Accidental French Culture

It entertains me to find the pattern in things; they’re all around us, once you start finding them. I’m sure there’s some sort of perceptual Event Horizon that one can eventually cross with this sort of thing, where mere observation turns to insanity, but I haven’t quite crossed that threshold. I think.

One of these occurred to me just recently, when looking back over the previous few days, I realized I had just, without planning, taken in a weekend of French cinema. There are worse fates.

This gets kicked off last Thursday night, when I found myself waiting to watch a network TV show. This does not happen often. It was the premiere of CBS’ Elementary, and I have to give anything involving Sherlock Holmes a chance. (Okay, shortly: I liked Lucy Liu’s Watson, because I like it when the Watson character is actively involved in the story. I’m giving it another shot, even if I’m willing to toss the series under a bus for Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock talking during a live performance, because fuck people who do that)

I’ve never been able to get involved in Person of Interest, even though I really like Michael Emerson. A quick run around the dial revealed nothing of, um, interest (is it any wonder I don’t have cable?). The answer was upstairs, a Criterion Blu-Ray I had picked up a couple of weeks before at a used disc store, which contained Chris Marker’s La Jetee, which clocks in at a mere 27 minutes.

After a nuclear war, people are reduced to living in a series of tunnels under the city, Desperate scientists begin experimentation on prisoners of war, seeking to unlock a method of time travel which will allow them to acquire aid from either the past or the future. Our protagonist is perhaps the 40th or 50th person to be so experimented upon. He is given a high chance of success because he has an image indelibly burned into his mind: when he was a child, he was standing on an observation deck at an airport – the pier, or jetee of the title – where he saw a beautiful woman’s face seconds before a man in the crowd was shot and killed.

Using a method wisely left unexplained, the man begins to journey back to meet the woman for fleeting moments, visits which last longer and longer, until he is free to move about in the past. She accepts the oddness of his plight, referring to him as “her ghost”. At that point, he is sent into the future, to find if mankind has survived, and if they offer any information to help the struggling survivors of his present to reach their future safe point.

La Jetee is rightfully regarded as a masterpiece. Announcing itself as a “photo-roman“, it is composed almost entirely of black-and-white photos, appropriate for a story whose success depends upon the attachment of the protagonist to a single image. Once the viewer accepts this, the clarity and immediacy of photographs becomes the film’s strength. An associate of mine, looking at some photos I had taken with black-and-white film (which should tell you how long ago this was) remarked that there was something about black-and-white that made the images seem more significant. Whether or not this was because we were used to the regular monochrome of newspaper photography, I do not know – but the colorless worlds of La Jetee suit the doom-laden proceedings very well, and the single instance of a moving image provides a moment so laden with genuine significance and longing that it is perfect.

Yeah, I’m going to be the three millionth person to say La Jetee is brilliant.

You are lucky – you have already made the journey to the future, and La Jetee is available in its entirety on YouTube… in French. There is an English dub or two with iffy picture quality (yes, I have become quite the Blu-Ray snob), so you’ll have to make do with this excerpt:

The next evening it was only logical to follow up with the second movie on the Criterion disc,  Sans Soleil, “Sunless” for those of you that flunked French. It’s named after a piece of music by Modest Mussorgsky, which is about the only clue you can hope for from me. Sans Soleil is the exact opposite of La Jetee: everything is movement and color. The female narrator reads letters from a globetrotting filmmaker, who goes unnamed until the final credits reveal him to be Sandor Krasna… who doesn’t exist.

Krasna’s letters obsess over memory and time, and a bunch of other things over a lot of footage of Japan in the late 70s-early 80s, occasionally zipping over to Africa and Iceland. It’s a dizzying kaleidoscope of cultural events, ephemera in odd places, snippets of Rintaro’s Galaxy Express 999, guerilla soldiers. The film opens with three girls on a country road in Iceland – the Narrator says that he will present only this footage bracketed by black frames, so the enduring image will be “happiness”. Only at the end of the movie does he reveal that the next day, a volcano will literally bury the girl’s village in ash.

Our fictitious filmmaker asks and ponders a lot of questions, philosophical eternals that have no real answers. Chris Marker is hard to pin down as an artist, a writer, what? The best suggestion has been to say he is an essayist working in film, and this is the greatest strength of Sans Soleil and its one downfall. It is fascinating in the way good documentaries are, engaging in the manner of late-night drunken philosophical discussions. What is maddening is that it demands multiple viewings to unpack what Marker is saying, if indeed it is possible to truly unpack it at all. Multiple viewings that would have been more possible with La Jetee‘s abbreviated running time, but not Sans Soleil‘s 103 minutes.

Yes, yes, movies should ideally exist in individual vacuums, without other movies brought in for comparison, but Sans Soleil downright invites this by spending some time visiting the shooting locations of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and mentioning the symbolic cross-section of the Sequoia was used in “one other film” – that film being La Jetee. Gah, like I said, this is a movie with ideas wrapped in images wrapped in reportage with a chewy philosophical nougat at its core.

And really, saying that you immediately need to watch a movie again to ponder its contents has to be one of the most specious complaints ever put to electronic paper.

Marker was quite the remarkable artist; I now find that he made a movie about Akira Kurosawa during the making of Ran, and I have moved that picture, AK, to the top of my list of Things To Track Down. His influence is unmistakable; the DNA of Sans Soleil is evident in movies like Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, and given his noodling about with computerized solarization of footage in Sans Soleil, I can see his influence on Naqoyqatsi, which is a movie that almost rendered my teeth to flat nubbins, so much did I grind them during my viewing. So thank you, Chris, except for that part.

The last part of my unconscious French triple feature was Saturday morning, when I found myself all alone in the house with a soft rain outside. I finally plugged in my copy of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and was a bit nonplussed to find myself underwhelmed.

I should quickly establish that this is all on me: I liked it alright, but I wanted to love it. Frankly, this is what happens when you are told for forty years that a movie is an enthralling, magical experience, until after those forty years you finally put out an effort to buy it and watch it, ’cause the only version offered to you most of your life was dire made-for-TV versions or had musical numbers.

I actually do not doubt the quality of the movie. It is well-made, and those scenes within the Beast’s palace are full of marvelous imagery, judicious use of slow motion, and the sort of dream logic that could fall flat in less-capable hands. The Beast’s makeup is superb, and Jean Marais’ eyes beautifully emotive. The one technical problem I have is the overly-bombastic score.

Well, no, I also find the denouement troublesome, as the Beast’s cure left me a severe case of what-the-hell’s, what with Avenant’s death – which I don’t really think was deserved – and Belle’s lack of concern for the death of a fellow she had confessed a fondness for… But by then, I was really ready for it to be over, and not a little cranky.

Again, I can see the movie’s quality, and I can certainly see the influence it has exerted over a half-century and more of fantasy cinema… but whether it was my mood, or alignment of the stars, or if I had been promised the be-all of romantic fantasy movies and what I found was a 1947 black-and-white movie… well, we’ll never know. But I will say all three of these movies are worth watching, and while your mileage may vary, grumpy old me could see their quality and value.

I mean, look at this stuff, it’s beautiful. What is my problem?

1 Comment

  1. […] after three movies of considerable quality, I felt the need to balance out my cinematic diet. And if nothing else, my collection has quite the […]


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