EXPLORING THE ALCOVES OF CULT CINEMA …

France

Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981)

France/West Germany, 1981  Dir: Andrzej Żuławski

Starring Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent, Johanna Hofer, Carl Duering, Shaun Lawton, Michael Hogben, Maximilian Rüthlein

Well, where does one start with Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession? Pretentious and confused metaphorical drama masquerading as horror; exploitative gross-out nonsense; or miraculous and unequalled arthouse/genre movie crossover? Well Possession is all these things – and a great deal more. Few single films have effectively straddled so many contrasting areas of cinema, one reason for the polarizing effect it has on audiences. After all, how many movies can claim to be an underground cult horror banned under the 1984 ‘Video Nasties’ Act as well as being a prize winner at both the Cannes  Film Festival and the César Awards. Only Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), surely influenced by Żuławski’s film, comes to mind as appeasing (and equally offending) horror aficionados and arthouse respectability, but even that didn’t win at Cannes. Clearly Possession is something pointedly dangerous and extraordinary.

The plot and themes of Possession could be endlessly interpreted and allegorized regardless of whether there may or may not be any actual intended meaning (and believe me there’s plenty of baffling ambiguity involving pink socks and dopplegangers) but Żuławski has naturally (and playfully) kept tight-lipped about it all. But the basic concept is clear enough when described in a single sentence: After the collapse of a marriage, the man looks after the child whilst the woman gives birth to a hideous tentacled creature. There, that’s all you really need to know. And from that the obvious implication is that dissolution of the family unit can spawn a monster. Since the film makes great play of its bleak and unforgiving West Germany setting, we could just as easily say that federal state control can spawn a monster. Also, an individual’s own selfishness and obsessive desires can spawn a monster. Maybe even religion can spawn a monster. Anything and everything could spawn a monster in this film.

Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill are Anna and Mark, the disintegrating couple in question. Sam Neill, who has since proven himself to be a consummate actor, here pitches his performance somewhere between wooden and maladjusted. But nowhere near as unhinged as Isabelle Adjani, whose performance must rank as one of the most committed depictions of raving hysteria in all of cinema, and by committed I could just as easily be referring to an asylum. Adjani won the Best Actress award at Cannes and the Césars for a role which requires her to self-abuse with a knife, have an apparent epileptic seizure in a subway and spew odious white fluid from every part of her body. For sheer committment to the part she deserved every award she got. But Adjani and Neill both deliver their characters at just the right level of warped lunacy appropriate for the film, because in the end Possession is all about being compulsively trapped in the experience of watching it for the entire 2 hours. Regardless of its muddled thinking, as a purely cinematic experience Possession is the greatest ordeal imaginable. It’s a masterclass in sustained frenzy, as excessive as it is exacting.

Considering the film’s overlapping cult horror/arthouse credentials it’s not surprising that, depending which camp you’re in, Possession has been criticized as compromising and not fully exploiting either field. But for my money, this is horror filmmaking in its purest sense. Scenes of startling horrific content punctuate an overall tone of unremitting fever pitch. When they strike, the horror elements are unquestionably brilliant, the best the genre has to offer. The taut atmosphere and surrealist slant recalls Polanki’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) – further examples of  mental angst in rundown bed sits – or Skolimowski’s Deep End (1971) and The Shout (1978) (there’s clearly something special about Polish-directed English language psychological horror!). The disgusting tentacled creature itself is a wonderful achievement, designed by Carlo Rambaldi a year before winning plaudits as the creator of E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial. A gruesomely tactile creation, dripping with repulsive detail – only David Cronenberg has achieved the same level of graphic monstrosity. It’s no surprise that, for a film which gradually escalates the level of horror throughout, Possession concludes with levels of stylish and extravagant violence to make any Giallo proud.

Possession is an exhausting, perplexing and revolting experience. Every self-respecting horror fan simply has to put themselves through it. A Masterpiece.


La Nouvelle Vague à Cinquante! – Celebrating The French New Wave

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of La Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave which transformed and dominated European cinema in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Although the majority of French films from this decade are blanketed with the term Nouvelle Vague, the movement encompassed many different styles and approaches to cinema from a wide variety of directors. The New Wave filmmakers were all united by their desire to alter the horizons of cinema, rejecting the formalist traditions of the classical style, although they never formally recognised themselves as being part of one conscious group, more a body of young filmmakers sharing the same iconoclastic mindset. However, despite their wish to rewrite the cinematic rulebook, many of the directors had a great appreciation for classical cinema. In fact, the movement’s origins began with the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, which saw critics and future pioneering directors Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette create anew the doctrine of film theory and criticism. Under the guidance of Cahiers founder Andre Bazin, the critics were instrumental in re-evaluating the importance of classical films both in France (from Renoir, Vigo and Cocteau) and in Hollywood. The Cahiers writers felt that the artistic achievements of certain Hollywood directors were undervalued, as they had always been associated with the restrictive American studio production line. Through these writings, the manifesto for ‘Les Politiques des Auteurs’ emerged, where the critics argued that the stylistic approaches and use of mise-en-scene gave some films greater merit beyond their generic narratives. These theories greatly enhanced the critical value of Hollywood director’s oeuvres, notably Nicholas Ray, John Ford, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Francois Truffaut even conducted lengthy interviews with Hitchcock for a book published in 1967. The Cahiers critics were really the first to celebrate the American films of the 1940’s and 1950’s that are now regarded as classics.

the400blowsTo represent the varied approaches within the Nouvelle Vague, I’ve chosen to briefly discuss four of my favourite films from the movement, all of which represent very different interpretations of the wave’s intentions from four key directors. The 400 Blows (1959) is generally considered the first film of the wave. Directed by Francois Truffaut, it tells the story of troubled teenager Antoine Doinel, as he struggles at home and at school, finally being sent to a detention camp after being misunderstood by his parents and the authorities as an incorrigible trouble maker. The film gives a bleak, realistic presentation of events, an influence from Robert Bresson and also the Italian neo-realist style, but combines it with playful cinematic techniques including jump cuts and freeze frames. In the final sequence, the camera tracks Antoine running along the beach towards the ocean for the first time in his life, followed by a zoom in and a sudden freeze frame, as Antione apparently stares at the audience. It’s undoubtedly one of the most memorable and powerful moments in cinema history. The 400 Blows clearly expresses the New Wave’s unwritten manifesto of rejecting traditionally structured linear narrative, instead presenting an episodic account more interested in the experiences of the character, as well as the film’s stunning black and white photography. This film would become the first episode in an unprecedented twenty-year series of four films and one short, showing the young Antoine (always played by Jean-Pierre Leaud) become an adult, fall in love and start a family in Antoine And Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed And Board (1970) and Love On The Run (1979). A similar romantic story with dark realistic overtones was Truffaut’s 1962 masterpiece Jules et Jim, which gave Truffaut even greater scope for innovative techniques. Similarly, Godard’s Bande A Part (1964) explored a dangerous love triangle with playful exuberance, whilst Jacques Remy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) presented a romantic liaison as a musical in glorious technicolour, giving Catherine Deneuve her breakthrough role.

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Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad (1961) is a film rich with symbolism and vague meaning. Having previously been revered for his acclaimed dramatic-documentary Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Resnais collaborated with writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (later another New Wave director) on his first fictional narrative feature, although the shifting perspectives of Marienbad would make it far removed from other narrative films in the movement. Whilst Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol represented the Cahiers directors, Resnais represented the Rive Gauche or ‘Left Bank’ filmmakers, alongside Chris Marker, Anges Varda and Robbe-Grillet. These distinctively bohemian directors took the approaches of the New Wave to more experimental levels. Resnais imbues Marienbad with a subtle sense of strangeness –  in the vivid scenes of the chateau’s garden (pictured), the people walking cast long dark shadows, whilst the numerous pointed trees cast no shadow at all. The film abandons plot and narrative in favour of images, events and the sense of characters caught in a dream-like state of repeated memory. Unsurprisingly, the film divided critics, who either saw it as a beautiful masterpiece or a bewildering exercise in self-indulgence. In truth, Last Year At Marienbad is a hypnotic combination of both these things – it is at once beautiful and bewildering, but I don’t really believe it’s worth analysis beyond mentioning it’s powerfully arresting visuals. The film is an open-book for interpretive meanings and debates, which can be enjoyed as much as it can be alienating. However, it is the major film of the New Wave to fully embrace the movement’s art house leanings, an approach taken to even bolder experimentation in Jacques Rivette’s Celine And Julie Go Boating (1974).

Monique Hennessy and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Pierre Melville'

Le Doulos (1962), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is a stylish gangster movie featuring many plot twists involving theft, murder and deception. Given the Nouvelle Vague touch, this crime thriller takes on an almost surreal aesthetic, artistically exaggerating the chiaroscuro technique associated with film noir. The hyper-reality of the world created by Melville has characters wearing strikingly overstated trench coats, shot in extreme contrasting shadows. Jean-Pierre Melville became a major figure of the New Wave, although he had been directing feature films since 1949, making him a continually strong presence in French cinema who, along with Robert Bresson, bridged the gap between the classical era and the Nouvelle Vague. Influenced by American crime movies, Melville’s noir-style thrillers were hugely influential to other New Wave directors – his 1956 film Bob La Flambeur being the first of it’s kind in France. Truffaut’s second feature, Shoot The Piano Player (1960) owed it an obvious debt, as did Godard’s pulp sci-fi classic Alphaville (1965). These classy thrillers suited the fashionable groove of the sixties and Melville became the most important exponent of the policier genre – gangster films taking their lead from American film noirs but offering a uniquely French perspective. This particular sub-genre reached it’s zenith with Melville’s own The Godson (1967) and The Red Circle (1970). Hip and referential, much of the flashy style of these noir movies had been previously explored in Godard’s seminal Nouvelle Vague masterpiece Breathless (1960), the second film from the Wave. A significant stylistic strand throughout the wave, one of the movement’s final great crime thrillers was Charles Chabrol’s The Butcher in 1970. The French noir really is the ultra-cool division of the Nouvelle Vague.

weekendWeekend (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s darkest film is a strikingly ambitious black satire on French bourgeois society and moves from the bickering of a middle-class couple and some aggressive road rage through to revolution, violent murder and cannibalism. It’s surrealistic approach and fierce attacks on the complacent middle classes make it comparable to the work of Luis Bunuel, who was also making films in France during this period (the similarly daring Belle de Jour was released the same year).  Viscous and shocking in it’s approach, Weekend takes the Nouvelle Vague’s reactionary course to the ultimate extreme, incorporating moments of Brechtian disillusion and scenes of pure fantasy (Lewis Carroll and Emily Bronte wandering in the woods springs to mind!). Admittedly the film is a pretty hard watch and frustratingly incomprehensible in parts (although not nearly as baffling as Godard’s rockumentary-come-political manifesto Sympathy For The Devil in 1968), but that’s really the point – there’s something fantastically daring and exhaustively rewarding about Weekend. For its famous and breathtaking ten-minute tracking shot of an ever-worsening traffic jam alone, the film is a landmark in black comedy. Allowing itself to be completely free of any strictures, the film remains one of the most relentlessly wild and inventive additions to the French New Wave. Weekend ends with two captions –  ‘End Of Film’ and ‘End Of Cinema’ – not only pointing to the total collapse of civilisation within the film’s narrative but perhaps acknowledging that Godard had taken the New Wave as far as it could possible go.

The 1960’s was a decade of many shifts and surprises in culture and accordingly many new waves in cinema – in Italy, Britain, Japan, Czechoslovakia – but the most revolutionary and influential was surely the French New Wave, which gave the world many of the greatest films ever made. Bernando Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) paid explicit tribute to the films of Godard and Truffaut, and the influence of the Nouvelle Vague can still be felt today in the films of Luc Besson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry.

The BFI French New Wave Season begins in April, showcasing a number of films from the movement, including The 400 Blows and Breathless, in London and around the country.

Recommended reading: A History Of The French New Wave Cinema by Richard John Neupert; Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody; Francois Truffaut: The Complete Films by Robert Ingram.


Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956)

a-man-escapedFrance, 1956  Dir: Robert Bresson

Starring Francois Letterier, Charles La Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, Roland Monod.

Based on the real-life memoirs of World War II Resistance fighter Andre Devigny, A Man Escaped is the most rewarding escape-from-prison drama ever made. Far more affecting than the sentimental The Shawshank Redemption (1994), although both films are similarly affirmative of the indomitable human spirit, Bresson’s masterpiece makes the viewer live and breath every desperate moment of POW Lt. Fontaine’s ordeal, from his initial capture to his final joyous getaway (I don’t feel this gives away any details of the ending, given the film’s explanatory title!)

Robert Bresson’s austere and contemplative approach to film-making, famously compared to Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer by writer/director Paul Schrader in his book Transcendental Style In Film, is given it’s fullest expression here. The bleak, claustrophobic nature of events, combined with the dull routine of day to day prison life, allows Bresson to extract the maximum amount of compassion for our protagonist through the film’s stark detail. Every creak, crunch, squeak and crack of Fontaine’s attempts to carve through his cell door are magnified to heart-stopping effect against the deathly silence of the prison. In fact, the whole film is a masterclass in less-is-more sound technique. Apart from Fontaine’s narration, the soundtrack mostly consists of a restrained stillness, punctuated by noises of digging, scratching, cutting, footsteps etc. This technique is particularly effective during the film’s tense final half hour.

a-man-escaped-still1The only instance of music is the occasional yet powerful use of Mozart’s Great Mass In C Minor, played each time the prisoners collectively emerge outside to clean out their slops and then finally as Fontaine manages to make it over the wall and to freedom. Perhaps Bresson is choosing to use the music as an expression of shared experiences and liberty, as opposed to the silence of loneliness and confinement. Whatever the reasons, this selective use of music, rather than a blanket effect throughout, is just one aspect of A Man Escaped which raises it above the standards of most prisoner of war dramas – indeed, most dramas full stop.

A richly profound and spiritual cinematic experience, A Man Escaped is clearly informed by the director’s deep religious convictions (he was a lifelong Jansenist Catholic) which inspired themes of redemption and salvation in his work, as well as his own experiences as a prisoner of war. Bresson’s influential style was an expression of pure cinema, stripping away any theatrical illusions and capturing on camera the raw essence of human existence. A Man Escaped is Bresson’s great poem to the best and worst of humanity.


Orson Welles’ F For Fake (1974)

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France, 1974. Dir: Orson Welles

Starring: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Francois Reichenbach, Gary Graver, Joseph Cotton.

At one point in F For Fake, whilst discussing his career, Orson Welles says “I started at the top and have been working my way down ever since.” Although just a glib line from the director, it nevertheless points to a general attitude towards Welles’ career – that he never lived up to the expectations generated by the creative heights of his first feature, Citizen Kane (1941). If this assertion is to believed, the fact that F For Fake is Welles’ final major feature may signal that it’s not likely to be amongst his best work. In actual fact, looking at his later films only emphasises the fact that, far from never making another Citizen Kane, Welles simply wasn’t interested in retreading old ground, instead choosing to make each new film a daring and unique picture (which ironically was exactly what Kane had been in the early 40’s, therefore maybe Welles was always maintaining the same creative heights). The films of Welles european period are amongst his very best – the claustrophobic Kafka adaptation The Trial (1962) (Welles’ own personal favourite of all his films), the acclaimed Shakesperian anthology Chimes At Midnight (1966), and finally F For Fake.

Described by Welles as a “new kind of film”, F For Fake playfully combines interviews, stock footage and experiments in editing with bogus fictional segments, hidden camera stunts and film trickery into a spellbinding kaleidoscopic movie, with Orson’s mischievous narration pinning seemingly unconnected strands together. It began life as a straightforward documentary on Elmyr de Hory, the world’s most famous art forger, who had been the subject of a recent biography, Fake! by Clifford Irving. At this point, the film was just a BBC arts documentary directed by Francois Reichenbach, featuring interviews with both Hory and Irving. But during production, events took a unexpected turn when Clifford Irving, having written about the life of a great faker, found himself at the centre of a scandalous fraud. In 1972, Irving had sold the rights to a sensational autobiography of notorious recluse Howard Hughes, which after denouncements from Hughes himself, he admitted to being entirely faked (this whole episode was later the basis of it’s own film, The Hoax in 2006). Fascinated by the deception, Welles took Reichenbach’s footage, expanded it and wove together segments on Hory’s forgeries, the Irving fraud, Hughes’ life and Welles’ own career of artistic duplicity, into a meditation on the general art of fakery.

Welles, the master conjurer of film.

Welles, the master conjurer of film.

The film also indulges in its own flights of fancy, relating a completely false story about a series of Picasso portraits. But those paying attention will notice that Welles states only the first hour of the film will be concerned with the facts (another lie however – the film is still sprinkled with fallacies throughout). All the narratives are perfectly intertwined, from the relationship between Hory and Irving, Welles’ reflection that Hughes was the original basis of Charles Foster Kane and the fact that Welles’ own career was built on a series of untruths (firstly, how he cheated his way into an Irish theatre company and secondly, how his infamous radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds (1938), fooled and terrified an entire nation.)

F For Fake is a dizzying, captivating piece of documentary film-making and, far from showing a director whose creativity is on the wane, proves that Welles was capable of being as ingenious and adventurous as when he first stepped into Hollywood.

F For Fake is available on Eureka’s excellent Masters Of Cinema DVD collection.