La Gueule ouverte (1974)

19 06 2008

It seems that before Pialat established his trademark cinema-verite style, he was already quite accomplished in formal filmmaking. Almost all of this film takes place inside and it is filmed with relatively long static shots that occassionaly pan. On the other hand, this is still very much Pialat’s film. While it may be a bit more quiet (i.e less arguing) than some of his later films, it does maintain a very similar rhythm. In other words, it feels very much like a Pialat film, even if it is, by far, his most austere work.

Philippe, a thirty-something married man, has to cope with the inevitable death of sick mother. As time progresses, her state gets worse and worse. Eventually, she becomes catatonic, which tangles up the social life of both Philippe and his father. It is slowly revealed that Philippe’s father, Roger, was not the most trustworthy husband. In fact, even while his wife is on her last breath, he is out flirting with much younger women. In a parallel situation, Philippe and his wife, Nathalie, begin to go through a rough patch in their marriage.

While the West seems to have welcomed Pialat as the “the French Cassavetes” (if only for the fact that they both make shakycam relationship dramas), with this film he seems more indebted to Ozu. After all, this is essentially an examination of family life, which almost inherently reminds one of Ozu’s work. The father character here bears an uncanny resemblance to Ganjiro Nakamura’s character in The End of Summer. In addition, there is a much more observational comedic quality to this film, which isn’t nearly as present in Pialat’s subsequent films. It is this deadpan humor that really carries the film and elevates it beyond being just a really nice film.

Of course, considering the subject matter (a dying mother), most of the comedic moments are ridiculously dark. Yet, Pialat is never condescending to his characters. While he is essentially observing their moral flaws, he never sugarcoats nor does he do the opposite. There’s a scene between Roger and Nathalie that seems to perfectly sum up the experience: Roger is complaining about having to take care of his wife, which somehow leads the two to discussing the boobs of Roger’s mistress. It is a moment full of awkward humor but also near tragedy, especially when one takes in to count the state Roger is in when the film concludes.

Sombre (1998)

19 06 2008

Quite possibly the hyper, kinetic, and more violent cousin to Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round. Just like in that film, we have something of great emotional weight underneath all the surrealistic red herring. Grandrieux’s style is more, shall we say, accelerated. In fact many of the early sequences are stylized to a point beyond comprehension. In addition, much of the “drama” fells slightly forced into coming off as “bleak” or “odd” or whatever other adjectives that fits. Still, there is something much more personal buried beneath the film’s inaccessible and abstract presentation. Like all great films, Sombre accurately portrays the unsolvable mysteries of human interaction and does so in a way that captures all the nuance and textures of our existence.

In one of the most enigmatic opening sequences in recent history, Grandrieux seemingly introduces all his technical tools. The camera follows a car weaving through an empty mountainside accompanied by the ambiance of a unknown sound. Both of these physical elements will reappear in Sombre many times. The car is inhabited by the film’s protagonist, Jean and the sound is revealed to be that of wind hitting a face hanging out of a moving vehicle. Both of these details seem irrelevant but if one is not at least mildly interested in their presence, they are a likely to be frustrated by the rest of the film. It is these sensory details that drive the film and leads us into its core, emotionally speaking.

Another point of clear frustration for viewers, but complete bliss for others is the way in which Grandrieux chooses to present his images. For the first twenty minutes, Jean is trapped inside of darkness, literally. The darkness for many of the earliest sequences come close to slipping into self-parody. It is difficult for us to see anything, let alone comprehend the purpose of whatever is going on. Body parts seem to quickly float, if only for a sequence. It is almost as though the characters are underwater, waving themselves around to avoid drowning. While these sequences are indeed captivating, they seem trivial, almost academic once Claire is introduced.

It is here that a conflict comes into play: Jean, the serial rapist, helps out the virgin, Claire and her sister. It is a setup that is completely fairytale. Claire is Jean’s way out of darkness. She is quite literally the light; she is introduced with a radiating glow in several sequences. Perhaps such simple-minded characterization could write off the film’s much more perceptive touches, but the fairytale setup does not end at its simple description nor does it provide a open-and-shut case of happiness. It does the exact opposite, actually as Jean rejects his “savior” (in a sense) and returns to his old ways. Yet, he is not a villain nor is he a “friendly rapist/murder.” It is perhaps impossible to create a character, who does what Jean does, and still make this person sympathetic. We do not sympathize with him, or even suppose to “like” him but he is still a human being with an infinite amount of complexities that makes him intriguing. The same goes for Claire thus explaining the film’s greatness. It fleshes its characters out in the most abstract and unconventional of ways, and goes deeper than any straight-forward “character study.”