Monday, 16 July 2012

Leos Carax' work in five easy steps

1. The characters in French filmmaker Leos Carax’ early films complain about the heat but look ineffably cool. It’s a look borrowed from across cinema (Melville, Godard, Dreyer, Vigo…), notably for black-and-white debut Boy Meets Girl (1984), which begins with a series of break-ups overtaken by maundering dialogue.

2. Carax favourite Denis Lavant thankfully has less to say in the stand-out, futuristic crime caper Mauvais Sang (The Night is Young, 1986), when he joins Michel Piccoli’s gang, out to steal a vaccine to the ‘STBO retrovirus’.

3. Both films are luminously shot – by Jean-Yves Escoffier (Gummo) – whose final collaboration with Carax is the director’s magnificent folly, Les Amants du Pont Neuf (1991) featuring a hallucinatory affair between homeless Lavant and Juliette Binoche.

4. By the time of Pola X (1999) Carax may be trying to buck his influences much as gilded author Guillaume Depardieu decides to throw off his privileged background. The result, for all concerned, is exceedingly tiresome and deeply unedifying.

5. After a hiatus of 13 years - interrupted only by a short for Tokyo! (2008) - Carax' latest, Holy Motors (pictured top), received its premiere at Cannes earlier this year. The film sees the director tackle his fascination with cinema and reunites him with Lavant and Piccoli, plus Eva Mendes and, erm, Kylie Minogue.

The 65th Festival del film Locarno kicks off on 1 August and features a retrospective dedicated to Leos Carax, who'll be in Switzerland to accept the festival's Pardo d'onore. I'd love to go but will be busy with a thing in London, which may also mean this is my last post for a few weeks.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Alfred Hitchcock: the early years

However exciting the chance to see many of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent movies with new scores in the BFI’s splendid summer season dedicated to the director, it’s telling how the burgeoning of his cinematic art coincided with the arrival of sound. Early silent stand-outs include The Lodger (1926), now soundtracked by Nitin Sawhney - live at the Barbican on 21 July - and The Ring (1927), an expressionistic romance set in the world of sideshow boxing that screens at Hackney Empire this Friday.

Key for me is 1929’s Blackmail, a superb thriller in which Hitchcock shows his immediate mastery of the new talking technology (he even uses silence to great effect!). He steps up the confident rhythm of the preceding films and continues to experiment with his visuals; there’s an early signatory cameo – being attacked by a child in a tube carriage – plus a tumultuous chase after the blackmailer of the title in the British Museum onto the roof of the reading room. (Blackmail screened at the British Museum on Friday.)

If you want to check out some other lesser-known (talkie) numbers, the trademark spectacular finales continue in courtroom drama Murder! (1930), while another film based on a play, The Skin Game (1931), is the cruel tale of landed gentry taking on nouveau incomers that is still as surprisingly successful as when it was released. The same year's Rich and Strange is a curio, a self-scripted tale of a childless couple’s disastrous global travels, while Number 17 (1932) is a ludicrous splurge containing all the clichés of the thriller genre: stolen jewels, double-crossing thieves, confused identity, runaway trains, a hijacked bus and – a favourite of the director – trussed up heroines. 

Courtesy of Hitchcock’s pre-eminent position in the industry the early films boast great scenery and lavish sets but it’s with sound he realised thrillers were his thing and, just as importantly, discovered the perversity – both morally and in terms of his little fetishes – that mark his particular genius.

Monday, 2 July 2012

About the author

In these days of brisk author biographies, it's a pleasure to discover the - presumably self-composed - details of Janwillem van de Wetering published in his Soho Crime works. Born in Rotterdam in 1931, we're informed, the writer studied 'Zen in Daitoku-ji monastery, Kyoto, and philosophy in London, and has lived as well in Amsterdam, Cornwall, Cape Town, Bogota, Lima and Brisbane.'

There's a reassurance as to the books' provenance: 'His Amsterdam Cops series that features Adjutant Grijpstra and Sergeant de Gier... was conceived when the author served with the Amsterdam Reserve Constabulary.' And fun, too: 'His joys are an ongoing study of nihilism, keeping a wooden lobster boat afloat and getting older.'

Georges Simenon's biographies on the back of old Penguins also acknowledge the great crime writer's boating activities: 'He has travelled all over the world, and at one time lived in a cutter, with his wife as second-in-command, making long journeys of exploration round the coasts of northern Europe.' I particularly like the line: 'His recreations are riding, fishing and golf.'

My favourite biography, however, has to be that for Giovanni Guareschi (again in Penguin); 'His father had a heavy black moustache under his nose: Giovanni grew one just like it. He still has it and is proud of it. He is not bald, has written eight books, and is five feet ten inches tall.

'"I also have a brother," Guareschi says, adding "but I prefer not to discuss him. And I have a motorcycle with four cylinders, an automobile with six cylinders, and a wife and two children."' Now don't you want to read his Don Camillo series of books? You should!