Thursday, May 14, 2009

Target #271: French Cancan (1954, Jean Renoir)

TSPDT placing: #426

Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: André-Paul Antoine (idea), Jean Renoir (adaptation)

A NOTE TO THE READER: This post is to rectify a previous omission. I originally watched French Cancan on January 14, 2009, but was unaware that it was on the TSPDT list. Thus, my statement that "I haven't yet been completely blown away by a Jean Renoir film" neglects my later review of The Grand Illusion (1937).

I haven't yet been completely blown away by a Jean Renoir film. The closest candidate so far was the wonderful A Day in the Country (1936), which unfortunately suffered the handicap of being unfinished. Even so, I find the director's films to be extraordinarily pleasant viewing, and I'd much sooner sit down for a Renoir than I would for, say, a Godard or Fellini film. French Cancan (1954) is a completely pleasant, and entirely unpretentious, musical comedy that goes by so breezily that you're apt to forget that you're watching the work of France's most respected filmmaker. Less concerned with cultural satire than The Rules of the Game (1939), the film is instead similar in tone to Elena and Her Men (1956), a completely inconsequential piece of cinema that is nonetheless a lot of fun to watch. Both of these films were shot in exquisite Technicolor, of which Renoir takes full advantage, filling the frame with glorious costumes, colours and people.

Henri Danglard (Jean Gabin) is a respected theatre producer who lives the high life, despite relying upon financial backers to sustain his extravagant lifestyle. A charming chap, and convincingly debonair given his age, Danglard shares the company of the beautiful but temperamental Lola de Castro (María Félix), into whose bed many have attempted to climb (and probably with little resistance). When Danglard woos a pretty young laundry-worker, Nini (Françoise Arnoul), into dancing the cancan for him, Lola is overrun with jealousy, and all sorts of anarchy takes place amidst this romantic rivalry. Meanwhile, a handsome European prince (Giani Esposito) offers Nini his hand in marriage, but she's not willing to make such a dishonest commitment, more inclined to stay with Danglard, who inevitably plots to discard her as soon as his next promising starlet comes along. Jean Gabin, who had previously worked with Renoir in the 1930s, is terrific in the main role, overcoming his mature age to succeed as a potential lover.

It's interesting to compare Hollywood films of the 1950s with their European counterparts. Thanks to the Production Code, most American romantic comedies kept the romance almost entirely platonic, whereas here Renoir's characters speak of sex and adultery as though it is a perfectly acceptable practice. Even the adorable Françoise Arnoul, who occasionally reminded me of Shirley MacLaine, is treated as an openly sexual women, and not just because her character specialises in a dance designed purely to display as much leg as possible. Like many of Renoir's films, the characters themselves aren't clearly defined, and so it's difficult to form an emotional attachment. Indeed, only in the final act does Danglard come clean with the extent to which he romantically exploits his dance recruits, though even this moment is overshadowed by the premiere show of the Moulin Rouge. Perhaps it is through his caricatures that Renoir is making a quip about bourgeois French society – that they're all hiding behind fallacious identities and intentions. Or am I looking too far into this quaint musical comedy?

Currently my #8 film of 1954:
1) Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) Animal Farm (Joy Batchelor, John Halas)
3) Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Viaggio in Italia {Voyage in Italy} (Roberto Rossellini)
5) Sabrina (Billy Wilder)
6) The Glenn Miller Story (Anthony Mann)
7) The Maggie (Alexander Mackendrick)
8) French Cancan (Jean Renoir)
9) The Caine Mutiny (Edward Dmytryk)


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Target #270: Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)

TSPDT placing: #137
Directed by: Arthur Penn
Written by: David Newman (written by), Robert Benton (written by), Robert Towne (uncredited)
Starring: Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Denver Pyle, Gene Wilder

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

In 1967, two films ushered in a new wave of Hollywood film. Mike Nichol's The Graduate (1967) introduced casual sexuality into the mix, with young graduate Dustin Hoffman enjoying a tryst with Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson, highlighting the vast generation gap between the Baby Boomers and their parents. Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), likewise, pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable to show in film, featuring glorious set-pieces of violence that would influence the later work of Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese. This new brand of authentic yet stylised brutality may have been borrowed from Spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone, whose own "Dollars" trilogy had proved successful with American audiences {his Hollywood-funded follow-up, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), was a magnificent film, but noticeably toned down the violence}. Many reviewers were initially indifferent to Penn's picture, and Warner Brothers had little faith in its financial prospects, but the support of critics like Pauline Kael prompted a swift reevaluation, and Bonnie and Clyde was soon a box-office hit.
Despite being set in the 1930s, and, of course, based on true events, Penn's retelling of the Bonnie and Clyde story overtly reflected the revolutionary cultural times in which the film was made. The two titular fugitives symbolised the attitudes of the young people of the day – brash, impudent, dismissive of authority, and indifferent as to the consequences of their actions. Intriguingly, Bonnie and Clyde appears to suggest that something more than mere anarchistic tendencies fuelled the pair's violent escapades. Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) is portrayed as sexually impotent, and a lengthy, uncomfortable would-be sex scene emphasises the self-loathing frustration that, perhaps, fuelled his personal inadequacy and prompted him to seek other, more destructive means of alleviating his stress and exhibiting his masculinity. Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) is depicted as a young woman whose sexual repression at the hands of a well-meaning but morally-uptight mother has stifled her femininity, and only through societal rebellion does she appear to regain her sense of identity. This theme ties in nicely with the Women's Liberation of the 1960s.

Beatty and Dunaway are perfect in the two leading roles, displaying enough charisma and sex appeal to come across as likable, but also inspiring sympathy and disapproval for their clearly irresponsible and reprehensible behaviour (the film initially provoked controversy for its perceived "glorification" of criminals, but, though the audience's empathy is recruited to some extent, the destructive and inevitable consequences of the gang's actions are hardly glossed over). The famous, gruesome climax – in which Bonnie and Clyde are apathetically gunned down in a bloody police ambush – was perhaps the most intense minute of cinema American audiences had ever experienced. Of course, once the floodgates were opened, New Hollywood began to adopt his fresh, powerful frankness in its storytelling. Sam Peckinpah, no doubt inspired by Penn's efforts, decisively raised the bar with his Revisionist Western The Wild Bunch (1969). A landmark American film, Bonnie and Clyde furthered the reputations of both its director and star Warren Beatty, and successfully launched the acting careers of Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder.

Currently my #4 film of 1967:
1) Voyna i mir {War and Peace} (Sergei Bondarchuk)
2) The Graduate (Mike Nichols)
3) In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)
4) Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn)
5) Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg)