A review of Francois Ozon’s latest film Frantz for Wales Arts Review
It’s easy to see why La La Land is by far and away the most commercially successful of this year’s Oscar nominations. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s light, it looks great, and it has two A-list stars heading it up. About much of the film, I genuinely cannot complain. The cinematography is exquisite, with care and thought poured into every single frame. The songs too are genuinely good. You can drown in Emma Stone’s huge glassy eyes and cut yourself on Ryan Gosling’s chin. The two have chemistry. The entire film is a love-letter to the Hollywood musicals of the ‘50s and before, and it’s made by a director who clearly has a love and respect for that style. It’s not ironic pastiche, but loving homage. I walked out of that cinema satisfied.
It’s a week later, and I’ve already forgotten most of what happens in La La Land. I can remember that amazing one-take opening number amidst a traffic jam. I can remember one or two tunes. And I can remember that the story is a fairly basic boy-meets-girl setup. Yet, I cannot for the life of me remember whether I had any emotional reaction to the film. Which, in effect, means I had no emotional reaction to the film. You are meant to give way to La La Land on an emotional level, that is the intention.
The reason Singin’ in the Rain remains such a beloved classic is because it takes audiences on a ride of pure emotional exuberance. It’s made with love and care by everyone involved. But for La La Land, I don’t get the impression that anyone outside of Damien Chazelle was really enthusiastic about it. Sure, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are excellent stars, and they have the charisma to hold a movie together alone, but they’re both also excellent actors beneath that, and neither really pushes themselves here. Not to mention they’re both mediocre singers and dancers. Critics have defended their singing on the grounds that the plot requires them to be average dreamers rather than stars, ignoring the fact that this is Ryan fucking Gosling and Emma fucking Stone we’re talking about here, not Art Garfunkel and Denise Richards.
It’s that romance at the centre of the film where La La Land drops like a brick. There simply isn’t enough in it to sustain interest in the film; both characters are thinly written. Neither Gosling’s Seb or Stone’s Mia go beyond the level of ‘desperate for success and willing to work really hard to get there’. Mia’s acting dreams are the same as any other young Hollywood starlet we’ve seen onscreen over the years, but they don’t have the psychological depth of say, Mulholland Dr., or the prickly, complex relationship with fame we see in Sunset Boulevard. No, you’re right, La La Land doesn’t aim for the mood of those films. But it doesn’t change the fact that her dreams are just…there. Seb too, is similarly flat. He’s a hardcore jazz traditionalist who wants to open a jazz club. He ends up in a successful band, taken along by Keith (John Legend), despite his reservations about its modern sound. That’s about it. They’re both too career driven for us to care about their relationship with each other.
Of course, jazz, or a version of it, was a central subject of Chazelle’s previous film, Whiplash. Miles Teller’s determined drummer, JK Simmons’ authoritarian bandleader, and Seb here, are all jazz traditionalists. The difference is that Seb’s relationship with jazz is very superficial, described quickly in just two scenes; one where Seb explains to Mia why he loves jazz, and one where Keith explains why Seb’s version of jazz is dying out. As a result Seb is a flat, simplistic character, built on Gosling’s star charisma rather than Seb’s interior life.
To compare, the writing and characterisation in Whiplash is much more complex, much more forceful. Plenty of people have written on Chazelle’s films thus far accusing them of racism and elitism, especially when it comes to jazz, and they may well have a point, but in regards to Whiplash I think people are mistaken when they take it as a director’s statement on what it takes to be a great artist. The film doesn’t elevate either Teller’s or Simmons’ characters onto a platform, and indeed, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great film about an utterly fucking terrible drummer (seriously, if I was in a band and some smug prick started a 5-minute drum solo in the middle of a song, I would decapitate him). The central brilliance of Whiplash is that both characters are utterly completely wrong about their methods, and yet so determined, so stubborn in their efforts to attain their ambitions. It’s a film built on contradiction, and that contradiction drives the narrative.
No such thing here. There are no contradictions. There’s are dramatic scenes, some musical scenes, and a romance thrown in. But the drive just isn’t there. When Seb and Mia’s relationship breaks down because both of them are so concerned with their personal careers, I don’t care. When she runs out of a dinner date with a pleasantly bland boyfriend to catch Rebel Without a Cause with Seb, I don’t care. The film doesn’t ask you to care. It asks you to take their relationship and just wait for the music, or the next showstopping moment of choreography or cinematography. La La Land is in effect, little more than a few utterly beautiful sequences hung around a fairly weakly-written romance.
And you know what, those few sequences are worth it. There’s talent in Damien Chazelle. He just needs to find it and focus it.
Two lovers, head over heels in love, separated and heartbroken by war and circumstance, yearning to be reunited. We have seen this story many times captured on film, in books and in poetry. But not like this. The Cranes are Flying is one of the greats of Russian/Soviet cinema, a work of pure, fearless love for the medium. Mikhail Kalatozov and his cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky approach every scene as if it must be their last, wringing every last drop of visual drama from the frame, filling it with imagination. It’s unsurprisingly and unmistakeably a huge influence on Andrei Tarkovsky, whose debut feature Ivan’s Childhood came only a few years later, bearing many of the same stylistic fingerprints. And what fingerprints! Why settle for less when cinema like this makes everything around it look workmanlike and pedestrian in comparison.
A Douglas Sirk film noir scripted by Sam Fuller sounds like an enticing proposition for anyone familiar with some of the more unique directors of Golden Age Hollywood. Sirk’s talent for melodrama and sense of craft combined with Fuller’s grasp of the darker, seedier stories that made Hollywood executives nervous lest they fall foul of the Hays Code has the potential to make for a great piece of cult cinema. Shockproof doesn’t quite deliver on the potential of its names (as it is, Shockproof was made relatively early in both Sirk’s and Fuller’s career) but it remains a strong, well-crafted film noir, at least until the preposterously sickly sweet ending, which was supposedly a case of studio interference rather than any sudden attack of sentimentality on the part of Sirk or Fuller.
The story follows Jenny (Patricia Knight), released from prison on parole after five years for murder. Introduced to her parole officer, Griff (Cornel Wilde), she is told, in no uncertain terms, that if she associates with Harry Wesson (John Baragrey), her criminal lover and the man she went to prison for, she will be sent back to jail. Almost immediately, she is picked up in a raid at a bookie’s along with Wesson, but Griff lets her off out of sympathy and a glimmer of romantic attraction; so begins a tug of war between Griff and Wesson as to Jenny’s future. Does she go back to her life of crime or can she remain on the straight and narrow?
One of the defining features of film noir has always been that its (usually male) protagonists are fallible and weighed down by the mistakes of their past, giving in to temptation easily, often at the heels of a femme fatale. In the case of Shockproof, it is the female lead who is chased by her past demons; her former life as a gangster’s lover is hard to escape, and she is unsure herself whether she wants to escape it. Wesson’s lifestyle—nice cars, nice jewellery, plenty of drink and luxury—is the polar opposite of Griff’s homely Catholic world, all homemade cooking and familial reliance.
Though comfortable, it’s hard to begrudge Jenny for initially finding it boring when Griff puts her up as a live-in maid to help his blind mother as a way of keeping her away from Wesson. The opposing nature of the two worlds plays out in Jenny, as she swings from one to the other; eventually there is a rupture and she decides the only way out from her criminal past is to face it head on, whatever the consequences. The result is a cross-country chase with Griff in the driver’s seat; the kind of classic noir set-up where doomed lovers go on the run across the wide-open spaces of America, only to find that its vast plains are smaller than they seem.
Shockproof lacks the doomed poetics of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night, a film it closely resembles in structure; the convict trying to go good, the lovers on the lam being chased down, but it makes up for it with sturdy craftsmanship: Sirk handles the material with confidence, with a brisk pace to the film that ensures its lesser elements don’t become to glaring—the performances are fine, if mostly functional, and the script is much the same, giving the feel of a watered-down Fuller script (which it was). The cinematography isn’t as ostentatiously gloomy as other film noirs but the shadows don’t go to waste; Sirk always knew how to use a camera. Shockproof looks crisp and smart, with weight given to its images. The most glaring error, as already mentioned, is the film’s ending, but the final scene constitutes barely two minutes of running time: one can easily just pretend it finishes a tad sooner. It might not have anything particularly explosive as far as the genre is concerned, but then, it doesn’t have to. Fine noir is always good noir.
Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (for now; I suspect he may be back in some capacity at some point, as such artists never truly retire) is also his furthest away from fantasy, based instead in the real world, a loose biopic of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed fighter planes for the Japanese army in the WWII. There are flaws here—after an entire career of strong female protagonists, it’s a shame Miyazaki relegates his main female character here to a ‘sacrificial wife’ role—but The Wind Rises is also his most personally revealing film. Critics who accuse the film of airbrushing Japan’s military history are slightly missing the point (are we that stupid as audiences that a film needs to tell us for certain that fascism sucks?); what we have instead is the work of an artist musing on the destructive capabilities of creation, when such desires overtake almost all other considerations.
Of the three main figures to emerge from the French ‘cinema du look’ movement in the 80s, the others being Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson, Leos Carax is easily the most interesting, enigmatic, and fascinating, as borne out by his recent successful return to filmmaking with Holy Motors (2012). Bad Blood (or as it’s sometimes called in English, The Night is Young) is his second feature film, and it’s certainly the work of a young director, headily in love with the form and aesthetic possibilities of cinema, much like his contemporaries, but adopting a more philosophical viewpoint of those possibilities, a viewpoint clearly indebted to Jean-Luc Godard, whose fingerprints are all over this film.
Now, that might be a problem for me. I am no fan of Godard whatsoever. I can appreciate his contribution to cinematic history in terms of breaking down boundaries and rules, but he’s always produced films that are desperately convinced they of their own meaningfulness, when in reality he has nothing at all of interest to contribute. His lauded 60s films contained characters who were never more than ciphers for him to show off what he was reading or watching that month. His leftist politics were always weak and felt more like a put-on rather than a genuinely analytical belief in the possibilities of humanity’s progress. Indeed, for all the plaudits lavished on him, it’s noticeable how ignored his contemporaries over in Eastern Europe were and still are.
In particular, the Czechoslovak New Wave and the Yugoslav Black Wave took the boundary-breaking of Godard’s work and turned it into something genuinely revolutionary, something genuinely political, genuinely brave, not the toy-gun political pissing about we see in Godard’s cinema. The collected works written about Dušan Makavejev, Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, and all the other great filmmakers from Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia are probably about equal to all the claptrap written about Godard. The lack of attention on these filmmakers, compared to the overblown importance of Godard is aggressively annoying at times and realistically ought to be challenged.
But with that minor rant over, I cannot deny Godard’s influence. When better filmmakers picked up his ball and ran with it, the results were often astounding. In Bad Blood, Carax is perhaps still a little too indebted to Godard for it too feel like truly his film, but yet there are still flashes of the gloriously brave filmmaker who would go on to make Holy Motors.
The story is as elliptical as one might expect from such a student: in a near-future infested with an AIDS-type STD that kills off anyone who has loveless sex, a gang of criminals convince the young Denis Lavant to steal a potential cure for the virus and pay off his father’s debts simultaneously. Whilst the heist is planned, Lavant dumps his teenage girlfriend Julie Delpy for Juliette Binoche, despite the fact that Binoche is already involved with one of the elder members of the gang. What follows is a lot of introspective, moody close-ups and ruminations on the nature of love and precious little of the action that such a plot summary suggests, not necessarily a bad thing.
Bad Blood is certainly a gorgeously shot film. The streets are depopulated, as if the disease has killed off the entire population already, and all that’s left are greying empty skylines and concrete, blocking off the remaining inhabitants from connecting, only rarely splashed with blocks of bright, primary colours. There’s an inherent vapidness to the characters’ musings on love; an especially long middle-stretch of the film is little more than Lavant and Binoche discussing romance, but they devolve into confused platitudes, both too young to truly understand it, a potentially fatal ignorance in this quickly emptying world.
Lavant in particular comes across as a young man barely able to hold his thoughts together, bursting at the seams with youthful vigour, hormones and energy, but precious little wisdom: the film’s greatest moment comes when he suddenly runs into the street, dancing to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’, a man teetering on the edge of sanity. Who better for such a role than mercurial Denis Lavant, one of the most unique, interesting, and fascinatingly complex actors around. It should be noted that Binoche and Delpy are no slouches here either, both contributing brilliant performances. If nothing else, Bad Blood is a brilliant opportunity to watch three of France’s best ever actors at the very dawn of their careers, and let’s not forget that the film also provides central roles for other major French actors like Michel Piccoli.
Yet, Bad Blood feels like less than the sum of its parts. Its slow pace is at turns both relaxingly languid and frustratingly opaque, and it seems to me that Carax had yet to figure out how best to pace his work at this point. Much like Godard, there’s a lot of aimless meandering here, and some particularly on-the-nose symbolism, but thankfully it’s also lacking in his pseudo-political ramblings (although some of the film’s comments on the nature of romance are shallow). There are some bright moments in Bad Blood, but its patchwork of ideas, flaws, and strengths ultimately does not coalesce into a genuinely excellent work, remaining interesting rather than fulfilling, the work of a student still under the spell of his master rather than breaking free.
One of three films Nicholas Ray directed in 1949, They Live by Night has endured far longer than the other two, and with good reason. This is hard-boiled and ugly film noir; considering how Ray was renowned for dark material even in the midst of Hollywood’s Hays Code era, it’s hardly likely to be anything but. Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell star as two lovers on the run who, by bad luck and necessity, get pulled deeper and deeper into criminality, even as both start out innocent (ironically, fugitive-on-the-run Granger is determined to use some of his ill-earned money to clear his name). Fiercely critical of the dog-eat-dog nature of the American dream/rat race, They Live by Night is one of Ray’s finest films, laden with tragedy from the start and buffeted by stylish high-contrast black-and-white throughout.
Of Nicholas Ray’s 1950s heyday as a director, Party Girl sits in the second-tier, mostly forgotten today and certainly nowhere near the heights of masterworks like Johnny Guitar or even the overblown melodrama of Rebel Without a Cause. It still retains a glut of interesting details and revealing moments, being quite dark and nihilistic even for Ray’s already close-cut preferences, especially considering the film was made by MGM studios, Hollywood’s traditionally most glamorous and lavish big studio. The juxtaposition between the vivid splash of MGM’s sets and production design (aided by Ray’s exquisite eye as a director) and the moody, noirish nature of the material provides Party Girl with its main source of interest, but there isn’t an awful lot else going on here.
Set in 1930s Chicago (and unlike most Hays Code Hollywood films, freely admitting to the existence of *gasp* the mafia), the basic plotline is that criminal lawyer Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor), long a mouthpiece and the ‘get-out-jail-free man’ for the mob gang headed by Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), falls in love with dancer Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse). At her encouragement he begins to change his ways, looking to get out of defending blatant criminals, thus worrying his former boss that he might rat on him.
It’s not really an “honest girl makes loveable rogue change his ways” story; both characters are lonely and downbeat. Vicki has long been a showgirl and dancer for Angelo’s nightclub, and it’s hinted that she also occasionally dips into prostitution to stay financially afloat, whilst Tommy openly admits to his drive for respect and money from the beginning, cast as a result of his feeling emasculated due to his limp leg.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say this, but Hollywood (especially Old Hollywood) often uses disabilities or physical handicaps as a way of implying a character is morally corrupt, and so it goes with Tommy. As he falls in love with Vicki, he also undergoes surgery to fix his limp. He literally becomes less handicapped at the same time as he becomes a better man. It’s a cheap trick, and loaded with all sorts of prejudices that sadly haven’t really been stamped out from mainstream filmmaking. It also doesn’t help that both Taylor and Charisse give fairly cold performances; one rarely gets the sense that their relationship is motivated by much else other than desperation and a desire to be free from the strictures of either wage-slavery (in Vicki’s case) or the strictures of the criminal underworld (in Tommy’s case).
Then again, that kind of dynamic would fit perfectly at home in Nic Ray’s world. This is a film with suicide, acid attacks, and a graphic (for its time) montage of people getting killed onscreen. Pretty damn dark for the Hays Code era, and one can see in this film the beginning of what would be a long, gradual acceptance by the moral guardians of Hollywood cinema that there is more to the world than its black-and-white worldview. Particularly engrossing is Lee J. Cobb’s performance, fitting both cigar and scenery into his mouth as mafia boss Rico with great gusto and drama, stealing every scene he’s in and bringing energy to a film without much of it. I wonder if Robert De Niro was watching; many of his great Mafiosi characters (Goodfellas, The Untouchables, Casino) seem to be echoing Cobb’s excellent work here, an angry, bulldog fighter of a performance, a character with intelligence, temper, and arrogance. From a purely filmic perspective, it’s probably Party Girl’s greatest aspect. A shame then that the rest of the film has so little energy, with Ray unable to take the film’s dark undercurrents to further heights.