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Benoit Magimel and Ludivine Sagnier

Benoit Magimel and Ludivine Sagnier

Happily, monolingual English-speakers such as myself only ever get to watch the ‘good’ French films: translation into subtitling takes time and money – so why bother with anything but the worthy? Two new imports worth your time and your money are as follows:

Claude Chabrol’s latest do, A Girl Cut in Two, and Guillame Canet’s sophomore (but never sophomoric) release, Tell No One. (A Girl was originally released in France in 2007, and Tell No One as far back as 2006. They’ve only just hit American theatres – different time zones, remember – and that matters only because the New York Times recently listed them among ‘this year’s’ best films.)

            Chabrol, certifiably an auteur, and Canet, a relative newcomer, have produced two very different films (don’t let the “in French with subtitles” grouping fool you). Canet’s Tell No One is a generic thriller, and proudly so –  “Hitchcockian” as so many American critics fairly wet their pants remarking. There’s similar mystery, suspense and intrigue: a woman who may or may not be dead, a hero who may or may not be going insane, a fabulous foot race chase sequence across a busy highway, and a group of ambiguously connected assassins. And further ecstasy-inducing to critics is the next oft-made comparison, to Howard Hawks’s inscrutable 1946 film noir, The Big Sleep. Except that Canet wraps up his winding plot – if not believably – then neatly, and to good effect.

            We’ve experienced all the thrills before, but not since Die Hard presented with the same narrative economy (everything – and I mean everything – seen in Tell No One, you see for a reason), and rarely with such heart. There’s even a ‘big picture’ theme – that is, the protection of children at all costs. And even after all the death and obfuscation, the movie suggests how precious and vulnerable innocence really is.

            On the other hand, there’s little ‘innocent’ (or that remains untouched) about A Girl Cut in Two. Despite a comparatively linear narrative – local Lyons weathergirl Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier) gets trapped between two men: the older, debauched author Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand, who also plays the detective in Tell No One) and the troubled dandy Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel, both hilarious and disturbing) – A Girl is rather more enigmatic than Tell No One (which is supposed to be the mystery here), less generic, more typically ‘arthouse’-ambiguous. In hindsight, the whole narrative may be little more than an excuse to reach the final, literal and symbolic severing of Gabrielle Deneige – but as excuses go, it’s greatly diverting.

            Chabrol inserts theme into narrative more deliberately even than Canet has done with his otherwise cut-and-paste thriller. Deneige means ‘snow’ in French, and much is made of Gabrielle’s youth by other, more jaded characters. But Gabrielle is not so much caught between an older and younger lover as between two unstoppable forces of corruption. As Charles remarks early on, French society is paralyzed between dueling forces of Puritanism and decadence – It’s unclear to me (and I think purposefully so) which lover represents which: Paul, from conservative, Catholic old-money is also a masochistic sociopath; and Charles, Gabrielle’s ‘true love’ and father figure, is depraved to the point of sadism. Up against these two, no amount of youthful innocence can survive in Gabrielle.

Maybe it’s a little much for Chabrol to position his abused heroine as national symbol. Maybe it’s a little much for Canet to force-feed his arguably saccharine sentimentality into an otherwise bitter genre. Ok, they’re broad strokes, but they make their point well: decadence is decay, and it’s lovely to watch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a question to keep film critics up at night: Where does cinema stand in the art world of today? And as a follow-up, what’s the standing of movies?

 

It poses something of an existential crisis that in the medium as a whole, ‘cinema’, ‘movies’, and ‘film’ are no longer synonymous terms. And though we may use them interchangeably at times, they also carry different connotations. Generally, ‘movies’ are thought to be entertainment, a time-filler distraction to doing ‘real’ work. ‘Cinema’, on the other hand, is a more respectable endeavor, a contemplative, complex medium with the potential for Serious Study. (At the very least, it’s a reason for the Oscars to exist and for Leonard Maltin to get up in the morning.) ‘Film’ floats somewhere in between.         

 

‘I’m going to the movies’ means the same thing in everyday speech as ‘I’m going to the cinema’. But consider the difference between saying ‘Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is a really funny movie!’ and ‘Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is a great example of American comedic cinema!’ and few will admit the last. Well, personally, I’m inclined to think Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay more indicative of a current trend in comedy sequels. But seriously now:

 

We may be too quick to discount or deride the fact (and maybe I’m not helping) that popular movies have an impact on modern art discourse, and that they have cultural ramifications beyond the general desensitization and stupefaction of the public.

 

I think we’d do well as film critics to stop trying to qualify what makes a really ‘good’ film – what separates the ‘movie’ from the ‘cinema’ – and accept the fact that every film, as obviously dumb or pretentious as it may be, is Cinema with a capital C, Art with a capital A and worthy of Serious Study.

 

Call me a hippy, but I think we need to spread the love a bit thicker. They’re doing it in the other sectors of the ‘serious’ art world and it’s time we followed suit. Now, take this for an example:

 

In the middle of a grand hall in Versailles, lined with the usual windows, murals and royal portraits, there stands a gigantic magenta balloon dog. It is called, er, ‘Balloon Dog’, and it’s part of an ongoing exhibition there by the American artist Jeff Koons, having stirred something of a controversy in the French art world of late.

 

Some have taken offense at the display, calling it an insult to the grounds on which it stands, an abomination to artistic integrity. ‘Balloon Dog’ has generated a great deal of hot air with lots of flying adjectives: it’s ironic, yes, and mocking, probably; it’s possibly even beautiful. And whether you think it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art, sophisticated or in poor taste, appropriate or not for the space it’s in, nobody has really tried to contest the fact that it is, in fact, art. It is art because it makes a visual statement.

 

Now, I’ll spare you another reference to Harold and Kumar, but take the Venus de Milo for a ‘visual statement’. Compare it to Marilyn Monroe over a subway grate in the Seven Year Itch, and what do you get? Two paragons of female beauty from two distinct eras, two visual statements and nothing less than art (I’m being serious).

 

So now we’ve leveled the playing field of artistic legitimacy, getting back to the oversized balloon: Koons’s work betrays – actually, draws attention to – the transient appeal and significance of visual art displays in general – something, I think, that only cinema gets beyond. The Koons exhibition, along with the ‘Balloon Dog’, will be no more as of December, when it will be taken down for good and the grounds restored to their normal selves. The individual pieces will stay intact, but a once-incendiary display at the home of Luis XIV will be preserved only in memory and pictures. The overall ‘work’ will be destroyed.

 

This in-built obsolescence speaks to the inherent failure of arts like drawing, painting and sculpture (which are largely stationary), and even theatre (for each show is limited to a single venue, and every show must close) to stay in the public eye. Display art is, by design, inherently inaccessible, that is, for the most part closed off out of public reach. It doesn’t come to you, you have to seek it out.

 

Cinema, on the other hand, is a mobile art form, but it is lasting, intransient. Movies are transitory, channeled out in every direction to theatres  (which, admittedly, you have to get to first, but at least they come to your general place of being). Movies make an effort to be seen because they want the viewing experience itself to be as effortless as possible. And this has, of course, been facilitated by TV and the introduction of VCRs, now DVDs, into common usage. Cinema follows us all the way home, and now, thanks to technology, we can enjoy it whenever we want.

 

At the same time, a painting will travel only so far as the gallery to a museum, or a museum to museum, or it will go into private collection. It may undergo transit, like a traveling minstrel show, but it is not continuously transitory in the same way as cinema. A painting depends upon a stable grounding in/on which to exist – to be seen and appreciated.

 

Images of it may be reproduced, and those images widely disseminated, but they will only stress the importance of seeing the original with one’s own eyes (‘wish you were here’, as the postcards say). The singular work/image is, I grant you, significant in and of itself, but in its place. It’d be sacrilege to say that the ‘Mona Lisa’ isn’t a credit to the Louvre, where it resides. But for years when it was lost, the painting was little more than recollection, a figment of the imagination of an enigma. Now that it has an appropriately prestigious home, really the Louvre is just as much a credit to the ‘Mona Lisa’.

 

I’ll put it another way: would Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ be anything more than a urinal on a pedestal if not at the Pompidou in Paris? That’s the Dadaist point, after all. Venue is crucial to making an artwork work – that is, a valid, progressive, and meaningful contribution to society. It’s the being simultaneously elusive (that is, far away) and attainable (the destination is, conceivably, reachable) that makes a piece of ‘fine’ art ‘high’ art – high as a sweets jar stored at the top of the press – and all the more intriguing.

 

Movies, though, aren’t fixed to venue. They can be watched anywhere, without even the actual cinema to enjoy the cinematic work. A film requires hardly any time, money, or patience to watch (relative to the effort it takes to get to most other art venues), yet it satisfies quite thoroughly. Must it follow that in addition to being cheap, such amusement is also worthless?

 

Cinema, after all that, is like a giant pink balloon dog in the palace of postmodern culture. There may be as much artfulness to film as artistry, as much kidding and deception as there is revelation, but cinema challenges the very practical, fundamental way we look at art: how we get to it and in what surroundings, how often, and how much we pay. Film, cinema, whatever you want to call it, is even more aptly, perhaps, called ‘the movies’, for they move us, galvanize us to pursue art on a monthly, weekly, daily basis, and we only have to move so far as the living room. We forget we’re even being ‘cultured’ – and that is truly genius.

 

On July 1st, 1934, Hollywood glamour died.

 

That day, the American film industry implemented a strict policy of self-censorship that would limit the visibility of illicit and/or criminal activities onscreen for decades after. One of the particular targets of the Production Code Administration was the explicit and/or suggested representation of sexuality in movies.

 

Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) it was the representation of female sexuality that suffered the most under the Code.  The reason: in the pre-Code era, both onscreen and off, women threatened the double standards and social/sexual status quo which PCA religious-conservatives sought to preserve.

 

Disconcerting, perhaps, was the fact that glamour queen idols paid industry bills. Valentino might have been big in pre-Code Hollywood; but Swanson, Garbo, and Dietrich were altogether bigger, badder and more beautiful. Draped with furs and dripping in jewels, they glowed through gauze as carnal exotics but no less high-maintenance. Above all, they oozed a pure, unadulterated sexuality – even (or especially) if the sex was adulterous.

 

Actresses and the women they played polished their charms for fiscal and sexual reward. They presented themselves in such a way as to stand out as successful and yet hungry for more. And audiences lapped it up: men wanted to be with them, and perhaps more ‘dangerously’, women wanted to be them:

 

Witness Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932), all chiffon and ruffles, romance and yearning. Or Possessed by Clark Gable, the next best accessory to diamonds. Kay Francis having Trouble in Paradise and no problem with pelts. Dietrich and Hepburn enjoying pants but no less chic or (in the context of time) perversely gorgeous. And Norma Shearer, just your everyday Divorcee. They define glamorous.

 

Glamour, after all, is about clothes and attitude. It is not – emphatically not – about titillation, or worse, T&A. Jean Harlow might have worn a see-through number or three, some artful drapery from time to time, but her clothes were an accent, a decoration on a beautiful body that could and should be admired.

Glamour is about being a knockout in one’s own right. About appreciating what’s there on women’s bodies, what they choose to wear – not what’s underneath or removable. It’s about how a woman presents her sexuality, not an attempt to (re)create or prove it.

 

The PCA didn’t set out to censor costume per se. But in limiting women’s sexual freedom on film (essentially, post-Code premarital sex by a woman would mean death, jail, destitution, or a dead baby), censors did limit the number of roles and situations in which the potential for glamorousness could manifest itself onscreen.

 

In films released after July, 1934, ‘glamour’ has always seemed a little less glamorous than before. For decades post-Code, when a woman showed skin on the screen, she was usually either a chorus girl (of the Ginger Rogers sort) or a bathing beauty (Esther Williams). Sultry film noir types a Veronica Lake, an Ava Gardner – wore impressive clothing and hair, but they were also femme fatales who tended to end up dead at the end of movies.

And dead, glamour is not. So where did it go? (I’d look everywhere but the centerfold.)