Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is film where score and color drives this story of how we choose our paths in life.

The opening iris shot onto a painting-like setting prepares us for the visual artistry of the film. The magic-hour quality of this shot also alludes to romance with the few clouds reflected in the mirror-still waters forboding trouble within the romance. The boats along the wharf hint that separation will somehow play a role, and the crane shot tilting down to frame a couple (sailor and significant other hugging, seemingly prior to the man setting sail) confirms the separation motiff. On the wharf, a person in yellow walks their bike along a yellow line suggesting a perceived path in life. The rain and melancholic score suggests this path in life in not always an easy thing to determine.

Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) is figuratively the person in yellow, and it is his path that we follow throughout the movie. When Guy first leaves the garage where he works, he leaves on a yellow bike. As the film progresses, we connect other events in Guy's life with the color yellow. For example: Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) wraps a yellow sweater around herself when she goes to meet Guy outside the umbrella shop presenting herself as a pretty present for Guy; later, when Guy and Genevieve walk along the dock, they walk behind a flashing yellow traffic light both indicating proceed with caution and foreshadowing the dead end to their relationship; when Guy looks at Genevieve, he glances at the yellow bow in her hair, suggesting the prize he has his eyes on; when they walk in front of a boat, a line across its hull points the other way, suggesting his life's path does not lie with Genevieve.

Towards the end of the opening shot, two men travelling along the same line, but in opposite directions, are presented three times. The first time, the two men walk their bicycles. The third time, the men (a sailor and man in yellow) bump against each other, but not so significantly that it changes their course of direction. These encounters presage the later encounters of Guy and Roland (Marc Michel). How each of these three encounters relate to the story are discussed below.

In the first encounter, the two men are dressed similarly and are separated by some small distance as they pass each other. When Guy and Roland first encounter each other in the film, it is at the garage Guy works. Roland (in black) drives in his (black) Mercedes and stands by his car, as Guy (in blue) remains a few car lengths away. The only interaction between them is through Guy's boss, maintaining the concept of distance between them. In addition, Guy turns down the request to work on Roland's car because of his date with Genevieve. The two men are on opposite paths. Guy has love on his mind. Roland, we find out later, is there on business.

In the second encounter, one of the two men is dressed as a sailor while the other is in a yellow raincoat. The sailor represents Roland, a man of the world, a traveler, at home in Paris or London. The man in yellow is Guy. This second encounter on the wharf is mirrored later in the film when Roland, after dropping off a check with Genevieve's mother, Mme. Emery (Anne Vernon), drives in front of Genevieve on his way to Paris. This places Roland in between Genevieve and Guy, as she is about to cross the street to visit with Guy. Both men are still traveling in opposite directions.

In the third encounter in the opening scene, the sailor and the man in yellow bump against each other. It is at this instant that their individual universes momentarily intersect. Their point of intersection is, of course, Genevieve.

Within the body of the film, this intersection occurs when Genevieve is writing Roland a letter thanking him for his postcard. Roland's postcard sits next to several items (one, a bottle, has what looks like vines on it, either representing time elapsed (and therefore her memories of Guy fading) or Roland insinuating himself into Genevieve's life and thereby weakening the bond between her and Guy; or both) in the identical blue of Guy's room. Genevieve's picking up Roland's postcard (removing it from Guy's sphere of influence (represented by the blue bottle) and bringing it front and center closer to her, in between herself and Guy) is the exact moment she transfers her allegience from Guy to Roland and is the literal bump between the two men in the opening scene. The following medium shot of Genevieve holding Roland's postcard excludes any mise-en-scene reference to Guy.

That Demy wants us to see this moment as a transfer of Genevieve's allegiance from one man to the other is made obvious by the change in mise-en-scene. In the shot preceeding the transfer, the items on Genevieve's table are a lighter blue that matches the vertical stripes of the wallpaper in her room. The items shown in the subsequent shot where the transfer takes place are a different blue (a different bottle all together); a blue that matches the blue in Guy's room.

Demy has primed us for this transfer in the previous scene by showing Genevieve in the yellow sweater seen earlier when with Guy, and a same-yellow painted truck visible outside a window (reflecting the physical distance between Guy and Genevieve) over her right shoulder. Significantly, Genevieve's sweater only covers her shoulders indicating her tenuous memories of Guy. A last bit of cinematography is when Genevieve turns her back to the window (yellow truck - not a good sign for Guy) and the camera tracks left framing Mme. Emery in between the yellow truck outside the window and Geneviev's yellow sweater. This final framing represents Mme. Emery's scissoring the remaining ties between her daughter and Guy behind Genevieve's back.

In the end though, it is Genevieve who chooses (financial) protection represented by Roland over the ideal of love represented by Guy. If the film were about Genevieve, Demy would have ended the film after her marriage to Roland. Instead he shows us the devastating effect Genevieve's abandonment has on Guy, and Guy's subsequent decision to move on in life precipiated by his Tante Elise's (Mireille Perry) death.

In the scene after her death, Madeleine (Ellen Farner) confronts Guy with who he has become, a bitter and lonely person. Faced with this realization, Guy asks Madeleine to stay. She does and eventually, Guy discovers Madeleine is the one he wants to share his life with.

Ironically, Guy accomplishes everything he set out to do: first to find someone who would wait for him (Madeleine does just that) and share a life (same path) chosen by both (Madeleine again); and second to open up his own garage. It is this happiness (scene where he leaves the notary's office and meets Madeleine (in orange) at a cafe is sun-splashed; the only outright sunny scene in the film) that is threatened by the arrival of Genevieve at his garage at the end of film.

At the end of the film, in the garage scene, we see Genevieve settled into a life so emotionally cold even her fur coat can't keep her warm. She's turned into her mother, having traded protection for true love. More than that she has discovered Roland is the collector of jewels Demy made us privy to earlier in the film (in the scene where Genevieve and her mother visit the jeweler and Roland offers to buy the mother's pearls, Genevieve is seated in white (representing the pearl Roland is really investing in) in the background. Roland is standing in the foreground (superior position); allowing him to view the real object of his desire: Genevieve). Genevieve notes how much warmer it is inside, referring to the emotional warmth evident in Guy's garage. She lies (looks down and away) when she tells him that their meeting is a chance encounter. And when she positions herself next to the Christmas tree, she's doing what now comes naturally to her: thinking of herself as an object of beauty and offering herself up as a present to Guy. When Guy declines to meet his daughter, he reaffrims his path in life, and lets Genevieve know she should leave. The extreme long shot of Genevieve walking out to her Mercedes drips (almost) of the emotionally frigid life she has found her path in life to be.

It's interesting to note that in the earlier scene at the garage, Guy's son dresses in a yellow slicker and his daughter has a bow in her hair, duplicating their parents figuratively at an earlier age. We are left to imagine them at some future date deciding their own paths in life, just as their parents had done.

Towards the end of the opening scene, a few light colored umbrellas wait for the orange umbrella'd woman (Madeleine) with her baby carriage representing the start of a new journey (in this case, Francoise's) to pass. At the close of the film, Demy would have us believe Guy and Madeleine will point Francoise in the right (love) direction as he starts his journey. The picture of Francoise (the daughter) affected by wealth (she sounds the Mercedes' horn so they can be waited on - as her mother must do) when at the pump, forces us to consider that Francoise is doomed to follow in Genevieve's footsteps.

The melancholic score at the end reminds us that whatever path the children choose, determining that path will be no easier for them then it was for their parents.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Story of Adele H.

The Story of Adele H. (Truffaut, 1975) is a story of constructs. The question Truffaut poses in the film is how much of what we construct is predetermined.

The film opens with a blank parchment. As the credits role, the parchment is shown filled with sketches of half-realized edifices, roiling surf, and an enlightened woman following a single star in an otherwise dark world. These sketches describe the partial constructs in Adele's (Isabelle Adjani) world and the forces that roil against her. The enlightened woman represents Adele; and the star the ideal she strives for, simultaneously an instrument that lights her way in a dark forbidding world and a source of frustration since it is forever out of her reach no matter how elaborate her schemes to obtain it.

As the credits continue, images of fanciful castles reach into the sky. In one, a castle is washed with white against a depressing black and grey background. The white castle represents both Adele's and her famous father's refuge. For Adele her refuge are the white reams of paper she fills in the turret of her castle (the upstairs room she occupies in Mrs. Saunder's home where she can lock herself up with her writings); for her father the white castle resembles the Hauteville House, his place of residence during his exile.

Clearly, the story of Adele is to contain lofty goals, places of refuge, amd many obstacles. Despite the obstacles, Adele continues to seek her ideal. And it is this pursuit of the ideal that propels Adele through life "from the old world into the new." Her unrelenting pursuit of the ideal, and Truffaut's many hints, forces comparisons to her father's life.

Truffaut also provides some context. The year is 1863, two years into America's civil war. The film closes with the death of Adele in 1915 in the midst of the First World War. These wars provide, on a grand scale, examples of the costs accompanying any unrelenting pursuit of an ideal.

Both wars can also be loosly associated with her father. The civil war is fought to abolish slavery. Madame Baa, a former slave, later describes Adele's father as a friend of the oppressed. The black light Adele's father reports seeing at his death is interpreted by some as foreshadowing the First World War, a war fought to end all wars. That these start and finish Truffaut's film is an indication that the arc of Adele's life is bounded by the arc of her famous father.

Truffaut has set the table for us. The Story of Adele H. is the story of a girl fulfilling the destiny already determined by her father, even as she seeks her own.

Parallels between Adale and her father are many. Adele finds herself between the French world of her past and the English world represented by Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson); Adele's father lives on a channel island between located between France and England. Adele has exiled herself in Halifax on the British island of Nove Scotia; her father has exiled himself in Huateville House on the British island of Guernesey. Adele pursues her ideal despite it costing her friends and family; Adele's father pursues his ideals despite it forcing him into exile and having his sons imprisoned. Adele's haughty attitude describes her head-in-the-clouds point of view. Adele's father resides in Hauteville Hause. Both were persecuted for their beliefs. Both exist in the new worlds defined by Halifax and post-Republic France, respectively.

No parallel however, is larger then their skill in creating constructs (her father's works are voluminous; hers require reams of paper.) Dr. Murdock compares her father to Home, Dante, and Shakespeare. Her works are written in a language eventually untranslatable. Their literary constructs have to do with ideals, and would control each of their lives. His works were largely complete. Adele's were just being constructed.

Truffaut provides examples that both show that Adele is continuously working on her construct and the extent to which her construct has taken over her world. An example of the first is the scene where Adele encounters a boy under a table at the bank. The scene starts with Adele outside the bank. As she heads into the bank, she looks at the reflection in the bank's sign as if to check who the person reflected might be. Once inside, the diegetic sounds of a typewriter indicates her story is being written even as we watch. After picking up her letter, she stops at a desk where she notices a boy (representing innocent imagination) playing under the desk. Behind her, an accountant writes in a ledger. When the boy asks Adele what her name is, she tells him it's Leopoldine. Afterwards, she goes back to the boy, who has pen in hand, and informs him that her real name is Adele. The pen at the ready represents the act of recording what was transpiring. The act of first informing the boy that her name was Leopoldine, then Adele was one of trying out different constructs.

A second darker example of this is when Adele is in bed sounding out a potential new point of view to weave into her story - that she was born of an unknown father - only to reject it, not because of any basis in fact, but because it does not align with her earlier construct. Adele has become a prisoner within her own story, no longer in control of her destiny, but rather controlled by the logic of her story; once again, resembling her father. At some point, Adele's father must have realized that his ideas had taken a life of their own, and that he would forever be associated with the as yet unknown derivatives of those ideas; that his ideas would forever influence how his own story evolves after he's gone. So in this sense both of their lives are determined by stories no longer in their control. This goes to the question Truffaut asks: How much do past relationships shape one's ability to influence their own future? In the case of Adele, what we have seen so far is that the path she chooses is almost wholly determined by her father.

Why is Adele pursuing Lt. Pinson? The reason is that he represents an ideal important to her. How is it that Adele can even consider the flawed lieutenant an ideal? Her response to Judge Johnstone provides an answer: "Do you think people can always control their feelings? One can be in love with a man and still despise everything about him." Just as the Judge can disagree with her father's politics, yet admire his courage, so can people marry (Adele claims she is the wife of Lt. Pinson) themselves to an idea and live with its faults. This is necessarily the case for people, on both sides, who fight in wars. For some it is the preservation of a certain order and/or property. For others it is the ideal behind that order and the possesion of property that drives them. If Adele's father did, in fact foreshadow the First World War, he did so only because he knew the latter all too well.

If the arc of Adele's life is predetermined, all she has to do is declare something or someone an ideal and pursue it as such. For Adele, what Lt. Pinson represented was the ideal that once she gave herself to, she would attach her body and soul to it forever. This ability to declare an ideal and pursue it unfailingly at tremendous cost is the legacy that Adele's father left her. Once she declared her ideal (Lt. Pinson) she could no more let it go than her father could turn his back on the oppressed. At the point of declaration, Adele had mounted the arc of her story.

No matter how tenuous the link may have seemed to Adele (Her father's name written in dust on a mirror represents the tenuousness of the link, but also the ubiquitness of the link; and it is Adele we see reflected through the dust. Also the scene in the cemetary symbolizes the grasp the past has on us until the day we die.) it is her relationship with her father that predestines Adele. Like her father before her, she is incapable of not declaring and pursuing her ideals. It is all she knows. Her story was written by her father before she even put pen to paper, but it is still her story to live. Her strength is that the tragedy of her illness did not prevent her from fulfilling her destiny.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Day For Night

In Jules and Jim (Truffaut, 1962), Truffaut shows us the tragic results of a shared relationship with a woman (Catherine) intent of self-immolation. In that film, there is a scene that sums up the sense of how the two men, Jules and Jim, viewed Catherine. That scene was the one shot day-for-night. Using this technique (shooting in the day using a special filter to have it seem as if the scene was shot at night), Truffaut demonstrates two manipulations by way of the "special" filter. The first is that Jim and Catherine assign their own point of view, as seen through their individually flawed "filters" to events involving themselves and Jules. This filtered assignation of meaning leads to conclusions that blinds Jim to Catherine's availability as something other than an ideal, and, on Catherine's part, rationalizes her own emotional instability. The second manipulation demonstrated by Truffaut involves the audience. The effects of day-for-night shooting signals to the audience the falsity by which the characters are manipulating their own interpretations. The degree that we apply that sense of falsity to the scene depends not only on the existence of the filter Truffaut places in front of us, but also on our own filters, the ones we use to judge our own actions and the actions of others.

It is this second manipulation (that of and by the audience) that is the lesson of Day For Night (Truffaut, 1973). The upshot of the film is that day-for-night manipulation (a measure of phoniness) is revealed to surround us in everyday life; and that it is film that works hard to minimize the differences between what we see on the screen and what happens in real life. In a sense, we go to the movies not to escape reality, but, in part, to escape the day-for-night in our own lives.

The use of the filtering technique for the movie's title allows the audience the freedom to not have to judge the making of a film, but to reserve their judgment for the characters making the film. The title makes transparent both that the objective of film is to "fool" audiences into thinking that what they see on the screen is real, and that, in this film, the audience is privy to how this is accomplished. The surprise that is exposed in the process is that every action taken by the production crew to produce something false (including building a two-story scaffold on top of which lies a single wall of a supposed bedroom) is taken to enhance the reality of what will later be presented on screen as the film, Meet Pamela.

Meet Pamela is the main character in Day For Night. It is a film Truffaut's cast and crew are in the process of creating. Day For Night opens with Meet Pamela's orchestra warming up off camera. As the credits role, sound waves, in synch with the orchestra's playing, modulate on screen. These waves, framed longitudinally against the left side of the frame, resemble film scrolling down the screen. Since the orchestra is only, so to speak, coming to life, so is the film the crew is shooting. The cast's (most of) and crew's extraordinary devotion to seeing the film come to life is the second surprise the film reveals.

The piece of advice Truffaut suggests we keep in mind as we witness the making of Meet Pamela is: "No sentimentality; just play the notes." By stating this, Truffaut allows the audience a standard by which to judge those actions taken to ensure completion of the film.

An example of a scene where the audience is asked to judge is the one where Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) goes to Alphonse's (Jean-Pierre Leaud) room to try to talk Alphonse out of quitting Meet Pamela. The script girl (Alphonse's girlfriend) has left with a stuntman and Alphonse is packing his suitcase preparing to leave. Julie ends up staying the night with Alphonse, perhaps to (continentally) right a wrong (the script girl has run off with a Brit, Julie's a Brit); but more to the point, to save the film by convincing Alphonse he should meet his committments.

Up to this point, Truffaut has made the script girl a selfish character, interested only in her own gratification. She's an evil person, but not ostentatiously phony. For example we don't see her encourage Alphonse's love. And she offers a frank assessment of Alphonse's emotional flaws when she earlier states to Julie that what Alphonse needs is mother, sister, friend, etc. (Truffaut later offers a similar assessment by refering to Alphonse as a child.) Also, when asked, the script girl answers Truffaut's inquiry about the job truthfully. Because she is not ostentatiously phony, the script girl does not possess a great deal of day-for-night, and therefore we soften our dislike for her.

Alphonse, on the other hand, is a phony that hurts. And his actions (revealing Julie's indiscretion to her husband, hiding at a go-cart track (driving himself around in circles going nowhere fast)) make us sick. He snaps his fingers when he wants people to do his bidding, and brushes them off just as easily. Even worse, Alphonse deludes himself into thinking that he has a right to force himself on everyone else. When he complains to Julie that the "script girl's love for him was all phony, which made it sickening" we are reminded how shallow his world is. (The same words unfortunately forshadow Julie's actions.) It is easier to dislike Alphonse to the core.

At least until Julie and Truffaut discus the consequences of Alphonse's actions and reveal to us that they view him as nothing more than a non-understanding "child." This interpretation allows us to judge Alphonse with a different filter. We still see him as a phony (possessing an extremely high day-for-night ability to delude himself), but can now acknowledge, in a way, that he is innocent by way of his ignorance. Perhaps, even that someday he will grow up and shed some of his phoniness, increasing his existence in the world of reality. How we ultimately judge Alphonse is determined by the extent we assign immorality (an assignation affected by our own day-for-night filter) to his behavior (recreating the postion the audience finds itself in in the night-for-day scene in Jules and Jim.)

Which brings us to Julie. Truffaut paints Julie as a sensitive, caring person recently recovered from a recent breakdown with the help of her loyal and devoted husband. Seemingly, Julie has a very low degree of phoniness in her life. The reasons she ends up in Alphonse's room are all upstanding: concerns for his emotional pain, concerns for his career if he walks out, concerns for all the work that has already gone into Meet Pamela. How is it then, that Julie ends up spending the night with Alphonse?

When Julie tells later tells Truffaut that Alphonse didn't understand at all, Truffaut would have us believe that Julie traded her company for some sort of assurance that Alphonse would stay with the project. That Julie meant to keep this from her husband is confirmed by her reaction to her husband finding out. Using our previous measures, we would have to assign Julie the person with the highest degree of phoniness. Her intent was to filter out what she had done, and go on with her life. The degree of betrayal to her husband (someone who had done a "serious" thing by giving up a wife and children for her) and herself (something she is always going to know she did) earns her a huge amount of scorn from us. Her life, at least for as long as she did not reveal her indiscretion to her husband, would have been a lie, a phony existence, the ultimate day-for-night.

But how exactly do we judge Julie. For all her otherwise wholesome qualities, does her exposure as phony to the core make her evil? The answer to that depends on our own filters. For some of us, Julie's actions were inexcusible. To others, her actions were in keeping with her devotion to the film. In this interpretation, there was no "sentimentality" towards Alphonse; she was just "playing the notes." In many ways this approach is similar to how we lead our own lives. We act according to our own filters (based on our own day-for-night quotients), as others judge our actions based on their own filters. Julie was caught in the uncomfortable position of possible losing her "baby" (Meet Pamela). Wouldn't some of us react as Julie had?

This is the question Truffaut wants us to ask. [A subtitle for Meet Pamela could have been Meet Ourselves]. For Julie, her husband forgives her, and we see her forgive Alphonse when she kisses him on the cheeks as she prepares to leave, an act that shouts Julie is still a rightous person and there is still hope for the little weasel.

Before starting a film, Truffaut tells us he "hopes to make a fine movie, and when the problems begin he aims lower." Truffaut, with grace and efficiency leaves out all sentimentality and just plays the notes. Thus, when Alexandre dies in a car crash (a play on Truffaut's apologizing to Alexandre earlier for having him die in the film), we see Truffaut immediately move to solve the problems his absence in the film causes (an additional day-for-night moment: summer snow) without him seeming crass. Truffaut's seemingly unsentimental treatment of every cast member belies the sentimental treatment of all, even Alphonse (an everyone is magic moment), goes to the heart of everyday life. We all have decisions to make. We make them to the best of our abilities, and then move on. It's ironic tht a movie about the making of a film is what allows us to see this so clearly.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Jules et Jim

In Jules et Jim (Truffaut, 1962), Truffaut shows us the tragic results of a shared relationship with a woman not only incapable of true love, but intent on self-immolation.

In the opening montage we see Jules (Oscar Werner) and Jim (Henre Serre) playfully rummage through a trunk full of clothing, lightly jog down a cobblestone road, comically insist the other pass through a gate first, and fence with broom and cane in place of sabers. When Jules climbs on Jim's back, Jim mimics a blind man as he carries Jules down the street.

Although only thirty seconds in length, this introduction demonstrates that Jules and Jim, at least at this point in their lives, have a friendship that transcends most, and is centered on taking life as it comes. The rummaged clothes in the trunk represent their willingness to take on whatever roles might be required (a symbolism especially significant for Jules who searches for a slave's costume; later in the film we realized that Jules has been figuratively "enslaved" by Catherine (Jeanne Morneau). The cobblestone road resembles the yellow-brick road of the Wizard of Oz that leads to the Emerald City, which is in keeping with the frivolity we see the two men traveling through life in Paris (the Emerald City). The insistence the other passes through the gate first, and playful fencing portray their mutual respect and inability to intentionally hurt each other (the men express concern with hurting each other during the war). And Jim's playing the blind man, with Jules on his back, represents their trust in each other and willingness to proceed without knowing what lays ahead.

It's as though Truffaut would have us believe that if Jules and Jim were birds, they would be hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower, tasting their nectar, but never lingering. Or if the men were leaves, they would happily float on whatever breeze was blowing, enjoying the ride not caring where they might alight.

But the opening montage also signals Truffaut intends to use both cinematography and editing in an exaggerated manner. By doing so, Truffaut introduces an emotionally unsettling texture to the narrative. For example, the opening montage is almost frenetic. Shots are short and display constant motion, both enhancing the flightiness of the men and the passage of time (a constant companion in the film, initially introduced by Jules' timepiece in the montage). This tight editing in the opening montage also serves to add a more deeply felt sobering import when contrasted with those relatively few shots that occur later in the film, which have little or no movement and are longer. These more loosely edited shots impart both a sense of maturation on the part of Jules, Jim, a weariness on the part of Catherine, and a heaviness that defines their evolving relationships.

This is not to say that toward the end of the film, cinematography is any less forceful on the screen. An example of where editing and camera movement are purposely disconcerting is the scene where Catherine (in benign white - a sign she's incapable of assigning herself any fault) and Sabine meet Jim at the station and go back to their cottage where Jules awaits them. As they progress through the bucolic setting and approach the cottage the camera suddenly and momentarily stops, and does so several more times when Jules, Jim, and Catherine are at the foot of the steps to suggest the temporal changes that have occurred since their earlier days in France. The scene subsequently shifts to inside the cottage where they are seated. When Jules brings up the war, the camera pans dizzying from Jules to Jim to Jules to Catherine suggesting a spatial (in this case emotionally distancing) change as well, Both cinematographic excesses (very respectfully suggested) punctuate the shift in direction the narrative is about to take.

Examples of where cinematography is less strikingly used to enhance our understanding of their relationships are when Jules and Jim, using a long shot, race across a bridge in the opening montage, and a later shot that has Jules, Jim, and Catherine race across a different bridge. In this second shot, the camerawork includes a medium profile of Catherine that emphasizes her speed (and joy) as she beats Jules and Jim to the other side. This second shot is similar to the first because seemingly all three race across the bridge as equals (Catherine is seemingly an equal partner because she has dressed as a man), as Jules and Jim do earlier. The second shot is dissimilar to the first because it actually shows Catherine cement (earlier she is seen leading the group and makes the decision for the group to go to the shore if it continues to rain, later she refers to the men as boys, and makes the decision to return to Paris) the previously unnecessary role of leader of the group, not only because she won the race, but because she was cheeky enough to cheat, had the audacity to pass herself off as a man, and got away with both. This getting away with both primes us to accept that Catherine actually gets away with everything, including the destruction of Jules and Jim.

Having assumed control of the group, Catherine also controls the length of and movement within the shots. This becomes most evident in the post-war scenes when Truffaut uses medium or close-up shots for the first time (other than the, tellingly, closeup shots during Catherine's introduction). In a world with no Catherine, Jules and Jim could have picked up where they left off, and the lightness of the camerawork (exhibited by long or medium shots, short shot lengths, and pans prior to the war) could have continued. However, in the post-war world where Jules and Jim are forced to react to Catherine's increasingly aberrant behavior, the camerwork slows down and reacts accordingly. An example of this is the night scene where Jim chases Catherine outside. Once outside, the cinematography gives us a "permanent twilight" (for lack of a better discription) effect that shows us Catherine's ephemeral world (Truffaut chooses for us to concentrate on her "world" through the use of long shots, and the occasional medium shot). It is here that Catherine asks Jim to reveal himself to her, and she reveals, what she chooses, to Jim.

Catherine is initially introduced to us as a statue (ideal); one that mesmerizes Jules and Jim. When the men visit the statue, an erratic camera simultaneously tracks, zooms, stops and cuts to the statue. A similar camera movement is used when Catherine appears a few scenes later. The matching camera movements accomplishes three things. First, they identify for us that the men see Catherine as a work of art (superficial beauty over substance, not really taking the measure of the person inside). Second, that Catherine is incapable of attaching herself emotionally to anyone (two examples of this are when she uses both her previous lover and Albert to get back at Jules and Jim, respectively, and when she periodically abandones Jules and her daughter). And third, that Catherine is an emotionally unstable person. All three (Catherine as a work of art, as a person incapable of reciprocating emotionally, and as an emotionally unstable person) manifest themselves as the film progresses and are characterisctics that the men can take a measure of. The final identification the erratic camera movements makes is one that escapes the men. It is that Catherine represents an ideal, something impossible to grasp, own, contain, mold. It is this quality that mesmerizes Jules and Jim (as when the narrator explains the men are "moved" by a quality they can't quite understand), and lead to their destruction.

It is left up to Jules to initially explain Catherines strangeness, which he does by way of her father being an aristocrat and her mother being from the masses. He reasons that it is perhaps because of this that Catherine is ignorant of anything in between. This observation, made from the occluded points of view of Jules and Jim, who are more than willing to accept her strangeness, misses the real cause for Catherine's strange behavior: her inability to internalize an emotional identity. (Further evidence that Truffaut considers this condition environmentally caused is presented when Sabina mimics her mother (pinches the bridge of her nose) when she removes her mother's glasses in the cabin.) From the point of view of Catherine as an ideal, the ideal is either accepted or rejected in the extreme. The ideal does not exist in the in-between (hence Jules' comment that Catherine knows of nothing in between the extremes aristorcracy and the masses).

The first evidence of Catherines instability occurs when, seemingly accidentally, she sets fire to herself in the presence of Jim at her apartment. Jim rescues her then, and perhaps because of this, both Catherine and Jim feel that it is Jim that can save her from her demons after the war. This belief on Jim's part is the reason he gets in the car with Catherine at the end of the film. Other early clues to her emotional instability include her slapping Jules in front of Jim (when Jules laughs, Truffaut shows us that he is willing to be subservient to her, on one hand, so that he can own this piece of art, and on the other hand to be, less consciously, subservient to Catherine, the ideal) when the men ignore her at the shore. The subsequent alternating camera stills that show her happy and sad, and her statement that she never laughed before meeting them are clues to her instability. Her actions also become increasingly erractic as the film progresses: she jumps into the river, ignores an appointment with Jim the day before she agrees to marriage with Jules, lashes out at everything, has affairs, seduces Jules after "commiting" to Jim. badgers Jules about whether Jim truly loves her. In Paris erratic actions include driving around in front of Gilberte's apartment, pulling a gun on Jim, and finally driving off the bridge as Jules looks on.

With her life unraveling before everyone's eyes, the essential question becomes: Why would both men sacrifice themselves for this woman?

The answer is that Jules and Jim never see Catherine as a person, but rather as a work of art to be admired for what she represents, but little else (a similarly one-sided, but considerably more gutteral point of view occurs at the bar in Paris when the man describes his lover, Denise, as an otherwise empty sex-object presumably to be abused as such). For example, when the men were initially moved by Catherine (after she passes herself off as a men), the camera lingers on the art posters at the train station. Another example are the times Jules ignores (a work of art should be seen not heard) her. Similarly, Jules wants Jim to have her, after he realizes he can lose her forever, just so Jules can keep her in the house, much like a work of art in a museum. For Jim's part, he also idolizes her. His retelling of the story of the soldier who describes the details of a woman he can't touch, describes Jim's own idealization of Catherine, a woman he can't posses emotionally, but can't stop wanting to believe he can. Their failure to understand that their idealization of Catherine made her both untouchable and all consuming costs Jim his life and eviscerates Jules.

Let us consider if Jules and Jim had not placed Catherine on the ultimate pedestal of ideals (in the garden of statues, her statue was the only one to cause the erratic camera movements). They then would have been able to identify Catherine's shortcomings, attended to them as best as possible (seeking treatment for Catherine as needed), and moved forward remaining closer than ever. And the film would have had a happy ending.

But the men did idealize Catherine, and it is this tendency to blindly idolize that Truffaut wants us to realize ultimately leads to death and destruction for individuals as well as nations.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Shoot the Piano Player

Shoot the Piano Player (Truffaut, 1960), is, more than anything else, the story of how Charlie's past, his attempts to ignore it, his overreaching ambition have destroyed his life and the life of his wife Theresa (Nicole Berger).

The film opens with Chico (Albert Remy) racing down dark streets as he is chased by a mysterious car. As he does so, he stumbles into a lamppost and blackens his eye, revealing himself to be a person both is some sort of trouble and of poor vision. This second point is illustrated when a kind Stranger helps Chico up and and offers words of wisdom regarding relationships to Chico.

That Chico remains in the dark after this encounter is demonstrated for us in two ways. First, backlighting brightens the street scene as the Stranger asks Chico to walk with him for a bit. We see them emerge from the shadows as the Stranger talks about the evolution of his relationship with his wife. When Chico, upon hearing the advice, volunteers "that it always happens that way," the Stranger gently rebukes him with a "not always," thereby signifying that not all people make the compromises necessary to accept the other person for what they are to ensure a successful relationship. For the Stranger, this was realizing that a small loss of freedom was a small price to pay for true love. What Shoot the Piano Player ultimately shows us is that not everyone is even capable of making those compromises.

The second way Truffaut demonstrates for us that Chico remains in the dark is the mise-en-scene. When the Stranger stops to punctuate his point, we see the whitewashed buildings behind him backlit. This chiaroscuro effect also splits the frame in half, with Chico remaining in the shadows. An elevated street lamp centered above the two men connects the two halfs of the frame and punctuates the potential eureka opportunity for Chico. When Chico rushes back into the shadows after the two split, we realize Chico is more comfortable in the shadows. As the film unfolds we come to know Chico lacks the temperament to have grasped what the Stranger was really saying. Chico has grown up on the farm, and this simple upbringing has left him more suited to stoning limousines than venturing far from the fringes of society. Chico is incapable of being anything but a "beast" (plight he shares with his brother Richard.)

The gangster motif introduced in the opening chase scene is maintained throughout the film. The film stereotypically contains (non-stereotypical) gangster, Earnest and Momo, references to woman in gutter terms, the idea that a man (and not a dog) is man's best friend, and the obligatory shoot-out at the end. Even when not heard, the dialogue is also gangster-like, such as when Chico enters the bar and asks for Charlie (Charles Aznavour), and Plyne, with his fingers on his own chest, leans towards Charlie and seemingly asks: "You talking to me?

The effect of the opening scenes is that Truffaut introduces two topics central to the film: an understanding that most men lack an understanding of relationships between men and women, especially with respect to love (Chico's conversation with Stranger), and that we are most comfortable, and therefore live according to, with who we were growing up (in other words our past is thicker than our present) as represented by Chico's actions, but also by Charlie who - when push came to shove - activily participates Chico's escape from the bar after his previous protestations that he wished not to get involved and his previous frigid behavior towards Chico.

The idea that the past trumps the present is also represented in the scene where the three brothers are together at the farmhouse towards the end of the scene. Here we learn Chico and Richard had at one time straightened out their lives and found honest work at an exchange house, but, when presented with an opportunity, had reverted bak to a life of crime. When Charlie volunteers he has killed a man, his brothers are happy to have him back home, both from the standpoint of being within their mists, and from the standpoint of (re)joining the fraternity of "beasts." Charlie, the child-prodigy, who had left his brothers for a life beyond the farm, has found himself back where he started; Charlie is the prodigal son returning. That Charlie belongs back at the farmhouse is demostrated by the broken mirror he looks into. (Mirrrors play the role of representing the duality within Charlie, among others throughout the film. Since this mirror is broken, it represents the opposite of this. Charlie is no longer leading a double life.) He can be, and is, himself at the farmhouse in the, which is demostrated by his smiling into the broken mirror as the brothers playfully harass him. He is at last back home ins his formative surroundings.

A more complicated example of achieving a comfort level with formative surroundings is Fido (Daniel Boulanger). After struggling initially during the kidnapping sequence, Fido exhibits no apparent apprehension with Earnest and Momo since they provide Fido with a bit of misadventure - something Fida is comfortable with, understands, and is appreciative of. However, when prompted, Fido explains fido means "faithful." The point made is that Fido remains faithful to his brothers, which he demonstrates when he runs away from his abductors at the farmhouse. Actually, Truffaut gives you the sense that it is Fido who is running the abduction scenes, and essentially uses Earnest and Momo for the ride they provide to the farmhouse. (Earnest and Momo are not your typical gangsters, and exhibit their own dualities as well.)

What has been established so far (and is essential to the story) is that the past is in charge of our present, that what we do in the past remains with us in the present, and that there is no escaping this. Life should be led accordingly. On one level, this means living within the past in the present, doing only that which our temperament (rooted in our past) allows us to do comfortably. On another level this means allowing the same in others. (The Stranger explains that at first he would think of ways to kill the woman who would become his wife, and it is only when he confronted this behavior that he was able to realize the woman she was, grow comfortable with who she was, and eventually fall in love with her - a lesson lost on Charlie not once, but twice.)

Charlie is introduced to us as "Edouard" by Chico as Charlie gets ready for his set. In this scene, the dialogue is all about the distance between Charles and Chico. Examples of this are when Charle orders Chico to refer to him as "Charlie." If "Edouard" is his real name, why the insistance to be refered to by another except to distance (temporal distance) what Chico represents (his past) to Charlie? Charlie also orders Chico to maintain his distance (spatial distance) when he orders Chico to "wait there"; in other words, not to enter the room. Chico for his part speaks to emotional distance when he states Edouard is a "strange bird" and that Edouard's is a strange reaction considering they "haven't seen each other for four years." In line with the film's motif of the past shaping the present, Charlie asks Chico is anyone is "after" Chico. When Chico replies "not the cops," we cement both Chico's standing as a gangster-type, and Charlies familiarity with the gangster-type.

The mise-en-scene also contributes to the distancing within the scene. At one point, a door jamb splits the frame in two with Chico on one side of a wall, and Charlie on the other. They continue to communicate through a window on this wall. Inside the room, a mirror reflects Charlie's presence, which introduces a window to his past, and further suggests that Charlie is leading a double life. Even when Charlie goes off-camera to retrieve a tie, the mirror remains in the frame, signifying how the past is always present in our lives, even when we are not consciously aware of it. (This window motif is also used later to initiate the flashback into Charlie's past.)

The mirror technique is carried over into the bar scene as well where the piano is introduced as Charlie's damnation, salvation, and shield. As the caberat singer (Bobi LaPointe) sings, the camera shows the singer foregrounded, and Charlie (behind the piano) and the drummer framed behind the songer. Later, after the singer concludes his song, he walks out of the frame and the camera pans to frame just Charlie and the drummer, then zooms on Charlie while maintaining the back of the drummer's head in the mirror above them. The message is: Charlie's life - represented by the mirror - is as phony as the drummer's never-changing smile, which also suggests the drummer might be a different person when not playing the drums. (Truffaut would have us believe just about anybody is capable of leading a double life at some point in their lives.)
Later, we will see how the (concert) piano, and Edouard's ambition to become a world famous concert pianist, results in tragedy. And even later, how it is the (two-bit) piano that allows Charlie some solace when he decides to flagellate himself by abstaining from classical music and limiting himself to honky-tonk tunes as punishment for his blind ambition and failure to act. But for now let us concentrate how this bar scene introduces the piano as emotional shield. It is behind the piano where Charlie retreats when his routine is challenged by his brother (Chico), and from where he challenges Plyne (in a later scene with Lena, Charlie cannot challenge Plyne and retreats to the safety of the piano (and honky-tonk tunes) until Lena is physically threatened) regarding his brother, and where he retreats to after helping his brother escape. It is this last shot, the frame fore-grounded by the caberet singer with Charlie and the drummer behind him that poignantly marks Charlie's place in the world: a distant third (Charlie looks as if he could cry) in a frame of three. The blow-me-away dialogue that follows (Charlie wishes Chico luck in a firm internal voice), makes clear that this is where Charlie wishes to be.

All that's left is to introduce how it is that Charlie ended up at the bar, which is Lena's (Michele Mercier) job. Lena represents a bridge from Charlie's past to a "brighter" future grounded in Edouard, the concert pianist. Everything in the film up to this point has primed us to believe that this is not possible without similarly tragic consequences, since it would be repeating past mistakes. So it should not surprise us when Lena perishes at film's end.

In Lena's apartment, we are introduced to the flashback. It is here that we see Charlie stare at a poster of himself as if he's looking through a window, and it is this shot that initiates the flashback, where we see Charlie (as Edouard) share a happy and loving relationship with his wife Theresa. Edouard was working hard to be a world-class pianist and they would entertain themselves playing silly games, which we witness in the initial restaurant scene.

It is in this scene also where the instrument of blind ambition is introduced in the form of the impressario, Lars Schmeel. The mise-en-scene creepily places him in between Edouard and Charles in the restaurant scene, and even more creeperly (sp?) temporarily displaces Edourd in bed in the following iris-out shot. This last shot shouts out Schmeels true intentions.

It is however, Theresa that allows herself to be seduced by Schmeel to further Edouard's career, an infidelity she hides from Edouard. By living a lie, she forshadows Eduoard living a lie as a world class concert pianist. Theresa's act, the result of ambition, eats at her true self, resulting in at first only making herself miserable, then driving a physical wedge between them (she doesn't let Edouare touch her anymore), then finally resulting in her destruction. Edouard, given a chance to save his wife, instead retreats to his insecurities, in keeping with the theme of resorting to one's past when push comes to shove. (That Edouard/Charlie is at essence a shy, insecure person was identified for us earlier by Plyne.)

Edouard cannot forgive himself for he had been as guilty as Theresa in the breakup of their relationship. He had also been seduced by Schmeel himself. Edouard's ambition had been to be a world-class pianist, even though his temperament was not suited for the stress that went along for that role. This is made evident during the first argument scene when Theresa wishes Edouard could be more sure of himself, and Edouard replies that maybe he is not the man for her. This realization on Edouard's part leads to Schmeel's final seductionl. This takes place when Schmeel shows an article supposedly showing some article about Edouard, but also containing an ad promising to cure shyness. Edouard, blinded by his desire to succeed, emakes himself emotionally, but finds otherwise when confronted by the decision whether or not to go to Theresa's side after she confesses. Despite his (true) internal voice telling him to do the right thing, he retreats based on his (false) reconstructed emotional core. His retreat from the room eviscerates Theresa, and an abandoned Theresa jumps to her death.

The crux of the film's story then is to not let your ambitions blind you to who you and those you love really are. Theresa attempts to transform Edouard into a world-class pianist, and betrays their relationship to do so. She can't live with the lie she's living, but once rejected by Edouard, her resaon for living evaporates. For Edouard it's also all about becoming the world-class pianist. To succeed, he places himself outside of his roots, and confuses what's most important at the time it matters the most. This leads to Edouard's emotional destruction.

The duality of their lives ends for Theresa once she jumps, but is exaggerated in Edouard when he retreats, tailed tucked in between his legs, into the junkyard existence he chooses (as the scene exiting from the flashback suggests), rusting away as Charlie Koller.

The question Truffaut asks us to consider at this point in the film is: Can Charlie find happiness with Lena? And the answer is: No. Lena is the second coming of Theresa, a woman who wants to transform the sad Charlie Koller into that world-renown concert pianist, Edouard; something Edourd can never be. It is intereting to note that neither Theresa or Lena represent the prototypical femme fatales of the gangster genre. The real femme fatale is ambition. Lars Scheel is only a conduit for Lady Ambition. He only facilitiates Theresa's ambitions for Edouard. Lars serves the same purpose for Edouard, exemplified not only by the newspaper article scene already mentioned, but also, in the scene where Edouard visits Schmeel's studio. Here Eduard's modesty prevents him from interrupting (as evidenced by the increasingly extreme close-ups of the doorbell) the seduction taking place inside the studio (as the lovely violin music from within the studio protrays). The fact that Edouard's music later similarly effects the violin player in the hallway (she stops when Edouard starts playing, lowers her violin, and then continues) is evidence that she is aware that a similar seduction is taking place with Edouard. As for Lena, there is no need for a Schmeel to faciliate her ambitions. Lena makes her plans for Edouard clear in her apartment. In other words, her ambitions are already in play, and also ends in her destruction (she returns to the farmhouse, to retrieve Charlie and continue with her plans to remake him into the world-class pianist she wishes for him to be.)

In the end, Charlie's only hope is to one day share the Stranger's experience: suddenly finding himself in love with someone (the new waitress introduced at the end of the film?) who accepts him for what he is, past and all: a shy and resrved man who happens to play the piano very well.