Originally Appearing on Dorkshelf
The TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Summer in France retrospective begins today, and with screenings running all the way till September 2nd, TIFF offers the most affordable trip to France that any Torontonian may ever get. Covering seminal and pioneering films from the Poetic Realism and French New Wave movements, the films featured in this retrospective are sure to excite, seduce, and puzzle viewers with the same cinematic brilliance in which they’ve managed to retain for the more than half century in which they’ve endured.
Featuring films from revered and iconic directors like Jean Luc-Godard, Francious Truffaut, Chris Marker, and many more, TIFF’s Summer in France is a comprehensive survey of the films that began as little ripples in a far away pond, but over many years have matured into galloping waves that have inspired and influenced filmmakers and cinema goers around the world. With a special presentation of Weekend by TIFF Director and CEO Piers Handling on August 16th at 6:30pm, a special presentation of Rules of the Game by NOW Magazine film critic Norm Wilner, and a rare 70mm print screening of Jacques Tati’s classic Playtime, TIFF’s summer long retrospective will leave you asking “left bank, or right today?”
Le quai des brumes
Only fifteen minutes into Le quai des brumes and would be protagonist Jean (Jean Gabin) is already sitting in a dreary bar on the edge of town, drinking whisky and still wearing his army uniform. We meet Jean on a dark and lonely road, waving his hands before a lone truck driver in need of a ride into the port city of Le Havre. Even in the bar, Jean appears a mystery in this dreamy city of secrecy- we know nothing of who or what he runs from, why he’s come to Le Havre, and ultimately who he really is.
But this is Le quai des brumes greatest quality, as director Marcel Carné completely fixates the focus of the film on accentuating the details and small intricacies of its characters and it quickly becomes as if Carné, just like his tough guy protagonist Jean, truly leaves the idea of dialogue as a the formal mode of communication behind when he comes to Le Havre.
Jean soon meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a fragile young beauty of only 17 involved with many different men who each place suffocating claims on her glamor. Jean does all he can to get to know Nelly, but is often thwarted by Nelly’s creepy godfather Zable (Michel Simon) and a tough guy named Lucien (Pierre Brasseur); obstacles of Nelly’s questionable past. Inevitably Jean becomes entangled in all this mess, and eventually the time comes for Jean to decide if he will leave these problems behind in this seedy little port city where so many come to forget, or if there is in fact something worth staying for.
The finesse in Le quai des brumes really comes from Carné’s incredible command of atmosphere and superb eye for detail: the foggy and cobble stone lined streets of Le Havre serve as a perfect back drop for this place where our central characters dress in the costumes of their own confines. Jean continues to wear his uniform for quite some time and Nelly similarly remains wrapped in a translucent raincoat that, similarly to those who surround her, smothers and restricts her beauty. It is thought this that Carné shows us that even the simple matter of appearance can speak volumes about one’s past, no matter how guarded and shady it may me.
Most notably, it is Brasseur’s portrayal of Jean which endures as gleaming example of poetic realism’s quintessential tough guy, who is the first to tell you that “broads are all the same”. Released in 1938, Le quai des Brumes retains its authenticity as a classic and must see film of the genre.
Friday July 20th, 6:30 PM Lightbox
Elevator to the Gallows
With a trumpet laden soundtrack specially made by Jazz legend Miles Davis, Academy Award winning director Louis Malle’s 1958 production, Ascenseur pour L’echafaud or Elevator to the Gallows comes to us wrapped in sleek layer of a certain sexiness which no viewer can deny. From the very first shot, Malle’s smooth style is foregrounded as we see the glassy eyes of a woman, briefly highlighted only by a thin strip of bright light in a sea of darkness. This smooth and quick shot brightens only to place our focus squarely upon the face of this unknown and clearly distressed woman with her ear firmly pressed to a phone receiver. On the other end? We know not who this other character is either, but only that when he and the woman spit “Je t’aimes” back and forth between each other, its obvious that their romance is of the passionate kind, the burning kind, just the kind that people would kill for.
This brilliant opening scene which I describe may take places quickly, but this is all that Malle needs to establish the level of sheer mastery in which Elevator to the Gallows continues to operate upon. Now living in a day and age when film noir is such a common, easily recognizable, and well imitated form of stylistic storytelling, watching even the opening scenes of Elevator to the Gallows is something like seeing the genre in its infancy.
The mystery man is the suave Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), an ex-Foreign Legion parachutist whose penchant for danger is only rivaled by his will for survival. The single Tavernier and the canonical married dame with her ear and lips pressed to the phone, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), conspire to commit the perfect murder which will allow them to finally be together with Florence’s fat cat husband out of the way. When some unexpected setbacks put both Julien and Florence in danger, we find ourselves in the midst of an enthralling account Julien and Florence’s undying will to be together wonderfully paralleled with the goofy yet similarly torrid love affair of two angsty teenage lovers with a coincidental affinity for danger.
Visually, Evelator to the Gallows has it all: a spectacular employment of light and dark shadows, a riveting story, and an ultra sultry soundtrack which adds even more to this film’s ambience. As Julien feels darkness close around him in the aphotic elevator shaft he becomes accidently locked in, it truly is hard for us not to feel a similar sense of hopeless entrapment. Still the most fascinating quality of Elevator to the Gallows resides chiefly in Moreau’s performance, as Malle’s more realistic portrayal of the typically dolled up dame in this film is truly one of a kind.
Moreau, often shown without makeup cruising the dark streets of France in a desperate search for Julien, looks a mess near the end of her journey, and by doing this Malle adds a certain sense of authenticity to Elevator to the Gallows. It is this authenticity that allows for Elevator to the Gallows to retain its one of a kind quality more than half a century after its initial release.
Sunday September 2, 3:30 PM Lightbox
Socio-political filmmaker, writer, and critic Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature film Breathless is often heralded as one of the pioneering films of the French New wave- a term used to describe the emergence of French filmmakers in the 1950’s and 60’s whose works were inspired by the ‘everyday life’ representations of Italian Neorealism, as well as the tendencies of classical Hollywood cinema. If seeing the smooth talking, American slang using smart aleck Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) weave through traffic in fast cut scenes all recorded on a hand held camera, doesn’t echo ideas of ultra realism or Hollywood pastiche, hearing Michel’s first words that “I’m [he’s] a real son of a bitch” is sure to do the trick. With a fat cigarette constantly tucked into the corner of his thick, languid mouth and always sporting a crisp fedora, Breathless’ protagonist Michel immediately recalls the memory of a Hollywood icon like Humphry Bogart (which is who Michel precisely models himself after).
However, Godard’s personal homage to Bogart’s suave character becomes obvious all in the first few seconds of Breathless, and as we whip down the highway alongside the jumpy and easily excitable Michel only to soon witness Michel murder two cops who try to stop him for speeding (or driving in a stolen car), we see that although focused on portraying realism, Breathless still carries that certain sense of roughness and danger essential to the genre in which it pays its respects.
Even in these early stages of Breathless, Michel’s playfully blunt tough guy exterior comes off like a hard boiled hero on speed; a highly accelerated version of the slow and suave finesse that the typically laconic characters we’ve seen foiled by femme fatales exhibit. In this, one can only guess at Godard’s absolute praise for these films, but as Breathless unravels into an enjoyable, and typically Godardian expose of intimacy (both verbal and sexual) between Michel and his hard to get love interest Patricia (Jean Seberg), it is obvious that Breathless gives so much more than its simple design lets on.
Breathless takes us on a wild ride alongside Michel as he runs from the police, convinces the seemingly inconvincible Patricia to make love to him, and make hilariously brash comments like “women drivers are cowardice personified”. Even more impressive, the characters’ subtle allusions to American tropes like smoking “luckies” and Michel’s constant use of American slang makes Breathless operate as an instructional in the semiotics that dictate the both languages of the movies as well as love.
Quite possibly the coolest thing about Godard’s French New Wave motives in Breathless would be that harboring such gives us an ultra realistic look at a (campy albeit) noir film’s characters. Michel and Patricia carry out their dialogue with each other only to demonstrate an impeccable chemistry that is well imitated, yet seldom duplicated, and both actors ability to all out own their characters’ traits makes Breathless a fun, free flowing experiment in the genre. Now, more than half a century after Breathless’ initial release, watching Godard’s blithe reimagining of the classical Hollywood film captured through a realistic lens continues to secure Breathless’ status as the crowning gem of the French New Wave.
Thursday, August 9th, 6:30 PM Lightbox
Belle de Jour
The opening sequence of Luis Buñuel’s 1967 saucy-surrealist drama Belle de Jour is prefaced by a very noticeable ‘Martin Scorsese Presents’ title. This title no doubt comes at the time of Belle de Jour’s rerelease, heralded by Hollywood heavyweight Scorsese’s efforts to reinvigorate and renew interest Buñuel’s French masterpiece of dream state drama, and all for very good reason.
In Belle de Jour Buñuel adapts French journalist/ novelist Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel of the same title, portraying the tense and rigid story of the gracious, delicate, and all around aristocratic Severine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve). Severine is the well off trophy wife of a young yet sexually uninterested doctor who spends long days at the hospital and whose only ambition for Severine is for her to bear him a child. Whether it is through fait or chance, Severine learns of a brothel run by a call girl impresario, who doubles as a prostitution guru of sorts for both Severine and the two other women who work there and it is here that Belle de Jour truly begins to walk on the wildside.
As if drawn by some insatiable, yet unexplainable urge, Severine slips further and further into the dark desires and kinky fantasies her customers require her to perform- both exciting her as well as awakening her long dormant sexual desires. Belle de Jour exists as a salient example of a truly timeless experience- as Kessel’s source material was delivered nearly forty years before Buñuel adapted Kessel’s ideas to the screen. Now, roughly a half century after its initial release, and a decade after Scorsese’s reissue, Belle de Jour continues to stand out amongst a cinema that has made its viewers very familiar with the fascinating, yet now routine, dalliances of a call girl (a cycle no doubt greatly popularized by Roy Schieder’s Academy award nominated prostitution- horror thriller Klute (1971) and still being carried out today with films like The Girlfriend Experience (2009)).
The sheer endurance of Belle de Jour can undoubtedly be accredited to Buñuel’s mastery of the surrealist drama, as his sly mixture of Severine’s dark masochistic dreams, rugged fantasies, and suppressed memories of sexual abuse blend and surprisingly sit flush with her everyday occurrences. Belle de Jour becomes a seductive puzzle enticing us to walk with Severine on her kinky journey, and while seeing Severine’s decadence degraded and dragged through the mud by her absolutely naughty behaviour is indeed exciting, Belle de Jour’s endures as more than just simple thrills.
When Severine becomes involved with a rough neck named Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), Severine appears as a moth uncontrollably drawn to a flame; and as walk along the thin line between fear and excitement Severine traverses, the sexual tension of the situation makes us unaware if we’ll make it out unscathed too.
Thursday, July 26th, 9:00 PM Lightbox
I had a really fun time studying Studio Ghibli’s style while writing this piece about the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli retrospective. For our research, my colleague Damanjit Lamba and I got the chance to interview retrospective programmer and head of film programmes at the Lightbox Jesse Wente to get some better insight on the history and mission behind Ghibli’s efforts.
Brandon and Damanjit: People often botch the pronunciation of the Studio. How do you say Studio Ghibli?
Jesse: It is in fact pronounced Studio Ghibli (jib-lie), which is the correct pronunciation from Miyazaki San himself. It’s one of those weird things where I think it’s a studio name that for so many years people haven’t said, they’ve just seen.
Brandon: How Has Disney and Pixar’s exclusive North American distribution of Ghibli films been beneficial to the Studio?
Jesse: It’s an incredibly unique position, and I think it’s been hugely beneficial to Studio Ghibli’s influence in the world, and in the world of cinema in particular and I applaud them [Disney]. Disney has been a huge support to us in having this series here, they’ve been incredibly generous in us having these films because to them it’s part of their mission to make sure these films are seen by people. When we first opened the building this series was one of the dreams that we would someday mount [in the Bell Tiff Lightbox]. Quite frankly I thought it was going to be years and years away because it’s a really monumental task to get both original language and dubbed versions of these films together. The Pixar relationship has been hugely beneficial to Ghibli and has in no way impeached their [Ghibli’s] voice. They [Studio Ghibli] still produce exactly the same types of films they produced 20 years ago.
Damanjit: Where do you think that Ghibli’s aesthetic fits in the changing sphere of Japanese animation?
Jesse: It really does stand apart. I mean, it’s very interesting to have a studio, which Ghibli very much is. It [Ghibli] employs hundreds of people and artists working on these films for years and years- it’s a studio in the way we think of studio. Yet as a company it has an auteur aesthetic, in the sense that the movies are all of a kind and in a like. It’s really unique to animation because of the products they churn out. I think that Ghibli always really stood in connection into animation but also very distinctly apart. While they do have talking animals and action sequences that one would normally associate with Japanese animation, they are somewhat of a different sort. I think that comes from the stories, they take very traditional Japanese myths and stories and transfer them to animation in a way you don’t normally see otherwise.
Brandon: What are your 3 must see Studio Ghibli films?
Jesse: Wow, uh geez. The first one I ever saw is the very first one: Nausicaa, which I would have seen probably in the late 80s early 90s. Nausicaa, at that time, was really quite legendry. Legendary and hard to find. I still think it’s one of their grandest statements. I just think its a stunningly beautiful movie, it really announces their [Ghibli’s] arrival in a way that I think is sort of amazing. I would then put My Neighbor Totoro, which is my all time favourite Ghibli movie. To be honest with you it makes me cry every time-
Damanjit: Totally agree with you there!
Jesse: It’s such a beautiful film. What I love now as a parent, which I didn’t appreciate when I saw the film, is that movies like Totoro are really hard to find in North America that have that sensibility and speak to kids in that way and present the world that that film does. After that I’d probably say Spirited Away. It’s probably their most popular movie in North America, and I remember when it was nominated for the Oscars and it was sort of like ‘where else would this movie have come from but Studio Ghibli’?
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Watching a crackling fire named Calcifer (Billy Crystal) talk in Howl’s Moving Castle is proof that director Hayao Miyazaki really can breathe life into anything. Combining magic, technology, and science Howl follows the tradition of other Studio Ghilbi masterpieces with its abundant fluidity, refusing to ground itself in one particular representation of an alternate world.
Sophie (Emily Mortimer), a teenaged hat maker is whimsically cursed by the benevolent Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), and turned into an old woman. In the quest to reverse her transformation Sophie comes across the soft spoken Adonis wizard Howl (Christian Bale), who’s dark and tortured soul desperately seeks restitution.
Watching a crackling fire named Calcifer (Billy Crystal) talk in Howl’s Moving Castle is proof that director Hayao Miyazaki really can breathe life into anything. Combining magic, technology, and science Howl follows the tradition of other Studio Ghilbi masterpieces with its abundant fluidity, refusing to ground itself in one particular representation of an alternate world. Sophie (Emily Mortimer), a teenaged hat maker is whimsically cursed by the benevolent Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), and turned into an old woman.
In the quest to reverse her transformation Sophie comes across the soft spoken Adonis wizard Howl (Christian Bale), who’s dark and tortured soul desperately seeks restitution. With his penchant and awe inspiring ability to make heaps of scrap metal and glossy steam punk machines behave like metallic organisms with minds of their own, Miyazaki showcases the beauty of the synergy that exists between humankind and technology, and the sordid darkness that pervades our destructively futile uses for it.
I’ve been covering Bell Tiff Lightbox’s Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli event for the last week or so. This 60 year old Japanese studio is renowned for putting out films which look totally unique, are meticulously crafted, and pretty much always guaranteed to be like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Trying to sum a film in 150 words isn’t easy- and trying to do this with a Ghibli film is damn near impossible. Speaking with Jesse Wente, head of Film Programmes at TIFF Bell Lightbox, about this legendary and prolific Studio’s aims was greatly helpful though. Still trying to find the words, no, the right words to sum up Howl’s Moving Castle, Jesse insight is of great and haunting value.