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Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) (1945)

Children of Paradise

Directed by Marcel Carne (1945, France)

“Jealousy belongs to all when a woman belongs to none.”

Children of Paradise ranks with Beauty and the Beast (1946) and The Rules of the Game (1939) as a contender for the finest French film from the first half of the Twentieth Century.  As good as the film is, the story of its production is more compelling that the film itself.  Shot in France for 18 months between 1944 and 1945, the production had to deal with moving the entire set between Paris and Nice, collaborators and spies imbedded by the Nazis, a Jewish set designer and a Jewish composer working in secret, and the logistics of acting as a cover for French Resistance fighters.  Overall it is remarkable that this film exists at all.  Since its premiere in Paris shortly after the liberation of France by Allied forces, it is said that it is playing somewhere in Paris every day of the year.

Children of Paradise, at its base, is a story about four men who are obsessed with one woman.  The backdrop is the Paris theater and carnival scene circa 1820-1830.  The four men, the idealistic yet selfish mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), the dangerous yet honorable criminal Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand), the flamboyant yet kind actor Frederick (Pierre Brasseur), and the staid yet remorseless Count de Montray (Louis Salou) are based on historical figures from that era. However, the actors who play them use the historical template to create enduring archetypes that one can still see in films today.

The object of their pursuit, Garance, played by French screen legend Arletty, drives all of these men into borderline madness, and each of the men has a different reaction to those feelings.  Frederick at least uses his jealously to take his acting to new heights, while the other three men are driven to murder and betrayal.  While the melodrama may be a bit of a hurdle to modern viewers, the story is still alluring and bizarrely beautiful.

As one of the pinnacles of the pre-New Wave French style of filmmaking known as Poetic Realism, one can see how Children of Paradise could have inspired the men like Godard and Truffaut to take French film in a new and groundbreaking direction.  Children of Paradise, despite its penchant for melodrama and its staged, theatrical scenes, is one of the pinnacles of Poetic Realism.  Add to this the fact that it was created under seemingly impossible circumstances, and it stands astride pre-New Wave French cinema as a colossus.  Where else could French cinema go after Children of Paradise, if not to someplace entirely different?

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

 

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Sideways (2004)

Sideways

Directed by Alexander Payne

USA, 2004, 126 min

“No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving.  I’m not drinking any !@#$% Merlot!” – Miles Raymond

Two men spend a week in California’s central wine country in advance of one of their weddings the following Saturday.  In some ways, Sideways is a fairly standard buddy, road movie.  It is, however, an exceptionally good one with absurdly funny situations, mostly sharp dialogue, and well developed characters, including the California wine country itself.

It is a bit hackneyed to say that the setting is a character.  One can make that statement about any film set anywhere remotely interesting.  But the laid back, friendly wine country stands in stark contrast with the film’s main duo – the neurotic and depressed Miles (Paul Giamatti) and the amoral, sex-addicted train wreck, Jack (Thomas Haden Church).  The movie doesn’t play up the fish out of water situation, but it is clear from the beginning that neither character truly belongs.

Miles certainly comes close.  His often clobbers his dim-witted friend over the head with his knowledge of wine, and he is depicted as a regular to the area and a friend of the locals.  He is also constantly on edge, afraid of defeats that he has already conceded, and pining for the past.  It becomes clear that he doesn’t particularly belong anywhere, at least not until the movie’s ambiguous ending.

Jack on the other hand is a monster.  Miles sets up the week in wine country for his own selfish enjoyment certainly, but Jack’s selfishness exists on another plane of existence.  His actions are reprehensible, and if wine country were nastier turf he probably wouldn’t have made it out alive.  Needless to say he’s not welcome back there by the end of the movie.

While I enjoyed Sideways, it suffers from two issues.  First, in the few places where the dialogue is weak, it’s really weak (we get it – Miles sees himself as a Pinot grape).  Also, its two main characters are so unlikeable that it may turn some moviegoers off.  Otherwise, it’s worth a couple hours of your time.

Rating

You may like Sideways if: You are in the mood for a clever, mostly well written buddy comedy, or you absolutely love wine.

You may not like Sideways if: You get annoyed by occasionally weak dialogue, or you are turned off by unlikeable protagonists.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

United States, 1958, Color, 128 minutes

“Alright I’ll do it.  I don’t care anymore about me.”

– Judy Barton

Like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899-1980) best films, Vertigo examines a man who ignores the real world in favor of what is portrayed as a fantasy world.  Hitchcock often vindicates the protagonist’s obsession, or at least explains it as being the result of mental illness.  What is most unsettling about Vertigo is that there is no such justification for the disturbing behavior of the protagonist, and we’re actually made to sympathize with him.

To begin, Hitchcock introduces us to John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart), a retired detective who suffers from a crippling fear of heights. Ferguson has been hired by his friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak) around San Francisco.  Elster suspects that his wife has been possessed by a dead woman, or at least she believes that she has, and he needs Ferguson to help him confirm those suspicions.  As he follows Madeline, Ferguson grows increasingly obsessed with her.

Ferguson appears to be the typical, everyman protagonist that Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) played in many of his earlier films.  Stewart’s performance forces the audience to sympathize with Ferguson, even as his obsessive behavior becomes increasingly dangerous in the second half of the film.  While Stewart is convincing the audience to trust Ferguson, Hitchcock is busy using every tool available to him to try to convince the audience that Ferguson is descending into madness.  As I watched, I couldn’t decide whether Ferguson was an obsessive maniac or a brilliant detective until the very last scene.

If Vertigo has a weakness, it is the somewhat stilted performances of its supporting cast.  I find it hard to hold this against the actors themselves.  Hitchcock’s minor characters are often little more than devices he uses to push his plots forward.

Still, Hitchcock was not attempting to create a richly layered world of interesting characters in Vertigo. Instead he was examining one question: how far will we go in pursuit of our fantasies?  I don’t think I like the answer.

Rating:

You may like Vertigo if: you’ve ever enjoyed a thriller in your life.

You may not like Vertigo if: you demand complex secondary characters from every movie you see, or you just don’t like movies.

(c) 2012 D. G. McCabe