LES DIABOLIQUES

Glasgow Film Theatre, 31.03.11

My first encounter of a film adaption of the novel Celle Qui N’Etait Plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac was the Hollywood version from 1996, Diabolique (Jeremiah Chechik), which was credited as ‘based on’ both the novel and this original French film from 1955, written and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot.  The American version was a critical disaster, and rightly so.  Over the top performances from the cast, including stars Sharon Stone and Chazz Palminteri, weren’t good, but the main failings were the responsibility of an inexperienced director.  Coming from a background of music video directing, Chechik throws everything on to the screen in what quickly becomes a jumbled mess.  Inconceivable plot twists, red herrings and melodrama abounds (witness thunder and lightning and pouring rain  on queue).  Chechik followed the debacle of Diabolique with another disaster in The Avengers, before finding relative success on the small screen as a director on TV series such as Chuck, Being Human and Gossip Girl.

So bearing this in mind,  I went along to see the original French classic with some minor trepidations. Courtesy of a new restored print from the BFI, the film was showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre for a three-day run only.  Les Diaboliques was the most successful of director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s films, alongside Le Salaire de la Peur (The Wages of Fear), made two years earlier.  The plot revolves around a French Boy’s school, owned by the young headmistress Christina Delassalle (Vera Clouzot), but run by her estranged husband Michel (Paul Meurisse), who is now having an affair with a fellow teacher, Nicole (Simone Signoret).  Over the course of a holiday weekend Nicole and Christina, having had enough of Michel’s cruel treatment of them both, conspire to murder him and cover up their crime.  But when the body mysteriously disappears, their plan starts to unravel.

Despite a memorably boisterous overture alongside the opening credits the first thing one notices is the general lack of  bombast throughout the piece.  There is very little music, most of the action occurs during daytime, the lighting and cinematography is natural for the most part and the performances from the leading cast well-balanced, with some comic relief provided by the school boys, fellow teachers and idiosyncratic neighbours.  Indeed, before the final denouement there is an even mix of humour and psychological thrills.  Gradually, as strange events take hold over the scheming couple, Clouzot cranks up the tension, but unlike the ill-fated American version he does this quite expertly and subtly, using long periods of silence, the use of space off-screen, sound effects and a steady shift to more dramatic lighting.  All of which builds to a magnificent ending, the twist of which the audience is expressly asked not to reveal to those who have not seen the film.  Suffice to say the suspense and tension in the audience at the screening I attended was quite palpable, which is the ultimate compliment for a film 56 years old.  It is also what was entirely lacking from the American update, and nearly all horror or thrillers made in more recent times.  One can only imagine what those responsible for the remake were trying to achieve, but they seem to have completely missed the point, and, as with many US remakes of European films, should have left well alone.   If you have seen the modern version, don’t let that put you off taking in this magnificent film.

Les Diaboliques stands as an object lesson on how to scare an audience without resorting to loud bangs and gore.

Film Rating: 4.5 out of 5

SUBMARINE

Cineworld Glasgow, 25.03.11

On the walls of teenager Oliver Tate’s (Craig Roberts) bedroom in his family home in 1980’s Swansea are numerous film posters and drawings.  Alongside a portrait of Woody Allen are posters for the French nouvelle vague film Ma Nuit Chez Maud (Eric Rohmer, 1969) and Jean-Peirre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967).  The iconic image of Alain Delon in the latter film re-occurs at Oliver’s lowest point when he has lost the affections (such as they are) of his girlfriend Jordana (Yasmin Paige), and has witnessed his Mother (Sally Hawkins) carrying on with the neighbour, Graham (Paddy Considine) behind his Father’s back.  The link to the loner character Delon portrayed and Oliver’s resolution to solve his own, and his parents, troubles alone are an obvious link, and the allusion to Melville, both championed and later criticised by the writers of Cahiers Du Cinema, is only one indicator of the influence of the French New Wave on director Richard Ayoade’s debut feature.

Throughout the film the style of the nouvelle vague is replicated, undercut, satirised and celebrated, from the extensive use of jump cuts, camera zooms, freeze frames, de-focusing and handheld camera work, various film stock and Oliver’s narration, to the effective sound editing and highlighting of non-diagetic  sounds and music.  Scenes of Oliver and Jordana running through Swansea’s rundown industrial wastelands, lighting sparklers and fires in rubbish tips, shot on Super-8, feel similar in tone and style to the iconic moments from the likes of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962, such as the characters racing across a bridge) or Godard’s Bande à part (1964, the run through the Louvre scene) or À bout de souffle (1960, Godard).  Much of the humour comes from the fact that these scenes, mediated through the mind of the self-deluded Oliver, established as a fan of these films and who wishes a film crew were capturing his life, are set in industrial Swansea, not the cosmopolitan, chic Paris.  And the protagonists are troubled teenagers dealing with adolescence, not the cool hipsters of the ChampsÉlysées.

The other background that Ayoade draws from is the British tradition of comedy (he stars in the Channel 4 sit-com The I.T. Crowd).  Apart from the extrovert Graham, (which Considine has a ball playing) a self-help guru who can see people’s auras in colours, the rest of the cast underplay beautifully (reminiscent again of Delon’s minimalist acting style), and draw laughs from their emotionally stunted lives and inability to deal with their feelings.   Sally Hawkins is exquisite as Oliver’s Mother, seeking a release from the emotionless marriage to Lloyd (Noah Taylor).  The young lead characters give muted, nuanced performances, drawing laughter from the tiniest hint of facial movement, and effectively using stillness and silence to highlight the awkwardness they share as they come of age. 

Set in the mid-‘8o’s, Ayoade gets to have fun with the technology of the time. Lloyd, unable to discuss feelings with his son, gives Oliver fatherly advice via a mix tape cassette that he gives to Oliver on learning he has a girlfriend (‘with sadder songs towards the end for the inevitable break up’), to the tacky garish VHS effects used on Graham’s self-help video.  It all seems to represent a more innocent, charming time, before the internet, Facebook and Twitter forever changed the experience of childhood forever.

The film’s title relates to the imagery of water throughout the film, and the central location of the beach and sea in the relationship of Oliver and Jordana, but also to the fact that Lloyd is employed as a marine biologist, and as such the ‘sub-marine’ of the title is Oliver himself, and his relationship to Lloyd.  the central fact that Lloyd imparts to his son – that the ocean is 6 miles deep – is the fact that Oliver finds it is appropriate to repeat as he tries to win back Jordana’s affection.  Marine biology is a safety net that Lloyd has retreated to during depression, and it is this comfort zone in which he is able to communicate with his son.  The hope at the end of the film is that Oliver and Jordana will be able to communicate more openly about true feelings, as they come of age and emerge from their parents shadows.

Funny and smart, Submarine feels fresh and current while simultaneously incorporating elements of the ‘6o’s and ’80’s.  It thoroughly entertains and delivers laughs both subtlety and loudly.  A definite must see.

Film Rating: 4 out of 5.

TINTIN AT THE MOVIES

TINTIN AND THE MYSTERY OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE (1961)
TINTIN AND THE BLUE ORANGES (1964)
BFI DVD

As a young boy growing up in the West of Scotland, I used to read the Hergé comic books about the boy reporter Tintin and his globe-trotting adventures with his faithful dog Snowy and friends Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus.  There was also an animated TV series based on the books that used to be on in the mornings on school holidays.  But it wasn’t until I visited Belgium, and Brussels, the home of Hergé, Tintin merchandise and the brilliant Musée Hergé that  I realised there was more to it than just the charming tales I remembered from childhood.  I came home and got the animated series on DVD, started reading the adventures again from the beginning, and even tracked down critical writing (Tom McCarthey’s excellent Tintin and the Secret of Literature). 

In Belgium (and France), comic strips are regarded as the ninth art form and have a history stretching back to the 19th century, long before Marvel and DC Comics arrived.  Hergé was famed for his innovative style known as ligne-claire, which reduces images to simple clear lines. The image of Tintin can be reduced to a circle with two dots for eyes, a nose and the famous quiff of hair, which has become one of the most recognised silhouettes in the world.

From the very beginning of the stories, Tintin has been linked to the cinema, when he wanders onto a Hollywood film set in the third adventure in the series Tintin in America to rescue a damsel he believes to be in distress.  But it wasn’t until the BFI released these two films in 2010: Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece  (Tintin et le Mystère de la Toison d’Or, 1961) and Tintin and the Blue Oranges (Tintin et les Oranges Bleues, 1964), that I discovered Tintin had been brought to life on the big screen before the much anticipated Spielberg movie due next year.

Unlike the forthcoming Spielberg and Peter Jackson films, neither of these European productions are based on original Hergé adventures, although he was present for some filming and took great interest in seeing his creation taking on cinematic form (including giving his blessing to, and becoming friends with Jean-Pierre Talbot, the unknown gym teacher cast to play Tintin).  And equally unlike Spielberg and Jackson the film-makers did not have the massive budget and present day technology that can be used today to create the world of Tintin.  Looking back on these films now though, this may in fact have been a massive bonus, because what they lack in cutting edge digital effects, they more than make up for in an easy-going charm, ingenuity and, much like the boy reporter, making the best of their situation.

The Mystery of the Golden Fleece is the superior of the two.  the plot resolves around Captain Haddock (Georges Wilson) being left a ship by an old friend, which turns out to be an old piece of junk, but they suspect may be worth more once rivals start to bid increasingly large sums of money for the seemingly wrecked vessel.  Much of the charm and simplicity of the original adventures survives.  As Tintin,  Jean-Pierre Talbot, in his first role, is physically a perfect match, and as a former gym teacher, can match the physicality required by the role of the boy reporter.  Wilson as Haddock provides requisite laughs, as does Georges Loriot as the hapless and deaf Professor Calculus.  Real life twins (listed as ‘Icognito’ in the end credits) play the bungling Thom(p)son’s perfectly.  The sense of location and globe-trotting (from Belgium to Turkey to Greece and back again) are typical of the Tintin adventures, although in the books he never visited these locations, and the nasty villains and sense of peril and excitement are equally lifted rather well from the pages of Hergé. A catchy theme tune and some well observed humour helps make it a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Tintin and the Blue Oranges, three years later is less successful.  Again it is based on an original story, this time centering on Professor Calculus’ attempts to create a fruit which can be grown in the desert.  For an unknown reason (probably money if I was to hazard a guess) the entire cast of characters, with the exception of Talbot as Tintin, are replaced, and in every case the results are weaker performances, though not bad.  Jean Bouise takes over as Haddock and over does the tantrums and blustering unlike the way  Wilson managed to create a balance.  The Thom(p)son’s are now played by Franky Francois and Andre Marie, and have less material to work with, as does the similarly changed Calculus (now portrayed by Felix Fernandez).  But all give their best and the sense of enjoyment carries the performances through. The budget seems to have been even more restrictive, but there still remains the sense of location and adventure, even if the peril seems less threatening this time round.   The writing is less witty, relying more on the blustering Haddock, deaf Calculus and hapless Thom(p)son’s for slapstick laughs this time around. Talbot is again impressive as Tintin, and one wonders how he would have fared given a longer run and better production values around him.  But, this lack of resources is what gives this film, and its predecessor, such a lovable charm that fits in perfectly for those of us with childhood memories of pouring over Herge’s original drawings.

In the future, with the new blockbuster films on the horizon, it remains to be seen what lies ahead of our intrepid reporter.  Since Hergé’s death in the early 1980’s, his express wish that no new Tintin adventures be created by anyone else has been strictly observed, and one can only hope this continues in the face of the film corporations about to cash in on global ticket sales and merchandising rights.  Towards the end of his life, Hergé famously suggested the only film-maker who could do his creation justice on the big screen was a young American named Steven Spielberg, who at the time had made the family adventure hits Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. (1982) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  Whether the same man, on the back of such disappointments as A.I. (2001), The Terminal (2004) and War of the Worlds (2005), in amongst more sober and adult fare like Munich (2005), can rediscover the family friendly sense of adventure and innocence required remains to be seen.   Certainly, with the mass of effects and digital 3D resources being used, the new films may indeed lack the whole sense of charm and wonder at the real world that endeared the original books to so many readers.  And that is something both these European films from the ’60’s succeed in capturing in spades.

Film Ratings:
Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece – 4 out of 5
Tintin and the Blue Oranges – 3 out of 5

OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES & LOST IN RIO

ICA FILMS DVD

Spoof movies are a difficult thing to get right, and even more so when a successful first movie gives rise to a sequel or two.  For every Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Naked Gun and Hot Shots! there is an Austin Powers: Goldmember, Naked Gun 33 1/3 and a Hot Shots: Part Deux!.  There is a definite law of diminishing returns by trying to string out the joke for too long.  In recent years the Movie spoof franchise (Scary Movie, Epic Movie, Date Movie) and similar affairs like Meet the Spartans are so crass, poorly written, woefully acted and badly shot, that it has become difficult to know who the joke is on – the targets of their (awful) jibes, or the public who spend money going to see this garbage.  These films, successful at the box office as they are, have come to represent everything that is wrong with Hollywood today – quick profit from lowest common denominator rubbish.  It is left then to the French, as it so often is when it comes to cinema, to remind us how something can be done properly – step forward OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006).

From beginning (a pastiche of black and white war movies) to end, Cairo is an absolute treat.  Based on the original novels by Jean Bruce, but owing more to the straight film spin offs of the ’60’s and ’70’s, the film follows secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, alias OSS 117 (Jean Dujardin) as he blunders his way around Cairo, ostensively investigating the disappearance of his wartime comrade (Philippe Lefebvre).  The style of the era, and particularly the spy films of the time are both celebrated and parodied to great effect, from the direction of Michel Hazanavicius, to the  cinematography (you sometimes forget you are watching a film made in this century instead of the last),  to the costume, hair and make up and the special effects.  In the lead role Dujardin is perfectly cast and delivers a winning performance.  It helps that when dressed in tuxedo, striking poses as he pursues villains, or wooing the leading lady, he looks like a genuine ’60’s leading man, remarkable similar to Sean Connery or George Lazenby in the ’60’s Bond films.  But he is equally adept with the silliness required and extracts laughter from simple looks and reactions.

Nods to the era such as deliberately ‘bad’ back projection while in cars, disfigured villains and national stereotypes abound, all played with relaxed charm.  Running gags about each countries Secret Service cover, including de La Bath’s determined efforts to improve his companies poultry trade, are funny, and at the same time ring true enough that they are not so far fetched as one might imagine.  And, as with the best spoof and comedy films, there is room for some topical humour, from generalisations and mistaken assumptions about Islam, to ridicule of the West’s interference in Middle Eastern affairs, and the assumption that these people need the West’s help.  A willing cast join in, particularly Berenice Bejo as the leading lady, but the star is Dujardin, who balances a character of questionable morals and intelligence, with an innocence and charm that leave you laughing both with and at him simultaneously.

Three years on and we have OSS 117 – Lost in Rio (2009).  Does the rule of diminishing returns apply?  Well, unfortunately so, but all is not lostCairo is such a perfect spoof that it was always going to be difficult to achieve the same success a second time round.  As with other spoof franchises some of the cuteness and cleverness of the original is replaced by coarseness.  While the style of the era is once again perfectly captured, a reliance on split screen editing effects interferes during the first half of the film particularly, and touches that seemed fresh in the original (posed running shots; ‘bad’ back projection) are repeated, but lack the originality of the first film.

All is not lost though.  Dujardin once again delivers a charming yet ignorant hero, and some running gags are winners, particularly OSS 117’s irritation at the mispronunciation of his agent identity, again harking to his more famous British counterpart (It’s one hundred and seventeen, not double one seven).  There’s enough here to make me think they could get another reasonable quality sequel, and it would be a pleasure to watch Jean Dujardin as OSS 117 again, even with weaker material, but then, perhaps it is better to leave things as they are, rather than sullying their reputation further (a la Austin Powers).  Besides, we’ll always have Cairo.

Film Ratings:
OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies – 4 out of 5
OSS 117: Lost in Rio – 2.5 out of 5

THE LINCOLN LAWYER

Cineworld Glasgow, 19.03.11

It’s sometimes difficult to remember that Matthew McConaughey can be taken seriously as an actor.  It’s been a while since the earnest lawyers portrayed in Amistad (1997, Spielberg) and A Time To Kill (1996, Schumacher), and even the easy-going charm of EdTV (1999, Howard)  and Sahara (2005, Eisner) has worn thin with a serious of rom-coms ranging from awful to mediocre.  Even when trying to do something more telling, alongside Al Pacino in Two For The Money (2005, Caruso), he has seemed more concerned with showing off his sculpted torso than acting ability.  It comes as something of a surprise then to see the latter to the fore in The Lincoln Lawyer, and the former kept under wraps.

Which isn’t to say The Lincoln Lawyer is a film without other problems.  Based on a novel from Michael Connelly, the plot is filled with various inconsistencies and holes that threaten to derail the tension of the court scenes.  McConaughey’s defence lawyer, Mick Haller, who uses a Lincoln car as his office, hence the title, takes on the case of a rich client, Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillipe), accused of attempted murder and rape.  When Haller realises Roulet is guilty of the crime, and of a previous murder for which another client Haller represented has ended up in prison for, he is trapped by Roulet into continuing to represent him.

All the traits of a courtroom thriller are present and correct, although there is something unerring in Haller’s brilliant and unfaltering defence of a man he knows to be guilty and is trying to frame him for the murder of his partner.  The courtroom scenes therefore lack tension or sense, and McConaughey performance lacks the nuances required to suggest Haller is losing control or is ever really in grave danger.  Similarly, the prosecution, led by Josh Lucas, are so hapless, one wonders why Roulet has gone to such convoluted measures to escape punishment.

Other bum notes include a dreadful habit of inserting hip-hop and rap music to liven up the pace, which appear to have wandered in from another film altogether, and occasional scenes thrown in to introduce characters and plot lines, but for no other reason.  At one point Haller arrives, unmotivated, at a (presumable) police station, gets into an elevator, where he is derided by a bitter cop about a previous case, and then… the scene ends.  Presumably on the cutting room floor is the scene which followed revealing why Haller had gone to the police station in the first place. 

Still, The Lincoln Lawyer moves along briskly enough to maintain interest and skirt over the inconsistencies, and is helped by a good, if underused, cast (particularly a criminally underused Marisa Tomei).  And it’s nice to see McConaughey keep his shirt on for a change.

Film Rating: 2.5 out of 5