Palatable: Fort Saganne

Fort Saganne (1984)
Directed by Alain Corneau
Written by Louis Gardel, Henri de Turenne, Alain Corneau
Produced by Samuel Bronston, Albina du Boisrouvray
Starring Gérard Depardieu, Philippe Noiret, Roger Dumas, Michel Duchaussoy, Sophie Marceau, Catherine Deneuve, Saïd Amadis, Jean-Louis Richard
Essentially the French answer to Lean’s Lawrence, this handsomely staged and shot enactment of Louis Gardel’s novel narrates the military ascent of a peasant Legionnaire (Depardieu) whose valorous feats in the Saharan front secure regional French imperium and his reputation as a prominent jefe. His personal life’s ironically more troublous: tragedy eventuates from a strained fraternity, and his affections are divided for a politician’s spoilt and sour daughter (Marceau) and an alluring journalist (Deneuve). Depardieu’s larger than life, exuding stoic heart and heroism as the dauntless officer, which is just as well: his is the only character who’s adequately defined. Corneau accurately conveys France’s prewar zeitgeist, but wastes his stars (especially Deneuve) by pretermitting most character development in favor of decidedly shallow relationships. Philippe Sarde’s typically fine score is also mawkishly overused in ably realized yet musically overheated combat scenes that can’t compare to those unforgettably silent, such as an Arab warrior’s (Amadis) grisly amputation, or a lovesick valediction where Depardieu and Deneuve communicate more with a few expressions than the totality of their discourse. Ultimately, Saganne‘s as unsatisfying as photogenic, but its conclusion’s so poignant and production’s so immersive that less discriminating or demanding aesthetes may not have cause to care.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Lawrence of Arabia.

Favorites: Mauvais Sang

Mauvais Sang (1986)
Directed and written by Leos Carax
Produced by Denis Chateau, Philippe Diaz, Alain Dahan
Starring Denis Lavant, Juliette Binoche, Michel Piccoli, Hans Meyer, Julie Delpy, Carroll Brooks
Verbally and visually, Carax’s sophomore feature film is among the most beautiful yet produced, a tragic masterwork comprehending the auteur’s conceptions of impassioned folly personified by a brilliant cast and exquisite composition conveyed via Jean-Yves Escoffier’s photography of supreme resolution and bursting chromatic vibrancy. Exorbitantly indebted to a crime boss (Brooks), a career criminal reduced to recreance (Piccoli) and a natty former physician (Meyer) contrive to filch from the French branch of an American pharmaceutical multinational their culture of a lethal virus afflicting loveless coital partners with debilitating symptoms akin to those of AIDS, so to sell it to a rival firm. To circumvent the target corporation’s security measures, they enlist the abetment of a late accomplice’s son (Lavant), an alacritously adroit conman who exploits this engagement to desert his devoted dulcinea (Delpy), only to stumble into true love with his lesser employer’s lovely, kindly girlfriend (Binoche, as much a jewel of fragile pulchritude in her youth as she’s remained in middle age). This premise constitutes the plot’s nigh-entirety, but that vaccinal culture’s a mere MacGuffin of thematic accordance impelling characters yet never diverting Carax’s audience from so many crucial cesuras of ardent silence portending grief, disconcertion and adoration too infrequently depicted in cinema. Lavant’s withy, vital yet crude physicality artfully belies his recidivist’s romantic heart, betrayed by stirring soliloquies and the music of Prokofiev, Britten, Bowie and Chaplin to signify inexpressibly perfervid amatory swells. Not a frame of this picture isn’t gorgeously shot to beautify its localities and plurality of slickly executed devices: staggering smash cuts, decelerated and accelerated shots, momentary morsels of reverse footage, focal variance, an aerial stunt as flurrying as any from a Bond flick, and striking close-ups of shoelaces, tissues, telephones, elevator numerals, nimbly shuffled playing cards and every expressive physiognomy of its photogenic players. Curiously, many of of Carax’s early exponents derided and dismissed this love letter to the evanescent New Wave as a glossy pastiche of those most experimental styles prosecuted by its ornaments during that summit, disregarding that Godard’s contemporaneous output hadn’t a smidgen of the ambition evinced here. Nathless, Carax tantalizes eyes and emotions only to emphasize the fruitless fervor of unrequited love, caprices of which illustrate how those most indomitable obstacles crumble before obstinacy, terror neutralizes affection, inhibition relents before infatuation, and all probity is voided by these passions.

Execrable: Tragic Ceremony

Tragic Ceremony (1972)
Directed by Riccardo Freda
Written by Mario Bianchi, José Gutiérrez Maesso, Leonardo Martín
Produced by José Gutiérrez Maesso
Starring Camille Keaton, Tony Isbert, Máximo Valverde, Luigi Pistilli, Luciana Paluzzi, Irina Demick, José Calvo, Giovanni Petrucci
Veteran genre director Freda despised the incumbrance of helming this dismal, fifth-rate horror trash as much as any sensible audience would its screening. Four vacationing layabouts seek shelter from a shopworn nocturnal downpour at a patrician’s estate, where one of them (Keaton) is rescued by her companions from a ritual sacrifice during the householder’s black mass, after which its participants inexplicably massacre one another. The quartet’s escape can’t shake a possessive malediction that ensures their doom and any viewer’s supreme boredom. Shoddily shot by a filmmaker who didn’t care to and starring a photogenic cast who apply their minimal effort, this poky, pontifical pablum wallows in stark illogic its every minute with a plot distinguished primarily by its innumerable holes and asinine circuity, and plentiful vacuous prattle that only substantiates the protagonists’ niggling idiocy. Keaton and Paluzzi were seldom so ravishing before or since, but they’re squandered in prototypic capacities as Haunted Victim and Preternatural Malfeasant, respectively. Even Stelvio Cipriani’s soppy score and Carlo Rambaldi’s amateurish effects are among the worst of their otherwise brilliant careers. This picture’s a choice selection for amateur riffing, but represents a glaring nadir for all involved…and none so much as the genre of gothic horror.

Palatable: Eastern Boys

Eastern Boys (2013)
Directed by Robin Campillo
Written by Robin Campillo, Gilles Marchand
Produced by Hugues Charbonneau, Marie-Ange Luciani
Starring Olivier Rabourdin, Kirill Emelyanov, Daniil Vorobyov, Edéa Darcque, Camila Chakirova, Bislan Yakhiaev, Mohamed Doukouzov
Panic proceeding from domestic entrenchment, lingering postwar trauma, universal commonalities of exploitation and predation, and the cultural and economic gulf between eastern Europe and the continent’s central and western nations are dramatized in this handsome quadripartite tale of a lonely, middle-aged professional (Rabourdin) who solicits a cute Ukranian rent boy (Emelyanov) in the concourse of a train station, unwittingly inviting to his plush Parisian apartment a thievish East bloc gang with whom he’s affiliated. Accomplished screenwriter and sophomore filmmaker Campillo effectuates his polythematic ambitions with smoothly unhurried pans and distanced static shots, attractive photography and a select cast unburdened by reductive or fanciful characterization; Vorobyov is especially notable as the gang’s bellicose, creepily domineering chief. By neither demonizing nor heroizing immigrant characters whose motivations are often as inexplicit as his own delicately presented themes, Campillo stresses both the flukes and crises potential to illegal migration, as well as the eventuality of an affectionate and enduring relationship that could arise from an especially ignoble and inauspicious introduction.

Favorites: The Last Mistress

The Last Mistress (2007)
Directed by Catherine Breillat
Written by Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly, Catherine Breillat
Produced by Jean-François Lepetit
Starring Fu’ad Aït Aattou, Asia Argento, Claude Sarraute, Roxane Mesquida, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale
A decade of shared lubricity, adoration, hardship and heartbreak bind the fates and souls of a sullenly sensual Spanish peeress (Argento) and her roué (Aattou) of passion matched who first spurns, then aggressively courts her before braving death by duel with her elderly English husband to win her hand and heart. Rived by tragedy and accompanying acrimony, their ardency seems stinted well ere his betrothal to a pristine, virtuous yet insipid noblewoman (Mesquida) with whom his devotion is reciprocal, but this renewal may not long survive a quiescent warmth for or the resolution of the foxy virago he thought he’d forsaken. Rococo costumery, hairstyling and Parisian venues of Breillat’s greatest critical and commercial success prove vivid 19th-century accoutrements to complement emotive niceties and incandescence educed from familiar players. As often before and since, she inspires treasures in redoubtable veterans and relative neophytes (as Mesquida, her most frequent favored actress) alike, but under her command, Argento’s coruscation as the fast and fickle noblewoman nearly eclipses her co-stars, consummating what may prove the role of her career — a fantastic feat that she’d never achieve under her father’s baton. One of d’Aurevilly’s most cunning ironies resides in the observations of an aged countess (Moreau) and her blasé husband (Lonsdale) who’ve acquaintance with all concerned, and whose tendencious adjudgements are more objective than any others pondered herein. Less ironic is Breillat’s sympathy for d’Aurevilly’s novel; echoing the precedent Prévost, his fascination with the full purview of a patrician woman’s pull and power in a predominately masculine society to verify the fugacity of fidelity and love’s endurance was undoubtedly irresistible to the finest living (if yet unacknowledged) feminist filmmaker.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Barry Lyndon.

Execrable: Hugo Pool

Hugo Pool (1997)
Directed by Robert Downey Sr.
Written by Robert Downey Sr., Laura Ernst
Produced by Barbara Ligeti, Douglas Berquist, Ralph Cooper, Michael Frislev, Iren Koster, Lawrence Steven Meyers, Chad Oakes
Starring Alyssa Milano, Patrick Dempsey, Cathy Moriarty, Malcolm McDowell, Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr., Richard Lewis
Parallel to the majority of works generated in nearly any other medium, most cinematic endeavors are terrible, commonly created and produced by corporate studios, ambitious peripheral firms and independent upstarts in dizzying haste without cogitation or scrutiny of the sort that any development of quality art or entertainment demands. Their successes largely incident to operative distribution targeting reliable demographics, most of these pictures are soon forgotten, if at all seen. A relative few implode with spectacularity sufficient to prompt avowals of their inferiority from even the most venal mainstream critics. Adequately overproduced and geared to satisfy the saccharine proletarian palate, a greater modicum receive amplified acclamation and accolades to the repugnance of legitimate cineastes. Only once or twice each decade does a filmmaker of a developed nation produce a movie of such staggering, singular and unaccountable flagrance that it prepossesses intellect and esthesia alike with all the fascination of a true phenomenon. Downey scripted his penultimate picture with spouse Laura Ernst to raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but it’s so astonishingly abominable that audiences are more likely to contemplate how a director (whose few hits are more attributable to opportunism than talent) could contrive anything so abysmal than the malady itself. Players of proven proficiency are invariably degraded when interpreting Downey’s outlandishly tacky screenplay at his awkward direction: salaciously ogled by Downey’s camera in a movie dedicated to his dead wife, Milano crankily overacts her every line, sauntering with a gait reminiscent of Daffy Duck’s as a diabetic pool cleaner who’s nearly as irritating as her parents: a whorish gambling addict (Moriarty) and recovering junkie (McDowell, wretchedly impersonating Jimmy Durante) who blathers irksome slogans. The latter’s paired with an effeminate, autistic half-wit (Penn, still addled) appareled in girls’ pumps to their mutual captivation. Gaunt in the throes of heroin addiction before his father’s camera, Junior’s not a jot more tolerable than his co-stars as a flamboyant eurotrash feature director. Dempsey shouldn’t be so miffing as a wealthy playboy immobilized by ALS, but Downey resolves that improbability with overabundant close-ups of his stupid grin. Whenever hope seems to renew during a span of silence, it’s neutralized by goggling Lewis, ineptly mimicking Al Pacino as a mob boss. How did a man whose experience as a director of major motion pictures exceeding forty years shoot something so amateurishly? Sloppy wide shots and close-ups rotate jarringly, a merciful scarcity of pans are clumsily implemented, and every single portrayal plays out like a failed rehearsal, struggling to coax some hint of humor from an offensively unfunny story wherein all characters are imparted quirks to no comedic result and the inertia of Gehrig’s disease is occasionally exploited for amusement, all rudely overscored by Danilo Pérez’s horribly niminy-piminy jazz and pseudo-Salsa. This is schlock of a sort one expects from a screenwriter’s directorial foray, not a pet project helmed by an industry veteran. As either a commemoration of the deceased or PSA concerning ALS, this despicably tasteless and tiresome fiasco could only arise from supreme complacence.

Palatable: Downhill Racer

Downhill Racer (1969)
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Oakley Hall, James Salter
Produced by Richard Gregson
Starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Karl Michael Vogler, Dabney Coleman, Carole Carle, Jim McMullan, Kenneth Kirk, Walter Stroud
Redford was seldom so duly cast or laconic as yet another Errant Young American Man of cinema in the Nixon era, here a blistering, arrogant skiier ascendant in European tournaments to Olympic glory. Perfectly distinctive of the New Hollywood idiom, Richie’s debut feature hazards nary a jot of sentiment, etching characterization in broad strokes without cloying contrivances. It’s also much busier than his more polished efforts: from ski slopes to hotel suites to operating theaters, Ritchie located striking perspectives wherever Salter’s script (adapted from one of Hall’s lesser-read novels) located him. Still at the threshold of his fame, Hackman’s also in fine form (withal a dyad of flubbed lines) as the requisite coach who dispenses cautionary counsel to subdue his star contender’s hubris. Fleet, fantastic footage shot at World Cup races in Lauberhorn, Arlberg-Kandahar, Megève and Hahnenkamm in early ’69 constitutes the majority of sportive action, often overshadowing intervallic drama wherein the protagonist’s ingenuous egoism isolates him from jaundiced teammates and undermines his affair with a chic, flighty continental (Sparv). American indifference to winter sports sank this exemplary treatment of the subject, but Ritchie and Redford enjoyed collaborative success a few years later with the brutally trenchant political satire, The Candidate.

Sublime: The Marquise of O

The Marquise of O (1976)
Directed by Eric Rohmer
Written by Heinrich von Kleist, Eric Rohmer
Produced by Barbet Schroeder, Klaus Hellwig
Starring Edith Clever, Bruno Ganz, Edda Seippel, Peter Lühr, Otto Sander
In retrospect, one can scarcely imagine a filmmaker more opportune an adaptor than Rohmer of Kleist’s Napoleonic novel; notwithstanding the French auteur’s precedent dedication to contemporary narrative, his deliberately austere, loquacious, novelistic and unscored style perfectly befits that gentle treatment of faltered rectitude and familial discord in a thoroughly Catholic context. In a small Italian town besieged by Russian forces, a peeraged, dashingly gallant Lieutenant-Colonel (Ganz) rescues its governor’s comely and widowed daughter (Clever) from ravishment at the hands of his juniors immediately afore his capture of the community’s citadel. Erroneous hearsay of his demise in battle succeeding an abrupt leave shock the Marquise and her family less than the count’s visitation soon thence, passionate profession of love for her or impetration for her marital hand, for which he demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice his military career and suffer court-martial. Unaccountable and symptomatic evidence of her gravidity further complicates the irreproachable lady’s dubiety regarding her suitor while straining her filial relations to sunderance; only the conciliatory force of love can absolve sudden sins commoved by supposition and sanctimony, or the irresistible impulsion of lust. Outstanding performances by this film’s famed cast invest to their every exchange a stately conviction, but many of its finest moments reside in the fleeting, unspoken idyll of children, craft and natural splendor. Paired with Néstor Almendros’s muted photography, Rohmer’s painterly composition is as kindred to neoclassical portraiture as the exceedingly elaborate pageantry of Kubrick’s coetaneous Barry Lyndon, and this lauded first and finest of his period pictures is as cosily, simply satisfying as ever: another in a string of classics from the most uncompromisingly authentic and economical of the nouvelle vague’s luminaries.

Favorites: Images

Images (1972)
Directed by Robert Altman
Written by Robert Altman, Susannah York
Produced by Tommy Thompson, Al Locatelli
Starring Susannah York, Marcel Bozzuffi, Rene Auberjonois, Cathryn Harrison, Hugh Millais
Schizoid episodes to which a children’s authoress (York) succumbs over the span of a holiday weekend vividly manifest her indignation, execration and sundered psychological dualism when progressively salacious and inimical interactions with an insufferable male trio comprising her smug, deceased lover (Bozzuffi), heedless husband (Auberjonois) and his lascivious, boorishly embittered friend (Millais) furnish insight to her frustrations and desiderata…but those veritable among them may not evince her genuine quiddity as do the fidelity of others illusory. Eschewing flashy effects for tart and urgent personations by his gifted cast and narrative legerdemain effected with adroit editing, Altman ingeniously surveys the topography of his protagonist’s immediate environs and pathology alike, exploiting the gorgeous vales, peaks, cascades and capes of Powerscourt Estate in Leinster, Ireland for a setting as alluring yet implicitly forbidding as its subject. Suspense by peradventure concerning transgressions real or delusory is elegantly sustained by a script that nimbly balances thrill and drama whilst showcasing histrionic flair to illustrate scenarios in which a woman burdened by acuity struggles to tolerate and contend with the superficiality of her relations. John Williams’ memorably minacious motifs performed on strings and piano are frequently punctuated by Tsutomu Yamashita’s cacophonous percussion in a fresh collaborative score that emphasizes without ever diverting from the picture’s proceedings. York narrates key scenes with excerpts from her debut juvenile fantasy novel In Search of Unicorns that beseem her character’s deranged transports.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.

Execrable: Doppelganger

Doppelganger (1993)
Directed and written by Avi Nesher
Produced by William Christopher Gorog, Donald P. Borchers
Starring Drew Barrymore, George Newbern, Leslie Hope, Dennis Christopher
So few good movies are conceived in a condition of indecision, and Nesher’s uncertainty of whether to produce a god-awful pastiche of either Hitchcockian thrillers or Clive Barker’s gory corporeal horrors provoked this flagrant yet funny jumble of derivation and incoordination. Equipped with genre cliches (an erratic bearing, representative music box and frequent epistaxes), lush and loony Barrymore is quartered by a doltish aspiring screenwriter (Newbern, and pardon my pleonasm) during a killing spree visibly committed by her identical double — recurrences less implausible than the residence of this uninspired simpleton and his collaborative, obnoxiously prattling ex-girlfriend (Hope) in spacious rented lodgings despite their obviously everlasting unemployment. Ungainly romantic interludes interchange with agonizing badinage between the talentless former lovers and messily predictable slaughter, and whoever’s suffered the second might hope for the third. Nesher’s direction is as maladroit as his inhumanly sloppy, stilted, schmaltzy script: dramatic tension is minimized in every shot where it should be essential, and an alarming bathos redounds from the synchrony of these ill-conceived scenes and Jan Kaczmarek’s syrupy score. Fortunately, neither a good cast nor cinematographer were squandered here: Sven Kirsten lensed this dingy production with the eye of a periscope operator, and the Wiseauan acting is roundly, discretely wooden and hammy. At the command of deft directors, Barrymore’s proven herself adequate as a leading lady, but here her only observable assets are physical, though as eye candy she’s certainly more palatable than hideous Hope or hapless Newbern, attired in a rankling, reversed baseball cap in nearly every indoor scene. So often are Barrymore’s foxy figure and physiognomy exploited in lascivious scenes that one wonders if she was selected at all for her better output in what frequently seems a grossly masturbatory exercise. Featuring riotous cameos from a dipping boom mike and Drew’s demonstrably daffy mother Jaid, production design by a staff clearly not of this earth and more inadvertently hysterical moments than most B-movies of its caliber, Nesher’s schizophrenic turkey seems occasionally emulative of both Hellraiser and Mulholland Drive despite its anteriority of the latter by nearly a decade. It’s an admonitory model of how a movie oughtn’t be dressed, cast, played and especially shot, as well as one of the most entertaining unintentional comedies of its genres.