36 fillette


French writer/director Catherine Breillat, whose Romance beats Eyes Wide Shut as this year’s smartest, wariest sex film (if not the most fascinating), hasn’t been heard from in the U.S. since 36 fillette was exported back in 1987. Taking its title from the purported dress size of its 14-year-old protagonist, 36 fillette is a low-key character study involving an elaborate courtship between that girl (16-year-old Delphine Zentout, in a fine performance) and a 40ish salesman (Etienne Chicot). She’s on vacation with her family; he’s keeping a posh hotel room and spending long nights at dance clubs following a separation from his wife.

Yes, this another one of those cute-young-thing-beds-geezer-with-receding-hairline movies that we’ve all grown so tired of. But although Maurice is clearly taking advantage, the film investigates a balance of power betwen him and the girl — Lili protects her virginity in an extended will-she-or-won’t-she display, and it’s never clear whether the largely hapless Maurice is any good as a lover, anyway.

Breillat is interested in the girl’s incipient sexuality, the source of her desirability and power. Her skill with members of the opposite sex is established early on, when she gives a celebrity musician (Jean-Pierre Léaud, famous for his role in Truffaut’s autobiographical The 400 Blows) a demanding look from across a crowded room as he rather dourly signs autographs for well-dressed concertgoers. “I wonder what you want?” he asks. “I certainly don’t want your autograph,” she says. She’s not looking for sex or souvenirs; she just wants to talk.

When she’s playing the coquette, she’s just a kid, impatient with life and perturbed by her environment. She mopes around, complaining that she doesn’t have the guts to slash open her wrists, and that school bores her. Other than an obligatory scene in which her father smacks her around after she pulls a quick vanishing act, there’s no indication that this innate sulkiness is borne of anything more significant than standard-issue adolescent pique. But the ultimate sourness of this film (a quality it shares with Romance) is tied up in Lili’s encounters with men, who seem congenitally incapable of satisfying a woman sexually or emotionally.

Only with Léaud’s character, the musician, does Lili seem to make any kind of connection. Breillat does seem to be making her own version of The 400 Blows, with that actor’s presence just the most obvious reference point; she even closes her picture on a freeze frame that apes the Truffaut picture. Your reaction to the film will likely be reliant on your tolerance for that level of impertinence.

Even so, Breillat’s unique quality is her ability to make sex scenes emotionally resonant in and by themselves — the relationships between the characters are revealed in the ways they try to connect physically, and that physicality can only be conveyed on film through an offhand explicitness, at which Breillat excels. (Were she to dabble in out-and-out hardcore, you have to wonder if she could make the film that would singlehandedly rescue porn from the gutter.)

Let’s give Fox Lorber the benefit of the doubt and describe the label’s new DVD of this film as “disappointing.” To be honest, the first word that came to mind was wretched, but that’s a little too harsh. While the image is peppered with relatively unobtrusive digital artifacts, this does seem to be competently mastered from video source materials that probably date back to the film’s original release on tape and laserdisc in the 1980s. The non-removable subtitles are big, white, and ugly, and from the looks of the transfer, they were present on the worn film print used rather than being stripped in electronically. Special features are scant; they include a theatrical trailer, which is a nice touch, as well as a lame “filmographies & awards” section that omits Breillat’s most recent film and fails to tell us what Zentout has been up to since making this one (Léaud is the only performer listed).

The biggest problem is that the transfer is cropped to 1.33:1. For a late ’80s laserdisc release, that was barely acceptable; in this day and age, it’s inexcusable. The ultimate insult is that the trailer, which has been matted to about 1.50:1, reveals imagery on the periphery of the frame that went missing from the film itself.

But, OK, it’s better than watching the film on laserdisc, assuming you can find it, or on VHS. I applaud Fox Lorber for an eclectic and adventurous DVD line-up. It’s just a shame that, when you buy one of their discs, you don’t know whether you’re going to be getting something gorgeous, like Last Year at Marienbad or Vivre sa Vie, or a barely adequate disc like Wild ReedsIrma Vep, or 36 Fillette. It would be nice if Fox Lorber would institute a “budget” line of low-priced DVDs, for which they could recycle old VHS and laserdisc transfers to their heart’s content; failing that, at least the industry should adopt some kind of disclaimer like the one you used to see on CDs, warning that the digital image could reveal limitations of the source tape, and affix it to new DVD versions of older video transfers. Until then, well, caveat emptor.

Directed by Catherine Breillat
Written by Breillat and Roger Salloch
Starring Delphine Zentout, Etienne Chicot, Olivier Parniere, and Jean-Pierre Léaud

France, 1988


Citizen Ruth


Ruth Stoops, thank God, is no role model. In the course of her adventures, she does not learn a lesson. Hers is not a heartwarming story. It is, however, seriously funny, and in this era of dopey action and dim-witted farce, that in itself is heartwarming enough.

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Three Colors: Blue

Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue

It’s hard to defend the artiness of Blue. With a Kieslowski movie (maybe with all Kieslowski movies), either you get it or you don’t. If you get it, you’re a fan. The movie becomes a mystical, dream-like experience. You recall the most indulgent camera angles and close-ups at the oddest moments of your day. Perhaps you hum a few bars of Zbigniew Preisner’s formidable score as you drink your coffee in the morning, or you have a nightmare about the kind of car crash that sets this story in motion. And when a friend doesn’t appreciate the film — in fact, they think it’s a dull, pretentious throwback to the French New Wave or somesuch — you find yourself speechless. It’s hard to use words to explain the cinema’s moments of great beauty, and you may as well give up before you begin.

Three Colors: Blue is the first film in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy built around the precious themes of liberty, equality, and fratenity (the second and third films are White and Red, respectively). The concepts correspond to the three colors of the French flag, and the conceit is actually less a stricture than a simple excuse for Kieslowski to make a set of movies that meditate on love, loss, and our essential humanity. Liberty is personified in the newly-widowed Julie (Binoche), who survives the automobile accident that kills her husband Patrice (a famous composer) and daughter Anna. This sea change in her life drives her to divorce herself from familiar people and surroundings, but she’s dogged by an unwelcome artifact from her husband’s life. His unfinished composition, Song for the Unification of Europe, is the subject of intense interest, and although Julie disposes of Patrice’s notes for the piece (and tries to dispose of all her own memories), it continues to insinuate itself into her life until she confronts the music as well as her own devastated psyche.

It sounds very color-by-numbers, but the film is actually anything but. Kieslowski is a bold filmmaker, with a knack for hypnotizing an audience. As much as Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique seemed concerned with lenses, this one dwells on reflections — Julie’s face reflected on the curve of a spoon, a doctor’s face reflected in the iris of her eye, filling the screen. The richness of imagery occasionally rivals that of a novel (Julie touches a sugar cube to coffee; as we watch, the sugar turns the luminous color of her own skin). And Kieslowski works at capturing the essence of memory and the passage of time. At four moments during the film, the screen fades completely and music swells – Patrice’s unfinished piece – and then the music cuts, and the scene fades back in at exactly the moment where it faded out. It’s part of the mystery of the film that a viewer can have an immediate and intuitive grasp on such an abstract device.

Intuition, indeed, is the driving force behind Kieslowski’s films. The relationships and imagery are drawn so intricately that the pictures reward repeated viewing, and it’s only on the second or third time around that the whole power of one of these films really becomes apparent. It’s easy to belittle a film like this, with its languid pace, elliptical dialog, and propensity for introspection (navel-gazing?). Don’t these somber sequences substitute a content New Age-ism for any real statements in response to the questions they pose? Isn’t Kieslowski living in a blithe, egocentric dream world? How can we be expected to identify with the rich widow of a French composer as she mourns her way through Paris?

Yet through Binoche’s performance and Kieslowski’s guidance, we do identify. We feel Julie’s aloneness even as we understand her resolve to cast off her sentiment and distance herself from the inexorable sadness. At the end of Blue, as Preisner’s music swells up on the soundtrack, all of the disparate characters and situations that make up Julie’s story finally come together. Pictures recall pictures as Julie is finally reflected in the eyes of another, and the delicate shape of another character is traced on a video monitor, echoed in shades of blue. These final moments articulate character and contradictory emotion in one crystalline, irrefutable passage of images, absolutely wordless — the very definition of great cinema. If you’re asking the same questions as our director, the simple clarity of such images provides answers enough.

In the Mouth of Madness

Sam Neill (center) in In the Mouth of Madness

Horror films have always been prone to navel-gazing. Often neglected and sometimes maligned, the genre has tackled more than its share of Imponderables: what scares us, and why? What happens when you stick a knife into the tender underbelly of faith? What is the face of evil? What does it mean to be a storyteller, and what is the nature of film itself?

John Carpenter has done as fine a job as anyone at exploring these issues. From his landmark Halloween (whose unforgettable final moments offer up a chill that is pure cinema) through such underrated strokes as the paranoiac’s bedtime story The Thing, the anti-Reaganite They Live, and the sublimely creepy Prince of Darkness, Carpenter’s films have been smartly crafted with a real story to tell. It comes as no surprise that his newest horror picture, In the Mouth of Madness,, taps the offbeat yet ubiquitous Sam Neill to anchor a wacked-out tale that pokes sly fun at the Stephen King phenomenon while at the same time offering an odd picture of mass culture.

Neill plays John Trent, an insurance investigator sent on a mission to locate best-selling novelist Sutter Cane. Cane writes horror novels, the kind that make fans of “literary” fiction wrinkle up their noses. We get the impression that he’s a sort of amalgamation of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, with a rabid contingent of fans who grow inexplicably violent — they break windows and bloody one another’s faces scrambling for copies of Cane’s new book at the local shop. A few of those readers, among them Cane’s former agent, wander the streets with bloody hatchets, drooling and raving. The problem is that Cane has vanished, after delivering just a few chapters of his newest manuscript to publisher Arcane. Trent sets off to look for Hobb’s End, the presumably fictional New Hampshire town where many of Cane’s stories take place.

Trent finds Hobb’s End, all right, a small town torn from the pages of Cane’s novels that’s not on any map. And he finds Cane there, as well (Jurgen Prochnow, having great fun as the messianic novelist banging out pages on a manual typewriter as the walls around him sweat and breathe). The story takes a Twilight Zone spin as Trent and Linda Stiles, his companion from Arcane, discover that the good townsfolk are acting out their parts in the books of Sutter Cane. The author is manipulating reality, and he promises that his new book will drive the entire world stark-raving mad. What about people who don’t read books?, one character asks at one point. Well then, he’s told, there’s always the movie (starring John Trent, of course).

Shot for the wide screen and brilliantly visual, In the Mouth of Madness is great fun to watch, with even the requisite cheap shocks doling out a good jolt. Sam Neill is always a pleasure, even when it seems that he’s hardly trying, and his staid characterization is balanced by a slew of icky demonic crowd-pleasing creations that fly in the face of his pronounced skepticism. The down side is that the movie isn’t really about anything, save perhaps the power of the media and the purported dangers of paying too much mind to pop culture phenomena (yawn!). Another old horror hand, Wes Craven (who has been savaged like few other filmmakers for his brutal debut feature,The Last House on the Left), did the genre a bigger favor last year. Even though both films empower the artist, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare went a bold step farther, offering a clever and impassioned defense of the horror film when it needed it the most.

In fact, one might suspect that Carpenter has been sleeping with the neo-conservative enemy, offering up a critique of the mania that could ensue when people read too many scary books. Still, the director is on record opposing censorship, and has always stood up to critics who called his films (The Thing, especially) too violent. We can only interpret the new movie as a love letter to horror fans, a brotherly nudge and wink toward our own cathartic experiences as we sit in the dark, waiting to be scared. At any rate, it’s a tremendous improvement over such Chevy Chase fodder as Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and we can hope that in his next film (a remake of Village of the Damned), Carpenter’s incisive, critical vision will snap back into sharp focus.

Nobody’s Fool

Melanie Griffith and Paul Newman in Nobody's Fool

This gentle film may have been the biggest surprise of 1994. I’m not usually one to get all warm inside over dramas of small-town relationships and redemption starring folks like Paul Newman, but Nobody’s Fool is nearly perfect from start to finish. Newman’s never been sharper than he is as Sully, a loser from way back who’s still coming to terms with his botched history and trying to put together what’s left of his life — which includes a recently returned son and grandson. Bruce Willis is unbilled in his best role to date, and director Robert Benton coaxes a warm and charming performance from Melanie Griffith, on whom I had given up completely. Capped by the regal presence of the late Jessica Tandy and based on an award-winning novel by Richard Russo (who was solicited for input on story changes), Nobody’s Fool qualifies as a minor masterwork, and should be perfect fare on some fragile, snowy night.