A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, May 22, 2017

Querelle (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)

It's tempting to make jokes about Rainer Werner Fassbinder's last film, Querelle, which does sometimes look like a staging of Billy Budd designed by Tom of Finland. But for all its often overheated, overstylized, absurd moments, there is a a deep sadness at the core of the film. It was made, after all, at the beginning of the age of AIDS, from which its star, Brad Davis, would die. And even though it misses the poetry of the novel by Jean Genet on which Fassbinder and Burkhard Driest based their screenplay, it contains the essential sympathy for transgressors and outcasts that marks the work of both Genet and Fassbinder. That it no longer has the power to shock -- you can see far more outrageous images and situations on pay TV channels almost any night of the week -- almost works to its benefit. It has become a period piece almost before its time, but to say that it's "dated" is to miss the point. Querelle reflects an age of repression: The central character of the film, I think, is Franco Nero's Lt. Seblon, dictating his lust for Querelle into his tape recorder, watching the less-inhibited society of Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), Nono (Günther Kaufmannn), and the others who circle around Querelle like moths, swooping in for satisfaction and sometimes getting their wings singed. Is it a good film? No. The performances -- especially Davis's, whose line readings are sometimes amateurish -- don't measure up. The interpolated religious symbolism feels trite. The narrative, especially when it involves Gil and his double, Robert (Hanno Pöschl), is confusingly handled. But is it worth being annoyed and disappointed by? Absolutely.

Les Maudits (René Clément, 1947)

René Clément's Les Maudits has sometimes been known as The Damned, but lately people have turned to using the French title, perhaps to avoid confusion with Luchino Visconti's 1969 film called The Damned. The confusion is understandable: Both films are about Nazis. In Clément's film, a group of Nazi officials and their hangers-on board a submarine in April 1945. Seeing the writing on the wall, they hope to make it to South America to establish an outpost of what's left of the Reich, but as they're passing through the English channel they're spotted by a destroyer that drops depth charges. The sub is unharmed, but Hilde Garosi (Florence Marly) is knocked unconscious. She's the wife of one of the passengers, an Italian industrialist (Fosco Giachetti), and the mistress of another, a Nazi general (Kurt Kronenfeld), so a contingent is sent ashore into liberated France to find a doctor. Henri Vidal plays Dr. Guilbert, who also serves as a narrator for the film. Having been shanghaied into service on the sub, Guilbert knows that once his usefulness in treating Hilde, who has a mild concussion, is over his days are numbered, so he diagnoses a crew member with a sore throat as having diphtheria, necessitating quarantine and continued treatment. The rest is a fairly suspenseful and engaging submarine movie, with some superb camerawork in the confines of the ship. The cinematographer is Henri Alekan, who pulls off a great tracking shot down the length of the sub, which must have been quite a tour de force in the days before Steadicams. The screenplay by Clément, Jacques Rémy, and Henri Jeanson skillfully gives the mostly unsavory characters complexity, although Marly is a little too much the icily glamorous blond stereotype and Jo Dest, as the SS leader Forster, couldn't be more hissable. Michel Auclair has some good moments as Willy Morus, Forster's aide (and, by implication, boy toy). Although Vidal is the film's ostensible hero, top billing went to the great character actor Marcel Dalio (billed, as often he was in France, by only his surname) in what amounts to a small cameo role as Larga, the South American contact for the Nazis.