Get Up, Get on Up: Ousmane Sembène’s “Xala”

Ousmane Sembène’s Xala (1975) takes a situation that might have been the inspiration for a comedy and then, as if out of sheer perversity, carefully sidesteps nearly every opportunity to exploit it for laughs, instead becoming increasingly enigmatic and disquieting as it proceeds. Based on Sembène’s own 1973 novel (which, after seeing the film, I very much want to read), it tells the story of a wealthy importer, El Hadji (Thierno Leye), whose life begins to unravel when he is cursed with impotence on the day of his third polygamous marriage. Frankly allegorical, the film makes few concessions to psychological realism. The characters are all generic types without much shading who behave according to their social position; El Hadji, for instance, takes a third wife not because he is in love or even because he is particularly lecherous but to signify wealth and status, and it is unclear what his new bride thinks about marrying a man old enough to be her father—or indeed if she thinks about it at all. Certainly the film does not attempt to make El Hadji at all sympathetic, but in the film’s final scenes, when the plot takes a turn towards the gothic, his punishment is so extreme that it is hard to take any pleasure in seeing him get his comeuppance. Nor, for that matter, are the other characters—with the sole exception of El Hadji’s university-educated daughter, Rama (Miriam Niang), who disapproves of polygamy and insists on speaking Wolof rather than French—much better. When the Dakar Chamber of Commerce excommunicates El Hadji for embezzlement, he points out that his accusers (who also take bribes from European businessmen) are just as corrupt as he is. Perhaps only a black African filmmaker could make such a scathing indictment of post-colonial Senegalese society.

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Formulaic Experimentation: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “Trans-Europ-Express”

Given not only the example of such major directors as Sam Fuller and Ousmane Sembène who both started out as novelists, but also his involvement in Alain Resnais’ greatest film, L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), and the photographic prose style of such exciting early novels as The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957), it’s all the more puzzling that Alain Robbe-Grillet’s own films should be so clumsy and unimaginative. At first glance, Trans-Europ-Express (1966), his second feature, seems to have a lot going for it: the presence of actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Marie-France Pisier, Willy Kurant’s documentary-like cinematography, the snatches of Verdi on the soundtrack (thrown in seemingly at random for a few seconds at a time), and a characteristically abstract and absurdist plot line in which, as in The Erasers (1953), the difference between the police and the criminals becomes increasingly meaningless. But beyond putting all of these things on the screen, Robbe-Grillet doesn’t have very many ideas as to what to do with them. The self-reflexive framing device—in which the director, his wife Catherine, and a male friend pass the time during a train ride from Brussels to Antwerp by making up a story about a trainee drug smuggler who dresses like a cop (Trintignant) and gets on the same train carrying a suitcase that doesn’t have any cocaine in it—provides a loose justification for frequently violating continuity, but stylistically Robbe-Grillet has so few tricks up his sleeve that the film’s attempts at playfulness—having the characters change position from one shot to the next, as if they had just teleported across the room; cutting away to close-ups of people looking into the camera that may or may not represent Trintignant’s subjective fantasies—quickly start to feel mechanical and the occasional stabs at humour don’t help. (I began to suspect the film was in trouble during the pre-credit sequence when Trintignant wears a funny beard, as if that in itself were sufficient to expose the absurdity of the genre conventions Robbe-Grillet is sending up.) It would be instructive to show this in film schools to aspiring avant-gardists—preferably alongside Godard’s Alphaville (1965)—in order to demonstrate the difference between replication and parody and between rule-breaking and creativity.

In Bloom: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Lady Without Camellias”

Michelangelo Antonioni was forty-seven when L’avventura (1960) won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, establishing his international reputation, and had already been directing for over a decade—though in contrast with the slightly younger Ingmar Bergman, who had to make a lot of promising films before he could produce a good one, Antonioni was making films of exceptional quality virtually from the beginning of his career. His third feature, The Lady Without Camellias (La signora senza camelie, 1953), strikes me as something less than a masterpiece but it’s a work of considerable interest nonetheless. More classical both in terms of its plotting and mise en scène than Antonioni’s better known ’60s films, it tells the story of a pretty young starlet (Lucia Bosé) whose controlling producer-husband (Andrea Checchi) objects to her playing the sort of steamy roles that made her famous in the first place and insists on casting her as Joan of Arc. Later, after bravely striking out on her own as a serious actress, the heroine finds that she doesn’t have any talent and ruefully returns to playing the sexpot. I can’t say that I cared very deeply about these characters, but as a satire of the Italian film industry the movie is frequently hilarious (you’d never guess from the way the characters talk that the heroic age of Italian neorealism had just come to a close), and Antonioni’s style is breathtaking. Working in extremely long takes with a mobile camera, Antonioni keeps his compositions balanced and centred so that the actors aren’t overwhelmed by their surroundings (despite Enzo Serafin’s deep focus cinematography), and in the crowd scenes, the director packs throngs of actors into congested, improbably frontal arrangements reminiscent of 1940s Hollywood—suggesting that, like Carl Theodor Dreyer, Antonioni had to master classical découpage before he could reject it.