Wednesday, December 3, 2008

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.

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