Thursday 28 March 2019

Salut les Cubains [1963]

4 years after the historic Cuban Revolution – which saw Fidel Castro and his band of bearded rebels deposing the puppet dictator Batista and installing a Socialist state – Agnès Varda, in keeping with her Left Bank affiliations and like a string of intellectuals who were fascinated by this watershed event, made a trip to the island-nation to capture the post-revolution zeitgeist. She took around 4000 pictures there and used 1500 of those to make the heady, freewheeling and intoxicating photomontage essay-film Salut les Cubains, as the follow-up to Cléo from 5 to 7. In this enthralling endeavour, she was deeply influenced by Chris Marker – he’d made a trip to Cuba a couple of years back and had made the documentary Cuba Si!; and more importantly, his seminal short film La Jetée, which too was composed using still pictures. This court métrage, playfully narrated by Varda and Michel Piccoli, provided for an engrossing portrayal of the varying facets of the new socio-political order. Topics such as agrarian reforms and mass-education program for peasants were interesting but also tad pedagogical. But Varda, being too intelligent a filmmaker to make a straightforward agitprop, delved heavily on the country’s distinctive Afro-Spanish cultural influences; its vibrant artistic and literary scene comprising of Alea (Memories of Underdevelopment, Death of a Bureaucrat), Carpentier (Reasonsof State), etc.; the throbbing rhythm of the rumba; the beloved Cuban singer-songwriter Benny Moré; pop-cultural references (Havana cigar, Greene’s comic gem Our Man in Havana, Hemingway, irreverent Castro graffiti). Irrespective of which side of the political spectrum one aligns with, this absorbing work is bound to spellbind with its infectious energy, tongue-in-cheek humour, affection for the common folks, and the ravishingly beautiful B/W photographs.

Director: Agnes Varda
Genre: Documentary/Political Film/Essay Film/Short Film
Language: French
Country: France

Thursday 21 March 2019

A Bucket of Blood [1959]

A Bucket of Blood might not be the most well-known work of schlock trailblazer Roger “The Pope of Pop Cinema” Corman, but it most remains one of his most brilliant. Using his deprecatory ability to traverse across genres, he created – in this low budget B-movie shot in just 5 days – something preposterous, provocative, darkly funny, bitingly satirical, grisly, quirky, ironic and deliciously reflexive in its meta-narrative. Walter Paisley (Dick Miller in his 1st of 7 renditions of characters with this name) is a geeky, fidgety, neurotic busboy in a Village café populated by Beatniks and bohemians. He’s in thrall of the resident Beat poet (Julian Burton) and his freeform poetry; he’s infatuated with Carla (Barboura Morris) but is always receiving scorns and jibes from his boss (Antony Carbone); he lives alone in a run-down apartment; and he dreams of himself as a great artist despite his singular lack of talent. His fortunes change dramatically, however, when he accidentally kills a cat, and then, in a bizarre display of artistic expression, encases the corpse in clay. His “avant-garde” sculpture attracts immediate attention and admiration, and, with his ambition now stoked, he’s propelled into a ghastly journey of churning out one work of hideous ultra-realism after another, in a hilarious reimagining of the slasher film House of Wax. The fabulous turn by Miller, the striking B/W photography, deadpan humour and the mock-serious bring-down of highbrow pretentiousness, combined with Corman’s love for the macabre, made this a fascinating ‘black-comedy horror’ flick – a genre which he flaunted to have pioneered. Corman and writer Charles B. Griffith would reunite the following year, and would even reuse the same set, with The Little Shop of Horrors.

Director: Roger Corman
Genre: Horror/Black Comedy/Social Satire
Language: English
Country: US

Monday 18 March 2019

La Pointe Courte [1955]

Agnès Varda’s remarkably assured and exquisitely shot directorial debut La Pointe Courte straddled across two iconoclastic film movements, without consciously aiming for that, though its two loosely connected narratives. The affecting 1st narrative portrayed, with humour, warmth, exuberance and lyricism, the life of a tightly-knit, impoverished fishing community in the eponymous French coastal village; the authorities are trying to clamp down as they believe the shellfish are contaminated by industrial effluents, which propels the fishermen to find new ways of dodging the city guys who they clearly disdain, while also enjoying their lives despite the meagre means at their disposal. The other narrative covered an unnamed Parisian couple (Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort) who’ve come there to spend a few days together; they roam around the fields, river banks and discarded boats discussing about their crumbling marriage, and hoping if there’s a way to save it yet. The only instance where the two narratives coincided was during the end when the couple is finally seen enjoying while attending an annual revelry that the village hosts. The infectious former narrative had all the distinctive elements of Italian Neorealism, including a non-professional cast, on-location shooting and delightful naturalism. The latter narrative, on the other hand, was discursive, self-reflexive and stylized – the arresting close-up shots of the profile of one cutting in half the face of the other, would reappear more famously in Bergman’s Persona. Though I found the latter stilted and artsy, it did bear early signs of the Nouvelle Vague movement, even if it would still be around half a decade before Truffaut would debut with The 400 Blows, Resnais (who edited this film) with Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Godard with Breathless.

Director: Agnes Varda
Genre: Drama/Rural Drama/Marital Drama
Language: French
Country: France

Wednesday 13 March 2019

Le Doulos [1962]

Jean-Pierre Melville, the French Poet of Lowlife, created a quintessential hardboiled crime thriller with Le Doulos, filled with such archetypal noir elements as laconic men, duplicitous women, honour among thieves, double crosses, unfortunate coincidences and comeuppance. That Melville would go increasingly existential with his subsequent masterworks made this, on hindsight, especially interesting. The film kicks off with a fabulous opening sequence wherein recently discharged career-criminal Maurice (Serge Reggiani), in trench coat and fedora, dripping with weariness, and engulfed by deep shadows, walks to a house in the Parisian outskirts, bumps off a former accomplice as punishment for betrayal, and leaves with a stash of cash. As it turns out he’s planning one final heist before calling it quits, and takes the help of the shadowy Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) – the film’s key protagonist / antagonist – a steadfast loner, cynic and tough guy with dubitable moral standing, and, as many suspect, perhaps even a police stooge. The suspicion gets enhanced exponentially when the heist goes awry, and Maurice somehow escapes with a bullet, albeit leaving his dead comrade behind, vowing revenge against Silien. But things aren’t of course that straightforward in the brooding and wonderfully paced narrative filled with twists, surprising revelations and a whole lot of compelling ambiguities. The psychological duel between the two disparate anti-heroes, wonderfully played by Reggiani and Belmondo, took the film – filled with moody B/W photography and low-key jazz score – to a finale that, expectedly, ends badly for all; the adage, “In this business you either wind up a bum… or full of lead”, mused by Silian over his double whiskey, therefore neatly summed up the central motif for not just Melville, but film noir itself.

p.s. This is a revisit. My earlier review of the film can be found here.

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Gangster Film/Film Noir
Language: French
Country: France

Saturday 9 March 2019

Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood) [1986]

If the euphoric filmmaking in Holy Motors – with which he made a triumphant return after a hiatus of 13 years – was anything to go by, Leos Carax is truly an unclassifiable filmmaker. His penchant for stylized mise-en-scéne and self-conscious cinematic deconstructions – no wonder he’s heavily influenced by Godard – is evident even as early as his acclaimed second feature Mauvais Sang. The film may be, technically, neo-noir, gangster film, sci-fi pulp and romantic drama, and yet it’s really neither of the above while still being all of them – and that’s what makes it difficult to develop a pat liking for, but, for a cinéaste, easy to be in thrall of. Ageing criminal Marc (Michel Piccoli) has a debt to pay to a powerful woman (Carroll Brooks), and hence he’s planned an elaborate heist to get hold of a drug that potentially is the cure for a mysterious AIDS-like virus – which spreads upon making love without being in love –sweeping across the country. So, when the man who was supposed to help him suddenly dies, he enlists the latter’s son Alex (Carax’s regular collaborator and alter-ego Denis Levant), a young loner with dexterous hands. Meanwhile Alex, who’s left his loving girlfriend (Julie Delpy) to start afresh, becomes obsessed with Marc’s lover Anna (Juliette Binoche). Sparse yet flamboyant, muted yet vibrant, and filled with discursive dialogues and deliberately theatrical set-pieces that go everywhere and nowhere, the film’s language is unique. And yes, the exuberant sequence, shot in a glorious single take, where the feral Levant runs, hops, and cartwheels in frenzy to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’, has become part of cinematic folklore, as the unforgettable accordion break in Holy Motors.

Director: Leos Carax
Genre: Avant-Garde/Neo Noir/Gangster Film/Romantic Drama
Language: French
Country: France