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.