Archive for Jean-Louis Richard

Abby Normal (A Woman Under the Influence)

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2012 by dcairns

ABBY should of course have been called THE BLAXORCIST, but the difference between this and William “King Dick” Marshall’s other horror franchise is that BLACULA derives from a 19th century novel, safely out of copyright (with only the cape borrowed from Bela Lugosi) whereas ABBY derives from a major Warners release. Warners sued and ABBY was taken out of cinemas — though DVDs now circulate, they’re derived from a badly “pinked” 16mm print — nobody knows where the original negative and release prints may be…

William Girdler, writer-director, also made the ridiculous but fun THE MANITOU, memorable for Tony Curtis’s voluminous man-boobs pressing through his see-through shirt. ABBY offers no comparably disturbing images, but does share the fascination with tribal religions. Blatty’s EXORCIST cheekily suggests that Mesopotamian deity Pazuzu is moonlighting as a biblical demon, implying that perhaps ALL the gods and prophets of mankind’s faiths are really just demons in a Catholic universe (Buddha’s not laughing with you, he’s laughing AT you), ABBY centres on Eshu, a god from the Yoruba religion who is allowed his own phenomenological reality. And although the mischievous (to put it mildly) Eshu is ultimately vanquished by a priest, he’s not exorcised by the Catholic ceremony designed for that purpose, but by methods appropriate to the Yoruba religion. So in that sense, ABBY is less conservative than the bigger film.

Girdler tends to exaggerate the effects of the Friedkin film, though, so he has more “subliminal” flashes of weird faces (Dick Smith make-up tests in the original film, exaggerated versions of Carol Speed’s make-up in this one), while paring away ambiguities — the “Why Iraq?” stuff in the first film is replaced by more or less clearly motivated Nigerian scenes in this one. He also makes his victim of possession an adult, which removes some problems (could you legally make Friedkin’s film today?) and creates others.

Subliminal image alert!

On the one hand, having a preacher’s wife possessed by a sex demon could open avenues for grotesque satire (Milo Manara’s porno comic Click! filmed by Jean-Louis Richard [who married Jeanne Moreau, who also married… William Friedkin] gestures vaguely in that direction, with its free hand), but the film is very respectful towards religion, so sex has to be viewed as a horror. Eruptions of untamed libido must be stopped. Admittedly, Speed’s aggressive lust when she’s under Eshu’s influence, she’s pretty unladylike. But the conservatism that’s so unexpectedly prominent in the supernatural blaxploitation genre comes to the fore here.

But so does something else. Friedkin’s cleverest move was perhaps his casting of Mercedes McCambridge as the Voice — years of cigarettes and whisky and being Mercedes McCambridge had given her a throaty, rasping, gargly sound with only a trace of the female. Girdler simply gets a man to do it, and so Abby becomes a hairy-browed sexual predator with a man’s voice. Why do all William Marshall movies end up in a homoerotic Hades of pushmepullyou conflicted response?

ABBY has very committed performances from its ensemble, though Juanita Moore (not only of IMITATION OF LIFE, but Marshall’s co-star in LYDIA BAILEY) doesn’t get enough to do. Her one big moment is an outraged frenzy that anybody should suggest that her vicious nymphomaniac daughter might benefit from the attentions of a psychiatrist. Apparently she’s “good” and “God-fearing” and so she couldn’t possibly be mentally ill. That’s a pretty interesting (ie wrongheaded and dangerous) line of thought, though the movie is perhaps using it simply to avoid a bunch of boring analyst scenes. Instead we get colossal steel slabs of Chrysler maneuvering around Louisville at night.

Marshall is somewhat constrained by playing a man of the cloth, but his wry humour does come out, especially during the climax when he taunts Eshu, using some of his old Blacula condescension — I wasn’t sure whether he’s saying the demon is NOT Eshu in order to annoy it, or because he’s genuinely figured that out. But apparently this is stuff that Marshall added to the script himself, and it’s the best writing in the movie.

The whole climax takes place, in a departure from the source material, in a ghastly orange nightclub, made even more oppressive by the pinkness of the print. This is what the seventies WAS, people. We had brown and orange and that was it. The rest of the spectrum was embargoed until Prince came along. This colourless, windowless, airless, low-ceilinged lounge space is unquestionably the most frightening element of ABBY, and it’s worth watching to get there. Interestingly, since THE HUNGER, vampires have been associated with nightclubs — usually crap movie ones that are years out of date. They’re never frightening, even though a night club is my real-life idea of Hell. But ABBY’s tangerine leisure spaceship is genuinely a horrible, horrible place, where you can feel your soles sticking to the carpet from all the spilled drinks. Don’t watch alone.

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Spies in Black

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2010 by dcairns

Two French spy flicks — MATA HARI, AGENT H21 with Jeanne Moreau (!) and LE MONOCLE NOIR.

My model for this kind of thing is Clouzot’s LES ESPIONS, an existential/absurd nightmare of surveillance and menace, in which the entire population of the film is gradually replaced by secret agents. It’s like Ionesco or something. Doesn’t entirely work (abandoning the tight spatial constraints of the first two-thirds for a muddled climax feels like a desperate mistake), and its box office failure nearly killed Clouzot’s career, but it’s my starting point for thinking about French spies. This would seem grotesque to a French film buff, since the genre’s been such a popular and productive one across the channel.

I expected MATA HARI to be sheer nonsense, and it kind of is, but it’s highly entertaining nonsense. The director is Jean-Louis Richard, Moreau’s hubbie at the time, and actor and very occasional director. His final movie in that capacity was soft-core Milo Manara adaptation LE DECLIC (AKA CLICK!), which I’m ashamed to say I’ve actually seen. As one is used to saying of modern American blockbusters, “It’s not bad, for what it is.”

More intriguingly, the WWI romp (and the incongruence of that descriptor should clue you in to the kind of dissonance to expect) was co-produced and co-written by Francois Truffaut, who I guess had to eat. Truffaut is credited with dialogue, which I’m in no real position to judge, since he made the technical error of writing it in French, but his connection to the film also resulted in an eccentric cameo by Jean-Pierre Leaud, utterly pointless except for its sheer point-and-laugh entertainment value (think Belmondo in CASINO ROYALE) and a score by Georges Delerue.

Ah, Delerue! My Sansa Media Player (highly recommended) is stuffed with his film scores. He enhances the beauty and resonance of any film, even one as already heartbreaking as THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE. Given a piece of dumb froth, he injects it with emotion… strikingly, while a film will be unbearable if it attempts to latch onto unearned emotion by hitching itself to some major issue or real-life tragedy (most commonly, the Holocaust), it can only benefit from a score that’s too beautiful. The movie really doesn’t merit such a lovely soundtrack, but it doesn’t cause any problems. Beautiful music, like beautiful photography, is never destructive as long as it’s used with taste.

The movie begins with Mata (agent H21 — presumably her predecessor, Agent H2O, was liquidated) doing her pseudo-Javanese nightclub act, in a diaphanous top. Richard tracks past audience members exchanging expository sound-bites of scene-setting, panning to the floor as the opening titles are sketched in. In the front row sit the real sketchers, artists and amateurs attempting to draw Mata as she dances. Except the last artist isn’t drawing, he’s just writing numbers. And then we realize that Mata’s exotic dance involves frequent and eleborate finger gestures, by which she’s signaling a coded message to the man with the pencil…

This sequence tells us several things: (1) The movie is cheerfully dumb and ahistorical (2) It’s inventive and cute (3) Jeanne Moreau will be showing her breasts. All of which are central to Richard’s purpose. In fact, they are Richard’s purpose.

Later, in a suspenseful bit, Moreau distracts Jean-Louis Trintignant while his valise is rifled, then falls in love with him. The WWI romantic stuff, complete with stock footage, recalls JULES ET JIM, arguably a mistake (Rule #1 is never remind the audience of a great film while making them watch a silly one).

Silly as it is, the movie is entertaining and occasionally exciting. The last third suffers from the unavoidable predictability: once we can see how Mata’s going to get caught, it’s a drag waiting for it to happen, and the final execution arrives none too soon. Bang! The abruption, simplicity and brutality of the slaughter is shocking and effective, the camera lingering a moment on the slumped corpse… and then Richard proves himself a true hack by dissolving to a slomo shot of Moreau et Trintignant romping in a field of long grass. He falls at the last hurdle, failing not only as a filmmaker but as a critic and audience of his own work — anybody can see that the ending was more striking and powerful without that bit of faux-impressionist cheese.

LE MONOCLE NOIR is from Georges Lautner, whose LA PASHA I semi-liked. This is maybe better: it has a definite style, that early sixties b&w expressionist noir look most commonly found in the German krimi. It avoids the flashy attempts to be with-it that seemed so jarring in PASHA. And indeed, LMN was so successful it spawned two sequels, both starring Paul Meurisse as the titular spy, known by his black monocle.

A disparate group of fascist conspirators are gathered in a chateau to await the arrival of a Martin Bormann type, a high-ranking Nazi escapee who’s supposedly going to lead their movement. But, in an echo of Clouzot’s headspinner, most of the cast are actually double agents, working for Russia, Germany and France. Meurisse has recognized his East German counterpart (Elga Andersen, voluptuous and saucy) and she has recognized him, but the Russian is unknown to both of them. This being a French movie with Nazi villains, the commie spies aren’t actually baddies, just additional counters on the board.

Rolly-polly drolerie from Bernard Blier (right).

The film has a certain sly drolerie, augmented by the presence of Bernard Blier as a small-town police chief: he also introduces the film, saying “Tonight, the secret agents will have no secrets from us. See you soon.” The charm is slightly marred by off-color jokes (Andersen: “Ever since the fall of Berlin, if I make love out of doors, I feel like I’m being raped.” A line even Tarantino might balk at) and tonal uncertainty — a genuinely gripping chase ends with a sympathetic character murdered, and the heroes expressing no emotional reaction. The movie could play its games much better if there were no innocent civilians in it at all.

Actually, that might be true in real life too, of all espionage, and all wars.