Archive for October, 2011

There’s a famous sequence in François Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) where the hero’s kid brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), has been kidnapped by a pair of gangsters. As they drive away from Paris, one of them tells Fido that the scarf he’s wearing is made from a futuristic metal that feels as soft as silk. When Fido expresses disbelief, the gangster replies, “If I’m lying, may my mother keel over this instant.” The film then cuts to an old woman suddenly dropping dead in another location. However, since the two scenes were filmed at different times of day (the gangster at night, the old woman during the day), we don’t read the second shot as something literally happening in the story, but as a non-diegetic insert commenting on the action. There can be no doubt that the gangster’s lying.

Given such flights of fancy, one might conclude that Truffaut isn’t very interested in the film’s generic story line—which is, after all, based on a pulp American novel by David Goodis. However, in contrast with Jean-Luc Godard’s even more irreverent handling of similarly pulpy material in Made in USA (1966), where incidentally one of the characters is named David Goodis, Truffaut presents the narrative in a clear manner through a narration that generates surprises and suspense, despite such digressions which periodically suspend narrative development. It’s through this mix of narrative unity and disruption, comic asides and sudden violence, that Truffaut is able to take a familiar noir story about a character who can’t escape his past and make it seem fresh and interesting.

The story (based on Goodis’ 1956 novel Down There, which I haven’t read) has two major lines of action: A crime plot and a romance, as well as a lengthy flashback sequence that takes place several years before the main action begins. When the film opens, Edouard Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) is playing the piano in a dive bar under an assumed name while raising Fido with the assistance of his neighbor, Clarisse (Michèle Mercier). One evening, his older brother, Chico (Albert Remy), unexpectedly turns up at the bar to ask Edouard to help him get away from some gangsters who are chasing him. At first Edouard doesn’t want to get involved, but when the gangsters, Ernest (Daniel Boulanger) and Momo (Claude Mansard), also show up at the bar, he suddenly springs into action.

After closing time, Edouard leaves the bar with Léna (Marie Dubois), a pretty waitress whom he’s attracted to, but lacks the courage to ask her out. The following day, the gangsters grab both of them at gunpoint, but thanks to some quick thinking on Léna’s part, they’re able to slip away. Afterwards, they go back to her apartment, and when Edouard walks through the door, he’s confronted by a giant poster with his real name on it from his former life as a classical pianist. In a flashback, we see how Edouard’s rise to fame was offset by the decline of his marriage, culminating in his wife’s suicide. The movie could almost end here: Edouard has helped Chico to escape and gotten the girl, although it’s Léna who ultimately makes the first move—and what’s more, it’s she who saves Edouard, not the other way around.

After sleeping together, Edouard and Léna decide to quit their jobs at the bar so that he can resume his career as a concert pianist. However, he gets into a fight with the owner, Plyne (Serge Davri), that ends with Edouard stabbing him in the back. Meanwhile, the gangsters kidnap Fido and head to the Saroyan family home in the mountains where Chico is hiding out. Edouard and Léna go after them, but as the gangsters’ car breaks down on the freeway, Edouard arrives there a full day earlier. Because of the delay, Edouard concludes they aren’t coming and decides to return to Paris with Léna, having been cleared of Plyne’s murder in the meantime. However, it’s precisely when he goes into the house to say goodbye to his brothers that the gangsters arrive with Fido, and in the ensuing shootout, Léna is killed by one of the gangsters.

As this description indicates, Edouard is largely passive. Instead, it’s the other characters who move the story forward, particularly the gangsters and Léna. When the film opens, the gangsters are pursuing Chico with the aim of recovering the loot from a robbery they pulled together. Initially, their goal is thwarted by Edouard when he helps his brother to slip away. The next day, they grab Edouard and Léna with the intention of exchanging them for the money, but are foiled again by Léna. Finally, they decide to kidnap Fido, yet he too manages to escape. The last time we see Chico, he’s driving down a snow-covered road with the gangsters still pursuing him. This shot echoes the film’s opening sequence, in which we see Chico running away from a car on a darkened street in Paris, suggesting that the crime plot has come full circle. (We never find out if the gangsters catch up with Chico or not.)

As I noted earlier, it’s Léna who takes the first step in her relationship with Edouard by inviting him back to her apartment. Furthermore, she’s the one who decides that they should quit their jobs, and after Edouard kills Plyne in self-defense, it’s Léna who organizes his flight from the police. Similarly, in the flashback, Edouard becomes rich and famous not because of any action he takes, but because his wife, Thérésa (Nicole Berger), makes an arrangement with the impresario, Lars Schmeer (Claude Heymann). However, as in many films of the Nouvelle Vague, causal relationships are occasionally somewhat loose¹. Léna’s fatal intervention in the climatic shootout, which brings the romance plot to an abrupt close, is almost as arbitrary as the endings of Godard’s Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (1962) and Le Mépris (1963), in which the heroines are disposed of in a similarly casual manner.

Although the flashback sequence has an obvious significance to the main narrative in that it explains how Edouard came to be the piano player at Plyne’s, it’s curious that the film should spend so much time on it given that this sequence effectively suspends the action for seventeen minutes (almost a quarter of the film’s total length). A more compelling justification for this sequence is that the implied parallels between Thérésa and Léna give the ending an additional poignancy. Both women are waitresses who die suddenly when Edouard momentarily leaves them alone (Thérésa when he walks out on her, Léna when he goes into the house to say goodbye to his brothers), the implication being that he’s indirectly responsible for their deaths because he wasn’t there to protect them. In the flashback, it’s Thérésa’s love for Edouard that makes his musical career possible, and when she kills herself, he gives it all up. Similarly, Léna encourages him to restart his career, but after her death, he returns to the bar. The film ends with Edouard playing the same tune that we heard over the opening credits.

As in most narrative films, time and space are largely subordinated to causality². Notwithstanding the flashback and the final scene, the plot takes place over a period of four nights and four days, but typically we only see events of causal significance. For instance, after Edouard and Léna slip away from the gangsters, we don’t see them taking the bus back to Paris. Instead, the film cuts directly to them getting off somewhere near Léna’s apartment. Likewise, within scenes, the framing and editing usually focus our attention on the section of space where the most important action is happening. When the gangsters arrive at the house with Fido, we don’t see Edouard saying goodbye to his brothers. In general, the framing and editing don’t call attention to themselves, but support the narration “invisibly.”

With this in mind, we can identify two kinds of digressions in the film. First, there are temporal digressions, in which the plot presents a stretch of dead time where nothing important is happening. In this regard (as well as its use of real locations and fluid camerawork), the film betrays the influence of Italian neorealism. However, the digressions in this film are quite different from the famous sequence in Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952), where we see the maid going about her daily chores. Instead of bolstering the film’s claims to verisimilitude, here the film’s asides tend to be more fanciful, as when Momo tells Edouard and Léna about the time he tried on his sister’s silk underwear (“What a feeling!”). If anything, scenes like this (and its twin later on, when Momo “kills” his mother by lying about a silk scarf) detract from the film’s realism by making the gangsters seem ridiculous rather than intimidating. Consequently, it comes as more of a shock when Ernest shoots Léna—a scene that could’ve been inspired by Anna Magnani’s death in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945).

Secondly, there are spatial digressions in which the camera breaks away from the story to explore on its own. One of the most mysterious moments in the film occurs during the flashback when Edouard goes to audition for Schmeer. As he walks down a long corridor looking for Schmeer’s office, we hear a violin solo on the soundtrack. When Edouard finds the right door, he hesitates to ring the buzzer until the music stops and a young woman emerges from the other side carrying a violin case. Instead of following Edouard when he steps into the office, the camera remains in the corridor with the young woman. After she takes a few steps, a piano solo begins on the soundtrack. She pauses for a moment and then continues walking. The music continues over a second shot of the young woman walking through an empty courtyard, then a poster for an upcoming recital to be performed by Edouard, and finally a shot of him playing on stage. This ellipsis presages Thérésa’s death, in which the camera follows Edouard into the corridor rather than presenting her suicide directly.

Incidentally, the scene with the violinist comes during a flashback which not only closely adheres to Edouard’s range of knowledge, but initially seems to be his subjective memory. When he first walks into Léna’s apartment and sees the poster on the wall, she remarks, “Now Charlie [Edouard’s assumed name] plays the piano at Plyne’s, but there was a time when he didn’t. Isn’t that right, Edouard?” As the camera pans away from Edouard and Léna, her line, “Isn’t that right, Edouard?” is repeated on the soundtrack, this time with an echo as if resonating in his memory. This is followed by a quick succession of superimpositions and dissolves leading into the flashback, over which we hear Léna’s words, “There was a time,” repeated twice. However, immediately following Thérésa’s suicide, Léna takes over as the narrator, describing in voice-over how Edouard came to be the piano player at Plyne’s, as if telling him his own life’s story (“You disappeared and started over”).

As evidenced by such shifts in viewpoint, the movie’s narration isn’t confined to any one character’s range of knowledge. However, by withholding certain pieces of information from the viewer, the film generates mystery and surprise³. When Edouard leaves the bar with Léna, we hear his thoughts in voice-over as he tries to work up the courage to ask her out. Since the film frames Edouard in close-up, we’re as surprised as he is when the camera pulls back to reveal him standing alone on an empty street, Léna having slipped away unnoticed while he was thinking. Similarly, as we don’t ever see Thérésa alone with Schmeer, it’s not clear initially why Edouard’s marriage suddenly deteriorates (although we gather it has something to do with his sudden fame and success). When she admits to having slept with Schmeer in order to help Edouard’s career, that we only learn about her actions after the fact puts greater emphasis both on the act of her confessing and Edouard’s reaction to what she says.

Significantly, the entire time that Thérésa is telling her story, the film never cuts away to Edouard; only when she finishes do we see his reaction. Instead of identifying with Edouard as he listens to her story, we empathize with Thérésa as she tells it. However, as I noted earlier, when Edouard walks out on her, the film follows him into the corridor rather than staying with Thérésa. It’s only when he runs back into the room a moment later that a pan reveals Thérésa’s body lying on the street, the camera identifying roughly with Edouard’s point of view as he looks out the window. Although this might be construed as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), unlike his hero, Truffaut rarely employs point of view shots⁴. Accordingly, even when the narration is restricted to what Edouard knows (particularly in the first half of the movie, up to and including the flashback), we often see and hear a great deal more.

In an early scene at the bar, Chico flirts with Plyne’s wife (Catherine Lutz) while Edouard performs on stage. As Chico grabs her and starts dancing, the film cuts from a shot where Edouard is prominently framed in the foreground to one where he’s in the background. The dialogue between Chico and Plyne’s wife directs our attention away from Edouard, and as they continue dancing, the camera tilts down so that he gets framed out of the shot altogether. It seems unlikely that Edouard would be able to hear their conversation over the music, particularly as they move farther away from the band. In the next part of the sequence, we listen in on different conversations between customers in the bar which Edouard is even less likely to hear. At one point, a man points out something to his friend, and the film cuts to a point of view shot of Clarisse on the dance floor, the camera tilting up from her hips to her face. (Offscreen, the friend remarks, “Interesting. Or just bizarre.”) When the man dancing with Clarisse slaps her, Chico heroically comes to the rescue. The film then cuts to the gangsters approaching the bar, even though neither Edouard nor Chico has seen them yet.

By not rigidly confining itself to what Edouard sees and hears, the narration is able to clearly establish Plyne’s relationship with his wife (which becomes relevant later on when she helps Edouard to evade the police), and that Chico, unlike Edouard, is something of a ladies’ man. He’s about to leave the bar with Clarisse when Ernest and Momo walk through the door. (We know who they are because, earlier in the same scene, Chico had mentioned that they both smoke a pipe. Apart from making them immediately recognizable, this trait also makes them seem comical from the very beginning.) Furthermore, by including two shots of the gangsters as they approach the bar, the film de-emphasizes their arrival in order to highlight the contrast between Chico’s panicky reaction and Edouard’s levelheaded response.

In the second half of the film, the narration further increases our field of knowledge by cutting between Edouard and Léna in one location, and the gangsters with Fido in another. When the gangsters don’t immediately turn up at the Saroyan family home, Edouard concludes that they aren’t coming and decides to return to Paris with Léna. However, unlike Edouard, we know that the gangsters were delayed by car troubles. (Earlier while driving on the freeway, Edouard and Léna unwittingly pass right by them, something known only to Fido.) When Edouard goes into the house, the film creates suspense by cutting to the gangsters approaching the house in their car. One shot begins with Léna in the foreground, looking offscreen right, and then pans left to reveal the gangsters’ car approaching just behind her.

Later, the film draws out the suspense by manipulating time and space so as to slow down the action. When Edouard’s brothers start shooting it out with the gangsters, the film cuts to Léna (facing off-screen left), who turns around and calls to Edouard (“Charlie!”). She then starts running, the camera panning right with her movement. This is followed by a second, much longer shot of her running, and if you look closely, you can see that she’s actually running in a circle while the camera pans 360 degrees. The next shot shows Ernest raising his pistol and aiming it at some one offscreen right, most likely Edouard or one of his brothers. Léna seems to be coming to the rescue. However, after two more shots of Léna running, we see Ernest fire his gun at some one offscreen left, and the camera quickly pans and tilts to reveal Léna’s body falling to the ground. The suddenness of Léna’s death after such a lengthy buildup (underlined by the quick camera movement from Ernest to Léna), and its matter-of-factness, contrast sharply with the death of Momo’s mother, which was shot in slow motion in a comically exaggerated style.

Although far from an ordinary thriller, the film still has a narrative which presents a logical sequence of events. (When the characters behave irrationally, as Léna does in the climatic sequence, the movie justifies this in part by appealing to conventions of cinematic realism.) Furthermore, by first withholding information from the viewer and then expanding our range of knowledge, the movie generates surprises and suspense. So while the film’s various digressions periodically suspend narrative development, they don’t seriously undermine our emotional involvement in the story. If anything, by softening the story’s noirish elements and pushing the tone of the film towards comedy, such fanciful asides make the ending all the more shocking. In this way, the film demonstrates how a familiar story can be made to seem fresh by a novel approach.

1. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, fourth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993), pg. 481-482.
2. Ibid, pg. 83.
3. Ibid, pg. 77.
4. “Truffaut claims that we identify with a character not when we look with the character but when the character looks at us. ‘A subjective camera is the negation of subjective cinema. When it replaces a character, one can’t identify with him. The cinema becomes subjective when the actor’s gaze meets that of the audience’ [in Peter Graham, The New Wave (New York: Viking, 1968), pg. 93].” Ibid, pg. 243.


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Note: This entry contains spoilers.

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) opens with a series of ominous, discontinuous images: A giant sundial with two shadows; an ariel shot of a woman in a bridal gown (Kirsten Dunst) floating down a stream; an insert of Bruegel’s “Winter Landscape With a Bird Trap” (1565) crumbling in a fire. Filmed in extremely slow motion and set to the prelude from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865), the images don’t add up to a narrative but are linked purely by their expressive qualities. Rather than telling a story, the sequence sets a mood.

Of course, the rest of the film does have a linear narrative. But while the opening sequence introduces a number of motifs that reappear later on, the images aren’t explained by the story. For instance, although we see the same woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) running across a golf course while carrying her son later in the film, her feet don’t sink into the grass as if it were quicksand. The exception to the rule is the last image in the sequence of a giant blue planet colliding with the earth—an explosion that resonates throughout the film, creating a sense of dread. Unlike the characters, we know the planet is doomed.

The next section of the film takes place at a wedding reception and only refers to the impending cataclysm obliquely in the form of bad omens. Early on, the bride, Justine (Dunst), points out a red star in the evening sky which her brother-in-law, John (Keifer Sutherland), tells her is part of the Scorpio constellation. (John it turns out is something of an amateur astronomer.) When she looks again the next morning, the star is gone. Furthermore, in addition to the usual problems that come up at family get-togethers—Dad (John Hurt) brings two dates, both of them named Betty, while Mom (Charlotte Rampling) is an embittered leftist who believes that marriage is an empty ritual—Justine doesn’t seem to think it’s all very important. Most reviews of the film describe Justine as some one suffering from depression, but under the circumstances that might just be lucid thinking.

By opening the film with the destruction of the planet, Trier casts the wedding reception in a different light, making it seem trivial. Accordingly, apart from Justine and her sister, Claire (Gainsbourg), the other characters are all caricatures. John seems to have agreed to pay for the wedding just so that he can complain about how much it’s costing him, while Justine’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård) keeps bugging her for a tag line for a sleazy ad campaign. In the grand scheme of things, everything that people think is important—love, family, work, Wagner—really doesn’t matter. The universe existed a long time before there was life on earth, and it will be around a long time after it’s gone.

In the film’s final segment, Justine goes to stay with Claire and John while experiencing more severe symptoms of depression. At the same time, a newly discovered planet named Melancholia is expected to pass by the earth in a few days, and despite John’s reassurances, Claire is terrified that the two planets will collide. Justine, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to think it’s such a big deal. In any case, it’s not like there’s anything she can do about it. For a time, however, Melancholia does seem to be moving away, and I started to have nagging doubts: Was the world really going to end? Even when it becomes apparent that Melancholia is going to hit the earth, I still held out hope that there would be some miracle and the characters would be saved. Perhaps the point the film is making is that while people like Claire (and myself) are able to delude themselves that there’s hope, people like Justine see things as they really are.

In this part of the film, the focus is much more on Claire than Justine with Trier strictly confining the viewer to her range of knowledge (in contrast with the earlier scenes, where the narration is somewhat less restricted). Here the film employs a great many point of view shots, as when Claire uses a device made by her son to track whether Melancholia is coming closer or moving away. When the planet appears smaller than the metal ring, she feels relieved and so did I; when it appears bigger, I empathized with her anxiety. Our close alignment with Claire also helps to heighten certain surprises, as when she discovers Justine lying naked on the ground one night staring up at Melancholia. On the soundtrack there’s a persistent low rumbling (motivated apparently by the approach of Melancholia), which adds to our sense of foreboding.

Contrasting the cosmic with the intimate, the film is a reminder of just how small and insignificant human life really is. Of course, if some one were constantly aware of this (like Justine), they wouldn’t be able to get through the day. Not many movies are daring enough to reach for the sublime, but Melancholia is that rare film with the power to astonish. Perhaps it was Dunst who said it best at the film’s fateful Cannes press conference, where she was heard to remark to the director, “Oh Lars, that was intense.”

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