Sunday, July 7, 2013

Estival du Look

 Now that summer is in full swing, and seeking the solace of shade and a moderate amount of air conditioning, I have begun revisiting some of my favorite films from one of my favorite periods in French cinema.  I am really not entirely sure what attracts me to this era of, in all honesty, some pretty esoteric, albeit relatively surface-driven filmmaking; I wasn't even alive when some of these films were made, and I generally hate most other mainstream, style-heavy films from the 1980s centered around a youth counter-culture making the transition into adulthood, a la St Elmo's Fire, or some other such bullshit, but maybe it's a case of finding the right film at the right time of my life, though it's even more likely that many of these films were just much better made and/or adhere to a more reasonable aesthetic for me that falls in line with my interest with what was going on in film and comics in Hong Kong and Japan as well.  Eeeeiiiither way, some of these films were great, some people thought they were garbage, but I really like them, and I can't help but think about them when the weather gets unbearably hot.
So, I think it's a good idea to talk a little bit about what was called Cinéma du look before getting into any of the films, as the name itself came much later than the actual films; so it wasn't as much the case of directors trying to adhere to a film movement at the time as it was a specific critic's way of describing director Luc Besson's aesthetic and how his "surface-over-substance" style of filmmaking was similar to two other directors with whom his films shared "the look."  The critic was Raphaël Bassan, a French film journalist who encouraged and specialized in experimental cinema and film history, and who even experimented in making three short films, himself.  He coined the term, Cinéma du look, as a way to compare the films of Luc Besson to those of Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax, in, I believe, his 1988 article, Three Neo-Baroque Directors: Beineix, Besson, Carax, from Diva to Le Grand Bleu in which Bassan urged that the three directors be taken seriously by critics.

Bassan also recognized similar themes throughout their films, and it was their young, alienated characters that were said to have been representative of the young, marginalized populace of the time in France.  It's no wonder, then, that the films were successful in terms of reaching a younger audience searching for more substance to their pop culture, even as the films of these directors were very much influenced by pop culture itself, taking inspiration from fashion photography, TV commercials, and music videos.  It is, perhaps, more interesting to see some of these films getting critical praise from more established critics, such as Roger Ebert, who in his review for Beineix's Diva, wrote:

"It is one of the best thrillers of recent years but, more than that, it is a brilliant film, a visual extravaganza that announces the considerable gifts of its young director, Jean-Jacques Beineix. He has made a film that is about many things, but I think the real subject of "DIVA" is the director's joy in making it. The movie is filled with so many small character touches, so many perfectly observed intimacies, so many visual inventions from the sly to the grand that the thriller plot is just a bonus. In a way, it doesn't really matter what this movie is about; Pauline Kael has compared Beineix to Orson Welles and, as Welles so often did, he has made a movie that is a feast to look at, regardless of its subject.

Diva is just that, though.  As much as I enjoy the story, I find myself wanting to rewind the film several times just to relive specific visual moments over and over again, regardless of the rhythm of the film.  The story can almost become negligible if you want it to, and there is enough visual lyricism to keep the audience engaged even as one forgets the verbal narrative (the first time I watched the film, it actually took me a little bit to realize that I didn't have the English subtitles on, as I was watching the dialogue rather than listening to it).  Beyond any lengthy description of a thriller about a young man swooning over an Opera singer and some criminals looking for some tape with some conversation on it about something or something, the film is simply stunning looking, and is equally as stunning and fun to watch (I maintain that the latter often has nothing to do with the former).  I also want to mention that the screenplay for Diva was co-written by Franco-Belgian comics writer Jean Van Hamme, and for all the dumb film or TV adaptations of his work that are out there, I like his comics, so that's pretty cool.
Apparently, Ebert's enthusiasm lasts only as long as the characters stay dressed though, as I thought his review for Beineix's third film, Betty Blue (37°2 le matin), was focused too much on the nudity of the film rather than anything lying beneath it.  It was as if he was made so uncomfortable by certain situations regarding either nudity or the behavior of the titular character and just couldn't move on from his soured disposition.  Betty Blue is a film about a guy who lives near the beach and does odd jobs, a girl he meets, some other people they meet, some bad (and sometimes good) shit that happens, and some places they go.  It can more easily be described as a film about love.  And madness.  Or is it mad love?  I don't know, either way, it's something the French are not unfamiliar with in terms of their cinema, and it had a wonderful impression on me, and it came as no surprise to me to find that it had a similar effect on other artists I admire.
Despite sounding broad, Betty Blue feels very specific to me.  Although being part of a film movement that favored visual panache and spectacle over a more solidly-paced narrative structure, Betty Blue does something similar to what Wong Kar Wai was beginning to do in Hong Kong around the same time (there is a retrospective on his earlier work coming sometime in the near future, I swear).  Though Beineix appeared to have adhered more strictly to a script, his film, once watched, leaves the impression of seeing a real relationship take place, much in the same way Wong was able to build relationships out of a series of scenarios in which the actors were given room to breath improvisation into their characters rather than even having a script in some cases.  In some instances the film gives off an almost "you had to be there" vibe, making it an uneven product depending on the audience; on one hand, I believe film should almost always be universal, and what truly makes a great film is that anyone can find themselves relating to the characters within; but on the other hand, part of what makes Betty Blue so wonderfully appealing is that the relationship that the film paints is instantly recognizable to anyone who has experienced something similar.  The downside of this is that it is potentially alienating, and in the same way that some people will argue that stoner movies are made for people that smoke weed and if you don't smoke weed you just don't get it and you're wrong if you don't like it 'cause you don't smoke weed and maybe you should smoke weed and maybe you will see how good that movie really is, maybe Betty Blue is like that?  I like to think that it isn't, but you know, who knows?  Good or bad is an objective way to look at things, and though there are some hard facts when it comes to good film or bad film, it's hardly fair to label something as bad when you just don't like it, and unfortunately, much of "le look" was written off for just that reason.  Oh well.
Most sources I have found cite Subway as an early example in the movement, and although I would still maintain that Beineix's Diva was the first true "look", Besson's earlier film, Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle), still exhibits signs of what was to come in his career.  Released two years after Diva and two years before Besson's own Subway, Le Dernier Combat was heralded mostly as a sci-fi film, generating a cult following because of it's nearly wordless presentation.  The style, however, exhibits some of the same trappings of other films within the Cinéma du look; having virtually no dialogue, the film is forced to tell it's story entirely through it's visual presentation, and though far from the neon signs and shiny-slick city streets, the effect was no-less striking than it's later counterparts.  In fact, the argument of style-over-substance takes on a new meaning when the style becomes the substance, something else that Wong Kar Wai would end up doing even so late as In The Mood For Love, from 2001 (again, a full post on Wong will be showing up soon, along with a complete essay on In The Mood For Love).
Besson's next films, Subway (which featured Jean-Hughes Anglade, who would the same year of release, star in Beineix's above mentioned film, Betty Blue, and who would also star in Besson's 1990 film, La Femme Nikita) and Le Grand Bleu, are essentially the beginning of what critics refer to as his true foray into the genre, though I still argue that Besson has basically been making the same kind of films his entire career.  His budgets or his subjects may have have changed, but even through to 1999's The Messenger, he was still making slightly subversive films that demonstrate his signature sense of style and interest in making art entertaining; that, no doubt, is due to his continued work with composer Eric Serra and cinematographers Carlo Varini and Thierry Arbogast.  Even the mainstream, audience-dividing, sci-fi blockbuster that was The Fifth Element couldn't escape some of Besson's signature style choices, and though it even goes so far as to grift elements from Moebius and Jodorowsky's The Incal, I still see it as a victory in tricking American audiences into being exposed to European science fiction, and it remains one of my favorite films ever (I was 14 when I first saw it, and it was still a few years before I would even discover film, Moebius, Métal Hurlant, or Luc Besson).  To make another comparison to Wong Kar Wai: both Besson and Wong would embark on the largest film projects of their careers (The Fifth Element and Ashes Of Time, respectively), only to take breaks during lengthy and difficult production times and embark on shorter, simpler films that would go on to great success (though Besson's Léon was no match for the revolution that Wong would create with his highly acclaimed and genre-shattering Chunking Express).
It's hard to actually look at some of these films as an actual movement, as, like I mentioned, the term, Cinéma du look, was a retroactive term to begin with; and being an after-the-fact observer, I can only tell from what I read whether or not any of it was made with an actual intent to conform to a certain "look", though it's hard to believe that even without a name for it, there wasn't a specific trend in their filmmaking.  It's particularly worthwhile to mention the early entries (Diva, Le Dernier Combat) as something truly inventive though, even as they were derivative of so many other forms of film.  Even as it was influenced heavily from current popular culture and the New Hollywood movement of the late 60s through the early 80s, it's even harder to believe that there wasn't also a credible influence from France's own New Wave movement, especially the influence of  Chabrol, Truffaut, and Godard (Luc Besson would even name his first true female character Hélène, which was a trait of quite a few women in Chabrol's films).  It even appears as though some of the films were influencing, or at least making references to one another; again it would be Besson who's villain in The Fifth Element would share a name with with the protagonist in Beineix's Betty Blue (an uncommon enough name, I presume, that it has to be a reference).

Though it's easy to see how Godard's visual pinache could be a viable influence on the "cinema-to-be-seen", I feel like Truffaut was an equally dominant influence, and in particular his Antoine Doinel character.  The blending of "high-culture" with pop culture was also a common theme of 'the look, and parallels can be seen between Antoine's love of classic French literature and Diva's protagonist, Jules, with his love of opera and "high class" friends he meets.  Perhaps I'm seeing signs that I want to see, as Besson's Joan would say, but I feel like they're worth mentioning at least, as it's something that came to my mind as I watched these films (it's also maybe worth mentioning that I was familiar with the New Wave movement before I was truly aware of the Cinéma du look, so my parallels may have been drawn from my limited knowledge of what I was seeing at the time).  It's also worth noticing that our aforementioned critic, Raphaël Bassan, was also a proponent of the New Wave and it's experiment in film, so perhaps the interest he found in the Cinéma du look movement was related in some way to what I also see as the natural progression of the avant-garde film evolution in France.  Just saying.

I want to admit, lastly, that I am not incredibly familiar with Leos Carax's work.  What I have seen I have found to be very much of the argument of style-over-substance, but a true watch of all of his films is more necessary for me to properly judge them, and I didn't want to just plow through them to make it in time for this post.  Once I get around to it I will give him a more honest shot, and that might end up being sooner rather than later given my film habits lately.  Also, I know there are quite a few films I glazed over or didn't mention at all; for instance, I didn't even mention The Moon In The Gutter (La lune dans le caniveau), and that is mostly because I wasn't particularly impressed with it.  It never grabbed me the same way many of these other films did, and it's (I'm prettttty sure) entirely studio-shot visuals failed to excite me in the way that Diva, Betty Blue, and Le Grand Bleu did with their beautiful, on-location photography.  Also, there are just some that I have never seen, and again, I would rather give them their proper chance rather than just watch them to watch them.  The rest I just didn't feel like mentioning because, well, I don't know; I don't know what else to say about some of these films that haven't been said, and they mostly just didn't fit into the dialogue I wanted to present in this post.
In one final post script; it is important, I believe, to mention that in every reference to Betty Blue I make on this blog, or any recommendation I make for it, I am always referring to the director's cut (version intégrale), which clocks in at a full hour longer than the film's theatrical release.  I think it's a better film, and that's the one I feel is complete.  It's also the version of the film I watched first, and the idea of watching the theatrical version at this point seems pointless to me.

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