Renoir is a ravishing new biopic from director Gilles Bourdos that gives us two geniuses for the price of one. For most people the name is synonymous with the paintings of Impressionist master, Pierre-August Renoir. Cinephiles will also know that his film-maker son, Jean Renoir, is equally celebrated as the writer/director of La Grande Illusion and La Règle du Jeu. But you’re unlikely to have heard of the central figure in this drama, actress Catherine Hessling (born Andrée Heuschling), who briefly achieved fame in the 1920s and was the first wife of Jean Renoir.
In 1915 the calm atmosphere of the Renoir villa at Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur is disrupted by the arrival of Andrée “Dédé” Heuschling (played by Christa Theret). This auburn-haired beauty was engaged by the recently deceased Madame Renoir to model for her ailing husband. Thanks to his beguiling new muse, Renoir (played by veteran Michel Bouquet) is soon rediscovering his appetite for painting nudes. When his son Jean (Vincent Rottiers) comes home to recuperate from a war wound, he too is captivated by this self-confident young woman who dreams of a career as an actress. That romance is overshadowed by intergenerational tensions and by the prospect of Jean’s return to the carnage and chaos of the front.
It’s no surprise that Renoir is a film minutely preoccupied with flesh and the female form. As in La Belle Noiseuse (1991), we witness the interaction between artist and model, and the painstaking process by which life is infused into canvas. There are excursions to the beach and the countryside, with Mark Ping Bing Lee’s photography bathing the unclothed Dédé in golden hues that are perfect for Renoir senior’s brushwork.
Renoir is more than just chocolate-box beauty and tableaux vivants. The men appear cloaked in an aura of death and decay, as the film contrasts Renoir’s art with the inescapable effects of war and ageing. The wheelchair-bound painter consults with his doctor; his swollen and arthritic hands are bathed and bandaged by his retinue of devoted female servants so that work may continue. Jean dresses the ugly wound in his leg, as younger brother Coco (Thomas Doret from The Kid with a Bike) looks on. We also glimpse horribly disfigured war veterans in one of the film’s few scenes outside the Renoir estate.
With all this material to work with, it’s disappointing that Bourdos fails to get under the skin of his characters. Renoir senior’s pronouncements rarely get beyond the level of clichés that do little to illuminate his strained relationship with his sons. Thomas Doret impresses as the sullen adolescent, whose budding interest in the opposite sex is fuelled by the presence of “Dédé”. Though Vincent Rottiers looks nothing like the man who became a giant of European cinema, he effectively conveys the conflict of a man torn between his love for Dédé and his duty to fight on.
Christa Theret has the most difficult role here – not just because when a woman strips off for her art audiences tend not to remember the acting. As the mercurial Dédé, it’s her scenes of conflict with the disapproving female servants and the Renoirs that bring this rather slow-moving narrative to life. The young model’s frustration at her constricting role within the household is finally laid bare when sulking gives way to a bout of plate-smashing. But this would have been more believable if we had ever glimpsed her life outside the house or saw her confiding in a friend. The Renoirs are so insular and so immersed in their own affairs that they have no idea where she lives.
Despite the weaknesses of the script, Renoir does offer glimpses of the challenges faced by a great artist battling on despite waning physical strength. Viewed as a series of picturesque vignettes of summer on the French Riviera 100 years ago, it is a lovely film to watch. But given that Dédé and Jean later married and made films together, you might feel that Renoir demands a sequel. I ended up wishing that Bourdos’s film had been less reverential and made more of a drama out of the Impressionist maestro’s late-life crisis.
Renoir is released in selected UK cinemas on Friday 28 June 2013.
When I watch The Servant, it’s always the voice of Cleo Laine singing “All Gone” that echoes around my head for hours. John Dankworth’s smoky torch song is as integral to Joseph Losey’s haunting psychological drama as Barrett, the unctuous manservant played by Dirk Bogarde, or Harold Pinter’s trenchant script.
Nearly 50 years after The Servant was first released, that combination of mellow voice, strings and lyrics filled with regret – “Leave it alone. It’s all gone” – remains irresistible. For Tony, the hapless bachelor so brilliantly played by James Fox, it’s the melodious accompaniment to his fireside lovemaking with Susan (Wendy Craig). By the end of the film it has turned into something horribly discordant – those stabbing strings mocking his decline into a life of booze and degradation, orchestrated by the manipulative Barrett. Tony can smash the record player, but he can’t shut off the sound of his own destruction.
Though there’s a lot more to The Servant than one song, it’s a good indication of how everything we see (and hear) is perfectly calibrated by Losey, Pinter and their collaborators. From the moment Barrett first arrives at the terraced house just off the King’s Road, Chelsea, those ticking and chiming clocks are hard to ignore. Like Douglas Slocombe’s immaculate black and white photography, the timepieces contribute to the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere. When you add the exaggerated sound of a dripping tap and Barrett’s enormous shadow looming from the upper floors, The Servant would have made a great horror movie.
These days you’ll find more polyglot nannies in Chelsea than bowler-hatted Barretts, but this dissection of the shifting balance of power between callow master and wily servant remains fascinating. Dirk Bogarde dominates proceedings, of course, even when he’s offscreen. But it’s a measure of his greatness that he doesn’t completely overshadow the contributions of James Fox, Sarah Miles or Wendy Craig. The homoerotic subtext of the Tony/Barrett relationship has been much discussed, but there are only glimpses of camp when they squabble over domestic arrangements. The enduring power of this film lies in the fact that Barrett and his seductive “sister” Vera (played by Sarah Miles) remain unreadable and unknowable.
Far from being a sterile exercise in art house film-making, The Servant delights in sly humour – from the lingering shot of Thomas Crapper’s sanitary ware emporium, to an absurd conversation about ponchos and capes. Made four years later, Accident also has its lighter moments, as Losey and Pinter examine hypocrisy and infidelity amongst a group of middle-class academics.
Accident was adapted by Pinter from the novel by Nicholas Mosley, and visually it is the antithesis of the earlier film. We’ve moved from austere, wintry west London to the glories of an Oxford summer – punting, cricket, tennis and Sunday lunches that last all day. Bogarde and Stanley Baker play a pair of middle-aged dons who share a mutual interest in a beautiful but vacuous Austrian student (played by the very French Jacqueline Sassard). Her other suitor William (Michael York), supplies the doomed upper-class element in a story that begins with a fatal car crash and then shows the betrayals that led up to it.
Accident is a dazzling and seductive piece of film-making that gives Bogarde another excellent role as the conflicted Philosophy tutor, Stephen. Married with two kids and another on the way, he appears simultaneously entrenched in and detached from his world of privilege and beauty. He’s also frustratingly passive in the face of boorish behaviour by Baker’s character, Charley. There’s something theatrical about a film that locates many of its key moments – a birth, a violent death, illicit sex – offscreen. Like Stephen, the viewer is never quite in the right place at the right time, leaving many questions unanswered.
Unlike conventional romantic dramas, Accident doesn’t move towards an emotionally satisfying resolution to the web of tangled relationships. Sequences like Stephen’s meeting with old flame Francesca (Delphine Seyrig) don’t unfold in the way you might expect. So instead of a conventional montage, scored with appropriate mood music, we get pictures and dialogue that are jarringly out of sync. Even more startling is a conversation between Stephen and his wife Rosalind (played by Pinter’s wife Vivien Merchant) that takes place at the end of a long garden. When the reverse shot suddenly reveals that they’re also sitting right next to a river, it’s as though we’ve just cut to a completely different day and location.
Dirk Bogarde is far too cerebral to rank with mainstream 60s cultural icons like The Beatles, James Bond and Michael Caine. But the two emotionally complex films he made with Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter prove that style and substance weren’t mutually exclusive in that “swinging” decade.
A digitally restored print of The Servant was shown as part of the 27th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.
“Once upon a time in South Central . . .” Opening with police sirens, screeching tyres and the first of innumerable F-words, the aural landscape of David Ayer’s End of Watch seems very familiar. This LA-set police drama is not a radical reworking of the genre, but it does provide some new angles on a career in law enforcement. That’s partly because the “found footage” style of camera work allows the audience to walk (and run) in the footsteps of two very likeable LAPD officers.
Officer Brian Taylor (a shaven-headed, bulked-up Jake Gyllenhaal) and his Mexican-American partner Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) work out of Newton Division. Brian is studying film-making (as part of a Pre-Law course), so he’s constantly recording and commentating both during and after their shifts. Inside the patrol car it’s all banter and male bonding, as these buddies riff about their women – “Dude are you gonna hook up with a Mexican girl?” – and their aspirations. Outside, they save two kids from their crack-addicted parents, tackle a huge blaze and get into an impromptu fight with the angry “Mr Tre”.
For about half an hour, End of Watch reminded me of TV’s Southland, with its hand-held filming, dry humour and emphasis on routine crimes. But there is more going on here than ride-alongs and Brian’s budding romance with the perky Janet (played by Anna Kendrick). The opening scene shows our gung-ho heroes in a high-speed pursuit that ends with two men dead. That same fearless approach informs their later discovery of a house of horrors that is linked to drugs, people trafficking and a Mexican cartel. Warned that there is a hit out on them, a smiling Brian points out that everyone wants to kill them. Soon complacency gives way to panic in the bravura, all-guns-blazing, blood-soaked climax.
Writer-director Ayer’s previous films include Training Day, Dark Blue and Street Kings, so he’s certainly on familiar ground with the LAPD. The actors had several months of preparation for their roles and it has paid off – the Taylor-Zavala partnership is the linchpin of the movie. The softly spoken Gyllenhaal brings more self-confidence and physical presence than you might expect to his part as an ambitious young officer. Equally watchable is Peña, who wrings every ounce of humour out of Ayer’s droll script. David Harbour relishes his lines as veteran cop Van Hauser, the duo’s main antagonist: “Bad guys attack from the front. Department comes in from the rear.”
After Brian’s opening voice-over – “I am fate with a badge and gun” – I was worried that there would be excessive mythologizing of the LAPD here. Ayer’s film is certainly a long way from the LA of The Shield, where corruption and brutality are the only effective way to tackle crime. But I found it refreshing to have two heroes who aren’t weighed down by cynicism and tormented by inner demons.
With strong performances, a sharp script and some full-on action sequences, End of Watch is an entertaining ride. Its weak point is a narrow focus that never gives us much background on the cartel or its impact on the community. This is about the survival of two cops, rather than an examination of organised crime or the shifting demographics of 21st-century LA. So the local Mexican “enforcers” who eventually come after Taylor and Zavala prove to be annoying, incompetent and foul-mouthed, to the point where I wanted to mute them. The incessant use of the same expletive may be realistic, but it doesn’t make for compelling viewing.
The middle section of We Have a Pope appears to have been flattened by a massive dose of Mogadon.
We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam) gets off to colourful start, with the masses in Saint Peter’s Square feasting their eyes on a sea of red capes, white lace and ecclesiastical bling. In real life I’d probably be even less interested in the outcome of a papal conclave than a talent show presided over by creepy Simon Cowell. On paper, though, Nanni Moretti’s film promises swingeing satire and perhaps some searching questions about how the Roman Catholic Church chooses its leader. Unfortunately he’s bottled it – serving up a comedy so mild it should come with a Papal Seal of Approval.
Michel Piccoli stars as Cardinal Melville, chosen by his peers to be the new Pope after lengthy deliberations and much collective boredom. It turns out that no one really wanted the job (“Not me, Lord”), so Melville is just the poor schmuck who’s drawn the short straw. In a wonderfully anti-climactic moment he fails to appear on the balcony to greet the faithful, instead collapsing behind the scenes with a howl of anguish.
Moretti and his co-writers Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli give us a promising set-up with all the trimmings. Scenes of pageantry and media hype are effectively juxtaposed with the fragile and doubt-ridden mortals who comprise the College of Cardinals. One of them has a face so cadaverous it looks like the work of El Greco. In this unprecedented crisis, top psychoanalyst Brezzi (played by Moretti) is drafted in to counsel the anxiety-stricken Pope-elect. But he just ends up being sequestered along with all the Cardinals, while Melville sneaks off on an extended walkabout in the Eternal City.
During his distinguished career the 85-year-old Piccoli has gazed upon many of the heavenly bodies of French cinema – including Bardot, Deneuve and Béart. It’s a bit hard to reconcile that virile screen presence with the white-haired and rather frail figure we see playfully waving to the Swiss Guards. While Melville’s problems may be put down to parental deficit disorder, Piccoli is hampered by a far more straightforward case of a meandering script.
If you were hoping for skeletons in the papal closet, forget it. Apart from a few angry outbursts, punctuated by chats with his stressed-out spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr), what we get is a weary old man who once harboured dreams of being an actor. A consultation with Brezzi’s wife (also a shrink) yields a couple of gags but doesn’t go anywhere. Our runaway Pontiff needed something more solid on which to anchor his anxieties than a local production of The Seagull.
A comedy so mild it should come with a Papal Seal of Approval.
Back at the Vatican, there’s a plump Swiss Guard gorging himself in the Pope’s suite, while Brezzi tries to keep the cardinals happy with a volleyball tournament and advice about their pharmaceutical intake. But it’s the middle section of this movie that appears to have been flattened by a massive dose of Mogadon. Moretti’s peculiarly Italian brand of neurosis can be fun – in moderation – but what we need is more of Stuhr’s enterprising spin-doctor and a genuine sense of tension.
We Have a Pope ticks all the right boxes in terms of lighting, set design and cinematography. The best scenes in the film show the lone figure of Melville crushed by the sheer opulence of his surroundings, the burden of history and the weight of expectation. The climactic scene in which the cardinals finally track down the escapee in a theatre is also well choreographed.
If the Catholic Church had hired Moretti to make a commercial he could hardly have done a better PR job – all those lovely costumes, genial characters and not a whiff of scandal. But you do wonder how the film-maker who lambasted Silvio Berlusconi in The Caiman (Il Caimano) could have gone so soft. Perhaps he had one eye on the hereafter.
(Review first published as part of Sound on Sight’s coverage of the BFI London Film Festival 2011.)
I have a confession to make. I’m not very excited about the forthcoming release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, directed by the not-so-amazing Marc Webb. It’s the follow-up to 2012′s The Amazing Spider-Man, which I also gave a wide berth. I know that leaves a big question mark hanging over my movie geek credentials, but I don’t care. At least I don’t spend my time hanging round message boards posting mean comments about young actresses like Shailene Woodley, who have the temerity to look like real women instead of fantasy figures.
I have Twitter to thank for alerting me to the furore surrounding the publication yesterday of some on-set pictures of Shailene Woodley, who’s been cast as Mary Jane Watson in the new Spidey flick. No sooner had the website Cinema Blend unveiled some shots of Woodley and her co-star Andrew Garfield, than the trolls took a dump over them – figuratively speaking. Woodley has had her hair dyed auburn to play M-J, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the fanboys. “Looks horrible as a redhead,” was one of the kinder comments in a no-holds-barred discussion that reached its nadir with this exchange:
“Omg she looks horrible I hope they can do something with that face of hers” (Posted by anonymous troll “Dee”)
“Burn it with fire” (Posted by anonymous troll “balls”)
No doubt “Dee” and “balls” would justify their ignorant, vituperative nonsense as nothing more than friendly banter. But since Taliban victim Aesha Mohammadzai has also been in the news this week, jokes about facial disfigurement don’t really cut it with me any more.
Today Cinema Blend has posted a follow-up piece, declaring that those who criticised Woodley’s looks “don’t deserve the movie”. Apparently this wasn’t the only site where fans of the Spider-Man franchise vented their spleen about Woodley’s inadequacies or as Cinema Blend puts it, her “natural looks”. Underneath a semi-glamorous shot of the actress, Editor-in-Chief Katey Rich takes the trolls, misogynists and fanboys to task for failing to distinguish between comic-book fantasy and reality. She tries to redress the balance, by arguing that Woodley’s success in the role should be judged on the basis of her acting – not her looks. Sadly, the notion that an actress in a big-budget comic-book franchise wouldn’t be rated solely in terms of her appearance is pure fantasy.
Cinema Blend’s distaste for some of its readers would be more convincing if they’d taken down the offensive exchange, or moderated the comments, or offered some kind of riposte at the bottom of the original piece. But we’re all so inured to anonymous strangers using message boards to denigrate women that no one thinks censorship or intervention is necessary.
There are certain cinema franchises where the casting decisions attract more than the usual level of scrutiny, but is that any excuse for just being abusive? When Daniel Craig was first chosen to play James Bond in Casino Royale he wasn’t everyone’s idea of 007 heaven. I remember people complaining that he was too blonde, too rugged or just too ugly to play Ian Fleming’s super-smooth spy. Some of those doubters changed their minds after they clapped eyes on a dripping-wet Daniel emerging from the ocean in his tiny blue swimming trunks. Yes, male actors are also relentlessly objectified.
It’s lucky that Cinema Blend didn’t use the same (free) picture of Woodley that I’ve got at the top of this post. The star of The Descendants and The Secret Life of the American Teenager is a mature and intelligent performer, but she does not have perfect skin. I shudder to think what the die-hard comic-book lovers would have said about a Mary-Jane with spots instead of a D-cup.
Director Jacques Audiard describes Rust and Bone, his widely acclaimed follow-up to A Prophet, as a “gritty melodrama”. I wonder whether something got lost in translation. On paper, there is plenty here that would excite the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro González Iñárritu – bloody street fights, graphic sex scenes and a beautiful woman maimed by a killer whale. Yet Audiard’s low-key direction and refusal to choose gloss over substance ensure this unflinching drama never strays into soap-opera territory.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) travels from Belgium to Antibes with his five-year-old son Sam (the appealing Armand Verdure) to stay with his sister. Anna (Corinne Masiero) takes an interest in her vulnerable nephew, though that hardly makes up for Ali’s erratic parenting skills. A former boxer and kickboxer, the burly single dad veers between neglect (regularly forgetting to pick Sam up from school) and physical cruelty (shaking the terrified child when he’s disobedient). He’s well qualified for his new job as a nightclub bouncer, where he comes to the aid of Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard). She’s just been hit in the face during a brawl, and Ali stuns her with another clumsy (verbal) blow: “You’re dressed like a whore.” It’s hardly an auspicious start.
Tellingly, our first glimpse of Steph is her bare legs sprawled on the nightclub floor. She loses the bottom half of those limbs following an accident at Marineland, where she revels in her job as a whale trainer. Like the orca pool, disability can be dangerous cinematic territory, but Audiard spares us the full horror of the incident and its aftermath. So Rust and Bone finds beauty – even serenity – as the camera delves beneath the surface to show wreckage, a drifting body and a cloud of blood.
That same narrative restraint extends into Steph’s painful rehabilitation and growing dependence on Ali as a friend, supporter and part-time lover. The scenes in which Steph takes her first post-amputation swim and later removes her artificial legs to have sex with Ali, could have been sentimental, prurient or just plain weird. Audiard pulls them off with minimal dialogue and a reliance on Schoenaerts and Cotillard to find the emotional truth without embarrassment.
Though it doesn’t start out as a cerebral or deeply romantic relationship, Ali and Steph seem to understand that each needs their physical outlet in order to survive. Her self-image has been constructed around her need to be watched – both by her lovers and in the performance of her job. As she embraces one of her beloved orcas from the “safe” side of the tank, you can almost see the internal healing process. Similarly, Ali rejoices in the pain as well as the payouts that go with his masochistic sideline in street fighting.
Shorn of its usual cinematic glamour, the Côte d’Azur is shown here as just another recession-hit backwater – albeit with better beaches. Audiard and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine have a fondness for point of view shots, huge close-ups and camera angles that are sometimes perverse. So Ali’s first glimpse of the coastline at Antibes isn’t a breath-taking vision of blue ocean but a quick skim across the horizon from just over his right shoulder. A little later, he wakes from nap on the beach and the foreground of the frame is entirely filled by Steph’s giant nipples. Subtle it isn’t. But there are beautiful images here too, including the symphony of glossy black skin and foam as the whales go through the diving routine that precedes the accident.
Ali’s involvement in illegal surveillance seems like an unnecessary subplot here, put in purely to engineer a massive bust-up with his sister. They could have just fallen out over his treatment of Sam. But this is a minor fault in a film that knows exactly where it’s going from the moment Ali and Steph first meet, yet still keeps you wondering whether it will deliver the big emotional pay-off.
Marion Cotillard already has an Oscar for the baffling and convoluted La Vie en Rose, but I found her performance here far more impressive and affecting. When Steph loses her legs she is literally cast adrift – professionally and personally – and it’s fascinating to watch Cotillard rebuild this woman from the ground up. As her unlikely saviour, Matthias Schoenaerts gives us a man of many contradictions whose heart finally proves to be as reliable as his fists.
If you’ve watched enough Hollywood films, you’ll already know that the 1960s were just one long drug-fuelled odyssey, with semi-improvised plotlines, gratuitous nudity and great music. For those who weren’t lucky enough to be tuning on or dropping out in Southern California or Swinging London, the glittering coastline of the Côte d’Azur must have been a pretty good third choice. But in Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969), a month of R&R in the South of France climaxes in death, disillusionment and the inescapable feeling that the party is over.
Tanned, toned and utterly carefree, Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and his girlfriend Marianne (Romy Schneider) frolic in and out of the pool at their borrowed holiday villa near St Tropez. With no kids and no guests to entertain, there’s nothing to do except make love, sleep late and wait for the next meal to be served up by their obliging maid. Then Marianne learns that her old friend Harry (Maurice Ronet) is in the neighbourhood with his daughter. Without consulting her partner, she invites them both to stay. Tensions rise as Harry rolls up in his Maserati with leggy 18-year-old Penelope (Jane Birkin) in tow. The sun beats down as Jean-Paul alternates between sulking and smouldering; Marianne is seemingly oblivious to the consequences of her hospitable gesture.
I first watched La Piscine in a state of mild intoxication, which was ideal for enjoying a story about shallow hedonists summering in the playground of the rich and famous. There’s not too much dialogue here to interrupt your appreciation of those lingering shots of Delon’s glistening torso as he hauls himself out of the pool, or the camera’s relentless quest to shoot Romy’s dazzling beauty from every conceivable angle.
But on second viewing you realise that the languid pace and luscious photography have lured the audience into the same false sense of security as Marianne. The screenplay, co-written by Deray and Jean-Claude Carrière, subtly draws out the fault-lines in the relationships between the central trio. Harry, who favours tailored shirts worn unbuttoned to the waist, initially presents himself as genial, successful and popular with everyone he meets. Yet he can’t resist needling the younger Jean-Paul at every opportunity – quizzing him about his half-hearted new career in advertising, Marianne’s work and their future. His relationship with Penelope (“a mistake of my youth”) is a sham that simultaneously fuels his anxiety about getting old while playing to his vanity.
In other words, it’s the classic scenario of two alpha males locking horns over the same woman, with Jean-Pierre initially unaware that Harry and Marianne were once lovers. He’s reduced to shooting baleful glances at the pair, as they cosy up to each other during a party scene. He consoles the ingénue Penelope, who has earlier observed at close quarters her father’s lustful gaze at the bikini-clad Marianne. No dialogue is really necessary to convey the simmering jealousy and pent-up rage that will drive Jean-Pierre to seduce Penelope and strike out at his tormentor.
A lesser actor than Maurice Ronet might have turned Harry into the kind of preening braggart you’d quite happily see floating in your pool. But I still found Harry oddly likeable even when he’s being boorish. When he drowns, it feels for a while as though the life has been sucked out of the film and the increasingly fragile relationship between Marianne and Jean-Paul.
Despite Jean-Paul’s ham-fisted efforts to tamper with the crime scene and a suspicious detective from Marseilles, La Piscine remains a psychological drama rather than a thriller. So the final third of the film focuses on Marianne’s slow realisation that the man whose weaknesses and failures she has tolerated – even embraced – go far deeper than she ever imagined.
This is where Delon and Schneider, who had once been engaged for five years, show that there’s much more to their performances than just modelling beachwear around the swimming pool. The scene in which he announces he’s leaving her is a masterpiece of understatement and barely articulated regret, complemented by the piano and violin on Michel Legrand’s hauntingly beautiful score. There are no histrionics here: the look of utter devastation on Schneider’s face as she returns to their bedroom alone says it all.
That’s not the end, though. As an autumnal chill blows through the Riviera, La Piscine reunites this glamorous pair for a future that looks to be full of compromises, uncertainties and – perhaps – a genuine commitment this time.
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan may have been thinking about The Titfield Thunderbolt when he made his often misquoted “never had it so good” speech in 1957. Released four years earlier, Ealing’s first colour film is an unabashed celebration of post-war optimism, community spirit, the glories of rural England, and the romance of the railways.
It’s the spring of 1952, and a notice goes up at Titfield station announcing that in a few weeks’ time British Rail will be closing the picturesque branch line to Mallingford Junction. This galvanises railway enthusiasts like the Reverend Sam Weech (George Relph) and squire Gordon Chesterford (John Gregson) into action. They apply to the Ministry of Transport to take over the running of the service, with funding from the bibulous Mr Valentine (Stanley Holloway), who’s seduced by the idea of a mobile bar. Lurking in the background are scaremongering hauliers Pearce and Crump, who plan to convert the village to the joys of bus travel – by fair means or foul.
The Titfield Thunderbolt was directed by Charles Crichton and written by T.E.B. Clarke, who’d made The Lavender Hill Mob two years earlier. This 60th anniversary DVD release was the first time I’d watched the film, and I can confirm that Douglas Slocombe’s digitally restored cinematography looks lovely. Regular visitors to Bath will particularly enjoy watching the countryside of North East Somerset speed past, with starring roles for Monkton Combe station (standing in for Titfield) and the village of Freshfield.
It’s fun watching these light railway novices trying to outwit the scheming Crump (Jack MacGowran) and Pearce (Ewan Roberts), who’ll stop at nothing to derail the service. But the beginning of The Titfield Thunderbolt hints at what could have been an even better film, with a more satirical edge. Take the early scene in the pub, in which the amiable Weech almost comes to blows with railway veteran Dan Taylor (Hugh Griffith) over which man has the superior knowledge. “One doesn’t need a knowledge of working slang to operate a locomotive!” retorts Weech, in a sharply scripted demonstration of book knowledge versus hands-on experience.
Another key sequence sees the luxuriantly mustachioed man from the Ministry granting the villagers a one-month trial period to run the train. Trade unionist Coggett (Reginald Beckwith) launches a futile protest about the use of unpaid labour on the line, in tones reminiscent of Peter Sellers’s Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack (1959). This proves to be story less concerned with politics than preserving the status quo in the decade before the first Beeching Report sounded the death knell for many railway lines. So it’s left to Jimmy Stewart look-alike John Gregson to give a barnstorming speech about how the end of the train service would condemn the village to death: “Our houses will have numbers instead of names!”
With no Alec Guinness in the cast, this Ealing comedy is very much an ensemble effort. George Relph probably has the most substantial role as the vicar-turned-driver, who switches between singing hymns and behaving like an excited kid let loose on a giant Hornby train set. A deadpan Hugh Griffith lets his pipe do the talking in their combative and eventful working relationship. Stanley Holloway always seems to get the last word as the permanently sozzled Valentine, and there’s strong support from Naunton Wayne and a pre-Carry On Sid James.
Fittingly, though, the real star of this film is The Titfield Thunderbolt herself (in real life the famous Lion locomotive), brought out of storage to save the day for the embattled train crew. Repainted for the film, Lion’s long career dates back to 1838 and lasted until the 1920s. These days Lion is a museum piece – on display at the Museum of Liverpool – and the same might be said about this colourful romp, championing the plucky volunteer spirit at the heart of the English countryside. Trainspotters will be in their element; fans of Ealing’s darker and more subversive films may be less enchanted.
Animal lovers will be moved to tears by the opening of René Clément’s World War II drama, Forbidden Games (Jeux Interdits). As terrified families flee Paris during the summer of 1940, adorable six-year-old Paulette (Brigitte Fossey) and her parents are caught in the Nazi air bombardment. Amidst the chaos and terror Paulette is orphaned and her beloved dog Jock dies in her arms. Unable to grasp the enormity of her loss, the child tries to retrieve the dog’s tiny corpse from the river, as though life can still be salvaged from this day of doom.
Her saviour appears, in the shape of Michel Dollé (Georges Poujouly), youngest child of a farming family. They may be a bit rough and ready, but Michel’s mum and dad (played by Lucien Hubert and Suzanne Courtal) give the dainty Paulette a warm welcome. She does turn her nose up, though, at a glass of milk topped off with a dead fly. Together, these kids find their own way to deal with the unfathomability of death, by creating a makeshift animal cemetery in a nearby mill. But in his eagerness to please Paulette, Michel violates the rituals of burial and religious observance that sustain both his family and the wider community.
With its morbid subject matter and a haunting guitar theme by Narciso Yepes, I was worried that Forbidden Games might be a grim watch. Nothing could be further from the truth. Clément and his co-writers bring humour and vivid characterisation into the domestic world of the Dollés, which helps to balance the drudgery and tragedy of lives blighted by war. Those qualities are exemplified in the sequence where Michel’s brother, Georges, lies on his deathbed after being kicked by a horse. Though the patient is clearly beyond the reach of either prayer or medicine, Mme Dollé pins her hopes on the healing powers of laxative. Meanwhile, the hungry Michel attempts to summon divine intervention, but like the foraging mouse his mind is really on a loaf of bread that’s just inches away.
A long-running feud between the Dollés and the neighbouring Gouards forms the subplot, with Michel’s sister Berthe romancing deserter Francis (Amédée). But while that relationship is played mainly for comedy, it’s the bond between the worldly Michel and the innocent Paulette that gives this film emotional weight. The 12-year-old Michel eagerly assumes the role of educator and procurer of small animal corpses and crosses for their graves. He’s astonished by her lack of religious knowledge, when she fails to identify the figure of Jesus on a crucifix. Yet Michel’s own education is undercut by superstition, as he reveals his fear of being grabbed by the dead if he enters a graveyard at night.
Georges Poujouly and Brigitte Fossey inhabit their roles here so fearlessly that it doesn’t seem as though they are acting. At times Clément’s direction is very precise – the traumatised Paulette instinctively touches her dead mother’s face before comparing it with her own, still-warm flesh. Yet these young actors aren’t overburdened with sentimental dialogue or the allegorical elements of a story about childhood tainted by war. I particularly liked Paulette’s blunt reaction to Michel’s gift of three crosses purloined from his brother’s funeral – “They’re awful!”
Forbidden Games initially met with a mixed reaction from French critics and was refused entry to the official competition at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival. But it went on to win an Oscar and a Bafta, as well as the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. While I wouldn’t label Clément’s movie anti-religious, it’s not reverential either. Luis Buñuel would have revelled in a plot that culminates in acts of wholesale vandalism in a churchyard; Clément shines a light on the foibles of these villagers but he doesn’t mock them.
In the documentary that accompanies this DVD, Brigitte Fossey speaks warmly about her experience working with Clément and how she craved the attention of co-star Poujouly. Laurence Badie, who played Berthe, is a lot less affectionate on the subject of her love scenes with Amédée.
Mist rises through the trees in an eerie-looking landscape, as pan pipes play on the soundtrack. Momentarily, I thought I’d dropped in on the action at Picnic at Hanging Rock. But this is the post-credits sequence of René Clément’s And Hope to Die, a 1972 crime thriller adapted from the novel Black Friday by David Goodis.
Thriller is the wrong word for a story that’s more adept at evoking the spirit of classic westerns than delivering action or suspense. It does get off to an exciting start, as Frenchman Tony (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tries to evade a bunch of vengeful gypsies, before leaping from a train near the Canadian border. He witnesses a shooting (at the photogenic Montreal Biosphère), then accepts a wad of notes from the dying man. But the killers grab Tony and take him to an isolated country house, where their leader Charley (Robert Ryan) is plotting an audacious kidnapping.
The bad news is that there’s far too much down time between the action-packed opening and the climactic job, involving a fire engine, a talking doll and a character called “Toboggan”. The domestic scenes between Tony (affectionately dubbed “Froggy” by his captors) and the rest of Charley’s gang often drift from tension into tedium. I’ve never watched paint dry, but I’m guessing it is on a par with watching underemployed criminals trying to stand three cigarettes on end.
I don’t mind a few loose ends in a plot, but there’s a lot here that simply doesn’t make sense. If Charley really wants his missing money back, why doesn’t he just get on with torturing and killing Froggy? It would lop half an hour off the running time, and spare poor Sugar (Lea Massari) the pain of a broken heart. I also wondered how one of the gang sustained fatal injuries from ripping the seat of his trousers, after being thrown from a moving car. Finally, who is that cute kid losing his marbles in the baffling prologue sequence?
I stuck it out with And Hope to Die because of Clément’s directorial flourishes and the quality of the performances. Trintignant doesn’t have the swagger of Jean-Paul Belmondo, but he’s great here as a fugitive living on his wits and discovering his own honour among thieves. Aldo Ray’s burly ex-pugilist Mattone has dubious taste in cardigans and no luck with women. The nurturing Sugar and wild child Pepper (Tisa Farrow, sister of Mia) give us all-too believable variations on romantic idealism — the Frenchman is their means of escape. But it’s in the ebb and flow between Tony and Charley that Clément seems to be drawing on classic western scenarios of the ageing gunfighter and the young interloper. In one of his last screen roles, Ryan is superb – ruthless, wistful and utterly resigned to his fate.
Whatever else you can say about Clément’s penultimate film, it isn’t short on talking points. Ryan also starred in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and that film’s elegiac qualities seep into the final scenes here, though without the accompanying buckets of blood. Tony’s ominous train-station “reception” feels like a mini homage to the celebrated opening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. If those gypsies lurking in the bushes had been Native Americans, this could have been a western.
With its attractive photography, autumnal colours and a haunting score by Francis Lai, And Hope to Die will linger in my memory in a way that more efficient thrillers haven’t over the years. It was the recurring image of the marbles cascading down the stairs that hooked me: even more poetic than a slo-mo hail of bullets à la Peckinpah.