In our second Moral Tale we find another jerk being mean to another woman, but this one has a bit more substance perhaps. It still doesn’t really work for us, but hey whatever. The Criterion releases for each Moral Tale just full of material and Suzanne’s Career also brings us an opportunity to watch and discuss Nadja in Paris (1964), a short clearly meant to encourage American high schoolers to study abroad. Star Nadja Tesich is a delight, and the film is the first collaboration between Rohmer and cinematographer Néstor Almendros who will bring a certain watchability to the rest of the Moral Tales.
We kick off a boxset of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales with one starring Barbet Schroeder (who produces the entire series) as a jerk who mistreats a woman while his heart belongs to another. This is largely the basic plot of each of the Moral Tales, and if you find that statement reductive or dismissive then boydog are you not going to like any episode in this series. Still some of them connected better with Pat and I than others. But Bakery Girls wasn’t one of them.
I can’t, and will not try to, speak to the nature of the Gorilla Foundation’s current model, but the one recorded in Barbet Schroeder’s 1978 documentary on Penny Patterson’s attempts to teach Koko a modified version of American Sign Language appear to lack a certain rigor that Pat and I question. Pat, having been an anthropology undergrad, has seen and critiqued the film before. While Schroeder damningly states that Koko may become the world’s first White American Protestant Gorilla, Dr. Patterson may have just ruined a perfectly good monkey. Schroeder mostly lets the issue lay bare and allows the viewer to decide the experiments merit and achievements. I say mostly because his talk with San Francisco Zoo Director Saul Kitchener makes that zoologist with a primate specialty look like a mean man who wants to take his ape back from the loving psychologist (who wants to give it hamburgers). Along the way we talk about racism and classism, To Kill a Mockingbird and Planet of the Apes, because this wouldn’t be Lost in Criterion if we didn’t.
When I first saw that our agenda with the Collection was bringing us another film about a teenage girl’s sexual discovery I was…nervous. We talk about those nerves quite a bit this week, but Molly Haskell’s essay included with the release goes a long way to qualm those fears and explain why they are, for once, perhaps unfounded. Maurice Pialat’s A nos amours (1983) could have easily been something it wasn’t, and may even have been equally praised if it were. Instead we get something Cassavetes-esque that respects its main character. Though there’s probably still too much nudity given her age.
After our run of later period, more biographical Louis Malle films a few weeks ago we swing back with his first feature length, which is a different sort of master work than Au Revoir les Enfants but still sticks with me. Elevator to the Gallows, or Lift to the Scaffold as the British (and Pat) demand to call it, is a noir murder with a bit of Bunuelian stream of consciousness thrown in and a level of suspense fit for Hitchcock if not Clouzot. And all that name-dropping aside, it’s also just a really good film.
We cover the final film in the 3 Films by Louis Malle boxset this week with his 1987 magnum opus Au revoir les enfants. Before we recorded Pat and I established a rule that if at any point we start openly weeping I’d just edit that out. I think I got most of it.
Au revoir les enfants provides much more context to the previous two films autobiographical natures, to the point where I think we can say we have a deeper understanding of both Lacombe, Lucien and Murmur of the Heart having watched it. But more importantly than that, this is a hard-hitting, masterpiece of a film about selfless compassion in the face of extreme horror, and the personal toll that takes on you.
Speaking of which, the film itself will take a toll on you.
We move from a Louis Malle film we did not at all understand last week into one that we seem to get on a deeper level than a lot of critics and, frankly, that concerns me. Lacombe, Lucien is the tale of a lost young man searching for meaning and belonging who finds himself falling in with Nazi collaborators. The critics not understanding certain character motivations is fine, but I think it says more about the critics than Malle — and maybe that same sentence could be aimed at this very podcast last week.
Anyway. Recognize yourself in Lacombe, because nearly all of us, at times, align with the powers of oppressive violence, and we need to see that in ourselves instead of writing it off as the moral failing of others. Be better. Do better.
We kick off a boxset of films by Louis Malle that are variously autobiographical, and we may have the quickest turnaround from “I hate this film” to “this later film has recontextualized an earlier one and now I maybe like that one more” in our entire run of Lost in Criterion.
That is to say, neither Pat nor I really enjoyed Murmur of the Heart (1971) when we first discussed it for this episode, but by the time we finish the boxset in 2 weeks we have a different understanding of this first film. While Pat has long maintained that he refuses to learn anything from this project, the self-evident truth is that the more movies we watch the better base of understanding we have in watching other movies. Often that means that we can look back on older episodes and know that we were certainly wrong in the discussion we had about them.
But even after all that learning, I think the incest in this movie ruins it for me. Not because it’s taboo, but because it doesn’t make sense.
Jean Gabin really likes trains. Jean Renoir also really likes trains. They wanted to make a train movie, and any train movie would do. So why not one that also includes murrrrrrrrder?
La Bete Humaine has a lot of bad psychology and therefore some bad social commentary. It also misses a theme from the original novel that it seems like Renoir and Gabin — who had just finished The Grand Illusion — should have leaned into but instead ignored. But it does have trains! Lots and lots of trains!
Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games gives us a lot to talk about this week as Pat and I run through various consonant interpretations of the film — though none of ours include the idea that our two young protagonists are in a proto-sexual relationship, an interpretation that seems far too widespread to not say something deeper about the mental state of film reviewers.
If The 400 Blows was “very French”, and it is considered to be, Francois Truffaut’s follow up was meant to be “very American” and really it’s the most American of things: the mashup. It’s a New Wave crime comedy based on a Noir novel and the tonal shifts! Oh boy, the tonal shifts! That is to say it is not “American” in the same way that The 400 Blows is “French”. It’s a bunch of American stereotypical elements rolled into one silly film — a “grab bag” as Truffaut himself describes it.
On this week’s Lost in Criterion I present a nascent Marxist reading of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket -- if only as a counter to Pat’s sexual deviancy reading -- and come so close as I talk it out but still so far. I realized after the recording that if there is a valid Marxist interpretation of Pickpocket I had it a bit backwards: Michel steals excess value from people who (presumably) produce it, but sits on it, not using it to better society nor even to better himself. He’s the embodiment of the thieving Boss. Anyway, the film serves as a pickpocketing procedural which is fun, and is also “inspired” by Crime and Punishment in such a way that it almost feels like a parody of Dostoevsky. It’s pretty great.
This week Pat puts his Anthropology degree to use to take issue with Jean-Luc Godard's sociology practices. Masculin Feminin is a sprawling look at the young people of Paris just before the 1965 re-election of Charles de Gaulle, a re-election that would lead to the events of May 1968 we've discussed previously with Godard's (superior) Tout va Bien. Unfortunately, Godard doesn't give the respect to his female stars that he wants to say the entire generation deserve.
It was only a matter of time before we found a Jean-Pierre Melville film I actually like. We do make one big mistake in this weeks episode though. Despite being a film with Samourai literally in the title we did not invite Donovan Hill back to join us for this French gangster classic. I publicly apologize to him and you listeners for that oversight. He'd have hated it, and those are some of the best episodes.
Le Samourai starts with a fake quote about bushido and is philosophically inconsistent with everything we've learned about bushido from the Japanese films Melville certainly watched and doesn't seem to quite grasp. Still brilliant, though.
We get one of our earliest Jean Renoir films this week, and it's a treat. Noted for it's encapsulation of Paris between the wars, Boudu Saved from Drowning is a critique of Bourgeois values via rejection. It's also noted for essentially allowing star Michel Simon to play his no-holds-barred libertarian and libertine self. Pat and I have problems with rejecting Bourgeois sensibilities for right wing individualism, but maybe we just have problems with spitting in books.
We get to watch a movie about a donkey!
But the donkey doesn't talk. It's not animated. It's depressing.
I'd call au hasard Balthazar peak Bresson, but I'm betting Robert Bresson will keep surprising me. In any case this is the third and final in a string of films that claims inspiration from Fyodor Dostoevsky, and it certainly fits with the Russians' tone (though perhaps not his religiosity).
With The Phantom of Liberty (1974) we have now watched Luis Bunuel's final three films, and there's a very good chance that is the not so distant future I'll find it hard to say which memorable scene belongs to which movie. Phantom is no Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie -- nothing could be -- but it still has some brilliance in it, though it's buried a bit more under some not so great ideas. We've seen other directs throw vignettes at the wall and hope they stick, and thankfully Phantom is more Slacker than Schizopolis, though I'd probably rather watch either of those over doing this again.
We return to Francois Truffaut this week, who we haven't seen since we finished the Adventures of Antoine Doinel. In fact this is our first Truffaut film in which Doinel is not a character. Jules and Jim, instead, is a period piece about a trio of friend and lovers whose situation becomes untenable. How Truffaut, and author Henri-Pierre Roche, choose to resolve the untenability is the sticking point of the film for us, particularly because Roche's original novel is "semi-autobiographical" and the ending is one aspect that earns that"semi".
On this week's episode:
The River finds Renoir making his first color film which is also the first color Technicolor made in India. Made in 1951, just after India's independence, in the Bengal region, and based on the memoirs of Rumer Godden (who also wrote Black Narcissus). While the Archers ultimately seemed to be arguing that India is just too weird for Brits, The River has a little more respect for the population it's movie is ostensibly about. A very little more.
Tout va Bien (roughly translated: "This is fine"), is the 1972 culmination of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's Dziga Vertov Group, a production group focusing on Marxist/Maoist revolution mostly through documentary, though Tout va Bien is a narrative film. It is, however, paired with the didactic documentary Letter to Jane, a postscript to Tout va Bien the dissects the famous Hanoi photo of Jane Fonda, star of the film who in the months following the release of Tout va Bien became an international talking-point. Ultimately, the film stands to ask the question "What is the role of the woke upperclass in the revolution?" and how that intrinsic to finding the right answers is asking the right questions.