Sunday, May 30, 2010

Louis Malle Volume One

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (1958)
This is the first feature film from director Louis Malle and what a work! It's one of the best thrillers I've seen. Too bad that Malle changed genre all the time. Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet - looked much younger here than in Plein Soleil 2 years later), an ex-soldier, has an affair with his boss's wife (Jeanne Moreau). The plan to kill the boss goes well - until Tavernier forgets something and has to return to the crime scene, and gets stuck in the lift. A young couple steal his car and use his identity in a crime, while his mistress thinks he has run off with another woman. The next morning, free from the lift, Tavernier is wanted for murder, but not the one he has done. Cinematographer Henri Decaë did a superb job and as the DVD is well remastered, I am very pleased with the b/w picture. Throughout the movie the tension is high, especially because I care for Tavernier - don't care for the young couple though. This movie shows that one wrong step can lead you, and others, to a disaster. Like the title suggests: Lift to the Scaffold, if Tavernier didn't get stuck in the lift, perhaps things would have been well. Miles Davis did the soundtrack and there are Lino Ventura and Jean-Claude Brialy in small roles.

Les amants (1958)
I read this one caused a scandal, especially in the US, when it was released because of the sex scene. Well, watching this now, the sex scene is nothing. Jeanne Tournier (Jeanne Moreau), wife of a rich man and mother of a little girl, is bored with her life. She visits a lot her friend Maggy in Paris, where she meets a polo player. Suspicious that his wife has an affair with the polo player, Henri Turnier invites him and Maggy. Return from Paris for the dinner, Jeanne's car breaks down and an archaeologist takes her home. Henri asks the archaeologist to stay the night and it's when Jeanne and the archaeologist fall in love with each other. In leaving her husband, Jeanne must leave her daughter as well, but I guess she must believe that the daughter is better off with Henri. We see that she spends most of her time with Maggy instead with her daughter. With stunning b/w picture by Henri Decaë, the movie is beautiful to look at and I love the Brahms music.

Zazie dans le métro (1960)
12-year-old Zazie has to stay with Uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) for 2 days so that her mother can have all the fun with her boyfriend. What Zazie wants the most is to ride Métro, but it is on strike. She runs from Uncle Gabriel's house and gets him into trouble. The movie is full of ideas and the director played with effects, camera work, and editing. As soon as Zazie says her lines, I can understand why this movie gets a 12 rating: she is foul-mouthed. In the end, I can't say if I like this movie, although I can appreciate the creative ideas, which are too many that the story loses its meaning. The DVD contains short film called 'Vive le tour', a documentary about Tour de France, which I think is great and more interesting than the feature film. It captures well the hope and desperation of the participants, fighting to reach the finish line.

Le feu follet (1963)

Maurice Ronet plays Alain Leroy, a writer who is under alcohol treatment in a private clinic in order to win his wife back. The doctor tells him that he is cured, but Alain is not sure. His wife is across the Atlantic and he has lost all hope to get her back. He decides to commit suicide and dedicates one day to visit his friends. They are all sorry for him, but the more he sees them, the more he can see that his life has no meaning. This movie is a good study on human fragility with a shocking ending. Won't watch this one on a rainy day.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

La maîtresse du président (2009)

This movie tells the story of Marguerite Steinheil, the mistress of President Félix Faure (1895 - 1899). Married to painter Adolphe Steinheil, she met the president during an exhibition and became his mistress for 3 years until his death. The movie is quite interesting, although after reading Wikipedia, there are some differences.

Her family is ashamed because of the affair. Her husband becomes a drunkard and her daughter hates her and wants to get out from the family by marrying the first man who offers his hand. The president dies after a heart attack following a sex scene and as Marguerite is alone with him, she is accused of murder. Plus, there was an event when the president was attacked in the street with only her as company. The suspicion on her is based on the fact that she has among her friends the supporters of the Dreyfus affair. She is free after the doctor gave a statement that the president dies of natural causes.

Then comes another dark moment in her life, which begins when a stranger comes to buy the documents of late president Faure, which are kept by her. She denies having such documents and later, on the eve of the marriage of her daughter, when she has sent the maid to go with the daughter and locked the little dog outside because it wouldn't stop barking; 3 men and a red-haired woman, dressed as monks in black, break into the house. In the morning, her husband and her mother are found dead. Marguerite herself is gagged and bound into her daughter's bed, where she sleeps that night, but alive. She faces trial as a prime suspect for double murder. She believes she will get the maximum punishment, but after telling her daughter to burn the hidden documents, she is free. Orders from above, says the judge. She doesn't know that her daughter has given the documents to the government. Marguerite goes to England and marries an aristocrat. She dies at 80. The documents is released to public in 2009.

What I read in Wikipedia makes me doubt if Marguerite was as innocent as in this movie. Here she is played by the beautiful Cristiana Réali. Her life is tragic as her mother prevents her to marry a soldier she loves and later when she marries Steinheil, the marriage is insipid. Only in Faure she finds her true love, and this one is, unfortunately, forbidden.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Les risques du métier (1967)

Knowing this film was to be on TV, I looked forward to it. I had watched the main actor before in Les assassins de l'ordre, which I enjoyed very much. When this movie began, I realized that his name was Jacques Brel, who was very famous with his song Ne me quitte pas, which I actually hated. 

Les risques du métier is an interesting movie from start to finish. It opens with a girl named Catherine (#2 in the picture), running home from school with a torn chemise. She tells her parents that her teacher, Mr Douchet (Jacques Brel), tried to rape her. The accusation is soon followed by the 2nd, and 3rd girl. Is Mr Douchet really a dangerous maniac? Or the 3 girls are lying? It all begins when Mr Douchet receives a gold lighter from a mysterious person in his class. When he interrogates his pupils, no one confesses.

The whole thing is a horrible nightmare for Mr & Mrs Douchet. Mrs Douchet is also a teacher in the same school and she tries her best to believe her husband. Who is lying - Mr Douchet or the 3 girls? The cast is so good that the audience only know the truth in the end. [Although Nathalie Nell who plays one of the 3 girls looks scary sometimes.] Being a teacher is sometimes difficult. Ah, the risks of the job!

Spoilers: Mrs Douchet gets the first hint to help her husband after she gets one of the girls's best friend admitted that she has given a false testimony. The girl was with her boyfriend, not with the teacher. The girl points her finger to the teacher because she thinks the teacher can take her father's wrath, but not the boy. The 2nd girl is jealous because she thinks the first has an affair with the teacher, plus that day the teacher humiliated her because of a photo. The 3rd has lots of imagination.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Great Dictator (1940)

Hail Hynkel!

When I was a kid, my father once brought home a projector and we watched 2 movies: one with Mickey Mouse and one with Charlie Chaplin. The room was filled with laughters. I think that time Charlie Chaplin movies were shown on TV sometimes. Sadly they are not anymore.

The Great Dictator reminded me of one of my childhood's happiest moments. Charlie Chaplin is a timeless comedian, arguably even the greatest. This movie, although a comedy, I found the story was moving. In the WW1, a Jewish barber from Tomania saves an officer's life. The barber is injured and sent to a hospital, while out there the politics are changing. Dictator Hynkel now rules Tomania and he hates the Jews. Instead of receiving a medal, the barber is harassed by the patrol. It's a coincidence that Hynkel looks alike the Jewish barber (both played by Chaplin). I like very much the two crosses symbol. My favourite scene is when Hynkel plucks medals from the Field Marshal's uniform - and when they are all gone, he plucks the buttons. 

Released in 1940 when Hitler was in high power, this movie was an instant favourite for his enemies. A more serious tone on The Great Dictator's theme can be seen in István Szabó's Sunshine (1999), that it's hard to assimilate, even though one has had fought for their country.

St Luke says, "The Kingdom of God is within man". Not in one man nor a group of men, but in all men. In you! ~ the Jewish barber

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Dekalog (1988)

Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski had this idea to make "a cycle" (=series) about the 10 Commandments, how they could be applied to today's life - or the life when this was made, in late 1980's. All ten episodes needed US$100,000 to make, so this was a great success because it made US$3 millions. Comparing this to Julien Duvivier's Le diable et les dix commandements, I must say that I like Duvivier's better, which is funny, shorter, and easier to understand. Take "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain", for example. In Dekalog, the meaning is hidden between the lines, while in Duvivier's version it is as clear as day. Each episode in Dekalog does not have fast paces, but it is intense and demands us to think. Although each commandment has its own episode, sometimes it is difficult to guess which commandment is being told now, unless you have already know which one it is. The shop where I bought the DVD from, sent the 2nd part first, as it was the one on stock, so I started with episode 6. I learned from school that the 6th was "Thou shall not kill" and it was difficult for me to look that message in the particular episode. Later I found that as Poland was a Catholic country, the 6th should be "Thou shall not commit adultery". Characters in all 10 episodes live in the same block of apartment.

One "I am the LORD your God. You shall have no other gods before Me" A brilliant professor and his 10 year old talented son are good with computers. They believe more in science than in God. All religious people know that God is never wrong, but can we depend on science? Is it really safe out there to ski if the computer has calculated that the ice is strong enough?

Two "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain" This is one of the episodes with the hidden meaning. It's easier to find how people break this commandment in Hollywood action movies. A woman whose husband is gravely ill in the hospital asks the doctor if her husband will live or die, because she is pregnant by another man. She wants the doctor to swear. If her husband will live, she will have an abortion. Actually it's hard to see if this is relevant. What is more guilty: to stain one's name or to kill a baby? However, in a Catholic world, a sacred marriage is something very important, perhaps more than the life of a baby-to-be.

Three "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" Here, it's not about going to go to church every Sunday morning. A taxi driver chooses to spend a Christmas Eve in helping his ex-mistress looking for her husband than staying home with his wife in the holy night. I myself think that helping people is more important than celebrating Christmas at home. Jesus said: 'What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?' It's a different matter if he goes out with an intention to cheat on his wife, because he will stain the holy day then. Christmas is not that special anyway, because no one knows exactly when Jesus was born. I think it's just wonderful that we have one particular day to say thanks to God because He has come down to earth.

Four "Honor your father and your mother" What if one day we find out that the older man who always live with us, who has taken care of us, is not our father? The story seems silly to me, that the girl in this episode, can fall in love with her father. Sure, it's possible, but there are some moral values which cannot be put aside like that. I like better the Duvivier's approach in this matter. I always think that the one who has poured his love for us all this time is more precious than the biological one who left away.

Five "You shall not murder" A young man murders a taxi driver and gets a death penalty. There is a good question: the young man murders the taxi driver = a crime. The state murders the young man = a punishment. However, when we think about this, legal or illegal, both are murders. "An eye for an eye", it says. 

Six "You shall not commit adultery" A young man spies a female artist every night with his telescope. I think it is called adultery when one of the persons involved is married, but in this case, if I'm correct, none of them is. The woman does have many lovers, but she is not married to any of them. I wonder if the director means 'sex before marriage'.

Seven "You shall not steal" A young woman has a daughter out of marriage and her parents legally adopts the child and people outside know that the child is the young woman's little sister. One day she cannot take it anymore and kidnaps the child. Can we call this stealing, when she takes something that was her own? She is not a good mother for the child, though.

Eight "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" A Jewish-Polish woman who lives in America comes to Poland to attend a lecture about ethics. The professor was the same woman who refused to shelter her during the Nazi occupation. The professor tells her that by turning her out - and she is safe until today, so why bother? - the professor might have saved more lives. It seemed only a white lie, though a lie is a lie. Btw, when I hear this commandment, I always think of Naboth and his vineyard (1 Kings 21).

Nine "You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife" A man, recently found out about his impotence, tells his wife to take a lover. [This reminds me of Lars von Trier's Breaking The Waves] The man had been faithful to her in the past, but she was not like him. When she does take a lover, he becomes jealous and spies on her. The wife loves him too much and decides to break off with her lover, but it is too late. The jealousy has eaten off her husband.

Ten "You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods" Two brothers inherit a highly valuable stamp collection from their father. The same collection had made them suffered in the past, because the old man chose his stamps than his wife and kids. Apparently they don't learn something from this, and in order to complete a rare series, one of them agrees to trade one small square of paper with his kidney. When they found out that a robber had broken into the apartment and the whole collection is gone, all they have left is a little piece of paper. What's more, they suspect each other and almost ruin their relationship.

Tears Of The Giraffe

Although on the cover it is said that Tears of The Giraffe is the 2nd book in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the book is merely not a detective story. True, the main character, Mma Ramotswe, the founder of the agency, is a female detective, but the book contains lots of moral values, something that begins to disappear from the new generation. One day I was on a public transport and there were 3 school girls there (they were about 13-14 years old), and they talked to each other using many curse words. I never used such words to my school friends. I also remembered when my boss asked me to type her son's homework (it was a group's homework, actually, and I wondered why it was me who had to type it), dialogues for a drama, I was shocked to find curses in it; was it something they had been taught at school? I knew, fat chance it was, yet I wondered.

From the book, Botswana, where Mma Ramotswe lives, is a lovely place to be. She is engaged to a kind garagiste, who take 2 siblings from the orphanage. Her competent secretary is appointed to be her assistant. Here, far as I remember, they solve 2 cases: one from an American lady who wants to find the traces of her son who went missing 10 years ago and one from a butcher who wants to know if his wife has betrayed him. The first case is more difficult because the police could not solve it then, but Mma Ramotwe's intuition has a great deal in solving this. The 2 cases end well, also the problem with the garagiste's maid who dislikes Mma Ramotswe.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Serpent and the Staff

I ordered a used book of this work by Frank Yerby and received this large print edition. It took me a while to get used to the style of the letters, but after that, it was okay.

Like other works of Yerby, The Serpent and The Staff is enjoyable to read, although, in my opinion, not as good as An Odor of Sancity, The Saracen Blade, Goat Song, and The Voyage Unplanned. This one is set in New Orleans, spans from 1887 - 1905. The story is built around an orphan named Duncan Childers. Duncan is poor and his best friend is a 'negro'. Duncan is adopted by an old lady because he looks like her late grandson, who, in fact, had the same father as Duncan's. Duncan is given the best of education, and later he goes to Germany to study medicine. He and his 'negro' friend will become 2 best doctors in their hometown. Apart from being one of the most brilliant doctors in America, Duncan is also a wonderful piano player, and torn between the love of 2 women: one is the daughter of a wealthy man who can help him in his career, and the other is a dedicated nurse, who understands his true calling, that he becomes a doctor to cure sick people, not to run after money. The ending is quite gripping, i.e. Duncan and other doctors save Caneville-Sainte Marie from yellow fever epidemy. Also, as Yerby was good in doing research, we can also learn how the medical situation was at that time.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

L'affaire Dominici (1973)

August 1952, English war veteran Sir Jack Drummond with his wife and little daughter camped on the road in the Grand'Terre, land belonged to 75 year-old farmer Gaston Dominici (played wonderfully by Jean Gabin). That night, 6 gunshots were heard, and in the morning the Drummond family was all found murdered. The police investigated without good result, until the day when they received an anonymous letter denounced one of the villagers possessing illegal weapons. The inspector agreed to let him go if he could give valuable information. This villager said that when Gustave Dominici, Gaston's youngest son arrived at the scene of the crime, the little girl was still alive. Gustave was arrested on the pretext of negligence. He was released after 2 months in jail, but re-arrested, this time followed by his brother Clovis. Both pointed their finger at their father, who soon admitted the accusation after spending the night in the police HQ. During the hearing, Gaston took back his confession and said that his eldest son had plotted to get rid of him. "Are you sacrificing yourself?" the judge asked Gaston. "I am so unhappy," Gaston said. "My son accused me of murder." The hearing turned into a family fight between father and sons.

Based on a true story, this is a gripping movie. Who murdered the Drummonds and why? The questions are unanswerable. In the court, it turned out that there was no proof against Gaston Dominici and the police only had his confession -which was retracted- and the words of his sons. The only proof they had was a broken gun found in the river. In the reconstruction, Gaston said anything that would please the police and the judge. The police perhaps should have followed up the hints given by Gaston, during the hearing, who mentioned that Gustave might have seen something and that around the time of murder he was hidden behind the alfalfa. Also possible that this is the case where each man suspects another, although none of them is really the culprit.

With the lack of proof, Gaston was sure he would be free. The majority of the jury decided that he was guilty, though. "I do not get it," said Gaston. Neither do I. While waiting to be guillotined, Gaston's punishment was changed to life imprisonment, and in 1960 finally he was pardoned by President de Gaulle.

There was also young Gérard Depardieu as Gaston's nephew, a journalist who followed the case.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

M (1931)

This movie is very engaging, even though it was made in early 30's. Eight children has been missing in a German town (I believe it's Düsseldorf, since in several countries the movie is called M The Vampire of Dusseldorf). The police has been looking for the killer (the children are presumably dead) for 8 months without finding a single hint. Then the killer sends a letter to the police, and that is where the police get their first clue. They do find the killer's apartment.

In order to find the killer which terrorizes the town, the police swarm the city. The criminals feel they can't move freely and decide to catch the murderer. They use beggars to watch every children. Finally, a balloon seller recognizes the murderer - who whistles In der Halle des Bergkönigs from Peer Gynt - who is soon marked with a letter "M" (Mörder /Murderer) with a chalk. Knowing that he is being followed, M hides in an office building, but the criminals won't give up and raid the building, catch him, and put him before a kangaroo trial.

M suffers a mental illness. If he is tried in a government's court, will he be set free and sent to an asylum instead? Will there be justice to the parents of the lost children? Must M alone bear the responsibility? It is mentioned that M is a former patient of an insane asylum. The doctor who let him go, doesn't he have a moral responsibility, too, to the 8 lost children? If the doctor has decided that M is no longer a danger to the society, but knows if by nature he is a threat, why not put a watch over him? And the parents are also guilty, like the mother say in the end of the movie: "We should keep a closer watch on our children."

Candide (and other stories)

I was intrigued by some reviews which said that Candide was a very funny book. I found a used book which also contained more works by Voltaire. After reading this book, I must say that I agree with the reviewers, that this book is very funny. In my opinion, it's funnier than Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. The humour suits my taste. It's one of the most funniest I have read, actually, and now I know why reviewers for French movies sometimes mention Voltaire's influence when a movie has hilarious dialogues.

There are 5 stories in this book. Except Micromegas, the stories are about people in the search of happiness. 

1. Candide or Optimism
Candide was a young boy, brought up by a baron. He fell in love with the baron's daughter, but was refused because of his status. He traveled around the world, but always remembered the beautiful lady. Even in Eldorado, where life seemed perfect, Candide never forgot her. However, after he finally won her, he realized that he was actually happiest in Eldorado, and that he loved her only because it was his duty. Is it true then, that "All events form a chain in the best of all possible worlds."?

2. Micromegas - A Philosophical Story
This is the one I like less. Perhaps I just don't like the amount of philosophy poured in the story. Actually it reminds me of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le petit prince. Micromegas was an intelligent young man lived in one of the planets which orbit the star Sirius. He met the Secretary of the Saturnian Academy in Saturn, and both traveled to the Earth and had a discussion with humans.

3. Zadig or Destiny
This is my favourite among the 5. Zadig, a Babylonian, was a wise man who was also tolerant, rich, and generous. [This character reminds me of Abu Nawas from 1001 Nights] He suffered a series of unfortunate events, but always be able to narrowly escape. In chapter 18, he met angel Jesrad who enlightened him that "everything you see down here, on this little speck of dust where you have been born, necessarily occupies its own appointed place and time in accordance with the immutable laws of Him who embraces all things." Zadig got his happy ending, married the woman he loved and became the king of Babylon.

4. The Ingenu
A Huron, nicknamed The Ingenu, came to France and the people tried to christen him and make him civilized. He got confused because the laws of the civilized people have many contradictions. "I notice every day how you all do a whole host of things  which are not in that book of yours (=Bible), and how you don't do the things it does say." There was a tragic love story between The Ingenu and the sister of the abbé de Saint-Yves.

5.The White Bull
In the book of Daniel, there is a story about King Nebuchadnezzar who was punished because he was too proud. "That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws." (Daniel 4:33). The White Bull is the story of Princess Amasida, daughter of King of Tanis in Egypt, who lost her lover 7 years previously. The lover was King Nebuchadnezzar, whose name she was forbidden to speak, or her father would cut off her head. One day she met a handsome white bull who cried when it saw her. Her father, thought that the princess was possessed, planned to sacrify the bull. In this story there are also animals from the Bible stories.