Archive for The Phantom of Liberty

Liberty’s Ghosts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2019 by dcairns

Bingeing on Costa-Gavras! Something I resolved to do a few years ago (I’m sluggish) when I caught up with LE COUPERET, a riveting film which was a big hit in France but not hugely seen elsewhere. Maybe the best Donald Westlake adaptation, in a sense? It’s more faithful that POINT BLANK, which is maybe a bit greater as a film, and even invents material that feels incredibly Westlakean (Westlakish? Westlakoid?), even while hewing to a sensibility, Boorman’s, that’s pretty far removed from the author’s. Costa-Gavras’ film is pure Westlake, and at the same time pure Costa-Gavras.

SECTION SPECIALE deals with the special courts set up by the Vichy regime with the seeming intention of placating the Nazis by executing “subversives.” The beginning of the film is a thriller — some young communists decide to kill members of the occupying German forces. Even here, the film pays surprising attention to the arguments these kids engage in to determine whether murder is permissable under these circumstances. The fine logic arrives at the conclusion that a German soldier might be part of the proletariat of his homeland and therefore personally a poetential ally to the cause, but as a presence in France in his official capacity he’s an enemy and can be shot in the back. Seems reasonable.

More logic: the Vichy cabinet is terrified of reprisals — not entirely foolishly, given the Nazis’ response to the killing of Heidrich in Czechoslovakia. But they hype the threat up hysterically, persuading the courts to go along with their plans by muttering darkly of hundreds of executions of celebrities and prominent citizens including judges, by guillotine in the Place de la Concorde, something the Germans (embodied by the great Heinz Bennent) explicitly ruled out.

Basically the plan is to set up a retroactive law under which suspects or previously convicted persons can be charged and executed. Six executions are promised to the Germans, so regardless of the facts, six convictions must be obtained — under a law that hadn’t been written at the time the “offences” were (maybe) committed.

By now, action scenes of assassination are far behind, but the sense of this being a thriller is continued by other means, through a series of dialogues where, yes, human lives are in the balance, but so are the concept of justice and the consciences of the judges — a third-rate bunch of careerists, mostly.

Costa-Gavras had already gotten into Kafkaesque territory in L’AVEAU and to some extent Z (where, after all, a letter of the alphabet is outlawed). Here, the fact that several of the starry French cast had just appeared in Bunuel’s THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY seems apt, or prophetic — these two movies would make a terrific double-bill, each illuminating the other. Michael Lonsdale’s chilly presence inhabits both films like a lump of ice in the stomach, and Julien Bertheau’s querulous police chief in the Bunuel is promoted to querulous judge here (never trust a man who dyes his hair and wears face powder — and no, I wouldn’t like Gustav Von Aschenback as a judge either).

Costa-Gavras’ black comedy is at times startling, as when a meeting between cabinet ministers and judges takes place with the chasing of a chicken as background action. History is tragedy and farce AT THE SAME TIME.

SECTION SPECIALE stars Monsieur Klein’s dad; Hugo Drax; Ragueneau; Jim; Hans Vergerus; Cagliostro; Napoleon; Victor Manzon / ‘Serrano’; and Prince Charming.

Thinking like a screenwriter

Posted in FILM with tags , , on March 16, 2019 by dcairns

I found the following text in a file on my work computer. I must have written it for a class but I don’t remember.

Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere says, “My job is to help the director figure out why he wanted to make the film.”

In fact, we could say that the preparation of a script – and the making of a film – is a process of finding out what attracted us to the idea in the first place. The theme is revealed (we hope) as the film slowly becomes the best possible version of itself (we hope). This will only happen if we’re curious.

We have to be alert to possibilities. In a good film or story, every element is working very hard. If you have a scene in a pool hall, you have to use the tables, the cues, the balls, the lights, otherwise the setting isn’t working hard for you. You probably have to use ideas of competition, of games, of skill, of cause and effect. These elements are automatically present and cannot be ignored. Some of them are objects but some of them are more abstract and thematic. They are all offering you clues about the ideal form of the scene, and the film.

We have to ask, “Why is this story happening here, and why now?”

We have to ask, “What is the universal significance of this story?”

Nothing is purely about one thing. The pool hall isn’t just a pool hall.

Untaken

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-12-03-10h58m52s409

I can recall my New york chum Jaime Christley, years and years ago before I’d actually met him, expressing dissatisfaction with Bunuel’s penultimate opus, THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, arguing that with its endless parade of French stars, it resembles a gallic TOWERING INFERNO. I suggested instead that THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL is the Bunuel film closer to the Irwin Allen-John Guillermin group jeopardy nonsense — a bunch of rich people in evening dress attend a swank party and are mysteriously unable to leave.

At any rate, I rather like PHANTOM, preferring it to the follow-up, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, which I really think would be pretty desultory had not Bunuel fired poor Maria Schneider and happened upon the bold idea of replacing her with two unalike actors, who alternate throughout at random. It’s a terrific trick: you know he’s doing it, but it’s really hard to concentrate on the constant substitution, since the continuity of narrative and mise-en-scene keeps telling our subconscious that it’s positively the same dame.

vlcsnap-2016-12-03-10h56m18s933

While OBJECT has a great story idea and a great casting gimmick, PHANTOM, like DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE before it, has a ton of ideas and a ton of gimmicks, many of them brilliant. It lacks the unifying conceit of its predecessor, it’s true (friends try to have dinner; fail) but the way it weaves its fragmented sketches together, and the way some of them return for encores, I find dazzling. Another skeptical friend dismisses it as “slow Monty Python,” but the leisurely pace for me is part of the charm, contributing to the deadpan effect. Skits unfold pedantically, as if nothing odd were happening at all.

The missing child scenario is probably the best — every parents’ nightmare gets played out perfectly straight, save for one rogue element — the missing child is right there all the time. Characters can see and talk to her, and she talks right back. But they still believe she#s missing. Bunuel and his co-scenarist. Jean-Claude Carriere, play this stuff out as naturally as possible, with just the one alteration to the norm which makes the whole ritual of questioning teachers and putting out an All Points Bulletin completely nonsensical.

vlcsnap-2016-12-03-10h57m37s486

Best of all is the unexpected pay-off several sequences later when the detective attempts to explain how the child has been recovered. “This ought to be good,” we think, awaiting the impossible explanation. But some loud extraneous noise drowns the guy out as he reaches the crucial portion (after an incongruous opening about the inhabitants of a small town being awoken by a deafening blast). It reminds me of Leo G. Carroll’s spy plot exposition in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which Hitchcock wisely smothered in aircraft sound to save the audience having to listen to some boring information. Information is not drama.

In Bunuel’s version, we really want to hear the explanation, which seems set to be very dramatic indeed, so it’s hilarious when he frustrates us. Like the hot-and-cold temptress of THAT OBSCURE OBJECT, the film keeps teasing us with narrative resolutions, then crosses its legs tightly when we get close to satisfaction.