Review: Brief Encounter (1945)

Source: The Guardian

“This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.”

Before Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai made his name synonymous with sprawling, big-budget epics, David Lean directed much smaller, more intimate films, often romances or literary adaptations. Brief Encounter happens to be both: a tragic love story adapted from a play by Lean’s friend and collaborator, Noël Coward.

Synopsis

Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is an ordinary wife and mother. She is content with her quiet, some would say boring, life: keeping house, raising two children, and going to town by train every Thursday to do the shopping. All of that changes one Thursday evening when she meets a kindly stranger, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), in the tea room at the train station. Suddenly, she finds herself caught in between her devotion to her husband and family and her passionate love for Alec.

Review

In trying to find the right words to describe the experience of this film, I keep coming back to over and over to the word “emotional.” Brief Encounter makes you feel every emotion, and feel them perhaps more deeply than many other films do. Though immersed in the dreary mundanity of a small town in Britain, the sounds and images of Brief Encounter transform the world of the film, suffusing it with passion.

Many viewers justly laud the film’s haunting score, selected from the works of Sergei Rachmaninov. Perhaps just as effective for getting viewers into the film’s frame of mind is the shadowy, expressionistic style of cinematography that Lean achieves, with the help of DP Robert Krasker. Under their direction, Milford Junction, where much of the film takes place, becomes dark and secretive, or harsh with sudden light. It hides but it also reveals. It provides a refuge for the two lovers, though the precariousness of their situation remains.

The film’s opening shot. Source: Expedient Exaggeration.
Laura and Alec saying goodbye. Source: BFI.

On top of this, we have the performance of Celia Johnson, who possessed one of the most expressive faces in the history of cinema. A stage actress by training, Johnson’s film performances were few but magnetic. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, we can see her falling in love ever so slowly with Alec as they chit-chat about his work in the tea room. This, in my opinion, is one of the great romantic scenes of all time.

Trevor Howard as well gives an admirable performance as Alec, though his character appears to be slightly underwritten. The entire film is told from the point of view of Laura as she sits in her living room, imagining herself telling the story to her kind and unsuspecting husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). On the one hand, this device allows the film to give Laura a rich inner life, making her far more complex than many a romantic movie heroine of the day. On the other hand, such a device necessarily flattens the perspective of every other character. Alec seems to suffer especially, with one fellow film blogger suggesting that if Brief Encounter‘s female lead had been as underdeveloped as the male lead, the film would be reviled today instead of being celebrated.

Combined with this is Coward’s evident contempt for the lower classes, shown in the comparison he makes throughout the film between Laura and Alec and the tea room owner Myrtle (Joyce Carey) and her stationmaster boyfriend Albert (Stanley Holloway). Myrtle left her abusive husband to go into business for herself, and she and Alfred are apparently now living together. The script suggests that Laura and Alec’s affair would be wrong not simply on moral grounds but because such things are beneath their dignity as respectable members of the middle class.

Beyond these two unfortunate points, I find the writing in Brief Encounter to be one of its best features: a simple but moving story, turning a penetrating eye to the relationships of the characters.

“Thank you for coming back to me.”

Source: Criterion

Perhaps the most poignant scene of the entire film comes at the very end. Laura, sitting in her living room after parting from Alec forever that day, has just finished telling the story in her mind. Her husband Fred, looking up from his crossword puzzle, finally begins to notice that something is wrong. The jovial, empty face he wore throughout most of the film vanishes, replaced by a look of unknowing but genuine concern. He kneels down by Laura’s chair, and says

“Laura?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Whatever your dream was, it wasn’t a very happy one, was it?”

“No.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Yes, Fred, you always have.

[beat]

Fred: “You’ve been a long way away.”

Laura: “Yes.”

Fred: “Thank you for coming back to me.”

Laura bursts into tears and buries her face in Fred’s shoulder. He embraces her, kisses her softly, and we close.

To me, this is one of the best and most powerful scenes in film. Up until this point, Fred wasn’t so much a character as he was an idea, a vague threat to Laura and Alec’s happiness, a liability to take into account and nothing more. With this nine-line exchange, that oblivious, crossword-solving plot device becomes a flesh-and-blood human being, with emotions and a heart as real as Laura’s or Alec’s. In this moment, the reality of what that affair could have meant and how many lives it could ruin comes down with full force.

This, the focus on human beings and the delicacy of their relationships, is why Brief Encounter has stood the test of time. Today, the main premise of the film seems to many audiences, and even some critics, almost silly: if they’re so in love, why don’t they leave their spouses so they can be together? Why do they feel so guilty for being with the person who truly makes them happy? This scene answers all of those questions: because it isn’t just about them. There are other people, other lives, other hearts mixed into this too. Noël Coward’s story captures that beautifully, and Lean’s vivid, sensitive direction brings it to life.


Language: English

Director: David Lean

Producer: Noël Coward

Production Company: Cineguild

Stars: Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, Joyce Carey as Myrtle Bagot, Stanley Holloway as Albert Godby, Cyril Raymond as Fred Jesson

Writers: Noël Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame, and David Lean

Based on: Still Life by Noël Coward

Score by: Sergei Rachmaninov

Runtime: 1 hour and 26 minutes

Color?: Black and white

Top 5 Favorite Musicals

It’s true that Hitchcock’s Guide tends to stick to rather dark films, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t love a good happy Technicolor musical sometimes too. Today I’d like to focus on that sunnier side of cinema and share a few of my favorite musical pictures with you.

Bear in mind that I present these films not as the definitive five best musicals ever (as if such a judgement were even possible to make), but merely as my own personal favorites.

5. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), dir. Stanley Donen

A rollicking tale of romance and abduction in the Oregon territory. Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) brings his new bride Millie (Jane Powell) home to his farm in the mountains, where she teaches his six rowdy brothers how to behave like gentlemen. The brothers’ first foray into society—a barn raising with one of the best ensemble dance numbers of any film on this list—goes so well that a few of the young ladies in town begin to fall for the unmarried Pontipees. So the brothers do what anyone would do in that situation: they kidnap the girls and bring them back to the farm, where heavy snowfall forces them all to stay on the homestead till spring.

A strange premise to be sure, but the overall tone of the movie makes it feel like one big, silly joke. The dance routines, including the famous “lumberjack ballet,” remain some of the best in Donen’s filmography, and the talent of the two leads, Keel and Powell, is hard to match.

4. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), dir. Jacques Demy

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Source: Janus Films

This one is a bit different from the other entries on this list, partly because it’s in French and partly because it has more in common with opera than with a traditional movie or stage musical: there are no dance numbers and all of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken. I covered this one briefly in my list of favorite French movies. The film tells the story of Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a pair of young lovers who are forced to separate when Guy is drafted into the army. Between an unforgettable score by Michel Auclair, Catherine Deneuve’s star-making performance, and Demy’s brilliant direction, this goes down as one of my favorite films of all time, musical or not.

3. The Band Wagon (1953), dir. Vincente Minnelli

An ode to the olden days of show business, and a protest against newer, more experimental styles of performing. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a washed-up hoofer trying to make a come-back. His playwright friends Lily and Lester Martin (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) think they’ve written the perfect musical for him, but their show is ruined when an avant garde impresario (Jack Buchanan) takes it over.

The movie gets a bit messy and confusing toward the end, as we watch several musical numbers that are supposed to appear in Lily and Lester’s original show but that seem fairly disjointed. Still, it pairs Fred with Cyd Charisse to breathtaking effect, plus I get a big kick out of Jack Buchanan as the maniacal director Jeffery Cordova.

2: Singin’ in the Rain (1952), dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Related image
Source: More Than One Lesson

The penultimate Hollywood musical. A celebration of all things show business. Where The Band Wagon tries rather awkwardly to cram in as many old time hits as possible, creating an in-universe musical that has no discernible plot at all, Singin’ in the Rain incorporates similar music in a more organic way that fits the story more closely. Couple that with the excellent performances of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, and Jean Hagen and you have as close to a perfect movie musical as exists in the world.

1: My Fair Lady (1964), dir. George Cukor

So if Singin’ in the Rain is a perfect musical, why is My Fair Lady in the #1 spot? For several reasons: the plot, based on Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, is more mature and complex than that of many other musicals, it features some of Alan Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s best music, and the performances remain some of the most iconic in American cinema. Rex Harrison became something like a national treasure for his realization of Henry Higgins, and despite the controversy that surrounded the casting Audrey Hepburn, her performance as Eliza proved to be one of the defining moments of her career. The supporting cast too is fantastic, from Wilfrid Hyde-White as Colonel Pickering to Stanley Holloway reprising his Broadway role as “the most original moralist in England” Alfred P. Doolittle.

That’s all for me, what about you? What are your favorite movie musicals? Let me know in the comments below!

The Month’s Recap: April 2019

This month’s viewing schedule turned out to be slightly busier than March’s: fourteen movies in total, many of them new-to-me classics from home and abroad. There were a few misses here and there, but some gems too, including new favorites from directors I already loved.

On to the list!

L’assassin habite au 21 (1942), dir. Henri-Georges Cluzot

Related image
Source: MoMA

Recalling a recommendation that Nora Fiore, a.k.a. the Nitrate Diva, gave some time ago on Twitter, I caught this one on WatchTCM. It was a pleasant little murder movie, though nothing especially different or out-of-the-box. Many of the film’s fans cite the performance of Suzy Delair as one of their favorite aspects of the film. Personally, I found her character Mila grating and obnoxious, but I may alone in that opinion.

On a more positive note, writer and director Henri-Georges Cluzot would go on to direct one of my favorite films, Les Diaboliques, and the fingerprints of that film’s unique style can be seen in L’assassin as well.

“Skin” (2018), dir. Guy Nattiv

After this film won this year’s Oscar for Best Live Action Short, it was acquired for distribution by Fox Searchlight. Fox then posted it to their Youtube channel, and it’s a good thing that they did, because this mess is not worth the $1.99 it costs to rent on Amazon.

Ostensibly, “Skin” was meant as a morality tale about the evils of racial hatred and the effects that this hatred can have on the next generation. The filmmakers may have had honorable intentions, but their execution could hardly have been worse. From the racist tropes it applies to all of its black characters (either helpless victims of white oppression or violent criminals) to the laughably bad twist ending which manages to heap yet more offense on African-Americans, this was a terrible choice for an award, even by 2019 Oscar standards.

One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (2000), dir. Chris Marker

I put this in my “Watch Later” folder on Youtube only because it was about Andrei Tarkovsky. I had recently seen Mirror for the first time and I’ve been reading Tarkovsky’s journals, so I’m kind of on a kick about him. And to my great delight, I saw as soon as the opening credits rolled that this film was directed by Chris Marker, a seminal auteur of documentary filmmaking and the creator of my favorite short film.

Like all other Chris Marker documentaries, the work, while being factual in itself, strives to elevate itself to the level of art. Its approach to documenting Tarkovsky’s career (and the last days of his life) is not linked strictly by chronology but rather by imagery and theme, much like Tarkovsky’s films. Marker’s own poetic sensibilities compliment those of Tarkovsky beautifully.

Vampyr (1932), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

This ended up being my favorite film of the month. It has its flaws to be sure, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call it Dreyer’s best movie, its dream-like atmosphere makes it my favorite of his work. I reviewed it here.

The Lady Vanishes (1938), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Image result for the lady vanishes
Source: Criterion

I can’t believe it took me this long to finally get around to this film, but I’m glad I did: it ended up being a lot of fun, and certainly my favorite of Hitchcock’s British movies.

In a Lonely Place (1950), dir. Nicholas Ray

Also a first-time viewing for me. I blame my tepid reaction on the fact that I was under the impression that the film was primarily about innocent man dealing with a murder accusation, instead of a romantic drama about a woman who suspects that her lover is a killer. I came expecting Strangers on a Train and got Suspicion instead. Putting that aside, it is an excellent film in many ways. Comparing it to another very famous film noir from 1950, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, we can see similar themes of the degradation that belie the glittery surface of Hollywood. Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), whose fear of Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) undercuts her love for him, could also be compared to the strange attraction that Joe Gillis has to Norma and her world.

“At Land” (1943), dir. Maya Deren

Related image
Source: Cocosse

Still processing this one. I will get back to you later.

Ben-Hur (1959), dir. William Wyler

I attended the TCM Big Screen Classics showing of Ben-Hur and I’m glad I did: films like these were not designed for TV and the larger screen really helps you to appreciate the sheer amount of detail that went into this production. This happens to be my favorite of the 1950s ancient world epic genre because, unlike similar fare from DeMille and others, Wyler is willing to embrace spectacle without sacrificing substance and character.

The Quiet Man (1956), dir. John Ford

Illustration for article titled John Wayne goes to Ireland for what should have won Best Picture for 1952
Source: AV Club

Easily my favorite John Ford movie and my favorite John Wayne movie. I’ve seen this film more times than I can count, lines from it are permanently etched into my brain. After being unfairly overlooked for so long, I’m glad this one is finally starting to get some of the attention it deserves.

Day of Wrath (1943), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

Source: Criterion

This film came highly recommended to me, both for Carl Dreyer’s directing and for the performance of Lisbeth Movin as Anne. In the end, though, I came away somewhat less impressed than I expected. It is a good movie, even a great movie, but not the kind of cinematic revelation I expected from the director of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr.

Then again, it may have been Dreyer’s intention to avoid such obvious stylization. Day of Wrath was only his third film in fifteen years and the other two had been such huge box office flops that his producers only allowed him to make Day of Wrath on the condition that he first shoot a short film, to prove that he could stick to a schedule and a budget. I wouldn’t blame him at all for trying to make a less experimental film.

Brief Encounter (1945), dir. David Lean

Related image
Source: IMDb

Easily one of my favorite films of all time. I’m planning a review of this soon so look out for that post.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

Image result for the shop around the corner
Source: Film Forum

I was lucky enough to be home on the evening when TCM showed Brief Encounter and this film back to back. Though I enjoy all of the iterations of the Parfumerie story (which include 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail), The Shop Around the Corner is my favorite version. While the other adaptations conform to their eras’ preferred version of a happy love story, Shop is able to combine comedy and drama in a way that its successors do not. Undoubtedly, director Ernst Lubitsch has a lot to do with this: while he is known as a comedian, his films have about twenty times the wit and emotional depth of similar romantic comedies, both in his own time and since.

The Trial (1962), dir. Orson Welles

Source: Screen Slate

In the early ’60s, French producer Alexander Salkind agreed to finance a film for Welles on the condition that it must be an adaptation of a classic novel. Beyond that, Salkind made no demands on Welles and left him to do as he saw fit. Untethered from the expectations of studio bosses, Welles was free to make this hopelessly dark, slightly terrifying fable that he referred to as “the best film I ever made.” While it has not supplanted The Lady from Shanghai as my favorite Welles, it has some of the best cinematography and set design I’ve ever seen, as well as the terrific performance of Anthony Perkins as the persecuted Mr. K.

In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2001), dir. Martina Kudlácek

Finally, on the occasion of Maya Deren’s 102nd birthday earlier this week, I tracked down this English-language Austrian documentary on her life and work. Kudlácek had been friends with Deren’s second husband Alexander Hammid and had worked under avant garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. This gave her extensive access to Maya’s films, photographs, and recordings, as well as the memories and stories of those who knew her. In addition to Hammid and Mekas, dancer Katherine Dunham and filmmaker Stan Brakhage make appearances, as well as several other directors and artists who knew her or were inspired by her work.

And that’s all for now. What have you all been watching this month? Let me know in the comments!

Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Source: WQXR

Few figures have inspired more fascination or speculation in Western art and literature than Joan of Arc, the fifteenth-century peasant girl who adopted a masculine wardrobe, led the nation of France to victory in battle, and went to her fiery death proclaiming that the voice of God had spoken to her. Almost everyone, young or old, male or female, religious or not, finds her story inspiring. The oldest known attempt to commit the story of Joan to film was a short directed by Georges Hatot in 1898. Other films would follow from silent era giants like Georges Méliès and Cecil B. DeMille, but none, in the silent or the sound era, would equal the stature of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Produced in France in 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc focuses solely on Joan’s trial for witchcraft and her eventual execution. Taking advantage of the recent publication of the transcripts of Joan’s trial, Dreyer set out to make a film that was not only historically accurate in a high degree, but that also penetrated deeper into the soul of who Joan of Arc was and why she became such a hero for so many.

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5 Hitchcock Roles and the Actors Who Almost Played Them

It’s always fun to imagine what the films we love might have been like if another actor or actress had been in them. In the case of Hitchcock, some of his films could have been radically different if casting had gone in another direction. Here are five actors who came close to leaving their mark on some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most iconic films.

1. The second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca
Played by: Joan Fontaine
Also considered: Vivien Leigh

Considering Vivien Leigh’s talent for playing fierce, headstrong female leads, it seems almost inconceivable that she could take on the role of the quiet, mousy, permanently afraid Mrs. de Winter. Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier, already cast in the role of Maxim, suggested her to Hitchcock, but a screen test quickly put that idea to rest. Here it is on Youtube:

2. John Jones/Huntley Haverstock in Foreign Correspondent
Played by: Joel McCrea
Also considered: Gary Cooper

Sources: Prabook and Lenscloud

Foreign Correspondent was only Hitchcock’s second feature in America and his first true American thriller. In his interviews with François Truffaut, Hitchcock recounts the culture shock he experienced making thrillers in America versus in England:

In Europe, you see, the thriller, the adventure story is not looked down upon. As a matter of fact, that form of writing is highly respected in England, whereas in America it’s definitely regarded as second-rate literature; the approach to the mystery genre is entirely different.1

Though Hitchcock was eager to work with some of the big names in Hollywood, many of them believed thrillers to be beneath their talent. Gary Cooper was approached with the role of Huntley Haverstock, the good old American boy who goes to report on the war in Europe, but Cooper turned the role down. After Cooper saw the finished film, Hitchcock claims, he told the director that he regretted his decision.

3. Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train
Played by: Farley Granger
Also considered: William Holden

While some of us consider Strangers on a Train to be one of the highlights of Hitchcock’s career, the man himself was not overly pleased with the final product, partly because of what he termed the “ineffectiveness of the two main actors [Farley Granger and Ruth Roman].” In his interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock says that he would have preferred Holden in the role because he was “stronger. In this kind of story, the stronger the hero, the more effective the situation.”

4. Roger O. Thornhill in North by Northwest
Played by: Cary Grant
Also considered: James Stewart

Both Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman always wanted Cary Grant for the lead in North by Northwest. James Stewart, on the other hand, was eager to work with Hitchcock again and offered to play Thornhill before he even read the script. Not wanting to disappoint his friend, Hitchcock simply put off casting Thornhill longer and longer until Stewart left to play the lead in Richard Quine’s Bell, Book, and Candle.

5. Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo
Played by: Kim Novak
Also considered: Vera Miles

Source: Wikipedia

Though it seems impossible to imagine Vertigo without the performance of Kim Novak, she was not Hitchcock’s first choice for the role. That would be Vera Miles, whom he directed in 1956’s The Wrong Man and who became one of his favorite actresses. Miles had actually signed on to play the role of Madeleine/Judy before a pregnancy forced her to bow out.

That’s all for now! Thanks for sticking around, and come visit next week!

Review: Vampyr (1932)

Source: Carl Th Dreyer.dk

Following his masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer next turned his sights on the horror genre, with an adaptation of the vampire stories of Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu. As his first talking feature, Vampyr proved to be more than a little experimental. The result of that experiment, however, became one of the great horror films of the first half-century of cinema.

(Mild spoilers ahead.)

Synopsis

Allan Gray (Julian West) is a young traveler who is fascinated by the supernatural. Early one morning, while staying at an inn in the small French town of Courtempierre, he is visited by a mysterious man who says “She must not die” and leaves a package on his table. Going out to investigate, Allan falls headlong into a world of hauntings and black magic, and comes face to face with the dreaded vampire who terrorizes the town.

Review

Initially, Dreyer conceived of Vampyr as a silent movie. It was only once production was underway that the decision was made to turn it into a talkie. In addition, each scene had to be shot in three different languages—German, French, and English—to accommodate the three markets in which Dreyer intended to release Vampyr. The result of all of these factors is that sound in Dreyer’s film is used sparingly and with great intent. There is no superfluous dialogue, nothing beyond what is necessary to move the story along, and what ambient sounds we hear are chosen for maximum effect. So you never hear feet shuffle or doors latch, for example, but you do hear the vampire’s accomplice drilling holes into the lid of a coffin for the man they just killed. You hear him strike a match so that the vampire can peer into the coffin by the light of a candle. Dreyer’s soundtrack purposely suppresses or isolates sound depending on what is most psychologically important. Common, unnecessary sounds fall to the wayside while the sounds that terrify, that would haunt the dreams of the character who experienced them, remain.

Source: Carl Th Dreyer.dk
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What I Would Be Watching If I Were Going to the TCM Film Festival

Of course I won’t be going to the TCM Classic Film Festival for a number of reasons, but it’s always nice to daydream. On a list of offerings that range from Technicolor musicals to classic action and adventure movies, this year’s festival has a number of films that promise to look amazing on the big screen. Assuming I could be there to watch a movie in every single time slot, here’s what I would pick for this year’s festival.

Thursday, 6:30 PM: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), dir. Howard Hawks

Source: GlamAmor

I’ve watched this film a few times already, but a big, gaudy, Technicolor musical like this just begs for a big screen. Other opening night films include Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage and When Harry Met Sally, but for me, Hawks is the way to go.

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March Madness: A Summary of Films Watched This Month

Looking over the entries in my film diary for the month of March, they seemed even more varied than usual. I try to watch things from a variety of time periods, countries, and genres, but this month’s list had some truly unique films that I’d love to write about more in the future. Here’s the rundown of everything I watched this past month.

I started this month off with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. The Russian production company Mosfilm uploaded the full movie to their Youtube channel where it remains free of charge and with optional English subtitles. There was literally no reason why I should not watch it.

Though sometimes described as a “plotless” film, there is a story in Mirror, even if it doesn’t follow all of the traditional story beats exactly: a middle-aged writer is divorcing his wife and will likely lose his adolescent son in the process. This brings back daydreams and memories of his own childhood, spent with his single mother whose husband abandoned her and the children.

Like many of Tarkovsky’s films, Mirror is fixated on the ideas of time and memory: memory not merely as a piece of information stored away but as an active, living force in the world. The characters of Mirror are not simply haunted by memory, they are shaped and moved by it as well. The past is present with them. We see this in the structure of the film, in the way that it collapses all places and times into one. The narrative jumps back and forth between the past, the present, and the dreams of multiple characters, without a clear sense of continuity. The same actors play more than one character, blurring the lines between one time period and another even further. Tarkovsky encourages his viewers to think of these events and these people as one and the same thing, even if in the world of the story they took place decades apart. I find this manipulation of time and memory fascinating and hope to do more digging on it in the future.

Related image
Source: Vox

Next after that was an old favorite, the 1944 version of Gaslight. Starring Charles Boyer as the crazed jewel thief husband and Ingrid Bergman in her first of two Oscar-winning roles, this film is the gold standard in bloodless horror. Boyer’s merciless control over his wife and her desperate attempts to cling to her sanity are chilling even if, like me, you’ve seen it about forty or fifty times.

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Review: Funny Face (1957)

Director Stanley Donen passed away just over a month ago at the age of 94. And while he will always be best known for his work on films like Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town, that’s just the beginning of his talents as a director of funny, heartfelt, visually stunning musicals. One of my favorites from Donen is 1957’s Funny Face.

Synopsis

Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) is a fashion magazine photographer who is tired of working with models who are all beauty and no brains. During a photoshoot at a Greenwich Village bookshop, he discovers Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn), a store clerk who loves philosophy and hates anything having to do with fashion. Avery persuades her to go with him to Paris to model for the magazine only by promising her a chance to meet her favorite philosopher Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair). Once she’s there, she begins to fall in love with the fashion world and with Dick.

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My Top 5 French Films

“Every play needs to have a beginning, middle, and an end. Jean-Luc Godard said, not necessarily in that order. And that’s why French movies are so f-ing boring.”

I begin with that quote from David Mamet because I think it just about encapsulates most people’s sentiments toward French cinema. I would have preferred if he had said “That’s why Jean-Luc Godard’s movies are so f-ing boring.” Because while Vivre sa vie was the longest hour and twenty-five minutes of my life, there’s much more to French cinema than unhappy sex workers and disjointed narrative trains. As part inventors of the medium, the French were on the cutting edge of every major technological and artistic development in cinema for at least the first thirty years of its existence. Regrettably, things started to peter out during the war, but the 1950s and ’60s brought a wealth of film unlike anything else the world had seen.

All this to say that an exploration of French cinema is more than worthwhile. Here are my personal top five French movies.

5. Purple Noon (1960), dir. René Clément

The first of two major adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, this film stars Alain Delon as Tom Ripley, an outrageously handsome grifter who has been hired by the American millionaire Herbert Greenleaf to bring his playboy son Phillipe (Maurice Ronet) back home from Italy. Philippe, however, does not want to leave as he has fallen in love with a young French woman named Marge (Marie Lafôret). For failing to bring his son home in time, Mr. Greenleaf calls off his deal with Tom and rescinds his 5,000-dollar offer. Stuck in Italy with no money, Tom murders Phillipe and steals his identity so that he can claim his fortune.

Similar to Leave Her to Heaven or Vertigo, Purple Noon (originally titled “Plein soleil”) is a gorgeous movie about people doing terrible things. Shot on location in Italy, its elegant, sun-soaked exteriors paint a marked contrast with the depravity of its main character. Tom Ripley was a star-making role for Delon, whose quick transformation from Phillipe’s goofy but likeable friend to his cold, calculating killer is complete and startling.

4. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), dir. Jacques Demy

Image result for umbrellas of cherbourg
Source: Quad Films

This film is still fairly new to me (my first viewing of it was a little over a month ago), but right away, it made a deep impression on me. Set midway into the Algerian War, the story involves a young man named Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and his lover Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) who are forced to separate when Guy is drafted into the army. Finding herself pregnant with Guy’s child, Geneviève faces an uncertain future as she awaits his return.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was Jacques Demy’s third feature and his first musical, though it has more in common with an opera than with your typical Hollywood musical: there are no big production numbers, no dancing, and all of the dialogue is sung. Set against bright, Technicolor backdrops and Michel Legrand’s brilliant score, this film is beautiful to look at, sounds incredible, and is just a little hard on the heart.

3. “La Jetée” (1963), dir. Chris Marker

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Source: Criterion Collection

Set in the aftermath of a future nuclear holocaust, “La Jetée”‘s unnamed protagonist (Davos Hanich) becomes the subject of experiments in time travel which send him back to his past. There, he meets and falls in love with a woman (Hélène Chatelain), but his attempts to stay in the past with her prove futile.

Without a doubt, this is the best time travel love story I’ve ever seen. Composed almost entirely of still images and voiceover narration, “La Jetée” is one of the more unique films on this list. Haunting, poignant, mind-bending but still straightforward enough to be enjoyed by pretty much anyone, it is easily my favorite short film of all time as well.

2. A Man Escaped (1956), dir. Robert Bresson

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Source: Criterion

Based on the memoirs of French Resistance leader André Devigny, this film is the true story of how Devigny escaped from a Gestapo prison in Lyons, mere days before he was to be executed.

While Bresson’s cinema is sometimes regarded as “difficult,” A Man Escaped is an excellent entry point for people who are new to him. In addition to being just a terrific example of filmmaking craft, it’s also one of the most suspenseful films I’ve ever seen. By carefully controlling the flow of information and the movement of the camera, Bresson ensures that his viewers can only see what the hero sees and hear what he hears. This immersion into the character’s point of view helps to ground the viewer in his frame of mind, so that his anxieties become their anxieties. Even after multiple viewings (not to mention the fact that the title itself is a spoiler), I still find this film as engrossing as I did the first time I watched it.

1. Les Diaboliques (1954), dir. Henri-Georges Cluzot

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Source: BFI

In this masterwork from France’s own master of suspense, an abused wife (Véra Cluzot) conspires with her husband’s mistress (Simone Signoret) to put the bastard (Paul Meurisse) out of her misery.

This was the first French film I ever saw, and I couldn’t have picked a better introduction: reminiscent of such later thrillers as Psycho and Night of the Hunter, Les Diaboliques combines suspense, horror, and elements of the supernatural into a fascinating thrill ride. (It also has one of my favorite twist endings in film. No spoilers.)

That’s all for now. Are there any French movies you especially love? Let me know what they are in the comments!