a charming prankster with minty fresh breath. Simply put, he comes across as the New Waver most comfortable with the language of cinema, as though he was born speaking it, which is not to say that his grasp of the medium is necessarily the most rigorous. As is the case with his 1961 effort “Shoot the Piano Player,” the genre construct of “The Bride Wore Black”, specifically its propulsive storyline, is a beautiful backdrop against which Truffaut’s strengths as a painter of character is made even more evident. It’s while watching a film about a murdering widow that a scene in which said widow plays hide-and-seek with a five-year-old (without it being at all ominous or creepy) becomes noticeable in its simplicity, humanity and emotional generosity. Simply said, the joy of beholding Truffaut’s cinema seems to be much more acute when the film’s synopsis would have you expecting anything but.

To momentarily indulge in comparing Truffaut’s film to Tarantino’s, where “Kill Bill” essentially justifies the motivations of Uma Thurman’s The Bride by establishing (1) that she was betrayed by a group with whom she believed she shared an honour code and (2) that her unborn child was murdered by said group, in addition to her husband, “The Bride Wore Black” is bathed in complete psychological abstruseness. Whether or not one condones The Bride’s actions, her vengeful rage is perfectly understandable, and in combination with her training as a killer it’s not surprising that this rage would lead her where it does. On the contrary, Moreau’s bride calculatedly eliminates, one by one, a group of men who – if their story is true, which it most probably is in the context of the film – shot someone by mistake and permanently disbanded thereafter so as to avoid being apprehended. What is striking and somewhat shocking about Julie is her apparent lack of interest in learning the ‘truth’ about that fateful day. She simply knows that she was robbed of her life and as far as she is concerned she’s a dead woman, which she explicitly states to one of her victims. Her mission may be in honour of her husband, but it may also be an utterly irrational expression of emotions for which she has no other satisfactory outlet. By rendering Julie’s mission questionable from the outset and then later revealing that she may in fact be avenging an accident (reckless, yes, but accidental), “The Bride Wore Black” really seems to be questioning the true natures of justice, nihilism, and the very human instinct to get one’s own back, questioning the degree to which these are in service of morals or a genuine worldview versus being simple expressions of the otherwise inexpressible. Admittedly, the men’s cowardly response to the incident is enough to encourage debased viewer satisfaction as this bride offs her victims with far more inventiveness and certainly more slyness than does her modern American iteration. It’s also very interesting to witness Julie’s discovery – one by one – that these men are not saints in the slightest but a collection of arrogant, narcissistic, womanising, (possibly criminal in the case of one) chauvinists who are at the very least guilty of some kind of weapons offense if not manslaughter, and the penultimate block of the film which sees her engaging very unexpectedly with one of her targets casts the psychological fabric of this film even further into the shadows. Julie’s interaction with this particular individual, Fergus, an unapologetically skirt-chasing artist, may suggest that she is still capable of being curious about other people – men other than Daniel – or at least about the artistic process (which suggests that she is not entirely nihilistic) , but that she has chosen to focus on revenge so as not to have to consider living, or to even consider the fact that she has life in her yet (which is made crystal clear in several scenes), and that there are men other than Daniel who could love her and whom she could love; people other than Daniel with whom she could be intimate. At the risk of overreaching, “The Bride Wore Black” ultimately seems to be some kind of lament not only for the nihilistic amongst us, but for those whose sense of person is entirely external as opposed to internal, excessively dependent on a person or a thing or a mission as opposed to their status as a sentient being who thinks and feels and is very much aware of this. Julie reminisces about her lifelong love affair with Daniel and recalls how she’s waited – all the way from early childhood – to marry him. In some films, this would be hopelessly romantic, the stuff of fairy tales; but in “The Bride Wore Black” it represents a needlessly sad, needlessly bleak existence, sad not because she loved Daniel so deeply and for so long, but that she lived him…and then he got shot.

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The horror…: “The Entity”

March 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

‘The attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue.’

So state the final words of the texted epilogue that brings Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 film to a somewhat lumpy-throated close. The movie’s last real ‘beat’ (screenplay terminology for a moment of emotional, thematic or narrative significance) arrives seconds before the aforementioned coda and shows single mother Carla Moran (played excellently and with force and commitment by the admittedly always forceful-looking Barbara Hershey) being told by the spectral malevolence that has been tormenting her and her children, ‘welcome home, cunt’. She responds to this obviously male-sounding guttural utterance with a resolute but pained smile, as though she has prepared herself for a future in which she will always and indefinitely be at risk of being violated but is determined to lives as normal and happy a life as she possibly can in spite of it all. Paired with the previously quoted sentence, “The Entity” could probably be read in several ways: as a lament for the reality that male-against-female sexism and violence is still alive and kicking (as much in 1982 as is depressingly the case in 2015); that sexual exploitation can still hide in plain sight; or it could be an expression of the fact that an art form that has for so long seemed to take perverse pleasure in subjecting female characters to the physical and emotional wringer will continue to do so if only for the fact that art reflects human experience and that this kind of human experience shows little sign of becoming ancient history. Of course, it could also be reminder of the fact that there are individuals and families out there – wherever ‘there’ is – who have been and may still continue to be victimised by forces that few can corroborate, fewer can explain and from which nobody can truly protect them at present, as may be the case with Doris Bither and her family, wherever they are. All three readings are dire, either in themselves or by implication, and it would take a pathologically glass-half-full kind of person to find any satisfying element of positivity in this final statement, that ‘the attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue’

Carla Moran is the fictionalised version of the aforementioned Doris Bither, a single mother and resident of mid-seventies Culver City, California, who was the main focus of relentless emotional and sexual violence at the hands of unseen forces (poltergeists?) and whose life and home were at one time subject to the gadgets and psychobabble of paranormal investigations before she upped and moved to Texas where, as the coda states, the occurrences failed to cease if they did abate to some extent. Hershey’s Moran is doing what she can to move up in the world, ‘up’ being a better job and the ability to make rent on time, for example. She is a character of will, with a decent store of pride and a sense of self. There is also significance to the fact that she is attractive because this informs the way in which her interaction with the men in her life comes across on screen, which is to say somewhat seedily and furtively sexualised, from her boyfriend Jerry to her paternalistic, potentially boundary-crossing psychiatrist Sneiderman. Unfortunately and out-of-the-blue, as is the case with Doris, Carla finds herself being held down and raped in the supposed safety of her own bedroom, in her bathroom, in her living room and in the presence of her children who themselves are not off bounds as is certainly not the house, the windows and everything in it. The most frightening thing about the events depicted in this film is the force of the violence and the strange sense that this force, this entity, wants Carla to suffer, to be scared, to be ever uncertain of her safety.  Her ghostly assailant evokes the same eerily oppressive male rage that emanates from drunken football hooligans out for opponents’ blood or inarticulate mobs of men who seem to be out to destroy simply because they must, a phenomenon explored chillingly in a masterpiece like “Wake in Fright.” In fact, for a certain portion of this film, “The Entity,” the possibility of the perpetrator actually being human, or that Carla is suffering post-traumatic symptoms from previous or ongoing acts of violation, still looms. Maybe director Furie and Co had decided to adopt an expressionistic approach in order to suggest that sexual violence is more about the violence than the sexual contact between two people, more about the horrific impact on the victim than the mechanics of the act. There is also the fact that these atrocities could just as easily be committed by an individual or group of individuals who decide to break into her house for one purpose only. In this sense, the film is most effective as a communicator of horror in its earlier moments when the focus is on Carla’s violation, confusion and fear as opposed to its subsequent fascination with electrical discharges, demonic apparitions and micro-gales that explode through homes; the horror is most potent when its basis is in the reality that any woman, any child, maybe even any man, could find themselves violated in the place that they naturally feel most safe. It’s the same reason “Psycho” hit such a nerve back in 1960, preventing travellers from checking into lonely motels or utilising said motels’ showers. As with most films from the genre, the ever present desire of filmmakers to eternalise the source of danger and the root of fear only works to diminish the significance of these things.

This of course leads to the question ‘what is there to be gained in witnessing the silly and exploitative sight of Carla Moran’s prosthetic breasts being fondled by invisible hands, especially once the rapes have already been so powerfully represented with much less explicitness?’ One can probably understand the filmmakers’ desire to prove to an audience, as well as to Carla’s flaky boyfriend Jerry, that these acts are in fact the result of a supernatural presence, and to show off their effects chops which may or may not have been lacking even by 1982 standards. Maybe if the effects were themselves less obviously fake it wouldn’t seem as though the film were making light of something that is inherently heavy. To give credit where credit is due though, on the whole, each incident does bear some sense of significance, narrative or otherwise, and it can’t really be said that the depictions of these are generally gratuitous (it’s always sad when the quality of something is based more on the absence of demerit than on the presence of merit.) As for the men in the film, the range of portrayals is not as caricatured as some might make out. While the supernatural and initially unprovable nature of Carla’s attacks is a nifty way to acknowledge the culture of denial and victim-blame that exists where violence against women is concerned, there are men in the film who seem to be on Carla’s side even if their interests range from scientific conquest to establishing the superiority of their supposedly rational understanding of the world. Dr Sneiderman, the psychiatrist who loses Carla’s trust as the film progresses, is of particular interest. When he first appears on the scene in a hospital consulting room after Carla is nearly murdered in her own car, there is a slimy awkwardness to his very doctorly matter-of-fact questioning. It’s a first impression the character cannot overcome and it simply creates the sense that, belying his obsession with helping Carla and ensuring that her ‘delusions’ are not fed into by the parapsychological researchers that set up shop in her home, he is somehow attracted to her or at least to the fact that he knows so much about her sexual experiences. He quickly becomes the face of chauvinism, a man whose good intentions hardly conceal his desire to dominate emotionally and psychologically, one of which he himself may not be completely aware. To risk being sensationalist, Sneiderman could be seen as the titular entity’s human co-perpetrator, only that he is more focused on exerting emotional power though much less successful at it than his phantom counterpart.

In general “The Entity” is a pretty good film, maybe even a touch underrated, but it has some nagging problems, the most disappointing aspect of all being Furie’s decision to go ‘big’ towards the end such that ‘the entity’ comes across more and more as some sort of hulking gargoylish demon, which in a strange way negates the gender elements or at least files them down to a small pile of dust which can nonetheless get into one’s eyes and cause fits of coughing and sneezing. While one might blame this Michael Bay move on a culture that began – from only a few years prior to this film’s production – to overvalue flashing lights, big noises and mayhem over subtle thrills, there is the creeping sense that the ‘demonisation’ of the entity was a conscious effort to prevent the movie from seeming like a feminist or anti-male statement or at least to steer away from as much of a political reading as possible, which ironically makes the film seem only more exploitative: ‘woman fondled and raped…by cantankerous fantastical fiend!’ when the fact is that violence of a sexual bent is much more likely to be perpetrated by a woman’s father, her partner, a workmate, or the guy she thought was a friend. It’s simply disingenuous for a film to take as its premise the real-life story of Doris Bither, only to decide halfway that it is unwilling to tread the inevitable political minefield. Funnily, in attempting to run away, Furie and friends end up stepping on a whole lot of mines.

Dredged up: “A Woman is a Woman isn’t so bad” (another piece written circa 2011)

March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

As soon as I hit play on this 1961 Godard picture, a wave of dread came over me. This was followed swiftly by shame. I was supposed to be excited and energised. I’m meant to like Godard, aren’t I? Well, I do. Well, I appreciate him, his prodigious influence, his eschewing of rules and dogmas, his sometimes irritating passion for the form. His pure balls. I think “Breathless” is to cinema what the monolith was to Stanley Kubrick’s ape-men. Not the best analogy perhaps, but the best I could come up with. 1964’s “Vivre Sa Vie” was interesting, meaning my sister hated it but I thought it was kind of awesome. I retract my earlier statement. I was pumped for this movie.

“Une Femme est une Femme” features Godard favourite (read: lover and muse) Anna Karina as Angela, a burlesque dancer whose cyclist partner, Emile, scoffs at her deep desire to become a mother. Completing a love triangle of sorts is Alfred, a professed admirer of Angela’s who courts her incessantly and would possibly  go to great lengths to win her affections, perhaps as far as agreeing to knock her up. New-wave silliness ensues.

 Funnily, everything I feared this movie would throw in my face turned out to be the very reasons I was utterly charmed by it. An erratic almost cheeky soundtrack, twee use of colour, fourth-wall breaches, Hollywood rom-com stylings, offbeat visual gags…”Une Femme est une Femme” is the work of a toddler of an artist cavorting in a cinematic playpen with his buddies, and I had a ball watching them. Where “Breathless” was a newborn sprinting on Day 1, this film is baby Godard content having a whole lot of fun in the sand. The first thing you notice is the colours, vibrant, lush almost. Not quite as punk as I’d anticipated. Later on, I’m to be reminded of P.T. Anderson and Bob Elswit’s use of colour in “Punch-Drunk Love” — Emily Watson’s orangey blouse and Adam Sandler’s cobalt-blue suit, both of which evoke outfits worn by this film’s two leads. That movie was also modelled around the classic Hollywood musical, but I am not suggesting any lineage of influence here.

 You’re then hit with the music. Either it makes you cock your head and wonder a little, or it pisses you off from the get go. It’s almost like a component of dialogue, a mish-mash of pop tunes and orchestral flourishes that don’t simply underscore happenings but are part of their very architecture. Personally, I cocked my head, perhaps getting a little miffed, but then I was promptly swept away. There are even moments that teeter on the edge of dance while others openly allude to Technicolor umbrella numbers of the 50s (I assume). One of the final scenes in Angela and Emile’s apartment has a very choreographed feel with its gliding cameras and swelling strings, and at one point earlier in the film, Angela actually mentions Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse while holding dance poses. Which brings me to the next and most obvious observation. That Godard tops Tarantino when it comes to referencing both himself and pop culture. This movie is awash with references. Half of them did not ring a bell, but I was certainly aware of their presence. But unlike, say, his later, more political/philosophical films, these references are the loving touches of a chain-smoking geek, not the indignant jabs of a pseudo-intellectual (which, of course, there is nothing wrong with being, at least not always).

“A Woman Is a Woman” is incredibly playful and that’s the best way to approach it. That being said, Anna Karina, I think, makes an incredibly assured turn as Angela. She seems so damn comfortable in front of the camera, so at ease you might think she was born in front of one, a statement which would automatically make a fifth of the world’s population natural-born actors. But honestly, Karina carries this film, an achievement which was recognised at the 1962 Berlin Film Festival in some capacity. All the performances are good, but there is not a forced moment in hers. To perhaps preface everything I’ve said, I wouldn’t be surprised if every spoken word was improvised.  There is a care-free yet heightened naturalism in the characters’ interactions. Regarding Angela and Emile, there is an almost childish quality to their relationship. It’s clear from their bickering and non-verbal name-calling (you’ll see) that they’re crazy about each other, but that this might equally be the reason for their coupling being a tenuous one. To me, Alfred doesn’t stand a chance, never did. But like lichen on a tree or one of those birds on the ass of a rhino, good on him for trying, for sticking with it.

As to what this film actually says or suggests about femininity and love, I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. When I watch films I tend to focus on style on first viewing, taking more interest in the actual story and content on subsequent sit-throughs. But if anything, my off-the-cuff impression is that Angela is nostalgic for a fading feminine ideal, that of the woman with strong nesting and maternal yearnings, a sexuality that commands the male gaze, and a sense of unerring devotion to the one she has chosen to love. Perhaps in an age when women will soon burn their bras and stick it to their ovarian cycles with The Pill, Angela feels that despite all these modernisations, a woman is a woman. Or maybe it’s simply Godard who thinks this.

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