Thursday, March 31, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock | Strangers on a Train

by Douglas Messerli

Czenzi Ormonde (screenplay), listed with Raymond Chandler (who do not write the final version), based on an adaptation by Whitfield Cook of Patricia Highsmith's novel, Alfred Hitchcock (director) Strangers on a Train / 1951

Strangers on a Train has long been one of my favorite Hitchcock films, and with the news yesterday of the death of one of the film's stars, Farley Granger, I felt it was time I wrote about this work.

I have seen this film dozens of times, and over the years I often mused about a silly game I might undertake, suggested by the phrase "criss-cross," which Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) uses to describe his plan for murder. Using the characters of this film, and applying a version of "six degrees of separation," I felt I could link all to people who I had met or known. For example, Robert Walker was married to Jennifer Jones until her affair with David O. Selznick. In 1971 Jones married art collector and philanthropist Norton Simon, with who my companion Howard met several times when the Norton Simon Museum was contemplating loaning some of their contemporary art to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Four separations.

One of Farley Granger's earliest performances was in a play by Lillian Hellman, a friend of Djuna Barnes whom she helped support in Barnes' later years, by slipping envelopes of money under her door. I had met and interviewed Barnes in 1973, a few years before her death. Three separations.

In his autobiography West Side Story librettist Arthur Laurents writes of his affair with Farley Granger while working on Hitchcock's film Rope. Tony in the film version of West Side Story was played by Richard Beymer, who attended my literary salons several times. Three separations.

Another of Granger's lovers was composer-director Leonard Bernstein who personally encouraged my friend Charley Wine to become a composer. Three separations again!

The year after Strangers on a Train, actress Ruth Roman played in Young Man with Ideas with Nina Foch, who taught acting to and befriended Howard's Aunt Lillian (who've I met several times). Three separations.

My parents once reported that they, too, had met Nina Foch in a 1956 visit to Los Angeles, when she was at work on The Ten Commandments (although I have no idea, how and why this meeting took place).

In any event, this linking could go and on, although if one must ask, to what purpose? I suspect that my desire to interconnect this way has something to do with the structure of Strangers on the Train, where several different individuals cross paths, echoing and effecting one another. Indeed in the case of the two major figures of the film, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Anthony, there is no separation. Once Anthony has recognized Haines on the train, intruding upon the famed tennis player, ("I beg your pardon, but aren't you Guy Haines?") the two become almost inseparable, dining together in Anthony's small train compartment, and conversing about all things from tennis to Anthony's strange philosophical views ("I have a theory that you should do everything before you die.").

Although we know from the beginning that Haines is dating and hoping to marry the lovely senator's daughter, Anne Morton, as soon as he can divorce his wife, Hitchcock plays out this strange encounter as a kind of gay pickup, clearly toying with Granger's real-life bisexuality and his astonishingly good looks. Why else would Guy allow himself to be literally swept-up by the foppish, mama's boy Bruno (who in some scenes, looks nearly as handsome as Guy), who ultimately consumes him into the vertigo of his murderous intents. Before Guy can even display his discomfort, Bruno has outlined a plan whereby he will kill guy's wife if Guy will kill Bruno's father, the ingenious game he describes as "criss-cross."

Guy's inadequate response—"I may be old-fashioned, but I thought murder was against the law."—reveals both his inability to comprehend this absurdity and suggests a darker possibility, that he is not at all adverse to the idea.

In Highsmith's novel, Guy does go through with his part of the crime, and is imprisoned; in an earlier script by Raymond Chandler, a script which Hitchcock hated and tossed into the wastebasket while holding his nose, the film ended with Haines in a straight-jacket. So the doppelganger aspects of Haines and Anthony appear to be innately within the structure of the work, suggesting a kind of fused being with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.

From the moment of Guy's and Bruno's meeting, there is no escaping each other, reiterated when Haines meets up with his wife, who refuses to grant him a divorce. Haines' fury as he calls back to Anne Morton in Washington, D.C., again points up a kind of receptivity to Bruno's mania : "I could kill her!"

Bruno's acquisition of Guy's lighter along with his murder of Guy's selfish wife doom the tennis player to be entrapped within Bruno's perverted universe. Suddenly Bruno is everywhere, talking to Guy's friends at the tennis courts and even attending the senator's parties, where we truly experience Bruno's madness:

BRUNO (to the Senator) How do you do, sir? I'd like to talk with you sometime, sir, and tell you about my idea for harnessing the life force. It'll make atomic power look like the horse and buggy. I'm already developing my faculty for seeming millions of miles.

By the end of the evening he has almost unintentionally strangled one of the senator's guests, making his daughter (Ruth Roman) suspicious that there is a link between her lover and the interloper, which she expresses to Guy almost as in a jealous anger:

ANNE: How did you get him to do it?
GUY: I get him to do it?
ANNE: Bruno Anthony. He killed Miriam, didn't he? It wasn't you, it was him
GUY: Yes... ANNE: Tell me the truth, how did you get Mr. Anthony to do it?

The "doing" obviously is murder, but it suggests another "doing," the sexual act, (con)fusing the two. By film's end, Guy is forever wed to Bruno. What he says of the detective following him might also be said of his "double": "He sticks so close he's beginning to grow on me—like a fungus."

When Guy refuses to participate in his half of the "bargain" with this devil, he precipitates a series of events wherein almost everyone in Guy's company are swallowed up into the secrecy and anguish facing him, including Anne (who, visiting Bruno's mother, tries to convince her of her son's guilt) and the senator's other daughter, Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock), who up until now having taken the whole thing as a lark, suddenly realizes it was her face on which Bruno was fixated while nearly asphyxiating the woman at the party, a face, primarily because of her glasses, resembles Guy's wife Miriam.

It is as if Bruno is a kind of whirlwind force that sucks all those whose paths he crosses into his insanity. Accordingly, it is no accident that, in his attempt to implicate Guy in the murder of his wife by planting his lighter at the scene of the act, he and Guy are swept away in a battle upon a carousel, whirling out of control, where innocent children are hurt and possibly killed as well.

Even as he lies dying, Bruno will not give up the evidence of the lighter or the truth, keeping like a fetish the links he still has to Guy Haines' identity. Only in death will he free his "other."

For good or bad, this movie reveals, we are all intricately intertwined. Is it any wonder, in the final moment of the film when another stranger asks of the tennis player, "Aren't you Guy Haines?", he and Anne get up and move away. Perhaps, teases Hitchcock, it's better not to know your neighbors, issues this director will take up again in his 1954 movie, Rear Window.

At the same time, to be accused of something you did not do merely through association brings up issues that were boiling over in the public sector when Strangers on a Train was made, namely what was later described as the "Red Scare," including the arrests of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1950, and, that same year a governmental connection of homosexuals and communists laid out in the government-published report, Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government—issues Hitchcock would explore in his 1956 film, The Wrong Man.

Los Angeles, March 30, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Roger Vadim | ...And God Created Woman

by Douglas Messerli

Roger Vadim and Raoul Lévy (writers), Roger Vadim (director) ...And God Created Woman / 1956 / USA 1957

I was 10 years old when this Bardot film was released in the US, and, quite obviously, would not have been permitted to attend. Yet I knew that this film was "dirty," a movie about sex! Although he most certainly would not have seen it, my father must have said something about it. Or perhaps I had read in the newspaper how "naughty" it was. Today "naughty" doesn't sound as dangerous as it did in 1957.

I never did see a Bardot film, not even as an adult, until I recently decided to discover what the furor of my childhood had been all about. By today's standards Bardot's films might almost be described as discreet. Certainly, in the Criterion version of ...And God Created Woman, nudity is only intimated, never shown, and the film might today receive a PG-13 rating. But Bardot's sexuality is at the center of this work.

I've read a few years ago that after her retirement Bardot became, like Doris Day, an animal rights advocate, that is when she's not busy hating human beings, having spoken out against intermarriage, immigration, some aspects of homosexuality, and Islam in general.

But in 1957 she was the rage among thousands of sexually desperate men, and Roger Vadim's small movie, ...And God Created Woman became a international success and made his wife, Bardot, a star. The period was an era dominated by feminine sex objects, the American Marilyn Monroe representing one the most notorious of such figures. Strangely, however, Monroe's roles generally showed her as sexless and clueless. She liked Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch because he was married, and would prove no sexual threat. In How to Marry a Millionaire, where for vanities' sake she refuses to wear her glasses, she cannot even see the men who woo her.

Bardot's sexuality, on the other hand, was an open book, and although several male characters throughout this film chauvinistically describe her as a man killer, what some movie blurbs might describe as a "tempting and teasing vixen," in her role as Juliete Hardy she is a totally honest waif. As she reports throughout the film, she cannot lie; it is the men around her that lie to her and themselves. And despite her reputation as a "slut," a phrase her adopted mother throws at her again and again, she actually loves only one man, Antoine Tardieu, who early in the film, upon returning from Toulon to St. Tropez, gets her to agree to run away with him. In the bathroom, however, she overhears him talking about how he intends to seduce and leave her in the lurch.

This eighteen-year-old girl, with a beautiful body and a mane of crimson blonde hair, is simply a young sensual woman in love with life. She loves food, the feel of things (she goes about barefoot as often as she can), music, dancing, and sex. It is the adults around her who twist and turn these into transgressive acts. Bardot as Juliete approaches her world as would a cat, brushing up against nearly every being and object with the purring joy of physicality. But she has already learned that such naturalness results in tormenting complications.

Accordingly, Juliete, the potential lover in this film of not only of her Romeo, but of every male in the town, has armed herself with a intense silence and wit. The film begins with Bardot sunbathing in the nude behind sheets hung upon a clothesline. The financial tycoon Eric Carradine (Curd Jürgens), seeking a sexual liaison, has come pay her a visit: Eric Carradine: Ah: The Garden of Eden in Saint-Tropez! Juliette Hardy: Monsieur Carradine! And I suppose you are the Devil? Eric Carradine: Perhaps so. I've brought the apple anyway. Despite the temptations he offers her, a small toy car to represent a real one he is willing to give her if she joins him, Juliete does not consent. Yet her mother damns her as if she has given in to the devil, threatening her with a "surprise," which later, we discover, is a return to the orphanage from which she has been plucked.

Later, as she meets another wealthy man, equally determined to bed her on Carradine's boat, we witness another of her brilliantly witty retorts. M. Vigier-Lefrance: have you heard of shoes by Vigier? Juliete Hardy: Yes. M. Vigier-Lefranc: That's me. And you must have heard of Lefranc's refrigerators? Juliete Hardy: Yes. M. Vigier-Lefranc: That's me too. Would you like to dance a cha-cha-cha? Juliete Hardy: I never dance with a vacuum cleaner! Vadim's film is weak on plot, which mostly centers upon Carradine's determination to buy a small boat yard owned by Antoine Tardieu, his two brothers, and mother. Antoine rejects the offer, returning to Toulon, leaving town, as he had boasted, without Juliette. This, in turn, results in a series of disastrous events that nearly destroy the young woman at its center, including Juliete's marriage to Antoine's younger and guileless brother, Michel (Jean-LouisTrintignant), even though she warns him that the marriage will destroy his love.

Later, when Carradine queries her about why the brothers will not sell their puny operation for the millions of francs he is offering, Juliete reveals her intelligence: "Perhaps they do not want to lose a place where they can work." Even the sleazy Carradine must praise her insight. Offering Antoine and his family jobs running his major shipyard, Carradine is freed to build his casino, as the Tardieus acquiesce.

Yet bringing Antoine back into Juliete's life, we realize, can only lead to the inevitable. And when the intercourse does occur, we recognize it almost as a rape. For given her sensual response to life, Juliete cannot resist what Antoine might have; for her it is, as she puts it, a fever. But, of course, it is she who is castigated and forced out of the house.

But even then, she cannot and will not abandon her behavior, and, in this respect, one does have to agree with Simone de Beauvoir's essay, "The Lolita Syndrome," wherein she argues that Bardot was a "locomotive of women's history," liberating women long before the liberation movement. For Juliete, despite her wit and intelligence, has only one tool at her disposal, her body, to allow her the freedom she wants.

The film ends with Juliete dancing, somewhat frenziedly, to a jazz group practicing in a small bar. Michel comes to seek vengeance for her sexual digressions. Pulling a gun from his pocket, he appears ready to kill her, until Carradine arrives on the scene, telling him the obvious—"Can't you see that it's you she loves?" His shot hits Carradine instead, and as Antoine drives off with Carradine to find a surgeon, Michel lovingly takes Juliete home again, making it clear he will accept her as she is without forcing her to become a normative housewife.

If, as one suspects, that Vadim set out to produce simply a vehicle to reveal his wife's sexual charms, his ambitions pushed him in quite another direction. For although there is a dark sexist view of women underlying the entire effort, Bardot herself takes it elsewhere for those not frozen in bourgeois prescriptions of moral behavior.

Los Angeles, March 26, 2011

Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Giorgos Lanthimos | Dogtooth

by Douglas Messerli

Giorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou (writers), Giorgos Lanthimos (director) Dogtooth / 2009, USA 2010

The Greek film Dogtooth begins with a confounding if somewhat comedic episode wherein the three children of the house, a son, older daughter and younger daughter, turn on a tape recorder which tells them of the four words they must learn that day: Sea, Motorway, Excursion and Carbine. "The sea is a leather armchair with wooden arms." "A motorway is a very strong wind." "An excursion is a very resistant material." "A carbine is a beautiful white bird."

No, we are not entering a work by Gertrude Stein, but have entered instead a beautiful home with manicured lawns, in which, we soon learn, these nearly grown children have long been incarcerated. They have never been permitted to leave the property, and their lessons, home-taught my their parents, help to prevent them to comprehend anything of the outside world. Only the father (Christos Stergioglou), owner of a nearby factory leaves the house, the mother staying home to tend her children, occasionally telephoning her husband in a locked room, wherein the children believe she is talking to herself.

Along with their strange lessons, come other bizarre tales which the children have been taught, namely that they have a brother who lives immediately outside the wall that surrounds the house, doomed to world behind their "paradise" clearly because of some infraction. Later, when the elder brother discovers a cat on their property, he is so terrified that he stabs the cat to death with a pair of pruning shears, the father using the opportunity to return in a blood stained shirt, telling them that their brother has been mauled to death by a horrible cat. The three are made to get down on their knees near the car gate, barking like dogs.

Equally bizarre, the children are taught that the passing planes overhead are toys, and discover toy versions of planes planted throughout the property, with which, like much younger children, they joyfully play.

If this all seems to be a story of a simple alternative universe, a kind of Kafka-like reality, we soon discover the terrible implications of their isolation. Alone, the children play games of "endurance," testing which of them can keep her hands under hot water or how long they can remain under water in the swimming pool. When the brother temporarily borrows his sister's toy airplane, she cuts his arm with a kitchen knife.

To deal with their son's growing sexuality, the father brings home, blindfolded for each leg of a trip, a security guard from his plant. Christina, the only character in this work with a name, complaisantly agrees—presumably she is paid and, in any event, it would be difficult to say no to her boss—but she is soon bored with the boy's straightforward and uninvolving sexual activities, and, when he refuses to participate in oral sex, calls him a "zombie." Always ready to explain all things away, the mother (Michele Valley) answers the boy's question about the word's definition: "A zombie is a small yellow flower."

Offering the elder daughter a headband she is wearing, Christina involves the girl in cunnilingus, introducing the girl into lesbian sex.

On a second visit, Christina offers the younger sister some hair gel for the same pleasure, but when the girl refuses, she is forced to give up two film tapes instead. The tapes, obviously of Rocky and Jaws, effect the girl immensely, as she plays out scenes from the movies in family life. Discovering the tapes, the father beats her with the plastic tape boxes and later hits Christina over the head with a video player.

Perceiving the error of their bringing a stranger into the house, the father shifts gears, allowing the brother is allowed to pick one of the sisters as a sexual companion, introducing the family into incest as well.

The obvious comparisons between this family and the activities and the Austrian father Josef Fritzi, who for years kept one of his own daughters in hiding in their own home, fathering several children with her, is made even clearer as he see the parents' threats against their offspring. Desperate to bring home the dog he has given over to train from a "friend" to an "animal" who will guard their house and the secrets within, the father tells his children that his wife will soon bear two children and a dog, although the children may be foregone if they behave.

The children have been told that they may leave the house only when they shed their canine teeth. Uncomfortable with the sexual activities with her brother, the elder daughter acts a out a scene from Rocky in response before smashing her face to remove the tooth, hoping to escape by positioning herself in the trunk of their car.

The last scene of this horrifying film, says it all. We see the father drive to the factory, leaving the car. But the trunk does not open; the girl does not escape. Whether she has already died or will she be long entrapped within before her death we cannot tell. For it is there the story ends, while the appalling consequences of this failed utopia remain with us long after.

Dogtooth was the winner of the Cannes Festival's award "Un certain regard," and was nominated for the 2010 Academy Award for a foreign film.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Robert Guédiguian | La Ville est tranquille (The Town Is Quiet)


by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Louis Milesi and Robert Guédiguian (scenario and dialogue), Robert Guédiguian (director) La Ville est tranquille (The Town Is Quiet) / 2000 

The Marseille director Robert Guédiguian presents in a 360° pan at the beginning of this film, showing a city awash in a golden splendor of light, does indeed appear to be quiet and calm. The music we hear, Debussy, Bach, and works by other composers, is being played, we soon discover, by a young Georgian boy on an electric keyboard set up in a park; a sign asks listeners to contribute to his purchase of a real piano.

Union organizers are attempting to stand firm against dockyard closures and a payout agreement with the company, but the men shouting out their determination seem tired and look uncertain about their demands. One, a character we will later follow, Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), cannot even bring himself to join in their chants.

On a clear night, a group of city elites celebrate on a rooftop terrace, the host (perhaps a politician) going about his guests to briefly speak with each. One of the most stunning women in the group is Viviane Froment (Christine Brücher), whom we later discover is a music teacher currently working with mentally disabled children. Her husband, Yves (Jacques Pieiller), an architect, spends his time chatting and flirting with beautiful women.

So far we see nothing in Marseille that we might not encounter in any large city: Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris. The city is tranquil, or, as an African character later puts it, "The world looks happy from up here."

The irony of Guédiguian's title, accordingly, becomes evident when he takes us down into the streets to follow other denizens of Marseilles' l'Estaque district, the most notable of whom is Michèle (Ariane Ascaride), a woman whose daughter is a drug addict and has a baby born out of wedlock. Her husband is, as the movie puts it, on the "dole," a drunk who sits about all day complaining about his daughter's painful whimpers of withdrawal. To survive Michèle works as a fishmonger all night, returning in the mornings to feed and care for her baby granddaughter and daughter. When the daughter, Fiona, is not suffering she is out whoring for money to buy drugs. As Michèle screams out to her daughter, the drugs you bought last night surely cost more that I can make in a month! When her husband threatens her, she retorts, "Death would be nice."

For all that, Michèle is filled with determination and the will to survive, and she is the most loving and forgiving character of the film, so desperate to help her daughter, for example, that, after Fiona has used the doctor-prescripted antidote to get high, the mother contacts an old friend, a bartender, Gérard to help her obtain real drugs. When her savings runs out, she is determined even to pimp herself in order to cover the cost.

Into this world comes Paul, who has used his redundancy money to get a loan to purchase a new car and a cab license. Paul, the son of a former Partisan father and loving mother, also does not live such a tranquil life. A failure in everything, he represents the millions of individuals who work hard, but seem never to get ahead, cannot maintain relationships, and fall time and again throughout their lives. Claude, the man from who he has borrowed money, puts it bluntly: (in my summary, imprecise quote) "You will never pay me back and I will have to do something terrible to you. But I won't be able to because of my respect for your father." A man who seeks love from prostitutes, Paul observes Michèle's dismal failure to find clients, and takes her home without demanding sex. When soon after he loses his cab license for violation of taxi regulations, he returns to Michèle, this time paying her for sex. It is clear that he would like their relationship to go further, but she is too preoccupied to notice his obsequiousness.

Meanwhile, across town a young African, Abderramane (Alexandre Ogou), recently released from jail, observes Viviane teaching her students in an auditorium. He has sought her out because of the memorable experiences he had as a member of a choir she taught in prison, and he is determined to do something better with his life. Like Michèle, Viviane is fed up with her husband, and finds a gracefulness in Abderramane's flattery. Before long, he is helping her students to dance, and the two briefly come together for a one night of love. Soon after Abderramane is shot by fascists, who include Michèle's husband, for attempting to swim in the nearby ocean.

Michèle's life continues to spin downward, as her daughter needs higher and higher doses of crack cocaine. She is so exhausted, that she misses her workshift for the first time. Fiona continues to cry out in pain.

Gérard, we discover, along with Paul, who mysteriously follows him, is an assassin, who we watch kill a city notable celebrating on a rooftop party just as we have witnessed early on. Michèle fires up another dose of drugs for her daughter, this time adding a second packet and yet a third. Smiling in the bliss of relief, Fiona awaits the needle which will result in her death. Gérard arrives, responding to Michèle's news a few minutes before Paul arrives for another sexual encounter. Despite the fact that he knows he is intruding on some dreadful happening, this time he insists he will not go, but stay. What happens, we are never told. But it is clear that they can no longer help one another, that they are both doomed to face the circumstances of their acts.

We witness one such encounter with truth. Gérard, angry with some pedestrians who react to his near-refusal to stop his car to let them pass, picks up a gun as if he intends to shoot them. As he exits the car, however, he turns the gun instead into his own mouth before releasing the trigger.

In a small street of the immigrant ghetto, a piano is being delivered. Left for a few seconds in the middle of the street, the young Georgian boy with which the film began, sits down to play.

Guédiguian's harrowing film is often described as a painfully realist presentation of Marseille, but in its intricacies of plot and its density of coincidence, it is, to my way of thinking, more like a kind of fantasy. Even the most well-rounded character in the work, Michèle, is almost too selfless to be believed; the others are all rather vague, their actions often muddled.

Yet for all that, the film works as a piece of art, for we realize that any attempt to describe the motivations and behavior of real people is a kind of fantasy. Just as Viviane, earlier in the film, suggests her husband's self-proclaimed love of "the people" belies his complete ignorance of them—"For you the people are a fantasy"—we all can only imagine what is inside each other. The impetus of Guédiguian's film is not realist characterization but a political statement, a presentation, of sorts, of the various social and political positions one might take within any large community. Far from being quiet, life in a city is always noisy, a mess of various voices and demands, which is also why city life is so terrifyingly exciting, creating a place where one never knows what to expect. The town is quiet only when one refuses to listen to its people calling out.

Los Angeles, March 16, 2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Claude Chabrol | Merci pour le chocolat

by Douglas Messerli

Claude Chabrol, Charlotte Armstrong, and Caroline Eliacheff (screenplay, based on Armstron's book The Chocolate Cobweb), Claude Chabrol (director) Merci pour le chocolat / 2000

I have recently grown quite fond of the films of Claude Chabrol, and so I jumped at the possibility of watching Merci pour le chocolat in order to include it in My Year 2000, a year which I did get the opportunity to view it.

Several critics have noted that Chabrol is less interested in the motives of his often-twisted characters than he is in the playing out of their psychological disorders, almost as in sophisticated boulevard comedies, however without the farce. There is something of Oscar Wilde or even Noel Coward in Chabrol's works, without, strangely enough, their witty dialogue. But what Chabrol presents in its place is his witty and rich cinematography that captures us almost entirely, taking us into the dark corners of his character's rooms—and into their illogical thinking.
Merci pour le chocolat, after 50 some films, is the latest of this type. The beautiful home, in this case, belongs to Marie-Claire "Mika" Muller (Isabelle Huppert), heir to the great Swiss chocolatiers, and a strong-minded business woman to boot. We see her in her offices only once, at a board meeting, where she goes head to head with her older arch-enemy Dufreigne (Michel Robin), as she startlingly closes the meeting down before literally laughing at him the moment her office door is closed.

Mika has just been remarried to the sublime pianist André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc), to who she had been briefly married 18 year earlier. Polonski's second marriage to Lisbeth, ended one night on the curving road into town as she drove to get her husband some medicine, the potent Benzodiazepine, Rohypnol, to help him sleep. Despite the alcohol and drugs found in her system, no one quite seems to know (or care) how they got there. She drank only one cognac each night, and evidently took no drugs.

Polonski is played as a romantic dreamer, pounding away at the piano throughout each day almost the way a young child might play upon a game board; indeed his own disaffected son, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), whose mother was Lisbeth, does precisely that, settling in at a young age as a couch potato.

It is clear that the remarried couple are not particularly in love, but that the marriage serves both of their purposes. As Polonski observes, Mika's father died "before I could disappoint him." Mika tells a friend that she is not at all in love with the pianist, and has waited for his son to become an adult before reentering the union.

For Polonski it is clear the Muller house offers him what he needs for his study of the piano, a large music room with two grand pianos, and the leisurely space in which to disappear. Miki's reasons are less apparent, but as the movie quickly progresses, we understand early on that she is in love with Polonski's son, Guillaume, and appears intent upon seducing or, perhaps, even raping him. I'll return to that later.

Into this drawing-room world comes a young, independently-minded pianist, Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), as exuberant and spirited as Guillaume is broodingly dead. Jeanne has just discovered, by accident, through a dinner discussion with her mother—a forensics' doctor—and a friend, that upon her birth she and male child were temporarily mixed up, in the hospital, she being handed over as Polonski's child. The hospital, having run out of baby bracelets, had marked the children with the first letters of their last name, so that the POL of Polonski was confused with the POL of Pollet. In any event, the matter was quickly straightened up when Lisbeth awoke, asking to see her baby boy.

The very idea that a great pianist might possibly have been Jeanne's father, is utterly fascinating to the talented young pianist just beginning her career. And although the mother reassures her that she is her issue, Jeanne cannot escape the intrigue, going so far as to visit Polonski without an invitation.

She is unconditionally told to go away, but barges ahead into the great pianist's music room, blurting out her story. Before you can say Liszt, he is helping her to play "Funérailles," and introducing her into the wonders of new works.

Losing even more of his father's scant attention, Guilliaume slinks deeper into the couch, while Mika, with a great mocking show of motherly-like attention, breaks out her thermos of late-night chocolat (the reason that the American title was Nightcap). Mika even invites the young girl upstairs to see Lisbeth's photographs, which cannot help but engage the child, since she is a near-lookalike. One of Chabrol's most brilliant cinematic moments is when Jeanne, staring into the photo of a woman who could be her mother, catches the reflection of Mika, dropping the filled thermos to the floor.

"Why would a woman purposely drop a thermos of chocolate?" muses Jeanne the next day to her boyfriend, Axel, a young apprentice researcher at Jeanne's mother's hospital. "Why indeed?" Although the viewer has not necessarily perceived it as an intentional act, it is Chabrol's way of loading the dice, creating suspicion even when there is none.

The clever Jeanne, having caught some of the mixture on her sweater, even has the savvy to have Axel check out the chocolate mix in his lab. Sure enough, something's up, since it turns out to be none other the date rape drug, Rohypnol. That chocolate, we recall, was made particularly for Guilliaume! And the implications of that suddenly casts this sparkling comedy into a sinister psychological thriller.

Charmed by the beautiful pianist who looks so much like his former wife, how could Polonski not invite her back, and, finally, ask her to stay for a few days so that he can help her win her upcoming competition?

Jeanne is touched, but her choice to go is almost made for her when, at another mother and daughter meeting, Louise (Brigitte Catillon) reveals that Jeanne is her daughter through artificial insemination."We have been hiding things, haven't we?" responds the young girl.

Back at the Muller mansion, Jeanne reveals to Guilliaume what she knows. But his response, like almost all the adult responses in this film, is one of denial. Why would she intentionally spill the chocolate if she were determined to drug him? It is almost as if Chabrol has set up certain situations to see if he can out-smart himself, or perhaps stir the pot just enough so there can be no easy answers as to what lies within.

In fact, Merci pour le chocolate quickly flows in the direction of even further uncertainties, as Mika, brewing up another thermos of chocolate, is caught in the mirror by Guilliaume of spiking Jeanne's coffee. Oh dear, Polonski has run out of his Rohypnol again! Jeanne's offer to run in to town for the drug is absolutely baffling. But when Guilliaume demands to go with her, we see perhaps some sense in the act. "Why did you switch our coffee cups?" asks the suddenly clueless girl of Guilliaume.

No matter, without further ado, she also begins to feel the drug's effects and ends up crashing into a stone wall!

Meanwhile, Polonski, suddenly coming awake it appears, begins to question his wife. What was she doing with his Rohypnol, etc. etc., until it is impossible for the villain Mika to say anything but confess. Suddenly, the reason also for Lisbeth's death becomes quite obvious. The couple had spent the night at the Muller house, with Mika in attendance. A quick call to Jeanne's mother sends her and the police to the young couple's rescue. The two are unhurt, but everyone will soon be paying a visit to the Muller estate.

Tears drop from Mika's eyes before she curls up onto the fetal position. Any explanations will come, obviously, after the screen goes dead. But who could claim he didn't enjoy the trip.

Los Angeles, March 9, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Howard Hawks | Red River

by Douglas Messerli

Borden Chase and Charles Schnee (screenplay, based on a story by Borden Chase), Howard Hawks and Arthur Rosson (directors) Red River / 1948

Howard Hawks' 1948 film, Red River, is certainly one of the greatest of Hollywood westerns. If its plot and even cinematography is a bit old-fashioned, the inter-relationships between characters and the films presentation of a stampede, Indian attacks, and the plain dust and dirt of a cattle drive is incomparable.

I've never truly been a John Wayne fan, although I've enjoyed several of the movies in which he acted. But here, as the autocratic rancher Thomas Dunson, Wayne comes alive in the role, playing it at both ends, from the hard-hearted, stubbornly overbearing settler to the sometimes surprisingly tender and sympathetic man, worn out by the loss of his sweetheart to Indians and the years of hard work he has put into creating his ranch. As director John Ford is rumored to have said: "I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act."

Part of Wayne's power comes about because of those with whom he is cast. Walter Brennan, playing Wayne's right-hand man, Nadine Groot, not only serves as chorus of Dunson's acts, but puts much of the serious goings-on into a humorous perspective. Without him, the entire film would be much darker, and clearly less enjoyable. Groot does his own serious mumbling—throughout the film Dunson demands he speak up and talk more clearly, but he has lost his teeth to Chief Yowiachie (Quo)—commenting on his employer's often brutal behavior. But his homespun observations pepper the action with a hardheaded wit, as when two strangers appear in the distance:

Never liked seeing strangers. Maybe it's because no stranger ever good-newsed me.

At the other side of Dunson (Wayne) sits his adopted son, Matt Garth (broodingly and beautifully played by Montgomery Clift). Although tough in his own way—after having seen the Indians destroy his family and, later, having served in the Civil War—he is a far gentler and ruminative version of Dunson. Dunson has certainly plotted out his path in life, but Garth time again describes himself as having "figured it out." Unlike Dunson, he has done serious thinking about the choices before him, and ultimately, despite his loyalty to Dunson and his love for him, it will be at the center of their parting ways.

Both writers and director cleverly underline Garth's differences with Dunson by suggesting opposing sexualities. In fact, the film books report Wayne and Brennan did not at all get along with the homosexual Clift, keeping their distance throughout the shooting. Others involved in the film were worried that John Ireland (playing the cowboy Cherry Valance) and Clift might not get along because of different and outspoken political views. But it is Valance and Garth in this nearly all-male epic, who invoke any possibility of sexuality. From their very first meeting, the two obviously discover in each other a deep sensuality, which is played out in the nearly over-the-top exchange of guns and the shooting competition which follows, recently satirized in the Coen brother's True Grit.

Cherry: That's a good looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? (Matt turns, strokes his nose with his thumb and looks a bit amused, then hands his gun over. Cherry takes the gun.) And you'd like to see mine. (Cherry draws his own, and reciprocates by handing it to Matt. Cherry examines Matt's gun.) Nice! Awful nice! (Looking somewhat sideways at Matt) You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?

Matt: (pointing toward a tin can in the distance) Go ahead! Try it! (Cherry fires a shot and knocks a can into the air. Matt also hits the can in the air with a shot of his own)

Cherry: Hey! That's very good! (Matt shoots at another can, knocking it into the air. Cherry hits it in the air with a shot of his own.)

Matt: Hey! Hey! That's good too! Go on! Keep it going!

It's clear their shooting serves them as a kind of orgasm that they hope may never end.

One can only presume, given nearly everyone's revelation of this scene, that the people in the Hayes office were so literal-minded and stone deaf that they could not comprehend the laden sexuality of the lines. In any event, from that first meeting on, despite Groot's prediction that the two will end up fighting, there is a deep relationship between them, including Matt's obvious jealousy when Cherry hooks up with a girl in a passing wagon train. Whether it's true or not, as the trivia people claim, that Ireland and Clift actually were having an affair during the shooting of this film (Ireland was married to Elaine Sheldon at the time), they hint at a simmering love on camera, or, at least, an almost uncontrollable fascination with one another.

This, in turn, further underscores the impending alienation between father and son. Dunson is a strong-headed conservative, determined to try no new routes to the Midwest, despite the near-starvation and exhaustion of his crew. Rules are rules and, as his cowboys sneak away, they are rounded up to be shot or even hung, after which Dunson, as he puts it, "reads over them," as if the burial and service redeemed his acts.

The more sensitive and thoughtful Matt, a softhearted soul, as both Dunson and Valance have described him, cannot tolerate the hanging of two defectors. Grabbing the reins of the cattle run and sending his own father off into the wilderness alone, Matt is determined to move in a new direction along the Chisholm Trail, leading to Abilene where, it is rumored, a railroad now runs.
The question remains, of course, whether they'll get there before Dunson rounds up other men and returns to kill his "softhearted" son.

One of the most spectacular scenes of the film is the Texans' arrival in the city of Abilene, where they are heartily greeted as they drive thousands of long-horn cattle through the streets, accompanied as always, by Dimitri Tiomkin's powerful score. The terms they're offered create a financial windfall for the cowboys. But vengeance, we know, is certain to rear its ugly head.
Dunson returns with new men intent upon accomplishing his blind, cold-hearted vision, despite the wise observations of Groot. Demanding that Matt draw, Dunson is ready for the showdown, which Matt refuses him, throwing away his gun. Inevitability seems to have won the day, until Matt's new girl, Tess Millay (Joanne Dru), interrupts the fight by drawing a gun on both men, insisting that they face their love for one another.

It's an irony that strangely could never be played out in real life. It's also worth noting that Ireland divorced his first wife a year later, marrying Dru, as if she were a trophy won way from the Matt Garth character Clift portrays—a marriage which lasted until 1956, the year in which Clift's automobile accident basically destroyed his career, described as "the longest suicide in Hollywood history." Two years after his accident, Clift turned down the role offered him in Hawkes' Rio Bravo, a role reassigned to Dean Martin, a drunk with a clearly heterosexual history.

But let us forget all that: this film says everything that needs to be said.

Los Angeles, March 4, 2011
Copyright (c)2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli.