Saturday, September 29, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.14: Francois Truffaut's Pocket Money (aka Small Change)


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 69 (B)

The 400 Blows is the greatest movie ever made about unhappy childhood largely because Francois Truffaut, a product of an unhappy childhood, based so much of the film on his own life. With few exceptions (Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson), few directors understand the difficulty of childhood as well as Truffaut, and so few can get into the heads of children the same way Truffaut could. Pocket Money (aka Small Change) is another look at childhood from Truffaut, but one that mixes and understanding of how difficult it can be with an equal understanding of how joyful it often is.

The film follows the residents of Theirs, France, particularly the lives of the children, their parents, and their schoolteachers. One boy, Patrick (Geory Desmouceaux) struggles with young love as he displays shyness among his peers and an adolescent crush on his friend’s mother. The schoolteacher (Jean-Francois Stevenin) deals with his the anxieties of becoming a parent for the first time. The film returns periodically to troubled Julien (Philippe Goldmann), who lives in an abusive home.

Pocket Money is episodic by nature, and while most of those episodes are pleasant, the film doesn’t have the immediate resonance of The 400 Blows or The Wild Child. But Truffaut’s Renoir-like warmth towards his characters and his natural playfulness makes Pocket Money an enjoyable if minor work (though some apparently adore it, and Roger Ebert named it the best film of 1976 over Taxi Driver…which is nuts). The film has a great sense of how children interact with each other and with parents and a natural, breezy flow to it. Some of the more notable episodes: a little girl, annoyed that her parents leave her behind, calls on her father’s megaphone for food from the neighbors; the troubled young boy sneaks into a movie, much as Truffaut had when he was a boy; a boy tries to tell a dirty joke but has trouble getting past his own laughter; and, in a masterful scene of Hitchcockian tension and French New Wave playfulness, a toddler chasing a cat on the ledge of a window, only to come out unharmed.

Pocket Money is particularly strong when dealing with portraits of young love. When Patrick and his ladies’ man friend pick up a couple of girls and go to the movies, Patrick is too tentative to make a move. When Patrick falls for someone for the first time, it is for a friend’s mother, and the scene where he brings the woman roses is equal parts sweet-natured, adorable, and awkward. Best of all is Patrick’s first kiss with Sylvie (Sylvie Grezel), in which Truffaut masterfully choreographs a scene of missed opportunities, embarrassment, and sweet awkwardness.

Ultimately, though, it is the most serious scene in the film that gives it the most resonance. Julien’s abuse at the hands of his mother is discovered, and suddenly his difficult behavior- shoplifting, inattentiveness in school, trouble connecting to other kids- all makes sense. It’s a rare case in a Truffaut film where society steps in and does an act of pure goodness- Julien is rescued and put into a foster home, and the schoolteacher reveals his own painful childhood to his students. The man is the polar opposite of the teachers of The 400 Blows- caring, warm, and affectionate. “Injustice to children is inexcusable…each of us need to be loved.” It is perhaps a bit too didactic and a repeat of past Truffaut films, but the lightness of touch the director handles it with more than makes up for it. 

Director Spotlight #10.13: Francois Truffaut's The Story of Adele H.


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 84 (A-)

Francois Truffaut so loved making The Wild Child that he resolved to tackle another true story again. The director stumbled upon the story of Adele Hugo, the troubled daughter of writer Victor Hugo, driven mad by love. Truffaut struggled for years to find the right actress for the part before meeting 19-year-old Isabelle Adjani, who would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The film is another period piece from Truffaut, but unlike the lifeless Two English Girls, The Story of Adele H. has the passion and deep sadness required to make the film work. The result is one of the most tragic films Truffaut ever made.

Adele (Adjani) has traveled from France to Halifax, England in order to follow British military officer Lieutenant Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson). Adele has fallen madly in love with Pinson, but her family disapproves and Pinson does not return her affection. Nevertheless, Adele is obsessed, and she travels under an assumed name of Miss Lewly to avoid attention (as Victor Hugo is the most famous man in Europe at this point). Adele receives attention and affection from most everyone in Halifax, but as Albert spurns her, she is driven to the point of pennilessness and schizophrenia.

The film wouldn’t work without the remarkable work of Adjani, who projects a combination of worldliness and desperation required for the painfully sad narrative. Adele has inherited her father’s gift for poetic, gorgeous writing, which we often hear through her diary and letters, but she channels her passion into a unrequited love that dooms her. Truffaut, for his part, matches Adjani beat-for-beat with a tone that combines melodrama and outright horror- Adele is a deeply sympathetic character, but she’s also clearly unbalanced, as shown in her horrifying dreams of her sister drowning, shown superimposed over Adele tossing and turning violently in bed. Truffaut makes the most out of Adjani’s expressive, mournful face in smart close-ups, while his fluid, Renoir-like camera work goes well with a Hitchcockian approach to melodrama.

Adele is another outcast from society in Truffaut’s work, but here it is by her own hand rather than by a chance she never had. She is a woman of privilege and great artistic talent, but she splits from her parents without a word of notice and pursues an unhealthy obsession that ostracizes her from society. The people of Halifax are warm and welcoming, but she is deeply secretive, holding her landlady and other admirers on the outside- her anger when a warm and clearly lovestruck bookstore owner reveals his knowledge of her true identity is painful. As Adele sets out to ruin Albert after he rejects her one too many times, her destructive behavior is ultimately too much for the world to bear, and she is cast out into the streets.

Yet while Adele’s undoing is ultimately her own fault, Truffaut largely sympathizes her. He admires her talent as a writer, her poetic language (“I have the religion of love…I do not give my body without my soul or my soul without my body”), and her unbridled passion, unhealthy as it may be. Adele is perfectly aware of how unhealthy her love is- she just can’t help it. Truffaut crafts both a gorgeous depiction of how emotion drives us mad and a crafty portrayal of great artists, both those committed to social change (Victor Hugo, whose daughter Adele would fit right in with his troubled characters) and those committed to love. The film stumbles a bit in a stilted scene that praises the virtue of Victor Hugo, but it more than makes up for it with its melancholy ending that ties father and daughter together. The whole world mourned Victor, he of a noble public cause. Where is the mourning for Adele, when her personal cause is equally relatable?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.12: Francois Truffaut's Day for Night


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 96 (A)

If ever a film was more romantic about the movies than Day for Night, I don’t know it. Francois Truffaut spent the early 1970s trying out new styles, from the silent film throwback The Wild Child to the impressionist painting influenced costume drama Two English Girls to the farce A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (not covered here because it’s not available on any form of home video). But Truffaut is a film lover above all else, and was rarely happier than when he was discussing, reviewing, watching, or shooting films. And so came Day for Night, a film so enraptured by the possibilities of film that it might as well be called Sight and Sound.

Ferrand (Truffaut) has begun production on Meet Pamela, a studio melodrama co-produced by France and England. Ferrand is hassled with damn near every problem imaginable for a film production: one of the leading men, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud), has brought his girlfriend Liliane (Dani) onto production to be a script girl, but her lack of passion for the project shows, and she doesn’t share Alphonse’s hopes for marriage. Leading lady Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and married a much older man. Another actress, Severine (Valentina Cortese), is a drunken, emotional diva who has trouble remembering her lines and blocking. One cast member gets pregnant without telling anyone. Ferrand doesn’t have enough time to shoot. But in spite of all the difficulty, making the movie is not a series of trials and tribulations, but a journey for passionate people who adore their art.
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Day for Night is one of Truffaut’s most accessible and most commercial films up to this point. It is also one of his richest and most exciting.  An opening credits sequence calls back to the wonders of Walt Disney’s Fantasia as music is represented by abstract sound waves; Truffaut follows up with a dedication to Lillian and Dorothy Gish, the great silent film stars. What follows is a tribute to all things film- the opening tracking shot is visually lush as it follows Jean-Pierre Leaud during a crowd scene, only to be revealed as part of a film shoot. But the artificiality of the situation doesn’t make it any less beautiful or impressive. If anything, Truffaut is as fascinated by the process of filmmaking as he is by the films themselves. What starts out seeming as real as anything is revealed to be as REEL as anything (I hate myself), and it’s clear which Truffaut finds more fascinating. Truffaut shows us all the pieces of making a film- a set or a prop that, while clearly fake in real life, seems real on the silver screen; rushes, as everyone scrutinizes a day’s work; a gorgeous crane shot that reveals characters setting up a crane shot; tracking shots that show everyone hard at work; and the process of “day for night”, or shooting a “night” scene during the daytime. It’s one of Truffaut’s more overtly formalistic movies, and wonderfully so. Georges Delarue’s lush, classical score only further idealizes the filmmaking process.

Truffaut doesn’t just acknowledge his influenes in Day for Night- he features a scene where Ferrand opens up a package filled with books about his favorite directors (roll call: Bunuel, Fellini, Dreyer, Renoir). Truffaut emphasizes certain influences above others- the Renoir-like humanism and fluidity of the camerawork is notable, as is a Hitchcockian attention to detail in how the set-pieces are set up. There’s a bit of Nicholas Ray-like alienation, albeit in a less florid and angry way than in past Truffaut features. But perhaps most notable are three major influences: Fellini, who plays in with an odd dream sequence that turns from slightly frightening to gorgeous; Welles, whose Citizen Kane shows up in said dream sequence, a catalyst for Ferrand’s movie love; and Andre Bazin, Truffaut’s critical predecessor who encouraged personal films above all else.

The sense of alienation in the film is less about anger towards society and more about an inability among the cast and crew to be truly satisfied in life. Alphonse is little more than a big kid, perhaps the best Jean-Pierre Leaud surrogate Truffaut ever created. He’s romantic about films (he goes to see a movie almost every night) and about Lilliane, but he’s had an unhappy childhood and he expects too much of his girlfriends. One might find him annoying if he weren’t so sympathetic and sad. Lilliane could be painted as a villain who uses Alphonse, but she’s simply overwhelmed by his neediness. Severine (as played by Cortese in a phenomenal, Oscar-nominated performance) is a bundle of nerves and overfriendliness who drinks and talks too much, and her bungling of a major scene is outright comical…until we learn that her son is dying of leukemia. And then there’s Julia, a nervous wreck of a woman who married an older man for stability, who sleeps with a broken-hearted Alphonse to keep him from quitting production, and who nearly falls apart when the impulsive Alphonse tells her husband.

Ferrand consoles Alphonse with this- “life never runs smoothly. That’s only in the movies. We are only happy in our work”. Here, Ferrand serves as both a nurturing father-figure to the brooding Alphonse (just as Truffaut was to Leaud) and as a relatively steady center to the big circus on display. Ferrand no doubt has his own personal problems, but he’s focused on the film, and the struggle is what’s so exciting about filmmaking. They’re making a clich├ęd Hollywood melodrama- husband and wife meet up with husband’s parents, father starts affair with young wife- but they enjoy the work nonetheless. Ferrand has to make decisions about every little thing even if he doesn’t know it’s right, but it’s all part of the joy. They have to redo a complicated scene, but they’re in it for the love of it, not the money. They have to deal with a cat that won’t go where it needs to go, but when they get the shot it’s magic. Everyone sleeps with everyone (something that anyone with experience in theatre or film will corroborate). Even when a major cast member dies unexpectedly, the team comes together to finish the film in a new, creative way, everyone is proud of their work, and there’s a feeling of sadness as they move on from a project they dedicated their lives to. Life may be complicated, but the movies are worth it.

Day for Night would be one of Francois Truffaut’s most successful films- the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Truffaut received his only Best Director nomination, and, most importantly, it has become perhaps the de facto movie about making movies. Interestingly, Jean-Luc Godard was not moved. Truffaut’s former Cahiers du Cinema colleague and French New Wave friend had become embittered with commercial filmmaking and too obsessed with political filmmaking to focus on anything else- a line in Day for Night, “why don’t you make political films”, could be seen as a jab towards Godard’s self-righteousness as much as a concern from the apolitical Truffaut. Godard wrote Truffaut a letter denouncing him for making a film that was “a lie”, while Truffaut responded in a friendship-ending letter that accused Godard of being a hypocrite who put down other peoples’ films in order to increase the status of his own (for more proof, see Godard’s cranky musings on Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg). How Godard could be so filled with bile that he couldn’t see Truffaut’s genuine passion is beyond me. Day for Night isn’t just romantic about the movies- it’s a movie that makes me wonder how people could possibly not be romantic about the movies.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.11: Francois Truffaut's Two English Girls


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 44 (C)

I’m going to confess something: costume period dramas are just about my least favorite type of movies. Generally speaking, I’m more likely to be tempted by “fat guy fall down make funny”. “Frilly costume shit” and, when appropriate, “Stuffy British shit”, tends to be my dismissal of said genre. That said, there are noted exceptions, from Joe Wright’s fine adaptation of Atonement to Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous, deeply emotional version of The Age of Innocence, both of which take the genre and combine it with one of my favorite types of films- stories of love unfulfilled. Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Henri Serre’s Two English Girls and the Continent is both a period film and a tale of love unfulfilled, so it’s one I approached filled with hope. But the film feels trapped in amber, formally gorgeous but emotionally void, and one of Truffaut’s weakest films.

Claude (Jean-Pierre Leaud) befriends Anne (Kika Markham), a visitor from England who invites him to stay at her family’s mansion. Anne intends to introduce Claude to her sister Muriel (Stacey Tendeter). The three become fast friends as Claude falls in love with Muriel, but the two families think that a relationship between differing cultures is improper and demand the two spend a year apart before deciding to marry. Claude has many affairs during this separation before he decides to break off his relationship with Muriel, who falls into a deep depression. Years later, Claude and Anne meet in France, where the two begin an affair of their own.

There is much to admire about Two English Girls. Truffaut takes his inspiration primarily from Serre’s novel and from impressionist paintings, giving the film both an elegant literary feel and a picturesque beauty. Truffaut had also adapted Serre’s Jules and Jim into one of his very best films, and Two English Girls plays as a more removed, adult version of the earlier film, more contemplative than passionate. Its not a bad idea for a film, and it shows the director experimenting with new tones and rhythms halfway through his career. Truffaut gets a lot of mileage off of the early meetings between the three, and some of his touches when dealing with the mercurial Muriel (I swear I didn’t intend for that to rhyme) are downright brilliant, as she first denies her love for Claude before becoming overwhelmed by her feelings for him. He does an even better job when portraying the constrictive society that is more concerned with appearances and reputation than love.

But not much of it registers on an emotional level. Leaud, Markham, and Tendeter are all well-cast, but Truffaut’s narration does most of the storytelling to a point where it’s hard to get the sense of a performance. It’s almost as if Truffaut decided to transcribe the novel and open it up only with his pictures. As a result, the relationships feel quaint and undeveloped- it’s difficult to understand why anyone cares about anything that happens, let alone how these relationships consume everyone. Worse, Truffaut’s picturesque style feels too deliberate, aestheticized within an inch of its life to the point where the material can barely breathe. Two English Girls is never terrible, but it rarely registers as the sweeping love story it wants to be. It’s mostly a tedious disappointment.