Johnny Mad Dog: clear anti-war message let down by generic portrayal of film’s events

Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, “Johnny Mad Dog” (2008)

A film of child soldiers set in an African country experiencing a long and protracted civil war, “Johnny Mad Dog” will be gruesome watching for most people. The movie revolves around the viewpoint of two teenagers, Johnny Mad Dog (Chirstopher Minie) who leads a militia of under-age soldiers, some of them barely into their teens, in a rebel army and Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) who tries to save her crippled father and little brother from the rebels when they hit her town and kill or drive away the soldiers. The film’s narrative follows the boys from the time they receive their orders from the General (Joseph Duo), through their journey into a town and then into the capital city to meet up with other rebel groups fighting government forces; along the way the youngsters commit appalling and brutal acts of violence such as forcing a child to shoot his father, raping a TV news reporter and torturing a middle-aged couple by forcing them to have sex. In warfare, the boys efficiently despatch a sniper; in brief periods of “peace”, they quarrel, waste too much ammunition in the air, steal things and generally sort out their particular places in their little social hierarchy. In the meantime, Laokole is torn between getting her wounded father to hospital and keeping her brother safe: she decides to take Dad to hospital in a wheelbarrow but loses the small boy.

The depiction of Johnny and his unit as they alternately kill and plunder, and act like a bunch of typical teenagers obsessed with second-hand Western pop culture or stolen trophies like a pig, looks realistic if bizarre. Many child actors who appear had actually been soldiers and you wonder how they must have felt recreating brutal, nightmarish scenes. The often shocking contrast of the boys’ violence and their relative innocence and naivety is a reflection of the surreal society that produced them, a society where adults are helpless and passive – even the UN soldiers guarding the city hospital barely hold out against Johnny’s rabble – or are deliberately uncaring, cynical and lying; and children are the ones who take responsibility for their parents and siblings. The rebel leaders who lure Johnny and the other boys into their ranks promise the children money for their future and provide charms claimed to ward off bullets and injuries but betray the children by joining the regular army once the war is ended.

Using a mixture of jumpy handheld camera shots, fixed-film shots and scenes shot in slow-motion style, Sauvaire achieves an effect that is at once immediate and in-your-face, and at the same time in its own way, universal: children brainwashed, degraded and traumatised by ongoing war and extreme poverty, with the adults exploiting their innocence, eager energy and desire for security. The film looks beautiful, even artistic, even in scenes of parts of the deserted city where evidence of poverty and long-term government neglect might be expected; the forests look too green and lush, and the houses appear picturesque and colourful.

The country where the war takes place is never identified; this is at once the film’s weakness and part of its purpose, which is to show that the events could happen in any country where there is ongoing civil war, but this approach risks making the country, its people and places generic. The film narrowly focusses on the boys’ activities and interactions so they come across as little more than thuggish brats with AK-47s. Viewers never learn if the government the rebels fight against really is corrupt and favours some ethnic or religious groups over others. The rebel leadership is never identified so viewers have no way of knowing if Johnny’s general is just not a nice piece of work or is representative of the rebel army leaders. For all we know, the rebels may have had very legitimate grievances which would have given a context to the orders the boys receive from the General and the mayhem they cause, and the film an added complicated political-social dimension which would enrich the sparse plot.

The performances of Minie and Vandy as the teenagers on two opposed sides of the war, whose lives run in parallel save for two meetings, are pivotal to the film’s plot and both youngsters deliver excellent work particularly in their scenes together. Their first scene, completely wordless, holds the possibility of a friendship and possible redemption for Johnny, and the close-ups of the actors’ faces, frozen yet filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings, are stunning; the protagonists’ second scene together, in which all hope of reconciliation is gone, is terrifying in the way it suggests both youngsters have been completely corrupted and degraded by the adults and events around them and will remain enemies forever. For all his bluster and near-sociopathic tendencies, Johnny shows potential to be a more sensitive person – he refuses to blast away a group of UN soldiers, to his unit’s astonishment; he is concerned for a prostitute he names “Lovelita” when she is shot – if he had been given better luck in life; and Laokole shows an unexpected hardening, vengeful side.

The message that war dehumanises people, most of all children, is very clear but for all that, “Johnny Mad Dog” is one-dimensional and not nearly as effective as it could be. The journalistic concentration on the issue of child soldiers throws the spotlight onto the child actors but without the background context that might explain how and why the civil war in the unnamed African country broke out and whether the rebels had good cause to revolt – this could be completely fictional yet plausible as it would be reconstructed from real life events in various countries- the film undermines its message and becomes open to charges of racism and exploitation of its themes for the titillation of audiences within Africa and beyond. Nevertheless it’s a worthwhile film to watch for the work of its two leads in portraying two opposed characters.

The film was shot in Monrovia and other parts of Liberia but is based on a novel “Johnny Chien Mechant” by novelist and scientist Emmanuel Dongala, who used his experiences as a refugee fleeing Congo (Brazzaville) in the late 1990’s when war broke out there, for the book.

Persepolis: coming-of-age film could be more honest about life under police state regime

Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis” (2007)

Adapted from the graphic novel, originally published in two volumes, of the same name, this is a coming-of-age fictional autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, done in mostly black-and-white animation that mimicks the style of the novel. Satrapi, known in the film as simply Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), grows up during a momentous period in Iran’s recent history which encompasses the last days and the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah, the brief democracy that followed under Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and the first 12 years of Islamic theocratic rule during which time the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is Supreme Leader (1980 – 1989) and Iraq under President Saddam Hussein invades Iran and the two countries are bogged down in a war that lasts 8 years. Although “Persepolis” primarily surveys Marjane’s early life and how she came to be the person she is, currently living in self-exile in France where she works as a graphic designer, the film also conveys something of how individuals manage to live and cope, though not very well, under the chronic stress of ongoing war and a highly repressive and brutal police state where grassroots political activity is outlawed.

The animation aims to humanise Iranians for a Western audience and show how easily we all can fall under repressive political rule; it also moves the narrative swiftly and efficiently, diving into little pieces of early 20th century Iranian history to make a particular point about how Western powers meddled in Iranian politics or how various members of Marjane’s family got into trouble with the authorities before moving back to Marjane’s life. This establishes the family and social background that made Marjane’s upbringing distinctive and perhaps unusual for a girl of her social class in Iran. Early on, the animation has a light-hearted comic-strip quality and the scenes are bright and happy: Marjane’s parents, called Ebi and Maman (voiced by Simon Akbarian and Catherine Deneuve) rejoice at the hated Shah’s removal which means that Uncle Anoosh is released from jail after a long period. Little Marjane quickly becomes close to Uncle Anoosh who tells her stories of his early life as a Communist supporter and his self-exile in the Soviet Union to evade the Shah’s agents. Unfortunately the brief democracy is hijacked by Khomeini in a March 1979 referendum when voters are given the choice between the monarchy continuing and an Islamic government (no other alternatives being considered) and 99% of the people opt for an Islamic government. Khomeini and his followers impose a narrow and literal interpretation of an ideal Islamic society on Iran. Soon Uncle Anoosh is arrested again and later executed. Not long after, President Hussein of Iraq sees an opportunity to steal the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan and invades the country, beginning the long protracted war that resulted in nearly a million Iranian casualties. The animation follows the events in mood, becoming darker with entire scenes filling up with black as images of death appear and the film assumes a strong, depressive expressionist flavour.

Marjane’s relations with Ebi and Maman are clear-cut: Ebi is supportive and easy-going while Maman is the strict disciplinarian feminist who tries to raise Marjane to be an independent-minded girl. As war drags on and a bomb lands in their neighbourhood, killing a Jewish family Marjane knows, Ebi and Maman, fearing for the girl’s safety, send her to a French school in Vienna in Austria. Marjane’s time in Vienna is eventful: she goes from one boarding-house to another, falls in with a group of punks at school and has crushes on two boys who fail or betray her in some way. Her last months in Vienna are spent as a homeless vagrant after she angrily leaves a boarding-house and she ends up in hospital. This gives her an opportunity to escape Austria and return to Iran in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war. After the death of Khomeini in 1989, the rest of the film details how Marjane tries to cope with everyday life in Iran and the pettiness of the morality police which force her into an early and failed marriage. Eventually, Marjane and her family conclude that she can no longer stay in the country and Marjane leaves Iran for good.

Persepolis” is not too bad as a stand-alone work though there are major flaws: there are details in the movie that seem irrelevant to the coming-of-age story and the movie’s pace can be so rapid that its treatment of what must have been significant episodes in Marjane’s life comes across as superficial and sketchy. The movie works best as a companion piece or introduction to the graphic novel, of which about 70% is present in the film. What the film does best is create a particular mood or atmosphere that can resonate powerfully with the audience; the scenes of war, death and of Marjane’s abject homelessness in the later months of her stay in Vienna are illustrated with large blocs of black that encroach on individual figures that might be illuminated with small spots of light. Fantasy scenes, history and dreams scenes come to the fore in ways they can’t in the graphic novel: characters fly in skies that look three-dimensional among fixed glowing stars; and Uncle Anoosh, as a youth, climbs through mountainous country in scenes that deliberately look like two-dimensional stand-up cut-outs, giving the impression of some kind of puppet show where the puppets have a life of their own.

Many details eliminated from the film are ones that might upset the general public: the film doesn’t mention among other things that while at school in Vienna, Marjane becomes a small-time drug dealer and then works as a waitress in a cafe where she is subjected to sexual harassment. There are other aspects in the film that need an explanation beyond what both the film and the novel can provide: why the Iranian government promotes a cult of martyrdom and sends teenage boys to “clear” minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, and why the regime continues as a police state long after the war has ended and Khomeini has died. Later scenes of “Persepolis” in which Marjane sinks into a rut of constant partying, fighting with her husband Reza (whom she married young, to escape the morality police’s attention) and generally living a life lacking in direction, all of which collide in a tragic death of a party-goer after a party gets sprung by the police, and force Marjane to sever her ties with Iran and go into self-exile, seem rushed because certain details have been edited out and thus lack focus. Some voice-over narration by Marjane could have explained to Western audiences why young Iranians at the time engaged in an apparently mindless and potentially destructive hedonistic life-style (because of the risk of being arrested and imprisoned, possibly tortured, by the morality police) as a form of political protest. The episode in which Marjane becomes badly depressed, attempts suicide and recovers from her illness by becoming a gym instructor is treated in a patchy way and her fine arts education also gets rough treatment. The result is a film that becomes blander and less interesting in its second half and falls into stereotypical chick-lit territory in which one generation of women, represented by Marjane’s grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), dispenses banal wisdom about being true to yourself and about marriage and divorce being part of normal life to the next generation.

“Persepolis” could have been a more forceful film; the animation lends itself readily to tackling topics like war, the waste of young lives, suicide and living in a police state in a no-nonsense way through one person’s point of view that a live-action film might not be able to do. The simple cartoon style enables the events portrayed to be scaled to both the personal level and a more political global level; the animation format has a flexibility that the live-action format lacks. Satrapi might not have been politically active or aware in her young adult days but could have tackled this aspect of her life with honesty; audiences would surely understand if the reason was that she found everyday life too stressful and intolerable due to the conditions created by the Islamic Republican regime.  This could have been the film’s most powerful message: while repressive governments may damage people physically through torture or exile, their worst effects are psychological through depression and mental illness, and social because they deform and corrupt important social and cultural institutions as evidenced in Marjane and Reza’s hasty short-lived marriage.

Screen veteran Sharif and newcomer Boulanger team up in easy-going “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran”

François Dupeyron, “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran” (2003)

This is an easy-going coming-of-age story based on a novel of the same name set in Paris in the early 1960’s. The material is lightweight and familiar – wayward youngster taken in hand by a kindly adult who teaches him about life and living – but is given gravity and warmth by lead actor Omar Sharif who plays Ibrahim Demirdji, the Turkish shop-owner who befriends a lonely Jewish teenager Momo (Pierre Boulanger) and eventually adopts him as his son. The movie divides into two roughly equal halves, one half focussing on the slow disintegration of Momo’s family and early life, and the other half being a one-way road movie.

At the start Momo lives with his father (Gilbert Melki) who seems depressed, cares little for his son’s well-being and treats the boy as house-keeper and cook in their working-class apartment on the Rue Bleue. During the day, the boy hangs out with the local kids who keep him updated with the latest songs and dances. Local prostitutes provide him with his first sexual encounters and some emotional comfort. He shops for food and household supplies at Demirdji’s general grocery store across the road and over time the elderly man guesses that the boy needs some psychological and spiritual guidance and direction, and starts providing it. He encourages Momo to see religion not as a set of rules and rituals but as a personal faith and philosophy to guide a person in life. While Momo and Ibrahim draw closer in their daily encounters, the father becomes more distant from the son and buries himself in work. In spite of this, he ends up being sacked and decides to leave his son to fend for himself. Momo copes well on his own at first but then receives news that his father has committed suicide. Demirdji then adopts Momo and sets about educating him in life and experiences: he buys a snazzy red car, takes driving lessons and plans a trip through Europe to Turkey. The two then set off and whiz quickly through the continent and reach Istanbul. After enjoying the sights and learning about the city’s culture, Momo accompanies Demirdji on his trip deeper into the Anatolian rural heartland.

One aspect of this film is issues that appear are never revealed in their entirety. We learn early on that Momo’s mother left the family many years ago but no-one knows why. Later when she appears after the father’s suicide, she fails to recognise Momo (he pretends to be someone else and she falls for the ploy) and tells him he never had an older brother called Popol. What effect this has on Momo – because his father used “Popol” as a stick to beat his son psychologically – and on his opinion of his father, we never learn because for one thing the mother then disappears from Momo’s life, perhaps forever. We also never discover what Demirdji is driving towards – there’s an unfortunate accident – or what he had in mind when he decided to take Momo on the car trip. There’s the possibility that he wished to take Momo through Turkey to Iran (Persia) as early on in the movie, he tells Momo that he is not Arab but comes from “the Golden Crescent” (a region stretching from Anatolia to Persia inclusive) and that at film’s end, Momo’s “education” still has a long way to go and is something he must complete himself. Disappointingly the film’s conclusion looks very much a cop-out and suggests that Momo’s self-realisation will be a repetitive self-referential loop.

It’s basically a sleepwalk for Sharif with regard to acting effort: the most he does is beam a lot and pretend to make a fuss in front of a car dealer. Boulanger’s equally minimal acting seems appropriate for a teenage boy who has grown up emotionally distant from both parents and is understandably wary of friendly strangers. Both actors complement each other well in their scenes together and though mawkishness does creep in, still you can’t help feeling a bit sad when eventually Demirdji must leave Momo and Momo finds himself all alone again. Isabelle Adjani turns up in a brief cameo playing Brigitte Bardot filming a scene for a movie (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” which was made in 1963) and later visiting Demirdji’s grocery store.

The film makes a better shot of showing how two people of different generations, religion and social background can find a connection, than it does of Momo’s transformation from a bewildered, emotionally lost child estranged from his religion as well as his family to someone with more self-knowledge and awareness who is able to pass wisdom onto other troubled kids. The film does try to suggest commonalities between two religions (the two main characters are named after revered prophets Abraham and Moses in both the Jewish and Islamic religions) and that religious belief and faith are independent of labels and obeying rules and stereotypes, allowing for the kind of fluid religious identity that Momo achieves. Though there’s not much to suggest that Momo has already been schooled in Jewish religious belief by his father. Perhaps if there had been a voice-over narrative done by Momo as a mature man, commenting on aspects of his adolescence, viewers would get a stronger sense of Momo on the road to personal growth and the film might not be so sentimental.

I also think the film would have been a lot stronger and more profound if it hadn’t stuck closely to the source novel by Eric-Emanuel Schmitt, and had a completely different ending in which Momo pursues a varied and different career path, and derives more self-knowledge and a greater understanding of what Demirdji had tried to teach him. As the events in the film date back nearly 50 years ago, having a conclusion set in the present day, with Momo in his twilight years reflecting over a past life (in which perhaps he had become a civic leader and tried to improve conditions in the neighbourhood of Rue Bleue) and remembering the lessons of his youth, might be more appropriate than a coda in which Momo is a young man running the shop and seeing his adolescence reflected in a young shoplifter.

La Fille du Rer: film of connections that doesn’t quite connect

Andre Techine, “La fille du RER (The Girl on the Train)”, Strand Releasing (2009)

Not a bad drama but I couldn’t quite see the point of making a film based on a real-life incident in 2004 in which a young woman falsely claimed to have been attacked by a group of Muslim youths who’d mistaken her for a Jew, without exploring the incident and some of its aspects in some detail. You’d expect the director and scriptwriter to look at the woman’s motives and psychological background, see if there’s anything unusual or “out of the ordinary” like a history of mental illness or childhood sexual abuse that would indicate a need for attention, a cry for help, an attempt to connect with others. Instead Techine delivers a combination of a soap opera and a coming-of-age story about two families who have a past secret connection. The theme underlying the plot is connection: how people make their way in life through connecting to others through love, travel, media and even incidents that throw particular people together. The acting ranges from competent to good but some fine actors have little more than walk-on parts that don’t require their particular presence or talents.

The movie divides roughly in two parts. In the first part, Jeanne Fabre (Emilie Dequenne) lives a carefree life at home with mum Louise (Catherine Deneuve), rollerblading along the streets and trying to apply for secretarial jobs: one such job is at the law firm of Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a former friend of Louise’s husband and possibly her secret lover. Jeanne flubs her interview and application for that job so she goes home; on her way back, she meets a young man, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who gets her email address. Over time a relationship develops between them and she eventually moves in with him into an apartment over a shop he looks after. One day an incident at the shop lands Franck in hospital and Jeanne in trouble with the police who tell her that the shop was a front for a drug-running operation. Jeanne is cleared of wrong-doing but when she sees Franck in hospital, he tells her he knew she lied to him about having a job when she didn’t and rejects her. Dejected and upset, Jeanne goes home, mutilates herself and then goes out into the night.

The second part of the movie focusses more on Samuel Bleistein’s quarrelling son (Mathieu Demy) and daughter-in-law (Ronit Elkabetz) as they prepare for their son Nathan’s upcoming bar mitzvah. In the meantime, Jeanne reports her faked anti-Jewish attack to the police and the supposed incident makes news headlines. Louise hears of the attack on the news and confronts her daughter who reacts with apathy. Louise contacts Samuel for advice and he invites her and Jeanne to stay with his family at their weekend home. Here Jeanne meets Nathan who convinces her to tell the truth while both are sheltering in a little shack during a night-time storm. Jeanne owns up to Bleistein who directs her to write an apology. When Jeanne and Louise return home, Jeanne turns herself in to police and spends 48 hours in a jail cell. Later she is required to attend psychiatric therapy and when we last see her, she is rollerblading in the countryside and thinking about a recent letter from Nathan, who has just celebrated his bar mitzvah with both his parents, grandfather Bleistein and relatives and friends. In the letter, Nathan professes a growing affection for Jeanne and wishes to see her again when they are older.

Fair enough, the “actual” faked attack is a very minor part of the movie so there’s no need to actually see Jeanne report it to police – it’s explained in voice-over. The film doesn’t go into much detail on the consequences of the faked attack and the effect it has on Louise and Samuel Bleistein and whether they will see each other again after the events covered in the movie are over. We learn nothing of what Nathan’s parents think of Jeanne and how their opinion affects Nathan’s burgeoning feelings for Jeanne. Why he feels the way he does towards her is rather strange: he sees through her lies so he seems a good judge of character for one so young, yet he’s falling in love with her? The film’s treatment of Jews’ place in French society and the tensions between and among different groups within a multicultural, multireligious society still governed by traditional French social and political hierarchical structures (and what these say about broader social connections), is superficial to the point of non-existent. I start to wonder what the film is really trying to say.

The acting is fine: Dequenne has a difficult role to play, a shallow immature young woman who has little appreciation of the impact her lies have on people and who probably learns nothing from the experience, but she’s credible in the part and that’s all that can be expected; and Blanc and Deneuve are good in their supporting roles. Deneuve’s acting can be subtle, particularly in a scene where she nervously waits for Blanc’s character and then decides not to meet him directly, and it seems a shame Techine doesn’t focus more on their characters’ secret history and relationship and where that might go. But this isn’t their movie after all. Demy and Elkabetz’s characters provide some light relief as an estranged warring couple who reconcile, temporarily anyway, for their son’s sake but I feel that any particular set of actors whether good or bad could have played their roles. My impression of Elkabetz from seeing her in the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” is that she is a very good lead actress and could have played a bigger part here other than just being a mother, wife and law firm employee.

For those viewers wondering if there’ll be a sequel where Louise and Samuel Bleistein meet again and decide to make their relationship less secret or more permanent, real life has provided a postscript to prod Techine if he runs out of ideas for films: in Marseilles in April 2007, nearly three years after the hoax incident that inspired the movie, a young woman really was set upon by two men of Middle Eastern appearance who noticed her Jewish chai necklace and cut her hair, slashed her T-shirt and drew swastikas on her bare chest, in a way similar to the hoax incident. Life keeps on imitating art deliberately, it seems.

Playtime: Tati celebrates human values but needed machine values to make it

 
Jacques Tati, “Playtime”, Madman Cinema / The AV Channel, DVD  (1967)
 
 
Said to have been the most expensive movie made in France at the time of its release involving the construction of an elaborate set over nine years that included an airport terminal, city streets with a multi-lane traffic roundabout, various office and other high-rise buildings, and the film itself taking three years to make in grand 70mm format, “Playtime” really is one of a kind, never to be replicated, at least not in these economically strait-jacketed times. Only Hollywood these days might have the money to finance a remake should a suitably fruitcake obsessive director be up to the job – hmm, why do I think of James Cameron as the man to do it? – but with MGM Studios facing bankruptcy at this time of writing, even a pale replica now appears impossible. All the more reason to treasure “Playtime” in spite of its near unwatchableness for most people.
 
“Playtime” plays like a satirical comedy and superficially in parts it resembles old silent film comedies starring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Visual gags abound and it’s necessary to view the film at least twice to catch most of them. The opening scenes in the movie look as if they’re occurring in a hospital but the building turns out to be an airport terminal. Main character Monsieur Hulot (director Tati himself), if we can call him that – he features in less than half the film – gets caught up in various slapstick situations, many of them featuring no dialogue or dialogue-as-background. Viewing the movie twice myself though, I sense a fairly serious and sometimes dark message about the place of humans and humanity in a world ruled by rationality and cold intellect as evidenced in the architecture, layouts and technology of 1960s Paris. At first we see people dwarfed and directed by their surroundings – they move in straight lines, they get tricked by walls or doors of near-invisible glass, they mistake a lampshade holder for a bus pole – but as “Playtime” progresses, the failings of an environment governed strictly by efficiency and rationality become obvious, and when technology fails as it does in the restaurant scenes, people react with spontaneity, warmth and reaching out to others.
 
No plot exists as such: the film is a snapshot of 1960s Paris over a 24-hour period, parts of which are experienced by Monsieur Hulot and a group of female American tourists of whom one young woman, Barbara, is always lagging behind the others for one reason or another (one of several ongoing jokes in the film). The film easily divides into seven segments, depending on where the camera is focussed: first up is the airline terminal segment where the tourist group first arrives. Much action takes place in longshot, forcing viewers to look everywhere over the screen to catch all the activity. The second segment takes place in an office building: Hulot has a meeting with an official and spends most of his time either ill at ease with the office chairs, trying to find the official or getting lost in the building. We get a good view of the impersonal style of the office building: people work in office cubicles that all look the same and are laid out in ways that resemble a geometrical maze; meetings take place in glass-walled areas that supposedly preserve privacy inside and out; and Hulot and the official alike are baffled by the building’s spacious dimensions and geometry as they continually miss each other.
 
Hulot stumbles from the second segment into the third which takes place in another look-alike office building that is holding a trade exhibition. Barbara’s tourist group visits this exhibition as well after Barbara is nearly left behind while trying to photograph a flower-seller. Hulot himself is mistaken for a thief who pilfers one exhibition’s publicity material for a silent-closing door but is quickly exonerated. In the meantime a lady in front of another exhibition demonstrates a household waste-bin cunningly disguised as an Ancient Greek relic; that might say something about Tati’s opinion of the modern world’s respect for history.
 
Hulot eventually leaves the building and catches a bus during evening peak hour. Commuters appear as comic conformist clones: they line up close together like segments of a centipede to catch a bus and hang onto a lampshade post instead of the bus railing. In one scene, four men dressed exactly alike enter four identical cars parked close together at much the same time and drive off, one after the other, in a perfectly timed sequence. When Hulot leaves the bus, he meets an old friend who drags him into his apartment and the apartment block where the friend resides is the focus of the film’s fourth segment. We see four families in the apartment block watching TV through their ceiling-to-floor windows and it’s obvious they’re all watching the same TV show. Because the TV sets are stuck into common walls, the families on the ground floor appear to be watching and reacting to each other: in a role reversal scene, a man strips his shirt off and the woman next door peers closely at her TV set at the same time as though seeing a peepshow. It’s a wonderful visual joke, plausible and implausible at the same time.
 
Most of the second half of the film is taken up with opening night of the newly refurbished Royal Gardens restaurant and there are numerous gags here. Several waiters prepare and season a dish repeatedly for a couple, only for that dish to be taken away to another table. One waiter forced to retire outside the restaurant after tearing his trousers on a chair finds himself lending out his jacket, tie and shoe to other waiters with similar accidents throughout the evening. A pillar placed in a high-traffic foyer proves a constant nuisance for waiters and customers alike. Part of the ceiling collapses, a glass door shatters, there are air-conditioning problems and the electricity supply goes erratic. Waiters aren’t always attentive and customers at the bar keep falling off their stools. As the night progresses and more disasters occur, everyone relaxes and starts making their own fun, dancing and singing along. Barbara appears at the piano, playing a tune (yes, the tourist group came to dinner) and meets Hulot who offers to buy her a gift.
 
The sixth and seventh segments take place during the bleary-eyed hours of the early morning when the restaurant closes and customers go home. In the drugstore segment, a couple of workers manage to siphon some free wine into their pipes (the plumbing sort of pipes, not the smoking sort) while the sales attendants are elsewhere. Hulot finds a gift and passes it onto Barbara, already late boarding her tourist bus, via an impromptu messenger. In the seventh segment, the focus is on morning peak hour traffic circulating around a multi-lane roundabout in slow, mechanical clockwork fashion.
 
Tati’s message about humanity and modernity appears optimistic – a machine-like society is apt to break down and humans released from such a society will re-discover warmth, creativity, spontaneity and connection – but offers nothing about how to change such a society permanently to something less grim. “Playtime” has a circular quality – it begins and ends with camera shots of blue sky with clouds – which suggests that the machine society and natural human warmth and spontaneity will always be at loggerheads. Why should that be?
 
Perhaps Tati himself wasn’t the appropriate person to offer a more human-based alternative: to make such a hugely expensive and elaborate film like “Playtime” with its huge and detailed sets and carefully choreographed action must surely demand a personality bordering on manic and obsessive if not tyrannical. Tati fans already know the film didn’t recoup its massive production costs and Tati was forced to declare bankruptcy and to sell his home. He must have had something of a love-hate affair with the modernist ideal to have made a series of films revolving around Hulot that focus on the French obsession with brutalist modern architecture that is often impractical and overscaled and on emulating American consumerism and pressure-cooker lifestyles. Technology wasn’t necessarily an issue: in a later film, “Trafic”, Hulot appears as an inventor driving his self-made car full of gadgets to an exhibition. Speaking of impractical and overscaled, “Playtime” is not exactly amenable to viewer comfort: filmed in epic 70mm with no close-ups or over-the-shoulder action, it is a BIG picture which dwarfs its human characters in scale and action, and with so much going on all at once, the film must be seen at least a few times in its full format to be fully understood and appreciated.
 
Yes that’s the paradox about “Playtime”: for a film that celebrates the playful human values of yesteryear, it had to embrace the values of machine-like precision, rationality and obsession with growth and massive scale that it gently derides just to get made.

Belle de Jour: Bunuel turns a trashy soap opera plot into rich satire

Luis Buñuel, “Belle de Jour” (1967)

It’s got a trashy premise – a rich doctor’s wife “plays” at being a prostitute for a few hours each day – but Buñuel turns the soap opera plot into a blackly humorous and tragic satire about the upper classes and their uneasy relationship with sex, power and control. Lead actor Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, recently married to Pierre Serizy (Jean Sorel) who works as a hospital specialist and who often brings much of his paperwork home, a situation that suits his young wife as she is sexually frigid with a secret history of childhood sexual abuse. We see her early on in the film with little to do at home (a maid does the housework) so she goes shopping a lot, walking around her neighbourhood a lot and having frequent migraines so she goes to bed early a lot. When asleep Severine has strange dreams about being sexually humiliated and beaten by her husband and various working-class ruffians.

Pierre and Severine have a mutual friend Husson (Michel Piccoli) who is attracted to Severine and who one day mentions to her the address of a discreet high-class brothel where a middle-class housewife Severine knows as a casual acquaintance happens to work. Initially Severine is repelled by the idea but, curious as to whether working as a prostitute might remedy her sexual frigidity and perhaps make her a “normal” sexually functioning woman, she approaches the brothel madame, Anais (Genevieve Page), who agrees to take her on as a part-time prostitute under the pseudonym Belle de Jour.

After a couple of hesitant starts, Severine starts to enjoy her work and quickly becomes a favourite with Madame Anais and the various wealthy clients who exhibit all kinds of sexual fetishes, including whipping, incest and necrophilia. Severine’s weird sexual dreams gradually cease and she starts to become more loving and intimate with her workaholic husband who soon becomes the one looking for excuses for avoiding sex. However one day two gangsters turn up at Madame Anais’s brothel and the younger of the two, Marcel (Pierre Clementi), quickly becomes obsessed with Severine. Severine herself is attracted to Marcel as he fulfills her fantasies of being abused by disreputable or lower-class men but is forced to leave the brothel when Husson turns up and sees her there. Nevertheless Marcel uncovers her identity and where she lives and Severine is unable to prevent and avoid the clash of her separate identities and existences as Belle de Jour and Severine Serizy and their devastating consequences.

For a movie with a threadbare and unrealistic soap opera plot, “Belle de Jour” can be moving due to its rich detail and the various issues and themes that lurk in the background. Identity and control are major themes: Severine already is adept at hiding her sexual fears and fantasy life from hubby Pierre who thinks she is just shy and child-like and treats her accordingly, so it’s not hard for her to hide her other identity as Belle de Jour from him. However she has no control over Husson and Marcel who uncover her double life. Severine’s reaction to control and being controlled is complicated: the movie hints at a past history of sexual violence; she allows her husband to treat her like a pet; she is submissive to Marcel’s sexual violence; and her sexual fantasies, initially at least, suggest guilt feelings about being rebellious or being of a privileged background. At the same time she controls Pierre and Marcel’s access to her body by playing victim and while Pierre is happy to go along with this, Marcel refuses to play along and his refusal leads to tragedy.

Severine’s clients also have issues dealing with identity and control: there is the respected gynaecologist, used to commanding respect, who gets exasperated at Severine’s inability to spank him and walk all over him (literally); there is the businessman who imagines himself a ladies’ man but is actually crude and there’s a hint that he rapes Severine as he can’t have her any other way. On a bigger scale, Bunuel plays with audience expectations of how a movie narrative should proceed: there are flashbacks here and there to Severine’s childhood; her daydreams and fantasies intrude into the film without warning (save for cats’ meows and tinkling bells near the end) and exit just as abruptly; and Bunuel and Deneuve herself, who in the 1960’s had a reputation as an blonde ice-queen siren, revel in turning that reputation inside-out. Even the entire film itself is a dreamworld where Bunuel takes pot-shots at religion and class differences, and inverts social and gender control mechanisms. The prostitutes control men’s access to their bodies and the men are controlled by their lusts and desires. Marriage as an institution locks two people who can’t communicate with each other or relate as equals into an endless barren prison.

The details of the film are so layered that each repeated viewing reveals something new. The focus on Severine’s legs and shoes at times not only suggests a fetishistic obsession on Bunuel’s part but reveals Severine’s psychological state and her social status. Her dreams are full of masochistic religious symbols and imagery: in one dream, dragged from a horse-drawn landau that’s just gone through a long tree-lined grove (hint, hint), Severine is then stripped, tied to a tree and lashed; in another, after a herd of bulls with names like Remorse and Expiation charges through a field, Severine is shown tied to a post in a crucifixion pose and pelted with mud and ordure. The apartment where the Serizys live is luxuriously furnished and Severine nearly always looks the stereotypical high-maintenance trophy wife with carefully coiffed hair and porcelain looks. Deneuve’s flat minimal acting and blank expressions actually reveal more of Severine’s state of mind and moods than a more emotional style would; her interaction with Madame Anais in particular, discreet though it is, suggests a mutual lesbian attraction

I suppose one day I’ll watch this film yet again and find it outdated, twee and quaint but that day seems a long way off.

Alphaville: Lemme caution you, it’s a sci-fi flick like no other

Jean-Luc Godard, “Alphaville”, Athos Films (1965)

On the surface “Alphaville” is just one of many episodes in the career of stereotypical hard-boiled trenchcoat-suited detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). Caution’s immediate mission is to search for another agent, Dickson, in the city of Alphaville. Inititally the film plays ball in a straightforward film noir manner with stark backgrounds that take advantage of the black-and-white film, with a choppy cartoon musical motif, just what you’d expect of this kind of film. However, listen closely to the early dialogue and you’ll find Caution’s in a city like no other: on arriving at his hotel, a young woman leads him to his room, informing him all the while that she is his specially assigned state prostitute; he contrives to get rid of her and her hidden pimp-enforcer, only to have another young woman, Natasha (Anna Karina), assigned to him. It becomes apparent that Alphaville is a city organised along purely scientific-technocratic principles formulated by the brilliant scientist Von Braun and carried out by his supercomputer Alpha 60.

The citizens of Alphaville live and behave strictly in accordance with these principles which admit no expression or indication of emotion or reasoning that goes against the city’s rigid logic. Much of  the movie’s first half is exposition as Natasha takes Caution on a tour around the city; among other things, he sees law-breakers being punished for being emotional or irrational. Caution progressively drops his nom de plum and his purported reason for visiting Alphaville, and  reveals his real mission: to find and kill Von Braun and destroy Alpha 60; in order to do so, he must understand the nature of the city and how it oppresses its inhabitants and Natasha, and ultimately himself

Quickly the viewer becomes accustomed to director Godard’s deliberate use of modernist concrete and glass buildings and interiors, and the bleak highways and neon signage of Paris of the mid-1960’s, both as the cityscape of Alphaville and as a metaphor for the direction Western society is heading in. The speed with which the viewer accepts Godard’s conceit itself may say mountains about we readily accept authority and authoritarian guidelines even when they contradict human nature and impulses. Raoul Coutard’s camerawork enhances the futuristic aspect of the contemporary Paris landscapes: there are long tracking shots of passages that go on and on and on, suggesting the illogicality of a place ruled by pure logic; there is effective use of Paris nightscapes to suggest an all-seeing mechanised Big Brother; and scenes inside buildings are shot in high contrast to emphasise the alien quality of Alphaville.

The most unnerving aspect of the movie though is the voice of Alpha 60 itself: deep, gravelly and just how you’d expect an obese toad grown to elephant height to talk if such a being could talk, with a clicky machine quality as it draws breath. When Caution finally confronts Alpha 60 in a booth, microphones glide around his head move in stiff but sure movements: the movements of a detached, automated order that grinds down its followers. This is a chilling yet comic scene as Caution defeats Alpha 60 quoting lines of poetry – quite strange for a man of his occupational background

Small details in the movie reference recent European history and literary and film sources: Caution discovers Natasha carries a serial number on her neck; the scientist who created Alphaville is surnamed Von Braun after the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who switched his allegiances from Nazi Germany to the United States in order to realise his dream of manned space flight; the hotel used in the movie is one that was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War; scenes of long passages recall Franz Kafka works like “The Trial” and “The Castle”. The computer voice of Alpha 60 (voiced by a man with an artificial larynx that replaced his cancer-ravaged one) is an influence from a 1930s film. I understand there are several references to Jean Cocteau’s works, none of which I’m familiar with, and one of these is the flight of Caution and Natasha from the oppressive city which is inspired by the Cocteau film “Orphee”, a retelling of the Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice set in 1950s Paris. (Thanks, Wikipedia

I’ve heard “Alphaville” itself was a major influence on Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” and I can see many parallels between the two: “Blade Runner” combines film noir and sci-fi elements in having a hardboiled detective in a future society who, like Caution, submits to a computer test and meets an innocent young woman who, like Natasha, is forced by the detective to confront her “robot” reality and transcend it by learning how to love. Like Caution and Natasha, these two characters flee for their lives once the detective’s mission is completed but the “love conquers all” theme is missing and the mood is tinged with the detective’s knowledge that the woman faces an early death which he is helpless to prevent

Admittedly “Alphaville” isn’t immediately enjoyable – it can induce sleepiness in its first half – and it does look dated due to its settings and its depiction of the technology then current. But some of its themes and ideas are perhaps more relevant to our day than in 1965. This may say something about what Godard had in mind while making the movie; evidently he detected certain trends in Western society which he takes to their logical and sometimes comedic, sometimes horrific extremes in “Alphaville” and some of these trends are well on the way to being realised in our times: they may look sharper, glossier, not so clunky but nevertheless they’re on the march. As long as we have corporate fascism masquerading as capitalism to enforce its “logic” across nations and continents, these tendencies such as dehumanisation of people in a technological society and rule by ideology against human nature will continue. For this reason “Alphaville” continues to have historic didactic value and most folks should see it at least once.  Some may end up watching it again and again whenever the opportunity arises