From the Chicago Reader (November 25, 2005). — J.R.
Jean Renoir, The Boss: The Direction of Actors
Directed by Jacques Rivette
With Jean Renoir and Michel Simon
In 1966 Jacques Rivette made a three-part TV documentary titled Jean Renoir, Le patron (Jean Renoir, the Boss), and its 90-minute centerpiece has rarely been seen since. “A Portrait of Michel Simon by Jean Renoir, or A Portrait of Jean Renoir by Michel Simon, or The Direction of Actors: Dialogue,” screening on DVD this week at Alliance Francaise, is a missing link that’s key to understanding Rivette’s work. It’s a raw record of the after-dinner talk between one of the world’s greatest directors and his greatest actor, both in their early 70s, punctuated by clips from the five films they worked on together — Tire-au-Flanc (1928), On Purge Bébé (1931), La Chienne (1931), Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), and Tosca (1941). It also includes occasional remarks by Rivette, the documentary’s producers (Janine Bazin and Andre S. Labarthe), and the stills photographer (the distinguished Henri Cartier-Bresson). The joy Renoir and Simon clearly share at being reunited is complemented by Rivette’s determination to exclude nothing, so that the “direction of actors” applies to him as much as to his two principals, each of whom can be said to be directing the other.… Read more »
My nominee for Louis Malle’s worst film is this toothless San Francisco remake (1983) of the great Italian heist comedy, Big Deal on Madonna Street, scripted by Jeffrey Fiskin. This was planned for John Belushi, who died before it could get off the ground and might have made the whole thing worth doing. With Jack Warden, Donald Sutherland, Wallace Shawn, and the young Sean Penn. PG, 91 min. (JR)… Read more »
Rarely screened, this is the 90-minute centerpiece to Jacques Rivette’s three-part TV documentary Jean Renoir, the Boss (1966), made just before Rivette discovered improvisation in his fictional L’Amour Fou, Out 1, and Celine and Julie Go Boating. The full on-screen title is “Michel Simon as Seen by Jean Renoir or Jean Renoir as Seen by Michel Simon or The Direction of Actors,” and the raw record of after-dinner talk between the great director and his greatest actor, both in their early 70s, is punctuated with relevant clips from Tire-au-Flanc (1928), On Purge Bebe (1931), La Chienne (1931), Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), and Tosca (1941). Stills photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and producers Janine Bazin and Andre S. Labarthe are on hand to prod the two old friends, whose palpable joy in each other’s company is complemented by Rivette’s determination to take it all in. Clips of this are included in the Criterion DVD of Boudu, but the full version is as radical in its own way as Renoir and Simon’s masterpiece. Reviewed this week in Section 1. DVD projection. Film scholar Gabe Klinger will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward. Wed 11/30, 7:15 PM, Alliance Francaise Auditorium, 54 W. Chicago, 312-337-1070.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (November 18, 2005). — J.R.
Arguably Louis Malle’s best work (1960). Based on Raymond Queneau’s farcical novel about a little girl (Catherine Demongeot) left in Paris for a weekend with her decadent uncle (Philippe Noiret), this wild spree goes overboard reproducing Mack Sennett-style slapstick, parodying various films of the 1950s, and playing with editing and color effects (Henri Decae’s cinematography is especially impressive), though gradually it becomes a rather disturbing nightmare about fascism. Forget the preposterous claim by a few critics that the movie’s editing influenced Alain Resnais, but there’s no doubt that Malle affected Richard Lester — and was clearly influenced himself by William Klein, whom he credited on the film as a visual consultant. A rather sharp, albeit soulless, film, packed with ideas and glitter and certainly worth a look. In French with subtitles. 93 min. Sun 11/20, 3 and 5 PM, Facets Cinematheque.
… Read more »
Rarely screened, this is the 90-minute centerpiece to Jacques Rivette’s three-part TV documentary Jean Renoir, the Boss (1966), made just before Rivette discovered improvisation in his fictional L’Amour Fou, Out 1, and Celine and Julie Go Boating. The full on-screen title is Michel Simon as Seen by Jean Renoir or Jean Renoir as Seen by Michel Simon or The Direction of Actors, and the raw record of after-dinner talk between the great director and his greatest actor, both in their early 70s, is punctuated with relevant clips from Tire-au-Flanc (1928), On Purge Bebe (1931), La Chienne (1931), Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932), and Tosca (1941). Stills photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and producers Janine Bazin and Andre S. Labarthe are on hand to prod the two old friends, whose palpable joy in each other’s company is complemented by Rivette’s determination to take it all in. Clips of this are included in the Criterion DVD of Boudu, but the full version is as radical in its own way as Renoir and Simon’s masterpiece. (JR)… Read more »
Two silent narratives by the Japanese director, surviving only in fragments. A Straightforward Boy (1929) was a 40-minute comedy inspired by O. Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief; the 14 minutes extant hilariously recount the misery of a kidnapper who’s abducted a bratty child. (Little Tomio Aiko made such an impact that he permanently changed his name to Tokkan Kozo, the Japanese title). A Mother Should Be Loved (1934, 71 min.), which is missing the first and last reels, takes on melodramatic material more suited to Douglas Sirk: two grown brothers are alienated after the older one secretly discovers that their mother is really his stepmother. Subtitled Japanese intertitles fill in the missing bits of plot; the first film is untranslated. (JR)… Read more »
Directed and narrated by Yoshishige Yoshida (Eros + Massacre), this thoughtful, provocative essay (1997, 52 min.) considers the work of Gabriel Veyre, a camera operator for the Lumiere brothers who traveled around the world at the end of the 19th century and brought back notable footage of Mexico and Japan. Yoshida’s highly speculative account alternates Veyre footage with contemporary views of similar locations and includes some fictionalized dramatizations. Focusing on the colonialist connotations of filming foreigners, Yoshida notes that Veyre’s relatively unexotic Japanese footage was coolly received in France. Also on the program, Nelly Kaplan’s Abel Gance: Yesterday and Tomorrow (1963, 26 min.) digests the career of the French director (Napoleon), drawing on his recorded interviews and emphasizing his frenetic editing and multiple images. Both films have English voice-overs, a method that works better with Yoshida’s film. (JR)… Read more »
These three short films about still photography, made by Agnes Varda at different points in her career, add up to a first-rate triptych that highlights the French director’s filmmaking strengths and mercurial intelligence. For Salut les Cubains (1963, 30 min.) Varda edited and animated 1,500 photographs she’d taken during a holiday in Cuba; in Ulysse (1982, 22 min.) she investigates and interrogates a photograph taken in Egypt during the 50s; and in the haunting piece de resistance, Ydessa, les Ours et Etc . . . (2004, 44 min.), she examines a Toronto exhibition by Ydessa Hendeles, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who’s responded to the loss of her family’s mementos by assembling thousands of historical photographs featuring teddy bears. In French with subtitles. 96 min. (JR)… Read more »
Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu shot these silent films with complementary titles in 1929 and 1930 respectively. I Graduated, But . . . appears to be a drama; only an 11-minute fragment survives, but it manages to synopsize the entire story, in which a college graduate refuses to accept a job as receptionist and then hides his unemployment from his visiting family. I Flunked, But . . . (64 min.), a pre-Animal House romp about college goof-offs who cheat on their exams, is so light it threatens to evaporate. But Ozu gets some weird formal effects by periodically synchronizing the movement of the students as they walk or do little dance turns, and the film includes the first screen appearance of Ozu regular Chishu Ryu. The great actress Kinuyo Tanaka, known for her work with Kenji Mizoguchi as well as Ozu, appears in both films. (JR)… Read more »
Like Passing Fancy two years earlier, Yasujiro Ozu’s penultimate silent film (1935) is a glum Depression-era tale with Takeshi Sakamoto as a poor laborer and single parent (he even has the same given name as in the earlier film). Homeless, he cares for two little boys (the older one, hammy Tokkan Kozo, also appeared in 1932′s I Was Born, But . . . ) and befriends an equally desperate single mother, stealing for her after her little girl contracts dysentery. Despite the characteristic visual distinction, this lacks the passion and urgency of Ozu’s best work, and the moralistic conclusion feels strained. With subtitled Japanese intertitles. 80 min. (JR)… Read more »
F.W. Murnau, one of the giants of silent cinema, directed this 1920 German melodrama about a love triangle involving an eye surgeon, his wife, and a blind man (Conrad Veidt). It’s Murnau’s sixth feature but the earliest to survive; I’ve seen it only in incomplete form, but I can still report that it prefigures Nosferatu (1922) in many ways. 70 min. (JR)… Read more »
Chicagoan Deborah Stratman, who specializes in experimental documentaries, spent four months with tightrope walker Adil Hoxurcited in the Guinness Book of World Records and the latest descendant of a family of tightrope performers over many centuriesas he and his troupe toured Chinese Turkestan and performed nightly in small villages. Among his biggest fans are fellow Uygurs, a Turkic Muslim people seeking religious and political autonomy. Stratman emphasizes the everyday over the exotic, a consistently fresh and personal way of relating to the material; she trusts viewers to make many of the right connections but never comes across as esoteric. Her sense of rhythm in this digital video, particularly evident in the way she edits and lingers over certain kinds of movement, is especially impressive. 68 min. (JR)… Read more »
With a few exceptions, I prefer the literature of Edgardo Cozarinsky, an Argentinean based mainly in Paris, to his films, and his nonfiction in both realms to his fiction. But this poetic, atmospheric drama, his first to be shot in Buenos Aires, challenged my bias, mixing the natural and the supernatural, the cinematic and the literary, with such assurance that Cozarinsky no longer seems like a divided artist. Following a teenage street hustler through the night of All Saints’ Day, he turns a documentary about his hometown and its street life into a haunting piece of magical realism. (The original title, Ronda Nocturna, translates more accurately as Nocturnal Rounds.) In Spanish with subtitles. 82 min. (JR)… Read more »
A Buddhist screenwriter (Peter Saarsgard) writes an autobiographical script about the recent death of his male lover and sells it to a studio for a million dollars; the executive who buys it (Campbell Scott) converts it into a heterosexual story, meanwhile starting an affair with the writer. The executive’s wife (Patricia Clarkson) finds him out while communicating with the writer in a gay chat group, then impersonates his late lover. This directorial debut by Craig Lucas, based on his play, starts off promisingly as a Hollywood satire with a sensitive direction of actors. But then it gets progressively worse as it takes itself more seriously, changing the characters every which way and ending in absurd bathos. R, 101 min. (JR)… Read more »
Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is still the best of all avant-garde novels, and most of the fun of watching this screen version is wondering how writer Martin Hardy and director Michael Winterbottom will adapt what’s plainly unadaptable. They manage to anticipate almost every possible objection (even finding a cinematic equivalent for Sterne’s purposely blank page). This farce eventually runs out of steam, devolving into a protracted docudrama about actor Steve Coogan (who plays the title hero as well as his father), but until then this is a pretty clever piece of jive. With Rob Brydon (as Toby), Dylan Moran (as Dr. Slop), Keeley Hawes, and Shirley Henderson. R, 94 min. (JR)… Read more »