Sisters

Spent all of Thursday thinking it was Wednesday and went in to work on Friday thinking it was Friday. Despite not even opening that bottle of vodka I bought. Probably a good thing I didn’t.

Here’s yesterday’s entry in Dwight Frye-days at Limerwrecks, on SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. And so –

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LES ANGES DU PECHE, Robert Bresson’s nunsploitation film? Well, the title, ANGELS OF SIN is a fantastic one — Nigel Wingrove should recycle it for one of his softcore habits-and-tits films. The film itself is something else.

Bresson’s style is still at an early stage of evolution, which means he hadn’t yet eliminated everything he didn’t like, or modified everything he didn’t quite like — the movie is more like a traditional one of the period (1943), albeit a particularly elegant and tasteful one. And it has actors, not models, in the lead roles, including the brittle Jany Holt, who was leading a double life at this time, acting by day and working for the resistance by night. Her sharply-sculpted face, often chic, is here useful to suggest frosty, hard-bitten cynicism.

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She plays a woman framed for a crime she didn’t commit who resolves to kill the man who framed her. Bresson gives her a gun-buying scene to compare with Cagney’s in THE PUBLIC ENEMY or Schwartzenegger’s in THE TERMINATOR. “This is the best. It takes six bullets. Six more in the extra clip. Will that be enough?” Jany replies: “If it isn’t, I’ll come back.” Which fills the mind’s eye with the cold-blooded image of her plugging her betrayer twelve times, noticing some vestigial respiration in the ventilated form, and calmly returning to the store to buy another round, then strolling back and perforating him again. It doesn’t happen that way in reality, of course.

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Meanwhile, Renee Faure, a young novice, has become obsessed with saving Holt’s soul, and invites her to join the convent, which welcomes women with a shady past (the first scene shows the Mother Superior and her cronies planning to collect a parolee from under the nose of her pimp, the whole operation planned like a heist or a military raid–gripping stuff!). Holt moves in to the nunnery as a way of hiding from the law, but resents the way her would-be-rescuer sees her as some kind of personal project. She resolves to destroy Faure rather than be saved by her.

When John Boorman unwisely undertook EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC, he said that rather than making a horror movie he wanted to make a theological thriller. Ignoring the fact that Friedkin’s original already is that, at least to an extent. Boorman made a gloriously silly film. When Paul Schrader unwisely undertook the film that, incredibly, wound up entitled DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST, he acknowledged that the first film had powerfully visualized the struggle for a soul (albeit in somewhat corporeal terms).

But Bresson’s film does all that much more simply, without the distraction of pea soup — it’s a really exciting movie, as exciting as PICKPOCKET though less mature in Bresson’s style, and even though I regard the business of marrying Christ with a certain amount of horror, I was able to get into it and see it from the point of view of the sisters. It’s a point of view that sees salvation as more important than life itself, which I always struggle with a bit, but this is one of the more compelling dramatic uses of the idea I’ve seen.

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Cinematographer Philipe Agostini also shot part of Ophuls’ LE PLAISIR, and all of Dassin’s RIFIFI, Carne’s LES PORTES DE LA NUIT, Duvivier’s UN CARNET DU BAL.

Strange to see Bresson so much part of the mainstream at this point. I enjoyed this so much I’m resolved to try LES DAMES DU BOIS DU BOULOGNE without delay.

You can buy it: Angels Of Sin / Les anges du péché / Angels of the Streets (1943) Region 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 Compatible [DVD]

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14 Responses to “Sisters”

  1. You know I always felt this film was underrated. It’s not Bresson at his fanciest, but it’s got something really special and original. It’s a great movie.

    And the whole business of the nuns sorority and friendship with each other anticipates Rivette’s LA RELIGIEUSE.

    The scene where Jany Holt shoots her man, it’s a perfectly staged shot. She stands against the wall, illuminated by the light from the door and bang. All in one take. You know Bresson would have made a terrific crime film director based on this and the film noir parody in Four Nights of a Dreamer, must be his Melville side. Melville said, “It’s not Melville being Bressonian, it’s Bresson being Melvillian.”

  2. A Man Escaped is effectively a crime/suspense film, and a very fine one. The concentration on objects on that, the showing of the smallest part of a scene to create a particularly strong impression, isn’t present in Les Anges du Peche to the same extent, but it shines through in places — particularly the magnificent last shot ending on Holt’s hands.

  3. Bresson in many ways WAS a crime director: Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar and L’Argent are entirely about criminal activity, and A Man Escaped is the best prison break film ever made.

    Nuns do indeed “marry” Christ. It’s one of Catholicism’s central perversions — along with “Holy Communion” which ceremonializes cannibalism. Priests don’t get to marry anyone — thus leaving them free to rape altar boys (see Cardinal Mahoney, et. al.)

    But leave us not forget this was a religion founded by a flesh-eating zombie.

    Bresson’s career constitutes a gradual, then a rapid retreat from religion. The Church was so upset by Le Diable Probablement (his masterpiece) that it bullied its star Antonine Monnier (Matisse’s grandson) into denouncing Bresson — very much in the style of the Stalinist “show trials.”

    Bresson might have continued using actors had not Maria Casares put the moves on him during the shooting of Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. Jonathan Rosenbaum informs me that Bresson (a Total Babe) as a gigolo in his youth. Learning of this Casares thought he was just he sort of “petit danseuse” she could twirl around her little finger. How rude! So Bresson swore off actors, thoughDiary of a Country Priest does feaure Nicole Maurey. Bresson considered Dominique Sanda embarking on a career after Une Femme Douce to be a betrayal. She says he used to subject her to “breather” calls for several years afterwards, periodically.

    And do try toget ahold of copy of Anne Wiazemsky’s Balthzar</i memoir "Jeune Fille." Bresson was a hoot.

  4. “(t)he brittle Jany Holt who was leading a double life at this time, acting by day and working for the resistance by night”, incredible! What a woman, and such a filmic or literary circumstance; the story on the screen and the story “in life” equally compelling. Ah, but if a film were made of it hopefully Cate Blanchett would not be in it (ooh, bitchy!).
    To philistinistically comment not on the Bresson but rather on your Exorcist aside – I have a fondness for Boorman’s pretentious Exorcist II The Heretic fiasco. It’s such a fine disaster (with a few memorable images – if not always memorable for the right reasons, wacko script and peculiar cast), and JB’s comments on why it failed with audiences are hilarious and heroic in missing the point. But then comes Excalibur, in which even the dubious or silly elements work (Nigel Terry is an unintentional hoot when playing the young Arthur but very good as the older) while there’s so much great, cracked material in it. Nicol Williamson and the always-irresistible Helen Mirren (even if she’s a weird choice for Alma Reville, age hasn’t withered her one whit even if she’s slightly irritating) catch the spirit of the thing perfectly. Cherie Lunghi isn’t bad as Guinevere, but it’d take a while for her to gain her full power, and of course on a shallow level the mature Cherie is so much more unassailably beautiful than she was in the early eighties… Uhm, well, back to Excalibur… I adore that film, it makes First Knight (that title, ugh) and King Arthur look like the gewgaws they are. They’re sub-Knights of the Round Table uninspired spark-less dreck. I can only imagine what Boorman’s Lord of the Rings would’ve been like, weird masterpiece or nutty fiasco? Or, weird nutty fiasco masterpiece (with bits like a Timotei ad)?

  5. First Night is one of those rare cases of a Hollywood title being amusing but all wrong for the intended tone, like Cowboys and Aliens. You can be 100% confident those involved don’t know what they’re doing.

    Excalibur is very watchable (I saw i as a kid, more or less smuggled in) and silly but as you say Williamson in particular makes it alive. Nobody can do that in Exorcist, it’s all so ponderous, which makes it even more hilarious when it goes off the wall. The making-of book is pretty enjoyable too (see elsewhere here for a quote).

    Holt’s story is indeed enticing — I’d love to know more. Fernand Gravey is another who was moonlighting for the resistance, in an industry where collaboration and fraternization was widespread, even unavoidable.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    The greatest line in LES DAMES… is also one of the greatest lines in any film, especially when croaked out by Maria Casares:

    “There is no love–there are only proofs [also translated as tests] of love.”

    (It makes better sense in the original French).

    I have seen this cruel, stone-cold revenge film about 20 times.

  7. The greatest line is “Je me vengerai” immediately followed by the sound of Elena Labourdette tap-dancing. It’s referenced by Rivette in Duelle. Demy’s Lola uses Les Dames as a subtext as Elena Labourdette is one of its stars.

    Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac is more about Gawain than Lancelot and Guinevere. Gawain was played by the jaw-droppingly beautiful Humbert Balsam who outside of appearing in Noroit for Rivette was a film producer of considerable note. Alas he overextended himself personally and professionally and committed suicide. His suicide and its aftermath was the basis for the film The Father of My Children

  8. David Boxwell Says:

    Correction: Casares doesn’t utter the line, her platonic/gay best male friend does in the opening sequence. I am ashamed for misremembering it. In any case, the line sets the whole film in motion.

  9. “Fernand Gravey is another who was moonlighting for the resistance in an industry in which collaboration and fraternization was widespread, even unavoidable”. Fascinating. How perilous a position must that have been for those secretly fighting for the resistance. And for all those who had to fraternize with the occupiers, while loathing them, it must have felt like a stain they could never remove, or else like a slow poison for the spirit (of course there are many things that feel like this, one need not be in an occupied country tho’ one tends to be in less danger of being executed. Hm. Happy thoughts?). I suppose there surely must be books if not films on this particular subject, filmmaking in such conditions. It’s particularly interesting as regards actors and actresses; they played roles before the camera, they played roles for the germans, and then they had the real roles they played for the resistance (and a fourth role when they were alone, I can but barely imagine the pressure). And then there were those who only too gladly collaborated, as we know. Thanks for the stimulating information, sorry to drivel on (imagine a smiley face here!).

  10. The best fiction film on the subject is Tavernier’s Laissez-Passer, highly recommended. We bought the big Rene Chateau book on Cinema Under the Occupation, which was sure expensive but fascinating and lushly illustrated. My friend David Wingrove translated a Jean Marais interview from it: he was given credit for never appearing in a German production during wartime, but said it was sheer chance. Had he been offered a role, he would have had to take it, and in fact he accepted several parts but the films never came together. So that kind of collaboration couldn’t be avoided by choice, and of course if you were in the resistance the best place of all to work would be Continental Films, because there was an SS office right in the company headquarters: a great opportunity for spying.

    Looking forward to Les Dames! Always skeptical of filmmakers’ explanations for why they do what they do, but I largely believe Bresson’s story about why he preferred models to actors: we can certainly see the difference in his films. Etaix and the main magician in Pickpocket do suggest a fascinating other route he could have taken, since physical actors are quite different to direct than the usual kind.

    With a movie star, the power relationship with the director is different, so while sexual advances from your lead would still be a possible hazard, they would be easier to brush aside, I guess if the lead were an untrained newcomer.

  11. True, but if you have an untrained newcomer on your hands they’re a lot easier to nail — and there’s little doubt Bresson had tons of naughty fun.

  12. Fascinating. Thanks for the recommendations and the history. It’s refreshing that someone like Marais was so honest, particularly when there are more than a few actors who seem compelled to take credit for the silliest things! Ah, actors, you can’t help but love them (well, some of them…).

  13. Marais also probably didn’t want to appear holier-than-thou, since Cocteau had been attending drinks evenings with Goebbels and the like. That kind of thing, worrisome though it may be, needed to be overlooked as the country got back to what passes for normal in any civilized land. There were far worse crimes that went unremarked.

  14. And on that cheery note…

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