Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep is a great film – and yet it exposes so many potential problems with the Hawksian process. As a rule, genre is a painted backdrop in Hawks' films, a set of comfortable signifiers that create audience expectations with which Hawks and his actors can then play. The detective genre is a good candidate for the Hawks treatment, based as it is on the perceptual divide between the protagonist and the environment that he or she must navigate and interpret. It's easy to translate this perceptual divide into a Hawksian map of the project: the world that Philip Marlowe explores will become so many genre trappings, and Marlowe himself will move against that cinema-bound world with a lightness and informality that will make him seem more real by contrast.

In fact, the genre is so appropriate for Hawks that it pushes him to a posture that almost resembles parody at times. With so much of the film universe marked off as genre signification, and the protagonist left alone on stage center, the Hawksian urge to have fun can sometimes seem frivolous and even contemptuous. Rarely have the goofy scenes in Hawks films seemed so purely goofy: Marlowe playing a prissy book collector in Geiger's bookstore, or Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood bedeviling a policeman over the telephone, strike me as too strenuous and inorganic a form of reflexive fun. The running theme of Marlowe being irresistible to a stream of beautiful female supporting characters and bit players, likely a send-up of the male fantasy associated with the genre, doesn't come across as much less of a fantasy than what it's sending up. Even the film's opening scenes in the Sternwood mansion play a little too much like a trip to the funhouse: the general's monologue is too literary and scene-setting to let the character breathe; and each of the Sternwood daughters is little more at this point than a genre exhibit that gives Marlowe a chance to show his wit and detachment. (This is not to deny the Hawksian beauties of this opening section: not just the appealing underplaying of Marlowe sweating in the general's hothouse, but also the wonderful reverse tracking shot of Marlowe entering the mansion, framed in that ineffable Hawksian style that conveys both a movie set and an intelligence sizing it up.)

I think the best way to understand the film's greatness is to ask the question, "What causes Marlowe to get personally involved in the case?" For his early detachment gives way to fierce emotionality by the last act. Marlowe forcing Eddie Mars out to face his own gunmen is a driven man; and just before that is the startling concept of Marlowe's hands trembling in fear as he loads his gun in preparation for Mars' arrival.

I don't believe there is a single sufficient answer to that question. Here are some of the components of Marlowe's response.

1) To a large extent, Marlowe is motivated by a spirit of inquiry. This is a reflexive motivation, one that belongs primarily to the film audience, and for which Marlowe acts as our agent. But Hawks is adept at blurring the line between the fictional impulse and character motivation. The film really takes off with the long scene of Marlowe arriving just too late at the Geiger house and finding an array of clues: a corpse, a hopped-up Carmen Sternwood, a concealed camera. Marlowe moves freely about the set like a video game avatar, laying out the available facts for our inspection; Hawks enjoys his time in the house, declines to compress the time it takes for Marlowe to wander the room or search for evidence. The scene is about Marlowe investigating more than it is about the results of the investigation.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is, on the face of it, purely informational: detective Bernie Ohls stops by Marlowe's apartment at 2 am to tell him that Owen Taylor's car was found in the ocean. Marlowe volunteers to accompany Ohls to the crime scene; and asks Ohls a few factual questions as he retrieves his hat and coat: "How's the weather?…What time did that call come in?…What kind of a car did you say that was?" It would have been commonplace for a genre film to fade out as soon as Marlowe's departure was established. The ten or fifteen seconds that Hawks tacks onto the end of the scene are quite relaxed, with Marlowe moving off microphone as he walks to an adjoining room. On the one hand, it's as if Marlowe is using the few moments before "Cut!" to strengthen our grasp on the plot; on the other hand, the rhythm of the scene is peculiarly independent of the story's momentum. Hawks is playing in the space between the fascination of the fiction and the process of creating it.

By the time we get to the familiar pause at the middle of the traditional detective story – then the case is completely closed, I hope this amount is satisfactory, we're very grateful to you. Mr. Marlowe– Hawks feels no need to show Marlowe hesitating over the too-pat solution. Having exposed Marlowe's role as master of the fictional process, Hawks isn't tempted to play a game that he has already tipped us off to. Marlowe goes forward because we want him to, or because he wants to – the difference is hard for us to make out.

2) The Big Sleep is, among other things, a love story, and a rather good one. And Marlowe's object of desire, Vivian Sternwood, is somehow beholden to Eddie Mars, and can't escape his clutches without Marlowe's intervention. Marlowe cites this motivation on a few occasions: "I'm beginning to like another one of the Sternwoods."

From a plot point of view, this motivation is sufficient to explain Marlowe's emotional involvement. But Hawks and his writers are canny enough to know that the love story is not important enough to dominate the film, that the general tone of genre awareness militates against Marlowe falling too hard. Characteristically, Hawks turns this structural prohibition to his advantage, letting Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood drift together calmly and inevitably, dialing down the destabilizing aspects of the relationship (including Vivian's repeated acts on Eddie Mars' behalf) and emphasizing the lovers' quiet, mutual pleasure. The film's final, gentle joke – "What's wrong with you?"- is another way of saying "You may have looked like a plot problem on paper, but you never really were."

3) Interestingly, a much less important character – Jonesy, the penny-ante hood who sacrifices himself for his unworthy lover Agnes – is also cited in the script several times as a reason that Marlowe is determined to take Eddie Mars out of action. Jonesy is treated much more brutally by Mars than is Vivian; and yet it's an indication of how much the love story is muted that this minor character can compete with Vivian on Marlowe's hierarchy of motivations.

There is a reflexive angle here that boosts Jonesy's importance. He didn't just die: he died with Marlowe standing helplessly by in the next room. Marlowe's powerlessness during this incident is clearly a goad to him, as Marlowe himself states. It's a motivation that we, the audience, understand well: the hero is our power, our vehicle to traverse the narrative; any check on his power has dire consequences for our pleasure. So Marlowe's desire for revenge doesn't have to be explained too carefully in terms of his character, as we feel the slight along with him. The subject comes up again as Marlowe loads his gun with trembling hands in the film's penultimate scene: he tells Vivian, "Mars has been ahead of me all the way, way ahead." The pleasure of the genre depends on Marlowe reversing that trend.

Marlowe's various motivations are skillfully meshed. There is enough character-based motivation to let us parse the film on purely internal evidence. And yet the energy that drives Marlowe to ever greater levels of involvement doesn't completely feel like a result of the characterization. In Hawks' films, the balance between the pleasure of fiction – the direct bond between the filmmakers and the audience – and the internal imperatives of the depicted world is a carefully managed trick, almost a matter of sleight of hand. You could call this blend inorganic; and perhaps it can be justified only as an acknowledgement, and a gentle underlining, of the intrinsically inorganic nature of art.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008 Lists

The lists of my favorite New York one-week theatrical releases of 2008, and of my favorite 2008 international premieres, are up at the Auteurs' Notebook. Sometime in January, after I've seen all the 2008 theatrical premieres I'm likely to see, I'll post a more detailed breakdown of my year's theatrical experience. The international premiere list will change a lot over the course of the next year or 18 months; I'll post updates periodically on my running list of favorite films.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Je veux voir

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's 2008 film Je veux voir (I Want to See), which had a one-off NYC screening as part of MOMA's "The Contenders" series, didn't get nearly as much critical attention as it deserves when it premiered at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. Some unkind reviewers took it for a sort of UNICEF documentary on post-war Lebanon, with Catherine Deneuve lending her prestige to a worthy cause. This wouldn't be a completely inaccurate appraisal if it were stripped of its negative connotations, and if the film's extraordinary formal intelligence were acknowledged.

At Toronto 2005, I made note of Hadjithomas and Joreige's A Perfect Day, writing the following in my Senses of Cinema Toronto wrap-up:

"The Lebanese film A Perfect Day (2005) (which won the FIPRESCI prize at Locarno) is an interesting combination of lucid, intelligent direction and evanescent material. The film follows a recessive young man (Ziad Saad) over the course of a single day in Beirut, during which he attempts to have his missing father declared dead, is diagnosed with apnea, dodges the phone calls of his needy mother (Julia Kassar), and pursues a beautiful girlfriend (Alexandra Kahwagi) who has decided to end their relationship. Far from action-packed, the film dawdles over random sensory input and everyday social detail, and the various plot threads seem either too dramatic or too inconclusive, depending on which direction one wants to push the film in. Directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige seem quite confident about their strategy: they have a strong sense of location and sound, and their subjective rendering of the protagonist's perceptions is so precise and abstract that they sometimes seem to be making a conceptual movie about the nature of experience. Can Hadjithomas and Joreige apply their considerable skills to a more classical story structure? Or will their future films reveal that such drifting, attenuated material is a necessary condition for their art?"

Perhaps it was my prejudice that led me to contemplate Hadjithomas and Joreige's potential as old-fashioned narrative filmmakers in my little thought experiment. In any case, Je veux voir finds them in a more postmodernist stance, and they wear it well.

Je veux voir blatantly, wittily asks us to imagine its origins as a production. One supposes that Deneuve offered her services to the Lebanese couple, who then had to come up with a project that could contain her. And so, in the film's first scene, the directors and unseen production staff argue in an office about whether or not to take Deneuve on an improvised day-long shoot to the south of Lebanon, though she has come to the country only to attend a gala in Beirut that night. A bemused Deneuve stares out the window as the staff worry that they cannot ensure her safety. Finally she interjects, "I want to see" – the film's title. The directors, playing themselves, load Deneuve into the shotgun seat of a car driven by Lebanese actor Rabih Mroue, whose IMDb credits consist entirely of films by Hadjithomas/Joreige and by Ghassan Salhab (Terra Incognita), the other major figure of today's Lebanese cinema. The filmmakers and their cinematographer train their camera on the stars from another car, and the convoy is off, with the actors left alone to transmit the initial stages of their acquaintance over radio microphones.

The simple plot concept sets up a confusion that the filmmakers use productively. The outer movie, which we are watching in a theater, and the inner movie, shot while the cars traverse broken roads on their way to the Lebanon-Israel border, share the same stars and crew. They also share the same subject, and very often the same compositions and soundtrack. The effects of this confusion can flow in both directions. Events in the inner movie are written large by our awareness that they also pertain to the outer movie and its mythological star. Every glitch in the filmmaking process or awkwardness among the cast members bounces back and forth in our minds between fiction and reality. Conversely, the practical difficulties that disrupt the inner movie register as wild narrative discontinuities in the outer movie. For instance, an unseen official who physically harasses the cinematographer when the car makes an unplanned stop is simply one more obstacle for the guerrilla inner movie, but he punches a sudden and unexpected hole into the story line. Hadjithomas and Joreige play with these levels, finding new ways to lull us into forgetting the inner movie, then to refocus us. It's their way of driving home the age-old question – is there room for art in the face of real-world crisis? – with wit and flair, and yet to preserve a tentative justification for the stubborn persistence of fiction during hard times.

But what really gives emotional solidity to this postmodernist concept is the precision and beauty of the filmmakers' visual-aural plan. Hadjithomas and Joreige give the impression of having premeditated every shot, and their particular interest is in point-of-view decoupage: the separation between a character who watches and the world that is being watched. Deneuve looking through the car windows at the passing beauty and wreckage of Lebanon is filmed with such Hitchcockian intentionality that the film becomes about looking: not just a celebrity looking at an experience she has been shielded from (the inner movie), but beyond that, the gap between direct sensory experience and the state of mind that it engenders (the outer movie). Often the filmmakers cut to a reverse shot in such a way that it barely seems to belong to the same space as what came before – and this anti-Bazinian system is exactly what is called for in a movie about the distance between the protagonists (and us) and the physical/political/phenomenological world. On occasion Hadjithomas and Joreige relax into a more spatially unified mode of shooting – as in the scene where Mroue gets lost amid the ruins of his own childhood village, and Deneuve in turn is separated from him. Whenever this spatial unification of viewer and viewed, mind and matter, occurs, we can be sure that the filmmakers will use it to render us vulnerable to another dislocation. In this case, the visual and emotional bond forged between Deneuve and Mroue is extended into an intimate conversation, in which the younger actor reveals that he can quote Deneuve's dialogue from Belle de jour. As distracted by this overture as we are, Mroue drives the car off the approved route into an area that has not been checked for landmines….

My only reservation about Je veux voir is with the endpoint of the journey through Lebanon: feeling the need for an emotional event that will cap the expedition and turn the car around, Hadjithomas and Joreige resort to a verbal and visual lyricism that feels to me more conventional than the formal play that took us south. But the film recovers with a superb ending, as Deneuve makes it back in time for her gala, where she searches for the disconnected reverse shot that will preserve the experience of the film in her mind. Je veux voir is not only a major-filmmaker alert, but also the last bit of evidence needed to proclaim Lebanon as a hot spot in today's increasingly decentralized cinematic culture.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bazin on Documentaries, Real and Imaginary

The welcome recent revival of interest in the writings of André Bazin is already beginning to expand the range of Bazin resources available to English-language readers. Last month saw two fascinating Bazin articles translated into English for the first time and published in well-read magazines.

The more unusual of the two pieces is "Every Film Is a Social Documentary," a relatively early (5 July 1947), short article originally published in Les Lettres françaises, and translated by Paul Fileri in the November-December 2008 issue of Film Comment as part of a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bazin's death. Lying somewhat outside the major currents of Bazinian thought (at least as these currents have been defined for English readers), the piece makes a quick nod to "the realist destiny of cinema – innate in photographic objectivity" that has been the tentpole of Bazinian thought at least as far back as 1944's "The Ontology of the Photographic Image." Then Bazin shifts to a contemplation of the dreamlike quality of cinema on the cultural level, a quality that requires the realism of the image, but perhaps only as a vehicle, a carrier. Bazin's description of the resemblance between cinema and dream recalls the principles of surrealism (a word not mentioned by Bazin here), which embraced the cinema precisely because it could give the stamp of realism to the most fantastic and disconcerting images. Surprisingly, however, Bazin's interest here is the cinema's ability to embody the mythologies of the mass audience, an enterprise of which "the sole objective criterion is success." Pivoting again in his long final paragraph, Bazin reveals his optimism that the ciné-club movement and the mainstreaming of film culture will help audiences resist social agencies who would use the oneiric aspect of cinema to manipulate them. Certainly an odd little item for Bazin, but among other things a reminder that cinema's intrinsic realism was less the endpoint of his thinking than a tool that he deployed to other ends.

Much closer to our conception of Bazinian thought is "The Evolution of the Film of Exploration," a piece published in Monde nouveau sometime in the 50s. Cahiers du cinema, which has been reprinting a Bazin piece in each issue for nearly a year, published the first half of this article in its November 2008 issue (failing to give its original date of publication, unless I'm missing it); the second half will be published next month to conclude the Bazin series. Bill Krohn translated for the English version of Cahiers.

This article is nearly a duplicate of the familiar "Cinema and Exploration," a composite of two France-Observateur pieces that Hugh Gray translated in What Is Cinema? But "Evolution" is perhaps more focused and instructive, and introduces one particularly interesting example of cinema gone wrong.

In "Cinema and Exploration" Bazin cites Charles Frend's 1948 Scott of the Antarctic as an example of a poorly conceived hybrid of fiction and documentary; in "Evolution," he uses as his negative example Howard Hill's 1952 Tembo (without citing it by name), and this time his objections could not be stated more clearly. I quote Bill's translation:

"Here's a typical sequence: Our champion is supposedly advancing at the head of a line of porters in search of big game. In the foreground an enormous python coiled around a limb lets its little triangular head hang over a water hole, while three hundred feet away, upright in a canoe, the unconscious hunter heads straight for him. Happily a negro sees and points the hideous beast out to him. In an instant the monster's head is pierced by an arrow. Another sequence, even more significant. We arrive in the forest village of the Pygmies. The little men, frightened, first flee at the approach of the Whites. The camera shows us their flight – better still, it shows us two or three shots of fearful Pygmies hiding in the brush. I'll pass over the shameful murders of a panther, a lion and an elephant with arrows. The poor animals, captured in advance, were visibly tied up and struggling at the end of their leashes, Saint Sebastians of the animal kingdom. I am still astonished by the absence of any protest from critics of the period against a film that presupposed a contempt for animals and for the honor of the hunt equaled only by its contempt for the audience, but after all, the audiences that accepted it deserved no better. In any case, it's easy to see how this presentation implicitly destroyed its own purpose. Each of these scenes that pretended to be raw documents was in fact elaborated and prepared by the mise en scene, and the trick could be deduced from precisely the elements in the mise en scene that were supposed to prove the spontaneity of the event. It is obvious, for example, that in order to place the camera several feet behind the serpent, so that it would appear huge and menacing to the spectator, it was necessary not only to know of its existence but also, in all likelihood, to carry the poor animal, condemned to death, to the ideal spot for a composition with lots of depth of field. But even if we admit that the obviousness of the fakery partly justifies it in this case, because it is in some sense a documentary reenactment, that could in no way be the case with the Pygmies, because if, as the commentary says, they are frightened of the Whites, they should first of all be frightened by the camera so that it couldn't be there to film their fright, much less to move closer to film (with what lights?) the fear on their faces. These images not only prove that the Pygmies in question did not flee, but that they were so unafraid of the Whites and the cinema that they let themselves be directed for this mise en scene, to the point of simulating fear."

I note in passing the deadpan wit of the writing, largely a function of the ease with which Bazin combines multiple grievances into short phrases; and also the persistence of Bazin's suppressed but angry response to the plight of animals. But what interests me primarily about this passage is that it is the most basic statement that I can recall of Bazin's objection to certain kinds of "fictionalizing" film technique, and that the objection here is couched in terms of the integrity of the documentary format. The techniques that are called on the carpet here include expressionist camera placement, editing, and even lighting; and Bazin's point is that these techniques, as used, betray the spirit as well as the letter of the contract between documentarian and audience.

Especially when placed in the context of the entire piece, the above passage bears a strong resemblance to Bazin's famous argument in support of Albert Lamorisse's refusal to use cutting to show the balloon following the child in Le Ballon rouge. This argument, from "The Virtues and Limitations of Montage" (another composite article from What Is Cinema?) also cites a negative example – Jean Tourane's Une Fée pas comme les autres – which Bazin believes makes inappropriate use of technique to portray spatial relations. And in this case neither of this films under discussion are documentaries: on the contrary, they are both highly fanciful children's films. I quote a key passage from "Virtues and Limitations":

"It is very easy to imagine Ballon Rouge as a literary tale. But no matter how delightfully written, the book could never come up to the film, the charm of which is of another kind. Nevertheless, the same story no matter how well filmed might not have had a greater measure of reality on the screen than in the book, supposing that Lamorisse had had recourse either to the illusions of montage or, failing that, to process work. The film would then be a tale told image by image – as is the story, word by word – instead of being what it is, namely the picture of a story or, if you prefer, an imaginary documentary.

"This expression seems to me once and for all to be the one that best defines what Lamorisse was attempting, namely something like, yet different from, the film that Cocteau created in Le Sang d'un poète, that is to say, a documentary on the imagination, in other words, on the dream. Here we are then, caught up by our thinking in a series of paradoxes. Montage which we are constantly being told is the essence of cinema is, in this situation, the literary and anticinematic process par excellence. Essential cinema, seen for once in its pure state, on the contrary, is to be found in straightforward photographic respect for the unity of space."

The memorable phrase "imaginary documentary" links the two pieces. Bazin is clearly moved to the same objection by a work of fiction as by a documentary. And I believe that the aesthetic preference that I have chosen to highlight is in no way atypical of either Bazin's tastes or of his legacy. The point that I want to emphasize is that the Bazinian aesthetic sees fiction, at least some of the time or in some cases, as having the same obligations to the audience as does documentary.

Of course, I do not mean to imply that Bazin saw a simple equivalence between fiction and documentary, nor that he rejected montage and other fictionalizing techniques across the board. (It's interesting that Bazin's description of the offending shot of the python in Tembo calls to mind the composition of the shot of Susan's suicide attempt in Citizen Kane, which Bazin greatly admired as a demonstration of the qualities of deep-focus photography, and analyzed in detail in his book on Welles.) Indeed, the next few pages of "Virtues and Limitations" immediately attempt to provide context for the Bazinian injunction against montage and to limit its application.

But I wonder whether it might be accurate to say that the Bazinian aesthetic requires that the cinema document something, and that whatever "something" is chosen should be rendered with appropriate stylistic abnegation. An interesting piece to read in this context is "Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of the Liberation" (collected in What Is Cinema? as "An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism"), and particularly the section "From Citizen Kane to Farrebique," which suggests that comprehensive documentation in cinema is impossible, that "one is compelled to choose between one kind of reality and another."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Moving to a new location

It turns out I made a mistake when I decided to host Thanks for the Use of the Hall at my own web site (where I have to pay for bandwidth) rather than on Blogger's servers. The blog is now being checked about 3000 times a day by aggregators (that could be 3000 subscribers, or one dude checking me 3000 times daily), which is getting expensive. So Thanks for the Use of the Hall has to move:

The old site will remain where it is, as an archive. The new site will contain only posts from December 2008 on - including a piece I just posted on Jean-Gabriel Albicocco's La Fille aux yeuz d'or.

Nothing else will ever be posted here, so you can all help my bank account by unsubscribing from this old site. A browser bookmark will do the job nicely, and won't cost me anything. Neither will subscribing to the new site, of course.

Sorry for the bother.

La Fille aux yeux d'or

Jean-Gabriel Albicocco's 1961 debut feature La Fille aux yeux d'or (The Girl with the Golden Eyes ) had a small residual reputation when I was a youngster, but seems to have dropped off the critical radar in recent decades. Albicocco made five feature films between 1961 and 1971 before taking a job as a Gaumont executive in Brazil, where he passed away in 2001 without further cinematic issue. I finally caught up with La Fille last night at the French Institute, and I would very much like to put Albicocco's name back in circulation.

La Fille is a modern-day adaptation of the same Balzac novella that Catherine Breillat was slated to shoot a few years ago, with Laetitia Casta in the title role, before the project presumably fell through. The material is right up Breillat's alley, and I'm really sorry that she didn't get a shot at it; but Albicocco's version would have been hard to top. As in Jacques Rivette's recent Ne touchez pas la hache, Balzac's cabal "the Thirteen" lurk around the edges of La Fille, establishing an ominous mood in the opening scenes, then reappearing in the last reel to help the dark protagonist Henri Marsay (Paul Guers) pull off an action exploit. But the swagger of Balzac's criminal heroics is muted in Pierre Pelegri and Philippe Dumarçay's intelligent (and seemingly quite free) adaptation, and held at a remove by Albicocco's distinctive pictorial style. What remains of Balzac's tone is mostly embodied in Henri's contemptuous treatment of his mysterious, nameless mistress (Marie Laforêt, Albicocco's wife at the time). This roughness, part of a pervasive aura of sadomasochism, serves as a seasoning to make Albicocco's visual romanticism a bit more astringent.

Aided by his cinematographer father, Albicocco throws off dense, beautiful images effortlessly, often using too much or too little light to give the aestheticized compositions an overtone of modernist realism. Sometimes the imagery flirts with artifice and symbolism – like the flock of birds fluttering around the girl's apartment during the lovers' first tryst. Other times the camera incorporates depth of space and natural sound to stunning effect. Angled rooftop shots of a geometric, traffic-laced Paris cityscape threaten to overwhelm one of the film's key confrontations, much like the aquarium scene in Welles' The Lady from Shanghai; the final act is introduced by a dazzling travelling shot of the Thirteen flying down a highway in a fleet of convertibles, with a real rainstorm pounding the cars and graying out the image.

The reference to Welles isn't completely arbitrary, because Albicocco attains a fable-like tone (too bad "fabulous" was turned into just another superlative by word inflation) that can't completely be attributed to the choice of subject matter, or even to the qualities of the script. I was also reminded of the modern fables of Michel Deville, who shares with Albicocco a tendency to speak the language of romanticism in order to arrive at a more modern and contemplative vantage point. (My earlier post on Deville gives more information.) Like both these directors, Albicocco uses a wide variety of camera and editing techniques, clearly interested in the effect of the variety as well as the effect of the particular devices. He gives the impression of great precision in organizing shots, but the cloud of visual effects that he creates does not seem to be motivated by service to the story.

I'll describe a scene from La Fille by way of example, though it may be hard to follow without visual aids. Trying to gather information about his willfully mysterious lover, Henri explores her apartment with a flashlight, unaware that the girl is lurking and watching him.

  • Albicocco places his camera at the back of a previously unseen room as Henri enters, pushing the door open. The girl is hiding from him inside the room, and the door conceals her as it opens to reveal him. The long shot of the two is stationary and a bit eerie, almost Murnau-like, both because of a certain expressionism in the actors' poses and in the way they appear and disappear in the center of the frame.
  • As Henri enters the room and heads toward the wardrobe, Albicocco cuts to a reverse shot of him, still in as full a shot as the little room allows. While Henri explores, the girl's hand enters the foreground of the frame, holding onto a bedpost. The shot does not clearly signal whether she is approaching Henri or not, or abandoning her cover; it is abstract, in the sense that the gesture is more distinct than its narrative meaning.
  • A few shots later, as Henri finds a vast array of dresses in the wardrobe of the girl (whom he had believed was impoverished), he begins laughing gleefully and cynically. As the laughter mounts, the anguished girl yells out for him to stop, and Albicocco cuts to a big closeup of her. There is no transition from hiding to not hiding; it is not clear when Henri first became aware of the girl's presence. The closeup occurs as if the interaction between the two had already been established.

The scene is shot and cut with care, but with a mixture of effects: a kind of expressionism that evokes suspense, then character-based drama enhanced by closeups. Both categories of effect are not completely rooted in narrative: the story doesn't quite give the visual conventions a familiar home. We are somewhat surprised even by effects that we know well from prevailing cinematic codes. The effects therefore become somewhat reflexive and commentative, and the film's style is partly characterized by the gap that opens between story and technique.

The idea I'm working on is that the fable-like qualities of films by Albicocco, or Deville, or Welles, are related to such freedom in selecting effects. Perhaps what makes a fable feel like a fable is the presence of a storyteller; and perhaps we feel the presence of a storyteller more strongly when technique is not completely subordinated to the needs of story.

I haven't mentioned the excellent performance of Françoise Prévost as the third vertex of the film's love triangle. In general, Albicocco wedges a lot of nuanced, expressive, scaled-down acting into the nooks and crannies of a film that might otherwise feel airy and fantastic.

Another film by Albicocco, Le Grand Meaulnes, will screen at Florence Gould Hall on Tuesday, December 9 at 12:30, 4:00, and 7:30 pm.