Archive for Jean-Claude Carriere

Moreau does Mirbeau

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2008 by dcairns

Jeanne of the angels

So, before I head off for an actual meeting with an actual exec producer, some semi-baked thoughts on Bunuel’s DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, adapted from Octave Mirbeau’s novel, which I re-saw as part of the Jeanne Moreau retrospective. Actually, I was arguably seeing it for the first time, since my V.H.S. experience was not wide-screen. Bunuel can’t have made many ‘Scope films, but he seems perfectly at home in the wide format. And is there anything more beautiful than black-and-white wide-screen? Maybe it’s just the rarity, since wide-screen came into existence parallel with the dying days of black-and-white so there are relatively few films made in both (although THE BAT WHISPERS is an almost-unique 1930s wide-screen experiment, and the occasional film like THE ELEPHANT MAN has united monochrome and ‘Scope).

I always enjoy this film up until the ending, but this time I was determined to get something positive from the ending as well. I failed. I always get sucked into seeing the film as a detective thriller, which it definitely functions as from the time of the murder onwards — a country house detective thriller, in fact. Of course, the real point is the satirical dissection of French society, and this is terrifically enjoyable. Bunuel’s houseful are all enjoyably strange, and while many people wouldn’t regard the film as surreal at all, there are aberrant moments like the secret chemistry lab belonging to the mistress of the house, where she presumably “minces among bad vats and jeroboams, spinneys of murdering herbs, and prepares to compound […] a venomous porridge” for her husband. Michel Piccoli (with hair! on his head!) is the husband, a pitch-perfect portrait of baffled idiot virility, a surging pillar of testosterone reduced to the infantile by his hormonal geyser.

Neighbors

Moreau is part bitch-goddess, part warm and humane heroine, depending on who she’s dealing with. She seems to live by a version of Raymond Durgnat’s Proletarian Ten Commandments — “Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being out-talked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted.” And she becomes the detective heroine, which is exciting.

Eve

Except — and I can’t really call this a spoiler, but look away if you’re worried — she doesn’t catch the killer. The film seems explicitly to identify him at the moment the crime is committed, but since the horrific act itself is literally unshowable, his guilt isn’t 100% certain. At a certain point, one begins to doubt if Moreau has set her sights on the right man, and a conventional thriller would have allowed us to jump ahead and suspect Piccoli, only to produce a third, surprise suspect as the guilty party, someone we had dismissed. This being Bunuel, I would then expect some turnaround that leaves the guilty unpunished and the innocent “getting it in the neck”, to use Joe Orton’s description. The ending we get produces no such twists, allowing a happy ending for the killer but transferring the political subtext from the background, where it has been simmering away very effectively, to the foreground, where it seems rather crude and programmatic. The crash of thunder at the end seems particularly unfortunate, especially as Bunuel’s mastery of surprising sound juxtapositions has been very much in evidence: a screeching flock of unseen schoolchildren, a loud passing train where no train can be seen, and sounds that recur, linking apparently unconnected scenes.

I thought of Bunuel and Carriere’s script for THE MONK, eventually filmed by other hands, which likewise avoids the ending dictated by genre but is actually less startling than the “conventional” punishment meted out in Matthew Lewis’ gloriously excessive Gothic novel. Maybe it’s possible to be too clever with these things. I guess the all-round happiness of the ending — with the fascists on the march — comes closest to THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, which has an absurdly upbeat ending I’m very fond of.

If Jean-Claude Carriere’s script-work with Bunuel, on their first collaboration, doesn’t quite satisfy me, his performance as the village priest is hysterical. I wanted more of him. I wanted him to have his own series of films, dispensing awful, cynical advise to his parishioners in exchange for funds for repairing the church roof. He seems about to advise the mistress of the house on how to satisfy her husband without the painful and abhorrent business of penetration, when the alarm is raised and he’s reduced to uselessly attempting to kick down an oaken door (“Damn it!”) — the lady’s father has dropped dead in his locked bedroom while fetishizing a pair of patent-leather shoes, demonstrating that John Carradine’s advice to his sons — “Never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing” — is not always so easy to follow.

The Island of Dr Moreau

When a character says “I’ve got my reasons,” I was of course reminded of Renoir. So I must watch his version of DIARY, which stars Paulette Goddard and is knocking about the house somewhere. Otherwise this is like a kinky GOSFORD PARK — no bad thing.