Sunday, 14 March 2010

Psycho: love in the afternoon

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) have had sex; Leigh is lying on the bed in her white bra, Gavin stands shirtless over her. (Other critics than me have noted that after Marion decides to steal the money that sets the Psycho nightmare in motion, her underwear is black.) The scene could be a painting by Edward Hopper (the Bates Motel, when we see it framed against a dark sky later, is said to have been inspired by Hopper's House by the Railroad).

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is about to be rereleased (on 2 April) for its 50th anniversary. Everyone rightly concentrates on the famous shower scene (death by 70 edits), but Psycho also opens with one of my favourite first scenes in cinema.

Saul Bass's title sequence is a relatively simple affair of lines traversing the screen. Together with Bernard Herrmann's driving score (sampled by Busta Rhymes for Gimme Some More), the credits signal movement, action - an intensive advertising campaign had already promised terror. We open on a city skyline and a sequence of increasingly precise titles that would, in different circumstances, be funny but this, we know, is no laughing matter: 'Phoenix, Arizona… Friday, December the Eleventh… Two forty-three pm.' The time here is important (the date was apparently only added when someone spotted Christmas decorations in the background of some of the street shots of Phoenix).

Pan to an apartment block, followed by a dissolve to one particular window, its blind almost completely lowered. Cut to what is clearly a set and the camera moves through the gap between the bottom of the blind and sill into a room.

'You never did eat your lunch, did you?' Sam says. 'I better get to the office,' Marion replies. 'These extended lunch-hours give my boss excess acid.' The following four minutes are a demonstration of concise set-up; we learn as much from the tender tone in which the dialogue is delivered as from what is said. Sam visits Marion by plane for these liaisons; he lives behind a hardware store paying off his father's debts and alimony for an ex-wife. Marion wants to settle down with him; he wants to sort out his financial footing. 'Tell you what, when I send my ex-wife her alimony, you can lick the stamps,' Sam says. 'I'll lick the stamps,' Marion promises.

They have to vacate the room by 3pm - it's that kind of hotel - and Marion returns to her office without Sam. Standing outside is Hitch himself - in a cowboy hat; soon she makes the impulsive decision to steal $40,000 from work.

When I was a teenager I thought this scene was pretty sexy; Janet Leigh immediately displays a certain poise as Marion. It's also sad - Herrmann's romantic theme is post-coitally melancholic - and, worse, it sets her up as the unmarried woman who's about to get hers. I still rather envy them that lunch-hour (if she left work at 1pm, say, they haven't done too badly by 2.43pm, and all on an empty stomach).

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Who is Benjamin Biolay?

Amid the hoohaa over the state of French president Nicolas Sarkozy's marriage, the character of one major player seems to have been largely overlooked by the British media. Benjamin Biolay may sound like a purveyor of posh yoghurt (the French do love their culture) but he's an estimable musician whose work is worth more than a passing listen.

A graduate of Lyon's conservatoire, he immediately impressed with his 2001 debut, Rose Kennedy, a concept album based on the life of the Kennedy family matriarch. It's filled with plangent arrangements (he studied trombone), samples from Some Like It Hot and a lovely song about flying kites on the beach. He had already cemented his songwriting reputation by contributing to French crooner Henri Salvador's 2000 album Chambre avec vue (a best-seller recorded when Salvador was 82!).

Biolay's collaborator for those Salvador tracks was Keren Ann, and she and Biolay worked together on her excellent, synthy debut La Biographie de Luka Philipsen (2000). Keren Ann Zeidel is Dutch-Javanese-Israeli and has a flirty phone manner that once reduced me to a puddle during an interview (unfortunately the Time Out piece that followed about her and Biolay leading the French pop scene at the time isn't online).

She's also stunning, and Benjamin Biolay clearly has a way with beautiful women. He recorded a (musically) rather less successful album with his erstwhile wife, Chiara Mastroianni (the daughter of Marcello and Catherine Deneuve), Home, and has worked with his sister Coralie Clément on some very good pop albums indeed. There's no suggestion of incest in their relationship but, when every male musician in France has to endure comparisons with Serge Gainsbourg, Biolay hardly seems to be going out of his way to distance himself from le grand Serge's reputation.

Now, of course, Biolay has been linked with the taller half of the Sarkozy marriage, Carla Bruni. Nicolas is said to have flown to Thailand to retrieve his wife from the hands of France's new BB, but perhaps the couple were writing songs together on the beach. There does seem to be something of the leading man who always attracts his costar about Biolay.

His current album, La Superbe, is a typically ambitious double album based around a summer affair, lasting a month from the traditional 15 August holiday. The title track is a string-rich epic well worth checking out; elsewhere there are echoes of Manu Chao (Buenos Aires) and also a song told in Post-it notes left between the two lovers (Brandt rhapsodie), which is reminiscent of Biolay's excellent work on the soundtrack to the film Clara et Moi (2004).

While the UK media has noted that Biolay was a big winner at France's Victoires de la Musique awards, there's been scant interest in his work itself, perhaps because we wrongly tend to look down on French pop. There's no better time to discover Biolay's excellent oeuvre, though this may not have been the way he chose to break his name internationally.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Losing the plot

A couple of recent films have had me thinking about when it's appropriate for a reviewer to give away a crucial plot twist. I think anything up to about a third of the way through is fair game. Much less and I don't see how you can convey a sense of a writer or director's ambition; too much and readers are naturally going to be disappointed/angry.

Writer/director Mia-Hansen Løve's latest, The Father of My Children, presents a particular problem as the film's emphasis shifts quite notably halfway through. I think it's possible to write about this very accomplished feature, about a film producer and the effects of his stressful job on himself and his family, without giving too much away but is that right? In his Sight & Sound review, Ryan Gilbey makes no bones about revealing the moment that serves as the film's axis but, then, S&S does lay bare every new film's plot in its detailed synopses.

Probably my other favourite film of the year thus far, A Single Man, is another case in point. Based on a book with which some viewers/readers may be familiar, there's perhaps less compunction about giving away the theme of the single day in the life of college professor George Falconer (an excellent and suitably awarded Colin Firth) featured in Tom Ford's film.

Both films have at their centre depression and mortality; interestingly, The Father of My Children creates a sense of menace at what should be its happiest moments. I don't think I'm the only one who finds the family's holiday scene touched by impending horror. It's out today - do catch Hansen-Løve's film for its maturity, the fluidity of its narrative and an exceptional performance by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as the troubled film producer, as well as those of the children to whom he is father.