Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The French New Wave pt. 2 "Elevator To The Gallows"

In 1958, twenty-three year old Louis Malle released his debut film Elevator to the Gallows. A film with a now legendary soundtrack by Miles Davis and starring the glamorous Jeanne Moreau. Elevator to the Gallows broke boundaries set by traditional Hollywood films while staying true to the conventional three Act structure, using plot elements to entertain and "play" rather than cater to viewers and accommodate their expectations.
In an essay on Gallows, Roger Ebert says in many ways he considers this film to be the start of the French New Wave. A film movement that included the following rules: no film sets(making use, rather, of actual locations), naturalistic actors (de-glamoirizing the actors image), and moveable lighting set-ups to facilitate free flowing and moving camera shots. All  usually done on a meager budget. Today this technique is almost always used in Independent Film Making or "Indie Films".
Gallows opens with a man and a woman professing their love to one another, both talking into a phone. They have plans to run away together. This is all we know. The man, Julien Tavernier, goes about his day at the office. As we follow his activities we notice he is preparing a grappling hook, a gun, and a rope. For what? He proceeds to climb up the outside of his window to the window above, using the grappling hook and rope. Julien then murders his boss, who we quickly realize is the husband of the woman he is in love with, Florence Carala.
Florence waits patiently at a cafe while Jules gets in the elevator to leave the scene of the crime. As the elevator goes down, the building's security guard shuts the power off for the evening and our protagonist is stuck between floors and near the top of the tall building. This is the set up, which boldly prepares us for a clever series of events that does not fall short in delivering.

Julien is played smoothly by Maurice Ronet. He is undaunted by the pitfalls he encounters while trying to get to his love. Nor does he once go to pieces over the crime he has just committed. He is a man with a mission. Jeanne Moreau plays Florence with the desperation and insanity of a woman helpless, waiting and wandering the streets of Paris under the relentless spell of manic love.
Director Louis Malle chose to shoot Jeanne Moreau with natural lighting and in close-ups with minimal make-up. Moreau was a French film darling at the time and this choice so enraged lab technicians that they even refused to process the film! There are plenty of supporting characters that I do not mention because to mention them would also spoil the twists and turns in the plot. Each character adds another layer and another world.

There is a spontaneity to the pacing of Gallows that, like many French New Wave films, seems unplanned and improvised - a "free form" structure that keeps the viewer spellbound. Also understatement is key here. We are meant to observe everything but be distracted by nothing. A contrast to today's films where we are spoon fed plot developments while simultaneously being beat over the head with overt messages that would be so much more enjoyable if weaved into the subtext.  Less is so much more with Elevator to the Gallows. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

The French New Wave pt.1 "Breathless"

In the 1960's film goers who wanted something different to talk about over drinks and dinner flocked in droves to see films like Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard, and Jules and Jim by Francois Truffaut.  These films were hip and groundbreaking, thought provoking, and fun. They showed cool people doing and saying cool things. It's hard to believe it now, but Breathless was the Pulp Fiction of the 60's.  Breathless ushered in a new kind of film making. Jean-Luc Godard was a rock star and his films played like a punk concert.  The characters in the films displayed morals as loose as the roaming camera work. Scenes were shot on location (busy city streets, cafes, record stores, cheap hotels). No extras were employed and no sets were built. The style of film making was branded The French New Wave (or simply New Wave).

The Plot of Breathless is a spin on the American crime drama. A French Hood , Michel (Jean-Paul Bemando), shoots a police man in Marseilles while trying to steal a car. While on the run he turns to his American girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg), who lives in France. Patricia is an aspiring journalist who sells newspapers on the street corner. She spends much of the film contemplating whether or not she is really in love with Michel. She reluctantly hides him out in her apartment as they ponder their relationship and the relationship between men and women in general.  Michel aspires to be like the screen hero Humphrey Bogart, aloof and unaffected. Able to remain detached when it comes to women and life. He constantly makes comments about his disregard for love and people. Patricia listens mostly and shrugs him off, then shoots back with her own witty retorts. She is truly the one who is detached. She says it all with her seductive, capricious eyes and coy smile. She toys with the idea of being in love with Michel, as if it were something she could take or toss away.  Even when telling him she is pregnant with their child. Patricia doesn't seem particularly loyal or committed to him.

( Writer,Director Jean-Luc Godard)

This aloof and ambivalent attitude toward life, love, and society was groundbreaking at the time. People went to see movies where the hero was tough and cool but had a moral compass, and the women were sexy and stunning but always stood by their man while taming the bad boy in him. Breathless has none of that. Michel is not as tough as he believes, although his contempt for anything in society plays as cool and smooth. We laugh as he insults everything life has to offer (including one scene where he is in his car and looks directly into the camera to rant about bad drivers and how much he hates the countryside). Patricia is sophisticated and modern, even by today's standards. She doesn't let her affection for Michel affect her decisions about life and what is best for her and her baby (though it is his.) They are both a couple of smart ass cool kids but appear leaps and bounds above the intelligence factor you see in today's films. As I watched this film again recently I was amazed at how relevant the dialogue was between them. These are conversations intelligent people have today! Not stylized versions of conversations, but true back and forth talking, For something new and different check out this not so "old" classic!