Joan the Maid 1: The Battles (1994)

27 11 2008

Honestly, I’ve never been all that enamored by the story of Joan of Arc and I find it pretty difficult to believe that there are other cinephiles out there that think differently. Yet, there seems to be about a thousand different cinematic adaptation of the tragedy. Rivette’s adaptation, made in 1994 and starring the always lovely Sandrine Bonnaire is the sort of film I have to make exceptions for. Certainly, the narrative isn’t all intriguing, but Rivette with all of his minimalistic powers, makes the story feel so free and open, which corresponds perfectly with the type of landscapes that the amazing William Lubtchansky captures. Not one of Rivette’s best films, but certainly one of his best-looking.

I doubt anyone could argue against the claim that Carl Dreyer’s The Trial of Joan of Arc is the most famous cinematic adaptation of the story. Inevitably, every subsequent “Joan” film has been compared to this standard and yet, Rivette’s film has so little in common with Dreyer’s that one gets the feeling that it was Rivette’s intention to take the opposite approach. While Dreyer’s film is claustrophobic and emotionally violent, Rivette’s is calm and open – something that can apply to most of Rivette’s best work. It may be blasphemy (no pun intended) but Rivette does more for me. On the other hand, they are completely different films, and probably shouldn’t be compared in the first place.

Again, I must stress that I have very little interest in such history, which of course, makes even Rivette’s best technical work a little bit dry. Had it not been for the fact that the film features one of the greatest actresses of all-time, photographed by one of the greatest cinematographers of all-time, all composed by one of the greatest directors of …all-time, then there would have been no chance. I wouldn’t have even bothered. As it stands, the film is a great example of Rivette’s mastery but without any interesting content to make the film one of his best. Enjoyable to watch, but there’s about ten other Rivette films I’d rather see instead.

The Kiss of Death (1977)

27 11 2008

Another very impressive early feature from Mike Leigh. This one is a bit more accessible, and by result, a bit lighter than Bleak Moments. It is a bit closer to being a formally conventional film with many of the minimalistic elements of that film replaced with a slightly more conscious “comedic” sensibility. Leigh’s insightful observations remain, though, and they are still the most essential part of his work. The characters are still rather difficult to sympathize with, but in this particular case, their interactions are quite funny. I guess some people are turned off by Leigh’s more upbeat approach here, but I don’t think it makes this film any less natural.

Considering the much more light and charming tone, this does fit closer to being Leigh’s version of an Ozu film, at least more so than Bleak Moments. Of course, the strength of both directors lies in their abilities to balance the comedic with the tragic. Here, Leigh begins to closely associate the two tones in the way that Ozu’s best work often does. Sometimes the funniest scenes are also the most heartbreaking. In other words, there are more than a few sequences that “hit close to home” here, even though I can’t help but find the characters to be slightly obnoxious at times.

That is essentially the only thing that keeps this from being a masterpiece. For a majority of its running time, I felt as though this was better than Bleak Moments. That film, for all its awkward mumbling glory, could use a smile or two. Ultimately, Leigh redeems himself with one of his most formally austere films. This film, on the other hand, is a tad bit bland, but seems to have the ever important element of humor. While I cannot relate completely to Trevor, I do find many of his attempts at human interaction to be very bittersweet. On the other hand, I find his temper, though only subtly hinted at, to be the sort of dramatic element that keeps me from calling this a masterpiece. It’s a wonderful film, no doubt, but I could have done without some of the “serious” narrative turns.