Rififi: godfather of heist movies with a morality tale of redemption

Jules Dassin, “Rififi” (1955)

A film about a technically perfect crime, only for its participants to be totally undone by one small action by one of their number, “Rififi” is outstanding mainly for its 28-minute heist centrepiece during which there is absolutely no dialogue or music and the only sounds heard are those that are a natural consequence of the criminals’ actions. Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), a jewel thief, has just been released from jail and is contacted by his friends Jo (Carl Mohner) and Mario who are interested in stealing some baubles from a jewellery store in a Paris locality. At first Tony refuses but after looking up his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) and discovering that she has moved in with his old enemy Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), owner of “L’Age d”Or” night-club, he changes his mind after beating her and joins his friends on the condition they hire a safe-cracker. Mario suggests his friend César (director Jules Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) who’s happy to oblige.

Much of the first hour of the film is about the four men making their contacts and preparing for the crime. Tony and his men stare daggers at Grutter and his men at the night-club where singer Viviane (Magali Nol) performs the song that gives the movie its title. The heist, when it comes, is a great piece of film-making: taking place at night with the men trying to balance their use of light so as to avoid detection yet striving to finish the job and collect the jewels before daylight, the crime gives many opportunities for Dassin to play with contrasts of white, black and all shades of grey in-between, literally and figuratively. Cutaways from the thieves’ actions of drilling a hole in the floor to a clock-face or to the night-sky and back help to illustrate the arduous and time-consuming nature of the crime; the thieves drill the hole for two, three hours before they have a hole big enough to put a rope through and climb down to where the safe is kept. They collect all the debris in an umbrella. While Tony plugs up the security alarm with spray, César gets to work opening the safe and he needs another hour or so to do that. Close-ups of the men’s perspiring faces reveal strain and uncertainty. You find yourself hoping that the men can get the jewels, zip out through the hole again, pick up their tools and escape before daylight comes! Suspense and tension, unrelieved by music or dialogue, build and pile up to an almost unbearable level. A patrolling policeman passes by, stopping to examine a piece of litter, then he goes on his way – whew! When the first rays of the sun appear, the men are already scrambling to clear out; César pauses to take a ring for Viviane.

Sure enough, news of the theft is all over the papers the next day and not long after Grutter sees the injured Mado clearing out of his place and spots César giving the ring to Viviane. He now knows that Tony and César pulled off the heist and he puts his men onto them both. César is captured and forced to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. From then on it’s downhill for all the men who were involved in the heist. Suffice to say that pushing daisies, not pulling them, is the only thing all the men including Grutter are able to do when the dust clears for the last time. From this viewers can infer that crime pays only if people are total cold-blooded cerebral machines that can suppress their natural inclinations to rejoice and share their bounty.

A gangster code of loyalty complicates Tony’s life which leads to a second outstanding montage of scenes, also done without dialogue, in which he rescues Jo’s small son Tonio from Grutter’s men and despite being seriously wounded frantically drives the child back to his mother through countryside and Paris streets. Heroically if foolishly Tony battles city traffic, flagging consciousness and an unrestrained child (the last one not really) to race to Jo’s apartment and the camera sympathises with him, showing Paris landmarks and the bare branches of trees flashing by, street scenes zooming in and out of focus as Tony strives to avoid hitting people and cars. Multiple points of view are shown from inside the car, outside and front in a series of quick edits, emphasising the urgency, speed and delirium of Tony’s last quest to redeem himself by saving a life before his own blacks out. Some viewers may find this last sequence ludicrous (why would a gangster even think of saving a child’s life?) but after what we have seen of Tony before – a jaded, cynical man with self-interest as his only goal – the series of image shows Tony as he might have been once and becomes in the last moments of his life: a caring human being who sacrifices himself for others and who perhaps sees in Tonio (note the similarity of the name to Tony) the potential which in himself was wasted. Tony’s rescue and return of Tonio becomes the film’s true climax.

As Tony, Servais who had a history of alcoholism before making “Rififi” is suitably bleary-eyed and wears seen-it-all weariness as a second skin. The acting overall is more efficient than outstanding but it suits the structure of the film and its purpose as a heist flick hiding a moral tale. The women in the film serve to illustrate aspects of the thieves’ lives as caring husbands and family men; only Tony behaves as a stereotypical hard-man, hitting and scratching Mado for being unfaithful to him, and forcing Jo and Mario to change part of their plan to rob the jewellery shop.

The film’s pace can be uneven: it’s slow for much of the first hour with Viviane’s singing and the silhouettes of a man and woman dancing in the background the main items of interest; then it picks up during the heist scene and is very fast in the film’s last 45 minutes. Director Jules Dassin’s structuring and portrayal of the heist and Tonio’s rescue lift “Rififi” from being a run-of-the-mill film-noir movie into the realm of film art so in that respect the movie is worth watching, if for nothing else. The morality aspect can be heavy-handed as bullets fly and the body count piles up; no-one survives to learn any lessons, making the post-heist part of the plot superfluous in a way. What’s the point of the shoot-out if there’s no-one at the end to make sense of it all?

Eyes without a Face: mad-scientist horror genre gets serious treatment with issues of control and identity

Georges Franju, “Eyes without a Face” / “Les yeux sans visage” (1959)

Lean and elegant in narrative style, this film treats a pulpy mad-scientist horror story in a credibly serious, in-your-face manner that extracts maximum horror from its subject. Shot in black-and-white, the presentation is crisp with some shots done from odd camera angles and features scenes emphasising contrasts in light and darkness that might recall German expressionist influences. The plot revolves around a triangle of Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a dedicated plastic surgeon who lost his wife years ago and nearly lost his daughter in separate accidents; Christiane (Edith Scob), the daughter, whose face is horribly disfigured in her accident which was caused by her father; and Louise (Alida Valli), the doctor’s loyal assistant, who procures young women for him so he can transplant their faces onto his daughter’s deformed face. Yep, folks, that’s the gruesome tale and in most other film-makers’ hands this would turn into a B-grade shock-horror mad-scientist flick complete with a hunchbacked assistant whose eyes don’t stop rolling in opposite directions; but under Franju’s direction, the story becomes minimal and the characters are readily recognisable people who become all the more horrifying by their thoughts, words and behaviour. In particular Louise is a chilling character as she combines a warm, caring manner, the presentation of a polished middle-class lady, a clinical attitude to the girls as they undergo surgery and a devotion to Dr Génessier that goes beyond unquestioning groupie worship.

The acting is exemplary: the actors playing the main characters portray them as complex people whose motives driving their extreme behaviour are understandable. Dr Génessier feels guilt for causing the accident that deformed his daughter’s face and most likely believes he must save her at all costs to preserve a living memory of his dead wife (so there’s a hint of necrophilia as well). His skill with the scalpel leads him to believe that he can repair his daughter’s face in spite of past transplants that have all failed as will the transplant of the face of Edna Grünberg (Juliette Mayniel) which is shown in the movie. There is a subtle message here about human pride and arrogance in one’s own abilities and skills, coupled with trust and belief in technology, to overcome and control nature; this is reinforced by Dr Génessier’s imprisonment of stray dogs in the basement of his country mansion, to be used as guinea pigs in his transplant experiments. As the deranged doctor, Brasseur gives a calm, controlled performance: in some scenes he is kind and reassuring to a small boy; in other scenes he is professional if abrupt in manner. As said before, Louise is chilling and creepy in her contradictions but we understand why: she received a face transplant from Dr Génessier previously and it was a success. Valli is more expressive in her role, giving just the slightest hint of malice and gushy-ness, yet it’s still a restrained perfomrance: viewers get a sense that she wants a committed relationship with Dr Génessier but is reluctant to pursue a romance while he is obsessed with fixing up his daughter Christiane.

Scob spends most of her onscreen time as Christiane peering through a blank white mask and her eyes do most of her acting: they’re usually sad but are sometimes terrified and, towards the end, angry. Viewers see she’s just as much a victim as Edna and all the other girls before her; not only is she under her father’s total control – he even blanks out her existence to her fiance Jacques (François Guérin) and the police authorities by pretending to identify a corpse as hers and staging her funeral – but she is forced to be an unwilling participant in his transplant experiments. You sense that Dr Génessier is using Christiane as a guinea pig for improving his technique and methods as he is with his dogs. An unexpected delay in Génessier’s next face-transplant operation after the failure of Edna’s transplanted face allows Christiane to set free the new victim and to release the dogs as well.

Much of the movie’s focus is on Christiane so in part it’s a psychological study of a woman who becomes troubled by her passive participation, however indirect, in other people’s murders and must decide if she wishes to stay complicit or do something and stop being a participant. Franju makes the decision easier for Christiane in a way: all her previous face transplants have been failures so future ones are likely to be failures too: and even Louise’s apparently successful transplant is no assurance. If anything, the successful transplant has chained Louise closely to Dr Génessier so she is no objective role model. An existentialist message can be said to exist here: a person’s identity and sense of being are as much dependent on action or non-action as they are on her background and endowments. By taking action, Christiane discovers freedom, at the cost perhaps of ever being able to rejoin normal society and seeing her fiance again. On another level that most people would understand, Christiane must choose between surface appearance and conventional notions of beauty on the one hand, and inner beauty or moral integrity on the other. Scob is ideal as the delicate Christiane: eerily resembling Mia Farrow in her “Rosemary’s Baby” days, and angelic with long, slim arms and wearing pale floaty dresses, she seems the perfectly ethereal and helpless victim.

In contrast to the sharp presentation which often emphasises the shadows under otherwise bland exteriors, the film’s mood is almost dream-like. The mansion where Christiane lives looks sinister and even features a dungeon of barking dogs, not to mention the room where the operations take place. Scenes of the face transplantation and the transformations of Edna’s face on Christiane as her body rejects the face can be very graphic and upsetting in their clinical nature though the shots are short and the edits quick. The music score by Maurice Jarre plays a significant role: jaunty, carnivalesque yet hard, the harpsichord tones trill a repeated riff constantly and maddeningly whenever Louise turns up in her car to prey on unsuspecting young women; the music changes at the end of the film to something softer. The support cast exists mainly to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the police and doctors as authority figures and saviours. The film appears sympathetic towards women as victims of men and patriarchial structures and instutions. It would be too much to read into the film a message that victims should try to empower themselves; Christiane seizes her chance only because her father is called away by a fortuitous police visit. I don’t see her as a champion for feminism as the decision she makes to free herself may be purely personal or existential but people are free to see her however they wish. However Christiane and Louise are interesting contrasts as women: the younger woman as passive yet ultimately self-directing, the older woman as an active agent in thrall to a male authority figure whose desires she anticipates.

The film is worth a look for its streamlined, almost artistic presentation and its examination of control, identity and existence in its skeletal plot and considered characterisations. Some viewers may find the pace very slow, at least until near the end where it picks up quickly with Christiane’s release of the dogs. The screenplay was adapted from a Jean Redon novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, those writers of the novel “D’Entre les Morts” on which the Alfred Hitchock movie “Vertigo” which deals with similar themes (control of women’s bodies by men, necrophilia, identity and existence) is based.

Les Diaboliques aka The Devils: psychological horror film thin on plot but thick with suspense, claustrophobia, tension and twisted endings

Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Les Diaboliques” aka “The Devils” (1955)

At first “Les Diaboliques” doesn’t seem anything like director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s previous film “Wages of Fear”: one is an action thriller about four truck drivers who undertake a dangerous journey and the other movie is a psychological horror study of two murderers. Look closely though and the similarities are there: there is a great deal of unnerving tension extended through most of the two movies that culminates in more than one climax, with a twist at the end; and the action takes place in an unsympathetic universe where people are exploited by other people in particular social, political and economic environments. The exploited characters may be driven to take whatever action they can, no matter how morally questionable that is, to free themselves from exploitation and to restore meaning and purpose to their lives. “Les Diaboliques” follows two such people who take what is clearly unlawful action to free themselves. One of the two experiences a new kind of prison, a psychological one, that threatens her health and her life as well.

Christina Delasalle and her husband (Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse) run a boys’ boarding school in Paris. She teaches several subjects and he as principal attends to the administration and paperwork. Michel is also having an affair with a teacher, Miss Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and moreover flaunts the romance openly so even the children giggle about it behind Christina’s back. He abuses both women physically and mentally but though she is unhappy and despondent, Christina refuses to divorce her husband due to her strong religious beliefs. Nicole, also unhappy, suggests to the wife that they work together to kill Michel. Christina hesitates at first but agrees. The women lure Michel to Nicole’s apartment in a small village during a public holiday when the school is closed and the boys have gone home; they get the tyrant drunk and drown him in a bath-tub full of water. They drive his body back to the school and dump it in the muddy, leaf-covered swimming pool. A few days later, the women find an excuse to drain the pool, only to discover the corpse has disappeared.

Bizarre incidents occur that suggest that Michel could be alive or his ghost is haunting the school, leaving Christina and Nicole seriously rattled. Christina starts searching for Michel’s corpse and meets retired police detective Fichet (Charles Vanel) who is personally interested in the case and begins to snoop around the school for clues in spite of her protests. While Fichet conducts his investigation, the women argue and bitch about who is more guilty of murder, and end up falling out. Nicole packs her bag and departs the school, and Christina is left alone and vulnerable to strange goings-on at night that hint that Michel is not only not dead but has come to harass her.

The tension and unease that extend throughout the movie are sustained by a combination of various filming methods and tricks such as the use of close-ups of objects or actions, odd camera angles and particular rotations of the camera as it follows an action or takes in an image; and clearly defined characters in Christina and Nicole whose differing personalities and views on morality highlight their susceptibility to pangs of conscience while the murder remains undiscovered and unsolved. Viewers know their alliance will be very short-lived. At the same time the teachers seem to have more than Michel in common and there are hints of a developing lesbian relationship with Nicole the bossy leader and Christina the passive, girlish partner. Signoret plays the forceful Nicole well. Vera Clouzot, wife of the film’s director, has a tougher job playing a resigned, submissive woman burdened by despair initially and then by guilt and self-abasement after the murder, but she holds up her part adequately enough. In the climactic bath-tub scene, Clouzot’s reaction to what she sees coming out of the water seems wooden and a little overplaying of fright and terror wouldn’t have gone amiss. (Slightly hammy acting in this scene would also support this writer’s idea that Christina might be playing Nicole and the other school staff for fools as suggested by the film’s coda that involves a boy and his slingshot.)

The film is at its strongest in scenes where Christina, though physically weak from nervous stress and guilt, leaves her bed at night to investigate an intrusion into Michel’s quarters at the school and walks through dark corridors towards a lit room; here the camera’s roaming, the snappy editing, the odd shots of moving legs or gloved hands sliding up bannisters, the unusual points of view emphasising the length of corridors or door angles illuminated by flashes of light from behind, and close-ups of Christina’s wide-eyed terror, all increase and prolong the tension to the movie’s climax. The voyeuristic style of filming which forces the viewers to follow and share Christina’s fright recalls the methods favoured by Clouzot’s more famous contemporary Alfred Hitchcock. “Les Diaboliques” also shares with many of Hitchcock’s films a black humour, especially in scenes between Christina and Fichet, who insists on offering his investigative services for free, and in scenes involving Nicole’s apartment neighbours who complain about the noise of the running bath-water above them.

Though the world where “Les Diaboliques” takes place is a depressingly mean-spirited and restricted one where characters exploit one another for selfish personal gain and freedom can be gained only by transgressing social and moral rules set up by equally selfish others, the whole movie seems thin compared to Hitchcock’s more layered, psychoanalytically influenced thrillers like “Vertigo” and “Psycho”.  Plot discrepancies are very noticeable in “Les Diaboliques” and the audience needs to fill in blanks such as: how does Fichet work out what Nicole is doing with Michel’s corpse? what’s going on with Christina after two people are taken into police custody? could Fichet and Christina have been working together? – as director Clouzot, perhaps deliberately, leaves much unexplained about Christina’s fate after the end credits start to roll. Also if Clouzot had given a bit more back-story to both Christina and Nicole and allowed Michel a more rounded personality than simply making him a petty dictator, viewers might have felt more sympathy for the women as they struggle with their guilt, bad consciences and trying to justify to themselves and to each other that what they did to Michel was what he deserved. As it is, the characters are one-dimensional and stereotyped: Christina as the passive, submissive good-girl wife who finds it difficult not to do as she’s told, Nicole as the icy bossy-boots schemer and Michel as all-out misogynist who marries only for money and dumps women when he sees fit.

“Les Diaboliques” is still worth a look though for the two trick endings and the way in which Clouzot builds up and maintains unease, suspense, and a sense of claustrophobia in the lead-up to the climax. Apart from this, the movie isn’t otherwise remarkable in the way it unfurls the narrative and yours truly has the feeling it sticks fairly closely to the original source material.

The film was based on a pulp crime fiction novel “Celle qui n’était plus” (known in English as “The Woman who was no more”) by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud aka Thomas Narcejac. According to legend and depending on which version of the legend you hear, Clouzot beat Alfred Hitchcock to the film rights to this novel by half an hour to several hours after finishing “Wages of Fear”. Boileau and Narcejac later offered Hitchcock the film rights to their next novel “D’entre les morts” (“The Living and the Dead”) which the British-American director made into “Vertigo”. Hitchcock must still have been a bit sore at losing the film rights to the earlier book as he set out to beat Clouzot at his own game and the result was the famous “Psycho”. Between “Les Diaboliques” and “Psycho”, viewers certainly will think twice about taking long baths or hot showers!

Wages of Fear: mesmerising film about character, motivation and meaning of existence in an uncaring universe

Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Wages of Fear” (1953)

On paper, this movie’s plot looks so simple, even kindergartners would yawn at it: an American oil company offers to pay “big” money to four truck drivers to transport two loads of explosive chemicals from a remote town somewhere in Central America to an oilfield. The route they must take winds through rough country over often unpaved roads, there may be obstacles in the way and the loads themselves are so volatile that the slightest vibration in the engine or the smallest bump in the road could set them off. How then could Clouzot make a movie lasting nearly 2 1/2 hours out of this scenario? How can anyone make a long truck journey interesting and tense for an audience to watch for over an hour? The answer is that Clouzot made this particular trip more than just an adventure thriller flick: “Wages of Fear” is as much a study of character and motivation, a test of courage, loyalty and morality under extreme circumstances, and an indictment of a society in which people hold life and nature in low regard and readily exploit other people who allow themselves to be debased to the extent that their own lives become expendable.

The movie divides into two unequal halves: the second half contains the actual trip itself and has all the action and suspense but the first half, about an hour, gives viewers the backgrounds of the four men and their motives for wanting to carry out such a suicidal job for measly pay in conditions that in part were deliberately created or neglected by their employer. The setting is in a poor town, Las Piedras: hot, dusty, rainy, isolated with no work for the various European expatriate refugees who have come here for various reasons. They sleep, drink, laze about and make nuisances of themselves with the locals. Four such men are Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli) who waste their days away in their own fashion: Mario is having an affair with a local girl, Linda (Vera Clouzot), and both plan to get away from Las Piedras if Linda can save up enough money. Jo, an ex-gangster, has a mean streak and is prepared to kill for selfish and petty reasons. Luigi is a warm-hearted if perhaps simple-minded baker. Bimba is a quiet type who was once imprisoned by Nazis and forced by them to work in a salt mine.

They are among several men answering the call of the local branch of the Southern Oil Company (SOC) for drivers to carry explosives to an oilfield some hundreds of kilometres away. A fire has broken out and nitroglycerine is urgently needed to put out the flames; the company is forced to load cans of the stuff onto two old trucks and recruit drivers at short notice with little safety preparation. Understandable of course but we’re not supposed to ask why safety precautions at the oilfield weren’t carried out in the first place. (And using explosives to extinguish fires? … uh, hmmm …) Assume that, like the real-life BP, the oil company here has little regard for safety in the workplace and environmental concerns, and cuts corners if it can with impunity. Anyway, applicants have to travel to the company compound – the company managers and their staff live in their own town in comfort – to undergo driving and medical tests: Luigi has a condition, caused by previous employment with SOC, that shortens his life-span and for that reason is hired as one of the four lucky driver duckies. Mario and Bimba, being young and fit, are also picked as is Smerloff (?) with Jo an alternative driver should any of the four fail to turn up for the job. Jo waylays Smerloff and gets the job.

As we expect, the trip itself isn’t a smooth ride: the truckers have to negotiate at least two obstacles which involve backing and turning the vehicles around on a damaged bridge with rotting wood planks overlooking an abyss and removing a boulder blocking the road. Bimba and Luigi, driving on ahead after Jo weakens early during the trip, meet with an accident that leaves a crater filling up with oil from a damaged pipeline which becomes a third obstacle for Mario and Jo. The suspense is extended across the entire time the trip takes place: the pace is leisurely but increases steadily and so does the tension; the cinematography is lean with close-ups taken at critical moments – truck-tyres scrabbling on slippery boards, a wick being ignited, Jo looking exhausted and perhaps inwardly beating himself up for his moral and physical weakness – and featuring an incredible montage sequence at film’s end that alternates between dancing couples and a truck swerving from side to side on a dangerous mountain road to the tune of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”. There is also a mesmerising sequence of images of huge fires billowing and sweeping across the screen like hell brought to reality at the oilfield where Mario delivers the explosives. Indeed a number of scenes near the film’s end, beginning with Jo’s death, could be construed as climaxes in the film’s narrative. The acting is sparing and efficient, enough for the movie’s plot and purpose, though Vanel as Jo puts in a great performance playing a man forced to admit to himself if not to others that he is a coward, that his physical and mental strength are fading and failing him, and that the other drivers despise him for his greed and lack of support. But as the quartet overcomes each obstacle, the strain on their endurance becomes obvious: Luigi coughs more, Bimba reminds himself of his experiences in the salt mines, Jo becomes ill or tries to run away and Mario ends up losing his temper and behaves callously in a way that will cost Jo his life.

Superficially the film is a test of four men’s courage and ability to withstand pressures placed partly by themselves and by others: at stake is their self-esteem and sense of masculinity as well as their lives. Mario, initially presented as a self-centred layabout who treats Linda badly, ends up loyal to the undeserving Jo and mourns his death. Jo discovers that with each new ordeal he encounters, his fear increases, demonstrating that whether you face one or 100 frightening situations, you never get used to fear; on the contrary, you become more fearful and less brave. His fatal accident merely manifests the inner broken man he has become. On another level, the film doesn’t celebrate Mario and his fellow truckers as heroes: they were greedy and foolish enough to accept a job without proper safety measures from a firm they know to be unscrupulous and slapdash in its treatment of its employees. Even so, they are heroic in the way they cope with whatever is thrown at them. Jo with all his fear doesn’t come off too badly, facing agonising death and nothingness with relative calm, though this is dependent on Mario offering comfort.

There’s a strong existential aspect to “Wages of Fear”, a philosophical point of view that suggests the universe is indifferent to the fate of humans and capricious to boot; under such conditions, individuals must make meaning out of their lives, however cheap and ignoble the means are. The tragic coda in which circumstances and human arrogance collide illustrates this notion though some viewers may find this part of the film as a heavy-handed and unnecessary addition to the narrative.

The political aspect of “Wages of Fear” is all but ignored: viewers may well wonder what kind of government ruling the country allows towns like Las Piedras to exist and permits foreign, especially US, corporations to trash the environment with impunity and to use the local people as slave labour to extract oil and other resources, the income from which won’t benefit the true owners at all. Also we never find out why people like Mario, Bimba, Jo and Luigi came to Las Piedras in the first place, though viewers who know something of the post-1945 history of the world and of Europe and Latin America in particular may be well aware of the political turmoil and that erupted after World War II and the large-scale movements of refugees displaced by war and poverty that occurred as a result.

Highly recommended watching, preferably in a fixed spot such as inside a building, and not in a truck or semi-trailer carrying dangerous chemical loads or equipment.

Delicatessen: amusing dystopian black comedy that overdoes the oddball edge and comes out looking twee

Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, “Delicatessen” (1991)

How to describe this droll French movie that tackles cannibalism in a light-hearted manner? It’s at once a dystopian horror black comedy and a character study of sorts featuring romance, thriller and drama elements, all flavoured with a distinctively twee style. Unemployed Louison (Dominique Pinon) is a clown by profession looking for somewhere to stay in a future Paris which looks very much like a ghost town in the middle of a desert where the air is perpetually dusty and food is in short supply. He discovers an apartment block advertising for a handy-man with a vacant unit as part of the job package. He is accepted for the job by landlord Mr Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) who runs the delicatessen on the ground floor. Little does Louison realise that Clapet plans to fatten him up and kill him to provide a source of cheap meat to the other tenants in the building. As he keeps busy (and skinny) doing maintenance around the tumbledown building – and there’s plenty to do in the various tenants’ units – he meets Clapet’s daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and over time they fall in love. Julie’s all too aware of what Papa Clapet has in mind for Louison so one night she sneaks out of the building and descends into the sewers to contact a group of vegetarian terrorists calling themselves the Troglodistes and to appeal to them for help in rescuing Louison from the chop.

It’s very cartoony with characters that are one-dimensional in an extreme zany way. The colours of the film are sometimes bright, almost fruity, but more often brown, grey, dark and dirty. The filming is done from odd angles that exaggerate some characters’ facial features or an aspect of their personalities, or to emphasise the peculiarity of the insular world they live in. Fast editing keeps the action and energy flowing in several parts of the movie. The actors are quite good, especially Pinon and Karin Viard who plays Clapet’s mistress when they are either bouncing on the Clapets’ creaky bed or dancing as a couple in Louison’s apartment (though it’s possible some computerised tweaking took place in the dancing scene). True, the acting can be very mannered with characters appearing to play up to the screen and the camera itself encouraging them to exaggerate expressions for viewer laughs and sympathy. Dreyfus plays his villain role in a straight buffoony way and Dougnac, aided by her round-faced, fair-haired angelic looks, nails the shy and awkward Julie for most of the film, at least until the last half hour when Clapet and Louison’s showdown takes over and everyone and everything must conform to the shaky plot’s exigencies.

With an original premise drawing on several genre influences, the plot understandably weaves among graveyard humour, Grand Guignol melodrama, steampunk science fiction, horror suspense, action and boy-meets-girl / boy-loses-girl / boy-regains-girl romance. In trying to be everything or nearly everything at once, it becomes patchy and fragile indeed. Subplots centred around Clapet’s tenants that look promising remain just that, promising, and the potential for black horror humour in the tenant who constantly attempts suicide but is always let down by her Rube Goldberg mechanical arrangements, or in the basement dweller who cultivates snails and frogs for food, remains stalled or repeats itself. The Troglodistes aren’t just a sidetrack to the plot and a hindrance in the murderous Clapet’s way and so the plot fumbles towards a climax that clamours as much for laughs and guffaws as for tension and suspense.

The movie suggests that in the not-too distant future of severe food shortages and other scarce resources, society will retreat into the past with women dressing in kitschy mid-20th century work fashions, people watching old musicals on black-and-white TV sets and everyone resorting to, uh, drastic hunting, gathering and hoarding methods when shopping for groceries. Motifs that appear here and which sometimes resurface in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s later films include an emphasis on the lives of oddball outsiders living isolated lives with the director showing sympathy for those who often break mainstream society’s rules and conventions but are otherwise well-meaning; a fascination with mechanics and technology on a human scale; and one individual’s victory over a whole bunch of murderous neighbours and quite useless guerilla fighters in spite of odds against him. Together these motifs suggest Jeunet is critical of many aspects of modern French society: there may be subtle criticism of bureaucracy, an obsession with maintaining appearances and how mainstream society treats its most vulnerable and downtrodden victims.

How well “Delicatessen” stands the test of time as a cult movie is a big question: visually it’s a treat and enjoyable to watch and sections of the movie that feature comic music syncrhonisations are very clever, perhaps too clever, but the quaintness and oddball style seem too deliberate and overdone. The main characters aren’t quite flesh-and-blood human enough to carry the oddball overload on their shoulders and the minor characters stay frozen in their eccentric routines due to the limited screen-time allocated to them. A longer playing time of about 10 – 20 minutes devoted to more character development and resolving the subplots – so that the lady trying to kill herself gets her wish fulfilled but in the way she least expects, perhaps by being buried under an avalanche of snail shells or frog skeletons – and a bit less on layering the film with one eccentric detail after another might have brought more light and warmth out of the film’s dark Gothic settings and plot. For all its layers of black comedy, optimistic romance and Gothic drama, at the centre of “Delicatessen” is something a bit cold, unemotional, even a little sterile.

Inju, the Beast in the Shadow: a standard crime thriller with unrealised potential

Barbet Schroeder, “Inju, la bête dans l’ombre” (2008)

Enjoyably silly movie about a literature academic and aspiring crime fiction writer whose career, night-time as well as day-time, seems to revolve mostly around a mysterious and reclusive Japanese pulp crime fiction author who may be mentally disturbed and perhaps even psychotic, “Inju …” poses food for thought about the way films can be constructed and how Westerners view foreign societies and their institutions. Alex Fayard (Benoît Magimel) has just had his first novel published and translated into several languages and it becomes a  best-seller around the world, especially in Japan. His Japanese publisher organises a promotional trip so after wrapping up his last lecture for the term with a screening of a film based on a gruesome novel by Shundei Oe, that famous hermit writer, Fayard jets off to Japan for TV and radio interviews and book-signing sessions. While in Japan, among his marketing duties and sight-seeing trips organised by the publisher and his guide Ken Honda, Fayard meets and falls in love with a geisha, Tamao (Lika Minamoto), who seeks his help as she is being pursued by a vengeful and violent ex-boyfriend Ichiro Hirata who coincidentally happens to be the strange and disturbed Shundei Oe.

The film starts impressively with a visually striking and melodramatic mise-en-scène of the closing scenes of the crime drama Fayard screens for his students and for a while you may wonder whether “Inju …” will delve into issues like authors’ responsibility to readers to show the triumph of good over evil in fictional worlds where society flounders in moral ambiguity, evil is often disguised as good, good people are cut down and evil ones profit, and the universe itself appears not to care either way. At least Fayard hopes to meet his idol and argue that point; the movie appears to travel that way, setting up Fayard as a crusader using Oe’s plot constructions and arguments against themselves in his novel, and Oe as a sinister force who may test Fayard’s stand and moral mettle with the same weapons, and perhaps leave the Frenchman a changed man of stronger steel. Tamao may be the innocent mystery woman compromised by a past romance and her current relationship with her rich but violent and abusive patron Ryuji Mogi (Ryo Ishibashi). Clues and warnings are left for Fayard to discover and he gets swept up in piecing together a puzzle of Tamao’s dangerous liaisons and the mystery of Shundei Oe’s identity, nature and what he intends for Tamao, Mogi and Fayard himself.

Well folks, the plot doesn’t go quite as expected in a conventional, suspenseful, noirish way and astute viewers will pick up enough clues to crack Oe’s identity before all is revealed in the twist ending. Some people might feel a bit cheated by the MacGuffin device that drives what turns out to be a soap opera plot. Admittedly the set-up is ingenious and clever if far-fetched and Fayard turns out to be no more than a puppet manipulated by Oe in a not very complex web. “Inju …” is more clever and intellectual mystery crime drama of the kind Agatha Christie and her ilk might have written if they were alive today and used elements of psychological horror / slasher and fiction / film noir genres, than a noirish psychological study. Everything that happens to Fayard from the moment he leaves his apartment is a test of his character and intelligence in some way in a tight construction by Oe, and whether the Frenchman wins or not depends on if he can recognise the sequence of events happening around him as Oe’s next novel with himself as protagonist.

The acting isn’t anything special and Magimel who looks mostly shell-shocked has done far better work in films like Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” in which he played the manipulator student. There are very lovely scenes of modern Japanese life that are reminiscent of the style of Seijun Suzuki’s 1960’s gangster flick “Kanto Wanderer” and “Inju …” could be viewed as a travelogue of the exotic and perverse in modern Japanese culture with sometimes voyeuristic emphasis on its underbelly (the rich yakuza lifestyle, the use of ropes and knots in sadomasochistic sex) and the mix of native traditions and institutions with Western-style cultural sophistication.

“Inju …” could have been a riveting cat-and-mouse game in which Oe and Fayard try to outwit each other, trying to understand one another’s motives and Fayard himself questioning his own morality and original motivation in championing and criticising Oe’s body of fiction where evil always trounces good. Instead it’s a standard crime thriller with considerable potential left unrealised that Hollywood could do better if the right hack director (say,  Ridley Scott) were thrown into Schroeder’s hot seat. The opening scenes make “Inju …” worth at least one viewing.

At the very least, the movie can be viewed on one level as an intellectual subversion of Western presumptions about Japanese society, its treatment of women and the institution and of geishas and the roles they play vis-à-vis their male clients, and how one woman  uses her supposed victim status and passivity to play two men and their weaknesses against each other.

Band of Outsiders (dir. Jean-Luc Godard): pop culture, the art of film and existential philosophy in one pulp crime film

Jean-Luc Godard, “Bande à part” aka “Band of Outsiders” (1964)

Once upon a time, the French had a knack for making gangster and pulpy crime movies in which they could hang philosophical concepts, especially those of existential philosophy, onto the plot. Such a movie is Jean-Luc Godard’s famous “Bande à part”, often cited as the most outstanding example of the French New Wave of films that came out in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s. The main distinguishing features of the French New Wave are present: the use of natural sets or real locations as opposed to fixed studio sets; the use of natural lighting or lighting found in the locations where filming took place; free-flowing action aided by a straightforward plot; and a naturalistic style of acting. Voice-over narration by Godard himself, which forecasts the action to come or describes what a character is thinking, defies conventional linear “show, don’t tell” narratives; a character appears to address the audience directly with a song about modern life; and the movie inserts several playful (though sometimes melancholy or tragic) scenes that reference film-making, popular culture of the time, social and economic change, and the place of the individual in modern society.

The film basically is about three young people in a love triangle who impulsively decide to steal money from a rich couple with whom one of the youngsters live. They talk more or less continuously about how much money there is to steal, and how they are going to do it, and use up a lot of energy and petrol racing around Paris and the banks of the Seine river while planning the heist, but the actual robbery itself takes place late in the film. Along the way, Odile (Anna Karina) dithers between whether she prefers Arthur (Claude Brasseur), a hardened, macho fellow who acts before he thinks, or Franz (Sami Frey) who is more sensitive and less certain of himself. The challenge for Godard is to keep the viewers interested in the doings, comings and goings of these people in a very simple plot, to which a sub-plot, involving Arthur’s uncle who decides he wants some of that money the youngsters plan to steal, has been tacked on almost as an after-thought; and Godard does this successfully by throwing Odile and her would-be lovers into situations that have no connection to the plot but simply rope in whatever ideas and concerns the director has about French culture and society. The plot and sub-plot become secondary to the movie’s themes which themselves enrich the characters and their relationships to one another and their wider world.

There are several scenes in “Bande à part” that stand out, in particular the cafe scenes of which one consists of a minute’s silence, during which time (actually just over half a minute) all sound in the film completely cuts out; the second scene in which the trio play musical chairs at their table and Arthur spikes Odile’s drink while her attention is elsewhere; and the third is the celebrated Madison dance scene in which Odile, Franz and Arthur dance together in line, all three more or less keeping in time and dancing together yet not really together as the music dips in and out and Godard’s voice-over tells viewers what each dancer is thinking. Odile dancing between the two buddies highlights the potential conflict the love triangle poses for all three of them. There is a strange sense of isolation in the scene: the dancers are self-absorbed and not looking at one another, demonstrated in Franz and Arthur gradually dropping out and Odile continuing the dance; the waiters come and go, oblivious to the dancing; and no-one else in the cafe joins in the dance or even watches it. The scene itself is a comment on changes in social relations in French society: most dancing before the 1960’s either involved large groups of people dancing or couples (each couple consisting of a man and a woman) dancing with more or less constant eye contact. Another very significant scene in the movie is the train scene in which Odile sings a poem about modern life in Paris and the cares and burdens ordinary people have to carry: this scene includes a montage of fixed scenes of Parisians in their day-to-day activities.

Other scenes that reference social change and the impact of American culture on French culture include Franz and Arthur’s playful re-enactment of a gunfight death scene from a popular Western movie which one of them will re-enact for real in a hysterically funny and exaggerated if tragic way near the end of the film. There is one very good scene where Franz and Arthur read aloud tabloid headlines about various murders and massacres around the world while lounging on a Seine embankment not far from a busy and noisy factory; the scene looks peaceful and serene but distant sounds of pounding machinery can be heard. The boys and Odile together also run through the Louvre museum in an attempt to break the world record, held by an American; the scene and its playfulness might be a laugh at the respect people have for cultural institutions simply out of conformity to tradition. Then of course the fact the boys imagine themselves the equal of their movie gangster and Western outlaw heroes to the extent that they dare to rob Odile’s adoptive relatives with Odile playing the gangster moll role, and none of them considering the dangers or the consequences that might follow, says something about how much of a hold American pop culture has on their imaginations and what that says about their alienation from the world around them.

As might be expected, the heist doesn’t go to plan and the love triangle resolves in a way viewers least expect with none of the main characters learning any lessons from what they experience. Two of them flee Paris without having to answer for their part in the robbery or feeling any pangs of conscience over three deaths. Some folks may see in the plot’s resolution a lesson in how dangerous second-hand fantasy derived from pop culture may be when applied literally to real life. Even if viewers don’t agree with the way the plot works out or the characters’ interactions with one another – Arthur behaves cruelly towards Odile who all too often is overly submissive and passive – they will find something in the movie that’s fun, clever, playful and enjoyable, something that reminds them of the carefree and innocent nature of childhood. Before it all collapses into tragedy and the reality of being responsible for one’s actions and future life. A movie that’s good to look at, enjoy and make you think about its issues on different levels: that’s “Bande à part”.

Thin plot and unsympathetic characters invite contempt for “Contempt”

Jean-Luc Godard, “Contempt” (1963)

Partly set among some stunningly postcard-perfect islands rising out of the Mediterranean Sea, “Contempt” is a great-looking film that showcases the young Brigitte Bardot as a serious actor but that’s about all it has going for it. It struggles under the weight of being at once a psychological portrait of a marriage breaking down, a commentary on film-making and film culture, a re-interpretation of ancient Greek myth and an investigation of the position of artists and intellectuals torn between devotion to their art and living in a society that doesn’t share their beliefs but values art as a mere commodity. The movie’s major focus centres on the married couple Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Bardot) in their apartment misunderstanding each other and bickering, and then escalating their fight to the point of separation without ever really understanding why and making themselves miserable. This follows earlier scenes in which Paul, a struggling playwright, is employed by a rich playboy American movie producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite a script for a movie based on the ancient Greek epic “The Odyssey”, with Fritz Lang (Lang as himself) directing, into something more racy and juicy. Paul agrees and takes the money, and Prokosch invites him and Camille to his estate for afternoon drinks. There, the American brazenly flirts with Camille yet Paul barely flickers an eyelid in reaction.

In their arguments, Camille and Paul expose their insecurities and prejudices that suggest their marriage had always been doomed from the start: Camille is sensitive about her lack of education and culture and believes that Paul thinks she’s stupid; Paul persists in arguing in an intellectual way, failing to see Camille might be testing him and setting little traps for him, ignoring her little gestures of conciliation, and bullying her by calling her jealous; she accuses him of selling out to a “film crowd” (which he has done, by taking Prokosch’s cheque); he, for all his belief in his intellectual superiority over Camille, misinterprets her statements, lashes out at her emotionally and never acknowledges that she might be right in some of what she says and that he might be wrong or have done her an injustice. The contempt that Camille develops for Paul is the result of a head-on collision between two mismatched people, one insecure about her new place in a self-absorbed world and feeling unwanted, the other having dragged her into it with no thought for how they can both cope individually and together in that world with its contradictory demands. The tragedy for them both is that, having fought and fallen apart, they become vulnerable to the desires of that world which separates them, forever as it turns out.

A parallel sub-plot in which various characters re-interpret “The Odyssey” as a story in which Odysseus has left his wife Penelope to fight in the Trojan war and then to travel for several years because they no longer love each other, or Penelope has been unfaithful, or Odysseus simply wishes to avoid Penelope, as a counter-weight to Paul and Camille’s marital problems, runs through the movie. The “Odyssey” movie production serves as a convenient coat-hanger for Prokosch, Paul and Camille to offload their feelings and opinions about human relationships without admitting them directly to one another. At the same time they appear to have no great enthusiasm for the movie and only Lang seems to care, even to the extent of continuing and finishing filming after Prokosch and Camille become decidedly “off-screen”. Paul is left alone without any anchor after filming finishes and silence is called for.

The artist having to choose between self-integrity and self-betrayal; people who should be united tearing themselves apart and becoming easy victims of a rapacious world; the idea of a film within a film that mirrors and comments on thoughts, feelings and behaviour expressed outside it; the film world as a meat market where script-writers and directors prostitute themselves before producers: these are hardly original ideas though the easy and subtle way in which they have been combined is original. Bardot and Piccoli are good in the way they bring out their characters’ fears, beliefs, prejudices and misunderstandings of each other and their relationship without over-acting or emotional histrionics. It could be said though that by letting one person (Prokosch) upset their relationship so much, Camille and Paul already aren’t sure of each other’s loyalty: the movie’s opening bedroom scene in which Camille demands total love from Paul and he replies glibly suggests as much.

Palance does a fine turn as the brash, crass American producer Prokosch, throwing his weight around and seducing Camille; he may be evil in the sense of preying on and exploiting Camille’s weaknesses to pull her away from Paul though there is just a suggestion in the petrol station scene that he might be more sensitive and sympathetic to her than her husband has been so far. Had Godard played up this aspect of Prokosch putting on an “ugly American” act to cover up his own fears about being an uncultured outsider in a supposedly more cultured and artistic environment, and shown him to be a potentially better person than Paul, the movie’s themes would have had an emotional fillip that would intrigue audiences, and Camille’s choice might have said something about Camille’s own values. Is Camille as much a sell-out on her integrity as she accuses Paul of being on his?

The structure of “Contempt”, divided in the main between the suffocating insular reality of the married couple’s apartment and the open natural spaces of Capri island, promising freedom and opportunties that Camille grabs, seems lopsided between the minutiae of the couple’s private lives which they pick over like scabs and the real dangers that face them once they are on the film set. On Capri, Paul sees Prokosch and Camille kissing each other but seems not to care; his reaction and behaviour will appear inexplicable to most viewers as at the same time he seems smug or resigned about having sold out on his artistic ideals and isn’t losing sleep over the harm he’s done to them and Camille’s view of him as a sell-out. While Camille, who originally hadn’t wanted to go to Capri, spends time sunbathing and swimming, Paul does nothing. By the end of the film, Paul may still be unaware of what’s happened to Camille and Prokosch but even if he did know, he may not care anyway. Like Odysseus in “The Odyssey”, trying to find his home, Paul is doomed to find a “home” in the film world without values or someone who can provide an anchor.

Colourful with some great visual scenery in both the apartment, adorned in a modern style at the time (early 1960’s), and in the scenes set on the islands, the film is worth seeing once but perhaps no more. The plot is thin and scrappy and doesn’t allow much character development in Camille, Paul and Prokosch who remain archetypes representing aspects of the film’s themes. Viewers won’t feel much connection with the male characters but might feel sympathy and pity for Camille who on the whole is treated badly by the men. As Paul does very little apart from mouthing off at Camille, the theme of the artist’s place in a society not sympathetic to ideals such as artistic integrity is superficially explored. If the film’s opinion is that the values of Hollywood aren’t to be trusted compared to those of art, then Paul is a poor choice of champion for art and the possibility that the film world can be reformed or improved in any way remains remote.

Come to think of it, with all due respect for Godard’s ideals, if Hollywood had made “Contempt”, the story might push a stronger line on the artist’s place in society: it might not reflect the reality in the Hollywood film industry itself but it would put more backbone and integrity into Paul. For a start, he’d tell Prokosch to shove his cheque up his butt …

The Rules of the Game: a good if dated satire of French high society

Jean Renoir, “The Rules of the Game” (1939)

When you hear that a rich French marquis decides to have a huge party at his country estate and invites, among other people, a man who’s in love with the marquis’s wife and a woman who’s been having an affair with the marquis himself, and on top of that hires a rabbit poacher as a new servant who flirts with the wife of the gamekeeper who gets jealous every time another man even looks at her, you know that marquis is just asking for trouble. And trouble galore is what the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) gets in this movie “The Rules of the Game” by Jean Renoir which is a clever satire on the mores and values of the French upper classes on the eve of the Second World War when this film was made. For people reared on films sticking to their genre conventions, this might be a confusing movie: heavily driven by its dialogue and the comings and goings of its various characters, “The Rules …” goes from straightforward drama to comedy of manners to straight-out slapstick in the film’s first climax, and then to tragedy in its second climax, for the film’s purpose of detailing the various upper class social hypocrisies which make up the rules of the “game” and how well people conform or don’t conform  to them – and the price they pay if they don’t.

The movie gets off to a slow start, establishing its main personalities in its first hour: Robert’s wife Christine (Nora Gregor) is adored by hero aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) and in secret by his friend Octave (Renoir himself) while her husband dallies with Genevieve (Mila Parely) behind her back. Robert tries to ditch Genevieve but ends up inviting her to his chateau, La Coliniere, for the weekend. Octave encourages Robert to invite Andre as well. Other significant characters like Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), her husband and Robert’s gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) and Marceau (Julien Carette) are introduced early in the film. The camera moves around the sets like a roving eye, looking in at various people who go about their business as if unaware they are being watched. Audiences see significant actors and action in the background as well as in the foreground thanks to Renoir’s use of deep focus cinematography which at the time (1930’s) was unusual in filming.

Once all the invited guests including an army general arrive at La Coliniere for the weekend retreat, the pace picks up quickly and the action becomes live with little room for more character development: various entertainments that include shooting pheasants and hares for sport, walks, a masquerade party, some amateur theatre and games fill people’s time. As afternoon turns into evening and the masquerade gets under way, guests get drunk and exchange spouses and lovers casually, and tempers flare up. Upstairs, Robert and Andre fight over Christine and, in a comic turn that comments on how lower classes regard the upper classes as role models and leaders, Schumacher chases Marceau around the mansion for flirting with his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost). Both Schumacher and Marceau are sacked and thrown off the estate so they venture out to the estate greenhouse where they see Christine, wearing Lisette’s cape, and Octave planning to run away together. Schumacher, mistaking Christine for Lisette, swears to kill Octave. Octave returns to the house where Lisette talks him out of running away with Christine because of the age difference between them and he sends Andre to the greenhouse instead. Once there, Andre is mistaken for Octave by Schumacher who shoots him.

The way Robert deals with Andre’s shooting (or rather, dismisses it casually) and Christine’s own reaction to it symbolise the rot that pervades French society and its morality as a result of its corrupted leadership that they exemplify. Andre is hardly an attractive figure either: when viewers first see him, he behaves very petulantly when informed on arriving in Paris after a long solo flight that his former love Christine hasn’t arrived at the airport to greet him. So audiences discover early that Andre, perhaps a bright hope and talent for a new France, has been seduced by and into high society. Little does he realise that he’ll be treated like a toy and tossed aside by such people. Robert, Christine, Octave, Genevieve and Lisette, all vacillating between one extreme and another, all unsure who or what they most love and want to stay with, are people who want, or think they deserve, everything both ways, however incompatible these are. They treat love, marriage and human relationships in a cavalier way. Lisette is married but is ready to throw over Schumacher to stay with Christine and be close to luxury and wealth. Robert wants his marriage, his mistress, his property and collection of gadgets, not necessarily in that order, and not caring that the women in his life each want him to give up at least one of the four wants mentioned. Only Andre and Schumacher attach notions of loyalty and morality to love and marriage and they’re the ones who pay dearly for “transgressing” the rules of the “game”.

Renoir’s direction and matter-of-fact narrative which relies on the characters to drive the plot and action force viewers to decide for themselves if the characters are worthy of their sympathy. All these people have some attractive and unattractive qualities. The camera never settles on one particular person who might serve as the “hero” of the film; it moves through the labyrinthine mansion with its corridors, staircases and rooms leading into more rooms to focus on the characters, all players in the “game”. Viewers who have no PC or video-gaming experience might be distracted trying to watch actions in the foreground when there is activity in the background or nearly off-screen demanding attention. The easy camera flow moves through establishing the characters in the film’s first half without inducing boredom while the plot is yet to get off the ground; once the plot’s course is set, the camera then takes in nearly everything that happens at La Coliniere so the place becomes a synecdoche for French society.

Aside from the use of deep focus cameras, “The Rules …” looks dated with a style of acting that varies between natural and theatrical, and a plot heavy with symbolism. With computer games so prevalent now, any experimental edge the film might have had once in positing the mansion as a proto-type “computer game” with its different levels, and the hosts and guests as “players” symbolic of their class, is lost. Particular scenes, such as the hunting scenes, filmed documentary-style, in which peasants flush out prey for the shooters and scenes in which characters express prejudice against Jewish people, refer to issues of historic significance for which modern audiences may need to know some early and mid-20th century French and European history to understand fully. People living in societies where social class is still important in determining a person’s place and how far he or she can advance socially and economically will respond more positively to what the film says about social hypocrisy and in that respect the film still has value as social criticism.

Since “The Rules …” was made, other more recent films based on its plot, ideas or themes such as Alan Bridges’s “The Shooting Party” and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” have been made so it’s no longer even the definitive film of its type – a country estate as microcosm of its society – to see. Still, if you like mysteries, dramas or comedies set in rich country houses that focus on both the wealthy and their servants, “The Rules …” is a well-made movie with characters that are at once vivid, comic and serious.

Vampyr: vampire horror film explores issues of human existence

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Vampyr” (1932)

Made originally as a silent movie with a voice and musical soundtrack added later, this film boasts very creative if contrary ideas and perceptions about film-making as an art-form in its own right as opposed to telling moving stories, and about the story-telling process itself. Loosely based on a collection of short stories by Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu, “Vampyr” follows a young man David Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg under the alias of Julian West, who helped finance the film) who does research on Satanism and folk superstitions. His research takes him to a French town called Courtempierre where, while staying at an inn, he is visited by an elderly stranger (Maurice Schutz) who appeals for help and leaves a book package for him. Gray follows the stranger to a mansion where the old man is the owner and father of two sisters living there. The man dies from gunshot wounds just as Gray arrives. He is introduced to the two young sisters, of whom one is bedridden with a wasting disease. Viewers quickly see that the girl, Leone (Sybille Schmitz), has suffered bites to the neck and Gray and a servant (Albert Bras) learn from the father’s book brought by Gray that she may be the vicitm of a vampire.

The film looks badly made with flickering backgrounds but the washed-out effect is deliberate; Dreyer had been seeking a particular “look” to the film and discovered it by accident when a can of film was exposed. The bleached appearance makes interiors of rooms come “alive”, vibrating with a sinister, hidden force and outdoor scenes look unnaturally bright and animated. Even grass and leaves on tree branches swaying with the breeze look fearsomely alive as though inhabited by demon spirits. Lighting contrasts appear stronger than they should be and areas that are lit up burn with intensity. This creates an atmosphere where emotions override reason and intellect, and either lethargy or irrationality governs people’s actions. In those parts of the film where a storm occurs, windows and glass panes in doors light up and pulse with bright ferocity as though just behind them Hell has just erupted with volcanic ire.

The narrative doesn’t flow the way viewers might expect: the film often presents montages of “still life” shots or moving dioramas of shadow play. Most scenes have a very static quality even when actual actors are moving or the camera is panning around or back-tracking. A few figures are introduced quite early in the film whom audiences assume will play significant roles but these characters are never seen again. In one memorable shot, a soldier is sits on a bench quietly while his shadow comes by and sits on the bench’s shadow; later when the soldier gets up and walks off, the shadow walks away in the opposite direction. Are the person and the shadow important to the movie? As it turns out, no. There is also a sequence of dancing shadows on a wall which the camera follows while dance music is interspersed with the main musical soundtrack: a very unusual and quite creepy piece of filming which heightens the sense of dread and enclosed paranoia. The “show, don’t tell” approach to advance the plot is abandoned: various titled card insertions, meant as pages in the book the servant reads, not only give information on how to destroy vampires but, in the absence of dialogue, alerts the audience to what Gray or the servant will do.

Gray himself isn’t an active character: throughout the film he seems aimless and reacts to people and events around him in an almost robotic way. He allows a doctor (Jan Hieronimko) to siphon blood from him, not realising the doctor is an ally of the vampire who has bitten Leone. Though viewers assume Gray to be the film’s hero in a conventional sense, and the film initially points that way with the old man handing him the package, he ends up superfluous to the “plot” and merely assists the servant “hero”. The servant later appears a “villain” in the way he cruelly despatches the doctor in a flour mill.

There are passages in the film which may or may not be diversions from the main plot: most notably, in the second half of “Vampyr”, Gray has an out-of-body dream experience while at a cemetery, follows the doctor and sees his body in a coffin; the point of view switches to the body itself, as though Gray’s soul has re-entered the body there and then, and the coffin is then taken away for burial with the camera pointing up at the blank sky and town buildings passing on either side of the screen. At the moment the coffin arrives at the burial plot, Gray wakes up on his cemetery seat and sees the servant opening the coffin. This is perhaps the most memorable and terrifying part of the film which might not necessarily have anything to do with the plot but seems to be a meditation on death and what happens to the soul after death. Seen from a psychological viewpoint, Gray’s astral trip may serve as a metaphor for mental fragmentation and the dissolving of identity, exemplified by his soul following the doctor, and the entire film itself has the look of a terrifying dream. Other “irrelevant” parts include Gray meeting the doctor before he arrives at the mansion and a part near the end where Gray and Leone’s sister Gisele (Rena Mandel) row a boat on a lake.

In all of this, the vampire itself never appears: a corpse said to be the vampire is impaled with an iron stake and Leone seems to recover but this could be a suggestion implanted in viewers’ minds by the pages of the book the servant has read. The vampire seems an elemental force that is nowhere and yet everywhere in the film, hidden in natural phenomena, in the lurid interiors of the mansion, the shadows that appear, even in the medium of the film itself as demonstrated by its bleached look. Perhaps in that aforementioned dream experience that Gray has, the blank sky that his dead face was gazing at was or held the vampire being?

“Vampyr” certainly makes no attempt to appeal to a wide audience: all elements integral to a story on film are turned on their head in some way. Acting as such is natural, most of the actors being amateurs whom Dreyer knew personally. Schmitz (the only trained actor) as Leone gives quite a performance with her face going from pained and agonised to smirking malevolence as she appears to transform into a vampire herself. Events appear disconnected from one another, there’s no sense of cause and effect or any similar sequencing, and viewers must assume everything they see is either important or irrelevant. Even the plot itself barely holds the film together and is merely a medium for themes Dreyer may have wanted to explore: what it must mean to die and to be dead, the vampire as metaphor for disease and sexuality, and blood as metaphor for the life-force which sustains identity and wholeness.

For those who are open to watching visual media in ways beyond a strict story-telling or linear narrative structure, this film is highly recommended as a lesson in how the vampire horror genre can be used to explore issues of human existence in an original and experimental way.