Un monsieur qui a mangé du taureau: slapstick comedy film short with a possible ulterior message

Eugène Deslaw, “Un monsieur qui a mangé du taureau” (1935)

We all know of people who spout a lot of BULL but what happens to people who accidentally or deliberately swallow some of that BULL? This is the premise to a silent film made in 1907 by a film-maker unknown, to whose film Deslaw added some introductory titles and a voice-over commentary by French comic artist Bétove. The film I saw did not have the commentary. The film demonstrates what happens when you eat the flesh of some exotic animal whose nature you know nothing of.

With a total running time of seven minutes, the plot is simple: a lady serves her guests the flesh of a bull. While relaxing after dinner with some cognac, cigars and a few jokes, one of the guests takes down some bull horns from his hostess’s wall, puts them over his head and instantly transforms into a raging taureau. After headbutting the other guests who scramble for safety onto furniture which then promptly falls over or off the walls, the maddened guest terrorises the neighbours and runs out into the streets attacking passers-by and the local gendarmes. The panicking authorities place a call with Paris Central Police HQ who transfer it to Madrid Central Police HQ who in turn promptly despatch a team of matadors and toreadors the same day. (Ah, how efficient French and Spanish police were in those pre-EU days! Ah, how wonderful and speedy was Samuel Morse’s telegraph technology, faster than the Internet!) Meanwhile our Raging Bull takes on a man dressed as a donkey and the two, erm, monkey around quite a bit before going on their separate ways. When los señores de la corrida arrive by walking into town (as you do: the Pyrenees obviously were no trouble crossing over) from Madrid, they promptly do battle with the gentleman. They successfully “subdue” him – for once, I won’t spoil the ending by giving it away – and the police promptly march him off into the sunset. Olé!

It’s a wonderful piece of pure slapstick comedy based on the notion that you literally are or become what you eat. Maybe there is an ulterior, perhaps rather racist premise insinuated here: don’t absorb yourself too much in other people’s culture (especially if it’s a Third World culture) in case you become like them and go savage. The original film is self-explanatory and hardly needed an additional commentary or titles from Deslaw and Bétove. I imagine the commentary as a sarcastic send-up and criticism of the racism that might be implied in the film’s premise: that French people should beware of adopting aspects of other people’s cultures lest the exotic values of such cultures degrade French culture itself and turn French people into savages. Considerable acrobatics are involved with people, ladies especially, somersaulting over cupboards and street furniture. The bull horns end up quite bloody and one shudders to think of the carnage and the blood trail left along the way. I didn’t see anyone actually being poked or prodded or pin-pricked to death by the horns but the agility of the actors to avoid such a fate is nothing short of dazzling. The action is quick, the editing sharp and no-nonsense, and the whole story is wrapped up in five minutes.

I’ve heard the voiceover commentary actually demeans the original film so it’s just as well I didn’t experience Deslaw’s superfluous additions. Usually with silents, there would be piano accompaniment so viewers can add their own musical or voice-over accompaniment if they wish! Perhaps this would be an amusing film to show as part of a film festival with a vegan or vegetarian theme.

La Marche des Machines / Les Nuits Électriques: experimental shorts suggest technology has a life of its own

Eugène Deslaw, “La Marche des Machines” (1927) / Les Nuits Électriques” (1928)

The Ukrainian film-maker Eugène Deslaw made a number of fairly short experimental films in the late 1920s before his career was swept away by the advent of sound. Little seems to be known of his activities since then; he died in 1966 apparently unremembered. Two such films are “La Marche des Machines” and “Les Nuits Électriques”. The first of the two is a 5-minute documentary that might be commenting on the relentless progress of technology and how it’s acquiring a pulsing life of its own beyond human control. It’s basically a linear collage of little series of shots, each series dominated by a little theme: wheels in one series, a crossways grid in another, weaving in a third, caterpillar tracks in a fourth, conveyor belts in a fifth. Near the end the film becomes more abstract with scenes where two shots are superimposed on one another or placed side by side to suggest that a kind of convergent evolution in two different strands of technology has taken place. In the last minute of the film, carefully selected shots sequenced together suggest that some machines or their levers at least might achieve the ability to reproduce and the very last couple of shots, done almost entirely in contrasts of light and shadow, insinuate sexual intercourse.

Second film “Les Nuits Électriques” showcases a city at night through its lights and the eerie life that it takes on through electricity while its human inhabitants sleep. This is a much more abstract and beautiful film than the first and Deslaw shows considerable imagination in using mirror images of shots to set up symmetrical collages that reveal another world within the electrical world first encountered. A remarkable series of shots of a merry-go-round unveils a secret universe of floating lights that suggest fireflies buzzing about during the twilight hours. As the film progresses, it becomes more playful and starts playing tricks on viewers: about the 7th minute, shots of the moon over the sea hint at a mysterious hovering comet and in the 8th minute, shots of telephone lines and poles are cheekily posited as negatives of daytime scenes. Greater levels of abstraction with mirror imaging and film running backwards encourage a blurring between live action and experimental animation particularly in the shots that take place in a foundry. At times the film can be very hypnotic and one’s mind starts to relax and expand …

As silent films, these mini-documentaries appear to have no message but the way in which the shots are arranged, with emphasis on visual rhythms and patterns of motion, an implied narrative that an alien life-force is incipient in modern technology is strong. Clever editing, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, adds to the impression that this vitality has a speed of its own that will surpass human capacity to understand and control it. If humans appear at all, their presence is incidental rather than essential to the technology: they appear as passers-by or passive spectators. The films are at once fascinating and terrifying in the implications of their subject matter.

Deslaw’s use of film looks more sophisticated in the second film than in the first: “Les Nuits …” has a more playful, experimental approach to its subject, especially in later scenes of flying sparks of light in a foundry. At this point the viewer does not know if s/he is watching a live-action film or an animation, and perhaps doesn’t care anyway as the images – all light and dark contrasts – are highly abstract.

The films’ main value lies in their playful use of filming techniques to suggest a narrative where one didn’t exist originally.

Autour de La Fin du Monde: silent film about a sound film hampered by lack of … sound

Abel Gance and Eugène Deslaw, “Autour de La Fin du Monde” (1930)

I had heard that there was a French science fiction film “La Fin du Monde” made by Abel Gance in 1931 and looked for it on Youtube.com. Unfortunately I didn’t find it but what I did find was a silent 18-minute documentary made by Eugène Deslaw on the making and shooting of the film. The documentary is notable for the methods Deslaw uses to observe the director and his crew at work and how various scenes were prepared and shot.

Understandably, being silent, the film features no interviews with anyone on or off the set: it’s done almost completely from the viewpoint of an unseen observer who has stumbled in onto the set and might be watching in wonder and astonishment at the comings and goings of people and what they do. The film opens with a spectacular circular panning of the camera focusing on actors facing it that speeds up until the whole shot is a wild whir. The scene abruptly cuts to a camera operator spinning around on his stand. Sometimes the camera comes in very close to scrutinise the equipment: meter readings, switches being turned on and off, pointers on gauges wavering between two extreme points. Are we looking at scenes from the film being made or are we looking at the actual filming? In this way, Deslaw blurs the boundary between the film being made and his own film. The camera also views the film from the height of a child (there is a shot of a pair of legs crossing a floor) and from above people’s heads.

The film was France’s first talking film and there is a scene of a beautiful woman facing the camera and singing or chanting. There is also a shot of a man declaiming loudly in front of the camera against a background of lights and the lights flashing and the camera deliberately shaking and making the image unfocused. Sometimes the camera appears to be participating in the actual film-making itself, as when it pauses on two lovers arguing and making up, and the woman listening in on them; later the camera follows the crew on a crane and looks down on a small crowd looking up at it.

Although the documentary is described as experimental, I don’t find it as experimental or inventive as the work of Gance and Deslaw’s contemporary Jean Vigo. Vigo’s work had real flair and this documentary, though it uses panning, whole-scene shots, close-ups and different points of view, can appear pedestrian in parts. There is one scene in the last minute of the film in which an image of a face appears beneath an image of a machine in close-up.

Until the film in its entirety is found and released on DVD or uploaded to Youtube.com, this documentary is the best source we have of the film. I know nothing more of the film having seen the documentary than I did before but as an exercise in making a film about a film and playing with audience’s expectations, Deslaw’s portrait is good but not very outstanding. The decision not to include a soundtrack is unusual, as the subject itself has one, and certainly doesn’t help me understand “La Fin du Monde”.

À propos de Nice: silent film satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of 1930s France

Jean Vigo, “À propos de Nice” (1930)

Posing as “a day in the life” travelogue of the French city of Nice, Vigo’s documentary short is a cunning satire on social inequalities and contemporary culture of France at the dawn of a new decade. What gives the film its power is its soundless montage of images and scenes filmed and spliced together in ways that mock the pretensions of the nouveau riche / bourgeois classes and celebrate the earthy and more vital culture of working-class people.

The film begins with stunning aerial shots of the city followed by lapping waves on a beach and puppet forms of a couple visiting Nice for a holiday. The puppets, superimposed upon by images of a game of poker played at a casino, are quickly swept aside into a third layer of the beach scene and the film then focuses on early morning scenes of workers cleaning the promenades and generally prettifying the city to receive its daily wave of rich tourists. And arrive they do, only to plonk themselves down on cheap deck-chairs, read newspapers, snore and not pay attention to the flow of life around them. Vigo commences to deconstruct the sterile life-style of the wealthy by contrasting it with the vivacity and energy of the workers, most revealingly in parallel scenes of rich couples strutting stiffly in ballrooms while the ordinary people celebrate a carnival in which they carry giant papier-mache statues of grotesque figures, some of which are parodies of the rich. Throughout the film also we are treated to repeated images of ocean waves washing up and over sandy beaches and to images that stress the circularity of life from birth to maturity and finally to death.

The film’s major asset is its cinematography, courtesy of one Boris Kaufman the brother to Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman), he of “Man with a Movie Camera” fame: camera angles emphasise the phallic nature of huge towers and other buildings in a mock fetishisation of industry. The architecture and urban design of Nice are as much under attack by Vigo as representative of the power of the plutocracy as are the elites themselves. In one very memorable shot, the camera traces the curves of a building’s colonnade as if to blow invisible raspberries at the structure’s pretensions to classical grandeur. Near the end, there are brazen images in slow motion of otherwise dowdily dressed women mugging for the camera by dancing the can-can, flinging their legs high up in the air and knowingly flashing their knickers and stocking suspender belts at the audience. There are some distressing shots as well: a boy with what looks like a serious skin disease on his face stares at the camera briefly and a startled cat is caught next to a pile of rubbish on the ground.

A surrealist influence appears in a couple of sequences played for laughs: we see several shots of a woman on a deck-chair, her outfits constantly changing with each shot until in the last shot she appears nude; and a juxtaposition of three shots of a man on a deck-chair too, sunning himself until he appears mummified and then to reptilian form as suggested by the shot of several crocodiles at the end of the sequence!

If ever people need proof that with the arrival of sound, the film industry lost some pizzazz and an inventive, curious spirit, this film and other experimental pieces like it would be it. While modern audiences would be uncomfortable without a soundtrack, this first film by Vigo is recommended to art film connoisseurs and to film students to see how a completely silent story can be told simply by the judicious juxtaposition of unrelated images and techniques such as layering, use of slow motion and repetition.


Taris, Roi du L’Eau: swimming is the gateway to a world of freedom and beauty

Jean Vigo, “Taris, Roi du L’Eau” (1931)

Sports documentaries don’t come any more poetic, beautiful and experimental than this early short by Jean Vigo about the 1930s French swimming champion Jean Taris. In just 10 minutes, Taris imparts lessons on how to swim freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, and how to change direction using the swim blocks. There’s actually nothing about Taris’s early life, how he came to swimming, what made him decide to strive for championship natational glory and what he hopes to give back to society: the usual structure of sports documentaries, at least those made in Australia. As swimming lessons go, the film is not remarkable and is out-of-date, butterfly-stroking being all but unknown at the time, and possibly techniques are demonstrated in that film that are no longer being taught.

No, the true glory of this sports documentary lies in the fact that Vigo has made it and has brought avant-garde filming technique and narrative to make of the swimming lesson a poem in how humans can be at home underwater and fly freely about in a medium  like a bird. A link between this documentary and Vigo’s other films exploring rebellion and freedom in a repressive society might be made here. The diving instruction is the key and the swimming lessons are the gateway into another world. The highlight of the film is the sequence of silent scenes in which Taris wriggles, turns and flies towards the camera and away from it like a flirtatious flighty creature, enticing the viewer to come follow him where he will.

The filming itself is quite extraordinary: in closing scenes, Vigo makes clothes appear suddenly on Taris standing by the edge of the pool; the swimmer then walks across the ground away from the camera in a scene superimposed over the pool itself. Taris looks back at the viewer, doffs his hat and continues to walk into the background, all while water is lapping and rippling behind him. It’s as if having given us the key and the directions to his world, the swimmer now expects that we will follow and enjoy the freedom (and presumably the equality and quality of life he enjoys also) that he has. The experimentation is not limited to the narrative structure and visuals: the voice-over swimming instructions alternate with the sounds of choppy water and this call-and-response soundtrack sets up a rhythm that can be hypnotic in effect.

Of course the short isn’t to be taken entirely seriously as demonstrated by the chirpy music, the diving scenes which include shots run backwards and a hilarious bit near the beginning where a man attempts to swim in a chair.

A minor work in what could have been a long and illustrious career in film-making for Vigo, this short is still outstanding for its treatment of a sport as an art-form in itself and a way of life that promises freedom.

Zéro de Conduite: zero for film convention and conformity, maximum score for lively presentation on social oppression

Jean Vigo, “Zéro de Conduite: Jeunes Diables au College” (1933)

One of four films made by French director Jean Vigo before his life was cut short at age 29 by sickness, this featurette is an unusual and goofy commentary on political and social repression and rigidity in French society in the 1930s through the prism of a boys’ boarding school. Four cheeky monkeys – Caussat, Colin, Bruel and Tabard – find the strict boarding school regime unreasonable and ridiculous  and plot to rebel during a public commemoration that involves the school and the wider community. In a loosely structured plot that leads up to the rebellion, the children engage in various small acts of revolt in front of their horrified teachers. One young professor sympathises with the students and encourages them in their rebellion.

The film was filmed on a tight budget in a restricted time schedule and these constraints are reflected in the film’s admittedly cheap sets and general look and in the disjointed plot that brims with many unrealised ideas. Early on a student collects all his classmates’ glue pots and pours the glue behind a shelf of books but that’s about it for the prank they play on their teachers: presumably the glue dries and keeps the books stuck to the shelf for all eternity, to be touched let alone be tugged at never again. The resolution appears incomplete as the ring-leaders walk off into the far distance. Characters talk at one another rather than to each other and no-one carries on a conversation beyond one call and one response. The narrative has the appearance of a series of unrelated skits that merely take place in a common context. There are many surreal sequences and improbable characters, done so deliberately as satire: probably the most surreal character is the boarding-school headmaster who looks and speaks like a child wearing a long beard.

The acting is almost completely natural with children acting like children and not as little automatons mouthing lines they’ve learned. One teacher mimics the English actor Charlie Chaplin in his Little Tramp role in his waddle with the twirling walking-stick. There are several passages that are completely silent save for Maurice Jaubert’s music soundtrack. The climactic scene is the pillow fight in the dormitory done entirely in silent slow motion with music: the kids charge down the passage-way, carrying one of their number like a king on a palanquin, while white feathers flutter down from the ceiling like manna to ancient Israelites.

Whatever viewers think of the loose and disjointed narrative, the message it conveys is clear and sharp: if people are pushed to their limits by governments and corporations wielding oppressive tools of control against them, those oppressors had better watch out – the oppressed will revolt and carry out acts of vandalism and violence, revelling in them all the way. At the same time, the film works as a joyful paean to the cheek and spirit of young children on the edge of adolescence, and suggests that if adults wish to shake off the shackles of outdated ideologies and political / economic systems, they should be as creative and full of verve as children.

Thérèse Desqueyroux (dir. Georges Franju): a skilfully made psychological study of much emotional depth

Georges Franju,” Thérèse Desqueyroux” (1962)

A remake of this film with Audrey Tautou as the titular character was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 so I thought I’d see the Franju original to see the spell it still holds on people 50 years after its release. This is a psychological and social study of a sensitive, thoughtful and intelligent woman unhappy in her marriage and of the bourgeois society in which she is trapped.  Thérèse (Emmanuelle Riva) has just been acquitted of the attempted murder of her husband Bernard (Philippe Noiret) by poisoning. As she leaves the court-house, she ponders on what it was back in her past that led her onto the tragic path she took and will continue to take. Thérèse’s musings lead the audience to the innocent lesbian relationship she has with her husband’s half-sister Anne (Edith Scob), the affection she has for Bernard’s forest on his family estate and the loveless marriage between herself and her self-centred, boorish mari.

Anne falls in love with a young Jewish man Jean Azevedo of whom her parents and Bernard disapprove. They pressure Thérèse to talk her out of the romance as they believe it will reflect badly on them; the family is quite jealous of its bloodline even though intermarriages among relatives in the past have led to Bernard inheriting a nervous, hypochondriac tendency. Anne goes away, Thérèse strikes up a friendship with Azevedo and both discover they have literary interests in common. Azevedo admits he’s not in love with Anne, composes a letter saying so to her and leaves for Paris. Anne reacts badly to the news and flies off in search of Azevedo. Time passes, Thérèse has a child who brings Anne back into the family although the women’s friendship is practically over; while Anne coos over the baby and mothers it, Thérèse becomes increasingly depressed. One day, a wildfire emergency occurs and Bernard overdoses on his medicine (which includes arsenic) and falls sick, and this instills an idea in Thérèse’s mind that grows and begins to obsess her. One thing leads to another and Thérèse narrowly escapes being convicted of attempted murder. However the punishment that awaits her from Bernard, his family, her father, indeed the entire country town community where they live, turns out to be an oppressive psychological burden.

This is a highly absorbing film even though it’s slow-paced and the plot treads a well-worn path in dealing with free-spirited individuals and their inability to conform to social strictures imposed on them by well-meaning and not so well-meaning others. The quality of the acting by Riva is superb: Riva’s beautiful yet distinctively sculpted face registers every small nuance of emotion and reveals a very complex woman whose feelings and moods run so deep that in spite of her intelligence and sensitivity, she does not always know or understand why she acts the way she does, or why the impulse to murder her husband seizes hold of her and obsesses her so. There is a suggestion of psychological denial on her part and a possibility that she is jealous of Anne’s freedom and impulsive behaviour. The supporting cast is quietly and consistently good: Noiret’s portrayal of Bernard appears brutally stereotyped at times and one sometimes wonders whether the movie would not have been improved if Bernard’s character had been changed to be a little more sympathetic towards his wife but still loyal to his family and community traditions. The two characters’ inability to communicate and to find common ground in their interests and psychology from which a real union of minds and bodies might grow is clear from several scenes between the two alone throughout the film. Scob’s appearances are few but she makes the most of them in delineating a character who is child-like and impetuous in her responses and whose personality, hungry for life and adventure, starts to alienate Thérèse who envies her friend’s freedom and joy of living.

The direction is adroit with use of zoom in some scenes and the shooting of the film from Thérèse’s point of view, including a voice-over by Riva used to express her feelings and motivations, in most parts of the film. The cinematography often emphasises beautiful and peaceful scenes in nature, changes in the weather and seasons, and Thérèse’s feelings for the pine trees on her husband’s estate. Probably more might have been done in the film to contrast the woman’s feel for nature, her closeness to it (near the end of the film, Thérèse reveals a spiritualist connection with the pine trees) and how it sustains her on the one hand and on the other Bernard’s exploitation of nature as a landowner and eager huntsman.

The film’s conclusion seems rather forced and contrived but the screenplay is based closely on François Mauriac’s 1927 eponymous novel which interestingly used silent film techniques to tell its tale. It is significant that Thérèse gains her freedom and escapes her oppressive marriage, family and community but at the expense, it would appear, of Anne losing hers (Bernard waits until after his half-sister’s marriage to a man of his family’s choosing to repudiate Thérèse). The rocky path taken by the relationship between the two women, initially close but becoming strained and ultimately broken by both external social pressure, Thérèse’s own ambiguous feelings about it, and her jealousy of Anne’s relationship with Azevedo (who seems a better fit for Thérèse herself), is described very well indeed by action and plot twists, and needs no temper tantrums or voice-over commentary to reinforce what viewers can see for themselves. This gives the film great subtlety and depth in describing the two women’s feelings for each other and their gradual estrangement at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in most countries (Britain legalised homosexuality in 1967) and could never be mentioned in films, yet was countenanced in many local communities in these societies.

Although the film’s themes may be outdated for most Western audiences – some audiences in Britain, France and other parts of Europe where social class and hierarchies are still strong influences on society may see a connection between their own cultures and the conservative, provincial Catholic culture of Thérèse’s world where appearances count for more than authenticity and hypocrisy is rife – it is a skilfully made film with emotional depth and is worthwhile seeing for film students, especially those wishing to use film techniques and cinematography to tell stories and convey deeper themes and messages.

Judex (dir. Georges Franju): an affectionate, light-hearted homage to Louis Feuillade and silent films

Georges Franju, “Judex” (1963)

A remake of the Louis Feuillade 1916 mini-series about the mystery masked crusader Judex (Latin for “judge”), Georges Franju’s film is said to partake of some of that earlier film’s visual style. Certainly there is an emphasis on careful staging of action and great attention given to details of background scenery and landscapes. Several scenes almost have a Post-Impressionist look in the manner of Georges Seurat’s misty pointillist paintings. The music soundtrack, composed by Maurice Jarre who collaborated with Franju on several films, may be repetitive but is also emotionally expressive when required. The film deliberately blurs distinctions between heroes and villains: main characters are people of questionable character or are sinister somehow, no matter how noble their motivations and principles might once have been.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, the film initially revolves around the unscrupulous banker Favraux who plans to marry off his widowed daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) to an impoverished aristocrat. A couple of early scenes involving a vagabond reveal Favraux’s moral emptiness and concern only for his own interests. He receives letters from a mysterious correspondent who calls himself Judex (Channing Pollock) which threaten him with harm if he doesn’t return the money he swindled from past investors. Naturally Favraux ignores the letters and later at a celebratory party, he keels over, apparently dead. Jacqueline buries him, dismisses the staff who include one Diana Monti (Francine Berge) and resolves to give up her inheritance. Later Jacqueline is menaced by Monti, her lover and their minions who are after documents detailing Favraux’s investments and other wealth. Judex comes to Jacqueline’s rescue and foils Monti’s plans to rob the Favraux family but not before tragedy occurs.

The plot is pulp-comic ordinary and parts of it appear amateurish and badly staged to 21st century eyes. There are cliff-hangers, scenes of laugh-out-loud soap-opera melodrama – in one scene, two strangers fighting discover they are a long-lost father-son pair! – and characters are stereotyped: Jacqueline as a helpless damsel in distress, Judex as an imposing Batman hero figure, Diana Monti as all-out Catwoman villain and her boyfriend as a somewhat dim-witted sidekick. A detective Cocantin and a small boy add comic flavour and an unexpected diversion to the plot. The action is slow and the pacing awkward.

The acting is so-so but the character of Judex isn’t required to be anything other than strong, silent, always in control and lady-killing in his Zorro cape and broad hat. At least Pollock (in real life, he was a magician and some-time amateur actor) is good-looking and has quite a commanding presence even in scenes where he falls into trouble. Scob spends much of her screen time in one dead faint or another. Perhaps the only decent and intriguing character is Monti who, in spite of failing many times, comes up with one dastardly scheme after another to get her paws on the Favraux fortune and wears figure-hugging black catsuits, in the days before British audiences clapped their gazes onto Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg in “The Avengers” TV series. For sheer determination and resourcefulness in escaping Judex and justice, this Monti dame sure can’t be beat!

The film’s highlight is the fight scene between Monti and a passing circus acrobat Daisy, a friend of Cocantin’s, on a roof-top which must have been a hit for audiences not used to seeing brave and self-reliant women defend themselves without the help of men. True, no flashy martial arts moves are used here but the women fight desperately to avoid falling off. The music used here is partly electronic in sound and sinister in mood.

“Judex” is an affectionate and not at all serious homage to Louis Feuillade and his films – watch out for a pulpy comic book “Fantomas” featuring a picture of nuns with guns in one scene, a reference to Feuillade’s “Fantomas” series; and Berge in the cat-suit is a reference to Irma Vep of Feuillade’s later “Les Vampires” series – and a good introduction to Georges Franju’s oeuvre and style of cinema.



Le Samouraï: enjoyably hokey existentialist film about fate and the inevitability of death

Jean-Pierre Melville, “Le Samouraï” (1967)

A beautiful and seductive film that spawned many imitators, of which some like John Woo’s “The Killer” also became cult flicks, “Le Samouraï” is a homage to American cinema and film noir in particular, while at the same time it deconstructs ideas about loyalty, living and loving your work, the pursuit of perfection in whatever you do and masculine power. Jef (Alain Delon) is an icy cool, boyish freelance hitman who lives by the code of bushido: he lives a spartan, minimalist life in a Paris apartment, carries out his jobs with zeal and efficiency and visits his girlfriend Jane (Nathalie Delon) if he needs an alibi. So far the police haven’t been able to pin anything on him. But there’s always a first time for everything: on one job, Jef shoots dead a night-club owner Martey and several witnesses including a pianist Valerie (Caty Rosier) see him as he leaves the premises. The police catch up with him and arrest him and although one man identifies him in the line-up, Valerie declares she has never seen him before. Jef is released from custody but his employers aren’t pleased that he was arrested. Jef discovers both they and the police are pursuing him. He is given a new job which he believes is a trap. Meanwhile the police inspector (François Périer) organises a swoop on the night-club where Valerie is playing, knowing that Jef will turn up to see her.

The plot is straightforward and easy to follow: it’s a cat-and-mouse game in which Jef is the mouse rather than the cat, and although he knows there’s no way out of the trap, he can either go down fighting or submit quietly. The choice he makes illustrates the film’s message about fate, the inevitability of death and how our actions determine who we are. This is a highly existentialist film and Jef, like the protagonist in Albert Camus’s “L’Étranger”, is an existentialist man. He only comes to life while killing people and everything in his world, from his pet bird to his girlfriend, is a necessary adjunct to his job of killing people: Jane is his necessary alibi and the bird lets him know if intruders have come to the apartment while he is away. Even his kitchen only stocks first aid items for gunshot wounds instead of crockery and cutlery. So good is Jef at his job that within moments of entering his bugged apartment, he quickly locates the bug, and later when he goes outside and catches the Metro, he deliberately switches trains and travels on different train routes to throw the police off his trail even though over 70 officers have been assigned to follow him and cover every train station in Paris! Even so, total dedication to one’s job and perfecting every action with the correct tools aren’t enough to prevent Jef from falling onto a pathway that takes him inexorably to death.

Filmed mostly on locations around Paris and its suburbs, the movie has a distinct look which curiously doesn’t look dated or even everyday Paris: Paris here looks abstracted and distilled to something hyper-Paris in all scenes, even scenes in which Jef drives stolen Citroen cars to a mechanic to get the number plates switched. In this very stylised movie, visually stylised to the point of fetishism, men still wear fedora hats and trench-coats over their grey business suits, and women wear fashions almost out of Alfred Hitchcock / Tippi Hedren films, mini-skirts, hot pants and Carnaby street evidently not part of this hyper-Paris universe. The interiors of buildings are significant characters in their own right: Jane’s apartment is soft and feminine, Jef’s own digs are beyond spare in a way at once dilapidated, genteel and stylised, and Valerie’s home is artistically furnished way beyond what a pianist in a night-club can actually afford, which alerts audiences to the possibility that she’s employed by the same people who employ Jef. Possibly the most hilarious scenes are set in police headquarters which is a hotbed of bureaucratic super-efficiency.

The acting and dialogue are as minimal as the plot and the camera lovingly focusses on Delon’s sculpted glamour-boy features in close-ups at regular moments throughout the movie wherever the plot allows. Nathalie Delon (real-life wife at the time) and Rosier as the women who complicate Jef’s life as representatives of life and death receive almost as much attention from the camera whenever they appear.

Crunch-time comes when Jef must carry out his last job, knowing that he is walking straight into the trap and will be killed: the way he goes about preparing for the job, checking his gun, walking into the club and eyeing his prey, reveals whether he is still locked in his loyalty to the bushido code or recognises the absurdity of the life he has led and in so doing, rises above it. The original ending in which Jef is shown with a smile on his face would have been most appropriate but Melville threw it out after discovering Delon had made an earlier film with a similar ending. It’s still an enjoyably hokey philosophy film of sorts nevertheless.

Human, All Too Human (Episode 3: Jean-Paul Sartre): a fine exposition of a philosopher who lived his philosophy

Louise Wardle, “Human, All Too Human (Episode 3: Jean-Paul Sartre)” (1999)

The final episode in this 3-part BBC series on existential philosophy focusses on the daddy of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the influences on and aspects of his life that were to form his particular view of the world and his philosophy. Through his novels, plays, essays and political activities, Sartre, brought together ideas he gained from studying works by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger with his own to develop a distinctive philosophy of freedom and one’s responsibility for one’s freedom. In a nutshell, Sartre’s philosophy states that people are free to be what they wish to be and have no fixed character, yet at the same time they are afraid to recognise and accept their freedom and the burdens it imposes on them. Ultimately the goal of life is “authenticity” (an idea and concept borrowed from Heidegger that Sartre extended) which means choosing or not choosing a course of action, and this is something that people have to do all the time.

As with previous episodes, the documentary uses a biographical format to describe Sartre’s life and personality, the philosophy he developed and the culture and ideas that informed it. Interviews with his biographers and other philosophers who knew him, archival material and stills flesh out the narrative. Ironically the radical nature of his philosophy brought Sartre much fame which hampered his activities. As time went by, Sartre’s involvement in the Second World War and the French Resistance led him to take more interest in Marxism and to reconcile his philosophy with Marxist notions of collective struggle. His relationship with feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir also influenced his philosophy and in turn his philosophy led her to challenge notions of personal freedom with the reality of women’s second-class position in French society and culture. In later life, events such as the May 1968 student riots in France and elsewhere and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which led to the Munich Olympics hostage crisis in 1972 encouraged Sartre to re-evaluate his philosophy and politics, and to most people he appeared to become more extreme in his views and behaviour.

The episode does a much better job than previous ones did of delineating the philosophy as well as the man, partly because Sartre lived his philosophy: it was intended to be accessible and relevant to the general public. We come into the world as undetermined  beings and have freedom and choice thrust upon us, and what we become is determined by the decisions we make and the actions we take – or don’t make and take. Although the film early on tries to tackle weak points in Sartre’s existentialism, such as the issue of how individuals with hugely different ideas of how they should live their lives can live together and co-operate, this challenge is not dealt with very well and problems such as how extreme individualism can co-exist with Marxist values and its quest for collective action and justice are ignored. The program also doesn’t address whether Sartre ever had to consider whether being a constant rebel against tradition and conformity in itself might also be a form of inauthenticity.

The issue of finding meaning in one’s life and how one can reconcile one’s freedom with one’s responsibility and duty to others  turns out to be one that not only consumed Sartre all his life but one that each and every one of us has to confront; some of us do it with more self-awareness than others. Along the way we may discover that we must question everything we learnt as children to accept as “good” and that authority figures and institutions we were told to trust may not have our best interests in mind. Eventually we may realise that even the very structures, networks, values and ideologies that give rise to particular institutions and not others must be questioned, challenged and if necessary overthrown and replaced with something new and fresh. This challenge comes out quite clearly in the episode.