Monday, December 15, 2008

Bonnie and Clyde

Although the original screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton were influenced by Truffaut, I found more references to Godard in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Sure, you have the shy male/aggressive female from Shoot the Piano Player. Clyde seems like a strong virile male but he never had sex with a woman until Bonnie who keeps coming on to him. However, you have the lovers on the run and the ironic use of filters from Pierrot Le Fou. This time, Bonnie plays the fool as she thinks that an adventure filled life with Clyde will fulfill her but ultimately it does not. Yet she accepts it because it provides fuel for her writing just like Ferdinand has to write about his ideas from his relationship with Marianne. Also from Pierrot Le Fou, the scene where they visit Bonnie’s mother is in a soft focus. I do not know that if that was accomplished by a filter or a different lens but the fact that it looks visually different from the rest of the film draws attention to it like Godard’s use of filters does in his films. I chose Pierrot Le Fou over the other ones because the others were used where the female character was the main focus while in Pierrot Le Fou the filters were used in a party scene to show the superficiality of Ferdinand’s life without passion. In this film, the soft focus gives a dreamy atmosphere as Bonnie is reunited with her mother. However, her mother disapproves of the life Bonnie leads betraying the idyllic visual that the soft focus gives.

Bonnie and Clyde also features Godard’s favorite sound manipulation, starting and stopping the music at random points. However, it has a little more direction in this film. After Bonnie and Clyde’s first successful heist, the victims are interviewed. When the cop answers the questions, the music gets louder suggesting that the cop’s words mean nothing because Bonnie and Clyde are the heroes in this story. When the farmer answers the question, the music stops drawing importance on the fact that Bonnie and Clyde are more inclined to steal from the bank rather a poor person which again makes them look like heroes.

Like Les Carabiniers, Bonnie and Clyde shows what happens when someone with very little intelligence and guns mix. C.W. Moss reminds me of the two idiots mindlessly following orders in order to gain a fruitless reward, the life of an outlaw. Although with the guidance (or perhaps I should say orders) from his father, he was able to save himself from indulging in a life of self-indulgent violence. Blanche reminds me of the two girls who expected to benefit from the spoils of her husband’s life of crime without participating in it. But she comes with the added bonus of being a preacher’s daughter who incessantly whines about how her life turned out so badly.

So I can see the French New Wave influence on the film but I see more Godard than Truffaut.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Loves of a Blonde

Milos Foreman’s Loves of a Blonde continues the French New Wave tradition of showing the absurdity of gender relations. If I had to compare it to one of the films we have seen, I guess it will be A Woman is A Woman. Andula’s fliting from one man to another reminded me of Angela going between Émile and Alfred. Despite a suicide attempt, I find Andula superficial like Angela trying to find a man to fulfill her needs. Though Andula does not sing, she is the subject of the two songs featured in the film. In the beginning, a woman on a guitar sings a Beatles-like song with a repetitive lyric structure: “I told her I like her (body part)/She said “Why don’t you (action with body part becoming more sexually suggestive as the song goes on)/”And I love her so yeah yeah.” This song serves to foreshadow Milda’s seduction of Andula as he repeatedly tries to get her into his room and succeeds a little too well. The second song sounds like an old-fashioned big band song with its lyrics convey trepidation from the older soldiers (“You have a pretty daughter. I have a crush on her. I want to take her hand.” At least that is what I remember.)

While A Woman is a Woman plays with the conventions of the musical, Loves of a Blonde contains one stunning scene that pays homage to the Busby Berkeley musicals. The scene starts out with an empty dance floor and slowly fills with people dancing the same steps. However, like the music in A Woman is a Woman, the scenes in Loves of a Blonde seems to start and stop randomly. One moment we see the bumbling middle-aged soldiers discussing whether or not to wait for the girls to come back and the next moment we see Milda and Andula discussing her suicide attempt. I realize that it seems that I do not understand the concept of cross-cutting/parallel editing. But to me visually the very abrupt transition did not seem to indicate that the purpose of the editing was to show the two events occurring in the same time. Rather, it seems to show the comic/tragedy dichotomy of life, particularly of young love. A moment can seem life forever as depicted by the long durations of shot but a moment can pass just as quickly and it is time to move onto the next scene.


Like Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Godard uses Alphaville to mess with film noir conventions. Although more faithful to high contrast look of film noir, Godard mixes it with science fiction to explore the ephemeral nature of language. The “present” can represent the “future” as shown by the “modern” buildings as the setting for this “futuristic” tale. “Love” may or may not have meaning, for it depends upon the person speaking saying the word to give meaning. After all, there are a variety of ways to love someone, as a fellow human being or as a romantic liaison. Even mathematical equations explore uncertainty of things with the reference to Heisenberg principle: “the values of certain pairs of conjugate variables (position and momentum, for instance) cannot both be known with arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one variable is known, the less precisely the other is known. This is not a statement about the limitations of a researcher's ability to measure particular quantities of a system, but rather about the nature of the system itself” (Wikipedia)However, Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence equation pops up periodically along with another equation that I cannot identify. The Einstein equation allows for the conservation of mass and the conservation of energy, so I guess its presence in this film shows that certain factors have to take place in order to conserve language. One of those factors is accessibility of words. If a word is banned and someone says the word, it leads to miscommunication. Eventually, they might find a way to communicate that would satisfy both parties thus creating a new language. Thus the concept of language is conserved relative to the two parties.

Just as Truffaut include some exercises in cinematic techniques in Shoot the Piano Player, Godard also includes scenes shot in X-ray vision to show what lies beneath the surface suggesting that we should explore what lies beneath our words or our concept of film noir. I honestly do not know what I am supposed to make of the drawings other than Godard saying, “Look what else you can put into a film noir/science fiction context.” Perhaps art has its own language begging for deconstruction. Art has meaning to the person who gives it meaning. As I mentioned earlier, mathematical equations appear as electric signs as well as the words nord (north) and sud (south), words that give us a sense of direction. But what is the point of direction if you do not know what the direction means? In the end, Natacha is unaware that she is being directed toward freedom even as she utters “I love you”. Alphaville is directing us in Godard’s exploration of language.


Contempt is in a way Godard’s version of Day for Night. Instead of celebrating the magic of the movies like Truffaut, he makes it look like work. Or at least making commercially accessible films is mind-numbing work while making art films is an intellectual joy. The opening sequence featuring a nude Brigitte Bardot is an ode to the “sex sells” tenant to commerciality by having her listlessly asking her husband if he loves her body parts. Normally, I roll my eyes at female nudity for female nudity’s sake but I could not help smiling at Godard’s middle finger to the producers who insisted on it. Even the filters could not save it from becoming boring.

Even though this film is the most linear of his films, Godard still finds ways to play with the notion of “a beginning, a middle, and an end . . .but not in that order” in quick montages in which the images are temporally displaced. These sequences have an energy to them as if to convey Godard’s joy at messing with time even in the context of a commercial film. Also, the middle section of the film has its own beginning, middle, and end. The scene plays out in a long tracking shot as the couple begins to talk about the apartment’s décor to a discussion about Paul’s job to Camille ending their relationship. The length of the scene not only builds the tension between the couple but also builds a simmering tension over having a beginning, middle, and an end. Paul may not want his relationship to end, but like all commercial films it must. And it must end resolutely with a death. Godard suggests that resolute endings are a death to the possibility of films as opposed to the open endings that leaves the audience to question what this film means to them.

Day for Night

Truffaut’s Day for Night is his love letter to the magic of making films. The making-of-the-film sequences reminded me of Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera with the music and the camera movements. All seems to be well but we do not see what is behind the surface. Out of that sequence, we see an insecure actress, a lovesick actor, a drunk older actress, and a lackluster script. Yet, Truffaut’s character Ferrand finds a way to make it work harmoniously. He has to justify his love of filmmaking somehow. He will deal with the drama on set in order to create drama on film.

I would like to think that Truffaut casting himself as the director of a melodramatic script does not mean that he has somehow made peace with commercially written/shot films. Unfortunately, as I am writing this in hindsight, I should have seen it as a sign of the commercial melodrama of The Story of Adele H. In fact, the plot of Meet Pamela resembles a soap opera with the woman who is involved with the son yet is attracted to the father. Although the scene with Delarue’s score playing while Ferrand shifts through books of directors known for taking artistic risks shows that he seems interested in taking Meet Pamela in an artistic direction, I do not think that the film ended up being an exercise of cinematic techniques like Truffaut’s other films. Yet, I do not see this film as a cop-out. Again, I think that Truffaut is mocking commercial directors for a lack of imagination but with an understanding that they both share a love of the cinema.

Pierrot Le Fou

I know that I should look beyond Godard’s relationship with Anna Karina in discussing Pierrot Le Fou. But he makes it difficult. He has her singing, “I never told you I'd love you all my life. Oh my love, you never swore to adore me all your life. We never made promises like that, knowing me knowing you. We never thought we ever would be caught by love fickle as we were. . .” to Ferdinand, who she keeps calling Pierrot. Also, Godard has her look at the camera saying something like “I’ll never leave you.” I will admit that I do not know the particulars of their relationship but somehow I feel like this film is a thinly disguised punishment for a love gone wrong rather than “the story of the last romantic couple.” Who is getting punished? I could easily claim Karina as the victim especially in one sequence where she repeated says “I don’t know what to do. What am I to do?” This suggests that Godard feels that Karina cannot do without him directing her even though she has worked with other directors during their marriage. But I could easily claim Godard as being masochistic watching his ex-wife playing Ferdinand for a fool for love. Godard should have known better yet he just could not see it in reality. But he could see the decline of their love on film.

Aside from that, I found the little play Ferdinand and Marianne put on for the Americans funny. Not only does it mock Americans for their attitude towards Vietnam but I also think that Godard was making fun of yellowface that American films had employed in the past when depicting Asian characters with Caucasian actors. Despite having an all-Asian American cast in The Flower Drum Song, yellowface still existed in American cinema such as Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s released in the same year. However, if I was to award the worst case of yellowface, I would give it to Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed (1944). At least Marianne’s version was meant to be a joke. I do not know if French cinema has the same history with the depiction of Asian characters, but I still enjoyed the fact that Godard called attention to it.

But in the end this film is still about Godard and Karina.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her

I thought that Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her was in small way an apology for the frothy girls in Masculine/Feminine. Juliette seems like a deep thinker questioning the world around her. But then again, Godard’s creepy whisper does his fair share of philosophizing as well. In fact the whisper makes him sound like the devil on her shoulder daring her to reexamine the world she is living in. However, she is a deep thinking prostitute, which makes her more the heir apparent to Nana in Vivre Sa Vie. When Juliette drops off her child, we see a painting of Nana on the wall. We also see a picture of a geisha while she puts on red lipstick and explains her feelings toward her chosen profession. I found this interesting because being a geisha involves some form of artistry such as playing an instrument to seduce the patron. For Juliette, no art is needed in her life, just a willingness to put an airline bag over her head to amuse an American.

Speaking of art, the café scene with her husband and another girl explores the art of conversation. He tells her, “People don’t talk in films.” Godard calls attention to the fact that the actors are reciting lines written by the screenwriter or fed by the director that the audience registers as a conversation. The typical shot/reverse shot sequence also helps to identity the scene as one. Once again, Godard shoots the scene like his interview scenes in Masculine/Feminine which forces us to make our own observations about the female rather than recognizing the scene as a conversation. And once again, the subject of the conversation is about sex as if to say that it is the only thing that men and women can “talk” about.

Since this is a film about language, I honestly think that the “her” in title is not Juliette. After all, Godard tells us in the beginning of the film what Juliette does is not important. I know that movie and the movie theater are masculine in French (le film and le cinéma). However, film used in cameras is feminine (la pellicule). But if he had included scenes using tinting or scratching like he did in Contempt, I could have argued that the two or three things he knew about la pellicule is how to change the look of the film to convey a different meaning. France is feminine in French (La France) and what Godard knows is that she is on her way to being sucked into the vortex of consumerism as show by the building under construction and the last image of the consumer products on the lawn. Language is feminine in French (la langue) and therefore what he knows is that words and images cannot always depict each other. We cannot always find the words to accurately describe our experiences with the world whether we are focusing on our economic situation or a war fought miles away from us. But we still have to try and in trying we might find a new way to communicate.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Does Godard really want me to feel guilty about being a woman? If so, he succeeded in Masculine/Feminine. When the film was over, I was at a loss for words. I do not know why because I should not be too shocked with the interviews by the women in this film showing a lack of intellect and a depth of superficiality. After all, I live in a world where reality shows like The Hills and The Bachelor revel in that dichotomy. I also live in a world where a teen beauty pageant contestant could not coherently answer a question about why people cannot locate US on a map. (I wonder what she would have said about contraceptives and abortion. But in pageant world, sex does not exist. Forget about asking whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned, we must focus on world peace!). Just as Madeline and her friends serve to represent views of the modern young French woman, Debbie Matenopoulos, Lisa Ling, and Elisabeth Hasselback were supposed to represent the view of the modern young American woman on The View but ultimately failing by being “too dumb”, “too boring”, and “too conservative.” Also not helping to alleviate this guilt is the beginning of the film begins with “Masculin” and ends with “Feminin” as if to say that women are the end of society as he knew it. We are too busy primping to achieve that natural look and playing men for fools with sung promises and teases of sexual liberation to give a damn.

So why the wordless initial reaction? I doubt it was the lack of narrative coherency because Godard has not had any since Breathless and even that is debatable. Also, I think it fits with the idea that the youth are more disconnected to society and to each other than the previous generation. For example, Madeline sings a love song that has charted in Japan, which makes her produce more singles about love. Yet, she rejects love by not fully giving her attention to Paul. Love is a commodity not a feeling.

Upon my second viewing of the film, I felt a little less shell-shocked but I still find it disconcerting. Perhaps I am just disappointed that the image of women as self-absorbed entities has not changed. In fact, it has been magnified and celebrated.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Story of Adele H.

Just like Adele refusing to believe that Albert no longer loves her in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H, I refuse to believe that Truffaut betrayed the principles that he outlined in his famous essay “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema”. Though based on the true story of Victor Hugo’s daughter Adele, this film initially looks like a generic period Gothic romance. A young, beautiful, but naïve girl arriving to a new place on a dark, stormy night. Check. A love seemingly torn apart due to class distinction. Check. Love turning into obsession. Check. Fabulous period costumes. Check. Haunting visions. Check. Even the way Truffaut shot the film does not look innovative. The juxtapositions of Adele tossing and turning in her bed with the image of water look trite in color. But the Truffaut lover in me wants to believe that the utter triteness of this film was Truffaut’s intention. I want to believe that he was still mocking Bost and Aurenche by creating a film that they would have written to adapt Adele Hugo’s story into an over-the-top Gothic romance novel. He even has Adele saying, “I think marriage is degrading for women.” Granted, she was lying but the line shows how those Gothic romances make marriage the ultimate goal for the heroine pathetically futile. Honestly, there were moments I felt like I was watching Wuthering Heights as Adele pathetically begs Albert to love her or marry her and eventually becomes mentally unstable because of her obsession.

However, the more I reflected on the film, the more I realized that perhaps Truffaut is making a statement about historical fiction. The term “historical fiction” is often used for books that use historical events as the prominent background to tell a story, typically a romantic one (i.e. The Other Boleyn Girl). Although the Civil War is mentioned very briefly in the beginning, it serves only as a reason for Albert and Adele to be torn apart. But what about personal history, or what we normally refer to as our autobiography? Throughout the film, we see Adele writing fiction in letters to her father and a history of her feelings in her journal. Yet, even though she may be recording the truth, she lies to herself about the reality of her situation. So, in some respects, this film is like Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad in terms of its exploration of memory and truth, so Truffaut has not completely lost touch with French New Wave’s goal of using film as an exploration of human nature not just as a means of entertainment. I might be reaching here, but like I said in the beginning, I am like Adele desperately clinging to Truffaut as the founder of the French New Wave not the director of this commercial fare.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cleo from 5 to 7 and Le Bonheur

The two Agnes Varda films that we saw offer an insightful look of the common dualities of the female image: girl/woman and Madonna/whore. In Cleo from 5 to 7 depicts a young woman waiting for her results to see if she has stomach cancer. In the beginning of the film, she looks and acts like a girl trapped in a woman’s body with her polka-dot dress and her poufy hair. However, she starts to transition from girl to woman in her apartment. She is dressed in a silk robe, which I can imagine to be pink, which a feathery collar while performing childlike exercises like hanging on the monkey bars and swinging while surrounded by kittens. When her composer and her lyricist visit her, the first couple of songs sound very childish, a girl pretending to be a woman, with titles like “Jouer”, which means to play. When she starts singing “Cry of Love”, she continues to sing it like she is pretending to perform in a concert hall. But halfway through the song, the words seem to hit home and she sings it as an expression of her feelings. Once she removes her poodle-like hairpiece in a fit of hysterics and puts on a black dress, she looks like a grown woman ready to accept her fate.

In Le Bonheur, Varda forces the viewer to reexamine the Madonna/whore complex given to all women. Women either fit in one category or another. In films, this dynamic is clear by having the two women contrast each other, usually blond versus brunette, city versus country, poor versus rich, with the mistress typically labeled the whore. Varda demystifies this concept by casting two similar looking actresses to play the devoted wife and the mistress. Oftentimes, they dressed similarly in flower-printed dresses symbolizing their life-giving presence they give to François. And up to the wife’s death, both women appear to have the same easygoing temperament. With the wife’s death, Varda recalls the F.W Murnau film Sunrise with the wife drowning. Although the mistress did not want the wife to die as the woman from the city wanted the wife to die in that film, by recalling the images of Sunrise, Varda seems to show a progression from clearly distinct Madonna/whore shown in that film to the seamless transition of the mistress to wife suggesting a world where women on film cannot be clearly defined by those labels.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Like A Woman is a Woman, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg also deals with the subject of babies in an adapted musical format. This time, the baby is the illegitimate child of Geneviève and Guy, two young lovers torn apart by the Algerian War. Unlike A Woman is a Woman, this film is entirely sung like an opera. However, at certain moments of the film, such as Geneviève and her mother discussing their financial situation, the music does not coincide with the emotion.

As I have stated before, I love musicals. One reason I love them is the fantasy of romance that I know does not exist in real life but cannot help wishing that it could. One way musicals conveys that fantasy is the lovers’ duet where they declare the eternal love for each other. However, I found the lovers’ duet in this film to be overly cloying with the overabundance of “Je t’aime” and “Je meurs”/”Je mourrai” (I forgot which tense she sang “I die” she used) and I thought I had a high tolerance for dramatic expressions of love through song since my favorite lovers’ duets range from “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” from Roger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, “All I Ask of You” from Phantom of the Opera, and “Last Night of the World” from Miss Saigon. Even if I can excuse it as an expression of young love where those emotions are extremely heightened, I was annoyed by it due to the high pitch. I guess I just predicted that they will see each other again and that they will be happily reunited. War cannot stop the path of true love. Nor could Geneviève’s mother no matter if she is dressed in a black dress with a pink shawl while Roland dressed in black and Geneviève dressed in pink to pointedly hint that those two belong together in musical love harmony.

Of course I guessed wrong as they do not end up together. Yet they seem happy with the life they have without each other. Usually when the couple does not end up together, someone ends up miserable pining away as is the case in Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg shows that love and life go on whatever tune you choose to sing.

A Woman Is A Woman

For Jean-Luc Godard, the beginning of a musical number is more important than the actual song. Or at least it seems that way in A Woman is a Woman. The film seems to be composed of a series of introductions to a musical number as the music starts and stops while someone speaks. The only scene that features anyone singing is when Angela performs her song at the club. What I noticed is that despite Godard’s attempts to call attention to the cinematic techniques during that scene, I found “Chanson d’Angela” filmed simply with its close-ups and filters for a song that celebrates the beauty of being her. Perhaps I am accustomed to the visual gymnastics of West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty” or Flower Drum Song’s “I Enjoy Being A Girl" where the female runs around or admires her images in the mirror joyously in wide shots in Technicolor/Cinemascope. However, Angela’s performance like Cleo in Cleo from 5 to 7 and Catherine in Jules and Jim shows a certain self-awareness that perhaps Godard (and perhaps Varda and Truffaut) felt was missing from filming a woman singing about herself.

However, Godard does allude to the fantasy dance sequence normally featured in a musical. Normally, one person sings about an unrequited love and then comes the instrumental break where the two lovers are dancing on an obvious set. This scene occurs when Angela and Émile are walking around each other in the apartment without speaking to each other. At that point, Émile still has not given her want she wants, a baby. However, Alfred seems to love her more than Émile which he shows by playing a song for her from a jukebox. Here again, Godard twists a musical convention, the male singing his devotion for the woman he loves. But instead of Alfred singing, he chooses Charles Aznavour do it for him through a jukebox. As we hear Aznavour singing “Tu T’lassies Aller,” we see a series of close-ups of Angela reacting to the song. However, this scene could also be Godard’s love letter to Anna Karina forever preserved in film.

As a fan of musicals, I appreciate Godard’s take on the superficial nature of musicals but I still love them for its superficiality.

Les Carabiniers

I will admit that I held off writing about Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers because I had hoped to write a better blog entry for the film beside this:

Never has a film made me question my will to live just to end my misery of watching 80 minutes of two idiots acting like assholes. I apologize for the strong language but I cannot help it. I do not know if I am suffering from Godard fatigue but I am tired of the image obsession. That postcard sequence went way too long to emphasize the point of our consumption of images. I am also tired of watching women being humiliated on screen. I know that soldiers taking advantage of women in the areas they occupied often happened. But I was not in the mood to see one treat a woman like a horse. And frankly for a Godard film, it was visually unappealing because the scenes looked muddy. But then again, I believe that this was one of the few films we have seen that was not a Criterion Collection DVD.

I almost skipped blogging about this film but I feel compelled to write about it. I thought that maybe my fatigue did not have to do with Godard but with the election. When I first saw this film, we were a few days away from the election and I did not need a Godard film to tell me the importance of images as I watch pundits discuss the Tina Fey effect on Sarah Palin and images of William Ayers as they discuss Barack Obama.

Also, I did not need what I would like to call “a rose by any other name” sequence when Cleopatra holds up a postcard of Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and declares that Elizabeth Taylor’s image needs a new name to remind me that women on screen are just interchangeable images. I have Paris Hilton’s My New BFF for that. Paris has a bunch of young women humiliating themselves on national television to fit into her image of a best friend. The name of the “winner” does not matter as long as she basically says yes to whatever Paris wants her to do in order to help Paris maintain her image as a talentless spoiled heiress.

(And now imagine me weeping in my disbelief of making Paris Hilton somewhat relevant in my academic life.)

So I attempted to watch this film again because I thought I had put enough visual distance between my initial viewing experience and my new one. However, I could not make through the first five minutes. I guess the image of my first experience is stuck to my memory.

Vivre sa vie

I am always fascinated by how foreign film titles are translated. In this case, Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie’s English title is My Life to Live. This title seems to command an exclamation point at the end and someone pumping their fist and standing on a soapbox to convey a sense of ownership. For Godard, this version of the title reflects more his filmmaking philosophy rather than the content of the film that it should be MY FILM TO FILM!. He choose unconventional shots such as shooting the back of people’s heads and panning back and forth when people are having a conversation instead of the conventional shot/reverse shot method. Each scene has a different style ranging from an instructional video style as Nana learns how to be a prostitute to using text and voiceovers in the last scene as a young man reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” to Nana.

However, a literal English translation of the title, To Live Her Life, reflects more of the content of the film. That title does not pass judgment on Nana like My Life to Live which initially makes me think that she will somehow be a bratty prostitute. Instead, the literal translation elicits my empathy for her. I am simply observing a young woman drifting into prostitution to make ends meet. We may not always have an audience with a philosopher but we do agonize about our words whether we are texting, blogging, speaking, or writing. And we also could die at any moment no matter if we have sex with strangers for money or philosophize on the purpose of language. I could be her and she could be me.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Last Year at Marienbad

Watching Last Year at Marienbad is like trying to figure out how to win the game that M always wins. Alain Resnais’s film takes away linear storytelling, conventional editing, character names, and our sense of fictional/reality in the world of the film. As frustrating as it is to watch and keep track of everything, I cannot stop playing the game. I cannot stop myself from trying to decipher the memory from the reality. Nor can I stop myself from appreciating the way Resnais offers the variety of ways of showing memory.

Sometimes we remember events in bright spurts like in the bar scene as A “remembers” a moment that has been whitewashed in her mind. Even though flashing scenes as a person suddenly remembers is a convention of modern filmmaking, the high contrast between the black “real” world and the white “memory” world feels innovative. But sometimes we remember by repetition. As Resnais illustrates in the scene in which X tells A when they were in the bedroom yet showing them outside, if we repeatedly remember the wrong thing, then we have created a false memory that does not reflect what truly happened. Sometimes we recall moments in our lives as a performance as the opening scene demonstrates. People play their roles in our lives though sometimes we do not accurately remember what their roles were in reality. M starts off as a random hotel guest but as the film progresses he becomes A’s husband.

So what really happened to X and A? Are they even real people or a figment of someone's imagination? Even trying to watch the film a second time, I did not win. Resnais always wins by showing us how we play with our own minds to remember what we want to remember.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Girl Cut in Two

What made Claude Chabrol’s latest film, A Girl Cut in Two, interesting for me is the number of references to his earlier work, Les Cousins. The names of the two male characters are Paul and Charles. Paul in A Girl Cut in Two has Les Cousins’s Paul’s reckless decadence but has Les Cousins’s Charles’s melodramatic sense of romance. Paul immediately falls in love with Gabrielle but unlike Les Cousins’s Charles, he easily (and sometimes frighteningly) expresses his feelings for her. Charles in A Girl Cut in Two has Les Cousins’s Paul’s ambivalent attitude toward his romantic partners. Like Charles in Les Cousins, Charles in this film dies from a gunshot from Paul. In both films we see Paul pointing the empty gun at someone. In Les Cousins, Paul jokingly aims the gun at Charles to wake him up from his sleep. In A Girl Cut in Two, Paul aims the gun at Gabrielle to scare her into forgetting Charles. These foreshadowing scenes fit the nature of both Charles’s death. In Les Cousins, Paul, unaware that Charles had loaded the gun with a single bullet, accidentally kills Charles while imitating a guest shooting the gun. In A Girl Cut in Two, Paul shoots Charles in the middle of a charity banquet telling everyone that Charles corrupted his wife. The difference between Paul and Charles in Les Cousins and Paul and Charles in A Girl Cut in Two is that the Les Cousins pair has a clear good and bad person. While Chabrol mocks Charles’s country ways, we know that we are supposed to see him as a good person. The A Girl Cut in Two pair lacks that distinction. Both are depicted as flawed people who are accepted for their flaws.

The women in both films are convinced by the men to be more sexually liberal. In Les Cousins, Florence decides that she wants to be with Charles living the idyllic domestic life. However, Paul and Clovis talk her out of it claiming that Charles could never sexually satisfy her the way Paul could. In A Girl Cut in Two, Charles convinces Gabrielle to sleep with his friends while he watches. Oddly, we do not see these scenes in A Girl Cut in Two yet we get them in Les Cousins. In Les Cousins, we see the overhead shot of Florence sitting in a chair as Paul and Clovis circle around her as they tell her that she could never be Charles’s ideal domesticated woman. We see Clovis pushing Paul onto Florence saying “You like his touch” and watching them kiss. In A Girl Cut in Two, we only see them go into the club and up the stairs. Charles introduces Gabrielle to his friends but does not explicitly state why they are there. We only learn about their deal through the dialogue between Gabrielle and Paul.

So why cut those scenes in this film and not in Les Cousins? I can imagine Gabrielle’s first experience at the club to be shot similarly to that scene in Les Cousins with Charles standing in for Clovis and his friend standing in for Paul. Perhaps a scene like that would have made identifying Gabrielle as an innocent victim too easy. In Les Cousins, Florence seems to have the same sexually ambivalent attitude as Paul and Clovis thus allowing Chabrol to maintain the distance between the characters and the viewer. If that scene played out in A Girl Cut in Two, we would see her complicity as a result of Charles’s pressure. With Florence, we would think that she would have slept with Paul anyway. By leaving those scenes out of A Girl Cut in Two, we could entertain the idea that Gabrielle might be more sexually liberal than she appeared.

Is A Girl Cut in Two supposed to be the modern Les Cousins? If it is, then Chabrol might be saying with this film, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hiroshima Mon Amour

In watching Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour in class, I could not help trying to remember my first viewing experience with it. I had rented it at’s suggestion because I own Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a film about an affair between two married people in 1960s Hong Kong. I remember that Hiroshima, Mon Amour is the story of a French woman and a Japanese man having a brief affair in Hiroshima, Japan. I also remember the French woman telling the Japanese man about her affair with a German soldier. But I forgot the sudden, sharp emotional outbursts by the French woman as she starts to juxtapose the Japanese man with her deceased German lover. My forgetting of her outbursts made that part of the film feel like my first time seeing it allowing me to have the visceral reaction of wanting to give her a Xanax or Prozac. If I had remembered her outbursts, I might have felt a little more sympathetic. She is recalling a personal traumatic experience for the first time. She forgot how truly traumatic it was to lose her German lover and to suffer the consequences. The fact that Germany and Japan were allies in World War II obviously facilitated the juxtaposition of the two men. In her forgetting the trauma, she could only react with abrupt emotions because it feels like she is experiencing the trauma for the first time.

As I mentioned before, I saw this film because I love In the Mood for Love but Hiroshima, Mon Amour seems more like Wong Kar Wai’s 2046 in its treatment of place and the past. In 2046, Chow Mo-wan is pre-occupied by the memory of his past affair with Su Li-zhen. 2046 is Chow’s Nevers because it is the hotel room number where they would meet to write a martial arts novel. Unlike the French woman, Chow revisits the past often through his novels in which his main character goes to a place called 2046 to recover the past. As Hiroshima is a place of a significant historical event, 2046 is also the last year that Hong Kong will be free of China’s interference in their economy and politics. In Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Hiroshima serves as a background to highlight consequences of remembering and forgetting trauma. In 2046, the year serves as a subtext for inability to move on as Chow cannot move on from his past affair despite having multiple lovers. Also, Chow has a similar scene in which he recounts his affair to someone. In his case, the woman has the same name, so he tries to recreate the feelings he had for Su with this woman. In comparing the two films, I can see how influential Hiroshima, Mon Amour is in its portrayal of remembering.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Bob Le Flambeur

When I hear a film described as a “comedy of manners,” I expect to see characters dressed in 19th century garb spouting the ironic words by novelists such as Jane Austen to show the ridiculousness of “acceptable” manners of a particular class, typically the upper class. Yet, Jean-Paul Melville uses that phrase to describe Bob le Flambeur, a heist film. Bob represents the upper class of criminals who gambles and robs institutions like banks and casinos. Unlike the upper classes in Jane Austen’s novels, Bob’s manners seem to be commendable. For example, he refuses to help out a pimp who beats up prostitutes. He saves a police officer’s life and provides shelter for a woman even though she revealed his heist to a rival. Yet, the subtitles show that he speaks in colloquialisms that are often found in the gangster films such as “clams” for dollars. So, while appearing to be a gentleman, Bob does not speak like one.

As a “comedy of manners” shows the consequences of adhering or defying conventions, Bob le Flambeur defies the most important convention of a heist film, the successful execution of the heist. Despite adhering to the planning and rehearsing conventions of a heist film, Melville seems to do so sarcastically. For example, he has the tension-filled safecracking rehearsal that depends on the oscilloscope to find the right combination. Yet, he includes shots of the panting dog which one would assume that somehow the panting will throw off the oscilloscope. Instead, the dog happily pants taking away the seriousness of the rehearsal.

Since Bob took the money from the casino in the acceptable manner by winning, Melville must have thought Bob would have been rude if he executed the heist. Why do something dishonestly when you are succeeding in doing it honestly? But then Melville would have been rude to us if he did not give Bob some consolation from the cop because he made us sympathetic towards Bob.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


People often say that they had their breath taken away the moment they laid their eyes on the person that they are in love with. Patricia in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless waits for this moment to come to her. She often questions her feelings toward the gangster Michel throughout the film. She tells him that she wants him to love her the way that Romeo loves Juliet. But at the same time she fears that kind of love. Michel tries but ultimately fails to convince Patricia leading her to betray him in the end. Like Romeo, Michel often declares that he cannot live without her. However, she tells him that she believes that he can. Fueling that belief is his constant pleas to have sex with her that usually follows. She can only believe that he cannot live without sex from her.

Just as Romeo describes Juliet’s beauty, Michel also describes Patricia’s beauty. However, he does not do this when Patricia asks him to say something nice to her as she leans against the window with sunlight behind her, a perfect film setting for a romantic moment. Instead, he does it in a car before he drops her off to see a journalist. Yet, the editing betrays the romanticism of the description of her lovely body parts by only presenting Patricia in a series of jump cuts while we hear his sentiments off-screen. The jump cuts and the shots of Patricia in profile or from behind make Michel’s comments sound tedious and insincere to Patricia. In the following scene, the journalist seems to double for Michel as he is presented in a series of jump cuts as he tells Patricia a story about a girl he thought he wanted to have sex with.

Michel also fails to make Patricia breathless when she stands in a Juliet-like pose on the second floor of a hideout. She probably expects him to tell her again that he cannot live without her or that he will say something nice to her. But he does not and chooses to make a phone call which prompts her to inform the police of his whereabouts thus failing to play Michel’s version of Juliet. Earlier in the film, Michel tells her a story about a man who stole five million francs to impress a girl. When the man told the girl that the money was stolen, she stood by him eventually joining him as his lookout, “a good girl” according to Michel. By telling this story to Patricia, he hopes that Patricia would do the same. Unlike Juliet, Patricia does not make any sacrifice and steely concludes that she does not love Michel. Michel, in turn, performs a Romeo-like sacrifice and decides to go to prison but dies instead. Yet, as mentioned in class, Michel’s death stems most likely from fulfilling the gangster genre convention instead out of love for Patricia. As for Patricia, she does not die like Juliet but does become a victim of misunderstanding. When she asks the police officers to interpret Michel’s dying words, they tell her that he said that she was a scumbag instead of telling her the truth. The last frame suggests that she has found her breathless moment not caused from any feeling of love but from shock of being unloved.