Archive for Paul Meurisse

“You’ll be lovelier each day, with fabulous pink Camay.”

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , on December 9, 2011 by dcairns

Fiona my partner’s one piece of film criticism to date is a profile of Henri-Georges Clouzot for the Great Directors series at Senses of Cinema, here. A traveling retrospective of his work prompted me to trespass on the same territory, so I’ve contributed a different-but-related overview to Moving Image Source. Think of them as an endearingly odd couple…

The BBC once ran a series of five minute interstitial shows called Close Up, in which celebrities picked favourite film scenes — George Romero picked the opening of TAKES OF HOFFMANN (Robert Helpmann weaving between three chairs), Marcel Ophuls picked the masked dancer from his father Max’s LE PLAISIR, and British Labour politician Dennis Healey picked the climax of LES DIABOLIQUES, and did a remarkable impersonation of undead Paul Meurisse, without the end of ping-pong ball contact lenses. I wish I had a copy.

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An Angel Passes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2011 by dcairns

Bonjour! Guest Shadowplayer Phoebe Green, known to the comments section as “La Faustin”, started writing this piece on Maurice Tourneur’s last movie in response to The Late Show Late Films Blogathon, but didn’t get it finished that week. But here it is at last, and I’m thrilled tAo be able to publish it — one of the best things to come out of that adventure in joint blogging. The movie is a typically shadowed, moody, droll and soft-spoken thriller from one of the most distinguished and underrated of filmmakers — I await a subtitled copy or an evening with Benshi film described David Wingrove to be able to view it properly, but from glancing at the French VHS and reading Phoebe’s piece, I feel like the movie’s an old friend. One I just haven’t met yet.

TOURNEUR CESSA DE TOURNER  (TOURNEUR STOPPED FILMING)

No, not “Dilemma of Two Angels”, although that’s how a flustered American biographer of Maurice Tourneur translated the title of his last film.  Impasse des Deux Anges (1948) is named after a real dead-end street in the Saint Germain quarter of Paris, but long before Armani and Ralph Lauren made the neighborhood home; back when Simone de Beauvoir described to Nelson Algren the local businesswoman who made her living reselling the tobacco picked from discarded cigarette butts.

This is an alluring agglomeration of a film, where the star-crossed love story theoretically driving the intrigue recedes into the background as successive fascinating whatsits pop up.  Tourneur himself felt the suggestive magic of studio sets for unknown productions glimpsed as he went about his own work.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful, he wrote, to take a group of such empty sets, shut a writer in with a list of actors, a bottle of whiskey and a typewriter, and let him out when the bottle was empty and the script complete?

The sets of Impasse are the work of Jean d’Eaubonne, responsible for the sharply specific Paris of Casque d’Or and Touchez Pas au Grisbi as well as the oneiric worlds of Orphée, Madame de … and Lola Montès, among others.

After the titles, drifting diagonally up against the background of a silvery/sooty impasse and blasted by a doomy waltz, we’re prosaically in a bank where safe deposit box 13 is being opened for the Marquis Antoine de Fontaines (Marcel Herrand).  He is retrieving from the diamond necklace conferred by Louis XIV on the Marquise de Fontaines and worn since then by every Fontaines bride on her wedding day.  (“Tradition is the superstition of the well-bred,” observes the Marquis, whose mondanity, a smooth blend of Herbert Marshall and Sacha Guitry, is given a dubious edge by the memory of Herrand as Lacenaire in Les Enfants du Paradis.)

He is observed from the street by two hollow-cheeked crooks, Minus and Bébé (Paul Demange and Reggie Nalder), who alert their boss, “Le Vicomte”.  He, back at the office, is leafing through newspaper articles on the Fontaines necklace and on tomorrow’s scandalous marriage of music hall star Marianne to the Marquis, while awaiting an American visitor, “le spécialiste”, who is to steal the necklace that night.

“Le spécialiste”, when he shows up, is Paul Meurisse, with a Warner Brothers deadpan so emphatic it’s funny.  (Perhaps a souvenir of Meurisse’s 1930’s cabaret act, singing peppy popular songs gloomily.)  The senior crooks effortfully welcome their brooding, silent guest in franglais (“Pleez come ‘ere” … “Very honoré”) until he puts them out of their misery by telling them he is more Parisian than they.  There is some huffiness about “the fashion for Anglo Saxons” for big jobs, echoing M. Tourneur’s reception upon his return from Hollywood.  Requesting a cigarette, Jean, the “spécialiste”, turns down the secretary’s proud offer of her “Loockies”, tossing her his own pack in return for a Gauloise, savored in close-up.

Now we’re at the musical hall rehearsal of “Le Chevalier d’Eon”, where journalists have come to capture Marianne handing over her leading role to her understudy.  Marianne is a brunette Simone Signoret, fabulously leggy in silk stockings and tricorne, as down to earth and glamorous as Marlene Dietrich taking a cake out of the oven.

This is why little American girls want to be French when they grow up.

Antoine, meanwhile, has outraged his sister by refusing to sign the marriage contract the family solicitor has drawn up. He will not accept any protection from the law of community property; he is throwing himself heart and fortune into his first romantic folly.

Marianne returns to her hôtel particulier where that evening she will host a reception for the des Fontaines relatives en masse – “Saint Germain — the Faubourg, not the Café de Flore,” she notes worriedly to her retinue.  (This includes a bespectacled bluestocking come to drill her on the imperfect subjunctive, but instead offered her choice of an evening gown – Volupté or Vol de Nuit – for her wasted pains.)  It’s an impressive place – Bébé and Minus, casing the joint from the street, remark that it’s easier for a woman to be honest and still do well than it is for a man.

Antoine presents Marianne with the necklace, to be kept in her safe overnight.  It’s obvious that this is a “marriage of reason” for her – she treats her fiancé with slightly sardonic respect and distance, not letting him supply the money she gives to fawning old stager who appears to pay his respects, and when he requests that she change her stage name Marianne (“it’s as though I were marrying the Republic”) to Anne-Marie she refuses because “That’s my real name” – something she’s never revealed to him before.

“Le Vicompte,” acting as an extra servant at the reception, lets “guest” Jean in to snag the necklace.  As he returns from emptying the safe, inevitably, he and Marianne meet and recognize each other.

They leave the reception together, to the dismay of Jean’s accomplices and eventually of Antoine (Marianne’s faithful butler can cover for her only so long).  They will go away together.

They remember the last time they saw each other – and in double-exposure, we see the ghosts of their past selves.  A younger, poorer Jean gets out of a taxi, kisses a plain, frizzy-haired Anne-Marie goodbye, and goes off in the taxi – where, unseen by Anne-Marie, plainclothesmen handcuff him.  The ghosts of even earlier selves walk on the quais – she’s bored being a shopgirl and a friend of hers might be able to get her on the music hall stage; he’s a notary clerk, not having been able to afford to become a lawyer.

They try to return to their old love nest, his attic room in the Impasse des Deux Anges, where they grew geraniums and fed pigeons.  It’s a boarded-up ruin now, skittered through by a fierce little stray cat of a girl – Danièle Delorme – a hanger-on of the gangs that have made the lot “leur market“, she says, for American cigarettes and contraband.  Her name is Anne-Marie.  She resists Marianne’s attempt to connect with her – “Were you ever poor?” – but helps the pair escape the pursuing Bébé and Minus and defies the latter’s quasi-paternal bullying (“Kids today!”)

The couple are forced to take refuge in a half-built apartment house (“the money ran out”) in a neighboring lot, a framework of boxes within boxes.  A young man living in the only occupied apartment shelters them in and offers to bandage Jean’s bullet wound with US surplus mercurochrome and bandages.  He is fascinated by the presence of “real gangsters” – taking possession of Jean’s gun, then letting the gun take possession of him.  “I’m not a kid, I’m strong.”  Holding them at gunpoint, he backs out of the room.

Alone, Marianne and Jean face what he has become – a thief, an outlaw with, he feels, no possibility of return, a “specialist.”  He blames her – she wanted pretty things, he was afraid if he couldn’t afford to give her them she would abandon him for a man who could – but, gently, she refuses to accept his accusation.  Shots ring out from downstairs – once you have a gun, you can’t help using it.  “Another one who says, ‘I’m not to blame.'”

Jean tells the panicked boy crouching over the man he’s killed to say that a lone intruder with a gun came through his window and went down the stairs.  Jean will shield the boy and Marianne.

Back at Marianne’s place, the Marquis and the butler speak.  The butler, it turns out, is Marianne’s godfather.  He knows that she left with Jean – he also knew from the first, as Marianne did not, that Jean had gone to prison for theft.  Antoine leaves.

Jean asks Marianne to let him take cover for the night in her house.  Once inside, received with paternal disapproval by the butler, Jean goes upstairs for a few moments, then settles down for the night in the pantry.  Marianne calls her agent to reopen the question of the South American tour she rejected.

The next morning, Antoine returns to confirm that he wants to marry Marianne and to declare, as he never has before, that he loves her.  The wedding is on.  Marianne and the marquis get into a rather funereal limo (or is it just a premonition of Maurice Tourneur’s fate that makes it seem to glide so menacingly?) and set off down the avenue.  As they do, shots ring out – Jean has been gunned down by Bébé and dies, shrugging off a policeman’s question of who did it:  “It’s not worth it …”  In the car, the couple barely registers the disturbance.  Marianne loosens her furs and reveals the necklace.  Fin.

Maurice Tourneur.

One last thought:  The scenarist Jean-Paul Le Chanois (see Tavernier’s LAISSEZ-PASSER) — a Jew, a Communist, a résistant well before the CP climbed on the bandwagon — worked for Continental Films during the Occupation.  Perhaps there is a relationship to be drawn between this gyroscopic personal equilibrium and what seem to be contradictory impulses in the scenario – the pull of the romantic miserabilism and fatalism of pre-war poetic realism playing against the counter-attraction of personal achievement and material comfort.  Or perhaps the French and the American faces of Maurice Tourneur?

[1] Thanks to the indefatigable IMDB reviewer “dbdumonteil” (3816 reviews and counting!) for the title.  Has no one remarked on the delightful appropriateness of the name Tourneur for the father and son directors?  “Tourner”, literally to turn or roll, as in “Roll ’em!” is still used colloquially for “to shoot” a film.  Marcel L’Herbier titled his memoirs “La Tête Qui Tourne“, a pun on the expression “my head is spinning”.  Bad luck for any eventual translator that Pauline Kael already claimed “Reeling” for herself.

[2] Thanks to Francomac and his French film (plus) blog for the clip and screen caps.

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.