Monday, 31 January 2011

Bertrand Blier retrospective

Like many other film fans, I suspect, I gave up on the work of Bertrand Blier 20 years ago with his Nazi-AIDS provocation Merci la vie, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Anouk Grinberg (pictured). It could be said to have served as a precursor for the more cynical cinema of Gaspar Noé and Virginie Despentes' Baise-Moi a decade later. I'm not sure how Merci stands up now - Londoners will have a chance to see for themselves in a Blier retrospective at the Ciné Lumiere from 1-6 February.

The season runs alongside an exclusive run of the 71-year-old's latest, The Clink of Ice, about an alcoholic writer who is visited by his cancer in human form. Like the director's most famous film, Trop belle pour toi (1989) - in which a car dealer deserts trophy wife Carole Bouquet for the less obvious charms of Josianne Balasko - what could play as an extended bad joke includes several surprises that keep it in the mind.

Blier first came to attention with freewheeling Les valseuses (1974), starring Gérard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere as a pair of hoodlums who hook up with Miou-Miou. Notably, it also features Jeanne Moreau as a recently released prisoner, a very early appearance from Isabelle Huppert, and a score by Stéphane Grappelli.

Blier has worked with Depardieu eight times, including Buffet froid (1979), which also stars Blier's father Bernard; my favourite, Tenue de soirée (1986), again with Miou-Miou and Michel Blanc, who ends up as the butt of the director's scenario when Depardieu, as a bisexual petty thief, seduces him and his wife, and Trop belle pour toi, which scooped five Césars and won Blier the grand jury prize at Cannes.

Blier won the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 1979 for another film starring Depardieu and Dewaere in an uncomfortable ménage-à-trois, Préparez vos mouchoirs. The other film I haven't seen in the programme is Mon homme (1996), which features the combined talents of Anouk Grinberg, Gérard Lanvin, Olivier Martinez, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Mathieu Kassovitz and Jean-Pierre Léaud. It may be worth taking the afternoon off.

PS In the capital's increasingly busy literary events calendar do keep an eye on the Institut francais' impressive French Passions series, which was kicked off by Will Self discussing Montaigne and continues this Thursday with Alain de Botton on Stendhal. Future instalments include Posy Simmonds (Flaubert) and Tom McCarthy (Robbe-Grillet).

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Five notable film performances by male French pop stars

1. Charles Aznavour, Shoot the Pianist (1960)
Cast in more than 70 features, Aznavour's most memorable turn is as the lead in François Truffaut's adaptation of the novel by David Goodis, Down There, which screens at the BFI Southbank 3 and 4 February. The son of Armenian immigrants to France, Aznavour's quiet, wounded looks make him an ideal fit, too, for a Simenon adaptation and, sure enough, he starred as Kachoudas in Claude Chabrol's Les fantomes du chapelier (1982).

2. Jacques Dutronc, Van Gogh (1991)
He has appeared alongside Isabelle Huppert in both Jean-Luc Godard's Slow Motion (1980) and Claude Chabrol's Merci pour le chocolat (2000) but his stand-out performance came in Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh. Dutronc, pictured top, won a Best Actor César for his performance of the artist during his final days.

3. Johnny Halliday, L'homme du train (2002)
The Belgian-born giant of French rock music is credited with an early role in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les diaboliques (1955), rising to Jean-Luc Godard's Détective in 1984. His stand-out performance, for which he won the prix Jean Gabin, came in Patrice Leconte's doleful feature as a gangster on the run who finds himself holed up with a retired French teacher, played by Jean Rochefort.

4. Eddy Mitchell, Until the End of the World (1991)
The hulking Mitchell has appeared in Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Tourchon (1981), an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, and Etienne Chatiliez' Le bonheur est dans le pré (1995). He is probably best known to international audiences for his role as a gangster on the run with hapless sidekick Chick Ortega in Wim Wenders' rambling intercontinental road movie.

5. Patrick Bruel, Force majeure (1989)
Bruel topped the bill for this film by Pierre Jolivet alongside François Cluzet (Tell No One); he's also starred with Dutronc in Toutes peines confondues (1992), directed by Michel Deville (La lectrice, Death in a French Garden). Otherwise Bruel tends to be a staple of urban comedy dramas among an ensemble cast, for instance 2009's Le code a changé, with Karin Viard, Dany Boon, Emmanuelle Seigner and Marina Hands. Wiki notes he is also a professional poker player.

Because no round-up of French music is complete without a namecheck for Serge Gainsbourg, I should mention the mindbending videos that accompany his Histoire de Melody Nelson concept album. Gainsbourg's reticence to appear in more features may be explained by his antipathy towards his looks, a hook Joann Sfarr exploited for his recent biopic about the musician, but there's always his lead in the self-directed and self-scripted Charlotte for Ever (1986) as an alcoholic scriptwriter, father to real-life daughter Charlotte.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Making a Killing

In the absence of Wallander and a brief but enjoyable introduction to Zen, may I point fans of detective drama with a strong lead (character) in the direction of BBC4's The Killing, which is also available on iPlayer. Sofie Gråbøl, pictured, stars as the head of a team investigating the drowning of a young woman, as if Twin Peaks had served as the inspiration for this latest import. Made in Denmark, its rhythms and atmosphere are (very slightly) reminiscent of Lars von Trier's haunting - haunted - hospital drama The Kingdom, Danish dialogue notwithstanding. The introduction of a politician and his cronies into the mix may have been a little more nuanced but otherwise The Killing displays an admirable interest for the ripple effect of a murder on investigators, victims and suspects alike. No doubt this will help it sustain a 20-episode run.

UPDATE At past the halfway point, the series continues to grip, not least because it's so filmic; I fear the prospect of catching up on 12 episodes may be beyond most newcomers, though the BBC is very sensibly keeping them all on iPlayer. Before The Killing began, the Guardian focused on its female lead but the series is remarkable for its portrayal of powerful women at all levels of the drama: there's intuitive detective Sarah Lund; Pernille Birk Larsen, mother of the young woman whose death is the action's catalyst; luscious Rie Skovgaard, steely press spokeswoman for politician Troels Hartmann, who is heavily implicated in the crime and, of course, Nanna Birk Larsen, the murder victim who haunts every revelation with her Laura Palmer-like presence. The men with whom they interact are mere shadows in thrall to these formidable characters.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Q and Arse

It's a conundrum that continues to puzzle me but a good film rarely provides a promising basis for a Q&A session. It may be that director and writer have answered all the questions the scenario throws up within the screenplay while other issues are best left for the audience's response.

I might give as an example Isabelle Czajka's Living On Love Alone (D'amour et d'eau fraîche), pictured, a painfully close-to-the bone depiction of a young woman struggling in the world of employment. In London it is showing exclusively at the lovely Ciné Lumière until the end of January, do try and catch it.

There may be a market for cinema's equivalent of a reading group, perhaps along the lines of London Film School's invite-only Speakeasy. In the meantime, the following types of questions should be banned from Q&A's:
  • a) The so-specific-as-to-be-bizarre, usually asked by a student doing a thesis on an often entirely unrelated topic eg How would you say the representation of *insert subject here* in art influenced your portrayal of the central character? (Can you do my essay for me?)
  • b) Rude putdowns. Thankfully this seems to be on the way out but for a while it became common to see a director who has given up their evening to publicise a film by graciously answering strangers' questions to be told that their movie is rubbish, that the interrogator has never liked the director's work and, in fact, the director is a disgrace to cinema. Some, like Julian Schnabel, seem to revel in this type of atmosphere, often deliberately trying to provoke his audience.
  • c) The non-question, delivered by an audience member to show off his or her erudition on a particularly esoteric aspect of the film with little import for the majority of the audience. It's bloody minded but you can't help admire subjects who refuse to answer broad statements.
  • d) The eulogy. I don't really mind the fan who genuinely wants to express their love and appreciation for a body of work but do throw in a question, otherwise you've wasted an opportunity for someone else.
  • e) The opportunistic. I once saw someone at the BFI ask Tilda Swinton if she'd look at her script. Fair dos.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Despots' choice: dictators' favourite films

A few years ago, stylista Peter York published a mesmerising book about despots' lifestyles called Dictators' Homes, in which he assesses the taste crimes of Mobutu and more against the very real atrocities they committed while in power. It casts a new light on Saddam Hussein, for instance; mocked for his palaces burnished with gold taps and murals of Amazon women on Mars - the sort of airbrush posters Athena used to revel in - York says the Iraqi dictator would been equally used, after years of hiding from potential assassins, to the underground hovel where US troops ignominiously unearthed him.

Concentrating on their interior décor, York omits to mention other aspects of his subjects' preferences, such as their taste in movies. In 1937, Adolf Hitler is said to have told British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax that one of his favourite films was The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), an adventure film about British colonisation of India starring Gary Cooper. The dictator held regular private screenings and was a great admirer of Britain's Empire, hoping Germany and the UK wouldn't come to war.

Stalin's favourite movie was reportedly Volga-Volga (1938), a musical about a folk singer who makes his way to Moscow for a music competition. While York's argument is often that dictators find it difficult to leave behind their simple backgrounds, this sounds like a model for contemporary Saturday-evening TV fodder, but then isn't Simon Cowell after global domination? (Stalin gave a copy of the film to US President Roosevelt and aides are said to have pored over it for hidden messages.)

Given his complex tribal allegiances, it comes as no surprise that Saddam Hussein is said to have been a fan of The Godfather (1972) nor, perhaps, that he liked thrillers such as The Day of the Jackal (1973) and The Conversation (1974), despite himself spewing forth literary dreck. If you're looking for a message, it couldn't be clearer than the self-glorifying, paranoiac, power-tripping nonsense adored by North Korea's Kim Jong-il, whose favoured movie franchises include the Rambo, Godzilla and Bond films.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Yelle peril

This year may be the first time English-speaking music fans hear of French trio Yelle (pictured), whose bonkers Safari Club Disco single is out now. An Alizée-Pink cross, they're supporting Katy Perry in 2011 and an album is due in March, when they're playing London.

They also appear on Nouvelle Vague's latest alongside Coralie Clément and Camille, among others. Couleurs sur Paris is not available in the UK, presumably because the 1980s cover artists have taken on French favourites. I'm keen to hear Vanessa Paradis' version of Etienne Daho's Week-end à Rome, the song that became He's On the Phone with St Etienne.

Nouvelle Vague previously painted Heaven 17's Let Me Go with their bossa shtick on the Bande à part album (2006); it's a song Yelle returned to for Ce jeu on 2007's Pop Up album, seemingly borrowing the original's backing wholesale. A couple more unexpected versions of some other great '80s songs I may as well mention here: Sophie Ellis-Bextor tackling Propaganda's biggest moment, Duel, and Tracey Thorn on Pet Shop Boys' King's Cross (Hot Chip Remix).

Monday, 17 January 2011

Kerned to f***

The London Short Film Festival, which recently closed for another year, featured a retrospective evening dedicated to Richard Kern, Submit to Me Now. In the mid- to late-1980s, Kern was a leading figure in the Cinema of Trangression movement and since then he's, well, a pornographer. His Wikipedia entry doesn't mention this - though it does note, childishly, he is 'mainly known for his photographs of naked women'. As the LSFF programme puts it, 'he travels the world in search of girls-next-door who can be gently persuaded to get naked. All in the name of art.'

Kern's own website notes his work for Vice and GQ, while putting his photographs of young women in such categories as WC, couples and beds. The women tend to be unmade-up, sullen and young-looking, photographed - in the non-pornographic material - brushing their teeth or eating breakfast. The porno shoots are porno.

Many of Kern's pictures have been published in handsome collections by Taschen, including Action and Model Release. Publisher Benedict Taschen acknowledged to me in an interview more than 10 years ago this relationship works both ways, not least making Kern's work acceptable.

At the time, the popularity of such books - Roy Stuart is another in the Taschen stable - could in part be attributed to the wider accessibility of pornography on the internet. Since then, Kern's pared-down, porno aesthetic has invaded the everyday, in ads for American Apparel, for instance, the work of fellow photographer Todd Hido (#3946, pictured) or the mainstream acceptance - in Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience (2009) - of porn star Sasha Grey (also a face of American Apparel, I think).

Friday, 14 January 2011

From Anémone to Zouzou

Wikipedia boss Jimmy Wales recently revealed his favourite entry on the public encyclopedia is about the metal umlaut, and I am increasingly fascinated with its categories (a few of those for pop star Keren Ann alone are worth noting: Dutch people of Indonesian descent; People from Haifa District; Israeli immigrants to the Netherlands). I'm pleased to see, however, that this massive database doesn't have one category I'm intrigued by - so far.

French actresses with one-word names may not seem a particularly fruitful line of investigation but it features Arletty (1898-1992), the star of Hôtel du nord (1938), alongside Annabella, and Les enfants du paradis (pictured; 1945), among others. (There is a more general list of one-word stage names on Wiki.)

Another former music-hall star, who appeared in such movies as Pépé le Moko (1937), is Fréhel (1891-1951): she was a notorious alcoholic whose lovely Si tu n'étais pas là features on the Amélie soundtrack. Many French pop stars transfer to film, including Lio and the naturalised Dalida, as well as models, such as Capucine and Zouzou, the lead in Eric Rohmer's Love in the Afternoon (1972).

Florelle, of Jean Renoir's Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), also starred in a Simenon adaptation, Les caves du Majestic (1945), which is translated very awkwardly on IMDb. Then there is Anémone, who won a César for her role in Le grand chemin (1987), alongside Richard Bohringer. The last one I can think of is Miou-Miou (Les valseuses, La lectrice, Milou en mai...) - so good, as the saying goes, they named her twice.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The long way, and the right way

As well as rereading Japanese author Haruki Murakami's entire backcatalogue for an interview that almost didn't happen, I once watched 54 hours of film for an article that nearly wasn't run. What perhaps makes the latter achievement more remarkable was that it was the work of one director, and only three films.

Edgar Reitz's Heimat trilogy (1984-2004) spans the lifetimes of several characters in the Simon family, residents of the Hunsrück region of Germany. The first, 15-and-a-half hour, film was broadcast in the UK in 11 parts: beginning in 1919 and running right up to 1982, it's an expansive saga reminiscent of The White Ribbon (2009) in its tangential take on the Third Reich.

Reitz focused on scion Hermann and his student years in 1960s and '70s Munich for the second part - at 25-and-a-half hours its 1992 cinema premiere is credited as the longest commercial screening ever. Heimat 3 (pictured) - more than 11 hours - is less satisfactory than its predecessors, perhaps attributable to the funding problems Reitz experienced in finishing his masterwork. Though the film is open-ended, Reitz told me at the time he liked the format of a trilogy; he is now 78.

The last part is the only instalment I watched in the cinema - it screened as six films at London's Renoir - while I saw the previous two on BBC2 (and rewatched them on DVD: the boxsets are very highly recommended). I did watch Lars von Trier's wonderful 265-minute drama The Kingdom (1994) in a single sitting in the Glasgow Film Theatre and have been spooked by the Danish director's spooky vision of this haunted hospital ever since.

Something of a glutton for punishment, apparently, I've also seen Hungarian Béla Tarr's haunting Sátántangó (1994), a 450-minute, gypsy frolic set in a remote part of Hungary. I have even sat through Sergei Bondarchuk's dull, eight-hour adaptation of War and Peace (1967), famous for its incredible cost and ruinous battle scenes, said to feature 120,000 participants. Well worth catching, however, is Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 15-and-a-half hour adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), which Wiki places top of its list of longest cinematic releases, though it was another made for television.

Every few years, critics complain about the increasing length of cinema releases, but most films would have to go some way to challenge these behemoths. Nor, as Reitz found, are we likely to see such lengthy enterprises again.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Keren Ann: looking for trouble

With new albums this year promised from the likes of U2, Coldplay, Elbow and the Gallagher brothers you may be forgiven for wanting to fast forward to 2012 musically. One ray of hope lies in a new record from Keren Ann: 101.

The Israeli-Dutch-Javanese-Russian star rose to prominence writing for French bossa veteran Henri Salvador, her reputation cemented by albums La biographie de Luka Philipsen (2000) and La disparition (2002), produced in collaboration with ex Benjamin Biolay. The pair became flagbearers for a Francophone pop nouvelle vague, a role she resented: 'Everybody talks to you about the New French Scene and all that crap'.

Nonetheless, her influences include 1960s French icons Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy, as well as British pop and American folk, blues and jazz, notably Chet Baker and Billie Holiday. Displaying immaculate taste, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch and Romain Gary are among her favourite directors.

When fourth album Nolita (2005) made its Blue Note debut in the UK she described the sound as 'lazy rock - I don't mean inactive, more laid back.' A self-titled fifth followed in 2007 while a taste of the quirky and extremely catchy first single from her new album, My Name is Trouble, trailed on her website late last year. Long used to producing her own work, she's gone one better with 101, which is self-engineered, and is due out here 4 April, later than the rest of Europe, unfortunately.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Welcome to the Midnight Bell

'At five o'clock in the afternoon, when the turbulent and desperate traffic, coursing through the veins of the West End, announces the climax of London's daily fever, a thing occurs in Oxford Street, which, though unknown to the great majority, and barely perceptible by the senses of anyone in that overwhelming noise, is all the same of great ulterior significance. The bolts on the inner sides of the doors of the public-houses are slid back, and any member of the public is at liberty to enter and drink.'

The opening to The Plains of Cement, the final part of Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, reminded me of the old pub hours, before Tony Blair's drinking revolution. The establishment at the centre of Patrick Hamilton's early 1930s trilogy, the Midnight Bell, lies 'in the vicinity of the Euston Road and Warren Street… A student of the streets, conceiving "The Midnight Bell" as the nucleus of a London zone less than half a mile in diameter, could not have failed to have been impressed by the stupendous variety of humanity huddled within the region thus isolated by the mind's eye. The respectable, residential precincts of Regent's Park, the barracks and lodging-houses of Albany Street, the grim senility of Munster Square, the commercial fury of the Euston and Tottenham Court Roads, the criminal patches and Belgian penury of Charlotte and Whitfield Streets, that vast palace of pain known as the Middlesex Hospital, the motor-salesman's paradise in Great Portland Street, the august solemnity of Portland Place itself - all these would crowd upon each other in the microcosm thus discriminated - a microcosm well-nigh as incongruous and grotesque as any searcher might be able to alight upon in the endless plains of cement at his disposal.' It's an area I wander often in search of a pub.

The rich world of Hamilton's characters - barmaid Ella, her colleague Bob and prostitute Jenny - is split between the Saloon and Lounge bars, a distinction that could have perhaps been revived when so many pubs turned themselves over to serving food, leaving little space to sit and have a comfortable drink.

Jenny accepts the fateful glass of port that leads to her downfall at the King's Head in Hammersmith. She is due to start work in Chiswick but wakes up on her first day (im)proper in the flat of a strange man in Richmond. It takes her a while to find her bearings as he drives them to his work in Chiswick: 'At the top he turned to the right, and they were going down hill. She at once knew where she was. They were on the steep road leading from Richmond Park down into the town.' I live nearby.

Meanwhile, in one of my favourite lines in the book, Ella is pursued by an ageing regular with a wonky tooth. She goes to visit her Aunt Winnie in Clapham for advice but her relative is distracted by plans to place her niece as a nursemaid in India: 'There is nothing in the world so confusing, so vexing, and perplexing as having tea with an Aunt who is convinced in all her senses that one is going to India, whereas one knows in actual fact that one is engaged to be married to a man in Chiswick…'

I was inspired to read Twenty Thousand Streets... by this post from the outstanding Caustic Cover Critic. The book was adapted for BBCs 2 and 4 in 2005 with Sally Hawkins (Happy Go Lucky, Made in Dagenham) as Ella. A social history of the pub might make a good TV series if there hasn't already been one, and where better to start the new year? Cheers!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Hooverphonic: back back back!

If you happen to be in Brussels 29 or 30 January do try and catch the latest incarnation of Belgian band Hooverphonic live at AB Brussels. Bernardo Bertolucci picked up early single 2Wicky for inclusion on the soundtrack of Stealing Beauty in 1996 and the band have now recorded seven albums.

I interviewed main man Alex Callier for a feature in a Belgium-themed issue of Little White Lies just before lead singer Geike Arnaert quit to go solo (journalist's curse). Now they're back with a new frontwoman, Noémie Wolfs, and an excellent album, The Night Before. While the group's original trip-hop roots had evolved into a more wildly experimental, psychedelic sound for previous album The President of the LSD Golf Club (2007), they've reverted to the big, 1960s sound they'd developed for hits like The World is Mine, from the Jackie Cane concept album (2002).

Wolfs sounds unnervingly like Sophie Ellis-Bextor on stand-out track Anger Never Dies, while her voice really opens out elsewhere, betraying her admiration for Minnie Ripperton. The album has gone platinum in Belgium and features a track co-written with Cathy Dennis, who had previously collaborated on Jackie Cane.