Monday, October 30, 2017

#612: Boudu Saved from Drowning

Directed by: JEAN RENOIR
1932, TSPDT Rank #555

Boudu Saved from Drowning, one of Jean Renoir's early sound films, shows the master French director at his most anarchic. He is aided in his all-out skewering of 1930s French bourgeoisie by Michel Simon, the larger than life actor who most modern cinephiles will know best as Père Jules in Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, as well as the humiliated painter Maurice Legrand in Renoir's second sound film, La chienne. In this film, Simon is Boudu, a shambling wreck of a tramp who is rescued from attempted suicide by a middle-class bookseller named named Lestingois. But instead of being grateful to his savior and benefactor, Boudu scorns Lestingois' condescending hospitality and wreaks havoc upon his home in a satirical farce which leaves none of its characters unscathed.

A notoriously difficult actor to work with, Simon once stated that Renoir was one of only three directors that understood him (the other two being Jean Vigo and Sacha Guitry). Boudu was clearly an equal collaboration between the two - Simon created the singular title character (with large doses of inspiration taken from his own personality) and Renoir contributed the poetic visuals and light narrative flow, which dull the edges of the film's razor-sharp satire somewhat... at least for modern audiences. Contemporary French audiences were less subdued by the finer points of Renoir's craft, becoming so scandalized by Boudu's complete disregard for bourgeois order that the police were called in to shut the film down within three days of its premiere.

While Boudu may have lost the incendiary power that it once had, it still gives viewers today a unique glimpse of Michel Simon firing on all cylinders and Jean Renoir beginning to demonstrate his mastery within the sound medium. It's a buoyant and enjoyable film, even if Renoir doesn't give us any easy answers about the characters and their moral standing - instead rendering conventional morality meaningless and encouraging us as viewers to find our way without it.

#611: East of Eden

Directed by: ELIA KAZAN
1955, TSPDT Rank #544

East of Eden is an ambitious Hollywood adaptation of John Steinbeck's career-defining novel about a conflict between fathers and sons which unfolds across multiple generations. Elia Kazan's film adaptation only tackles roughly the final third of the novel, which diminishes the story's scope but allows Kazan to evoke a melodramatic effect out of some of the novel's more minute details instead of attempting to capture the entire narrative arc of Steinbeck's novel. However, the introduction of James Dean in his first starring role has made this film almost as legendary as the novel.

Dean is extremely expressive throughout the film, both physically and emotionally, becoming a sort of walking id exploding into the often predictable world of 1950s Hollywood. Most people who comment on this film see Dean's presence in the film as being overpowering and out of control. But his performance can also be seen as the cinematic equivalent of Elvis Presley's infamous performance on The Ed Sullivan Show - an uninhibited and infectious clarion call signaling the dawning of a new era. Without him, the film might have risked becoming an above-average melodrama with a cast of well-trained actors, but with Dean in the lead role, it became a flawed but powerful suggestion of what screen acting could be. He brought submerged feelings to the surface and used Hollywood sets as a platform for the exorcism of personal demons. It's a startling performance, but one which rings true nevertheless. Dean would refine his abilities in his next two films (Rebel Without a Cause and Giant), but East of Eden allows viewers today to see the raw, unpolished potential that he exhibited in his first major film role.

Monday, October 23, 2017

#610: Pépé le moko

Directed by: JEAN DUVIVIER
1937, TSPDT Rank #990

Pépé le moko is probably one of the most influential films of the 1930s. In Hollywood, it inspired a shot-by-shot remake called Algiers, which starred Charles Boyer in the iconic role played here by Jean Gabin, as well as Hedy Lamarr in a star-making role. Years later, Warner Bros. adapted the story yet again into the screenplay that became Casablanca - one of the most famous romantic films of all time. But Pépé le moko's influence extends far beyond these obvious remakes, as it helped to create the distinctive style which would later be adapted by Hollywood and eventually become known as film noir. The ominous use of light and shadow, the colorful cast of low-lifes, the cynical slang language, and the world-weary criminal who finds his downfall in a romance with an unattainable woman - all of these elements would become familiar features of many a film noir, but they were first crystallized here.

Of course, this is also the film that secured Jean Gabin's status as the foremost icon of prewar French cinema. As Pépé, he is both stylish and brutish, witty and cruel, usually unsentimental but hopelessly nostalgic for earlier days in the streets of Paris. His performance is both simple and evocative - a template for many similar characters in countless later films. It's also a timeless portrayal of French ideals of masculinity and romance, which ironically became essential American values in the films noirs of the 1940s and '50s. So while Pépé le moko may not be the artistic equal of other French films of the era by the likes of Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné, it may be more culturally significant than any of those films, as the film which simultaneously defines both prewar French cinema and the roots of Hollywood film noir.

#609: Accattone

1961, TSPDT Rank #540

Accattone - a born thief and a reluctant pimp - is the low-life character who provides the focus for Pier Paolo Pasolini's bold debut feature as a director. Right out of the gates Pasolini's directorial vision was one of unvarnished beauty and originality. He alternates sweeping panoramic shots of his characters alone in a variety of wide open spaces (city streets, barren fields, courtyards) with closer handheld shots of the characters walking together. The style is striking and poetic, elevating a story would seem to be prime neorealist material into something that's closer to baroque tragedy (aided by the melancholy strains of Bach throughout the film).

Pasolini's affection for characters living on the margins of society is apparent here - as the film progresses we begin to feel a strange sort of detached sympathy for Accattone, a character that steals from the helpless (including his young son), cheats his low-life friends, and exploits a small number of helpless women in order to eat. Our sympathy for Accattone is seemingly derived from his inevitable downfall (which a group of his so-called friends constantly predicts in the manner of a Greek chorus) and the debilitating pangs of conscience which haunt him. In Pasolini's hands, he is almost a martyred figure - someone who will never be able to fit into society, his own vision of a good life, or be worthy of a place in heaven. This hard-edged outlook on modern life is tempered by Pasolini's love of classical form and style, resulting in a film which may have been born from the ashes of neorealism, but which ended up signaling the emergence of a new kind of Italian cinema.